Dont buy the Sun.

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

Thursday, 23 December 2010


THis is from a cycle blog I read:

""..One London newspaper thought it would be best to give their readers a warning as to what lies ahead.

On Tuesday, The Guardian published a guide to walking on snow and ice. In fact, the paper even consulted a doctor for their list of expert tips.

In the introduction to the article, the editors wrote “that only penguins are really designed for the snow and ice” – a huge surprise to those of us dealing with those conditions a good six months of the year.

Dr. Luisa Dilner advised the obviously delicate residents of Britain not to “talk on your mobile phone or even reach into your pocket,” as that could trigger a fall.

“If you are pregnant,” Dr Dilner continues, “You have already shifted your centre of gravity and should be tucked up at home with a box set of Mad Men.”

That’s right, Canadian women – you thought you could make it through the winter without much change to your regular routine, but it turns out you actually need to hibernate like a bear.

Tell your boss the doctor said so.

And forget about biking. The Guardian doesn't mention it, for fear of causing the English to clutch their pearls in horror, certainly - but it's likely not recommended.

The same goes for carrying heavy boxes and a host of activities many Canadians undertake without much thought at all.

“People who know about snow (climbers mostly) say that ice grips worn over shoes can prevent falls,” Dr. Dilner concludes.

Actually, that’s Canadians, mostly – and most of manage to get around just find without resorting to warnings like these: “However you have to take ice grips off on smooth indoor surfaces and they don't work on black ice because nothing does. Except being a penguin.”"

It is very funny. I have been cycling throughout the winter and have noticed the numbers of cyclists drastically reduce as it has gotten colder. It's not actually that cold - averages about minus five, daytime, and cycling is possible. There are a couple of England-specific dangers though, particularly drivers of motorized vehicles. English drivers do not change their driving habits for anyone, anything or any condition. It seems related to the old War spirit that gets referenced in the media far to often for a healthy national psyche, and is almost as if they are saying:

"Hitler could'nt make us surrender, there's no way I'm going to give in to a bit of snow and ice".

THis extends, in many cases to taking absolutely no precautions whatsoever in winter - there are now snow tyres, no one alters their tyre pressure and apart from volume purchases of windscreen de-icer, driving habits stay the same. The result of this is that the sight of a 'boy-racer' in a souped up Mini, wheels spinning furiously at standstill, engine revving and a bead of sweat trickling form under the brim of his (reversed) baseball cap and going absolutely no-where is not unusual.

Mostly, this is amusing, but for cyclists, it can be very dangerous. We get no extra space, no consideration for the fact that roadsides are very icy and many ( I would say most) drivers still overtake millimetrically with almost zero tolerance. Every time there is a particularly close shave, I revive a fantasy I have had number of years, which is to capture the offending driver, tie them to a chair and then get a big hammer attached to a piece of string and swing it at their heads, trying to get as close as I can without actually hitting. In the case of many 8 wheeler drivers though, the intention would be to make contact.

Unfortunately, I am to become a driver for a few days, as we are renting a vehicle today for the holiday period. A big part of me fervently hopes the weather is too bad for travel, as these roads scare me. And, I have to admit, a big part of me, despite everything said above, loves driving.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Towards a theory of Cycling; A Post Modern Discourse

"Ah" I thought to myself, "Based on the truth that our world is socially constructed, and because no-one appears to be watching, this wont hurt a bit".

A second or two later, I had discovered the limitations of that particular post modern discourse as I splattered face first into a road surface made even more unyielding by a three inch covering of ice.

Of coiurse, like all things, it began with interior decoration, and the observation that at least one scientific law was, despite having been de-constructed ad nauseum, immutable, that law being of course that for every action , there is an equal and opposite re-action. In this case, the carpet that had languished in our front Survivor-watching room, had been moved to the rear room. RHB, applying all action research skills at her disposal critiqued my reaction:

"Looks great" I said "Watcha think?"

THere was a pause. At this point, I should comment on pauses. Over a long, and, in the main bloodless, relationship, I have learnt - possibly through reflection, neural pruning or the actions of mirror neurons (take your pick) - that a pause can be as eloquent as any of the Psalms. Pauses (issued by my partner) can mean "Good idea but I dont agree" (ie 'You have the wrong idea '), they can mean "I am about to explode with fury" (ie "You've done something wrong") or they can mean "What happened to ..." (ie "Whatever you are about to do is wrong"). In the instance of this conversation, the pause was quite long (thats a good thing), did not involve pacing ( even better) and there were no flailing arm movements (phew!), and was simply followed by

"Hmmm... the whole kitchen's the wrong colour now. It doesnt match the carpet."

It was my turn to pause. ALthough not personally endangered physically, this was terrible news. Paint colour selection at Large Mansions is a lengthy process. Colour swatches that I simply cannot tell apart are presented at the breakfast table for my opinion, and I invariably pick the one that "only an idiot would pick". The epistemology behind the process - a joint decision taken by consenting adults - is reasoned and inclusive, but the execution is less so. I cannot see the difference between many paint colours and get bored rapidly. RHB not only sees the differences between paint colours but makes associations between colours that are close to eachother. I think in my case, this inability is the product of being raised in a 1970's wallpapered home, but whatever the reason the only redeeming feature of the process is that the paint store is right across town, a good forty minutes bike ride away.

Which is how I came to be approaching the railway lines near Chanterland Avenue Cemetary at a speed approximating that of a scared cat, bearing several lites of paint in my panniers. AFter sixteen previous trips for samples, the final colour had been decided. Despite the snow, unprecedented in this part of the world, I had been indoors all week, writing term papers and had seized the opportunity to get out on the Crosstowner and have a good old play. En route to the paint shop , I had seen no other cyclists, but had successfully navigated snow-covered side roads, a field and a couple of slippery major roads. THe return route took me over the railway lines.

THere are two ways of crossing icy railway lines in sub-zero temperatures on a bicycle equipped with 'slicks' (in my enthusiasm I had neglected to change the tyres and have been still riding on my summer tyres). The first approach(described retrospectively by a critical friend as 'the only') is to get off and push the bike across, calmly and sedately. The second approach(described by the same friend afterwards as 'sheer stupidity') is to be imagining that you are a resistance fighter in a post-apocalyptic world couriering a vital message, and that despite the travails of snow and ice, the message must get through at all costs, quickly. In the second scenario, the ONLY way of crossing the railway tracks is to accelerate, attempting bunny hops over the icier bits.

