Dont buy the Sun.

Dont buy the Sun.
Hillsborough Justice campaign - Remember the 96.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Fridaythorpe and Thixendale

On Ella Street, we meet one of our neighbours, Darren. He's glancing at the Ella Street Community Notice Board - one of the last in Hull, but still thriving. The noticeboard is brilliant, its full of local wildlife sightings - kestrels killing pigeons, hedgehogs sleeping in rosebushes and deer wandering down the freight line that runs across the back of the houses opposite. The board also, via a series of badly photocopied letters, posts the ongoing correspondence between the Ella Street Greenies and the local council. I'm proud to say that there is no greener street in Hull, and ashamed to say that, (insulating our house aside), the committees' successes in greening our verges, reducing traffic and distributing bat boxes, bees hives and bird food, as well as its involvement in community education and a local skill-swap economy, have absolutely nothing to do with us.

The ESCN is a regular stop for all residents on the way back from the local stores. Where other villages and communities have gone digital and launched badly designed websites (that people read in the privacy of their own homes - an irony that is almost sublime)the ESCN is a meeting point - people plan and gossip, chat and discuss, and gather on the corner when new notices are posted. But despite the active communalism that the board (and the street) has developed and the society-changing ideals often expressed; despite the seriously intelligent activism of committee members and ideological debates that rage into the night concerning Foucault and Friere, Indian micro-credit schemes, feminism and freeganism; despite a commitment to food sharing of free range, locally grown, micro-biotic hemp flavoured raw carrots; despite all this, the most important, eagerly viewed and regularly maintained section of the board is "Kittens: Lost and Found".

As we meet Darren by the board, RHB smiles broadly. "Did you have a good Christmas?" she asks

"OK" says Darren. Actually, Darren's accent is very strongly local, so it sounds like "Orc Haw".

RHB, then notices that Darren's been peering at the board. "You're not getting another one are you?" she asks.

Dareen sighs, but is smiling "No, but I think Meg's pregnant again" he says.

At this point, I should add the observational notes that:

a). I have left my glasses in the house. Now this should'nt affect one's cognitive functions, or any of one's other senses, unless of course, you believe in the science of Brain Gym, as exemplified in this section from the Brain Gym website, under the Section "Responses to Criticism":


BGTE: “The Brain Buttons . . . are massaged deeply with one hand while holding the
navel with the other hand. . . . “ They activate the brain for “sending messages from
the right brain hemisphere to the left side of the body, and vice versa; receiving
increased oxygen; stimulation of the carotid artery for increased blood supply to the
brain; an increased flow of electromagnetic energy.”

Professor David Atwell, neuroscientist:
“There is no evidence that rubbing these
areas promotes signaling from the right brain to the left side of the body. The brain
would only receive increased oxygen if its blood flow increased, but stimulating
receptors in the carotid sinus leads to a fall of cardiac output and potentially a
decreased oxygen flow to the brain. Massage of these points does not generate
electromagnetic energy in the form of radiated light, heat or radio waves.”

The Dennisons: Students frequently report that, when they stimulate these points,
they experience immediate improvement in left-right/right-left coordination of the
eyes and whole body, for clarity of vision and improved reading and contralateral
movement. We hypothesize that these points are electrical reflex points, and that

through their stimulation oxygen becomes more available. By “electromagnetic
energy,” we mean that subtle form of energy attested to by thousands of years of
acupuncture and traditional healing as well as a growing body of biomedical

b). Liverpool played an extremely tense match last night. The rollercoaster of emotions linked to this used up most of my emotional intelligence[Note that if you access this link, you will see that the page is "scientifically validated", therefore this concept must be true]and therefore the social 'bit' (technically speaking) of my brain, is probably quite tired and sleepy.

Hence, when returning to the bit of our conversation with Darren where he announced that Meg was pregnant, I am a little bit dozy. Not up to speed, so to speak. Probably, my Brain Buttons need a good rub. I am also labouring under the disadvantage that while RHB, in keeping with how many females communicate, knows most people by name : Darren, Simon, Russ, Tom, Claire, etc etc, I employ the male method, so that to me, the same people are: "Mate", "Our Kid", "Big Guy", "La" (this a Liverpool expression), "Geezer" and "Hello" (this latter is for ladies, out of respect). Feeling the need to contribute, I congratulate Darren fulsomely on his news:

"That's brilliant, mate.Congratulations. You'll need a bigger house. I could do your extension for you", I joke. Then, I think, and sensitively ask "I'm saying that, but is it what you both want".

Darren shrugs "Last time I was surprised, it was just twins, but we were lucky. Someone down the road wanted a black one, and someone else wanted a white one, so we were able to get rid of them".

Naturally, I'm speechless, and even RHB seems anxious to end a neighbourly conversation. I have a bad taste in my mouth, and am thinking of Darren in a new, not particularly pleasant, light. We retire to Large Mansions quickly and discuss pastrami for lunch. Suddenly I am very tired. I do a quick Elephant (copyright Brain Gym 759-2010AD. Then it occurs to me.

"Nel" I ask tentatively "Erm, that conversation we had with, er, Meg, erm...."

RHB is laughing "Yes. Meg is their cat. Clare is Darren's girlfriend."

Yesterday, language was also on the menu. RHB, who is apparently capable of having birthdays without ageing, wanted a walk to signify her naissance. So we headed off to Thrixendale, about an hour north of here, there to wonder at the desrted medieval village of Wharrem Percy, news of which can be found here, (although you will have to register to access the important information enclosed) , or perhaps, more sensibly here. The road to Thrixendale, however, was wonderfully snow-blocked, inaccessible to cars, so parked Igor (a colleague's car) and just walked from Fridaythorpe to Thrixendale, with a limited excursion of about four miles (seven kilometres) along a series of deserted, frozen ridges - farmed, but empty. I have assembled an album, featuring the walk, plus a few other photos of our holiday activities below:

Christmas 2009

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Happy Christmas

At Large Mansions, emotions are running high:

"I'm so angry at you I could faint" says Sal, before slumping down into one of our Canadian acquired swivel chairs, like a rag doll returning to a state of inanimatedivity at the stroke of midnight.

It is however,much later, it is four am, and we have consumed several of the bottles of champagne that we thought we had overbought. Ridiculously (at about two am) someone notes that we shoud make plans to purchase more the next day as we are "close to running out". At two am, this observation is calmly nodded assent by all as if it is a perfectly sensible proposal.

The cause of Sal's anger is, I believe, an optimism expressed by Will and myself, and furthermore, I think that the subject over which we were expressing same was politics. Unfortunately, and in a circular vein, I cannot verify this because, de facto, we were all talking utter rubbish. This at least is fact, but should not be a cause for the immediate approbation of any one individual, because indubitably, most human conversations are utter rubbish. It's only the punchlines that matter. Hence, over the next few days, someone only has to tell another that they are 'getting so angry they are going to faint' and hilarity ensues. Another meme has been born.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Twas the eve of............

Tool using octpii, chimps and fire, chimps and teaching. Ok, maybe some of these links demonstrate the type of research that yu wuld expect from a Second Year Undergraduate - copy and paste and there's "my" argument, but there are deeper veins running underneath all of this, and there is very good research in the peer reviewed literature supporting a lot of these observations.

RHB and I were discussing these matters while shpping yesterday. More specifically, we were discussing the dangers of taking information like that presented above ie a shorthand reportage of primary source evidence and resurrecting that evidence to say something entirely different. An example of this type of stupidity might be the burgeoning belief in Brain Gym, the newest fad to sweep Educational Circles. Check out this quote from Brain Gym UK, describing one part of their programme:

"Repatterning: A sequence of movements, unique to Brain Gym, which involves co-ordinated eye and motor movements to encourage fluid whole body movement."

THe actual movements consist of rubbing your noodle vigourously in order to stimulate your "thinking buds"....but under the section "How Brain Gym Works":

The investigation of the neuroscience that underpins Brain Gym is an eagerly awaited project for the future. We can only at the present time hypothesise about why without actually knowing.

Then there is the frequently answered questions page of another Brain Gym website, which makes very scary reading.

This is all scary, because, as with Learning Styles, some educators have adopted Brain Gym with frightening speed.

Monday, 21 December 2009

The Shortest Day

Before we begin, I should get it over with. This is our Christmas contribution.

Well, its arrived, and,I may say, not before time either. To What, you might ask, is reference being made,comma question mark, that is if references can be made instead of copying and pasting from Wikipedia.In answer I can conform that Reference is towards two things really, firstly the shortest day. And secondly, confirmation that I am officially a Cannuck. Well, sort of on the second one.

