At least, I don't think I'm a robot. It's the kind of philosophical question to which there is no answer of course. I could have been programmed to believe I was human and given the capacity to accumulate memories and develop my skills and abilities through experience. However, with regards to the suspicion I encounter regarding my potential robot status, I am of course talking about the prove you're human boxes where you have to type a copy the encrypted word into a little box.
Over the last few years these encrypted words have become more and more unintelligible. I have failed a couple and had to try with a different word. This week a strange sound emerged from the fiancé's computer; he had abandoned the written word and was attempting the audio version. If the written form is a blurry mass with obscure dashes, then the audio version is akin to a zombie several tequila's down.

When I was at high school I was very interested in the theme song to Friends. I'll be there for you by The Rembrandts was on a compilation album I bought when I was fifteen. Aside from the cult status of Friends which made the program essential viewing, the lyrics made me wonder what my future would hold.

So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's DOA
It's like you're always stuck in second gear
And it hasn't been your day, your week, your month or even your year

Upon reflection I wonder what some of my peers are complaining about in the present climate. Friends told us our twenties and thirties would be tough and that it was down to us to form the relationships that would see us through. Remember Monica's job as a waitress where she wore foam breasts? Remember Joey's dependence on his wealthier room mate? Remember Rachel's distress when she calculated how she'd deviated from the time scale she'd always seen her life following with regards to marriage and children? Rubbish jobs, not enough money, not finding the perfect partner. We all consumed these lessons once we had finished our essays and pages of algebra.

Friends was full of happy endings. We were shown that while we would face periods of unemployment, have our hearts broken and experience periods of wondering what we were meant to do with our lives, we would bounce back and fall in love again and find another job. That while the end result may not be what we thought we wanted, once we got it we'd be happy with it.

So I feel I was warned that life would be this way and while I won't pretend I haven't had moments of fear and unhappiness, I've generally tried to look at the series and not the episode. Right now I'm on an upswing, I love my job, am doing ok financially and am newly engaged, but I know that if that  heads downwards, I'll cope.

Still, when it comes to tequila soaked zombies moaning at my fiancé I am left feeling that nobody told me life was gonna be this way!

It's important to note however, that we cannot predict the direction of our consumer lives. This is particularly true of technology. This week news has been buzzing about Virgin's super fast broadband. To illustrate the speed we are told that a film could be downloaded in 90 seconds and a song in 5 seconds. Hitting the street in search of mouth breathers with opinions, one individual sourced by Radio 1 said he didn't download that much stuff so didn't need it. Similarities to Thomas J. Watson aside (and yes I know he probably never said the world only needed five computers but when do facts get in the way of a good story?*) , the muppet entirely missed the point – which was after all the Beeb's objective as they want to get people all interested and engaged in their news – namely, that until such developments are presented as a consumable product, the majority of people fail to appreciate application.

Take WAP. I remember checking cinema times on my first mobile phone about a decade ago. It was pretty useful but an expensive thing to do. Ultimately WAP failed but there was a nugget of something great there. Had you asked me at the time I'd have said that internet on a phone was pretty pointless. Today I have a Blackberry. My point is that until someone took a technology I neither understood nor saw practical usage for and sold it to me as a desirable product, I was in no position to make an evaluation.

I'm of the watch and see camp. As an endlessly impatient individual, ever faster internet is obviously a very good thing but what Virgin are really doing is facilitating developments that the like of me are unable to comprehend. I've no idea what will follow faster broadband but I look forward to the future and who knows, it may enable a way around word recognition to prove that I am not a robot!

* Never on this blog (obviously!)
 
I'm very late this (edit: last) week, This is particularly bad given that recently I've had my columns finished and ready to go by Wednesday night. I'd like to blame my tools... my laptop is literally falling to pieces (actual bits of plastic and screws keep falling out) and as a result isn't really portable. For various reasons it currently lives in my office and I'm left with the netbook at home. The laptop has done well, I hasten to add (feeling a certain sense of disloyalty here) and has travelled more widely than many hope to in their non binary lifetimes. I worked on my thesis on it as I rocked my way between Moscow and Ulaanbaatar on the Trans-Siberian railway, it found a WiFi zone in the apartment I took in Hong Kong and enabled me to Skype the then-boyfriend, it has been used on beaches and balconies, created videos and edited photos. I now use a mouse as the touch pad died, it is on its second hard drive and it is ready to retire.

