American Pi(e) Day

As every schoolkid should know, the fattest knight at King Arthur’s Round Table was Sir Cumference. He got that way from too much pi.

Or maybe not.

Readers of longer standing may recall that I used to post occasional Dates To Note and originally ran a version of this post in that series two years ago. I rather like this one, as it gives us Brits a chance to marvel at how weird the USA can be so, for newer readers, here’s a reworked version.

In the UK last week was British Pie Week, whilst in the USA 14 March is National Pi Day. Being a good British citizen of proportions that make me the answer to the football fans’ chanted question ‘Who ate all the pies?’ I was naturally drawn to this. However on further investigation I found that it was in fact a ‘celebration’ by Jus-Rol who make…yes, you guessed it…pastry. I felt rather let down by that, as we have such a tradition of pie-making in this country that it deserves better than blatant commercialism. Oh well!

It was actually the fact that the Americans thought that Pi was worthy of a whole day to itself that caught my attention. My mind was suddenly full of images of those guys who used to present the Open University maths progammes in the 80s – wild hair, wild eyes, outrageous shirts and strange knitwear – gathering together (in circles, of course) chanting strange incantations to the mythical aspects of a mathematical constant, whatever they may be. In case you’re like me and school was a long time ago – or you didn’t listen – the definition of Pi given on the website is:

“Pi Day is celebrated on March 14th (3/14) around the world. Pi (Greek letter “π”) is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159.”

I’m not sure about the claims of worldwide celebration, to be honest. For a start, I don’t know how many countries use the short form calendar backwards to make the 3/14 link possible. Sorry, American readers, but it’s just illogical to put it that way round: days become months, months become years, so it makes more sense to me that today is 14/3/17. Having got that mini rant off my chest, I guess there must be geeks all over the world who would welcome the opportunity to celebrate a concept. But how do you do it? And why? And how did it all begin?

As usual, I turned to the fount of all knowledge, i.e. Wikipedia. You can read the whole article here, but in summary the day was first marked by a physicist called Larry Shaw in San Francisco, in 1988. Heeeeere’s Larry:

The pi(e)man

What did I say about 1980s mathematicians! There are apparently some educational aspects that make this a day worth giving some attention, such as the competitions in schools to see who can recall Pi to the most decimal places. I’m sure that will be helpful in your future career, kids! But even the instigator of the concept made the link to PIE rather than PI, as you can see from his photo. Yes, they eat pies to mark the day. Apparently they also throw them, but that just seems sacrilegious! I was also intrigued to discover that as 14/3 is also Einstein’s birthday, Princeton, where he lived for 20 years, hold an Einstein look-alike contest on the day. Give up, guys, I’ve got it covered from my one and only attempt at taking part in Movember:

Me and Albert. Or vice versa.

Clearly, Pi Day is a big thing in the States, as even Google has in the past got in on the act:

That’s about as confusing to me as the idea of celebrating a concept, if I’m honest. But if you have a moment do take a look at the Pi Day website. You’ll learn more about Pi than you can ever have imagined (or wanted). I love the tab given over to ‘Pi Sightings’ and especially the Pi Pie Pan, which you can see at the head of this post. Maths becomes fun at last! Well, almost. And if you want to know the history of Pi, it is encapsulated in this little ditty:

Whoever thought mathematicians could be so amusing, eh? I think I’ll stick with Don McLean’s original, thanks. But definitely not the Madonna abomination:

Happy Pi-ing, USA! We think you’re strange 😂

I’m Fine

A couple of weeks ago the Mental Health Foundation launched a campaign called ‘I’m Fine.’ Posters are appearing in key sites in London, particularly on public transport. This was prompted by their research findings that on average we will say that little phrase 14 times a week, though only 19% of us actually mean it. To accompany their campaign they have produced this short video:

A stereotypical view of our reserved British nature would suggest that we say this to avoid opening up, and because we don’t really think that the person who has just asked how we are actually wants or expects an honest answer: 59% said that they expected the answer to be a lie. And if they got the truth, would they know how to deal with it anyway? 44% of the survey sample said they had received an answer they weren’t expecting to the question, and were surprised at being taken out of the comfort zone of ‘regular’ social intercourse.

We are famed for our reserve, but this isn’t just a British thing: if you listen closely there are a couple of distinctly American accents in the video. The point behind the MHF’s campaign isn’t that we lie to each other out of shyness, or a belief that we don’t really think that others want to know how we feel. In many cases, this unwillingness to open up is hiding a mental health problem about which we feel unable to talk. There is still a stigma around talking about mental health and the campaign is aiming to help remove that. There has been much research that has shown how we bottle up our thoughts and feelings rather than seek help, and this survey reinforces that – and also the usual perception that men are worse than women when it comes to talking about mental health issues.

