Monday, 26 January 2009


Accidentally Semi-Serious Article, orignally posted on Deadjournal

Today I was doing some research for a job application, and accidentally found out that dyslexia is fictional. Fantastic news for all those dyslexics out there who were under the impression that they had difficulties concentrating on reading because words jump off the page, mix themselves up, replace themselves with blocks of colour at random, or any of the other problems associated with the condition.

The surely Nobel-worthy discovery was made by a Labour MP from Manchester, Graham Stringer, in this here column.

Ordinarily I would jump at the chance to rip on dyslexia, not least in order to annoy my dyslexic younger sister. You know the type of thing… it’s just a made-up term for stupid people, dyslexic walks into a bra...

Unfortunately, Stringer seems to genuinely believe that it’s a made up disease – ‘political correctness gone maaad’ and other clich├ęs. Essentially, like Dawkins on Christianity, Stringer doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about.

For a start, he insinuates that being dyslexic and being functionally illiterate are essentially the same thing. Bollocks. Functional illiteracy means a person can’t use reading or writing in everyday situations. Dyslexia is a learning disability that means the sufferer has trouble learning to read and write, but it doesn’t stop them from doing so entirely. The brain processes information in a different way, and whilst that can cause frustration and lead to people giving up (ergo sliding down the helter skelter of functional illiteracy), if they get support there’s no reason it shouldn’t be overcome.

I know several dyslexic people who have not only made it through university, but done pretty damn well. Being functionally illiterate would have hindered them somewhat. Not that being dyslexic didn’t pose problems, but you know what I mean. If the two conditions were the same, they wouldn’t have been able to fill out the application.

Stringer contextualises his findings in his regular visits to Strangeways, where many of the inmates are illiterate. He thinks that if literacy rates were higher, crime rates would decrease. That’s probably true – if you can’t read or write you’ll have problems getting a job and you’ll be poor and therefore potentially more tempted to go out on the nick. It’s not rocket science, it’s the gospel according to school. But how does this relate to dyslexia, you might ask? Well, the reason people are illiterate is down to bad teaching. And when bad teachers get caught out, they say “o hai, iz not ma fawlts tho, the childs are dyslexic.”

“If dyslexia really existed,”
bristles our intrepid hero, “then countries as diverse as Nicaragua and South Korea would not have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%.” Now, I’ve looked this up (on Wikipedia), and apparently literacy rates in South Korea are indeed 99%, so that checks out. Nicaragua meanwhile, is at 80.1%. And the United Kingdom? Well, 99% again, actually. What kind of government are we dealing with, that doesn’t Wiki its figures before writing an article about the fictional nature of a condition whose existence is supported by mounds of ongoing research?

Towards the end of his diatribe, it transpires that Stringer is actually trying to make a case for something called synthetic phonics, a teaching method piloted in West Dumbartonshire which, according to him, has achieved great results and all but eradicated functional illiteracy in the area, which we can all agree is A Good Thing. But he incites ridiculous examples to make his point, like some idiot medical student saying she’s discriminated against as a dyslexic by having to do written exams.

“I don’t know about anybody else,” he says (the subtext of course being that of course he knows about everyone else, and more besides), “but I want my doctors, and for that matter, engineers, teachers, dentists and police officers to be able to read and write.” Well, fair enough.

Except I looked up what the idiot was actually arguing, and it seems the case goes a little bit beyond what Stringer mentions in his column. Quel surprise. Her problem was specifically with multiple-choice (ie not written) exams, for two reasons.

1) It discriminates against dyslexic students because the nature of the condition, as mentioned above, is such that words seem to move about on the page and it’s quite difficult to read and select the correct answer. A further point might be one that my sister explained, which is that she finds it hard to go back and check over what she’s written - she sees what is supposed to be there rather than what is actually in front of her.
2) “In normal day life, you don't get given multiple choice questions to sit. Your patients aren't going to ask you 'here's an option and four answers. Which one is right?”

I think on balance I would like my doctor to know what’s wrong with me based on a little bit more knowledge than picking at random out of four possibilities. And I know some are picked at random (about 50% of them according to the medical student I lived with in first and second year of university…). The main alternative to multiple-choice papers is apparently a ‘user input quiz’, which asks a question and requires you to come up with an answer yourself. Kind of like an old skool exam, then. We’ve all heard how education has gone to crap; surely Stringer ought to support this girl’s advocation of a return to the good old days, before dyslexics were invented?

It’s one thing to say that the education system has failed some people, and another to say that dyslexia doesn’t exist. The same system has failed both groups, and whilst there presumably is overlap between the functionally illiterate and the dyslexic, numerous other factors are at work here. From just a few weeks of experience working in a ‘community’ library I know that truancy, drug taking and crime affect young people who are well able to read and write, but don’t bother because it’s not cool, or because they don’t have to, or because they think there are better things to do. There’s a whole culture of choosing to be ignorant despite abundant resources and support being available – ten year old girls saying they can’t wait till they’re sixteen cause then they can “get a hoose wi ma mate fae Livvy, it’ll be brrruuwyant.” School is shite, reading is boring, and so on. It’s not because they're incapable - far from it. They just aren’t interested, and nobody is giving them any compelling reasons why they should be.

Furthermore, schools quite often don’t pick up on it, assuming instead that the kids who read slowly or can’t spell are just thick. Why bother to put someone forward for the test if they’re just slow? It’s expensive to do. Better to just bung them on a table with the other stupid kids and let a classroom assistant deal with it.