The shortest day is come and gone, and frankly, good riddance to the thing. Over the last few weeks it has, (in the parlance of texting and the numerous conservative and neo-liberal blog sites that my avator Callisandra remorselessly harries), IMHO hardly been worth arising from the pile of cats, partner and blankets that is the Second Least Unfinished Room at Large Mansions. No sooner that eyes have peered over the edge of the duvet then its time reaccomodate the poor things to a hastening gloom. For myself, the window of opportunity to actually do anything is further reduced because after nearly half a century of practice, I still havent mastered the art of putting anything in the same place twice. While in spring, summer and slightly beyond, there is relatively little harm done, at least in terms of VOH (Viable Operational Hours)by these habits, in these dark days of winter three quarters of an hour spent pretending not to look for my glasses (it ceased being cute to RHB about fifteen years ago and now she just gets annoyed) represents about a quarter of the day wasted. A further fifteen minutes for keys, twelve for ATM cards, six for bike lock, cape and leggings and twenty five for the detailed "to do" list that we compiled the previous night and half the day is gone. In truth, I may as well just reduce the unnecessary expenditure of energy and go to bed in mid-November, waking bright and refreshed on January the fourth. But now, the equinox has passed. From here on in, its all going to get better - longer days, light improves, optimism reborne. There is only the minor inconvenience of a tax return, three essays and an exam to complete and life can, once again, be lived to the full.

THe second item on our agenda, is the "sort of" confirmation of my Canadianness. Aware that this entry has the potential to be a growing tablature of self confessed failings, I should note that I am really good at growing mustard plants. Unfortunately, I have suddenly realised that this is also not a great advertisement for my accomplishments because from growing mustrad as a soil improvement crop that I was supposed to "till" back into the soil, sometime in August, the reason I have brought them up at all is that they are still there in my garden, patiently awaiting execution. I am, in this spirit of ongoing confession, quite forgetful. And before hoisting myself on my own petard of forgetfulness, I was about to describe another failing, namely that of putting things off till the last moment and how it nearly led to me not being Canadian. So, onwards with the Canadian thing....the "sort of" status of my citizenship.

When we arrived in Canada, I hadnt really devoted any reflection to the future possibilities of nationality that might comprise issues for sombre and serious consideration over the years that might stretch out ahead of us. Matters of loyalty, of governance, ethical and moral questions, of affiliation and history, knowledge and culture all point to the complex of emotional and intellectual rationalisations that should be given proper consideration when deciding one's national allegiances. With this in mind, the five seconds after arriving on Canadian soil for the first time that it took me to decide that I wanted "in", might seem less than indicated by due process, but anyone saying that has never landed at what is effectively the middle of a pine forest (Halifax airport) in August, at dusk, when the scent of pine is at its most fragrant and the horizon is at its biggest. And they have particularly not landed there from Birmingham, England. And they have doubly not done so under the influence of 8o milligrams of the finest Valium the British National Health Service can provide.

Despite this imperative desire, it was partly in consequence of the fact that I sometimes (read 'ALWAYS') slightly (read 'ALWAYS')tend (read 'ALWAYS')to procrastinate slightly (read 'IGNORE DEADLINES COMPLETELY')when completing official forms (read 'WHEN COMPLETING OFFICIAL FORMS')that I failed to apply for citizenship at the first available opportunity. In truth, my slight procrastination is so acute that it was only as I was leaving Canada, some ten years after arriving for the first time, that I actually got round to applying for citizenship and thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. Which is possibly why, as I was on the phone today, inquiring about the status of my citizenship application ( a mere two years after submitting the relevant forms) that the helpful person from the Canadian High Commission in LOndon was slightly sceptical about the urgency of my case. Gwen, as we'll call her (as unCanadian a name as it is possible to invent), when she eventually unravelled my circumstances was sceptical:

"I just dont understand why it has taken you this long to firstly apply, secondly why you applied when you did, and thirdly why you have left it two years to make enquiries about the status of your form?"

"Well, I just didnt want to bother anyone, I suppose" I said "Besides which, its NOT urgent. We are not planning on moving back to Canada soon. Although" I added in the vain hope that The High Commission would just happen to have been recently informed of a joint research post in Euroscience and anthropological education studies awaiting in Happy Valley and were embarked, at all levels, on a global search to find the elusive perfect team for same, "we would go back if we could."

"So when do you plan return to Canada?" said Gwen "sometime in the next five years?"

"Er, I dont know"

"Next ten years?"

"Erm, maybe, let me see...well er, no. Probably. But if things change, we could go back next year."

"Is that likely?"

"Er, no. Actually, I just want the passport. Just in case."

"Perhaps if I can explain sthings a different way? " said Gwen "The whole point of immigration departments is to deal with cases of people who are actually emigrating to somewhere. If you excuse me sir, you dont seem to be going anywhere. Is that correct?"

"Well, I suppose so" I said "but my wife obtained citizenship when she was out of the country and I thought I could do the same...."

There was a slight pause, then "Your wife is a Canadian citizen?"

"Why yes. I thought you guys just knew?"

"How would we just know?" Gwen asked.

"Dunno" (slightly sulky this)"thought you just did"

Gwen paused for a little longer then said " You havent written it on your citizenship application. It is the most important factor in determining entitlement. As a member of the family class, you are entitled to citizenship........may I put you on hold sir?...."

A few minutes later, Gwen returned with the welcome news that she had checked my files including my original documentation as a landed immigrant, and she happily can confirm that RHB is not only a citizen, but is also my wife. Furthermore, continuing to live with RHB, even thouh we live in HUll, counts as living on Canadian soil. Therefore, I am de facto a Canadian citizen. In principle, my application has been accepted. All that remains are the formalities, which present a considerable difficulty, because technically, when I applied for citizenship, I applied to the wrong office. In a fit of stupidity that I can only describe as 'not uncharacteristic', I managed to misinterpret the relevant instructions on the original form and sent my form to the St John's office in Newfoundland. AS I was actually living in the UK at the time, I should have sent my form to the HIgh Commission in London. After some discussion, the best advice is to wait until I return to Canada, contact the ST John office and arrange a swearing in. Other options involve re-processing, more money and the possibilitiy that I'll do something else to derail the process. In the end, I am satisfied. I am Canadian, sort of. English, sort of. Irish, a bit and somewhat Scouse.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Year of the Grad


"Adbh-duse be, dere's ur boil-ehs?" I ask.

"Boilers sir ? Second aisle, heating services" the assistant answers, somewhat warily.

"Doh, doh..." I am suddenly extremely angry, and I can tell, not only by the expression on the assistant's face, but also by the strange sensations in my left cheek that I am changing colour with the rapidity of a cuttle-fish in heat, flashing alternately bright red then pale green "DOH....Bant to buy a DOYLET...excuse me..."

A flurry of paper tissue flies out of every pocket, the warehouse spins impressively and an explosive sneeze brings me to a low crouch. When, and only when, I am satisfied that there will be no more sneezes, I force the mass of sodden ex-tree back into every pocket that isnt already full of wet tissue, and slowly unbend like a Maori warrior at the end of his haka. The assistant is no-where to be seen. I suddenly need the toilet so I run to customer services, past the "out of order" sign on the mens toilet and grab a cubicle, undoing my pants as I enter. The toilet is completely devoid of water. This is what I believe is known as a connundrum. In an act of stupidity that proves Douglas' theories regarding 'matter out of place' I reassemble my garb, leave the men's washroom and enter the women's. Frantically I fling myself into the appropriate space.

What to do after presents another connundrum, because now, I am 'matter out of place' and this is England. I can hear that a party has entered and is hovering outside the cubicle next to mine loudly shouting at a tearful child to hurry up. I decide to act, so I brazenly open the door and wash my hands. The 'lady' with child looks at me, outraged, so I offer " 'ext oor's doken, and I bad do ...". She shoots me a disbelieving look, so I dry hands quickly and leave, wondering whether that evening she'll tell her partner about this, possibly in the bathroom they share as they are getting ready for bed.

All of which is a long way of describing that at the moment, the lurgy that affected RHB last week has now hit your author with, if anything, double the intensity. After three days, I started forgetting what "normal" is, and it was only in a mood of defiance and utter boredom on day four and a half that I irresponsibly (in terms of spreading this to other people) decided to venture out at all. At first, the illness was convenient, co-inciding with a need to write 10,000 words on matters academical by 18th January. The days went well - I would write most of the day, happily sniffling to myself, with a close eye on the clock, then as the time approached that RHB was due home I would prepare a soothing cold remedy, keeping an even closer ear on the sound of the front door opening. As it opened, I would hurl myself into the bedroom, dive under the covers and try to look as sick as possible,pathetically sipping my remedy, all in the vain hope of extending RHB's notoriously short "zone of proximal sympathy". Needless to say, it didnt work, and even more, by day four I was completely bored with me being ill, but I had at least finished 3000 words.

Having said all that, no matter how much I enjoy writing, it does tend to involve ideas. Ideas, like cats, are troublesome things - they sleep most of the time, hardly stirring, and infinitely capable of looking after themselves as long as you dont disturb them. But, if you do (foolishly) start playing with them, they get incredibly excited, and like cats, they just will not leave you alone. They prowl round and round the room, rumbling softly, rubbing themselves against your legs and generally getting underfoot. Unlike dogs though, cats (and ideas) are not obedient, they are unpredictable - just as you think you understand the game, they skittishly shoot off at a tangent, then stop suddenly to give themselves a good groom. There's no "down boy" with ideas. Or cats. So I find the best idea is to just leave them alone every now and then, ignore them completely and they'll settle down. That is my excuse for needing an excursion to buy a toilet, and is also the longest preamble even I have ever written to what I originally meant to write in this post. So I have, in an almost unprecedented act, edited this post, gone back to the start, and entered "PART ONE" so you can come back to "PART TWO" on another occasion.

PART TWO.How we got the cats.....