"Had a little spill" I am forced to announce as I return home. The limp from a badly bruised knee cannot be disguised. Nor can the dented tins of paint, bruising and minor chip to the bone of the right elbow and torn waterproofs. RHB pauses. I am temporarily alarmed. "Did you get the paint?" she asks. I nod. She grins "You had fun, didnt you?". I nod again, and we laugh. SOme things dont need an explanation.

Friday, 3 December 2010


As one who believes that a good picture of snow is vastly improved by the inclusion of a pink cat I am, naturally, an apostle for these pictures. Nothing, I feel, illustrates a good snowfall than a blurred picture of a twenty pound cat that has just pounced, adorably of course, on a snowball.

Which information should lead you to conclude that some, or other, entity has been fabricating said snowballs in order for the aforementioned pouncing to occur. This is on account of how cats paws are eminently unsuited to the task. If a reader has any intelligence this string of logic should provide a clue as to who, or whom, the snowball maker is. And given that it is I who writes this blog,and posts photographs and has no friends, and am currently at home writing because the University is closed, and have an unusually (but not suspect) relationship with said cat, I should remove you from your misery and confess: I have spent an inordinate amount of time over the last week making snowballs in the back yard and throwing them. Toshack, responds with loud "MIAOW" then chases off into the snow covered moraine of our rear garden before plouging face first into drifts, frantically clawing at the snow. It is a behaviour more akin to that of a dog

During a short lull earlier this week, his sister Callisandra, who hates the cold, possibly on account of the amount of titanium in her feet (with resultant increased conduction) briefly joined him. She shot across the yard after a smallish ball of ice. Unfortunately, as mentioned, the only reason she was outside was the slight warming. This warming had softened the layer of ice on top of the pond, although it was still masked by snow. Calli charged, intent on her snowball, the ice gave way, she fell in the pond, leapt out looking like a sodden calico pretend toy and carooned into the house up the stairs. I felt a bit guilty, and slightly concerned in case she had been frozen solid, so I went to find her, and she was lying on the bed grooming as cats do, as if nothing had happened. Which in her world, it hasnt.

In the grown-up human world though, the weather has been, for England, unusual. Hull has laboured under a 12" blanket of snow. Food has begun to run out in stores (this in NOT exaggeration) as pensioners have bought up every loaf of bread available (this is both an exagerration and unfair as I have no idea who exactly has been buying all the bread. But there is none). Even the liquor stores have not been restocked. In the media the extent to which this country is unprepared for most of the weather it receives has been the subject of screaming headlines - Every year there are a seasonal round of stories about people dying of the cold. Motorists get stranded for days in 'mountain' passes that are no more than 1500 feet high. Droughts and water shortages follow winter and springs of unprecedented rainfall. People die of heatstroke in temperature approaching the mid thirties (centigrade). The weather in the Uk is nowhere near as varied as most of the countries on the planet - its one of the reasons our climate is called temperate - yet the country seems prepared for none of its seasons.

This however, is not the complete picture. In our street, for the last week, kids have been having snowball fights with adults, the elderly folk have had their drives dug out by slightly less elderly folk, birds have been fed and the overall mood has been one of joy and celebration. THere has been a party atmosphere because practically everyone has been off work.

So who is complaining? Actually, I am. But not about the weather - it is what it is and snow is particularly beautiful. BUt also, I am not complaining too much about the lack of prepardness this country consistently demonstrates. It means more days off work, and in truth, English people are not the Protestant work fanatics they pretend to be. My complaint is the English media - possibly one of the lowest forms of life on the planet. There is one modus operandi in the English media and that is partisan point scoring. From the mighty Times to the lefty Guardian to the Tory Telegraph and the scumbag tabloids, point scoring may operate at various intellectual levels, but it is all the UK press have, apart from lifestyle pullouts. Journalism has a number of capacities which various individual have done very well - change (a lot of Vietnam war photography), observation (Alistair Cooke's letter from AMerica) comment (Charlie Brooker in the Guardian still does this). But the majority of contemporary UK journalism is not these capacitieis, it is whining, niggling and inconsequentialism. ANd although this can temporarily appear to be analogues of good writing - sharp, witty, hip, modern, referenced - they are not good journalism, they're just bad novelisation. So cliched themes,the stock in trade of bad airport novels, are what we get for the majorty of our news. And the recent snow has definitely resulted in the wheeling out of all the 'old ones'. Personally, I would rather play snowballs with a cat than read the British press.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

THe anthro Song

Nel absolutely hates this. ANd I sort of do as well. Except that the kid is so keen...

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Studying hard. Hard Studying.

Unpredictability and Indeterminism in Human Behavior: Arguments and Implications for Educational Research

1. Gary A Cziko, Associate Professor

This essay presents arguments for the view that complex human behavior of the type that interests educational researchers is by its nature unpredictable if not indeterminate, a view that raises serious questions about the validity of a quantitative, experimental, positivist approach to educational research. The arguments are based on (a) individual differences, (b) chaos, (c) the evolutionary nature of learning and development, (d) the role of consciousness and free will in human behavior, and (e) the implications of quantum mechanics. Consequently it is argued that educational research that attempts to predict and control educational outcomes cannot be successful and that educational research should focus on providing descriptions and interpretations of educational phenomena to provide findings that can be used to improve our understanding of learning, development, and education and to facilitate their evolution.

EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER April 1989 vol. 18 no. 3 17-25

I have to admit, in the interests of fairness,but I have not read this full article. Therefore, criticising it, or even critiquing it, is impossible. But, I have learned a degree of caution as I have progressed through my academic trajectory. A 'spidey' sense has developed as I peruse the journal articles, a sort of bullshit detector. I have also found the English glottal tut very useful, as an audible aide memoire - 'dont read anything else by this idiot' - and judging by the quantity of tutting reverberating round the library, a lot of people have also found the same thing useful.

