Sunday, 29 March 2009


Honestly, you think people would have more respect. You crash on to the blog scene, you get your pat on the back, you get people spreading the word and then you go and change your fecking* blog name.

So Wesley Johnston's Blog has now been renamed 'Dotted White Line', and the list to the left is about to be ammended accordingly.

* 'fecking' is not a Bad Word. It is not etymologically related to any similar words, and is used in Ireland as a mild expletive. According to Wikipedia. Clearly true, then.

New Kid on the Blog

You know what the world needs? In these credit crunch days, with financial markets falling around us and Google Street View displaying our very homes to every Tom, Dick and Stalker that wants to know, what the world needs is another blog. Preferably a blog written by a chap obsessed with roads and pedantic enough to include an apostrophe in the blog title*. A blog which will explore the depths and heights of science, religion and... roads, probably. In black.

So I am pleased to introduce you to wesleyjohnston'sblog, and to invite you to visit. Wesley is more creative than the name of his blog would suggest, knows more about the Northern Irish road network than Roads Service**, and has a wife and a cuuuutttttiiiieeee-pie baby girl. The new arrival means that no one listens to him at home any more, so he started the blog to get attention. I'm guessing.

Anyway, the world is thankful. Lead on, man.

* No, really, I admire that. I wouldn't be bothering promoting it otherwise. I hate poor grammar.
** Technically not difficult.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

A Scientific Proof

If there's one thing Richard Dawkins has taught us, it is that we must not accept any claim without asking for backup evidence. The more outrageous the claim, the more evidence is needed. Sadly, it is often the case that the more outlandish claims are precisely those which are most difficult to prove without specialist scientific equipment.

Take, for instance, the claim that we humans share 50% of our DNA with the humble banana. At first glance, this may seem unlikely (in most cases at least), but fortunately a Mr Robert Jones has taken upon himself to demonstrate the truth of the matter. Except that I'm not sure that even a banana would be stupid enough to drive a car off a cliff just because the SatNav told it to.

These stories crop up every few months: some idiot gets SatNav, types in a postcode and then closes his eyes and follows the instructions to the letter, with varying degrees of resulting disaster. Now don't get me wrong: I'm no expert driver. But I DO know that if I wish to take my car along a given stretch of space, I need:
1) the space to be wider and higher than my car
2) the space to be solid and to keep on being solid in the direction in which I am travelling
3) no obstacles in the way.

I mean, it's not rocket science. Although it does prove a point, of sorts.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

A Retraction

I would just like to say, in the light of yesterday's events, that I take back everything I ever said against Ronan O'Gara.

Apart from the thing about him looking like a bank manager. I still think that.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

The Shack

It has been fairly well documented that I will read more or less anything with words on, but even I have my off-limits material, and they fall into 2 categories:

1) The Christian novel. Virtually always twee, simplistic and generally crap, the Christian novel is to literature what fizzy cola bottles are to gourmet cuisine. The storyline is generally as follows:
Family of people who are all good church-goers apart from one wayward son who gets in with a bad crowd and begins to drink and say things like 'damn'. Much hand-wringing ensues. Wayward son goes off to seek fortune and ends up destitute; he comes upon a church, repents and turns nice. Previous friends of wayward son (who abandoned him in his hour of need, thus proving that only Jesus is your true friend) come to a bad end, while wayward son marries impossibly nice local girl who always thought he had a good side. They raise their own cute little family (this allows the same story to be repeated with the new family in the next book in the series, ad infinitum, although at some point Grandpa dies).

2) Everything that other Christians rave about. Examples have included The Purpose-Driven Church, The Da Vinci Code, and anything to do with Nooma (There. I said it. I don't like Nooma).

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I picked up 'The Shack', a recently-published Christian novel that lots of other Christians have raved about. I had been given it by a good friend, but nevertheless spent several minutes thinking up ways in which to pretend I had liked it despite hating it, even before picking it up.

And it is not a well-written book. The dialogue is clunky and the characters are fairly 2D... the plot is bizarre (though necessarily, so that's ok) and the ends are tied up so nicely that you can all but see the literary pink bows.

So really, I should have hated and despised it. But somehow I didn't. The only vaguely rational explanation I can come up with is that it appealed to some sort of inner child who likes her stories simple and unchaotic; perhaps we can blame it on the economic downturn, the local shootings and riots, and my own predisposition to misery, coming together to create a longing for nice. But whatever it was, I quite enjoyed it, and a couple of times it even inspired me to pray (in a good way, not in a 'Oh please, let this book end soon' way), and you can't say much fairer than that.

So maybe I should give Rick Warren another chance...

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Dangers of Self-Selecting Samples

Now first up, you will have noticed a new addition to the blogroll on the left, with the addition of the excellent JustLife, "a space dedicated to exploring the connections between faith, money, justice and lifestyle". So if you would like to explore the connections between faith, money, justice and lifestyle, then do follow the link and discover.

