Sonic Triangle: Back from the dead!

Well… I have to admit, when I first opened this blog with a post about my band, Sonic Triangle, I didn’t expect it to be nearly five years before we released anything new. Five years!! How the hell did that happen? :O

But better late than never, as they say. (I sometimes think I should adopt that saying as my motto, as it applies to so many things in my life). We finally released a song! Two songs, in fact. One’s called Mercury, and it has a video as well! The other is called Homesick, and it doesn’t have a video. (Actually, it sort of does, but I doubt that that video will ever see the light of day, so we’ll just pretend it doesn’t). We’re pretty happy with both of them, and I hope you enjoy them too.

As to why it’s taken five years, I’m not actually sure. It’s not as if we haven’t been doing stuff… Alex sent round the first demo of Homesick way back in spring 2011, and we’ve actually been working on it (and about seven or eight other tracks, some of which we might finish and release at some point) on-and-off pretty much ever since then. We’ve just all been quite busy with other things, and haven’t got to the point of having anything we feel happy enough with to release until now.

A shot from the Mercury video, featuring our very talented singer.

A shot from the Mercury video, featuring our very talented singer.

Our process of recording hasn’t changed a great deal since I first wrote about it. Most of the instruments are still played on my Casio keyboard, though when I moved house a few years ago I brought the Technics electric piano that I inherited from my uncle out of storage, so the piano parts are now played on that, which is a big improvement. We did some recording with the glockenspiel, but it doesn’t feature on either of the new tracks. I think the way Alex creates the MIDI demos and edits the final versions has changed a bit, but I don’t know the details. I just play my keyboard and piano, then Alex goes away with the sound files and a few hours later a marvellous mix appears that leaves me thinking “Did I really play all that?”.

We’ve now dragged ourselves into the 21st century and created a Facebook page, supplementing our rather minimalist website. I think we always had a Twitter account, it just hasn’t been used much.

(In other music news, I’m looking forward to seeing Belle and Sebastian live next month… they’ve been on my list of bands to go and see for even longer than it’s taken us to finish Homesick ūüėČ ).

New car

I decided it was about time to upgrade my ageing Skoda Fabia to something better. The Fabia’s been a good car mostly, certainly better than the Fiat Punto I had before, but it was getting to the age where it was accumulating niggling problems at an ever increasing rate: one of the back doors had got jammed shut (again) which, aside from being annoying in itself, would have needed fixed before the MoT; the body was no longer watertight and I would frequently find the carpets saturated with water or the inside of the windscreen soaking wet after a rainy night; the screen wash tank had started to leak and there was possibly a slow coolant leak as well as I’d had to top it up a few times in the past year or two; the engine was sounding more and more reluctant to start and I was worried that some day it would no longer start at all; the handbrake seemed to fail every year and need expensive repairs no matter how gentle I tried to be with it. Worst of all, the stereo I installed had broken and I was stuck with an old one with no aux input to connect my phone to!

The engine itself still seemed to work OK (it had been pretty reliable, only needing a few replacement ignition coils over the years) but had racked up over 110,000 miles which is a fair amount for a small petrol. So, with the wedding budget finally under control, it was time to look at new cars.

I didn’t expect to buy one so quickly. But on our very first afternoon of browsing car supermarkets, this grabbed my attention:


I’d been wanting to upgrade to something much more fuel efficient, and this eco model Seat Ibiza seemed to fit the bill nicely. Its carbon dioxide emissions per kilometre are so low that it’s exempt from road tax (even better than Laura’s ¬£30 road tax Leon), and whilst I wasn’t naive enough to expect it to actually manage the quoted 80 miles per gallon on realistic journeys, it would certainly be a lot more economical to run than anything I’d owned previously. It also met my other requirements – 5 door, no smaller than the Skoda… and of course an aux socket on the stereo! Plus it’s a much nicer colour than my old beige car, which probably swayed me a bit.

I arranged to buy it the same day, after a quick test drive to make sure the 3 cylinder 1.2 litre engine (very small for a diesel) wouldn’t feel too underpowered. It was fine – while it’s not going to win any awards for acceleration, it actually feels quite a lot more powerful than either of my previous cars, so I was happy with that. I also checked the crash safety ratings after reading that one of the reasons this model is so efficient is that it’s unusually light – but thankfully, it has very good Euro NCAP ratings, so there’s obviously more to crash safety than just the weight.

(I won’t bore you with the details of the long saga of waiting for the small dent in the bonnet to be repaired that ensued after that. Ordinarily I would have been pretty annoyed and frustrated to have to wait two weeks longer than planned to pick up my new car, but since I ended up being stuck in bed for most of those two weeks with a horrible dose of flu followed by a chest infection, I had other things on my mind. I also lost my voice for a while, which gave me a good excuse not to have to bother with all the interminable phone calls to the dealer and get Laura to deal with them instead ūüėČ . And at least they were nice enough to throw in a full tank of diesel and a packet of Mini Eggs as compensation for the delay).

Of course, the most interesting question for me was: what would the fuel consumption actually be like? I didn’t expect to get 80mpg (except possibly when driving downhill at a constant speed of 45mph in top gear with a strong wind behind me for miles and miles) but I was hoping it would at least be impressive compared to my own car. I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ve had the car a few weeks now and have been keeping a close eye on the miles per gallon indicator on the trip computer*. On journeys in town, with a lot of stopping and starting and waiting at traffic lights, the mpg still usually gets into the high 40s (the Skoda would have been at about 30mpg on those trips). On medium length journeys with a mix of city streets and motorway/dual carriageway type roads, it manages well over 60mpg – in fact, nearly 70 on my journey to work this morning. Pretty good for a standard non-hybrid, reasonably sized car.

The trip computer shows a miles-per-gallon value that the Skoda's one could only dream of. If trip computers can dream, that is. They're probably not that advanced yet.

The trip computer shows a miles-per-gallon value that the Skoda’s one could only dream of. If trip computers can dream, that is. They’re probably not that advanced yet.

One of the fuel saving features, though, is slightly disconcerting. If at any point you put it in neutral with the handbrake on and take your foot off the clutch, the engine turns off to save fuel. The first time this happened I thought it had stalled and was about to hastily try to restart it before the lights turned green, but as soon as I put my foot back on the clutch the engine came back on very quickly. At first I shied away from letting it do this, scared that the engine wouldn’t come back on and I’d be stranded in the middle of the road, but after experimenting with it a bit I got less cautious. I use it all the time now when I’m going to be stationary for more than half a minute or so, and the engine always restarts quicker than I can even put it back in gear. Sometimes it restarts itself before I put the clutch in – I assume this is to make sure the battery doesn’t get drained too much.

(I think memories of my mum’s long drawn out attempts to start her ageing Fiat Uno on damp days probably contributed to my anxiety that the engine wouldn’t restart! Actually I had similar worries when I first got a gas boiler without a pilot light, that it wouldn’t be able to light the burner reliably. One of these days I’ll convince my brain that this is the 21st century and being able to start a diesel engine or light a gas burner automatically is really a solved problem now).

The most important improvement over the Skoda! Seen here with tasteful purple cable attached.

The most important improvement over the Skoda! Seen here with tasteful purple cable attached. (Sidenote: it turns out that Windows really doesn’t like it if you try to call a file ‘aux.jpg’!)

One thing though: no Haynes manual for this model! I guess that’s no big deal as I never ended up doing as much work myself on my previous cars as I’d planned to do (just replacing the spark plugs and coils, changing the oil, and fixing the heater blower) but I’ve always had a Haynes manual… I feel lost and disorientated looking under the bonnet without one. Much as I like some of the other books that Haynes have branched out into, it seems they’ve dropped the ball a bit on their core business of keeping up with new car models, sadly (I noticed they don’t do one for Laura’s car either).

* yes, I know trip computers tend to overestimate the miles per gallon, so it’s probably not really quite as good as it looks from those numbers, but it’s still by far the easiest way of seeing roughly how much fuel you’re using on each individual journey.


Uppsala and Stockholm (again)

I was in Sweden last week. I seem to have been there a lot lately; that was my third work trip there and I’ll have my third midsummer trip in a couple of months as well.


Although I usually like to explore new places while I’m away, I was more in the mood for just chilling out and doing nothing this time, what with life getting very busy back home with work, Beltane and wedding stuff all at once. So I decided after the meeting I would book myself into my favourite hostel in Stockholm for a couple of days and spend them doing nothing at all. (Sometimes I find it easier to relax and unwind away from all the distractions and half-ticked-off To Do lists at home). The work part of the trip felt familiar as well, as I was staying in the same hotel and having a meeting in the same venue as I did two years ago.

At first it looked as if I was going to have to be at least a bit adventurous after all: when I first looked at accommodation options, my normal hostel was fully booked for the nights I wanted. But there must have been some cancellations as when I went back to actually book, they had two beds available. I booked one quickly before they changed their minds again. Although some of the other hostels looked alright, I knew that this one had a good lounge for relaxing in, whereas some of the others apparently didn’t have much common space, or didn’t allow alcohol in it. Plus City Backpackers is supposedly the best hostel in Sweden so I felt that going elsewhere after staying there twice probably would have been a bit of a come-down.

The Journey

I booked onto a nice quick direct flight to Stockholm Arlanda. As luck would have it, not just one but two things came along later and annoyingly clashed with my chosen flight: firstly, an all staff meeting at work. I wouldn’t normally be too upset about missing a meeting, but this was an interesting one as there’s a lot going on right now (reorganisations, pending move to a new building). Ah well. I’ll read the minutes later.

And secondly, the London Transport Museum announced that they were releasing tickets for their next wave of tours of abandoned tube stations and hidden tunnels, which I really wanted to go on (I like that sort of thing, you see) but which I was sure would sell out insanely quickly. The time that this would go live? 10am Tuesday, exactly the time I was boarding my plane. Grrr. Why did they have to pick the ONE day in several months that I wasn’t able to be in front of a computer at 10am?

