All this health advice will take years off my life

To the doctor's for my MOT. Apparently those over a certain age get a free one on the NHS. And to think I'd only gone in to see if I needed an EpiPen in case I got stung by a wasp. There are too many of them around these days for my liking, and the stung part of me swells up like Giles Coren's ego.

My new fear is that I will take a swig from a can into which one has fallen, and my throat will close up and I will die unless someone performs an emergency tracheotomy on me with a Biro, which will mar my unconventional good looks and make me speak with a raspy voice for ever. Or worse, with a squeak, like the dog that swallows a toy ball in Snatch.

I needn't worry. Just don't drink things out of cans. As if following a train of thought, the locum who is telling me, in effect, not to be such a baby looks at my notes on the screen.

“And how is it going with the alcohol dependency?" she asks.

“Fine," I say. "I'm in a good place with that." (Quip © Homer Simpson.)

Testing times

Yet it is a thoughtful N Lezard who walks back to the Hovel, stopping off at Majestic to spend the last of my funds (terrible cash-flow problems, as usual) on a couple of bottles of bargain Shiraz. I seem to have crept up past the one-bottle-a-night mark over the past couple of years. (Strangely, however, my capacity for beer has decreased.)

Anyway, the night before the test, I have a couple of friends over, or maybe I don't, the details are a little hazy at this distance, but the general point is that, through sheer momentum, I don't get to bed until about three, and blood is going to be taken out of me for careful scrutiny at ten the next morning.

I will be tested for liver function and cholesterol, I gather. Well, there are some days when I wake up wondering whether I've broken my liver, and I don't really eat anything apart from cholesterol, so I'm not feeling very gung-ho about the prospect.

And nor am I feeling very much more so, sitting in the nurse's surgery and trying to assure her that I won't faint when she puts the needle in my arm. (A little impatient with my fear of needles, she concedes with a chuckle that at least I won't have been injecting heroin. I think I mentioned this nurse in a column a year or so back - she's the Chinese one with a rather dark sense of humour and no illusions about the strength of human willpower. I like her.)

Anyway, the blood is taken out very professionally and I am very brave, and I don't lie about how much I smoke, though I lie a little bit about how much I exercise, and she doesn't ask me how much I drink, though perhaps from my breath she doesn't need to, and I am very good at standing up to be measured and weighed.

“You slim!" she says when she puts the tape measure round my gut, and I'm pretty sure "slim" here is an adjective, not an imperative, because I'm holding my stomach in a bit.

You have to wait a week or so for the results, which means that one has time to dream up a proper, exciting worst-case scenario. I take the kids to see my parents for Sunday lunch, and, because I'm not driving, I allow myself the pre-lunch snifter my father invariably offers me, as well as an extra glass of red with lunch.

My mother, always on the qui vive for signs of my doom, tells me of a recent conversation she had with my sister-in-law, who is a consultant haematologist and therefore knows whereof she speaks. Given my lifestyle, my mother asked her, how long did she reckon I had to live? It seems I am due to peg out some time in my sixties.

Sweet sixties

“As a matter of fact," I say nonchalantly, "I recently had a check-up and they said everything was fine."

My mother looks at me suspiciously and I change the subject, hoping I haven't tempted fate too far this time.

My sixties! Jesus. They start in 12 years' time, which is, like, nothing.

The rest of the week is spent carefully monitoring the strange aches and twinges that one normally allows to pass unchallenged in the daily ebb and flow of existence. I don't exactly start drinking less, but I do worry more each time I pour a glass. Does that help? (Mother, if you're reading this: I exaggerate wildly for comic effect.)

Well, you can imagine the punchline. My blood pressure is at the exemplary end of the range, my liver purring along like a Rolls-Royce. And if the cholesterol is a fraction too high, it's nothing to worry about.

Really, there's no justice.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.