Secondly, you may have been following, with interest or otherwise, the tales of St Patrick's Day riots in the Holylands area of Belfast. Now, there have been a number of calls for the university to suspend students who were involved, but frankly I wonder why this should be necessary. All I know is that, when I was a student, if I had been seen on national television, being drunk in the street and throwing things at people, my parents would have been hot-footing it up to Belfast and there wouldn't have been enough pieces of me left for the university to bother suspending me. In any case I would probably not have been seen doing any of those things at all, for I would have been in the library gaining both an Education and Curvature of the Spine.

But to get to today's point, which is the latest in our series on Dodgy Mathematics. Our topic today is 'The danger of the self-selecting sample', and I think we shall use our second point from above as an illustration, although it was not, in fact, the inspiration behind the post.

You will be aware that if you wish to find out something about people (let us say, their behaviour when drunk), it is not normally practical to survey everyone; instead one selects a sample of people (let us say 400 persons), and aims to ensure that one's sample is representative (so one selects 200 men and 200 women, all of a range of ages and so on, covering all pertinent factors). One carries out an experiment (plying the people with alcohol) on the sample of people, and then we use a process called extrapolation, which essentially says that if half the people in our sample get drunk and see pink rabbits, then half of all people everywhere will get drunk and see pink rabbits.

However. This is well and good in a laboratory, but it is a little too scientific for the modern media, who are less concerned with truth and more with selling papers, and who therefore do not take time to select a careful sample, but just listen to whoever shouts loudest. Hence we see that all students shown on the news last night were rioting, and we are led to conclude that 'Students Riot'; this ignores the students like WhyNotSmile who are not drunk in the street because they are in the library reading books and not being drunk at all.

I mention this because I came across someone today who had been given new medication and was concerned for the side-effects. She promptly did what one should never do with any sort of medical condition, and Googled it. Now we all know that if you type any random selection of symptoms into Google, and click for long enough, you will sooner or later be told you are going to die, which is not entirely helpful and may not even be true; likewise, if you type in a drug name followed by "side effects", it is unlikely that you will be taken to a message board which consists of messages saying "I took this drug and it was fine", because, frankly, if you take a drug and nothing much goes wrong, you are not terribly likely to tell the internet (unless it asks); if, on the other hand, it turns you into a wibbly mess then you are highly likely to decide that the world needs to know.

So, to summarise, typing drug name + "side effects" into Google is not likely to be comforting, but fortunately is also unlikely to be representative, and is therefore A Bad Idea. Like rioting.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The Colour Purple

You may or may not be aware that we in Northern Ireland are all to be wearing purple ribbons this week, in order to bring about peace.

Now this is all well and good, and WhyNotSmile is entirely supportive of such gestures, but I am having difficulty in sourcing an appropriate size and colour of purple ribbon. The problem is that if one gets the colour even a shade wrong, one can end up showing support for something else entirely - Wikipedia lists a good 23 causes of which awareness is allegedly raised by the wearing of a purple ribbon, including Overdose Prevention, Animal Abuse and Pancreatic Cancer. Not that I am against awareness of any of these things, you understand; it's just that it makes you wonder.

Fortunately, for those who are unable to procure an appropriate ribbon, it is possible to wear an article of purple clothing instead, and this is the approach I have been taking all week. Unfortunately, however, I am almost out of purple pants, and after tomorrow will have to come up with a New Approach.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

On How We Can Know Things For Sure

I have long suspected that everyone else has a little extra bit of stuff in their brain which I don't have, and which allows them to put things immediately into context. I am hopeless at this; I also have a ridiculously good memory for faces and names, many of which occupy space in my head for a much greater number of years than would be expected, meaning that, amongst other things, I cannot quickly tell the difference between someone I spoke to at a bus stop several years ago, and (for instance) a work colleague. More than once, I have bounded up to someone in Tesco and cheerfully greeted them with "Hi! How's it going? Umm... you remember me? WhyNotSmile... I met you... er... 6 years ago... You... sold me a Milky Way... in... a shop... Anyway, nice to see you again!" and then had to leave hurriedly.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you this, except that it is linked to the fact that I generally remember random 'facts' for a ludicrous period of time and frequently out of context. Unfortunately, if you tell me "You know what, I heard this guy saying that herons have no knees, I mean, how dumb is that?!", I will only remember the bit about herons having no knees, and will (after a bedding-down period, during which the 'fact' hovers between the 'True Things' and 'False Things' bit of my mind) recite this 'fact' at every opportunity. In fact, if you test me in 5 years' time, I will most assuredly tell you that herons have no knees, despite the fact that I made the thing up myself.