So at home I am left with the netbook. Much as I claim to hate technology I seem to have rather a lot of it – I write this in a car en route to Wakefield and about my person there is a Blackberry, an iPod and a DSLR camera. A fairly standard amount of kit for me for a day out. The netbook is an Acer and represents one of the worst decisions I've made regarding purchases – I “saved” £30 by going open source rather than paying to have Windows installed. This would be reasonable were I a software geek but I'm not and so I have no end of headaches. Still, all of my excuses are poor and that I'm writing the column today is mostly due to it being a long way to Wakefield.

I've really thought about technology this week; Facebook in particular. Once upon a time I adored Facebook. Facebook was a line to my friends and family when I was travelling and living in the Far East. I was on regularly and the host of little red flags that greeted me each morning helped to alleviate the distance. But since returning to the UK, my love has waned. Partly due to Twitter but mostly due to a greater percentage of my time being spend with other people.

A typical day in Kuala Lumpur might have begun with a cup of tea on my balcony to watch the sun rise over the city. Laptop on, I'd catch the then-boyfriend on Skype for an hour before he went to bed then shower and start my day. I'd walk to my favourite Starbucks and work until early afternoon, drinking ice-blend mochas with the assortment of business people who frequented the city's coffee shops rather than pay rent for an office. People I knew by face but never spoke to. I'd head home in time to catch those just waking up back in the UK, usually catching the then-boyfriend for ten minutes on messenger. I'd then curl up with a couple of episodes of 24 before heading out to Gypsy Bar for a few drinks. When I got in later, everyone would be home from work. While I loved my life there, it nonetheless rested upon UK timezones.

A typical day now begins with the cup of tea the then-boyfriend brings upstairs for me. I shower, dress and head out to my car. I then join the commuters on the A40 and listen to Chris Moyles as I crawl towards the Forest of Dean. This is the only time I'll be alone all day. Eight hours in the small office I share with my boss and the admin officer (an office located behind reception and therefore sharing space with the front of house staff) is punctuated by meetings and phone calls. A proper lunch break is a rarity. Another 45 minutes in my car then home to the then-boyfriend with whom I then spend the evening. I love my life but am constantly making mental notes to check in with my friends more.

But Facebook has a significant function. Facebook is where we define our status. For some time Kathryn Ashcroft has been 'in a relationship with' the then-boyfriend. A little hyperlink listed my significant other on my profile for all to see. I defined myself in part through my relationship to this man. That status has changed twice in the last week. First things were complicated between us. Truly has there ever been a more attention seeking way to communicate? I won't pretend I wasn't attention seeking, I had news but was unable to otherwise announce it. For last Saturday night, I  asked the then-boyfriend to marry me. I've been calling him the then-boyfriend because he said yes and is now the fiance. But our lives are not just our own and we felt it best that he let the boys' mother know in person rather than via Facebook. That done, I was then able to change my status for the second time and I'm now officially engaged.

Official was the term the fiance used. Somewhere along the line, we have begun to see Facebook as way to register such things. When my friend Jelly got married this summer, we visited them the following morning as they were updating Facebook. Her new married status joined the ceremony and the paperwork as the evidence for her miss to mrs transition. We told the boys last night – they were largely nonplussed with the youngest wanting to watch Thomas the Tank Engine and the eldest just wanting to confirm that we'd still be called Daddy and Kay – and when he put them to bed I made the second change.

Technology and love. The two are inseparable. Not so much because of my Facebook status but because my new and deeper commitment is to be reflected in what will replace the laptop. The fiance is planning a new networked system which means we'll be linked up. Forget marriage, we're going to be sharing a hard drive!

 

Don’t worry. I’m not about to go all tinfoil hat syndrome* on you my lovely readers. Actually, that is worthy of comment. My readership grows each month and my Google analytics (which is about as tech savvy as I get) tells me people stay on the site long enough to be reading my blog as opposed to clicking off when they realised I’m not the pneumatic blonde Swedish porn star Kathryn** but actually the geeky, introspective West Country (common-law) housewife Kathryn. So thank you. I’m actually quite humbled as I (ever the obsessive compulsive) check my stats.

