Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Seasons Beatings

It's 6:30pm on Christmas Day and I'm writing a blog. And I'm beat. Bushed. Knackered. Jaded. Worn out. I've spent most of the afternoon asleep and could easily rinse and repeat until the morning and beyond. Today is probably the first day I've switched off in 6 months, and I've crashed.

I think I've worked harder in the last 4 months than I have in the previous 4 years - and I wouldn't have swapped any of it for the world. It started at the end of May with my request for redundancy being accepted. I'd spent most of the last 15 years working with people I loved (with one notable exception that I'd still like to punch repeatedly in the face) for a company that I was initially proud of but grew to become tired of the pettiness, bureaucracy and frustration. By the time I left in July I'd developed a dislike that nobody should ever feel about their workplace. I took some time off and then threw myself into working out just what it was I wanted to do when I grew up. It took me a while and some cajoling to get the information out of me, but we got there. I still haven't grown up and have no intention of every doing so, but I at least know what I want to do. I've set up a brand new Slimming World group and made some fantastic friends in a village I'd only been to a handful of times in my life. I've taken on my Slimming World group and kept it together and thanks to the support of some amazing people I start work in the new year at the school I've been volunteering at for the last month and a bit. Throw in the small matter of a 40th birthday for myself and Mrs S and 2013 has been a bit of a year.

But right now I'm tired. The great thing is that despite the odd wobble at the enormity of everything that's happened lately is that I'm mentally intact. I've gone through some of the largest changes of my life without a breakdown with just the company of my (relatively low level) antidepressants to get me by. So actually I'm happy. Very happy. I've decided that between now and Sunday the only thing that I'm going to be doing is kick back and relax. School starts back in January, all my leaflets are with goodly folks to deliver ahead of the first week in 2014 and I can spend the next 3 days with the effervescent Mrs Spong being the sort of company she wanted when we got married 13+ years ago. We need to put some posters up, but having done as many as we did back in September that really is going to be child's play.

I've rambled on for a couple of hundred words and I'm not sure there's a point to this post so I'll keep it short except to say thank you. Thank you to everyone from my dysfunctional Internet family who I'd not be without to the boys in the 'Hood and to my drinking chums (mainly) in the OG through to my amazing Slimming World colleagues and friends, to friends of the past some of whom are very much friends and colleagues of the present and future and to the wonderful people at the school who took this bumbling child-averse fool in and looked after him. But finally to Vic, without whom I really couldn't have done any of this. She's not bad you know. She can stay on another week.

I'll leave you with a quote from the great Lao Tzu. It took me nearly 40 years to find my place in the world, but it was only when I took his words on board that things really started moving.

"If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading."

You see, sometimes from Anarchy does come a little bit of Zen. Sometimes you just have to believe in yourself.

Have a very happy and safe Christmas and who knows, I might even find time to update this ramshackle collection of bunkum a bit more often in 2014.

Until next time,


Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Penny Drops

Why am I such a doofus?

Actually that's quite an aggressive introductory line when I've not been about for so long. Let's start again.

Greetings friends! It's been so long since I posted you must have thought I'd forgotten how to post. Apologies for all that. I trust you're all well.

Now why am I such a doofus?

Actually we'll come back to that in a minute. I think I need to bring you all up to speed on the last 4 months since I last posted. Things have changed somewhat in my life.

In May my employer decided that not content with making a squillion pounds every second decided to offer voluntary redundancy. At the age of 39 and having never been unemployed (well technically I was for a fortnight when I left college but the job centre was shut with a collapsing ceiling which was the only time I was meant to sign on) I decided that I'd got fed up of the corporate life and concentrating on not doing stuff to step out and do something positive. I'd had a career of sorts but aside from occasional glimpses of excitement, it hadn't made me happy so it would be a good time to reassess things.

So I took my pot of money and banked it. Then it occurred to me; my experience might be a bit specialist, I might struggle to find something and at 39 I still didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Now one thing big corporate did for me is provide me with the services of an outplacement consultant. I have never experienced one of these things before but it's a bit like going to a job centre every couple of weeks but without the warmth. Actually that's harsh. My consultant is extremely good, but I think she doesn't suffer fools gladly... which obviously presents something of a problem when dealing with me. The first 2 or 3 sessions have been extremely bruising, but it has been useful. I've got a good idea of the sort of things I want to be doing and it appears that the last 20 years of my life have been less than ideal for me work wise. This may explain extended periods of unhappiness and depression. Certainly leaving big corporate has helped me mentally as I don't have to deal with piles of "we do this because we always do this" circular arguments and the pettiness and bureaucracy and politics. It should be noted at this point that my previous comments about "making a good vicar if I did religion" were proved to be correct - "religious worker" was mentioned near the top of the list of suggested job roles alongside counsellor, social worker, etc etc. IT Project Manager possibly couldn't have been further down the list. Benefits of hindsight and all that eh?

