28 Jul 2013

Exam results

I got my exam results on Friday.

I got 63%, which is a Pass 3. However, with my OCAS being 80%, my module result is a Pass 2, or a 2:1, or a B, depending on how you score such things.


For what it's worth, the exam was an absolute beast. Of the 200+ participants, nobody got a distinction, a scant handful got a pass 2 and the majority were in the pass 3 and 4 categories. So, I am proud that I managed to score relatively highly, and get a pass 2 on the whole module.

My next modules start on October 5th. I've started to buy the set books for the medicine history course. I'm also reading around the subject somewhat. The human biology course has no set books. I have a moderately good knowledge of anatomy already, so we'll see how that goes!

26 Jul 2013

ERMAGERD THERE'S A BAYBE IN YOU?!? - A nation obsessed with pregnancy

In the last WEEK, the following stories have hit the news:

1. The Duchess of Cambridge had a baby, and shockingly looked like all pregnant women do the next day.

2. Katie Price lost her scarf and had her bump photographed for the first time. She be pissed.

3. Holly Valance has tried to block a magazine from publishing photos of her bump, as she wished to announce her pregnancy in her own time.

The press interest is supposed to reflect the nation's, so I assume we are a nation obsessed with celebrity pregnancy, to an often intrusive degree. And yet, we often seem to show a remarkable lack of insight into the biology of it.
Shockingly, women get stretch marks. Even famous ones. They just photoshop them out, the lucky things. Pregnant women don't always glow. They don't always want their bump photographed in loving detail, so the harridans of the Daily Mail can decide if they are TOO BIG or TOO SMALL.

I can't work out if people have failed to learn anything about biology, or whether these celebrities who are pictured looking amazing a few weeks later have brainwashed them into forgetting that birth doesn't happen by magic. One does not simply expelliarmus one's foetus. The uterus, celebrity or not, is a muscle. It expands to accommodate the child and contracts to expel the child. It then, painfully, contracts back to the size of a walnut. But not in 24 hours. OK magazine (who were probably hoping to hit the stands with a timely postnatal piece) publish a frontpage about "Kate's baby weightloss secret" the day after the woman gave birth. Thankfully, the public noticed that this was a bit out of order.
The media interest surrounding young Prince George is hardly surprising, and not altogether unjustified. Unfortunately, it's not quite stretched to including any sort of postnatal realism. I would be shocked to see an opinion piece speculating about lochia. "Has Kate graduated to lochia serosa, or is she still flooding with lochia rubra? Here's a handy colour chart to tell the difference."

The media need to treat famous pregnant and postnatal women with more sympathy, and realism. There should be less pressure to look amazing (though God knows, the Duchess did) immediately after giving birth, lest it filter down to the regular mortals. Without personal trainers, chefs, nannys and opportunities for sleep, the average postnatal woman shouldn't be made to feel guilty if she doesn't *bounce back* within weeks.

14 Jul 2013

What does dyscalculia feel like?

I've mentioned before that I'm dyscalculic. It is something that barely affects me, something I don't really notice because I've never been able to do maths normally, but sometimes is thrown into sharp relief by other people's *normal* perception of numbers and maths.

I can't keep count, out loud or in my head. If I am trying, I'll lose track incredibly quickly. I can't keep track of sequences either, in video games or whatever.
If you asked me to count how many things were on the floor, I can't do it by sight, I have to silently count things out in my head.
I cannot do simple maths. Any calculation I do mentally has to be broken down into the smallest component numbers and added together like that - 8+5 becomes 8+2 is 10. 10+2 is 12. 12+1 is 13. It takes me as long as it took you to read that in your head to calculate. I cannot do division or multiplication in my head, unless it is a multiple of 2, 5 or 10. I have never been able to remember my 7 or 8 times tables, despite being taught them by rote in school. Percentages make sense as long as they are something out of 100. When it starts being (for example) 13 out of 33, I can't do it. Decimals make no sense at all.
I cannot 'total up' shopping in my head in a supermarket, or other shop. I will sometimes think I've been overcharged or short changed, when I haven't, simply because I can't work out mentally how much I *should* have spent. This can also lead to me spending FAR too much money in shops, and is one of the reasons I shop online, where I can see EXACTLY how much I'm spending.
It takes me forever to work out how old someone is from their birthdate. When I worked in the NHS,  every January, I would memorise the age someone should be from the year they were born, so I didn't have to work it out every time.
I can't tell my left from my right. At all. I have a huge, hooked scar on my right arm which gives me a visual cue, but I still can't remember. My boyfriend laughs because he'll ask me at a junction whether we're going left or right and I have to look at my arm to tell. I now just point. It's easier.
I have rubbish depth perception, which makes judging distance difficult by sight anyway, but I have no real concept of how far a mile, a kilometer, a yard actually is. I can tell you one centimetre, but not six. If I am navigating a journey (I don't drive, and with the problems I have with my vision plus number related problems, that's probably a good thing), I navigate by landmarks and places, rather than road numbers and junctions. This has been known to make people incredibly frustrated. God forbid you ever ask me directions in the street - you'll never find where you want to be! I also can't read maps very well, and have to turn them to my orientation to get a sense of where I am.