(Laura kindly volunteered to try and get me tickets instead. Despite a surge of demand reminiscent of the Raspberry Pi launch 4 years ago, she succeeded in getting us tickets for the Down Street tour, the one I most wanted, and apparently the most sought-after one by far. So that’s something to look forward to, although it’s not til December. It’s expensive, but what the hell, you have to treat yourself sometimes. I have to admit I find it slightly amusing that the last people to be caught sneaking into a disused tunnel in London were apparently fined less money than I’ve just paid for a legitimate underground tour).

Anyway. On the plus side, it was a lovely clear morning for a flight (a rare treat when flying from Edinburgh), and the plane was amazingly empty (a rare treat when using a budget airline), which is always nice. I had a whole three seats to myself and was able to enjoy the view of West Lothian spread out below me like a map (though not get any decent photos of it, since the window was very dirty and a jet engine was blocking a lot of it). I was also able to see miles and miles of stationery traffic on all the local motorways, even though it was way past rush hour time… apparently it’s been chaos due to accidents this morning, though thankfully I avoided most of the chaos on my way to the airport. I wonder if the plane was empty because all the other would-be occupants were stuck in the jams down there.


We made it to Uppsala, where our meeting’s being held, pretty easily (though it seemed slightly bizarre that we had to enter our names into the ticket machine when buying tickets for a less than 20 minute train journey! It also seems slightly bizarre that, in contrast to the blandly corporate or edgily cool jingles they use to precede the announcements in most airports and stations, the one at Arlanda sounds like Grandpa Flump playing two quavering notes on his flumpet). Uppsala is actually the fourth largest city in Sweden, but it really doesn’t feel much like a big city at all to me… though it only has about a third of the population of Edinburgh, so I suppose it is small compared to what I’m used to. The hotel was nicer than I remembered, and it turns out it has fast Eduroam access in the rooms which is great for me – when Eduroam’s available it usually seems way faster and more reliable than whatever random public networks you can find. So I didn’t have to attempt any¬†accidental dodgy hacker tricks in order to get online this time. Ahem.


I noticed the disgusting old white sock and the miniature Jaegermeister bottle on the lower storey roof outside my window straight away, but it was a bit longer before I noticed the (bare foot!) foot prints in a chaotic pattern on the other half of the roof. There surely has to be a story behind those…

The Meeting

We were treated to some lovely Swedish weather (clear and sunny, though still cold) as we walked down to the meeting venue, on the Uppsala University campus. The walk was a picturesque and relaxing one, along the river with its pretty bridges and boats (although it’s not quite so relaxing if you do what one of my colleagues and I did the first time we came here and walk right down the wrong side of the river, assuming there’ll be another bridge further down, then find there isn’t). I always think the campus itself looks more like a woodland summer camp than one of the top universities of northern Europe (in case it’s not clear, I do mean that as a compliment!). Apparently it was originally built as some kind of army base, so it makes sense that the layout is a bit unusual for a university.

The meeting itself was an interesting one, and since I’d actually got a decent night’s sleep for a change, I didn’t even come close to falling asleep at any point during the proceedings. It seems to do my brain good being away for a bit, because I always seem to come up with lots of new ideas for all my projects when I’m travelling. I made sure to note them down for later.


Our dinner was in an old station building. It was in slightly better condition than the old stations I normally find myself in.

The Holiday

After the day and a half of meeting, it was off to Stockholm for my little holiday. The train was on time and very nice, as they usually seem to be in European countries other than Britain, and after finally excusing myself from a crazy old woman on the platform who seemed determined to talk to me in Swedish and completely unconcerned by the fact that I couldn’t understand a word, I was on my way.

Coming back to somewhere I’ve visited before sometimes does strange things to my perception of time; I remember on my second visit to Madrid it felt like ages since I’d been there before, when in reality it was only just over two months, but coming back to Stockholm after 18 months, I didn’t feel as if much time had passed at all. The hostel “upgraded” me from the eight bed dormitory I’d booked to a 6 bed “apartment”. They were using the apartments as extra dorms, probably because they were so busy, so I still had to share with other people. But it did mean we had our own private loo, shower, small kitchen, and even a sauna (which I didn’t dare to use as I didn’t have a clue how to work the thing, though one of my room mates did manage to get it working).

I slept better than I normally do in a hostel room. I hadn’t had any plans for Friday at all, but when I discovered my pyjama top was missing, and confirmed via email that it was still at my hotel in Uppsala, I decided I was going to go and get it back. (I’ve no idea how I managed to do this; I’m normally ultra-careful not to leave anything behind when I stay in a hotel, to the point of even checking inside cupboards that I know perfectly well I’ve never opened before I leave). I probably wouldn’t have bothered as it would have been cheaper just to buy a new one than to pay for the extra return train ticket, but I felt bad as it was a present from Laura. Anyway, I didn’t really mind relaxing on the train for a couple of hours. There are worse ways to spend a morning.

I spent most of the time just relaxing, either in the hostel lounge or in a nearby bar, and was glad that I’d ripped my mother’s Reginald Perrin DVDs to my laptop to keep me entertained. It was what I felt I needed. Of course, I’d done most of the important stuff around the hostel on my previous visits here anyway – for example, photographing the local tunnel:


And the local unfortunately-named cafe:


My second day in Stockholm was slightly more energetic, though I still found the time for plenty of Reggie Perrin as well. I went for my first run since the horrible flu/chest infection/laryngitis that I was suffering from last month. Although I’d worked up to being able to run for 40 minutes non-stop before the illness, I didn’t want to do anything that strenuous after over a month’s break, so I did a gentle 20 minutes (with short pause to remove gravel from my trainer). It went surprisingly well and didn’t even cause me to have a coughing fit, so I was happy. I also went for a wander along the sea front, far enough to see Langholmen (a nice, mostly rural-feeling wooded island that’s surprisingly close to the city centre), but I was too tired to cross over to it this time.

The Return

My return flight left at 7:55, so I had to be up before 5am to get the bus. (It was the only direct flight of the day, so it was that or waste about 5 hours getting home). As always seems to happen when I need to be up early, my hostel roommates, who’d been perfectly well behaved throughout my whole stay, decided to pick the final night to make a lot of noise and keep me awake. All I can say is I hope they enjoyed the sound of my 4:45 alarm… I certainly didn’t.

The flight was the first time I’ve ever used wifi on a plane. I remember when the internet was only in the uni computer labs, or at home via excruciatingly slow dial up modem. Now, the number of places that you can escape from it is ever-diminishing: planes have wifi; my last two phones have been waterproof so being in the bath or shower is no excuse; hell, even one of the abandoned railway tunnels I explored had a perfect 4G signal (though admittedly that’s probably just an accident of microwave propagation rather than any deliberate desire on the part of Glasgow City Council to let urban explorers broadcast their crew shots more easily).

I came home feeling happier and more relaxed than I had done in weeks, thanks to the couple of days of doing nothing at all other than what I felt like. I decided I should book my next unwinding trip straight away (well, after next payday) so I have it to look forward to.

A little light relief

This blog’s been getting a bit intense lately… a lot of the last few entries have been long rants in response to things that have annoyed me.That’s fair enough, one of the reasons I started the blog was so I’d have somewhere to post those, but it was also to give me somewhere to write about more light-hearted and fun stuff that interests me. So here’s a post about my walk today. Look, this one even has pictures!

View from Almond Aqueduct

I couldn’t decide what to do with myself today. Laura’s out at her hen do (much more of an event than my “stag do” was, it would seem!) and Alex is through in Glasgow editing, so I couldn’t do anything with them. I’ve been exhausted all week and I’m away in Sweden most of next week so I didn’t want to overdo things, but at the same time I felt like getting outside and taking some photos, something I haven’t done enough of lately. In fact I sort of felt like doing an explore, only I wasn’t in the mood to drive far or to risk a confrontation if things went wrong, which ruled out most of the sites on my list.

Then I remembered about this walk I’d been meaning to do again for a while, from the Almond Aqueduct on the Union Canal, down the river to the next couple of bridges. Alex, Gavin and I did it about five years ago (I’m not sure why, I think we were just bored and looking for something to do) and I enjoyed it a lot. It felt surprisingly adventurous considering how close to home it was – although that was before I started clambering into derelict hospital buildings and railway tunnels¬†for fun, so my threshold for what constitutes “adventurous” has probably gone up somewhat in the meantime. But anyway. I decided it would be worth trying it again. I might get some better shots of the bridges now I had an SLR, at least.

Canal Feeder

After stress testing my new car’s suspension on the impressive collection of potholes on the access road, I reached the start of my walk: the Almond Aqueduct. Back when I first got interested in bridges and canals and stuff, this used to be my favourite bridge. Although the Avon Aqueduct on the other side of West Lothian is much bigger and more impressive, there’s something very nice about the setting of the Almond one, and it’s also impressive in its own right (though annoyingly hard to get good photos of, I discovered!).

Almond Aqueduct top

As I went down underneath to cross to the north side of the canal where the towpath is, I noticed that the access gate into the interior of the structure was open. I probably would have had a peek inside if I could, but it’s pretty high off the ground so I wouldn’t be able to get in there without some sort of equipment. This video, on one of the¬†best YouTube channels ever, gives a pretty good impression of what it’s like in there.

Almond Aqueduct Access Gate

At the far side of the aqueduct, I turned off into the trees, along a rough track which may or may not actually be a path. (One of the nice things about Scotland is that thanks to the right to roam, you don’t need to worry too much about whether something is or isn’t a path – as long as you don’t damage anything or walk into a live military or transport site, you can pretty much go wherever you want). The first part of the walk was a gentle, quite picturesque stroll through the trees, with the river down a steep bank to my right.