To find out more about the campaign you can go here. Please do, as the site contains a wealth of useful information and tips on how to support someone in need of help – or on how to seek help for yourself if you need it. At this time of year it is very easy to get wrapped up in all the paraphernalia and excitement of Christmas without realising that there may be people we know and care about who aren’t feeling the joy. So, if you ask someone how they are, make sure that you mean it – and be prepared for an answer that may be more than a simple ‘I’m fine.’ I know from my own experience how easy it can be to kid others with that reply – and in doing so I was kidding myself. It doesn’t just have to be a casual greeting – and deserves to be much more than this. It’s worth doing that little bit extra to ensure that they – and you – really are ‘fine.’ As the survey showed, 4 times in 5 that answer isn’t really true.

Stigma

Continuing my theme for this week of posts on mental health, I’m turning my attention to the stigma that society attaches to mental illnesses and those who suffer from them. To illustrate this point,  I suffered this in a relatively modest way last year and am sharing this story with you.

I lost a friend. Nothing major in the great scheme of life, it happens all the time. But not as a result of someone’s ignorance. Briefly, I had been due to attend this friend’s annual house party weekend, but a family event was arranged for the same weekend and, given the distances involved, it wasn’t possible to do both. I decided, as I think most of us would do, to put family first and gave my apologies. Things were strained for a month or two until the weekend of the event itself, when I was treated to the worst that modern day friendships can bring: yes, I was unfriended and blocked on Facebook, thrown out of the WhatsApp group, and unfollowed and blocked on every social media platform through which we were connected. I was later told by another friend that my reason for absence had not been believed, coming as it did after my having to drop out of a previous gathering earlier last year due to illness. It was deemed by She Who Knew Everything that my real reason for not attending either event was that I was a depressive and was making excuses for not being able to attend these events. Firstly, that was untrue. Secondly, what qualifications did she have to make that judgement? Thirdly, how dare anyone judge someone on this basis, and choose to end a friendship as a result? And fourthly, even if she had been correct in her assumption, wouldn’t a true friend have attempted to help, rather than act the way she did? Sadly, a few of the others from our circle of friends chose to follow her lead – which my other friend described as ‘bullying.’

I’m telling you this not as a way of avenging what I feel as having been wronged – I wouldn’t use my blog for that, it’s too petty, and if anything were to be said it should be in private – but because what my ex-friend was doing was stigmatising people who have at some point suffered from a mental illness. Having suffered the debilitating effects of depression, people don’t need to be judged as being in some way inferior by those who don’t know any better. The fact that some others followed her approach speaks volumes for how entrenched such ignorance is in our society.

Let’s take another example. On Monday I reblogged a post from three years ago about the crass stupidity of Asda and Tesco in selling ‘mental health patient’ costumes for Halloween. I’ve since looked at their websites and am pleased to see that this year’s offerings don’t include anything so offensive. Sadly, though, such behaviour does still exist. It didn’t take me long in searching through the online fancy dress specialists to find similar examples still being offered for sale. This, for example:

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Or maybe this:

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What can possibly be funny, entertaining, or appropriate for public display about mocking an illness which causes so much damage and hurt, both to those who suffer from it and to those who love and care for them? Again, I see this as being caused by ignorance and the ease with which mental illness is stigmatised by society. Would someone think it right to offer a ‘cancer patient’ costume? Maybe, but they would very soon be told how offensive they were being. Partypackage Ltd and Wonderlandparty – consider yourselves named and shamed. When, if ever, are you likely to enter civilised society?

Is there an answer to this? In one word, the answer is ‘education.’ Better education, from an early age, about the effects of mental illness, its causes and treatments, and a basic sense of human decency and courtesy in dealing with sufferers, will of course help to improve the situation. But it is facile to say this and expect it somehow to happen by some process of osmosis. This will take a huge amount of time, effort and resources to encourage people out of behaviours which have been developed over centuries. Here in the UK funding – as I showed yesterday – is being diverted away from mental health treatments, so it would be naive in the extreme to expect an enormous amount of money to be found for the education programme which is so badly needed. The fact that a candidate for the US presidency can go public with mockery of people with disabilities – and people defend him – suggests that this isn’t only an issue in my country, either.

Many organisations are involved in providing education around mental health issues. But they rely largely on donations, and are not as far as I’m aware in receipt of Government funding – if I’m wrong in that I’d be happy to put the record straight! Even so, resources are limited: there would still be many who would not be reached by such a message or are too entrenched in their views and prejudices to want to hear it.

Can I do anything about this? Can you? It’s very easy to assume that being little people inside a vast machine means that we can’t help. But we can. Take some time to learn more about this. Visit websites like the Mental Health Foundation or Time To Change and see what others are saying about their experiences. If you’re in the US you can click on the logo at the top of this site to get to the Stand Up site. Then share this knowledge with friends and family. As the saying goes, ‘great oaks from little acorns grow’ and we can all do our bit to increase awareness. After all, one in four of us is affected by a mental health problem at some point in our life, so it may be closer to home than you might think!