Having said all that I should re-emphasize that I should not criticize the above work. And I know you all know this is coming, so here it is........BUT when I read an abstract linking such grand themes, I hesitate. I have, myself, as the joint second best academic in England, been accused, by mine own spouse, no less, of delusions of grandeur and overambitious thematic association, when I claimed that savanna chimp reactions to fire fire completely proved the theory behind "Civilization: why?". So when I read an abstract such as the one above that claims to link chaos theory, quantum mechanics, psychology, learning theory, politics, philosophy and evolutionary biology I do have to wonder about its specificity. And when I re-read the abstract, it seems as if the author is merely saying "I dont like education being directed by their approach, I'd much rather it was directed by my approach" the spidey sense engages and a large 'tut' issues.

Related to this is my enforced further readings on 'situated learning'. Once again, admonished by RHB NOT to arbitarily dismiss ideas, I have struggled through papers on 'situated learning', 'communities of practise' and 'legitimate peripheral participation' attempting to glean some insight. This has proven very difficult. For me, it is as if I have been forced to watch a series of Manchester United games and comment objectively on the football on display. And this is not a careless observation. Lave and Wenger base their theories of situated learning on observations of a number of apprenticeships, including the tailors of Goa and those of Yucatec midwives. Taken in isolation, both apprenticeships apparently provide examples that certain types of social engagements are models for how learning ought to occur. For example, in Goa, the master tailors and the apprentices together negotiate (or construct) a community of practise where the roles of each person is legitimate. Essentially, apprentices are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, but are as active as the masters in constructing the community of practise. There is no didactic teaching, instead apprentices learn by engagement, and everyone's role is fluid and 'negotiated'. In short,the suggestion is that only if all parties are active in the learning process can proper learning take place and the types of social engagements they describe provide the (only) 'proper' context in which learning can take place.

These observations have led to a very successful business career for some people, advising business and organistaions on organisational structure. The idea, in a nutshell, is that by encouraging 'communities of practise', learning within an organisation or business is more effective.

This may appear to be pretty obvious and general,and it is, but if considered a little bit further (and I must, so you also have to) it implies that didactic approaches to education are less effective. Lecturing therefore, particularly, fact-filled top-down lecturing, is a big no-no because most classroom teaching approaches neglect negotiation. I have a number of objections to Lave and Wenger's work, but I will focus on just one.

While Goan apprentice happily works HIS way through a community of practice until HE becomes a master, happily co-constructing HIS!!! identity, and a Yucatec midwife merrily assimilates the knowledge of HER craft becoming highly respected members of their communities in the process, Wenger and Lave fail to mention the societies in which these idealised forms of learning occur. In practice, neither Goan apprentice tailors, nor Yucatec midwives have much choice of career, as both societies are highly stratified by caste and gender differentiated. This is not particularly a judgement on those societies, although I am happy to have been borne in neither, but how applicable to other societies, particularly Western societies are the examples given? The (short) descriptions do not include what happens to people who fail, or whether the practices the apprentices learn are actually the best way of doing things, or whether the boy borne to be a tailor would rather have been an actor. In most Western societies, we tend to choose our careers, our education and our gender identity, and are relatively free to leave "communities of practice" if we feel like, whereas Goan tailors and Yucatec midwives are not. Goan apprenticeship methods work because they have to, otherwise the people engaged in them dont eat. Seperately, Yucatec midwife apprenticeships work because it is uneconomical to establish a classroom dedicated to physiology and biology for the one trainee apprentice in each village.

After some reading, and much tutting, I have begun to conclude that the applicability is, at best, very general. Attempting to apply principles drawn from one set of cultural practises onto another entirely different culture always gives me the heeheegeebies, academically speaking. It is reminiscent of the way "primitive" peoples, or "Eastern philosophy" were romanticised by the West, and their lifeways generalised out of context, which led to unfortunate things like hippies. Anthropology is a double edged sword - it is important when studying the anthropology of 'others' to realise that we have an anthropology of our own as well.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Battle of Knobbly Knee

Dateline: 16 November,2010:

Its 8 am and excitement at Large Mansions is practically at fever pitch. In truth, I have not been able to sleep and I cant wait to find out what's going to happen.

"Have some toast, at least" says RHB, "You're too excited"

I refuse, and have to admit I am too excited. As a general rule, I love birthdays, and as a specific rule, I love my birthdays. Also as a general rule, I love presents, and as a specific rule, I love presents that are for me. , Convergently then I love shiny presents just for me, and today has dawned with the possibility that I will receive a particularly unique present built only, and specifically for me, and being made out of titanium, extremely shiny.

There is a down side, however, because in order to access said present, I have to travel across Hull to the Spires hospital. By way of explanation, the gift I am expecting,the thing I want more than anything else in the whole wide world (even more than a 1966 Fender Precision or a new Shimano gear assembly for the Crosstowner) is an operation on at least one of what Grasshopper has characterised as 'the knobblies'.

Without blathering on in too much detail about the circumstances arising that have required some repair to the knobblies, it became apparent two years ago, shortly after arriving in this country, that a hit and run accident whose major effect had appeared to be a demolision of the right elbow, had in fact resulted in far more serious, but less obvious damage to both knees. During recuperation from this spectaculrly broken elbow, knee problems which had previoulsy been 'niggles' became worse and worse. A brief consultation with the Sport Scientists at our gym revealed some pretty bad, but eminently fixable cartilage problems. SO, I booked an appointment with my General Practitioner who referred me to the physiotherapist attached to his clinic. That appointment went not well, mostly because I called the physiotherapist an idiot.

I was then withdrawn form that doctor's surgery and, here I have to admit some culpability, abandoned the matter for a while. However, shortly prior to our vacation in Turkey last year, I decided to re-address the issue, applied to a new General Practitioner and a made an appointment.

I would like to report that this resulted in a flurry of activity. Surely, I thought, the prospect of Hull losing its best scenic carpenter through injury would speed up the process. And doubly surely, dont I always hear on the news how 'Britain' has got the best health service in the world? So when I heard that Grasshopper had approximately the same injury, but diagnosed years after mine, I thought to myself 'HO! She (Grasshopper) thinks she's a bit of a smarty pants living in Canada, but now we'll see who's the clever socks. Living here, as I do, amidst the World's Best Health Service, I will probably be fitted with bionic implants while she's still being pushed round Walmarts' carpark on a sled. And, when Canada does eventually get round to fixin' her up, it will probably be some primitive beaver bone and moose hide contraption attached to her leg, while I shall have mini nuclear reactors powering my leg muscles.'