Woodland stream

The last time we were here, I actually saw a deer cross the path ahead of us and then swim across the river. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my phone camera ready in time, but it was amazing even just to see it – I normally think of deer as being something you get up in the Highlands rather than something you can see while walking through a narrow strip of woodland only a few miles from home. I didn’t think I’d be so lucky a second time, and indeed I wasn’t. I did see quite a large bird of prey, but it had disappeared into the woods before I even had time to get my lens cap off.

(Speaking of last time, I’m sure we also had an orange helium balloon with us when we did this walk before. I think Gavin had insisted on stopping for ice cream at the Newbridge McDonalds on the way and had somehow acquired it in there. As you can probably guess, it didn’t survive the walk).

Mill lade entrance

The path got narrower, more hilly and more muddy as I walked further from the canal. I seemed more difficult going than I’d remembered, but maybe that’s just because I was on my own this time. About halfway along was a feature I remembered: an old mill lade, now so full of earth and vegetation that the water wasn’t high enough to get into it anymore. Next to it was a very rough, but still clearly manmade, weir in the river itself. I was curious about this so I checked an old map when I got home… the lade used to run for quite a distance, powering a mill called Bird’s Mill, roughly where the viaduct of that name stands today (more on that later).

Old Mill Lade

Part of the lade, though, has been obliterated by construction of the M8, which crosses the river on a high concrete bridge. The area around this bridge always feels curiously desolate to me, I guess because it’s quite difficult to get to, and the quiet and stillness down below contrasts nicely with the traffic constantly thundering over the top. Thousands of vehicles a day pass overhead, but I wonder how many people have stood underneath since I was last here five years ago?

Under the M8

There’s only one bit of graffiti on the bridge (that I noticed, anyway), and it hasn’t changed in the five years since I was last here. I remember we found it strangely unnerving. There is a lot of rubbish either side of the bridge, but none at all actually underneath, indicating that it’s all been thrown down from the road above rather than dropped by anyone on foot.


Just beyond the M8 bridge is an older, slightly nicer looking bridge: the Bird’s Mill Viaduct. Until recently this carried a fairly minor single track branch line from the main Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway to Bathgate; but in late 2010, the previously-closed line was reopened from Bathgate to Airdrie, and the whole route was electrified and double tracked at the same time, creating a new line between Edinburgh and Glasgow, so frequent electric trains now pass over the viaduct.

Birds Mill Viaduct

It was annoyingly difficult to get decent photos of the viaduct due to all the surrounding trees. This was about the best I could do.

At this point I retraced my steps back to the car, not wanting to overdo things. As I picked my way slowly up a slightly precarious slope, with the river quite a way down a steep bank to my left, it struck me that this walk is probably actually more dangerous than some of the urban explores I’ve done (you’d have to try quite hard to come to any significant harm in Kelvindale Tunnel, for example), Yet if you tell people you’re going for a walk by the river they go “Ooh, that’s nice”, but if you tell them you’re going in an abandoned rail tunnel they look horrified!

I enjoyed my day out and I’m glad I decided to do this walk again. I didn’t get as good photos as I’d hoped, though; too many trees in the way of the bridges. This was the best shot I could get of the Almond Aqueduct from my path.

Almond Aqueduct

On the way home, I stopped off to do something I’d been meaning to do for a while: namely, take photos of the new Edinburgh Gateway station that’s currently under construction at Gogar. (My interest in railways is starting to get out of control now. Yesterday I spent a whole 20 minutes watching a YouTube documentary about the Intercity 125 on our new Chromecast – this one, if you’re interested).

Edinburgh Gateway Station

The works currently underway to build an underpass so that people can safely cross the road to get to the station made it nearly impossible for me to safely cross the road to get to the station.


In defence of “Safe Spaces”

Also, why a broken brain is a bit like a broken leg. And why I’m suspicious of people who don’t like trigger warnings. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while… but recent events have made it feel a lot more pressing, to the point where I felt like I wouldn’t be able to rest until I’d written it out, just to stop it from bouncing around in my head.

Lately, “Safe Spaces” are coming in for a lot of criticism online. The discussion around them generally seems pretty one-sided: the anti-safe space side tend to set themselves up as the voices of reason, staunchly defending free speech and all that is rational from the hysterical, hand-wringing, over-emotional, politically correct do-gooders on the other side. I don’t think this is right, for several reasons. In this piece I’m going to argue that there are good, logical reasons to support safe spaces, and that some of their vocal opponents who appear to pride themselves on rationality and pragmatism are actually being quite¬†irrational and idealistic.


What are “safe spaces”, and what’s wrong with them?

First things first: I’m aware that not everyone might be familiar with the term “safe space”… so what is a safe space? Basically, it’s when a group or institution has a policy that tries to make certain groups of people feel safer and more welcome by disallowing conduct that those people might find threatening or anxiety provoking. (I know that’s not a fully comprehensive and correct dictionary definition, but for the purposes of this blog it will do). These groups may include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, sufferers of mental illnesses (such as anxiety disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), members of ethnic minorities, survivors of various sorts of abuse, and so on. (From what I’ve read online, it seems safe spaces may have originated as homophobia-free spaces, but I’m going to talk about them more from the point of view of mental illness sufferers, since that’s where my personal experience is). For this blog post I’m going to draw on the Safe Space Policy of my local students’ association as an example – I don’t think they’ll mind as it’s posted online in a publicly accessible location, but if it is a problem please contact me and I’ll remove any references to it.

Skimming through the safe space policy (it’s only 3 pages long), the first thing that struck me was how basic and uncontroversial most of the points are. They’re things you’d hope civilised adults would do anyway without having to be told. You could pretty much sum the policy up as “Don’t be a dick” (in fact, one organisation that I know of actually does sum up its policy using those four words!). The main points are: don’t discriminate against people on the basis of factors such as age, gender, sexuality, race, disability, etc.; don’t talk over, interrupt or heckle people during meetings, or make rude gestures; be respectful towards other people. That’s about it.

Given how straightforward and benign the policy actually is, why do “safe spaces” generate so much animosity? From what I’ve seen, the main arguments against them boil down to: 1. they restrict free speech; and 2. they mollycoddle people who should be facing up to the realities of the world rather than being shielded from them.

I’ll talk about the free speech argument first. I think a lot of this stems from people misunderstanding what safe spaces actually are. You see a lot of ranting online about “special little snowflakes who can’t cope with hearing opinions that are different from theirs”, but this view doesn’t seem justified going by the safe space policies I’ve read. Both the policies I have open right now are very explicit that expressing differing opinions is fine, even something to be encouraged. It’s expressing them in disrespectful or intimidating ways that’s a problem. In fact, surely in some circumstances safe spaces could actually¬†increase people’s exposure to different points of view, by allowing people to take part in debates who might otherwise feel too anxious or uncomfortable to participate.

And while I would agree that national governments clamping down on free speech would be worrying and should generally be resisted, the clubs and societies setting up “safe spaces” are not governments. They’re independent organisations and as such they have every right to decide for themselves what sort of behaviour they’re willing to accept at their meetings and on their premises, and people who don’t like their decisions have every right to go elsewhere or even set up their own organisations with different rules instead.

It strikes me that the sort of conduct that’s typically prohibited in safe space policies has also been prohibited (in practise, if not in any formal written document) in many work places for decades without anyone really batting an eyelid. Most people wouldn’t expect to be able to go to work and heckle their boss during meetings, flip them the V-sign, or make racist and sexist remarks without any consequences. Yet when a voluntary or educational organisation tries to hold its members to the same standards and calls it a “safe space”, certain people go nuts about it.


The other argument is, I think, more complex and more interesting. Let me tell you a story about how I tried to overcome some of my own difficulties, and in the process completely changed my opinion on the subject of “mollycoddling”…


“Tough love”, and why it doesn’t work, no matter how much you’d like it to

Many years ago now, I joined an internet support forum for people with certain mental disorders, having been struggling with depression and anxiety for a while. One of the most heated debates that would rage on the forum from time to time was what I’ll call the “free speech vs. mollycoddling” debate. On one side were the people who felt the forum should be strictly moderated to remove personal attacks and other things that members might find upsetting; on the other were the people who felt it should be mostly left unedited and shouldn’t try to shield people from reality. (The poor moderators, of course, were caught in the middle of this and couldn’t win no matter what they did… either way, whether they deleted abusive posts or left them up, lots of people were unhappy about it!).

At the time, I was firmly on the “free speech” side. Although I was in a very low and unstable state emotionally and frequently did find posts on the forum upsetting, I felt it would be counter-productive for those posts to be removed – after all, if I was ever going to get better (and I wanted to get better more than anything), I would have to get used to the things I found difficult… what was the point in avoiding them?

Most of the anti-safe space commentators seem to take a similar view to this. If they do ever give advice to people who are struggling emotionally, it tends to be in the form of a curt “get over it”, “man up”, “grow up”, “pull yourself together”, or “stop being pathetic”. Let’s be charitable for the moment and assume that this really is intended as advice (“tough love”, if you like) rather than as kicking people who are already down: what would it look like to try and follow that advice? Well, that’s pretty much what I tried to do all those years ago, so let’s return to my story.

For years, I pushed aside my bad feelings as best I could and just got on with life. I forced myself into situation after situation that I hated and really wasn’t ready for. When I found things online that upset me, I didn’t avoid them, in fact I would keep reading them for hours at a time, looking for other similar things, convinced that no matter how painful this was I would eventually become desensitised, eventually become a man, become an adult who could deal with anything life could throw at him without flinching. I did the same in real life as well: I kept going back into situations and social groups that all of my feelings were telling me were completely wrong for me, but I ignored them and did it anyway. After all, feeling were for wimps, for people who thought they were “special snowflakes” and deserved special treatment, right? I wouldn’t need them anymore once all my hard work finally paid off and I became a Real Person, fully pulled-together, manned-up and no longer pathetic.