Anyway I'm sort of digressing and this post will all come together like a series of 24, although without the catchy ringtones and hours of wondering if the stupid daughter of the lead character is capable of functioning on a day-to-day basis without some incredible peril crossing her path.

So I'm armed with some money and the one thing I've considered for a while is becoming a consultant for a well known Slimming organisation, you know, the one that I've done fairly well at. I pass the interview, the credit checks, don't embarrass myself on the training, put in some effort on the advertising and opened 2 weeks ago to a massive room full of people. And while I thought I'd enjoy it, I didn't really think I'd enjoy it as much as I am. I know there will be dark times when things don't go well for people but it's great to be in such a positive environment. Nothing about this organisation is remotely negative and I'll be honest it's fantastic.

Right, back to this week. It's my regular visit to my outplacement consultant and we have a conversation about me enjoying Slimming World and how much I enjoy helping people but it won't pay all the bills and I need a day job as well. What follows is pretty much the way most of our conversations go:

"So what sort of job are you thinking of?"
"Well I don't know. I've done the preferred work style survey which suggests that I like helping and coaching people, and I love doing my Slimming World. What I want is a job that is maybe 9-3 for 4 days a week which means I can fit in SW and get all my admin done on a Friday leaving the weekends free for me and Mrs S."

I have to admit I was being slightly facetious at wanting a job with so few hours, but you can see where this is going can't you? There isn't going to be a Hitchcockian Twist here.

Now if you don't know what the word "belm" means, it might be worth looking it up and doing a Google image search. Back in the 1980s there was a chap who featured on Blue Peter called Joey Deacon. I'll not go into the whole story of Joey Deacon as it's quite nicely explained here but this is where the "belm" comes from, with kids up and down the country pushing their tongues under their bottom lips and making what can best be described as Deaconesque noises. Kids can be horrible.

Anyway I think if she could have done, she would have belmed at me at this point.

"What sort of organisation might offer 9-3 hours where you can coach and help people develop then?"
*slow nods*
"A school?"

I'll be honest, with her having had access to all my surveys and stuff, she had made the connection before I did. Which is embarrassing as 20-odd years ago when I was a young (never little) Spong I'd done some "what do you want to be when you grow up?" stuff and it had suggested very strongly that I go into teaching. At the time I was into IT so looked up IT teacher training only to find that it was still in its infancy and there weren't many course and those that were were fully subscribed. I went into corporate IT and have never looked back until now.

Schools then. Places full of learning and bright minds and where you can help and influence people. Who'd have thought it? Well clearly I should have.

What followed was 20 minutes of us looking about the Internet realising that if I can get in, I could become a pretty damned good teaching assistant. I don't have the qualifications to become a teacher and I'm certainly not going to pretend that I could find a way to fast track into it, so that's out certainly in the short term. But teaching assistant is something that I could do, and I could get qualifications in while working at it. It's also more of a career now with various levels of teaching assistant. Back when I was at school it appeared to be housewives coming in one afternoon a week to have kids read to them.

So I can now honestly answer what I want to be when I grow up. A teaching assistant and Slimming World consultant. I've put some feelers out and had some great information back from some friends "in the business" and I'm going to go for it. No idea if we can get there, but we're going to have a bloody good try. Will keep you posted.

Anyway as you were. I just thought you should know. Oh and to apologise to my outplacement consultant who probably has splinters in her forehead from banging it off the desk for the last few weeks.

Until next time,


Saturday, 11 May 2013

Bonehead on Board

Been a bit of a heavy week in Spong Towers this week what with previous revelations, so I thought I'd lighten up your weekend with a brief post about something (else) that gets my goat. I'll start with a video clip - you don't need to go the whole way through it (although you could, it's very good) but certainly you'll need to watch the first 3 and a 1/2 minutes. It's a stand-up routine featuring Irish comedian and Fungus the Bogeyman stunt double Dara O'Briain.

That's right, put the clip together with the post title and you can have a guess what I want to put in the metaphorical sack. People with stupid signs in the back of their cars.