It was therefore with some jealousy that I recieved a missive from GH, some two months after her injury, describing an unpleasant period of enforced immobility, but an otherwise entirely successful medical procedure. GH's treatment (and I should'nt breach confidentiality here but I will) consisted of a two minute visit to her doctor, a quick coffee with the consultant, and the next week a relaxed keyhole procedure while evryone in the operating room drank Tim Hortons and ate donuts. By contrast, in the home of the Best Health Service in the World, it has taken five specialists, two scans, three different locations across the city and about eighteen months before, last month, I was referred to the local musculo-skeletal clinic, which ironically is two minutes walk away form my house.

AT that appointment, the specialist was examining my xrays and nodding sagely:

" do you see this?"

He pointed to the xray attached to the light box.

I leant forward and agreed that I saw the x-ray.

"Well that..." he said, pointing at the xray of my knee " an xray of your knee"
He looked at me expectantly. I said nothing, mindful of RHB's exhortations not to call any 'professional' an idiot, especially if they were (apparently she's just read some research about how bad people are at judging their own competence and the less competent they are, the worse they are at arriving at arealistic assessment of same).

He continued " and this xray does not show significant damage to the bone"

He looked at me again, but I maintained discipline.

"So, its probably some soft tissue damage" he hesitated slightly "which probably means a minor surgical procedure, which..."

"When?" I interrupted

"What?" he said

"When can I get it done? Now ? Let's do it" I began rolling up my trouser leg.

I should point out that I didnt actually say the above, nor did I roll up my trouser leg, but by God, King HArry and St George at this point I had been so frustrated that I wanted to and had even contemplated carrying out the operation my self utilising Toshack's supersharp claws as surgical tools and some elastic bands as replacement cartlidge. What actually transpired was that I left the appointment under the impression that a surgical procedure was imminent, and all I had to do was wait for a letter. I made chilli for RHB that evening in a fizz of excitement as I told her the news "Its finally going to happen".

When the letter arrived, I opened it carefully. Scanning its contents twice, I could see no sentence saying "Your appointment for an operation is ...." Instead, I was invited to call yet another telephone number, this time the number for Patient Choice, an initiative designed to help patients self-select their best options for care. I dialled as instructed:

"Hello, Patient Choice, how may we help?" a friendly voice said

"Well, I dont know" I said " I need to arrange an appointment for a knee operation"

"I see" said the voice," and who do you want to see?"

"I dont know" I replied "I know practically nothing about knee surgery. I suppose I would want to see someone good?"

"Well" said the voice, slightly less friendly " All the surgeons are good. Its up to you to decide which one though."

"Well" I said "What about seeing the best?"

"I regret we dont give out that type of information, I'm afraid" said the voice, sounding neither afraid nor regretful.

I began to worry I was in danger of alienating the voice, so instead of asking what the point of empowering me in respect of a matter that I know absolutely nothing about, I just asked to be booked into the soonest available date - 16 November, 2010. I put the phone down and called RHB "Its the best birthday present I could wish for" I told her. "Dont get your hopes up" she told me.

The end of this very long tale is that of course, this morning's appointment was not the operation, just the final, pre-operative consultation with the actual surgeon. I asked him as I left "Is his definitely it? definitely surgery?" . He concurred. "And all these other examinations, scans, xrays - there's nothing else wrong is there? Some serious underlying problem that you're not sure of?" No, he said, it just routine. Then ( he seems a very nice man) he went on to explain how the efficiency measures of the last few years, designed to filter out unnecessary appointments, focus treatment and act as a barrier to the (very) occasional hypocondriac have built up a layer of triple redundancy that is incredibly inefficient. Furthermore, at least in me, these efficiency measures have led to unnecessary appointments, no (so far) treatment (let alone unfocused( and the development of severe hypochondria in that I suspect I also have thrombosis, gangrene and a necrotising phage, such is the number of scans I have had.

NOne of this is a reflection on the front line staff, who on the whole are very professional, its more a function of an already bureaucratically inclined Government having no idea other than an ideology. While I never imagined my knees being involved in anthropological argument, it is here that we return to the idea of complexity and the collapse of society. Right now though, as long as it doesnt happen before the knobblies get fixed, I'll be happy.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Intrusive /r/

As you are probably aware, the Third year of my studies is upon me, and I am taking it very serioulsy. So seriously, in fact, that in addition to the usual academic research tools - Wikipedia, Twitter and what some guy down the pub thinks, I have started to use books. And not Len Clancy, or that guy who writes about the SAS either - good as that literature is. No some of the books I am using are to be found in the library.

I had thought that the library at University was like the library anywhere else - mostly fiction. As we buy most of our (fiction)books from Amazon I have not previousy bothered with any of the other floors of the library other than the anthropology section on the seventh floor, which I assumed (ie the seventh floor) was the non-fiction section of the library.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that ALL the other floors of the library were also non-fiction. There is almost a whole floor devoted to languages, for example. This was a huge surprise. I imagined that most languages were taught by the dictaphone technique and didnt think that anyone would bother writing any books about them because until you've actually learned the language, a book is pretty pointless. Once you have learned the language, the next obvious step is that you would start to read fiction and Amazon is perfectly good for this, so the need for loads of book titles that no-one understands is beyond me.

Nevertheless, I decided to roam this section of the library to see if there was anything worth reading, and discovered a book on linguistics which features an article on dialect acquisition. That article features these very words:

"A well-known categorical rule of SEE is R-lessness, the elimination of non-prevocalic /r/ in words like summer, water, north..........blah, blah .....shows that the Canadian youngsters.... have made [my italics] very little progress in acquiring R-lessness."

Literally stunning. Incontrovertible Proof, at last, that the brilliant anthropological/sociolinguistic observation I used to make is fact! Canadians DO add "r' to every single word they speak. And if a word already has one 'r' they add few more just to make sure no-one forrrrgets. Of course the brilliant theory this is all contained in doesnt end there. It goes on to explain that the reason Canadians do this is guilt and shame at leaving out other perfectly acceptable letters from words - like the 'i' in aluminium, for example, or most of the correct letters from 'donut'. . Linguistically speaking, who'd 'a thunk it?

Monday, 1 November 2010

When reading doesnt help........