Although I did hear alternative, less extreme suggestions for things that might help me from therapists or self help books from time to time, I ignored everything that didn’t fit my preconceived narrative and carried on with my plan. I¬†knew it had to work eventually if I could just keep going for long enough!

But… it didn’t work. It never could have worked, not if I’d kept at it for 50 years. I can see that now.

After several years of this, I still wasn’t feeling any better… in fact with hindsight I can see that I was actually in a much worse state than I had been before I started trying to get better. Although the intense anxiety had mostly gone, it had been replaced by a constant, never-ending morass of depression, resentment and apathy. I’d lost the ability to enjoy anything, even things that used to really excite me. I seemed to have lost the ability to feel sadness as well – losing two close family members had frighteningly little effect on me. So in a sense, I had got what I’d thought I wanted – I had lost most of my feelings, but it hadn’t made me better. It had just made life feel like a pointless, soul-destroying drudge.

At this point you might be thinking “Whoa, whoa, whoa! You can’t blame that on people who said harsh words to you! They may not have been very helpful, but they didn’t force you to do all that!”. And no, I don’t blame them, not entirely at any rate. But my point is: if your only advice to people who are struggling badly is along the lines of “grow up”, or “get over it”, what do you expect them to do with that? It’s not exactly much help, is it?

Maybe you think those people aren’t really struggling badly but are just acting out for attention, and need to be shown that they’re not going to get any sympathy for it, then they’ll stop it. But here’s the thing: some people really¬†are struggling badly, probably far more of them than you think, and being overly harsh with them is not just unhelpful, it can be intensely damaging.


If tough love doesn’t work, then what does?

Well, that all got a bit intense and gloomy, but keep reading, it’s about to get better. I’m happy to report that I did eventually find a way to reverse the damage and I’m now well on my way to recovery. In order to explain what worked for me, and why it’s even relevant to the topic of this blog entry, I’m going to use an analogy with physical illness and injury, something that I find is often helpful when trying to explain mental disorders.

Rather than viewing my emotions like an adversary that needs to be crushed because it’s too pathetic for any kind of redemption, I prefer to look at my “broken brain” in much the same way as I’d look at a broken leg. Just as a broken leg can’t perform its normal functions of holding up the body’s weight, walking, and so on, a broken brain can’t necessarily cope with things a normal brain would be able to. But there’s no point getting judgemental about either of them – they are what they are, and hurling abuse won’t change that. Calling someone with an anxiety disorder “pathetic” won’t stop them being anxious any more than calling someone with a broken leg “pathetic” will make their leg instantaneously mend itself.

There are quite a lot of similarities between the two. Broken legs can heal, given time and the right treatment… and so can broken brains! But time and treatment are both crucial here. What I was doing in the past when I kept pushing myself into difficult situation after difficult situation with no respite was the psychological equivalent of getting up and trying to run across the room on a broken leg every five minutes – it not only puts you in a lot of unnecessary pain, it also disrupts the healing process and puts you back to square one (or worse) every time. One day, if you give your leg a chance to heal, you’ll be able to walk again, and you might even be able to run a marathon on it. But that day isn’t going to come if you don’t let it heal properly first.

Further trauma doesn’t help either broken legs or broken brains. Trying to help someone “get over” a mental disorder by being harsh with them is a bit like trying to help them get over a broken leg by hitting it with a sledgehammer (and then acting like they’re the one who’s out of order when they don’t immediately leap out of their wheelchair fully cured).

The key in both cases is to take small steps, baby steps if necessary. It may take longer, but in the long term it’s a much more reliable way to get better than overreaching yourself and potentially making things worse. During this process, it’s a good idea to listen to the signals coming from your leg/brain. A little bit of pain and fatigue is to be expected if you’re doing something you haven’t done in a while or that you find particularly difficult… but if it’s screaming at you that you’re going to collapse if you don’t take the weight off it right now, you should probably listen to it. One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned was that I could listen to what my feelings were telling me and use them constructively to get more of what I wanted in my life, rather than trying to shut them out.

In both cases, you might need professional help in order to get better (a physiotherapist for your leg, a psychotherapist or counsellor for your brain), but there’s no shame in that.

In both cases, you need a combination of rest, and gently pushing yourself when you’re able to. You need to push yourself sometimes or you won’t make any progress, but the resting is just as important, because your leg/brain needs time to recuperate if it’s going to build up its strength again. Back when I was pushing myself way too hard, I was keeping my brain in a highly stressed and anxious state pretty much the whole time. When it’s in that state it’s just focused on surviving – it’s not receptive to making the kind of constructive changes required to recover from a mental disorder.

(I’m still bad for pushing myself too hard and too fast and not taking enough time to rest. I’m a lot better than I used to be, though, and it shows in terms of the progress I’ve made recently).

Finally, depending on how badly damaged it was, a broken leg or a broken brain might never quite heal 100%. You might still get twinges of pain from it years later, or you might still have trouble coping with situations that other people manage more easily.


Nice, but what’s this got to do with safe spaces?

Viewed in light of the “broken brain/broken leg” analogy, safe spaces become not places to hide away from reality forever, but places to build yourself up ready to face it. They can be wheelchairs and crutches for the broken brain, until it’s ready to walk unaided. In my experience, being able to take gradual steps towards coping with more and more situations is absolutely critical to overcoming an anxiety disorder, but that is only possible if there are relatively non-threatening situations available to start from, as well as places where it’s safe to switch off for a while and relax without having to worry too much about people doing things that trigger your anxiety. The people who advocate removing safe spaces and making everywhere harsh and unforgiving are, whether it’s their intention or not, advocating creating a much more difficult world for people who want to recover from psychological problems.

You might say “Well, it’s not the job of a university to provide that sort of space. The sufferers should create that space for themselves with help from their family, friends and therapists”. The problem with that is that not everyone has supportive family or friends, or access to therapy. Even the ones that do could probably benefit and make faster progress by having more places they can feel safe.

Or you might be thinking “Fine, if everyone used safe spaces that way I wouldn’t have a problem with them. But most of those people have clearly got no intention of getting better, they’re just hiding away in the safe spaces, avoiding things that make them feel uncomfortable”. In response I would say: how on earth can you possibly know that? Are you close friends with everyone who uses a safe space? Do you know the intimate details of all their lives, so that you know which ones are trying to get better and which aren’t? Or are you just looking at them and making a sweeping judgement that happens to fit your world view, based on very little actual information? I find it highly unlikely that anyone is “hiding away” in a safe space… safe spaces make up such a tiny proportion of the social world that it would be virtually impossible to live your life completely within them.

In any case, I don’t see anything wrong with spending some of your time in safe spaces even if you’re recovered or mostly recovered. It’s just nice to relax in situations where you don’t need to worry too much about getting hassle from people. Think of it this way: you may not need a wheelchair any more once your broken leg’s healed, but that doesn’t mean you’re never going to sit down in a chair again, does it?


So what about “trigger warnings”?

“Trigger warnings” are when people put a note at the start of a piece of writing (usually an online post of some sort) warning about any content within that certain groups of people might find upsetting – for example, references to child abuse, or homophobic terms. The idea of them seems to generate a lot of derision from the same sort of people who dislike safe spaces.

To be honest, while I can just about understand the “free speech” argument against safe spaces (although I don’t agree with it), I’m really struggling to get my head around how anyone could rationally object to trigger warnings. They don’t stifle free speech, in fact they don’t do anything at all unless you let them! No-one is going to force you to put them on your own writing, or to take any notice of the ones other people have put on theirs. They’re like the “May contain nuts” warning on a chocolate bar – if you don’t have a nut allergy, just ignore it and move on with your life.

The fact that so many people object to trigger warnings despite their total innocuousness makes me question their motives… for all the lofty talk of defending free speech, I can’t help thinking that for a lot of people this is motivated more by contempt (or even outright hatred) for groups they perceive as weak and undeserving. They hate trigger warnings because they hate the thought of those people being given the tools to avoid something that might upset them and take control of their own recovery. They’d rather watch them suffer and fail than have them be able to make their own decision about whether reading a particular article at a particular time would be beneficial for them or not.


Leave the EU? Sorry, not convinced

It’s still over three months until the referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU or not, but there’s already plenty of lively discussion online about it. What I find interesting is how much comment sections seem to be dominated by pro-leavers, despite the fact that (a) most opinion polls are showing either a lead for remain or a very close result, and (b) no-one, least of all the leave supporters, seems to have a clue what life would realistically be like if we left. I think that’s what prompted me to write this, in order to do a small bit towards redressing the balance.

Of course, the EU isn’t perfect – nothing so big and complex ever could be – but I find it alarming how many people seem desperate to get out when there is so much uncertainty about what would happen, and when most of the arguments for leaving are so paper thin. I’m going to respond here to most of the reasons I see put forward for leaving the EU.

UK and continental power sockets existing happily side-by-side, just like their respective countries within the EU. (Stop laughing at the back!)

UK and continental power sockets existing happily side-by-side, just like their respective countries within the EU. (Stop laughing at the back!)

“The EU is undemocratic”

I find it pretty ironic that people who complain incessantly about the EU being undemocratic want to return all of its powers to Westminster instead. That would be the same Westminster that, last year, elected a majority government that only 24% of the electorate actually voted for, and which left the Green Party and UKIP with only one MP each despite them getting 5 million votes between them (and don’t even get me started on the unelected second chamber). At least the European parliament is elected using a proper modern proportional system that avoids this kind of grossly unrepresentative result.

“But it’s not just the parliament, there’s a huge unelected bureaucracy alongside it!” I hear you cry. Um, doesn’t every parliament have that? I don’t remember the last time we voted on the make-up of the entire UK civil service, for example, and it’s a good thing too – imagine the chaos if we got rid of everyone who knows about the practicalities of running the country every time there was an election.

Ultimately, if the Eurosceptics are feeling that the European parliament doesn’t represent them, maybe they should try voting for MEPs who will actually engage as best they can and try to make the system work, rather than ones who are just going to moan from the sidelines like sulking children *cough*UKIP*cough*.