The original idea behind this entry was to bring you a series of seasonal-ish feelgood stories, bearing in mind that if we humans had any sense at all, we would do what this season is really for which is to hunker down under a big pile of fur, swap a few tales and not emerge until Spring. This story is mostly, in the spirit of the season, a way of saying "Thanks" to Ethan and Sue.

The Year of the Grad, by our measurement of time, is that great period that lasted somewhere between two and a half and three calendar years when we were in London, Ontario and was the height of our friendship with CCP and Toly's previous owner, J Culham. [Incidentally, Toly, JC's former cat now resides happily with JC's mum on gthe great Northern Plains and JC herself has two new cats.] The reason this period of our lives was The Year of the Grad was that despite its other shortcomings, London, at the time, boasted the best University bar in the world - the GRAD pub.

Not because of decor, or ales, and certainly not because of the food. And not because of the crap bar bands that would occasionally play rubbish CW, but possibly because of layout. Also the habits of the staff who were in post tended towards the social. THere was also a converge of practices within departments such that quite a few departments actively encouraged collaboration, not only within, but also across departments. So Mel Goodale and others formed the Group on Action and Perception in psychology, and the Physics department was grouped into a spectacularly successful(according to them) world leading group on fluids. The result was that at the Grad pub, on Friday nights, the oak table effect was in full force as people gathered to enthusiastically discuss ideas, life and hockey. There were also, in a very academic fashion, huge amounts of hormones flying round the room. The essential component of any fundamentally good human experience ie sex, was present in full force.

Six on Friday would find the grad pub packed with brains, all happily jostling at the bar (there were a lot of English people there), and once served, groups would cram themselves in to the rows of refectory style tables arranged across the room. The place got pretty crowded, dividing lines between groups would be blurred, and given the transitory nature of academia, new people were always coming or going, so after a few pints it was not unusual to find yourself talking to a maths guy in the mistaken belief he was a clinical psychologist. RHB, naturally, would often join in conversations with other groups, introducing herself and all of our group and inviting them out to dinner, which is why, when I watched Liverpool's 2005 triumph in Istanbul at the Grad pub, I was with a group consisting of a Moroccan chemist, a Brazilian-Japanese technology guy, two Dutch historians and about seven physicists, including German Martin. These were good times.

During the Year of the Grad, Sue, Nel's cousin and occasional reader of these missives, came to visit, along with Ethan, her seven year old boy. At the time of Sue's visit, I mostly had to work, which was unfortunate, but every evening, Ethan and I would go to the local park and kick a soccer ball around. As for days out, well South West Ontario is not the most interesting place for visitors - it is flat and practically featureless. The nearby Great Lakes look like any other crappy seaside and there's no history that hasnt disappeared under highways or shopping malls, so a degree of inventiveness was required to come up with really things to do. Ethan had, after all, travelled a huge distance and we wanted him to have fun. We went to Niagara, a small forest and did a lot of driving.

One day, we decided to go to a corn maze in a nearby farm. The maize was fun and the farm even better, because the farmers were young and wanted to show us (me and Ethan) their tractors. Next to the entrance of the maze was a huge falling down barn. We raced off into the maze and had great fun getting totally lost, and my memory, which is of course perfect, tells me that me and Ethan teamed up and won, completing the maze in record time. What actually happened was that I wandered out dead last, having found only two of the fourteen markers. RHB was waiting for me

"You have to come look in the barn". She was smiling.

It took me a second to accommodate to the gloom of the barn, but when I did, there was movement everywhere. Over huge haystacks, under machines, climbing on stable dividers and crawling out of sacks were twenty three kittens, pouncing, fighting and chasing. It is debatable who's eyes were wider - the kittens or my companions. The farmer joined us.

"Arent they cute?" she asked needlessly "I really want to keep them, but...we just cant look after them all. So...."

Ethan can be described in many ways. Energetic, boyish, friendly, grown up for his age, football crazy, but one thing Ethan can never be described as is 'stupid'. He glanced quickly at Sue, and RHB, and asked ".....'so' what? What happens if you cant look after them all". His eyes were wide, but maybe also, as can be observed if you examine even the most 'innocent' child very carefully, slightly calculating. He used the same eyes to glance again at RHB. Her eyes were bright.

On the drive home, lists of 'Who could take the cats?' began to be drawn up. There was no question that we would take two, although six was the initial number proposed. A few days later, Ethan and Sue's visit ended. Over the next few weeks, this search for homes for the moggies grew into a campaign, with Nel, and Jo, the farmer (with whom she wasby now of course, firm friends) exchanging e-mails, and suggestions. Two weeks later we picked up Calli and Tosh in one small cat carrier and drove them home. We put the cats in a quiet room to let them settle down and headed for the internet, googling "How to Look Afer cats". The advice was to keep them in a small quiet area until they got used to their new home, so we dutifully spent the next week watching the cats escape from every quiet area we constructed and run behind the couch. They got their shots that week, but pretty soon were playing furiously. By the end of the week we needed a drink.

At the Grad pub, I bumped into Ommi, one of the physics gang.

"How's it going?" I asked, glad to see a friendly face.

He sniffed noisily and he was pronouncing all his constanants as "b" or "D". "Oh,ok, dust bot these alledies, dou know.."

"That sucks" I said, "...hayfever?"

"Nah" said Ommi " My bife dot this e-bail brom dumdere about all these dad cads bat beed bescuing and bot wod d'out belling be... bind of as subise. But I'b allergic. 's a real bain. I hade bats. WB'here are dou buys sibbing?"

Monday, 14 December 2009

'Confused' of Hull

Confused, discombobulated, experiencing cognitive dissonance, unable to sleep, undecided, indecisive, alarmed, optimistic, supremely pessimistic, prone to nightmares, perturbed and with an immense urge to drink enormous quantities of alcohol.
And that describes only how I feel about the shortest of the three essays I have to complete by January 18th.

The problem is that I used to have an easy life which chiefly consisted of mixing with the perpetually halitosic whiners that constitute "joiners" in the UK, drinking as much as it was possible to on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday and simply working for a living. The biggest, most creative and grandest thoughts were mostly given to how I could avoid doing things - overtime, loading trucks, going for a drink with "the lads", taking on extra unpaid responsibility and these plans were constrained mostly because the solutions availabe were:

...becoming a pop star
... winning the lottery
.... having such a serious industrial injury that I either had to retire(on a handsome compensation packet) and therefore could'nt work or died as a result of the serious industrial injury (without compensation being directly available to me) and therefore could'nt work.

As I had, a few years ago, passed the age at which so much wealth was accumulated in a short time via pop stardom that work became unnecessary, and I had no intention of being hurt or dying I had one option - the lottery. I did have two barriers to my lottery plan:

- a serious political objection on the grounds that it is essentially another tax on poor people combined with a contention that all of us already pay to much tax and the things we are paying for via the lottery (school books, sports facilities for kids and theatre) should already be paid from our current taxes.

- kept forgetting to buy any tickets.

So education was decided. I was advised I would 'enjoy' it. I was told I would be 'good' at it. It would be 'rewarding' was the nod I recieved. And would, in the future, lead to better opportunities.

So friggin what?

I mean, if all this education malarkey i s going to be like the last week - continually questioning perfectly good prejudices that I've had for years, I have to ask if it is of any value at all. And I am not the only one. The new vice dean or chancellor, or whatever he is, of our University, shares my distaste for knowledge. And we are not alone - most politicians, in a mood reflective of the current economic climate, want nothing to do with anything that tells them anything. What is demanded, apparently is, in the vernacular of joinery, 'stuff that does shit'. [I should emphasize here that the emphasis of that sentence should not be on the 'does shit' bit, but on the 'stuff' part. In the interests of brevity, I should therefore rephrase my typification as "What is demanded, is practical applications that make money"].

Isnt this the real world, I hear the cry? Well, it is, like my essays, a little more complicated than that. Despite the fact that Team Antikythera lost last week's debate on the relevance of genius in Innovation (a clearer case of tactical voting I have never seen, and a travesty of justice as our opposition turned up thinking they had to argue our case which resulted in their case being a hastily flung together mish-mash of "erms", "likes" and "its just obvious"s)the question of genius relating to the development of technology is fairly clear. Genii, or inventors (although obvioulsy not all genii are inventors and vice versa) tend to be broody coves, a little bit eccentric, insular. Trousers, when they remeber to wear them tend to be too short. Underwear is often worn outside the breech and hair is invariably unkempt. This is because, quite unlike cats (who you wil notice are usually very well kempt unless one throws them out in the rain because of incessant miaowing when one is trying to type), genii (or inventors) have their minds on higher things - "truths" as one bright spark described it.

But technology, and society, does not move forward on ideas alone. Someone has to use the brilliant ideas of the inventors. These people are innovators. They are invariably smooth, slightly untrustworthy, perhaps glib. Like cats, they are perfectly groomed, and, like cats, the uppermost thought in their mind is "What's in it for me?". Innovators license or agree copyright renumeration (=steal) the ideas of inventors and apply them to the real world as surely as a cat will attempt to lick the butter off your toast. Inventors are incapable of doing this because they are too busy being trapped in phone boxes or tying both sets of showlaces together or have just moved on to the next invention, trouserless.