Now from what I've read over the years, these things are there so that in the unfortunate event of a car accident, rescuers know that there's a child in the vehicle and can effect a rescue. Which is great, really it is - except for two, teeny weeny little problems with that.

1) They have been turned into a statement of the driver's individuality.
2) People don't take them out of the car when they DON'T have a child in the car.

Admittedly I've taken a bit of a flyer on 2), but given the number of cars I see with just a driver and nobody else in, I feel I'm on fairly safe ground here.

I'll give you a couple of examples I've seen recently.

Princess on Board
That's right, a massive pink sign stuck to the back windscreen that bounces up and down OBSCURING the vision of the driver leading to a greater likelihood of an accident. Get in the sack.

Mummy-to-Be on Board
Oh please. In the even of a crash, we need to mobilise the rescue parties to find the child that's already probably better protected than it's ever going to be at any point in the future. Get in the sack.

Grandparents on Board
Well that would explain why you're driving at 20mph on a dual carriageway clogging up the road and causing people to get angry and cause accidents trying to get round you. Get in the sack!

Appreciate I'm banging on a bit and that I'm already preaching to intelligent forward thinking people (hey, look at some of the company you keep - you MUST be alright) but is there anything more pointless than a sign designed to warn people to look out for something that 87%* of the time probably isn't even there?

I'll leave it at that for today because it's the weekend and it's a time for drinking beer and driving to places with signs advising people to look for things that aren't in our cars, but next time you see someone with one of these bobbing on their back windscreen, I'm sure you'll be looking for a sack and a big stick.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend,


* Figures provided by the Office of Made-Up Statistics (OMUS).

Thursday, 9 May 2013

How Do You Eat Yours?

Yesterday I wrote what I considered to be a deeply personal and very emotional blog concerning my battles with mental health. The response has been nothing short of staggering and for that I'd like to thank you all.

Having pondered some of life's deep and meaningfuls on my blog, I thought I'd turn attention today to something every bit as important and probably as controversial to a huge proportion of British people - what should be on the plate of your common or garden full cooked breakfast? I've used the word "cooked" as opposed to "English" so that a) we don't upset our Scottish, Irish and Welsh cousins who are all partial to similar delicacies, albeit with regional variations and b) we don't confuse anybody of European stock who believes that two pieces of melon and a sliced of boiled ham are classed as a petit dejeuner (as they say in Kent) fit for a queen (which indeed we have, and they don't).

I'll begin by apologising to vegetarians in advance. I know you can get "not bacon" and "not sausage" but I am by no means an expert on non-carnivorous breakfasting. To that end, I am going to sidestep your particular choice of cooked morning meal and stick purely to those of us that like some mushed up lumps of Ermintrude the Cow and Babe the Sheep Pig when breaking our fast. Feel free to comment though and let me know how you enjoy a breakfasting blowout; I'd be interested to hear.

Now for me, cooked breakfast has a number of staple components with a number of bolt-on options. I'll indicate what I think SHOULD be on your plate if you're doing it properly, but I'll also include a couple of things you may not always consider.

For me there are 4 staples of a fry-up (I use the term "fry" generically and as a responsible Slimming Worlder should point out you can grill most things, and that you can also use low calorie sprays to achieve the desired results.) Those 4 things are sausages, bacon, eggs, and bread (look at him giving a hoot about an Oxford comma!)

My view is there should be 2 of these and they should be of decent quality. I usually grill mine to avoid the spitty fat thing off the frying pan and I buy all of mine from Gamble and Hollis in Syston because not only are they tasty, but they are also SW friendly (yes, really - people come from the other side of Leicester for a mouthful of Mr Gamble's pork.) What you don't want is those slightly pinky, slightly unpleasant, packed with eyelids and testicles sort that you can get for 49 pence from well-known tax-dodging hypermarkets.

I have heard anecdotes of people eating bacon to cure the lame (not lame pig, obviously) heal the sick and bring back sight to the blind. Actually that's a lie, but I have heard countless tales of vegetarians returning to omnivorousness (yes that really is a word) because of the delicious scent of bacon cooking. Now I'd not suggest any of you young and attractive ladies dab a bit of Danish fat behind your ears of an evening, but for me there is rarely a smell so fine as that of a gently cooking rasher of pork.