This doesn't really have anything to do with the article, except that it's in the EU, and it's nice.

This doesn’t really have anything to do with the article, except that it’s in the EU, and it’s nice, and I wanted something to break up the huge wall of text a bit.

“We need to regain our sovereignty”

A lot of Eurosceptics are adamant that we need every last bit of our sovereignty to be brought back from Brussels to the UK parliament. But they’re also usually adamant that they want to trade with other countries and not withdraw into isolationism, and there’s a contradiction there. The world doesn’t work that way. These trade agreements that the “Leave” side claims to want so much are all going to impose some sort of conditions on both sides. We’re not going to be free to do absolutely everything we want unless we cut ourselves off North Korea-style, and the Leavers are always quick to point out that that’s not what they want.

Once you accept that sovereignty isn’t an absolute thing anymore (maybe it never was), and that interacting with other countries is inevitably going to involve some compromises, it becomes easier to judge an arrangement such as the EU on its merits, rather than just throwing a tantrum about it stopping you doing what you want. The conditions imposed by international trade deals and treaties wouldn’t necessarily be any less onerous outside the EU – in fact, they could easily become a lot more complicated and demanding, since we’d probably have to negotiate a multitude of separate deals with various countries instead of just being party to a single EU deal.

“The EU is a failing institution”

I see a lot of “Leave” voters claiming that the EU is a “failing” institution and we need to get out so as not to be dragged down with it. I’m curious as to what definition of “failure” they’re using here – by almost any reasonable measure, the EU member states are very successful countries – prosperous, safe, healthy, well educated. If you rank the countries of the world in order of economic prosperity, life expectancy, literacy, equality, incidence of violent crime, or practically any other important factor, the top twenty is dominated by EU countries. If that’s their idea of “failure”, I’d love to see what success looks like!

Of course, some would probably claim that this is nothing to do with the EU and that all of those successful countries would be even more successful without it. There’s no way to ever know for sure since we don’t have a second Europe that’s identical except for EU membership to compare with, but what we do know is that the EU certainly hasn’t prevented all these countries from becoming successful, and has very likely helped at least in some ways.


“We’ll still get access to the single market/visa-free travel/etc. if we leave”

Most Brexit supporters seem adamant that even after we leave the EU, we’ll easily be able to negotiate a deal that gives us all the “good stuff” (like access to the single market, and ability to go on holiday to France without needing a visa) but without any of the “bad” (having to accept immigrants, all those pesky human rights and environmental regulations). I’m at a loss as to why they think it’s going to be so easy. The principle of free movement, for example, is pretty central to the EU. No country gets full access to the single market without also allowing free movement, as well as having to comply with a lot of the EU regulations, and I see no reason why they would make an exception for Britain.

Yes, we could probably maintain access to the market and visa-free travel if we entered into an arrangement similar to Norway’s. But it’s not clear to me why that would be to anyone’s advantage; we’d still be stuck with most of the elements of the EU that the Eurosceptics hate, but without a presence in the European Parliament we would have much less influence over them.

“The EU costs us too much money”

Several points here: firstly, the amount of money we pay to the EU is very small relative to the UK’s expenditure as a whole, so even if we were able to claw it all back it wouldn’t make a huge difference to anything. Secondly, that money doesn’t just disappear – we get a lot of it back in farm subsidies, funding for science and technology projects, development funding for disadvantaged areas and so on. And thirdly, it would be pretty pointless leaving the EU in order to avoid paying this money if in doing so we cause the economy to shrink by much more than that amount (which seems quite a plausible outcome).

Finally, be wary of the outlandish claims for how much we would save by leaving that are being put about by the various Eurosceptic groups. I saw one claim (I think it was by the Taxpayers’ Alliance) of an impressive number of billions of pounds that we could save by leaving the EU. But when I actually read the details, it became clear that the money Britain pays directly to the EU was a relatively small component of the total – they’d also included the cost to UK business of complying with all the EU regulations on workers’ rights, environmental protection, and so on. So we wouldn’t just have to leave the EU in order to save that money – we’d also have to massively weaken our employment and environmental protections. Good for the people who are rich enough to own tabloid newspapers or fund the Taxpayers’ Alliance, no doubt, but not so good for the rest of us

This actually wasn't part of the EU when I took the photo 3 years ago. But it is now.

This actually wasn’t part of the EU when I took the photo 3 years ago. But it is now.

“We need to control our own borders”

Border controls seem pretty fundamental to the argument for leaving, but as always there is a lot of misinformation in this area. Most obviously, we already have full control over immigration from non-EU countries, but successive UK governments have done relatively little to curb it – there’s plenty of lively debate about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s hardly the EU’s fault either way. It’s true that the EU does require us to freely allow immigration from other EU countries (and in turn they allow Britons to move elsewhere in Europe, which a lot of people do take advantage of), but it’s far from certain that this would change in the event of a “Leave” vote. If we want to continue to have access to the single market, as most Eurosceptics claim they do, it’s likely we’ll need to continue to allow freedom of movement as well.

There’s also been speculation about whether the UK would need to introduce border controls on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if we were to leave the EU, and about whether this could cause the tensions there to flare up again. I’ve seen some Brexiters claim that this is just scaremongering and of course we wouldn’t introduce border controls with Ireland, but surely they can’t have it both ways… if controlling our own borders is so fundamentally important that we have to withdraw from the EU over it, it makes no sense to be so relaxed about having an uncontrolled land border with a country that’s still in the EU.

Regarding the current refugee situation, it’s possible that leaving the EU would actually make it more difficult to “send back” refugees. (Personally I find the idea of sending away people who have fled from a war zone abhorrent, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment and talk about the practicalities). At present there are agreements in place that refugees must seek asylum in the first EU country they come to, so if refugees arrive in Britain having clearly come through France (for example), they can be sent back to France relatively easily. But if Britain cut itself off and closed its borders, those arrangements would no longer apply – the French would be fully entitled to say “Sod off, they’re your problem now”.

“We want rid of the European human rights laws”

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether it’s sensible for people to be clamouring to have their own human rights protections removed, the much-maligned European Convention on Human Rights is actually nothing to do with the EU – it pre-dates the EU by several decades, and leaving the EU would not take us out of the ECHR.


“The EU is bloated and financially irresponsible”

I’ve worked on EU-funded projects, as well as on projects funded by various other means, and this has not been my experience at all. It’s fashionable to bash the EU as being wasteful with tax payers’ hard-earned money, but I’ve actually found the EU funding bodies to be the among the most rigourous about making sure their money is being spent properly (at least on the science and technology side, I don’t have any direct experience of the rest). On our EU projects we have to keep the funders updated regularly with detailed information about our work, as well as attending regular face-to-face reviews where we present our progress to them and answer questions. The reviewers have the power to immediately halt projects that aren’t delivering what they promised. By contrast, none of the UK or Scottish funding bodies or commercial companies that I’ve worked with have applied this level of oversight.

Of course, some would argue that all these science and technology projects are a waste of money anyway, and we shouldn’t be spending anything on them at all. I disagree whole-heartedly. We SHOULD be taking part in visionary projects, like the Human Brain Project. They may not bring tangible results straight away, but in the long term the benefits could be immense, and it probably takes an organisation like the EU to fund projects like this. No commercial company would spend so much money on something so risky, and it would be too big for most individual countries’ research budgets as well. For me this is one of the EU’s strongest points and something I find very inspiring.

“The EU is good for the rich elite and bad for everyone else – look at TTIP, and the treatment of Greece”

There are people on the left of the political spectrum who want out of the EU, citing the imposition of austerity on Greece, the now-infamous TTIP trade deal, legislation that might make it difficult to renationalise public services, and so on. I have some sympathy with their views, certainly more than I do with the anti-immigrant, anti-human rights mob on the right, but I think they need to be realistic about what would actually happen if we voted to leave. The Tories are going to be running the UK for at least the next four years and quite possibly for a lot longer, and the Tories are on average much more fanatically pro-austerity, pro-TTIP and pro-privatisation than the EU are – handing them absolute power to do whatever they want isn’t going to help us with any of those issues. The EU may not be perfect, but right now it seems like one of the few powerful institutions that might actually help to mitigate the worst effects of capitalism.


“We want freedom from the EU’s red tape”

I think the people who want to get away from the EU’s regulations need to be careful what they’re really voting for. They might imagine with misty eyes an elderly village shop owner, free once again to sell irregularly shaped bananas in pounds and ounces without interference from the Eurocrats, but in reality, the politicians campaigning for Brexit quite likely have different ideas about exactly which strands of red tape they’d like to cut.

At this point, the Leave supporters maintain that no UK government would ever dare to (for example) cut paid holiday entitlement or relax health and safety legislation, because they’d be annihilated at the polls for doing so, therefore we don’t need to EU to protect those things for us. I’m afraid I don’t have as much faith in our electoral system as they do. Of course the UK government¬†could protect all those rights without any help from the EU, but the more relevant question is,¬†would it? Frankly I don’t trust either the Tories or the system that elected them to do what’s right for ordinary people, so I’d rather those rights were protected at as high a level as possible and were as difficult as possible for the government to take away.

There are plenty of UK government decisions that are deeply unpopular but that we’re stuck with anyway, either because none of the parties that can realistically gain power have offered to reverse them, or because they simply lie about what their plans are, or because those particular issues aren’t the main deciding factor for most voters – the privatisation of the railways and the recent NHS reforms in England are two that come to mind. I can easily imagine the same thing happening with employment rights if we were to leave the EU – the Tories doing their “we really hate to do this, but there’s no alternative, we have to do it for the good of the economy in the long term” act as they remove the right to paid sick leave, then Labour (assuming they’ve ditched Corbyn and gone back to being New Labour by that time, which seems quite likely) not daring to reverse it in case they appear “anti-business”.