The relationship is symbiotic, and for many years, it has sort of worked in a system of Universities and sponsorship and patronage. [I say "sort of" because we do live within societies that are stratified, so that despite overwhelming evidence, the freedom to be a genius or inventor has, until recently only been afforded to the upper (financial) echelons. I am left wondering that if the net had been cast more widely we would have had more, and better, inventors, although it is harder from someone from humble origins be a genius because clogs didnt have shoelaces]. But now, the "business" model has pervaded all. Inventors, it is declared, must do stuff or die.

This new model is thoroughly in line with the paradigms of our times. To create a better health service, more administration (not of medicines) is needed. To educate people more effectively, more inspections of the process (without fundamentally learning from those inspections) must be done. To reduce traffic, more roads must be built. We have learnt nothing from the Greeks, those masters of imbalance. To the Greeks, genius was everything, but doing anything was distasteful. The Greeks were too busy worrying about shadows on walls and inventing words like epistemology to bother with innovators. I am very afraid that our gravestone will read "Good at making vacuum cleaners".

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


After the third time of asking, I am inclined to enact the full joke. If I did so, the full joke would go something like this:

MAZZER: "Sorry to disturb you, but can I just use that computer for three minutes to print off one tiny thing? As soon as I'm done, I'll be gone"

STUDENT : "Well. I dunno....I'm very busy....."

MAZZER : "So it's 'no' then?"

STUDENT : "Well, I got all this stuff to do..."

MAZZER: "Not even just two minutes? Its a real emergency..."

STUDENT; "Well - isnt there another computer free. I'm really busy. Sorry, and all but..."

MAZZER : "OK, no problem. I guess that means a shag is out of the question then?"

Not, I must emphasize that this conversation actually occured. And not that I am not at fault for failing to print off what I need to print off, but it is three minutes to two (or 'of two' if you are Canadian) and Team Antikythera meets at two. I have completely forgotten to print off my contribution ot the group and am searching the library desperate for a computer, one I can hijack just long enough to print a page or two fo A4. Failing utterly to find someone who is willing to eschew Facebook long enough to let me print my pages, I head to the photocopiers and make badly photocopied version of my notes. There's no way Rhian, or Joe is going to accept these, let alone agree to wear the big cardboard boxes on their heads that I have devised as essential elements in my plan to enhance the arguments of two great philosophers.

Yes, its seminar time again, and this time Team Antikythera are the prosecution, fiercely pressing the point that "Genius is a useful concept in understanding Innovation". Unlike our last debate, where, (as my colleague Ed phrased it), we stoutly argued that the Greeks and Romans were NOT technological underachievers but were in fact the first environmentalists - while we in fact felt like we were "defending a murderer" - Team Antikythera, at least for this debate, believes we are on the side of the angels. So much so that we have enlisted the philosophers Schonenbauer and Kant to the same team (which is a bit like having Monbiot and Pilmer join forces, or even more unlikely, Steven Harper and anyone with a brain)and have decided to rid ourselves entirely of the cheap tricks that won us the last debate. We decide to rid ourslves of the cheap tricks that won us the last debate, that is, until I point out that accuracy in debate is one thing, but how did it feel to win last time? We immediately examine the possibilities of wearing large cardboard boxes on our heads, each of a different size and labelled in semi permanent marker "Einstein's brain - enlarged thinking bit" or "Typical Fascist Brain - note smaller cognitive areas" - such devices would undoubtedly make a big visual impact.

The great thing about all of this, is that where the first debate was essentially the product of Joe's hard, solid historiographic work and my cheap debating tactics, in this second debate the team is all onside - solid, determined and goal oriented. Ideas, and laughter, flow. Now it doesnt matter whether we win or lose - the oak tables that my mate JJ dreamt about when we both first started at University have become a reality - idea are discussed, dissected, debated. Cravats are donned and briar stemmed pipes are waved at eachother as facts, philosophies, ideas and opinions are fly round the room like a million Congolese Fruit bats taking off from the roost. Eventually though, one of the team needs to go and sort out a problem with her rented accomodation, so we part, leaving R to find the accomodation officer and discuss whether mice eating her food is a reasonable problem for her to deal with or whether the landlord should invest in a few traps.

I walk home through the perpetual grey English rain, my mood so elevated that there are only minor regrets that it is not minus C and snowing, and find RHB at home in the middle of the day. This is almost a surprise. Almost, because RHB has been ill for a few days now (with one of the minor but extremely inconveniencing "bugs" that - we have convinced ourselves - we never used to get in Canada) but I have become accustomed to the fact that like most boffins, ill or not, RHB would usually be happier at work falsifying data and plotting to usurp the peer review procedure than have a day off work, even when very sick. The fact that she is at home, and under about fourteen duvets and six cats is enough to cause a degree of concern.

I examine the patient closely and am relieved - there is no temperature, only a slight reddening flush of the cheeks (which I have to admit makes her even more attractive) and she has come home not in desperation, but in wisdom, as she feels "a bit better today" but still weak. I toy with the notion of telling her that two nights previoulsy, the sight of her simultaneously vomiting and crying at four am was (in the event of her not actually dying) quite a humourous image(if one discounts the undoubted distress experienced by the vomiter), but decide she's not well enough yet. Instead, I bore her into sleep (the best remedy) with a detailed explanation of Merton's views on genius.

Genius cannot be defined. There's no doubt in my mind that there exists a state, or possibly individuals, who reveal to the world a thing that can be objectively described as truth. Picasso's Guernica, Einstein's work, Darwin's evolution, Shakespeare's plays, Laurel and Hardy's Piano moving sketch and the first person to domesticate cats spring to mind as examples of global genius, but maybe individuals can also generate moments of genius that only apply to their on lives. I look at RHB sleeping (and thankfully just ill and not dead), wholly responsible for my current situation as a student and decide that this idea, while not empirically testable, is also probably true.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Good Aztec

"Hold him closer to the flames, Anacoana" said Huemac, the Good Aztec, "otherwise he'll never learn"

Anacoana dutifully lowered the struggling child closer the flames of the fire while Huemac poked more cactus spines(dipped in chilli oil) into the soft flesh of the boy's thigh. After about five more minutes, Huemac nodded and Anacoana let the child go. Huemac addressed the child solemnly:

"Now son, do you understand how important it is not to make your toy houses more than one storey high?...." The boy nodded "....and why?" asked Huemac. "Yes" said Huemac's son, "The Jaguar God doesnt like us to have houses more than one storey high. Unless we're nobles, its an insult to Heaven and we should be killed if we build a two strorey house. Or wear cotton. Or cough from the left side of our mouths. " Satisfied, Huemac turned to Anacoana "Give him some extra cocaine with his chocolate at bedtime - he's been a good boy to accept his punishment and learn from it."

Huemac threw on a cloak and headed for the door. "I'm off to watch our oldest lad at the ball game. Hopefully he'll score a few goals and have his still beating heart ripped out of his chest later tonight" he said, but just as he was about to step outside, a final thought struck him, so he turned back to Anacoana "Make sure you wrap the little one's head tightly - it's not pointy enough. If that kid's head isnt as pointy as an arrow by the spring plantings, he'll wont grow up clever enough to be an architect."

All of which explains why evolutionary psychologists are, fundamentally, wrong.

I should, perhaps, expand. Throughout the voyages that constitute my scholarly endeavours, I have been subjected to a barrage of theories, models and paradigms on learning. Fairly soon after starting my degree, it became obvious that rather than a neat procession of modelling, experimentation, observation and hypothesis forming leading to a narrower and more accurate focus which eventually becomes a consensus forming a solid theoretical base from which aspiring pedagologists could launch their careers, the field of studying learning more resembled a disorganised yacht regatta.

From the headlands of studenthood, one gazes down at the harbour of theory. Yachts of different shapes and sizes mill around, apparently at random. Some boats, the good ship "Paiget", for example, work but only for very short journeys. Others, like the "SS Learning Styles" have their sails rigged underwater - tides getting them to their destinations, although the crew swear it's the wind doing the work. Still others - the "Merry Humanist" for example, sail round in ever decreasing circles in a knid of self satisfied ballet. At the moment, the one catching my attention is the "Veritable Evolutionist" - a brilliantly designed ship - sleek of line, ruthlessly efficient, relentlessly logical and 'yar'. Oh! how 'yar'. The only problem with this ship is that it has no room for humans.

I realise as I have been writing this that, like a post_Modernist trying to explain why a combustion engine works, I have become completely caught up in my own metaphor and, in true post Modernist vein, have completely failed to say anything of significance. So I will try again.

The evolutionary psychology, or evolutionary anthropological theories of human development mostly hold that the preponderance of human behaviours can be explained in terms of evolution. Lately these theories have been - once again - gaining ground, especially in the educational field as the nonsense of learning styles, split brains and beating the child senseless have all fallen by the wayside. Simply put, evolutionary psychology/anthropology are fairly deterministic, biologically based models that ascribe and try to explain the bulk of human behaviour through evolutionary principles. Some of the work, especially that of Geary( see for example who I've been ploughing through recently is very powerful. Geary, (in short and with apologies to him because his theories are nuanced and elegant) presents a two-fold mechanism for human learning - a "folk" mechanism whereby we learn easily (things that are directly related to survival) and a "novel learning" mechanism that requires us to exert some effort via accessing memory, working memory and active cognitive processes. Because most of what we learn in schools is "novel", school learning is for most people effortful.