So, bacon then. I think your bacon needs to be thick enough that it can withstand a bit of heat and turn a bit crispy at the edges, but it shouldn't be so thin that it turns brittle. That's just not cricket. You should also stick to back bacon which has more meat and less fat and save your streaky for the Christmas turkey. I'm also going to sound the contentious comment klaxon early doors as well:

*your bacon should be smoked*

Yes that's right. For me it should be smoked so that you get a different sense of flavour in your to that of your sausage. That and also because I like smoked bacon. Number of rashers? Probably 2, but I fully understand that people like bacon, so anything in single figures is probably acceptable (I kid, I would never go above 3 under normal circumstances.)

How do you like your eggs love? Unfertilised! It's an old joke but trust me in this instance it helps. The problem with eggs is their sheer versatility, so what to do with them? Well I'll tell you.

You fry them. You fry them, but leave the yolks runny. Nothing else should be considered acceptable. I know a lot of people think "well yes, but scrambled is better for you" and to some extent it is, but if you're already eating large quantities of processed pork products, then frying your eggs isn't really that much of an issue; and let's be honest, who doesn't like an egg yolk exploding all over their plate? You don't get that with scrambled. Oh and "yolks" plural? Yes. There should always be two of them. One egg clearly isn't enough and more than two is what the French *call an oeuf-erload. *don't call ever

Anybody suggesting poached eggs will be taken outside and shot for crimes against proper breakfasts.

Bread in a fry-up is more tricky a subject than you think. I'm sure a lot of people are reading this and already thinking "toast”, but some people may like brown bread, some white bread, some granary bread. Our Celtic cousins may talk about the phenomenon that is the soda furl, and then there are those types that like bread and butter to mop up their runny egg with and some who like a nice fried slice. Allow me to set the record straight - you should have stopped at toast. Simple as that. None of your organically granary multiseeded batch loaf fried in oil pressed from the finest olives grown in the Italian hills. Good old-fashioned, toast. Preferably white (although I am partial to a nice granary loaf), definitely thick (none of your generic non-tax paying hypermarket thin sliced and tasteless here) and definitely painted with a generous helping of butter. Your airy-fairy sunflower spreads don't cut the mustard on this king of breakfasts, I can tell you. If you must have a fried slice then one professional tip from me is it HAS to be white bread. Brown or wholemeal bread when fried has a consistency and texture akin to parquet flooring.

So those are your four "must haves". What follows are all probably optional based on your personal preferences, but I do think you need to have at least a couple of them to make your breakfast "full".

Do you know about Boolean logic? AND and OR and NOT and NOR and NAND and all that? You don't? Well that's okay but it sort of explains a point I'm about to make on mushrooms. In my nearly 40 years of time on this planet, I have yet to encounter anyone who doesn't like mushrooms AND doesn't like sweetcorn. I've met people that like one. I've met people who like the other. I know an awful lot of people that like both. But not one single person have I encountered that doesn't like either of them. No idea what that says about people, but it probably says something really philosophically important. Or that sweetcorn and mushroom divide opinion.

Anyway, I LIKE mushrooms. Always have done, since I was a young (never small) kid. So mushrooms go on my plate as a matter of course. Lots of them, nicely fried, probably not in butter but maybe a touch of oil (although mushrooms have a better suck rate than most Dyson vacuums so you have to be a bit of careful) to stop them sticking and burning. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. I'll eat them all day long and still want more. As the advertising campaign once said "make room for the mushrooms". You know it makes sense.

Summat Moist
The definition of "Summat Moist" comes from a Peter Kay gag back from when he was funny; the premise was that someone went into a chip shop to find that they had no gravy or peas or beans or curry sauce, the punchline being "has tha nowt moist?"  I actually think Summat Moist in its generic form is an essential but it's the flexibility of moist that puts it down here for me. Summat Moist falls into 3 basic categories:

Baked Beans
Little orange orbs of awesome. Nothing further needs to be said.


Now your tomato is a tricky one because that comes in two basic forms, your grilled, or your tinned. For me a grilled tomato needs to be soft on the top, soft on the bottom, collapse when you cut it and molten in the middle. The problem is that unless you're cooking it yourself what you tend to get is raw on the bottom, black on the top and cold in the middle. Which is why a lot of people tend to prefer your tinned tomatoes. I always used to prefer tinned tomatoes, but over recent years I've felt more comfortable with the baked bean on my plate. No idea why, and I certainly don't have a problem with eating a tomato that looks like John Merrick of The Elephant Man, but I just prefer my beans. I'd happily have a well grilled tomato as well, but if I'm not cooking it then I'll opt for just beans because of the aforementioned problems cooking them. On a personal level I also try and avoid tinned tomatoes with beans because I don't want my tomato juice and tomato sauce to mix on my plate and resemble a toxic spill.