Anyway, this whole argument can just as easily be turned on its head: if no UK government would ever relax those regulations anyway, why not keep them protected at the EU level? Why would you want to remove that protection unless you’re planning to revoke those rights?


It seems to me that a lot of Brexit supporters just hate the EU on an emotional level, and at this point are probably not going to be swayed by any kind of rational argument. It’s become a scapegoat for everything they don’t like about the modern world – immigration, human rights, environmentalism, meddling bureaucrats, and so on – and now they’re hell-bent on getting out, regardless of whether leaving would actually change any of those things, and regardless of what other damage might be done in the process.

And, as much as people claim that their views have nothing to do with xenophobia, I find it hard to see any explanation for some of the Leavers’ stances other than just not liking foreigners very much. They are fine with the fact that, for example, the people of Cornwall (or Scotland) might not get their preferred government in Westminster, because Cornwall only contains a minority of British voters (likewise Scotland). But when Britain doesn’t get everything its own way in the EU Parliament, because Britain only contains a minority of the EU’s voters, they go nuts about how undemocratic it is. Why? What is the difference between these two cases, other than the fact that in the first example everyone is British, but in the second example there are foreigners involved as well? I’m not trying to stir things up here, I just genuinely don’t understand.

Why we can’t just go back to the “good old days”

You know, the good old days when men were men, and although life was harder, people just got on with it. They didn’t complain about their situation, and they certainly didn’t go and get themselves diagnosed with a mental illness, or rely on medication to get them through. They just stiffened their upper lip and carried on.

You don’t have to look too far to find sentiments like this expressed online. In fact some variant of this opinion tends to come up in pretty much any discussion involving mental health sooner or later. It seems to be a commonly held belief that mental health problems are over-diagnosed these days; that some of the supposed illnesses aren’t even real health issues at all, just people being lazy or weak; that people in the past were much stronger than today’s cry-babies; that we as a society are medicalising things that shouldn’t be medicalised; that drugs such as anti-depressants are prescribed much too freely to people who don’t actually need them at all.

In this piece I will argue that this way of thinking is misguided and, in fact, quite self-centred.

Actually, that’s not entirely true… there are a couple of points there that I sort of agree with. Firstly, the over-reliance on drugs: I do think there is too much reliance on anti-depressants for treating depression and related conditions, but not because I don’t think the recipients need treatment: rather, because I don’t think drugs are the right treatment for everyone, and tend to be prescribed a lot because they’re relatively cheap and simple (compared to, for example, long term talking therapy) rather than because they’re actually the most effective.

And secondly, I think it would be great if there was more tolerance at all levels of society of people who are different in some way, rather than immediately labelling someone as having a problem and needing treatment just because they don’t fit in with those around them. This would undoubtedly have a very positive effect on many people’s mental health, but it wouldn’t eliminate the problem completely.

The other points, though, are nonsense, and destructive nonsense at that.

For a start, let’s lay to rest any notion that today’s mental health problems didn’t exist back in the 1940s, or 50s, or Victorian times, or whenever this supposed golden age of stoicism is meant to have taken place. Of course we’re never really going to know for sure how many people were suffering from clinical depression, or social anxiety, or ADHD several decades ago, because there wasn’t really any awareness of those conditions back then. But what we do know for sure is that a lot of people ended up killing themselves, or turned to destructive coping strategies like alcohol or drugs, or spent their lives locked away in grim asylums. The same problems that we have today almost certainly existed, and wreaked the same havoc on people’s lives that they do today if left untreated. The only difference is that people back then didn’t talk about how they were feeling or have a name for it.

Of course, a lot of people did just “get on with it”. They didn’t have any other choice, because often their conditions weren’t well enough understood to be diagnosed, and even if they were there wouldn’t be any effective treatment available. A lot of those people would have lived pretty miserable lives, constantly battling demons in their own heads and getting no help or understanding from those around them. But is it reasonable to demand that people should do that now, just because that’s what people had to do in the past? The situation has, after all, changed dramatically. We understand mental illness a lot better than we did even a few decades ago, and there are treatments available that can relieve or even cure many conditions. To me, saying that the mentally ill shouldn’t get help now because their ancestors had to go without is as pointless and cruel as suggesting that people undergoing major surgery should do without anaesthetic, because that’s what people had to do before anaesthetic was discovered.

Even if there has been a genuine increase in the incidence of mental health problems in recent decades, it doesn’t follow that it must be because people now are somehow “weaker” than in the past. Whilst many aspects of life have undoubtedly got a lot easier and more comfortable in the past 50 or 100 years, that doesn’t automatically mean that everything is becoming more conducive to good mental health. The human brain evolved to live in small hunter-gatherer tribes, but that society has been turned upside down in a remarkably short timescale, the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, and the pace of change shows no sign of slowing. Although most people would probably agree that the changes are largely for the better, if you look at the bigger picture we really haven’t had a lot of time to adapt – it doesn’t seem at all surprising that some people are struggling.

I think a lot of the antipathy I was describing at the start stems from people not really understanding how and why mental health problems are diagnosed. They’ll read a description of, for example, social anxiety and think “That’s just shyness! It’s ridiculous that people are being given therapy and medication just because they’re shy! They just need to get over it!”.

It’s true that social anxiety does have a lot in common with shyness… but the key deciding factor between the two is more about the impact on someone’s life and happiness rather than any innate biological difference. One person might be quite happy with being shy and mostly keeping to themselves, and in that case no-one is going to force them to label themselves as “clinically socially anxious” or to accept treatment for it. But another person might find their “shyness” to be seriously getting in the way of what they want to do with their life and causing them a lot of distress (like I did), and feel powerless to change it on their own, in which case they would probably welcome the chance to get some help. This seems entirely reasonable to me – I don’t understand why anyone, other than a terminally grouchy misanthrope, would object to someone getting treatment for a condition that’s massively impacting their quality of life, even if it’s not something that would have historically been considered a medical problem.

It’s true that the bar for a diagnosis of depression or social anxiety might be set lower than you’d expect: I’ve seen estimates that a full 7% of adults are suffering from clinical social anxiety at any one time, and 25% of adults will experience some form of mental health issue in any given year, which does sound a lot. But there’s a good reason for this, namely that even relatively mild cases of these disorders can cause a huge amount of disruption and distress to sufferers. As Dr David Burns says when talking about a scale for measuring levels of depression in his famous book Feeling Good, “Don’t be fooled by the term ‘moderate’. A score in this range can indicate pretty intense suffering”.

And I’ve always remembered something similar that was once said to me about social anxiety: “‘Mild’ social anxiety isn’t necessarily mild in terms of its impact on your life. It can mean, for example, no love life” – in fact, in my case that was exactly what it did mean. My social anxiety was “mild” compared to some people’s in the sense that I was able to leave the house and (mostly) function day-to-day, but even a mild case was enough to essentially close off an entire area of life (and, I think most people would agree, a pretty important and rewarding one) to me¬†until I had treatment to bring it under control.

I find it quite disturbing that so many people seem to think they are qualified to decide whether others have mental health problems or not, whether they deserve treatment or not, despite having next to no knowledge or experience of the subject themselves. Personally I would rather trust the professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to studying and treating psychological disorders, and the direct experience of the people who live with such disorders every day, but it seems as if there is a growing distrust of experts in all sorts of fields lately (climate science being another big one just now). Thing is, it’s fine to be sceptical. It’s fine to research things yourself rather than just blindly believing whatever you’re told. And it’s fine to acknowledge that so-called “experts” have been spectacularly wrong sometimes in the past. But what’s not so fine is starting from a position of assuming that the experts must be wrong, assuming that they’re either incompetent or corrupt and that you know better, based on no evidence whatsoever, just because you don’t happen to like the implications of what they’re saying. Science may not be perfect, but it’s still far and away the best tool we have for understanding the world and making it a better place.

Ultimately, I think the people wishing we could go back to the “good old days” before mental illness existed are being very selfish. Because there never were any such days. What most of them really mean is “I wish we could go back to the good old days when I didn’t have to think about mental illness, when sufferers knew their place and kept their mouths shut, before they started getting all uppity and wanting to talk about their experiences, wanting people to understand and help them”.

Or, to put it another way, “I want ill people to suffer in silence so that I can maintain my comfortable illusion about how the world works”. Well I’m sorry, but it ain’t gonna happen.

Couch to 5K: my experiences

I’d normally be going for my Tuesday lunchtime run about now, but I think I’m getting a cold so I’m going to skip it in case the exertion makes it worse. So I decided the next best thing would be to write a blog about running instead… maybe I’ll get slightly fitter by osmosis just from thinking about exercise? … OK, maybe not, but I’m going to write this anyway.


I started the Couch to 5K plan back in late May, in the hope that regular exercise might help me not to feel so tired all the time, as well as a vague sense that it would be nice not to be dying from preventable health problems before I hit 60. For those of you that haven’t heard of it, it’s a beginner’s running programme designed to do exactly from the title says: get you from not running at all to being able to run five kilometres, in the space of only nine weeks.

The programme appealed to me, firstly because by the sound of it it’s designed to be achievable for people even less fit than I was at the start; secondly because I could do it outdoors and wouldn’t need a gym membership (I find gyms expensive, uncomfortable and boring… I’d much rather brave the weather, even in Scotland); thirdly because I could do it myself with the aid of just a phone app. I wouldn’t need to join a group or anything, which I didn’t feel like doing yet – I didn’t want that level of commitment or pressure.

So I downloaded the NHS Choices Couch to 5K Android app to my phone and got started. The app is designed to be listened to on headphones while you’re running, with someone called Laura telling you what to do (nothing like my normal life, then… har har). I believe you can also get the programme in the form of MP3s that you can listen to, but the app has a few advantages, such as being able to track how many runs you’ve done, and showing a countdown clock on the screen so you can easily see how long you’ve got left in the current run.