Daily.

Anyway...

The end is nigh. After using my annual leave to stay at home and write up my thesis (truly could my life get any cooler?) I have turned a corner. Whilst typing a note to myself to explore an avenue in Chapter 7 I realised I had hit upon the phrase that could conclude the thesis.

It’s a high like no other. When I wrote my undergraduate dissertation I had a moment of clarity when I pulled together the conclusion. A conclusion I hasten to add, that is puerile, naive and absurd and I’m stunned (given my snobbishly superior status as a PhD student) that it was graded first class (and yet my needy, desperate to please side still feels the need to point that my first piece of research was thus graded!).

As I was writing my MA thesis I had moments of similar joy from the realisation (half-cut) that I had a topic to approach my former department with to making headway in the subject, to finding my direction to creating a theory. Ever the somewhat manic depressive I would swing between bursts of crazed enthusiasm for what I was to term Confidence Theory to wondering why I ever thought I could put together 30,000 words of meaning that were worthy of a Masters Degree.

Without question I was wholly unprepared for doing a PhD. I think I actually started it thinking it would be similar to the Masters, only longer. I don’t actually know what I thought of course as the anguish I thrust upon myself when I started this thing back in 2006 has largely obliterated my memory as a self-preservationist thing.

I hit endless walls, I doubted myself continually and have cried bucket loads. But then, the boyfriend will take my hands in his, kiss away my tears and say, ‘well dur! If it was easy everyone would do one wouldn’t they?’

He has a point.

So while I continue to have my low points - today being a prime example where I failed to be even remotely coherent on messenger to an interviewee based in Dubai (although my interviewee was amazing and the write-up is great) – I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

All of my chapters are formed, the footnotes are ordered, the arguments laid out and now I’m just fleshing it out; writing up bits of background, expanding on certain points and pulling the last strands together. The end is nigh!

What will this mean to me? After all, I’m not pursuing an academic career. Well, truth be told it was never about that. Nor is it about prestige (I certainly don’t intend to use the title of Dr). Rather I think it stems from a desire for the extraordinary. When I was planning my undergraduate dissertation my father (and it was to be one of his last lucid conversations with me) remarked that the fascinating thing about a dissertation was that at a particular moment in time, within very specific parameters, you were the world expert on a subject. 

As with so many things he said, I now disagree. But I do think that it’s true to a certain extent of postgraduate research. Even now, four years down the line, my MA thesis is something I cherish. The ideas in it were exciting and world altering. Not because they are groundbreaking in themselves but because of how they changed me. I created a theory because I found none to my satisfaction. Years down the line it is irrelevant to me whether I discovered something important in my field, what matters is that I realised I could do whatever I wished.

This PhD was my ticket to starting a new life in Malaysia. That journey saw me rent an apartment in a new city, saw me make myself over into a girl that graced the society pages of Expat magazine and had her heart broken when her Kurdish best friend failed to gain asylum and was sent back to Iraq.***

None of it was as glossy as I imagined. I remember standing at a window in my apartment looking at the Petronas Twin Towers and wondering why they weren’t enough. Since returning to the UK I pine for KL; for mad nights at Gypsy Bar, for watching the sun rise from my balcony, for the fountains at sunset at KLCC and for the coffee shops and the roti and walking home at 3am without a jacket because it was so warm.

As a result of starting this PhD I changed my understanding of home. In KL I missed England and in England I miss Malaysia. I will never be satisfied and will always feel incomplete and adrift (unless I win the lottery and buy homes in both countries and endless first class tickets).

I suppose the PhD is my story and while there may never be conclusions for me, I can at least conclude the thesis.

Only then can I start to look at what will come next.

* I was saddened that there was no website about this as a syndrome (by which, nothing on the first results page for a Google entry).

** Figment of my imagination (obviously).

*** A happy ending here as a year down the line he got in touch via Facebook having joined the US army. I don’t know if we’ll ever meet again but I’d like to think that there are more chapters to Kathryn and Hussein.