I'll touch on a fourth here as I have been subjected to spaghetti hoops for breakfast before now; needless to say that it should be some years (if ever) before they recover the body of said server of hoops.

Black Pudding
That's right. This one for me is an essential although I appreciate congealed pig's blood and lumps of fat isn't for everybody. There's something about a nicely cooked, slightly crumbly piece of black pudding that just lends itself to the cooked breakfast and provides a nice gateway between the solid texture of the toast and sausage to the not at all solid texture of the eggs and tomato innards. A lot of people are put off eating it because of what it is, but if you can suspend your judgement and actually eat some decent black pudding that has been properly prepared, you might just be surprised. There is of course also white pudding, but we'll save that whole discussion for another day.

Now you're being silly, but for completeness I'll include potato which invariably comes in the form of a hash brown. Potato scones are acceptable and I will eat a lot of those given the opportunity, but generally potatoes are what you should be having for your dinner, not your breakfast.

So there you have it, your ideal cooked breakfast should consist of:

2 sausages
2-3 bacon
2 eggs
Summat Moist

and for me:

black pudding
grilled tomato (if my Summat Moist is baked beans)

If you're considering putting anything else on your plate, stop for a minute and think these simple thoughts:

"What would Spong do?"

And that will set you back on the road to breakfasting salvation.

Until next time,


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Tale of the Disappearing Spong

I know. I've not been around for a while. One of those blogs that never gets more than a few posts in? Well sort of, but not really in this instance.

Those of you that know me will know I've been a bit evasive lately, a bit "here one minute, gone the next", I've left Twitter, I've left Facebook (but had to come back yesterday to contact/apologise to some dear friends who I had to let down due to unforeseen circumstances at the last minute) and generally I've been about as reliable as public transport, iceberg proof ships and erm my car. I don't like letting people down and I generally will move heaven and earth to make sure I don't (and as a non-believer you can imagine shifting heaven takes a lot of doing!)

A few people have sent me texts because over the last 6 or so months I've been what can best be described as "flaky". I think it's time I elaborated. Please, this is just a "read and inwardly digest", it's not a "I need help" (that bit is on the way) or me digging for sympathy or wanting pats on the back, it's just for information. No need to reply at all. The below is a tidied up version of what I sent to those people enquiring after me.

So here's the craic.

Apparently the maximum recommended dose of paroxetine is 50mg. I was on 50mg at 26 stone, big dose. And apparently you should be on antidepressants for a year max for first bout and two years for subsequent bouts. I've been on them for most of the last 18 years save for a few months when I was trying out other things.

So 50mg at 26 stone.

Roll forward. I’ve lost 9 stone in weight. I’m now on 50mg at 17 stone. Suddenly from 1mg per 7lbs I'm 1mg per 4lbs. Not going to get all mathematical on you but that's a lot stronger. I'm getting major major side effects from such a high dose; myself and Mrs S counted 9 of them against the list of recognised ones as well as a few other things that aren’t listed as side effects but could quite possibly be.

Ring GP, get his stand in. He's not comfortable about me being at 50mg and thinks at any weight 50mg is generally too high - bear (grrr!) in mind that this is an old antidepressant and there are a lot of new ones that are more tolerated. So he proposes a phased reduction to 30mg. I do it and it all seems reasonable, except because it has such a short half life, I'm suddenly going from side effects to serious withdrawal. I'm going (pardon the vernacular) absolutely mental.

I've not been thinking about suicide, but to quote from an ace mate of mine "I was thinking about, thinking about suicide" - if that makes sense. I've gone from seriously low, to manic, to emotionless. I've had dizzy spells, I get "shocks" both mentally in the head and physically in the body - I was curled up next to Mrs S the other night and was apparently jolting periodically (not like that). There’s other stuff, but there is apparently a thing as too much information (not that I’ve ever suffered from that you understand.)

A mate of mine is a mental health nurse and via text we talked and came to the conclusion that its worth me bring referred to the local mental health unit for a "start from scratch" assessment. The plan is to have a fresh pair of eyes determine what is actually wrong with me, how best to treat it and most importantly how to get me off these tablets. It's a specialist unit that has nurses, shrinks, ologists, and a whole host of other medical head types. So the idea is to get in there and try and fix me - whether that's get me off tablets, change tablets or what I don't know. We'll see.

For now GP has suggested up to 40mg but to be honest I've got down to 30mg albeit with problems and I'm not sure I want to go back up. I'll see how it is in the morning.

So that's where we are.