The app mostly seemed pretty good, though I think it must have been pretty new when I started, as there were a few quite major bugs: the countdown timer ran at the wrong speed when the phone screen was off, so to begin with I had to run with the phone in my hand and the screen on the whole time, needlessly draining the battery. Then later on, the app started to crash every time I completed a run. To the developers’ credit, they did fix both of these issues within a few days, and it seemed a lot more stable after that.

But enough about the app… how was the actual running? Surprisingly painless, actually. As I was pretty unfit, I’d expected Couch to 5K to be much more of a struggle than it turned out to be. I think the level of build-up must be set just right as I didn’t have serious trouble with any of the weeks, not even week 5 where the length of time spent continuously running suddenly jumps from 8 minutes up to a very daunting 20 minutes in one go. At first I thought it was strange that the programme reaches 20 minutes with a full four weeks still to go and then ramps up to 30 pretty gradually after that… at the beginning I thought, “surely once I can run 20 minutes non-stop, 30 minutes can’t be that much harder, so why take a full 4 weeks to get there?”. But I think it does make sense; the purpose of the programme isn’t to get you to struggle through a 30 minute run once and then collapse in a quivering heap moaning “That’s it, I’m never running again!” – it’s to make 30 minutes actually seem manageable and give you some confidence in your ability.

The most difficult bit was actually finding the motivation to go out running three times a week and not getting distracted by other things. Once I was actually out there and got going, I almost always enjoyed it. Overall I managed to fit the runs in around the rest of my life quite well, even though I was doing a lot of travelling over the weeks of the plan – I ended up doing runs in Berlin, Glasgow, Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Ghent as well as at home. The only thing that majorly disrupted me was an illness that struck when I had nearly finished (I think I had just started week 8) and then dragged me down for several weeks before I was finally rid of it. At that point I did what the instructions suggested and backtracked a couple of weeks, but I was able to build my momentum back up reasonably easily, and then went on to finally complete the programme. Since then I’ve managed to keep up running for around 30 minutes three times a week, a big improvement on the level of exercise I was getting previously.

Overall, I was pretty happy with Couch to 5K, which succeeded in getting me running greater distances than I would have imagined possible. I’ve definitely noticed an improvement in my general fitness – at Alton Towers, a few of us decided to sprint uphill to the Nemesis queue line to try and ride it one last time before it closed for the night, and a few months ago I know that by the time I got there I would have been doubled over and feeling like I was about to die. But as it was, I felt fine, not even particularly out of breath.

One slight disappointment is that I haven’t lost any weight since I started running, though it’s only a slight disappointment because weight loss wasn’t really my motivation for doing it. I suspect that to lose weight I’d need to actually cut back on what I eat as well as exercising – I’ll probably get round to it one day, but for now I’ve decided there are other priorities, and that I’d rather be slightly overweight than be hungry and irritable all the time (which was what happened last time I made a real effort to lose weight). Anyway, weighing 100 kilos but being able to run 5km has surely got to be an improvement on weighing 100 kilos and not being able to run at all.

This is a very minor, nit-picky point, but I think the programme would be more accurately named “Couch to 30 Minutes”, because it actually measures the time you run for rather than the distance, and I’m not convinced I can actually quite run 5K in 30 minutes – if my rough Google Maps measurements of my normal running routes are accurate, I’ve been doing closer to 4K. But that’s splitting hairs really, because I suspect most people who’ve managed to complete the programme would be capable of running for 5K by the end, even if it takes them a little longer than 30 minutes.

I haven’t decided where to go next with the running. I definitely want to at least keep it up at around this level. Maybe I’ll try doing an actual organised 5K run soon, and then try to build up to a 10K? That seems a daunting prospect, but nowhere near as much as going from nothing to 5K did.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend it to anyone interested in starting running. It starts with a nice gentle introduction but builds you up to being able to do some serious distances, which is all you can ask really. But be careful with your choice of route: ideally you want somewhere with not too many obstructions (so that you don’t have to keep slowing down or stopping), not too many hills (unless you like a challenge!), but most of all, no concrete or tarmac paths! I made the mistake of running round the neighbourhood on the pavements for one of the early runs, but my legs hurt like hell after a few minutes of that. Gravel paths or grass are much, much easier on the shins. I tend to just do laps of my local park. The wooded hill nearby is a nicer location, but the steeply sloped paths add an extra challenge so I have to be feeling energetic for that.


A very geeky web project

Update: the Glasgow version of the map is now live!

My interest in railways started off about 3 years ago, as simply a desire to squeeze into disused and supposedly-sealed-up tunnels and take photos of them. Normal enough, you might think. But since then it’s grown into a more general interest. I’ve collected a lot of books on railways, especially the ones around Edinburgh and Glasgow (in fact, so many that I’m starting to fear for the structural integrity of my bookshelf). I haven’t yet graduated to skulking on station platforms in all weathers wearing a cagoule and meticulously writing down the numbers of all the passing trains, but it may just be a matter of time now.

Maybe I inherited it from my mother. She writes a whole blog about trains and railways, here.

My rapidly growing collection of railway books (minus a few that are scattered around the house, wherever I last read them)

My rapidly growing collection of railway books (minus a few that are scattered around the house, wherever I last read them)

One thing I found while researching the history of the rail network was that I always wanted more maps to help me visualise what was going on. There were a few good ones in the books, but I often found myself struggling to imagine how things were actually laid out in the past, and how the old lines fitted in with the present day railways. I wished there was some sort of interactive map out there that would let you change the date and watch how the railway network changed over time, but I couldn’t find anything like that (the closest thing I found was a “Railway Atlas” book that has a map of the present day network in each area with a map from 1922 on the opposite page). So I decided to make one.

(Actually, I decided to make two: one for Edinburgh and one for Glasgow. The Glasgow one is taking a bit longer due to the more complex network on that side of the country, but I’m hoping to release it soon).

The project fitted in well with some other things I’d been wanting to do as well. I’ve always had an interest in maps and have been collecting the Ordnance Survey 1:50000 series (among others) for most of my life now, so when I discovered that Ordnance Survey now release a lot of their data for free, I was excited at the possibilities. I knew that the OS OpenData would make a good basis for my railway maps. I’d also been wanting to experiment with some of the newer web technologies for a while, and coding the viewer for the maps seemed like a good opportunity to do that.

My (mostly) Ordnance Survey map collection. I don't have a problem. Honest, I don't. I can stop any time I want to.

My (mostly) Ordnance Survey map collection. I don’t have a problem. Honest, I don’t. I can stop any time I want to.

As with a lot of projects, it seemed simple at first but once I actually started work on it, I quickly realised it was going to take longer than I thought. There were two main elements to it:

  1. The data sets. To be able to draw the map, I would need detailed data on all of the railway lines and stations in the Edinburgh and Glasgow areas, past and present, including their names, opening and closing dates, which companies built them, and so on. As far as I knew, this information didn’t even exist in any one single source, and if it did it was sure to be under copyright so I wouldn’t be able to just take it and use it. I was going to have to create the data sets pretty much from scratch.
  2. The viewer. Once I had the data, I needed to make a web page that could display it in the form I wanted. I already had quite a clear idea in my head of what this would look like: it would show the map (of course), which could be scrolled and zoomed just like Google or Bing Maps, and there would also be a slider for changing the date. The lines on the map would be colour coded to show which company they were owned by, or their current status, and special lines like tunnels and freight routes would also be shown differently.

It turned out I also needed to build a third major element as well: an editor for creating the data sets. Previously when I’d drawn maps, I’d either used the Google map maker (which has copyright problems if you want to actually use your creations for anything), or drawn them using Inkscape (which, great though it is, isn’t really designed for making maps in). I didn’t think either of those was going to cut it for this project… I needed something better, something that had all the features I needed, but was free from copyright issues. So I decided to make a map editor first.

Step 1: The Editor

At this point, anyone who’s a software engineer and has had it drummed into them “Don’t re-invent the wheel!” is probably shaking their head in exasperation. “You built your own map editor? Why would you do that? Surely there must be one out there already that you could have used!”. To be honest, I’m sure there was, but I don’t regret my decision to make my own. I had three good reasons for doing it that way:

  1. I would learn a lot more.
  2. I could make an editor that was very well suited to the maps I wanted to make. It would have all the features I needed, but wouldn’t be cluttered with extra ones I didn’t need. And I would know exactly how to use it, and would be able to change it if anything started to annoy me.
  3. It would be fun!

I’d had my eye on the Qt GUI toolkit for a while, wanting to give it a try and see if it was better than the others I’d used in the past. So I downloaded Qt Creator and got building.

Of course, I needed some map data first, so I downloaded one of the Ordnance Survey OpenData products: “OS OpenMap Local”, for grid squares NS and NT. (Ordnance Survey products don’t use the latitude and longitude co-ordinates familiar to users of Google Maps or OpenStreetMap; they have their own “National Grid” system that divides the UK into hundred kilometre squares, and uses numerical co-ordinates within those squares). These came in the form of two enormous (nearly a gigabyte altogether) GML files.

GML stands for “Geography Markup Language”, and is a standard XML grammar used for expressing geographical information. The contents of the OpenMap Local files are actually pretty simple conceptually; there’s just a hell of a lot of them! They mostly consist of great long lists of map elements (which can be areas such as forests or lakes or buildings, linear items like roads or railways, or point locations like railway stations) with names, national grid references, and any other relevant information. I wanted to use this information to display a background map in my map editor, on top of which I could draw out the railway routes for my interactive map.

I knew that parsing several hundred megabytes of XML data was likely to be pretty slow, and I didn’t really want the editor to have to do this every time I started it up, so I wrote a Python script that would trawl through the GML files and extract just the bits I was interested in, saving them in a much more compact file format for the actual editor to read.