But heres the rub. Humans throughout the history of civilisation have overwhelming been the cause of our own "novel" situations as we have invented cultures like Huemacs. So while evolutionary ideas might well explain HOW we negotiate the cultural structures and oddities we construct, they still do not explain WHY we constructed diverse cultures in the first place that were so heavily laden with practises and behaviours that were at best irrelevant (adaptationally) and at worst such a bad idea (like binding your children's head or adopting agriculture) that we had to employ an enormously "expensive" (biologically speaking) "novel learning" mechanism practically continuously.

It is a monstrous problem - just how different are humans from animals? In fact, the answer is already partly out there(in some very diverse, but reputable, literature), and itself presents a whole bunch of new problems, because other strands of research have begun to suggest that we arent that much different form animals but that animals are much, much, much more complicated than we previoulsy believed. Evolution it seems, explains a hwole bunch of things. Apart from the ones I am interested in.

Wolf trails

Just a quickie!

Here's a link where you can follow the movements of a radio-collar tagged artic wolf.

As soon as I work out how to redesignthe pages again ( the last redesign fgailed because I was trying to do something fancy-pants) I'll post this as a link.

But this wolf page is actually my favourite page at the moment. In fact, I think its the best blog in the world right now.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Exaptions and Spandrels

Quite how I got here, I have no idea. What I do know is that I hate Stephen J. Gould and Steve Pinker with a passion that I have not felt since the referee at Liverpol v Sunderland allowed a goal quite clearly outside the rules of the game.

The real problem is that I have only the vaguest idea how I got here - exaptions and spandrels, that is. One moment I was minding my own business quietly in awe of David C. Geary's ( on education and the next I was contemplating whether the wing feathers of Archaeopteryx represented insulation gone wrong or a precursor to NASA's new breed of re-entry vehicles.

Gould and Pinker are culpable, as are every person who has ever made me think (this probably means YOU), for introducing the world of academia and thinking and stuff in the first place. I should have stuck with the old wood. Although bark, when you think of it could have been an exaption, a spandrel or an adaptation. I wish I believed in Intelligent Design.

Friday, 27 November 2009

The Correct Use of Soap

THE VAULT nightclub in HULL. As always, I would recommend clicking on the photgraph for a full view.
THE NOVA SCOTIA PUB with Walkers Crisps van outside. In Bristol.

There are phrases, I confess, that I run away from quicker than a global warming denier runs away from peer reviewed journals. Some of these - "take it to the next level", "step up to the plate", "to be fair", "to be perfectly honest", "Manchester United are a good team" - are so repulsive that I have sworn a blood oath never to use, even in jest. Some Other phrases I have been forced, particularly in light of my position as the joint-second best Academic in England, to silently despise but not publically foreswear. These Other phrases, I actually hate more than the ones I dont use, mostly because I know that I will have to use them one day. One such phrase is 'cognitive dissonance'.

The week has, eventually, turned out "rather nice, aint it?", as my Cockney friends might say. The week, considered as an entity, warmed slowly as a vintage car might, and it was as if the week itself slowly worked through the gears of sobriety until the effects of the wedding had faded and its kidneys had rejuvenated. Love life as we do, it should never be forgotten that our aim, since we arrived here, has to be thoroughly bored as soon as possible. THe weekend was far too much fun for the desired state to prevail - the week, cold master of time, warmed up to an excitement level that was tolerable and low key.

The same week that we have been discussing also culminated with a visit from Amelia, a Canadian friend we last met in Halifax, and whom we had not seen for several a year. Amelia and her partner are now ensconced in Aberdeen, a Scottish place, where Amelia now works in a similar field to RHB. Amelia was here (ie Hull) to give a talk on her research. Afterwards we went for a nice dinner. I dont normally attend these academical binges, but loyalty to my chosen country prevailed, so we went to the usual place, a local Thai restaurant. Naturally, it was great to see Amelia, and also great to hear a Canadian accent, and before long we (Amelia, RHB and self) were chatting happily.

Our companions at the meal, Skarra and Ig (co-boffins of RHB) joined in, but occasionally I could see a quizzical expression cross the face of Skarra, who, as well as being a colleague of Red, is my partner in "Cheek to Cheek", a new musical venture. More, perhaps, about "Cheek to Cheek" another day (we aspire to be a Radiohead/Wayne County and the Electric Chairs/Morriconi acoustic tribute band on the local club circuit) but suffice to say, I know Skarra quite well by now. We are, despite his hailing from Manchester and supporting the football devils that inhabit the place, friends.

It was as RHB was describing how the local 'store' was "kitty corner", and perhaps more importantly, A was understanding what she was saying, that I realised why Skarra bore on his face an expression similar to one that might be worn by a fisherman, who fishing for trout on an inland stream, had actually landed a cod. The problem you see, is that while I will never pretend that I could ever insert enough 'r's into the word 'coffee' to pass as full blooded Canadians, we both can communicate in Canadian, as well as standard English. We are bilingual, and by virtue of meeing Amelia had both entered the mysterious world of language slippage, caused by the proximity of a native of the True North, Strong and Free and our years of several excursion in the Best Country in the Worldtm. Over the course of mere minutes, 'cats' had become 'kittys' , 'shops' had become 'stores', 'Hoovers' - 'vacuums', 'cash machines' - 'ATM's, 'rubbish' - 'garbage'. 'Cars' had become 'vehicles' filled with 'gas' and if things were'nt 'hilarious' they were 'awesome'. It 'rocked'.

Despite this division, commonality among the whole group, was restored when the conversation shifted to talking about University life, research and students. I observe among the assembled brains a passion for science, deep involvemnt in their research and a genuinely expressed concern for many of the young minds they witness voyaging through the seas of knowledge that is the University experience. Back home, RHB and Amelia continue the discussion, looking forward to the next day when battle with the Unknown will again commence, but soonish sleep beckons, cognitive processes slow down and a peace settles over the intellectual powerhouse that is Large Mansions, interrupted only by the embarrasingly loud noise that accompanies the anal grooming of the larger of our two cats.

The next day, I wake early - so early in fact that it is not even an 'o'clock' yet - and shower in preparation for my last lecture of the week. The Crosstowner is made ready, and when prepared I bid adieu to Amelia and 'later gator' to RHB,cycling the kilometer or so to University. The lecture is the last of a series for this semester, and our lecturer, echoing the concerns of the previous evening's dinner co-attendees, (at least in respect of desiring to see students do well), is anxious to fully prepare us for an essay we have to complete. The details of the module and topic are not relevant - suffice to say that we are, as second year undergraduates, asked to compose, in groups, a list of 'things' that we do, and do not, 'like' about our recent learning experiences at University. Reproduced below is a sample of offerings derived from this exercise. I may be guilty of terminological inexactitude in rendering the below as justification for using the phrase 'cognitive dissonance', but I do believe that, as with many religious epiphanies, I experienced the sense of the phrase for several hours after the lecture. At least until I could get home and give the cats a good tickle.

Question: Discuss, in groups, what you do, and do not like about your learning experiences at University.

Responses as tabulated on the interactive whiteboard during the lecture:

group work
colourful powerpoints
lots of handouts
short lectures - not boring

big words
complicated texts that arent brokn down
abstract concepts
complicated theories
being told I am wrong
loads of information

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Anthropogenic relativism

In some respects, Brian is a Scot plucked, in a phrase borrowed from a friend, right out of central casting. The son of a Glasgow (pronounced 'Glasgae') sheet metal worker, he is, (physically at least), a bear of a man, of the type that only Hibernia can produce. In fact, on first meeting Brian, I immediately formulated one of my brilliant anthropological theories, something to the effect that the reason the Scots eradicated ursa minor and major (and all the ursas in-between) from the Highlands was to allow space for men like Brian to grow. It is also not incompatible with Brian's physical appearance to imagine him naked (except for thin smearing of blue wode) bearing down on Hadrian's Wall to the terror of Roman Legionnaires. But the eyes of these same Picts shone, (after the raid), not with a messianically idiot bloodlust, but with a steely intelligence, fully aware of the effect of their appearance - one of the first examples of effective psychological warfare in Western Europe. Brian's eyes have the same quality - they can either invite you to an intelligent discussion or pin you to the mast of your own stupidity between blinks. In Walter's, a glance from Brian at an acquaintance at the other end of the bar talking about his "brilliant" business strategy, then a similarly quick glance at me illustrated the difference, and too my relief, it was the portly grey panted businessman who got the killing look. We moved away from the bar to chat.

I was meeting Brian, not really to "get the job" as RHB wrote it, but to network. My plan, over the next few months, is not only to destroy my fellow students in History debates, but also to get a "jump" on future employment, and the strongest advice I have been given, from all quarters, is that the best way to achieve this, in the field I wish to pursue, is by volunteering to teach, mentor or advise people until they cannot be taught, advised or mentored any further. On first receiving this advice, I assumed that volunteering was a snip - one simply had to walk into the nearest service that seemed appropriate and announce that one's hard earned world wisdom was available, (on a non-sale basis), and when would the service like to start to receive the benefit of one's brilliance? Reality however, as usual ,soon put an end to my insomniac fantasies: achieving pre-eminence as East Riding's most sought after volunteer is more much more difficult than landing a paid position as an astronaut (let alone the World's First Scouse Astronaut).