There has been, during each year of my degree programme, an elephant in the room. Or rather, a stinker in the timetable - a module that sets one's teeth on edge just thinking about it. Unfortunately, as one of the main tasks I am supposed to accomplish at University is thinking, this means that some, but not all of my teeth, have been ground down to a nub. Or nib. I shall return to whether it is a nib or a nub later.

In my first year, it was the module "Manage your own Learning" , peppered with references to learning styles, that provided grist for the mill. Dubbed "Bring Your Own Beer" by a colleague now departed from the course, it uncritically presented learning styles as "fact" and endowed us with the knowledge that verbs are, in fact, called "do" words. In the second year, a module called Social Policy and Learning was about nothing of the sort, but was in fact a three month moan fest about the direction of about the direction of primary schools over the last thirty years(in the UK) from one (political) perspective. Despite the fact that I might agree with this perspective, after a month, the predictable line was presented at each lecture that teaching had undergone de-professionalization over those thirty years and this was, we were told, a bad thing. The obvious question I was obliged to ask after a few weeks was "Is it? Can Napoleon really have been that wrong?"

This, the third and final year, the guilty party is a work experience module I am obliged to attend. It is not so much that I am obliged to obtain work experience, it is that the theoretical framework that underpins the module is Situated Learning Theory. I could perhaps describe, at length, what my objections are to this, but perhaps its best to start with a quote:

"Legitimate peripheral participation has led us to emphasize the sustained character of development cycles of communities of practice, the gradual process of fashioning relations of identity as a full practitioner and the enduring strains inherent in the continuity-displacement contradiction" (Lave and Wenger, whenever)

I am almost tempted to say 'Nice words but what do they mean?', but I cannot. This is mainly because even the words are ugly. And these words are followed by more, usually the same ones, slightly re-arranged.

Compare the above with

"I am proposing that the ability to learn evolutionarily novel information is the result of two types of brain plasticity, both of which evolved to enable humans to cope with variation in ecological and social conditions within lifetimes"(Geary, 2008)

What follows is a load of specific tangible research findings - facts if you will - references, and nice graphs. And a conclusion.

Geary's stuff is truly a thing of beauty, made more so by the fact that there is a strong possibility he will be demonstrated wrong at some point. Wenger, on the other hand, cannot ever be shown to be wrong because nothing is ever said. Reading Situated Learning is like looking out of a plane window during a flight over the Atlantic - all you see is a vast swathe of undefinable grey. You know this impression is incomplete - there is a mass of complexity 'down there' but you cannot get close to any of the detail, you cannot actually touch, follow or describe any of the individual waves. You dont get to smell the ocean, feel the temperature. Ultimately it becomes boring and the beauty of the ocean is utterly lost.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Re-inventing wood

It is the start of my third and final term at University. Things are looking good - I am cruising towards a First, pummelled the opposition (ie other students) in my Innovation module last year and have been approached by a Department vis-a-vis a funded PhD.

Admittedly, there are a few things found the house I would have preferred to have completed (I have photographs of the progress we have made, but will only publish them at the start of November) such as my office and the second bathroom BUT last week we were hit by disaster. I was working on my deck. I should explain - previously outside our rear door was a sheet of chipboard resting on a pile of rubble. Not a design affection from the Brutalist school, its just that we didnt have the money to buy a deck. Quotes revealed a price of approximately 350 pounds for a simple 2metre x 5 metre affair. Wood is expensive in the UK, but I guess that's the price of deforesting your country in the name of building an Imperial navy. Anywood, recently, in the yard of the company I occasionally work for (most of September slogging the highways of UK} was a whole bunch of decking. Discrete enquiries revealed that this nearly pristine material - which is actually the most expensive kind being treated, thicker and wider than the normal stuff - was destined for the skip. I took advantage of the fact that as part of the job I was working on a truck was in my possession, and paid for by the company, and loaded the truck until it groaned with decking. With the exhaust pipe scraping the floor (I had overloaded the truck by about 50%) we made it the sixty miles to Hull.

THe end result, and all a visitor will see is a shed, a deck and a pagoda type thingy in our back yard, that were otherwise all destined for the skip. Obviously, I'm delighted I got all this stuff for free, and it did take a lot of effort, but to me getting the stuff was a no-brainer. I just did what my father (and most Dads of the time) would have done. I'm not inclined to see the past with rose coloured spectacles, but my father's generation re-used things as a habit. I can clearly remember, as a wee pup, spending a whole afternoon hammering used nails straight so they could be re-re-used. String would be saved. PLastic was valuable - especially large plastic sheets - and my Dad's shed is still waterproofed using the wrapping from a new sofa they got in the Seventies.

I was telling a neighbour, who was observing my deck-work-in-progress how I had acquired the materials, and if she and her husband wanted some of the surplus, they were very welcome. This same neighbour asked me if I had ridden the length of Hadrian's Wall in aide of Charity and was surprised when I replied negatively. As I completed my explanation my neighbour droooled:

"Oh, I love Freeganism. I love it. You should make some street art with what's left over"

At this point I curtailed the conversation, curtly. I dont really mind that she's fallen victim to the phenomenon of branding and therefore has to re-label a pattern of activity that humans have engaged in for two hundred thousand years, but at Street Art, I draw a great big line. Art, if it is to be conducted at all, should be done for a purpose, thoughtfully and conducted by a skilled artisan. In respect of much street art, the fact that this doesnt happen and is instead a community activity conducted by amateurs, or an assembly of old junk or conducted just because a street thinks it should have some street art means that the Street Art is, more often than not, actually vandalism.

None of this is the disaster reported in the opening paragraphs. The disaster is that as I was trundling towards a completed deck, revelling in the fact that in this house I am finally building stuff for pleasure and not just structural necessity, I discovered that we had a leak in the water pipes below our ground floor. I used the word 'disaster' but in truth it was nothing of the sort - it was merely very inconvenient. A disaster is being trapped in a Chilean mine. The result of our inconvenience though is that when the next visitors come, they may be sitting on a half built deck, with half a floor under their feet, not to mention an uncompleted fireplace.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Business as Unusual

"Oft/frequently/often/consistently" I declare/say/announce/whisper/express, (most usually when acolytes/students/pupils/learners/neophytes are struggling with the ridiculous/preposterous/astonishing fact that the words "knight" and "night" sound exactly the same) ".........this........" - I gesture wildly, often at an offensively difficult word to teach (and concept to understand) such as 'since' ' ".....this happens in English. But despair ye not! For, that very difficulty you are experiencing is what makes English such a flexible, and ultimately (I hope you will find) beautiful language." The discussion that follows is one full of praise for the learners' persistence in mastering what can be a difficult language and for the language itself, which is flexible enough to allow sentences such as 'I go bad' to be understood in at least three different ways.