If synthetic phonics is as good as Stringer thinks, he should be campaigning for it using the results from West Dumbartonshire as proof, not questioning the existence of dyslexia by means of tenuous comparisons with famous prisons. I don’t know why anyone would be so wilfully obtuse in their arguments when it sounds like a perfectly sound case could be made without them. There again, I’m not a member of parliament. Yay democracy.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Heal The World

Originally on Deadjournal

Ah, iTunes. The magic of shuffle is indeed a powerful tool.

It has in recent moments come out with ‘Losing My Way’, a provocatively poor track from the otherwise surprisingly enjoyable Future Sex/Love Sounds by none other than Justin Timberlake.

The CD came via an embarrassed friend who entreated me not to tell anyone its origins. Released in 2006, just ahead of several undeniably better albums (Jarvis Cocker’s first solo effort, a re-release of Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, Pieces of the People we Love by The Rapture - the list goes on), it received mixed reviews. I know this because I just read a load of them. Tim Finney of Pitchfork, for instance, wrote: “According to the laws of momentum which govern pop music, any sequel [to a debut album] could only be either be a pale reflection or a hubristic monstrosity. With FutureSex/LoveSounds he unrepentantly chooses the latter.”

That’s a tad unfair. The album is by no means a total failure, although it does veer from the sublime to the ridiculous with the breakneck speed of a toddler pumped full of cherryade, and it fizzles out a little bit towards the end. On the other hand, I was rather expecting it to be gash, so the fact it was any craic at all is a tribute to the Timberlake. The first single, after all, was SexyBack, a hugely confusing track for those of us who didn’t know sexy had left in the first place, and the song chosen to annoy the crap out of anyone who listened to Star FM (the St Andrews University Radio Station) at the time of release, as it was their signature tune. St Andrews University Radio is not now, nor has it ever been, bringing sexy back.

But what I really want to talk to you about is not Sexyback, nor the album as a whole, but the aforementioned crap in a bag that is ‘Losing My Way’. This is an anti-drugs song so preachy that a gospel choir comes in half way through. Lucy Davies of BBC online “can't decide whether this is brilliant or cheese on toast.” It’s the latter. No question. Rolling Stone’s Robert Christgau is far closer to the mark in describing it as a “clueless embarrassment.”

It’s about a crack addict called Bob, who will probably never know the colour of his daughter’s eyes on account of all the drugs. Drugs are bad, m’kay. It’s deep, meaningful and touching. Victor, of, said “Justin expressed my pain in one song”. A few posts down, Nanea elaborates “this song could for so many situations not just drugs.. like alcohol problems or anything that might cause you to lose your way. I pray for those who have lost thier way and hope God lights their path. I thank JT for singing a song that touched me.” Evidence that people who genuinely enjoy this track are unable to proof read their own posts, if nothing else. The only thing this song touches is the gag reflex, or whatever nerve it is that makes you cringe.

The epic melodrama sees Justin, whose acting you may remember from Shrek 3, sings from the point of view of a junkie. To engage the listener, he easily introduces himself through rhyme:

“Hi my name is Bob and I work at my job.”

The man is a poet.

“I make forty-some dollars a day
I used to be the man in my hometown
'til I started to lose my way”

The reason Bob thinks that ‘forty-some’ is a number is quickly explained:

“It all goes back to when I dropped out at school
Having fun, I was living the life
But now I got a problem with that little white rock
See I can’t put down the pipe.”

It’s about as subtle as Just Say No.

“It is breaking me down, watching the world spin round..
While my dreams fall down
Is anybody out there?”

It is unclear whether Bob is tripping and can see the world spinning around as part of a hallucination, or whether the fact the world spins round is something he vaguely remembers from watching National Geographic in the middle of the night having been unable to score. But more important is the point that his dreams have not come true, and he feels alone. Drugs and lack of schooling will do that to you.

“Can anybody out there hear me? 'Cause I can't seem to hear myself…”

Wow, that is like, so true! Nobody listens to drug addicts except for the people they mug to fund their addiction.

“Can anybody out there see me? 'Cause I can't seem to see myself...”

Nobody makes eye contact with them, either. And not being seen makes you feel invisible. God, that Justin is good innee. Look at his hair.

“There's gotta be a heaven somewhere”

Fair play. You can’t argue with established facts, like the proven existence of a physical heaven.

“Can you save me from this hell?”

Yes, for I am Justin Timberlake, popstar, actor and superhero! But I shall not tell you how yet, for we must add EVEN MORE DEPTH to this utterly believable, clearly based on more solid experience than watching a couple of True Movies, tale.

“Now you gotta understand I was a family man
I would have gave anything for my own”

(His family, that is)

“But I couldn't get a grip on my new-found itch”


“So I ended up all alone
I remember where I was when I got my first buzz
See I thought I was living the life
And the craziest thing is I'll probably never know the colour of my daughter's eyes.”

Mmm. That implies she was unborn when all this transpired. Which begs several questions. How old is Bob? How long has Bob been on the drugs? Is he actually intending on getting clean at any stage? It seems he wants someone else to solve his problems for him, which is totes lazy imo. JT, you are a busy and important man, you shouldn’t be trying to find friends for indolent crackheads. And yet, he does. What a guy. All Bob need do, Justin suggests, is repent. And lo, he will be saved. Biblical.

Justin, it may be worth pointing out, has been in the entertainment industry since he was about ten. Call me a cynic, but it seems unlikely that he ever met a proper down and out junkie from the street when he was doing the Mickey Mouse club. When he comes into contact with drugs, it’s surely in rather more glamorous surroundings than poor old Bobby Bob Bob. Essentially, I think he’s watched a documentary and written a song about it.

I look forward to the follow-up, a ditty from the point of view of the half-ton boy who was on that Bodyshock program. It’ll be poignant as fuck.