There are things in my head that have no context whatsoever - they could be dreams, or they could have happened, or I could have wished they happened, and I genuinely have no idea which. In most cases this poses no difficulty - whether or not Julcan pushed me off the slide in playgroup or whether I dreamt it is no longer of any consequence (although, between you and me, I suspect she did); on the other hand, it would be nice to be certain that such-and-such is actually engaged/pregnant/going to Mauritius in the summer, and would save a lot of talking in circles to try to ascertain the truth.

Anyway, the point is that context is extremely important, and that when we hear that, for instance, the Bible says that God created the world in 6 days, we would do well to ask some questions about the context of that, and not just take it literally.

Saturday, 7 March 2009


WhyNotSmile is delighted to announce the ressurrection of her social life, and is available for weddings, christenings, state openings of parliament and bar mitvahs.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


Suddenly it seems that everyone is into Twitter. I'm not sure why, but I think it was all to do with Stephen Fry being stuck in a lift, which is an unlikely and yet strangely effective marketing tool.

For those who are unaware of Twitter, it's like Facebook, but without all the bits that make Facebook sociable; essentially, it's your Facebook status, which you're supposed to update every time you move a finger, on the (let's be frank, utterly deluded) assumption that everyone else is interested.

Now WhyNotSmile likes to be up-to-date with the latest technology (indeed, I have known of, and been uninterested in, the existence of Twitter for a couple of years now), so it must be wondered whether it is worth signing up.

Of course, the most cursory consideration of this possibility leads us to a swift 'no', for although Twitter allows even the most pedantic of souls to post their deathly dull goings-on, I don't think the world is quite ready for me to take the thing to whole new levels. In fact, my life is so predictable that I am going to publish all my potential Twitter entries here, to save you the trouble of having to keep checking. Should you ever wish to know what I'm up to, you can simply come here and find out.

7.45am - WhyNotSmile's alarm clock goes off. WhyNotSmile considers the possibility of getting up, and decides against it.

7.50am - WhyNotSmile decides that it is important not to get up before hearing the day's news (in order to provide conversation topics, should she speak to anyone else during the course of the day) and therefore has to stay in bed for another 10 minutes.

8.15am - WhyNotSmile wakes up again.

8.35am - Having heard the day's news, WhyNotSmile gets up.

8.36am - WhyNotSmile cleans her teeth and has a shower.

8.45am - WhyNotSmile briefly considers what to wear, and eventually puts on whatever is on the floor from last night. There is a brief rummaging around for clean socks, and a vow to do some washing today.

8.50am - WhyNotSmile has a breakfast of home-made sultana bran (because it's cheaper to buy a box of bran flakes and a bag of sultanas) and a glass of orange juice (with bits in).

8.55am - WhyNotSmile goes upstairs, does her daily Bible reading and prayer slot, and perhaps reads for a bit.

9.15am - WhyNotSmile switches on her computer, checks emails, reads new blog entries, checks Facebook, laughs at the day's Dilbert and Garfield cartoons, and checks the news.

10.00am - WhyNotSmile decides she needs tea before starting work. WhyNotSmile makes tea and perhaps elevenses.

10.15am - WhyNotSmile comes back to her computer, checks her email, reads new blog entries, visits Facebook and checks the news.

10.25am - WhyNotSmile opens her calendar to see what she is supposed to do today. Tasks seem too intimidating, so WhyNotSmile surfs the web for a while.

10.45am - WhyNotSmile starts doing some work.

11.00am - The post arrives; WhyNotSmile goes downstairs, picks it up, opens it, and reads it.

11.05am - WhyNotSmile comes back to her computer, checks her email, reads new blog entries, visits Facebook, and checks the news.

11.30am - WhyNotSmile decides she needs to work now if she is going to do anything productive today, and knuckles down.

12.30pm - WhyNotSmile stops for lunch. WhyNotSmile makes lunch, eats lunch, and then goes to Tesco to do some shopping.

2pm - WhyNotSmile returns home, unpacks shopping, sits for a while.

2.15pm - WhyNotSmile turns her computer back on, checks her email, reads new blog entries, visits Facebook, and checks the news.

2.45pm - WhyNotSmile needs more tea; she goes to make tea.

3.00pm - WhyNotSmile comes back to her computer, checks her email, reads new blog entries, visits Facebook, and checks the news.

3.15pm - WhyNotSmile comes over all productive and starts working.

5pm - WhyNotSmile stops working and switches off her computer.

5.05pm - WhyNotSmile reads for a while.

7.30pm - WhyNotSmile is hungry. She cooks and eats dinner.

8pm - WhyNotSmile reads some more.

9.30pm - WhyNotSmile is sleepy. She goes upstairs, cleans her teeth and gets ready for bed.

9.45pm - WhyNotSmile gets distracted by something lying on the bedside table. It is necessary to read it all over again.

10.30pm - WhyNotSmile goes to bed.

10.45pm - WhyNotSmile is asleep.