This is understandable, on reflection - charities, especially educational charities, have been left, thanks to successive governments, with the task of educating, training, supporting and helping the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of society and given that this is the case, the charities need to be especially careful when engaging people. It would be unwise in the extreme, given the load of responsibility (unwillingly?) assumed by charitable organisations, for them to put their users at risk by failing to vet applicants more thoroughly than the average paid employee is vetted.

If this situation (ie charities as the major providers of service to the most disadvantaged people) was not such a depressing indictment of societal failure, it would be marvellously easy to write a humourous blog about the twisted logic of this state of affairs. One could jokingly imagine scenarios where major thematic elements included politicians getting themselkves into all sorts of ridiculously convoluted "situations" as they tried to pretend that poverty, appalling living conditions and large scale societal inequality didnt exist. Unfortunately, although true comedy is best when reflecting the truth, there has to be an element of exaggeration in the best humour, but the picture I have painted, at least when cycling round HUll looks more like an underexaggeration. In reality, Blair et al's vision of an England where everyone is flying off to Spain on Easyjet every five minutes, buying second homes and investing in private education, is, I would claim, more of a fiction than my snapshot.

There is certainly a middle class here in the UK, but instead of "raising" everyone else to that middle class level, all that seems to have happened is a consolidation of class divisions. Those of us who are relatively well-off, or able bodied, or articulate are fully provided with the best services, education, health care, transport and acceptable housing. The best medical clinics, and schools, in the city are the ones scattered around the University. Even the bus timetable in our neighbourhood is superior - it is not possible to cross Newland Avenue, our neighbourhood shopping area, without getting run over by some form of omnibus, whereas in the area that Blessed Mandy lives - a sprawling council estate on the northern fringes of the city (the same area where the sewerage facilities are located) - buses are more expensive and about as common as red alligators. In Blessed Mandy's area, it is charities that run everything, from the stores where people buy clothes to the youth club, the sports centre, the drop-in centre for elderly people and the buses for the physically disabled.

NOTA BENE: It is not acceptable these days to use class titles - middle, lower, upper - everyone is said to be middle class. So I am forced, in future, to use a different name to describe what used to be the working class - I'll call them the Undiscovered. The middle class, I will call the not-entirely(yet)-dispossessed. Upper classes, I will refer to as "The Guilty".

The situation of the Undiscovered, then, is unpleasant and difficult. This is of course all relative. Because I am not claiming that all of us in the Western world are not much better off than the majority of the planet's population. Opportunities do exist for people, even those disadvantaged in our society, that make all of us kings in comparison with the rest of the world. Helping people to realise this, through education, and then take advantage of opportunities that do exist, is an integral part of my plan. In short, I plan to save the world by teaching anthropology. If necessary, I will do this one street-kid at a time, until our whole society is so excited by Nuer culture that we'll all be too busy debating kinship to take drugs.

Bearing in mind the difficulties I mentioned previoulsy in respect of obtaining ungainful volunteer employment, it is perhaps unsurprising that without an introduction, most of the charities I have pitched my idea to have looked askance, wondering in many cases where the funds for a field trip to Namibia might come from, and whether they would prioritize said trip over getting the leak in the roof of their office fixed or not. This is where Brian re-enters the discussion. Introduced to me by the marvellous JJ, Brian works closely with the volutary sector. It is from him that I hope to establish contacts that will allow me to work voluntarily and this advance my teaching career.

Me and Brian leave the pub after a good four hours drinking. I can read my handwriting on most of the notes I met at the start of our meeting, but as the drink has been taken, scrawl has appeared. As we hardly knew eachother at the start of our meet, we've swapped the legends of our backgrounds and established good, solid working class credentials over a couple of glasses of red wine and some environmentally friendly organic real ale in one of the most expensive bars in the city. We get taxi's home, and as a special treat, ordered whatever we want from a local takeaway. It has been a delightfully civilised occasion. If I had to be perfectly honest, one of the reasons I want to teach is because I dont want to live with the Undiscovered. I feel - as I suspect my other 'working class hero' friends feel - I dont mind working for a charity, but I never want to apply to one.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


"It is a beautiful afternoon - idyllic actually - the light is fantastic across he back yard and its warm eought ot have the door openm, so Meepy is just sitting in the sun, enjoying the warm on her fur. I'm getting stuck into some reading and Tosh is sitting in the shed looking for a fight. I could do this for ever.

Unfortunately, I've gotta ruin it - I'm meeting Brian and possibly the head of THE WARREN about 3.30pm. I kept saying "coffee" but Brian had decided a pub downtown as his venue. Obvioulsy, I'm not going "on the ale" but this is just to warn you that tea might be improvised tonight (again)" the body of the email that I sent to RHB. What I dont add, and what she will therefore remain ignorant of, is that I'll be writing this blog entry until just before 3.30, rather than reading about "Inclusive Learning". In this, especially given that this subject has recently (ie this morning) nearly killed me, I feel entirely justified.

RHB's reply to my e-mail, full of the dignity and fine sensibility that I've come to know and endlessly appreciate throughout our beautific century spanning eon, nearly un-mans me with it's selfless regard. It is typical of the writing that made her one of the leading Euroscientists in the East ridings of Yorkshire....

"No problem - if you have to get pissed to get the job - just take it
on the chin gracefully."

But perhaps I should explain, starting with my near death at the hands of Inclusive Learning. We are in the gym, attempting to repair some of the damage occasioned by the great occasion that was B and K' s wedding. I am still stiff after the several hours of driving that were involved in traversing this island from coast to coast, so decide that light training is indicated - I am, being something of a string bean, subject to muscle pulls and dont want to risk injury by attempting something rash. Inside the gym, I head for the walking machine (the treadmill, is, I believe an alternative nomenclature for the devices) telling RHB I am going to walk for 30 minutes. I mount my station and gradually increase the incline to 15 degrees, simultaneoulsy increasing the speed to 6.5kms per hour. As walking on a treadmill is possibly the most boring thing that it is possible to do, unless you are a hamster, I have brought with me a paper on Inclusive Learning that I plan to read during my exercise.

THe paper "CSIE: THE INCLUSION CHARTER" starts off promisingly enough. There is a succinct list of six Points, clearly written, that set out CSIE's case for Inclusion in Learning. Following the six points there is an explanatory notes section. "Ah ha!" I think to myself "THIS is where it gets interesting. Obvioulsy, the text that I am about to read will expand usefully on the six points. Before I know it, I'll be knee deep in some excellent theoretical discussions: Foucault, Friere, Levi Strauss, Kant, Leavis, Tomlinson, Gramsci and of course Nel Noddings - all the guys will be there."

Unfortunately, what actually happens next, is distressingly common in academia. THe explanatory notes turn out to be a way of saying exactly the same thing that the Six Points do, only longer. For example, Point Three of the Six points, starts with the sentence:

"We believe that all students share equal value and status."

The explanatory notes for this same point start as follows:

"Students with learning difficulties are of no less value than students who gain Oxbridge entry and are no less worthy of respect."

This all continues in much the same vein, except the rephrasing of the initial point just gets longer and longer and more convoluted and the language gets more and more awkward and unusable. The whole thing is becoming very frustrating and I'm getting hot with all my exercise, so when I reach a sentence (still on point three) that starts with the phrase "Theoretical androgodies emphasize that the value of LD students should be undifferentiated from...."I lose it. "Enough is enough" I say to myself. I fold up the paper, rather ungraciously, stuff it into my pocket, and take off my sweatshirt.

Or rather, I try to take off my sweatshirt, because I have, in all the excitement, totally forgotten that I am on a treadmill. My perambulation is not entirely my own and ceasing to move my lower limbs while removing my sweatshirt does not automatically halt my motion. I realise that I am moving backwards and downhill, at approximately 7kms/hr, only with the hood of the sweatshirt firmly wrapped round the old noggin, and with one arm hopelessly trapped in a sleeve.

After I have picked myself up off the floor, I glance round to see if anyone has noticed. Practically the whole gym is staring in my direction. I hope, for a moment that this is because aliens have materialised just behind me, but another quick glance proves that this is not so. I reassure the nearest young person, who doesnt ask,( and is trying not to laugh), that I'm ok, and casually stroll to the water dispenser, trying to make it look as if my disengagement from the treadmill might have been part of a fitness regime. At the water fountain, the guy standing next to it jumps back, alarmed. Presumably he is frightened in case the thing explodes due to my proximity. I realise I am being excluded.

Monday, 23 November 2009


Its a night that started in Hull, but now we're in Bristol drinking Plymouth gin. In the morning we'll be on our way to Tenby from where Benjamin and Kirsty will leave for St Petersburg. RHB, mostly a traveller, is fading and Sal, ex-Mansfield, has gone to bed, with the parting gift "You're p**ssing me off, Scally Puff Boy". I have come from Liverpool via Leicester, Coventry and Halifax, N.S. "The important thing about blogging" I tell W. "is originality". W. opens his notebook, and writes "original".

The reason for these travels is that we're making preparations for a marriage in what is, at least for us, the countryside. The marriage is between Benjamin, RHB's nephew, and Kirsty, whom I have never met.