Now I was onto the fun part: actually displaying the map data on the screen. Thankfully, Qt’s excellent graphics functionality was a great help here. After writing a quick function to translate OS national grid references to screen co-ordinates, and using it to project the map data onto the screen, I was looking at a crude map of Edinburgh. I spent a while tweaking the details to get it to look the way I wanted it: changing the colours of each type of element, changing the line widths for different types of road, hiding the more minor details when the view was zoomed out (OpenMap Local is very detailed and includes the outline for every single building, so trying to display all of that when you’re zoomed out far enough to see an entire city results in a very cluttered map, not to mention one that displays very slowly!).

Edinburgh, courtesy of Ordnance Survey's OpenData, and my map editor.

Edinburgh, courtesy of Ordnance Survey’s OpenData, and my map editor.

Once I had the background map displaying to my satisfaction, I turned my attention to the actual editing functions and finding a suitable way to store the data for the railway map…

Step 2: The Data

The data model for the interactive map is pretty simple. The three main concepts are: segments (simple sections of track without any junctions), stations (pretty self explanatory I hope) and events. An event is a change in one of the segments’ or stations’ properties at a certain date. For example, the segment that represents Scotland Street Tunnel has an event in 1847 when it came into use (a “change of status” event), another in 1862 when it was taken over by the North British Railway company (a “change of company” event), and another in 1868 when it was abandoned (another “change of status”). When the events are complete and accurate, this gives the viewer all the information it needs to work out how the map should look at any particular date. For a file format, I decided on JSON – it was straightforward, easy to access from both Qt and JavaScript, and easy to inspect and edit by hand for debugging.

Editing the data for Scotland Street Tunnel

Editing the data for Scotland Street Tunnel

I considered storing the data in a database rather than a file and having the viewer page query it in the background to retrieve whatever data it needed. But for this particular application, the data is relatively small (about 150KB for the Edinburgh map), and the viewer needs almost all of it pretty much straight away, so throwing a database into the mix would just have added complexity for no good reason.

Creating the data set was by far the most time-consuming part of the whole process. Every railway line and station, past and present, had to be painstakingly added to the map, and then all of the event dates had to be input. I collated the information from many different sources: present-day railway lines are part of the Ordnance Survey OpenData that I was using for the background map, so it was easy enough to trace over those. However, disused lines are not included, so I had to refer to old maps to see their routes and then draw them onto my map as best I could. For the dates, I referred to several books and websites – “An Illustrated History of Edinburgh’s Railways”, and the corresponding volume for Glasgow, were particularly valuable. Where possible, the event dates are accurate to the nearest day, although the current viewer only cares about the year.

The whole data set for Edinburgh, loaded into the editor

The whole data set for Edinburgh, loaded into the editor

I think I made the right choice in creating my own map editor – if I’d used existing software, it’s doubtful that I would have got the maps done any more quickly. There would have been a learning curve of course, but even after I’d got past that, it’s doubtful that I would have been as productive in a general map editor as I was in my specialised one.

Step 3: The Viewer

The viewer was the final piece of the jigsaw, and although I’d given it some thought, I didn’t properly start work on it until the Edinburgh map data was nearly completed. Unlike for the editor, there was only one real choice of technology for the viewer – if I wanted it to run on a web page and work across virtually all modern devices, it was going to have to be HTML5.

HTML5 extends previous versions of HTML with new elements like the canvas tag, which allows graphics to be rendered in real-time from JavaScript – in days gone by, this required a plug-in such as Flash or Java, but now it can be done in a vanilla browser without anything added. I hadn’t used the canvas before, but a bit of quick experimentation confirmed that it was more than capable of doing everything I needed for my interactive map. I also made use of the JQuery library to simplify operations such as fetching the map data from the web server in the background.

First, I wrote a small library of line drawing routines for all the different sorts of railways: dashed lines for tunnels, crossed lines for freight, and dashed-line-within-solid-line for single track railways (as used on some OS maps). These aren’t supported directly by the canvas, but it only took just over a hundred lines of JavaScript code to add them. Then I was ready to build a map renderer on top.

Different line styles and their uses

Different line styles and their uses

I had a basic version up and running pretty quickly, but it took a lot longer to implement all the features I wanted: background images, scrolling and zooming, the slider for changing the date, clicking on items for more information. Getting the background images lined up perfectly with the lines and stations turned out to be the trickiest part, though it really shouldn’t have been hard. It took me an embarrassingly long time of debugging before I realised I was truncating a scaling factor to two decimal places in one place but not in another, and once that was fixed everything looked fine.

It lives! The finished product

It lives! The finished product

There are still a few things that annoy me about the end product (the mobile browser and touch screen support, especially, could be better), but overall I’m pretty happy with it. It was fun to create and I learned a lot in the process… about the history of the local railways of course; about how geographical data is stored and processed; about programming GUIs with Qt; and about creating interactive graphics using HTML5.


Benefits rant: is cracking down on the “scroungers” really worth this?

So, apparently, a man who was suffering from depression was found “fit for work” in a Work Capability Assessment, and then killed himself. The enquiry into his death identifies the fitness for work verdict as the thing that pushed him over the edge.

As someone who’s suffered a lot from depression myself, this obviously makes me very upset and angry. The welfare system in this country is failing vulnerable people badly, and yet hardly anyone seems to care. This wasn’t the only case that’s resulted in a death that was directly attributable to the system: the case of David Clapson, a diabetic ex-soldier who died after his benefits were stopped, leaving him unable to pay for food or for electricity to keep his insulin refrigerated, has become quite well known. There are many other cases documented online as well, although shamefully very few of them seem to get reported in the mainstream media.

Of course, it would be virtually impossible to run something as large and complex as a whole country without sometimes causing problems for some of your citizens. Any big change, even if it’s clearly for the best overall, will still have adverse consequences for a few people. For example, if the government opens a big new hospital out of town and closes several old ones, some people who lived closer to the old hospitals might die because they can’t get to the new one in time in an emergency situation, even if the superior facilities of the new hospital save more lives overall. Although that would be a tragedy for the individuals and their families concerned, most people would understand that the decision made sense in the bigger picture.

I don’t believe the same thing can be said of the benefit-related deaths, though. These events weren’t random tragedies, or one-in-a-million corner cases that nobody could possibly have predicted. Those deaths were direct consequences of two current welfare policies: firstly, “sanctioning” people on Jobseekers’ Allowance for trivial (and sometimes even non-existent) infractions, leaving them with no income whatsoever; and secondly, forcing people who aren’t in a fit state to work into a system they can’t cope with. If you’re going to take away support from people who don’t have any other support, or bully them into doing things they’re not at all ready for, of course it’s going to end badly. It was obvious to any intelligent person who bothered to think about it what was likely to happen.

But apparently I’m on the wrong side of public opinion here; we’re endlessly told that the welfare cuts are popular and long overdue. It’s true that a lot of people do want the benefit system tightened up to make things harder for “scroungers”, but when you talk to them about it, most of them also want truly vulnerable people to be protected. It’s just a shame that they’re cheering on, and voting for, “reforms” that are hugely damaging to those same vulnerable people they supposedly want to help.

The trouble is, outside of articles in the tabloid press and anecdotes in the pub, there really aren’t that many scroungers and frauds. When you actually look at the statistics of the welfare system (which are by no means perfect, but still the best tool for understanding that we have), they consistently tell the same story: the fraud rate is very low (generally around 0-2%); unemployment benefits don’t cost account for very much of the welfare budget (compared to, for example, old age pensions and housing benefit); most people on Jobseekers’s Allowance are on it for a relatively short time between jobs, rather than living off it for years on end as the Sun and the Mail would have you believe.

So all of the “toughening up” of the benefits system is actually solving a problem that, for the most part, didn’t actually exist in the first place. But in the process, it’s creating much worse problems, like the deaths mentioned above. Of course there will be a few scroungers and cheats claiming benefits. No system is perfect, so it’s never going to be possible to eliminate them entirely. The statistics show that the number of them is already very low, which is probably about the best we can hope for.

But even if you’re determined that even so much as one undeserving scrounger living off the state is an unacceptable travesty, it’s doubtful that making claimants jump through ever more hoops is going to help much. Who do you think is really going to be more inconvenienced by having to pass ever-more stringent checks… someone who’s perfectly capable of working but instead chooses to game the system, or someone who’s genuinely struggling with a mental or physical illness? Who is going to be better able to deal with negotiating the increasingly harrowing system… someone who’s already adept at getting as much money out of it as possible, or someone who’s been pushed close to the edge by events beyond their control and is stressed, exhausted and confused? Making the system even tougher is only going to hurt those who need it the most.

“What would you do different, then?” you might reasonably ask. “At least the government is trying to reform the system. What’s your answer, just keep giving out free money to anyone who wants it?”.

Here’s what I would do differently:

  • Scrap the Work Capability Assessment and have people signed off sick by their own doctor instead. Apparently GPs don’t want this additional workload, but they already manage to sign working people off sick, so I don’t see why passing a sick note to the DWP is so much harder than passing one to an employer. The GP is much more likely to have a full and accurate picture of an individual’s situation, so this would radically cut down on the number of spurious “fit for work” decisions.
  • JSA sanctions should be monitored much more robustly to make sure that they’re fair and reasonable. In addition, only a maximum of 25% of someone’s benefits should ever be removed. This would still be enough to give people an incentive not to get sanctioned, but wouldn’t leave anyone completely destitute. I’m aware that this would lead to people still getting paid benefits even if they refuse to look for work, but frankly I’d much rather have that than risk another David Clapson… and if you disagree, I think you need to have a good long think about it.
  • Publicise the statistics I mentioned above a lot more, and show people that there’s a good side to the welfare safety net. For far too long, the Tories and the tabloids have made out that it’s nothing but a burden, “stealing” money from hardworking people and giving it to the lazy. The facts simply don’t back up that point of view and it needs to be challenged.

I could rant a lot more about this, but that’ll do for the moment.