I’ll leave it at that because that’s where I left it in explaining it to people and I think it sums things up nicely. As I said earlier I’m not looking for sympathy or pats on the back, I’d just like the 114 of you left on my Facebook account (there were 25 more of you on there yesterday but I decided I had to cut back on people that I don’t really interact with on there) and those of you that are picking this up via other avenues to carry on being as fabulous as you are.

Thank you,


Saturday, 23 March 2013

Charity Begins at Checkout

I guess some people will read this blog and think I'm a bit of a misery. I'm not. Really. The problem seems to be that I drift through life with a cheery smile and a happy-go-lucky wave at people and never an ill thought passes my mind. Then something happens, I get all irked and feel the need to shout about it. I have a blog where I shout and about 2 1/2 people listen so I tend to write it down here. So apologies in advance if you feel like coming here is like voluntarily stepping under a black cloud, my life really isn't like that.

In case you haven't twigged from the title of today's post, I've got a problem with charities. Not charity in the generic sense of the word but with charities in the practical sense of the word. Those of you know me well know that I do like to do my bit for charity; the last couple of years I've dressed up as a daffodil to collect money for a well known cancer charity and going further back into my youth I've been involved in everything from casino nights for scout groups to driving a minibus for 24 hours so people could go up and down mountains and collect hundreds of pounds for charity. I *get* charity. The rules of charity collecting are fairly straightforward. You don't approach anybody, you don't shake your tin, you do say thank you and you do smile at people if they come up to you. It's not rocket science.

Where my problem lies in what I'm going to refer to as charity selling. Not the people like me who dress up as daffodils and hold a tin without attracting attention to themselves (as much as a 6 foot 1 inch daffodil can be inconspicuous that is) but the people that actually (for want of a better word and because it's a word I like it) try and HARANGUE you into signing up for a direct debit plan.

Now we'll save the blight of the town centre "chugger" for another time, but you will not be surprised to hear that the delightful Mrs Spong has deliberately avoided town centres before now because she knows that an immovable object that is the chugger who is going to try and push people into signing up for a charity will attempt to engage with the unstoppable force that is Spong and that Spong will win. That Spong will win is a given, but it's how much collateral damage during the inevitable argument preceding Spong successfully defending his Bletherweight Championship of the World that Mrs S is keen to avoid. And as she's seen me get irked before now, you can understand her. I certainly can, and I'm on my side.

So it's not the chugger that I'm bothering with today. It's the post-checkout supermarket chugger that is the target of my ire today. The one that stands by the exit to the supermarket and says "would you like to support <insert charity name of your choice here> today, sir?" Now this is where I'm irked. First of all, unless the charity name of your choice is "set fire to gay people before they burn in a homosexual pit of their own creation" or "buy alarm clocks for Muslim extremists to attach to explosives in their coat pockets", then the question is a moot point. 99% of charities that are doing this kind of thing you'd generally be happy to support. The last 2 I saw were Guide Dogs for the Blind and the local Air Ambulance, both I'm sure you'll agree are worthy charities. The problem here is that the question they are asking isn't the whole story, what they are really asking is:

"Would you like to give us your contact details, sign up for a direct debit which will be a sod to cancel and if you do we'll phone you up and tell you all about how many blind dogs need air ambulances to try and guilt trip you into keeping your direct debit on and if you don't we'll probably ring you up and ask you to increase your direct debit in 6 months time because the cost of life jackets for air sea rescue guide dogs has risen 27% in the last 15 minutes?" I exaggerate for comedy purposes, but I'm right. I know this because I've seen it happen to people. So how do you deal with it in a way that means you don't look like someone who kicks guide dogs or flashes laser pointers at air ambulance pilots? I've tried several methods and the results as you'd expect vary significantly:

i) "I can't afford a direct debit, but if you had a collecting tin I'd put some money in." This is probably the best of all options. You would donate, you're not prepared to commit to a regular amount and they aren't allowed to collect money.

ii) "No." This makes you look like the man who kicks guides dogs or flashes laser pointers. I've done this before now and I'll tell you, you don't half feel bad even though you've done nothing wrong.

iii) "No, and I object to being approached in this manner for money." Done this one. It really upsets them. I know they are only doing a job, but by the same token it's about trying to extract money from people, quite often who might be at a vulnerable moment with a screaming child or two in tow (or in Mrs Spong's case, an ornery husband) and it really isn't cricket. I have even had "I don't think there's any need for that" bellowed at me by them because I've offended them, which not only isn't going to get me to reconsider, but is also going to guarantee that I'll not be supporting that charity any time soon.