I ask Sal "What's Kirsty like?" . "Much f**kin nicer than you" she says. "And more attractive." W. opens his notebook and writes "attractive".

Sal is looking forward to the event "I f**kin love Niome" she says, before adding "F**k off, Martin". This is because I have speculated that the dresses will, according to latest fashion, be very sparkly, and RHB's nieces will be among the sparkliest and the most beautiful. Even RHB, who is now a Doctor in this country, has a sparkly dress. Sal, I have decided, is stripey. W opens his notebook, but doesnt write "sparkly". Instead, he looks at Sal, and underlines "original".

There is a critical mass of chaos surrounding RHB's family - its like the dark matter that the majority of the universe is supposed to comprise - unseen but immensely powerful, a quantum effect. Our own journey started in Hull, perfectly on time, and if various members of the L'Argent family were not converging on Tenby, we would have arrived in the mansion we have rented for the weekend perfectly on time. I have promised another of RHB's nieces, Sadie, that we will meet them at about 5.30pm in Tenby and have a family pillow fight, but it's now 8.30pm and we're running out of gas and weather just inside the Welsh border with 150 miles to go. The L'Argent Effect is in full force - every "short cut" we decide to take to reduce our journey time turns out to be longer than our original route, every gas station we stop in for refreshment or a bathroom break is closed, and as the journey progresses, it becomes evident that we've left toothbrushes, razors, wedding presents, cards and sparkly dresses behind, as well as losing all details of time of, directions to, and arrangements for the following day's ceremony. "Is Lyd's going to the wedding?" I ask Sal. "Of course Lyds is going, you idiot" says Sal "I f**kin love Lyds" she adds.

The wedding is brilliant. Joyous. Good humoured. Sparkly. There's not enough time to catch up with everyone, and there's the usual (for me) short-sighted offence of looking right through people you should know (sorry again L and Neil), but on the whole, it is such a different experience, for me, than the usual wedding experience of knowing in advance who is going to deliberately snub whom, and who might punch whoever. Afterwards, our crowd all crash in the massive living room of the mansion we've rented for the weekend to watch a very late edition of X-Factor - "F**kin X-Factor? Justify! Justify! Justify! F**kin karaoke! Just all sparkly b**ll*cks" . Sal is the last to arrive. W. opens his notebook and writes "sparkly".

With apologies to "spurious".

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Brilliance of Online Shopping

Some of you may be aware that this coming weekend we have a wedding to attend. Naturally, for such a grand social event, the best foot needs to be put forward, glad rags need to be assembled and nose hair needs to be trimmed. Whereas in our past, self and RHB might have been described as popinjays, these days we both assume a more ascetic demeanor, mostly due to the dearth of acceptable garb to be obtained on the High Street. It is also the case that we have different priorites these days - RHB for example, has been selected, by the smaller of the two cats, as a lookout post. This new employment is not really compatible with evening dress, so she hardly bothers. An alternative, and even less flattering view of this role is directly below:
I too, have mutated. My youthful garb of leather jacket, skintight jeans and Clash T-shirt is impractical for renovating, so I have adopted more practical workwear:

It would however be uncomfortable, and rude, to attend any event, far less a wedding, in our current state if dishabile, so for the past weeks we have been scouring the local fashion stores for suitable attire. The search was fruitless, mainly because it was difficult for us to picture ourselves in any of the garmentry available. Eventually, a brainwave was rustled up from the deepest depths of our collective intelligences. We decided to use internet to pick out possible wardrobe items. The experiment has been a huge success, and below I can reveal, exclusively, our proposed party wear

Friday, 13 November 2009

What doesnt kill you.......etc etc

Compare these two pieces of advice:

Advice Number One: "The Certificate in Teaching in Lifelong Learning is exactly suited to your career aspirations. You should definitely do this course.We have loads of great contacts to help you find a teaching placement."

Advice Number Two: "The Certificate in Teaching in the Lifelong Learning is not at all what you should do. You will struggle in the second part of the course if you dont have a teaching placement. We cannot give any help in finding you a placement."

Those equipped with some reading ability and a minimum amount of 'nouse' (Scouse for common sense - although some allege that statement in itself is oxymoronic) might discern a difference in the implications of above advice, so if I was teaching the above as an exercise in comprehension, in, say, a Basic Literacy or Skills For Life module, or as part of a Business Skills Course that I was teaching, I might be tempted to stretch my students further by asking them to analyse the following exchanges and derive from them a strategy for the engaged participants to pursue immediately after partaking in said reported conversations:

Conversation 1:
Johnny Wannabee : "I really want to get involved in training - pass on some skills, hopefully at Further Education Level - my big concern is that your course is the most appropriate course to take....? "

Professor Halfass : "Oh yeah, absolutely. Our course is perfectly suited to what you've described, in fact, its probably the best course you could have enquired about to suit your goals..."

Conversation Two:

Johnny Wannabee: "So I'm doing a degree in Education Studies with Psychology, and obvioulsy after that I will be perfectly qualified, maybe with a bit of training afterwards, to teach at your facility. When do I start?"

Monsieur Ed LeAdult : "Who told you that? What a useless degree. If you had wanted to teach - anything - you should have done a specialist degree. Then you could have done a Post Grad in that specialism. Then a Certificate in Teaching Adult Education."

And if I illuminated matters further by informing my Skills for Life learners that Monsieur Ed LeAdult was in fact also issuer of Advice Number One, and Advice Number Two (albeit with a temporal seperation), and that all pieces of advice were issued to the same person, then I think you will find it understandable if my gave my Skills for Life learners a Gold Star for returning their comprehension exercise advising that the best course of action for Monsieur Ed LeAdult was to leave the country immediately and seek anonymous refuge somewhere very far away on account of the bounty that had been placed on his head by those who had sought advice from him.

The main problem with the above mentioned scenario is, at least from my perspective, that I am in fact "Johnny Wannabee". This means that I am not teaching a Skills for Life course, so the proposed exercise will not be given. In fact, at this exact moment, the possibility of any teaching by yours truly is as distant as it has ever been, so much so that I am currently seeking a position in waste disposal on the basis that I am possibly more equipped to recognise bullshit (but only retropsectively) than I have been at any time in my existence.

The frustration, which you may, if sensitive, sense in the foregoing, arises from my further, recent research into my career options. As you may know, I am in my Second Year of a Degree in Education Studies, a degree that was "sold" as the perfect solution to an ambition to "teach people to knock nails into a bit of wood". However, as a complement to this (and in order to fast track my teaching ambitions) I seperately started a night class in Preparing To Teach in Lifelong Learning . This night class is the introductory element of a two part qualification, the second part of which the Certificate in Teaching in Lifelong Learning, continues after Christmas. As Preparing to Teach in Lifelong Learning is approaching it's completion, I visited my College to enquire about assistance in obtaining a teaching placement for the next semester - an essential element of this second part of the qualification - and the results of those several weeks of meetings, advice and discussions are the mess that is reported in the non-hypothetical conversations above.

One, of course, should always take responsibility for one's own contribution to any situations that one becomes embroiled in, and my case is no different. In the detail of the conversations I have had over the last few weeks, it has become apparent that if I had really wanted to be best placed to pass on life skills, advice, knowledge and experience to adult persons, I would have been better placed starting earlier. In fact, ideally, it has emerged, I would have been better off, in terms of advising, teaching or lecturing people on matters related to life experience, if I had not bothered with actually gaining any life experience at all. It transpires that the things I have done, like working in a specialised industry for twenty years, running a couple of companies, emigrating, living in different ciies, renovating a couple of houses, being a professional musician etc are a massive hinderance in teaching Life Skills, Business Skills or in becoming a career advisor.

The final nail in the coffin of a depressing couple of weeks came when Monsieur Ed LeAdult enquired whether I had considered consolidating my qualifications with a Study Skills course. "Study Skills is a big area", he told me, "Your degree might be useful to the Learning Advice people. Helping students understand their Learning Styles and become better learners is big area right now".

Monday, 9 November 2009

Weighing Oranges with Thermometers

The great debate was, of course, last week. Thursday, to be precise, a day in which the technology of the Greeks and Romans was put on trial. As readers may be aware, the task of Team Antikythera was to defend the murderous, underachieving, pyschopathic, opthalmic, xenophobic, ignorant Romans and Greeks with enthusiasm and verve.

Given that the decrepit Classical World could hardly feed itself, depended on slave labour for it's "wealth", decimated traditional lifeways across Europe, Africa and Asia and demonstrated a disparity between rich and poor that has not been witnessed in society since - at least not until Bush's American and Thatcher/Blair's UK - the task was not, on initial assessment, one to be relished. In the face of all this, did Team Antikythera blanch? Did we flinch from the task? Did we cringe in the face of the certainty of history.