At this point, digress I should for a paragraph or two, permission? I do have a massive admiration for the English language - it allows us to talk to cats, it allows Sal to swear at my fireplace without bothering to give it a gender, RHB to excoriate things and Grasshopper to be "gosh darned knackered", and yours truly to write nonsense. (In her defence, and before a protracted law suit is launched I should rush to add that I've never heard Grasshopper use 'knackered' right next to 'gosh darned' in a sentence, but she has the potential). However, even my massive admiration for English, and my affection for League Tables, cannot allow me to claim that English is the "the best [language] in the World", which is what the UK's new Education Minister recently did at a party rally.

I was watching the new Education Minister's speech at his party's rally with a degree of interest. Not, I should add, that I have (anymore) a particular interest in the Conservatives, as my current view is a minor variance on the Churchillian position that our (current) formulation of democracy is the worst form of Government apart from every other. The variance I would suggest in that statement is that the sentence should stop at the word "apart". For yours truly, minor ideological differences between UK political parties are about as significant as a disagreement at a child's party whether to have jelly or trifle for desert. Thus whether a Party calls itself Labour or Conservative matters to me not a jot - they are equally unwelcome. So normally watching any of them on television is a waste of time better spent watching 'Survivor', 'Celebrity WifeSwap' or perhaps 'Masterchef'.

However, the recently elected Government have caught the eye, because it has promised to embark on a system of power, wealth and equity redistribution whose scope is breathtakingly impressive. The scale of the planned changes to the UK's economy as a whole, social life at every level and Government support for the ill, the old, the weak and the poor is massive, unprecedented, revolutionary.Unfortunately perhaps, the re-distribution seems to be in the un-preferred direction - namely upwards (demographically speaking) and Southwards (where their power base is). All the talk is of cuts - benefit cuts, heating support for elderly people cuts, job cuts, wage cuts and, crucially for my interests, education cuts. So my interest in this person's speech was twofold:

a. How stupid was it of me to decide to get involved in Education (you get blamed for every ill of society, told you are living in an Ivory Tower and get paid neither overtime or a salary that reflects the additional work you actually do) when I should have chosen banking (you can ruin a countries economy, get paid for it, rapidly forgiven and then carry on as you where)?

b.From a wider perspective, should I wait until riots engulf the country before fleeing back to Canada or wait until the removal of the Harpon tyranny and restoration of democracy there?

Predictably perhaps, the speech revealed nothing of substance, unless you count a deep feeling of unease substantial. It was a typical party conference speech - playing to the prejudices of his audience and absent of content. However, he did make the claim that "English Literature is the best in the world". Naturally, as the UK's (joint) second best academic, and lifelong Celtic FC fan I am interested in rankings. So, in an intensive five minute search of Google and Wikipedia, I decided to research the claim as I was interested in what evidence might support it. A list of Nobels (I am still waiting for the letter re: Civilization: Why???? trilogy) by nationality seemed the best place to find the answer. Unfortunately, for the Minister, the Nobels dont help his argument - the Germans (8) and the French (14) far outstrip the UK's number of Nobel prizes for Literature (5 or 6 depending on whether George Bernard Shaw is counted as English or Irish). So I tried searching for the best selling books of all time. Again, our minister has no support there, as the Bible, Words of Mao T'se Tung and the Quran all outstrip the next best sellers - the Harry Potter series. Potter is by far the best selling fiction phenomenon, and perhaps, I thought, after some reflection, the Minister is referring to this, and perhaps he meant "English Literature is the one I like the best". Whether Harry Potter is something a nation should be particularly proud of or not is surely a matter of subjectivity, and in deciding what to read, there is absolutely nothing wrong with subjectivity, nor with Harry Potter. But if an Education Minister for the eight richest (I looked up a list) country in the World cannot tell the difference between "my favourite" and "the best" then what chance do my learners have in the revolution that is coming??

May you live in interesting times

Watch this

Read this

Today I have little time to explain this to my friends not acquainted with football as I have just, finally, completed my summer's programme of work, having returned from LOndon last night at 1.30am. But these links provide a back story for a series of events that have interrupted sleep, caused worry and endless discussion for the last three years. Although YWNA is named (sort of) after our club's most well known song, these pages infrequently refer to the sport - as I've mentioned before, there are many other websites that "do" football better.

As tiredness is a major factor at the moment I will write no more for now, except to say what has happened to LFC are a perfect example of why the common business practise of "leveraged buy-outs' should be illegal.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Creative Anarchy

"WAKE UP AND GIVE ME THE SAT-YOU F***** M**** T***. WAKE UP!!!!" I shout, then repeat the exercise. Futilely, if there is such a word. I should rush to assure family members that the 'F**** M***T***" in question is not RHB, and this is not a retelling of the incident that occurred merely a week ago when, en route to a family party, we managed to get lost with a sat nav AND a map because she disagreed with the sat-nav. Alas, humourous as RHB's ability to get lost is, and as taleworthy as her ability to cause an argument in an otherwise unoccupied elevator might be, today's F******** etc etc is Icksy, my erstwhile work supervisor, who has not made an appearance in these pages for a while.