 
There’s been a lot in the news lately about the apparent findings that ADHD could be a genetic condition. Some people have felt vindicated while others have rolled their eyes. My take on the debate is that it is rather meaningless. To my mind the cause of a situation, while worthy of a degree of consideration, is far less significant than how one reacts to it.

I don’t think my eldest stepson has ADHD but does that kid ever fidget, get distracted and fail to behave as my partner and I would sometimes like. Of course I tend to find it endearing for in these instances he is the carbon copy of his father.

As an individual now in his mid thirties, my partner’s fidgetiness was never really questioned as a child. Easily distracted and sometimes struggling with focus, he nevertheless went to university and went on to forge a successful career. I wouldn’t be surprised if my partner experiences a degree of attention deficit but because his mother insisted on good manners and appropriate behaviour, he is simply a slightly twitchy and somewhat away with the fairies adult.

I don’t mean to play down the experience of those for whom ADHD reflects a crippling way of handling the world. I wholly believe in a condition that presents those experiencing it with immense difficulty. My gripe is with parents who take a diagnosis as an excuse for stepping back from instilling basic standards of behaviour in their children.

I have sat at the table with my stepchildren and heard their father have to shout to get the attention of the eldest (this at a table where no TV plays in the background and there are no toys or diversions, just food on plates and cutlery). We often have to repeat ourselves to him and forever state that if someone addresses you, it is polite (and expected) that you answer.

There may be an issue or he may simply be one of life’s dreamers. Either way we will support and love him but (and it is an essential but) we will never desist from stressing the importance of acting with good manners. Regardless of how you experience the world, there is a world existing beyond you and your needs. You can either strive to fit within that world to the best of your ability or you can get angry.

As someone living with OCD, I experience my share of frustration at a world that sometimes doesn’t seem to make sense. Sometimes I want to scream and bang my fists at the nuances and details that are beyond me. I have a degree of empathy towards my fellow man but there are many areas where I find him oversensitive and ridiculous. However, my upbringing means that I take responsibility for this. It may feel unfair that I experience the world that way I do but I recognise that this if not the fault of the world and its inhabitants.

If the stepson we call Wriggle Bum were to be diagnosed as having ADHD it wouldn’t change the world. It would change our world and that of his mothers and grandmothers but to the world at large it would be a detail about him that could just as easily by exchanged for epilepsy or diabetes. While I will always seek to make the boys feel like valued members of both their family and society and to encourage them to seek their dreams, I’ll also seek not to provide them with excuses. 

We all have crosses to bear of varying degrees after all. The lesson I feel we must teach our children is that they must be borne with the greatest grace possible. Hug them and sympathise with them but never let their crosses be an excuse to give up.

The parents that cling to the idea that ADHD is genetic often seem to be missing the point (although that might possibly be the ones that elect to talk to the media). In looking for a reason for their children’s behaviour they are shifting their focus from dealing with their children’s behaviour. They appear to be looking at the behaviour rather than the child. In seeing something to cure, are they missing the extent of their child’s personality?

I’m fortunate. My eldest stepchild is not aggressive or rude. Being a Wriggle Bum extends to not sitting at the table properly and ignoring questions; he is far from a difficult child. But if it were to emerge that he had ADHD I’d be far more concerned with how we could work to support him than what caused it. For that reason I have the nagging suspicion that the parents that have jumped on the ADHD as genetic bandwagon give strength to the idea that ADHD is based on bad parenting.

I’m reminded of a fellow student I knew at sixth form. The girl was dyslexic yet had set her heart on becoming a doctor. She recognised that she’d never work in Accident and Emergency as her dyslexia was heightened by stressful situations but felt hard work and determination could see her working as a GP. She is now a doctor. She could have used her dyslexia as an excuse (I’ve met plenty who have) but I don’t recall her ever being bitter.

In all but the most extreme cases, ADHD is unlikely to stop those living with it from attaining their dreams. Like dyslexia or OCD, it may throw up some additional challenges but if the individual has be brought up to embrace that and tackle those challenges head on and in good humour then its significance will fade into the background. Wherever possible, parents should seek to avoid it defining their kids.

Genetic or not, it doesn’t really matter. If there’s to be a debate, I say it should be about the support for families with children with ADHD and the teachers responsible for them. How can we provide the best care for them? They are what they are, let’s start from there rather than focusing on causes.