The answer, as I have surely by now telegraphed, is that we did not. Instead, we set about our task, ruthlessly misinerpreting the evidence, distorting facts and misquoting whoever would be misquoted. Moses Finley, Joel Mokyr, Price, Gibbons and, the greatest author of them all perhaps, W. Ikipeidia were trawled, copied, cut and pasted into a cohesive argument that positioned the Classical Greeks and Romans as, (and I am utterly unashamed to say this, although perhaps I should be) pioneering environmentalists who only used appropriate machinery and, through restraint and principle, voluntarily limited their use of technology in order to protect the environment. We kind of glossed over the whole mass starvations, bread and circuses, slavery and extensive mercury usage bits, as well as the fact that when the Classicals did invent anything (like vending machines and steam power) they used them as cheap props - vending machines, for example, to dispense Holy water at temples, steam and wind power to "mysteriously" open temple doors. When they actually used technology it was to create massive automatons of the Emporer that presided over the slaughter of Africans, Christians and dissidents in the arena or to make better war machines. (and some people say we cant learn anything from history!)

As should be apparent, we were in trouble, so in order to help our argumentfurther we produced a Powerpoint which included slides like the following one:

And what of the result? Well, I can announce that in this first seminar, Team Antikythera won the votes of the jury. The problem is now how to proceed. Given that we persuaded the jury (unanimoulsy) in our first debate using tactics rather than establishing a solid base for our argument (not our fault as the Greeks and Romans were patently underachievers at least in terms of technology) it is clear that in future debates the opposition teams will also try to use our tactics. We will obvioulsy have to "raise our game". Effectively, for me, this does not rule out the possibility of cheap showboating. The togas might still be useful.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Year of the Abductor

Other than perhaps emigrating and renovating, there is little that RHB and I have applied ourselves to collectively with as much energy as our current gymnasical enthusiasm. True, we each have our own obsessions - RHB has a personal mission to name and befriend every small animal in the locale, and I, because of my habits have regularly to attend AA* meetings. But together, we have become gym obsessed. The addiction has gone so far that we plan how to "make up" for the time we will "loose" because of the need to be hospitable to some welcome overnight visitors. While it is undeniable that at least some of the motivation for this started with an admiration for our various marathon running, squash playing Canadian visitors, the impetus to continue has been self-generated and is so embedded now that it is ubiquitous in our routine.

This makes gym attendance entirely unlike earlier fads like the famous Max Payne era, when we crept round a virtual world playing computer games together - an ultimately unsatisfying experience due to RHB's prediliction for screaming "Bastard" at the on-screen baddies (she does tend to become involved), and displaying an entirely illogical disposition for frugality with resources that meant I wasnt allowed to waste any ammunition on fighting. Or another epoch in our relationship - salsa dancing lessons - which came to resemble title bouts for the WWF**. One week at salsa, Barry, the instructor, became frustrated by RHB's continuing tendency to "lead", (despite his frequent exhoratations that "the lady" must float and be led), so he whisked her off round the hall, intending to dance some sense into her. If I remember correctly RHB won by two falls and a submission.

It is with accomodating visitors in mind that we head for the gym at a time outside our normal hours. Creatures of habit as we have become, even this minor shift has caused some discumbobulation, in terms of schedule; cats have had to be herded at unusual times and the Crosstowner has been denied the weekly race with Bert's inheritor, Jim, so my mood is ambivalent from the outset. Arriving at the gym, we strip (not in the same room), change, and head for our respective warm ups. RHB starts on the ski-walker, a machine that I studiously avoid after an episode that nearly resulted in hospitalization for at least two other gymnastiques. I instead, direct my attention to the free-weights area, happy that even if I do fall off a weights bench, the worst damage I could impose on other gym users woud be strained stomach muscles and temporarily, mirth- induced blurred vision (TMIBER***).

One gets used to the rhythyms of a usual time spot at a gym, mostly because of the routines of other users, but it is almost a subconcious phenomena, so I do not notice at first that I am being shadowed. It is only when an unfeasibly shaped personage (with a physique roughly analogous to a woolly mammoth) stands right in front of me, curling about 1000kgs, that I begin to suspect I am being followed. My next exercise, "upright rowing" seals the case, as my stalker lifts a weight equivalent to the boat he is supposed to be rowing, directly after I have performed the same exercise with 40 kgs, and directly in front of me. At first, I am flattered, albeit that Spartan relationships are not my cup of tea, but eventually, as my pursuer is joined in his imitations of my routine by a couple of colleagues of equally strange disproportionation, I realise that the intent is not intimate male bonding, but intimidation. I am being stalked by Gym Pigs.

The Gym Pigs are all ginger and freckled. This, combined with a tendency to overwork the biceps and upper torso, plus an inherently thick neck has resulted in a physique that can without dispute, be called "big". But where the physique of a recently made acquaintance of mine - a Marine instructor - can undoubtedly also be called "big", there is, with my Marine instructor, a fairly obvious connection between form and function. In short, the Marine instructor - about as wide, and as tall, as four Toshacks (with tail extended) - is incredibly functional. |He looks as if he could break one's neck with his pinkie finger, a killing machine, immensely capable. The Piggy physique is much less understandable - running on their tiny little legs looks unfeasible, so sports such as rugby seem unlikely. Sports requiring hand eye co-ordination (such as tennis) so seem not to be destinations for these trainers, as all three of them have eyes that are sunken so far under their freckled pale foreheads that their vision is surely restricted to occasional glimpses of the world through reddish eyebrows.

Suddenly, an anthropological thought hits me, as it tends to do when you are the joint second best academic in England. Perhaps, I muse, Neanderthals did not, after all, become extinct? But no! I am immediately ashamed of such ethnocentricity - there is absolutely no evidence at all that homo neanderthalises, or homo heidelbergwhatitsnames were stupid. Instead I logically conclude that genetic experimentation is being conducted in Hull, and the ones that go wrong are simply turned out to roam free. By a quirk of fate, they have ended up in the gym.

For my second set of exercises, I move to the only machine deemed macho enough to be located in the free weights area - the thingymajig. This is a machine of sheer power. It looks like a kind of crane and I mainly use it for light work on the shoulders, as follows:

an arm, preferably one of your own( for maximum efficacy of exercise), is extended outwards, laterally from your side, and in the horizontal dimension. The digits at the end of said arm, grasp firmly onto a stirrup shaped handle, and with a sudden intake of breath, you force the handle - attached to a big piece of string and weights interpreted by pulleys - downwards, so the arm becomes vertical, or north to south, through an arc while still travelling in a plane co-incidental with that of your torso, when considered across the width. Transverse motion across the torso plane should be avoided, as should unequal torsion via the dorsal medial parameters.

In other words, its the same action as signalling for a bus holding a shopping bag.

After my first set, Piggy 1 approaches, and communicates it's intention to share the machine, as it wants to do the same exercise. I agree, as if I have a choice, and it changes the weight load from the 30kg I have been attempting to about 5600kg. Machine set, and with its pals shouting good natured obscenities, he begins violently yanking on the handle. As Piggy works through his set, his face turns red, purple and then puce, and he grunts, shouting something that sounds like "huyuuah" with each repetition. On the final repetition there is a massive 'CLANK' as the weights return to their staring position. Piggy turns to me, rolls his sleeve back and examines his muscles appreciatively, rubbing then with a surprising gentleness, then turns back to the machine to readjust the weights. I stop him in mid-action ... "No, its allright mate. Tha'll do". He looks a bit surprised, but I step up to the handle anyway, grasp it firmly, draw in a mighty breath and draw my arm downwards, Or rather try to, because the weight will not move. I adopt the grunting technique that was apparently such a part of his success, and still the wieght doesnt budge, so I start counting..... "Huyuuahh.. ONE...huyuuahh...TWO... " and so on.

From Piggy's point of view, it must look quite strange. I am standing, completely immobile, next to a machine with my arm extended horizontally, counting loudly and grunting, eyes bulging from their sockets. I count up to six then stop, turn around, roll up my sleeve, find my muscle, rub it and look him straight in the eye ..."Right on. Your go now". This charade continues through two further sets, then Piggy 1 wanders off, but I'm pissed so I decide to pursue the battle further. I'm pissed mainly because I have noticed that I am not the only person who has had the shadowing treatment, and frankly the Pigs behaviour is bullying. They are trying, through humiliating other users, to discourage anyone else from using "their" area.

I decide to turn the tables, so I now follow Piggy 1 round the room, insisting on sharing not only the equipment he is using, but at the same weight. Its a bit like an uninvited guest at a Menonite barn raising turning up with power tools. Except in reverse. By the end of my session, Piggy 1's beginning to look a bit freaked out as I invite myself to share every bit of equipment he goes to use, him moving weights as heavy as Stonehenge and me, at exactly the same weight, puffing and panting through a series of immobile grunting counts. I encourage him in his sets "C'mon buddy. You can do it! Lets take it!" and at one stage even utter a small "whoo - whoo" with fist pumping air action. I stop short of slapping his butt affectionately, but am not stingy with admiring glances.

Back in the locker room, Piggy 1 is in too much of a rush to get a shower, and leaves with just a mumbled something. Next week we are back to our normal schedule, so our paths wont cross, I hope, but as I get on the scales, and glance into a mirror, I realise I have put five kilos on in as many weeks. I am getting bigger. And the muscle shape is definitely beginning to happen. I think about my next workout and fantasize, for second, how great it would be with no weedy twenty year old students clogging up the equipment. And hang on, are my eyes getting a little....well, piggy?


AA* = Anthropologist Anonymous
WWF** = World Wrestling Federation
TMIBER*** = Temporary Mirth Induced Blurred Eye. Rupture.