For those who dont know, I worked with Icksy for a period some time ago. He is small, with an appearance that, as a youth, would have been called 'urchin-like'. As an adult, a diet of pie, chips and beans, poor dental hygiene and stress levels through the roof mean that he looks more 'goblin-like' than 'urchin like'. His facial colouring travels through a palette of reds in the course of a day - from 'raw beetroot', through 'indigo sunrise' and 'sierra rocks' and back again. His dental hygiene is wanting, to say the least and his mood throughout the day(s) ranges between 'angry', 'belligerent', 'unhelpful', 'sulky' and 'unpleasant'. His digestive system appears non-functioning and he is apparently sick throughout the whole weekend with 'food-poisoning' (apparently a sandwich in the hotel), 'bad water' (apparently London's water is 'bad'), a bad cold (apparently different germs in London caused by immigrants)and a massive migraine (apparently a bad nights sleep and elevated noise levels in London). On top of all of this, and perhaps worse of all, he mumbles in his strong Yorkshire dialect, so not only can I not hear what he is saying, but I would'nt understand it even if I could. The whole effect, from my perspective, is that I have to spend 48 hours in the company of a dying Klingon with ill-fitting false teeth, the only difference being that where Klingons are (rightly) famed for their ruthless efficiency, Icksy is a walking definition of the word 'hapless'.

Why, you ask yourselves, would the joint second best academic in UK, (coincidentally Hull's leading scenic carpenter) be working with this specimen? Mostly, its because the company I work for has once again been re-structured. The trickle down effect of this is that instead of another freelance colleague being employed to travel to London on a mission essential to the company, regular workshop staff have been drafted in because they dont get paid overtime. I assume this seems a more efficient use of resources to the company (where people = resources. This notion is a misreading of human society so acute it deserves another post of its own about modern day project management) so at the end of a forty hour week, Icksy is informed that he is travelling with me to London to work the weekend. The results of this efficiency have been that I have had to work with a miserable, inefficient, error prone, bad tempered small person for almost 24 hours straight.

We are en route to yet another emergency pick-up of supplies (caused by him), this time a full hour's drive away across London, to a location neither of us have ever been before, Icksy has fallen asleep in the passenger seat of our 7.5 truck cradling the sat nav like a teddy bear. The visual display cannot be seen from the driving seat (my location)and because this is a big truck, and he is very little, he is too far away for me to reach over and slap repeatedly until conciousness returns, as this would result in an alarming loss of control of the vehicle. And, the stupid midget has disabled the volume, because, he said later, it was "distracting" him. We are on a motorway, approaching a junction where several options present themselves and I have no idea which junction to take. (Note: Our overseas readers should be aware that in the UK it is not permissable to stop on motorways, even with the stated aim of pummelling one's companion). The wrong choice, could add another hour onto our journey and we have a deadline to be back onsite which is already tight.

I guess recklessly, take the ramp and head in a new direction. Ten miles down the road there are services, so I swing in. Once in the car park, I line the truck up precisely with a row of trees and press the accelerator pedal. The resultant necessary hard braking nearly catapults Icksy out of his seat and through the cab window.

"Prick" I say, jerk the sat nav from his hands, and accelerate out the car-park. Icksy, fully awake now, looks confused, but that is the natural set of his face and I'm in no mood for explanations. Rejoining the motorway, the sat nav tells me that through sheer luck, I took the correct exit, so I continue en route. Five minutes later Icksy informs me, as he has at approximately fifteen minute intervals throughout the previous twenty four hours, that he has "bad guts" and needs a washroom. "We've just been to a services, why didnt you go then?" I ask him maliciously, and carry on. He starts moaning, holding his stomach, interspersing his groans, farts and burps with "Sorry".

The only redeeming feature of the whole weekend is that during it, Icksy actually has to try to install objects at the exhibition hall he has personally built. This is redeeming because my job is to try to install, at various venues, the objects Icksy has built in his workshop. Despite numerous debriefs, friendly hints and advice, he has consistently failed to consider my 'onsite' world in his construction techniques leading to every install being much more difficult than it should be. Naturally, one hates the sitcom phrase "Welcome to my world" but for once it seems appropriate as he rebuilds yet another desk.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

On the road

I have only the vaguest idea where I am. This is not, I should rush to assure the reader, a repeat of the occasion, roughly fifteen years ago, when I briefly became a mentalist and was unsuccessful in finding RHB in our one bedroom apartment for over two hours - a situation that led to the prescribed ingestion of copious amounts of valium, and is a story perhaps for another time, involving as it does a picnic, pork chops, emigration and a warehouse in deepest Wales - rather this current lack of orientation is entirely technological in origin, and sanely work related.

The reason I have no idea where I am is that just five day after our bike ride, I am working once more for my previous employers, work that involves installing a travelling exhibition for a large company at various venues across the UK. Such employment has always been slightly discombobulating as the daily sequence is similar to a rock and roll tour: highway-venue-hotel-drink-venue-highway but in my previous UK incarnation, an enjoyable part of every day, (and practically the only intellectual exercise achieved) was route planning via the use of out-of-date physical maps. A century later, and the efficiencies of satellite aided navigation mean that all I know, and heartily resent, is that I am in a very pretty little village that is, as I later tell RHB, "not far from Birmingham". East, West, South, North, town names, visible landmarks,signposts, road identifiers such as 'A46', friendly passers by giving directions - all are forgotten and forbidden navigational tools in the era of sat-nav. All a driver knows is a postcode then "turn left", "turn right" and "take the exit". So I have, and now I 'have reached my destination'.

I turn off the unlit country road into the driveway of the destination - a hotel my employers have pre-booked for me, and stop my vehicle, sighing. I open up my faux leather LFC crested notebook and turn to a list I have made over the previous three days. The list is titled "Debrief items for discussion with Project Manager". A quick scan to ensure this entry is not a repeat of a previous one, and I write:

'Item 26: To admin: Do NOT, under any circumstances, book hotels for conference installers where the descrption of the hotel includes the words "quaint", "barn", "rural", "ivy", "duck pond", "Ye", "hideaway", "historic","tranquil". '

I replace the notebook in my bag, start the engine and go to disengage the brake. A thought strikes me, so I cancel that action, retrieve the notebook and add to my entry:

"NOTE; This does not imply that I dont appreciate your sentiments in booking me into these hotels. Its just that when you mentioned you'd put additional effort into booking me 'nice hotels' for this trip, I was thinking jacussi, penthouse, sauna."