But I'm not stupid. As far as my literacy goes, I'm way above average (ahem). It's almost as though my arithmetical brain stopped developing and concentrated on my literate brain. I'm sure it's more complex than that. I can do algebra (with a calculator) because I see it as a letter puzzle, rather than numerical. It is logical, in a way that regular maths is not. I've never considered that I have a learning difficulty - though some of my teachers have done - because I have no problems learning anything else. At school, I struggled with chemistry and physics, because of the need for maths in working out formulae, and I do worry that when I begin studying anatomy in October, this will become a problem. But I will cross that bridge when I come to it!
Some of the problems associated with dyscalculia in young children remind me very much of myself as a small child, and of my eldest son as he is now. He's barely grasped numbers yet, and may be the complete opposite to me (his father is borderline dyslexic, with an excellent grasp of numbers). We shall see!

13 Jul 2013

Benefits and Public Perception

The other night, BBC1 showed a programme called "We All Pay Your Benefits". I didn't see it, but from what I gather, the attitude of some of the claimants infuriated people across the internet.
Public perception of benefits is quite some way from the truth of it. Most people claim a benefit at some point in their lives. However, it is apparent that there are 'good' benefits, and 'bad benefits'.

Good benefits include child benefit, maternity allowance, state pensions, winter fuel allowance, and tax credits. Most people are unaware that state pensions are classed as a benefit - the idea behind them being that your national insurance contribution pays for your pension at the end. Alas, this is not so. Considering your NI contributions also pay for your NHS and several other benefits you might have to claim one day, state pensions are heavily subsidised by the government and thus included in benefit statistics. Approximately half of all benefit expenditure is on state pensions. Bear that in mind next time you see a shocking "£X amount spent on benefits this year" statistic.
Child benefit is now means tested. It's means tested in a completely unfair way - in a household where one resident parent earning more than £50k p.a, no child benefit will be paid. If both resident parents earn £49k p.a each, they'll still get it. People who earn more than £50k may still opt to receive it, and be taxed on it, in order for it to count as national insurance cotributions. Many parents in lower income brackets are entitled to claim tax credits, at varying rates depending on amount of children, and income.
Maternity allowance is paid if you don't qualify for statutory maternity pay because you've had interrupted employment. It's based on your NI contribution for the year before. It is virtually the same as SMP, but classed as a benefit rather than an employment right.
Winter fuel allowance has been in the news recently because they are talking about means testing it. Some old people freeze to death because they're terrified of their heating bill. Some old people, rolling in cash, claim it anyway because they can. Plans to stop people living in hot countries claiming have also been put forward, with mixed reception.

 So, that's your good, socially acceptable benefits. These are considered a 'right' and any attempt to change them is seen as compromising that right.

Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payment are viewed with some suspicion, not helped by ATOS and their tyrannical screening process. ATOS have declared people who can't walk 'able to manage stairs' without ever asking them to do so, cleared the terminally ill for work and generally are making a total hash of things. People who have to attend such interviews are terrified of doing so. The concept of the man with a "bad back" who hasn't worked for 28 years, when you see him doing his garden every weekend is endemic. ATOS is not helping this. 

Now, the bad benefits. These are mostly based on household income. Income support, jobseekers allowance, housing benefit, council tax benefit, council housing, and employment support allowance.
Income support is highly frowned upon. It is a pitifully small amount of money - £71 a week at present - with which you're expected to feed and clothe yourself, top up housing payments if necessary, and pay utilities. However, the screening process is incredibly strict and few people qualify - it is only for people who are pregnant, a lone parent of a child under 5, a carer or unable to work through disability or sickness. This means the majority of people on income support are likely to be women, going from lone parent and carer statistics - women who are either pregnant, parenting pre-schoolers alone, or caring. You have to go to the jobcentre every six months, to talk about what might happen if you go back to work. It is a box ticking exercise.
JSA is for people looking for work. There are two types - contribution based is linked to NI payments. Income based is linked to household income. This is the bad benefit people usually end up on at some point in their working lives. You have to go to the jobcentre every two weeks to sign on, fulfil the tasks assigned for claiming (applying for jobs, going to interviews) and woe betide you if you don't turn up, or haven't done enough work. You get sanctioned, you lose your benefit for two weeks and you're done. I have heard grown men weeping in the jobcentre because they've been sanctioned and can't feed their children for two weeks. It's their own 'fault', but being on JSA essentially enslaves you to a routine of interviews, application and failure until you get a job, however shitty. If you're under 25, you get £56.80 a week. How can anyone live on that? If you're over 25, you get the same as income support.
ESA is what you get if you're too sick to work, but don't qualify for DLA or income support. Once you are on ESA, you are drafted into a similar programme to JSA, of interviews and work programmes. 
Then there are the housing-based benefits. To get a council house, you have to be on a low income, to be unintentionally homeless (i.e. evicted, rather than leaving of your own free will) and to have a dependent child. The waiting list is long, the housing available usually limited, limited further now by bedroom tax. Housing benefit is for people who rent, to pay their landlord. In some cases, the money goes direct to the landlord. It varies in amount by council and by how big your housing need is - I have a three bedroom house, but I only get housing benefit for a two bedroom house as that is all I need. Council tax benefit was originally 100% for people on income support, but now everyone has to pay at least some of it. It is linked to housing benefit, but you can claim one and not the other.