The problem that these people seem to not get is I haven't asked to interact with them in any way. I haven't approached them and said "Hey, I might be interested in making a regular donation to your charity" seen the terms they are offering or discovered that as well as training guide dogs they make the ones that don't make the grade into kebabs and think "I'll not be going down that route" and been offensive. You've tried to make a bit of a hard sell at me and come unstuck. If you don't want me to say no, don't ask me! Just keep your head down at the exit to the supermarket and people will approach you if they are interested in your work. Well I would, but then I'm quite proactive like that.

I'll leave it there as I need to go and find some batteries for my laser pointer.

Until next time,


Thursday, 14 March 2013

Lies, Damned Lies and Made-Up Statistics

Strange blog today this one. You might get to the end of it and think "so what?" and you might get to the end of it and think "well that seems fair enough, stop being ranty for the sake of it, Spong". I'll leave you to decide.

Oh and before we begin, it's worth noting that the blog isn't falling apart already. I'm trying not to build up your expectations of daily posts or thrice weekly posts only to dash them when I slip back to once or twice a week and you think I've gone off the idea (again). I've also got stuff from my old blog and I'm trying not to bombard people with rehashed articles that they've already read. Okay? Right that's the parish notices, let's get to where we need to be.

It's June 2011. Spong has reached the dizzy heights of 26 stone. I've weighed myself and despite having not liked what I have seen for some time, this number concerns me. No idea why, but it just does. Over the years I've sought all sorts of "treatment" for weight loss from traditional things like going to the NHS dietician and her £9.99 Argos scales, to the blue capsules that bind fat and cause you to eject large quantities of orange oil rectally if you eat stuff that you probably shouldn't. I've done Weightwatchers online, I've done things involving milkshakes and even had hypnosis in an attempt to lose weight. To a greater or lesser degree they all worked (apart from the dietician, she was rubbish) but they weren't, for me, they weren't sustainable long term.

So sensing that options are running out and increasing weight and age mean that sooner or later something major is going go wrong, I go to see my GP. I've mentioned my GP before and how ace he is and he and I sit down and talk about what we need to do and the options available to doing it. The solution is he's going to refer me to a weight loss surgeon. I'm not overly thrilled about it, but I see that it's fixed a mate of mine I went to school with and so it seems the only option.

Roll forward a couple of months and I've just joined Slimming World. A friend of a friend of mine had joined with spectacular results (over 12 stone lost and now a marathon runner) and that combined with a friend of mine losing a couple of stone has convinced me to give it a whirl. Things start of well. Very well in fact. Within the space of 2 or 3 weeks I've dropped the best part of a stone, picked up my first of many Slimmer of the Week awards and am already in love with the plan (this isn't a SW fan post before you switch off, I know it doesn't work for everyone and that other things work for other people.) SW works for me and I've met people at group of all ages that have lost 1 stone, 3 stone, 5 stone. Clearly there is something to it.

Anyway, it's a Thursday morning I think. I'm sat at my desk (I work from home) and the phone rings. It's Mr Surgeon from the NHS and he wants to get me in for assessment and surgery.

I'm nothing if not polite and explain that I've recently joined Slimming World, already lost a chunk, am seeing the plan is working and I'd like to come off his list and give SW a chance as it's shaping up to be a good way to lose weight without having my innards sellotaped or having to eat a roast dinner through a straw.

"Well you could, but I think you should still come in." says Mr Surgeon.
"Oh. Why's that then?" I ask.
"The thing is, Nathan. The thing is that those things don't really work."
"They don't work?"
"No. They have their place but they don't really work. Studies suggest that the average weight loss on these programmes is at most two stone. If you lose two stone, you'll still be extremely obese, but your BMI will be too low for me to be able to operate."

I'm guessing you can see where this is about to go. But read on and we'll go there anyway.

I'm an ornery (people should use that word more) Spong. I'm a numbers man. I'm a bit of a geek. Understandably I see red at this point.

"Okay. Thanks for your thoughts but I really think I might be able to do something with Slimming World. I'll kindly decline your offer for now and see what happens. If I stop losing weight then I'll talk to my GP and we'll take it from there."