I do not understand why some benefits are perceived as being good and acceptable, where some do not. The ones that are unacceptable are the ones related to living in poverty. If poverty is unacceptable; GOOD, so it should be. But being poor does not make a person inferior. It does not make them a moral outcast. It does not make them a workshy loser, a fraud or a whore. I've mentioned before that I went from home owning, financially solvent, working mother to unemployed benefit claimant literally overnight. We should be pleased that we have a safety net in this country, even though it fails many people - most often single men, and families who live on the very borderline of poverty. People working in the lower tiers of employment  - manual and unskilled - don't get the same working benefits as those in higher tiers. No pension schemes, no additional sick pay, no death in service benefit, so the slightest accident or setback can lead to serious financial problems. Far more investment in infrastructure, in education, and in working opportunities needs to be done before the "Problem of Benefits" can just be made to disappear. The government could start by introducing a living wage, so income top-ups weren't necessary....but that is for another post methinks...

4 Jul 2013


I like having a goal, and I like to learn. The reason I started my degree is so I wouldn't be aimless and miserable, waiting for my children to bugger off to school so I could get a new job (as well as needing a degree to get into the work I want to do). For the first time in nearly 18 months, I have no uni work, no TMA or exam date looming. My two modules don't start until 5th October. This is AGES away. I mean, it will fly by, especially once my eldest starts school after summer, but currently, I am BORED.

So, I've signed up to about twelve OpenLearn courses. OpenLearn provides a unit or so of an actual OU module for free, for you to work through at your leisure - either to get an idea of what kind of modules you want to sign up for, or just for something to do. These are good, but not particularly engaging. There's no real interaction with others, and I don't get the sense that I'm learning when I do them. Maybe that's because I'm comparing it to regular OU study, I don't know.

I read about Coursera in a magazine, probably the Radio Times, but I can't remember. The founder was interviewed about her vision for free education. I checked out Coursera and discovered an array of free courses, that run at different times. You can pay for accreditation on some courses (Signature Track), and get formal university recognition, but the majority of courses are totally free. Most available courses run between 6 and 12 weeks. All courses run from universities, and are written and led by professors within them. There are courses on all manner of things: law, healthcare, epidemiology, food science, architecture, anatomy,  media, computing, maths, music and history all have courses starting soon.

I immediately signed up for a six week course on mental health in society, which began on 24th June. I started this on 1st July, which gave me two days to catch up on the first week and send my first assignment in.
Each week of my course has a two hour lecture, broken up into chunks. The lectures are a combination of video, slideshows and audio. Additional reading is provided free of charge. There is a small assignment every week or two, with a TINY wordcount - max 500 words for an essay I'd norrmally write 1200 for - and assignments are peer-marked. I haven't had a go at peer marking yet, but the guidelines look fairly simple. There are myriad forums to discuss content on, and due to the diversity of students, discuss national differences in mental health care.The tutor for this particular course is engaging and passionate about her subject, and easy to understand. I run the lectures with the subtitles on, as I often have hideous amounts of background noise to contend with, and the subtitles are not always correct. As it's a free course, I don't mind, and frequently OU transcripts are not as accurate as they could be. In any case, transcripts of the lecture and copies of the slides are separately available for reference.

I think Coursera is a brilliantly executed idea. It does not care who you are, what previous experience you have, where you live, runs courses in numerous different languages and is truly egalitarian. The actual content seems (based on my limited experience) to be good quality and well presented. It is much better quality than some higher education paid-for services (DCA Home Learning springs to mind). As it's so accessible, persuading friends to start the same courses so you have a study partner shouldn't be too difficult - I managed it!
If you want something to do in your spare time, find learning addictive or want to have a go at university level work, this is the site for you. It's going to keep me busy this summer- once I've done this course, I'm starting a second on social psychology. Enjoy!