All very polite. Mr Surgeon dealt with (I wish I'd remembered his name so I could send him a photo of me flicking two fingers in his direction.) So why am I writing this post and why was I so irked? Well for those of you that haven't been subjected to the gospel of Spong over the last 18 months, I'll make a few points here:

Firstly, he's using BMI. I've long been a subscriber to the view that BMI doesn't stand for Body Mass Index but Bullshit Measurement Index. In simple terms you calculate BMI by taking your weight in kilogrammes and divide it by the square of your height in metres (there is a conversion for those of you that like to deal in imperial). That's it. It doesn't take into account things like muscle mass, it doesn't take into account things like how big your frame is, it doesn't take into account that ladies are quite often more petite than men. Oh and it doesn't take into account that BMI was originally devised the best part of 170 years ago.... Back in the 90s when I worked in clinical trials we measured something called frame size on our patients. It was based on the breadth of a person's elbow and was used to presumably determine something statistical to do with how much of a drug a patient had taken in relation to their weight. I'm guessing on that last bit, I'm not a statistician - but it seems a reasonable assumption. Basically BMI is a square peg hammered into a round hole and made to fit. I remember talking to someone at the time of the last rugby World Cup about BMI. Basically what he was saying to me was if you applied BMI measurements to most of the players there, they were obese. In fact, quite a lot of them were more than just obese. Yet if you look at most of them, there isn't an ounce of fat on them. These guys are professional athletes made of muscle who are apparently obese. Yeah, that works then. Some university boffins at Oxford did a new calculator of BMI which you can find here. This still takes no account of anything other than height and weight but at least goes some way to updating the original formula. They also have the manners to at least point out that it's just one way of measuring body shape.

My next problem is the "these things don't really work." Whoa, and indeed stop. Are you telling me that organisations such as Slimming World (I use them as it's the one I have a basic understanding of the numbers of people involved) that have the best part of half a million people on their books are taking money under false pretences? That there are that many STUPID people in the country? (actually there are probably a lot more stupid people in the country than 500,000, but they aren't all going to be members of Slimming World, just the same as they aren't all going to be Daily Mail readers.) Are we then going to add on Weight Watchers, Rosemary Conley, Lighter Life and every other diet plan there is out there, and that we are all paying money for something that doesn't work? Come on Doc, pull the other one. I didn't know it at the time but Slimming World have been helping people lose weight for over 40 years and unlike BMI they do update their plans regularly (I think in the very first Slimming World book there was talk of lard and dripping.) I'm afraid that businesses don't exist for that long, make as much money as they do when they "don't really work". You sir are talking out of the back of your surgical mask.

"People only lose an average of a couple of stone on these things" was the third thing that got my proverbial goat (I don't have a goat and if I did, Billy Crapstats the surgeon wouldn't be having him.) We've already touched on my relative lack of statistical prowess here but there are a few things that I have to question about this statement.

The word "average" clearly means all the weight lost by all the people surveyed. So how big was the survey sample? When was it done? And most importantly for me, how many of those people needed to lose more than two stone? You see I'm many things but one thing I am not is someone who has wool pulled over their eyes easily. Let me give you a real working life example of the above.

My SW group has maybe 50 members. I have lost nine stone so I'd put the average up. There's a lady who's lost six stone and a chap that's lost just over four. They are both putting the average up. At the other end of the scale we've got a lady who is at her target weight who has lost just a stone. There is another who has lost a stone and a half. It's all well and good quoting these statistics at me, but how is your sample calculated? Have you taken into account how much weight people wanted to lose? Have you taken into account the percentage of body weight they've lost? Have you taken into account that you might have a group full of ten stone people that only needed to lose a few pounds? Have you taken into account how long those people have been going? Have you taken into account target members only or have you taken into account people still losing weight? Have you taken into account how long some of these people have maintained their target weight? I'd wager you haven't.

What you've done is quote a crude figure to me in an attempt to scare me into seeing you for weight loss surgery. It didn't work for me, but for other people not as cynical as me it may well. And that my friend is the reason I didn't come and see you, and that my friend is the reason I got angry, and I lost weight, and I continue to lose weight. Your measurement of what constitutes obesity is flawed (and I know it's not just him but the whole NHS), your dismissal of the whole diet industry with "these things don't really work" is flawed and your assessment of how successful people are at losing weight using these plans is highly likely to be flawed.

If you'd come to me and said "our survey of 10,000 people ranging from those being a stone overweight to fifteen stone overweight showed that on average they lost five percent of their body weight before leaving the programme and that 85% of them put it all back on within 6 months of quitting" then we might have had a conversation that, for you was more fruitful. You didn't. We didn't.

The case for the prosecution rests m'lud.

By the way, if I did have a goat, I think I'd call him Rufus.

Until next time,