This addition is necessary, I think, because it is possible that the debrief I intend to conduct may, even if only by virtue of its length, cause some minor offence within the company. I dont want to sour things unnecessarily, but I can already see how other entries might be seen as criticism. For example, Item One concludes:

"... so never send this idiot out on the road with me again"

While Item Five helpfully advises:

" .......when constructing display boxes incorporating tv screens that are supposed to have hinged rear panels for access to the integrated DVD players, ensure your workshop doesnt glue, screw and pin said access panel permanently closed with screw holes filled, sanded and painted. I feel that the words "Access panel do not fix" that were written in bold across the aforementioned panel provided a sufficient clue to your production manager that these additional fixings were unnecessary. The placement of a DVD player on a shelf behind the access panel, might I feel, have provided additional information if only because his own empirical attempts to activate said DVD player via a remote control through 18mm of solid MDF should have proved unsuccessful. What I find mystifying is not only that your workshop has done this to all five boxes incorporating access panels, tv's and DVD players, but that your production manager claims to have tested these DVD players by watching 45 minutes of home produced pornography - 'Bertha's Birthday', I beleive - after they were assembled. Such an achievement, if true, implies a mastery over natural laws suggestive that he may be better occupied in research at one of the better universities.."

Noting mentally that I may have to edit my list somewhat, I release the brake and attempt to manoeuvre my 7.5 tonne lorry down the narrow unlit driveway. There is a right angle turn 50 metres down the driveway so as I concentrate on not demolishing a 500 year old ivy covered barn with the tail end of my truck as it swings round, I simultaneously must avoid plunging through the historic pond directly ahead and must also line the vehicle up to cross the quaint bridge past that. This involves a lot of low gear work so the tranquility of the rural night is shattered by the roar of a diesel engine at high revs. Barn owls flee in panic at the noise and a the pounding of hooves is evidence of a cattle stampede in a field nearby. After half and hour of this, the driveway is negotiated and the truck is parked, matter out of place, in front of "Ye Olde Station: The Perfect Hideaway".

I climb out of the cab and walk to the front door. It is nine pm and I am ravenously hungry. The prospect of a home cooked farmhouse meal is tantalising. Unfortunately, a lightning bolt awaits. With trembling hands I unstick the piece of paper taped to the oaken front door:

"Hello Mr Nickson. Your office said to expect you at eight. Waited half an hour, but as you are the only guest tonight, have gone home. Tried to reach you but no phone signal. Will return at ten thirty to see if you have arrived. If you are hungry there is a very good restaurant near Coleshill. Just follow the A56 south west. Its about ten miles, so only a fifteen minute drive. My home phone is 98763632."

I return to the cab, open my notebook and amend my notes. I cross out the numeral "26" from my most recent entry and write, and underline, in words, "ITEM NUMBER ONE".

Friday, 3 September 2010

Broken Britain: The Ride Of Hope.

Dateline: Ride minus ONE day
Location: Large Mansions, Kitchen/Bicycle Storage Area.

"Wow, Nel" I enthuse "Bob the Bike (from Bob's Bike's) is great. A full service in preparation for my ride only cost me $23.00. Bob's doing a similar Coast to Coast route on Saturday, so I think he's sympathetic to touring cyclists and gave me a great deal"

"That's nice" say RHB.

Dateline: Ride plus TWO days
Location: Mile 74 somewhere between Silloth and Carlisle on the deserted Cumbrian Coast.

"What I dont understand," says Skarra, helpfully, "What I really dont understand, is why you didnt get the bike serviced before we left".

I insist, again, that I did. And I detail my conversation with Bob the Bike, whereby I explained the route, duration, expected terrain, weather and approximate speed of our expedition. And that I needed a full service, pointing Bob to regions of concern - the brakes, wheel balance, gears and interactions thereof.

I then return my attention to my rear wheel which is boasting three loose spokes. When I have decided what to do about that, I can turn my attention to the front brake cable, and then the failing gears - other victim of Bob's discount maintenance. Skarra is a time-served boffin, and is therefore relentless in his pursuit of logic and hence cannot understand how it can be that I claim to have paid for a bike service, yet the bike gives every appearance of having had no treatment prior to our venture other than being assaulted with a large mallet. However, the breed Skarra typifies - psychologists - are a sensitive crew, trained in the ways of the mind. They know when a rider might need not to be doubted, but supported. So he offers sympathy:

"You know, this maintenance work you had done is so bad, it makes you wonder whether the whole bike is going to collapse under you on a steep downhill". He laughs sympathetically shaking his head "The luck you've had so far, it would probably happen right in front of an articulated lorry on a blind bend. Are you sure that your emergency brake repair is safe? Looks a bit ropey to me. Sheesh, that Bob!". With these comforting words he tuts and wanders off for an ice-cream.

Most of this conversation occurs somewhere along the Cumbrian coast. It is an amazing place, with an air about it of being lost in time. From the windy little village of Seascale, past the Sellafield nuclear power plant where armed police cradle machine guns(still an alarming sight in the UK), through the charming resort of Maryport up to Silloth, locals, whether in cafes or bars, garages or at emergency bike repair stops are friendly and interested. Even in Whitehaven, which only several months ago was subject to a mass murder, there is chat and advice. The pace of life seems slow, even to someone used to Hull's village-like atmosphere, and the advice (directions, weather, how to ride, what to go and see) is, like most village-borne advice, completely useless. We leave Cumbria with the sense that most of the people we speak to have never been anywhere else and dont see the need to do so. IN talking to us, they're just being friendly. It is the closest I've ever been to experiencing the unreality of Chatwin's Patagonia.

Dateline: Ride Day One
Location : Barrow in Furness Railway Station

"What I dont understand" says Skarra "What I really dont understand, is how we can have booked tickets for ourselves on this train, with seat reservations, and booked our bikes on the trains at the station, and have tickets for said reservations only to be told that those reservations are meaningless".

"Now, now " says the guard of the 14.36 Barrow to Ravenglass "The reservations arent meaningless, its just that there are too many people on the train. So you cant get on."

"You mean" I say "We cant get on with our bikes?"

"No" says the guard "You cant get on at all. Train's full"

I'm trying to make sense of what I'm being told. It feels vaguely familiar.

"Do all of those people" Skarra points at the single carriage train, which, at the moment resembles more a mobile sardine tin than a method of transport "Do all those people have reservations?"

"Probably not" says the guard, "But they were here before you. If you'd been here before them, we could have accepted your reservations. But we still could'nt have taken them bikes. Your best bet is to wait for the next train. You'd be first then, and the guard would probably accept your reservations. Still, that's no guarantee you could get those on" - he nods at the bikes as if they are back engineered alien technology, fresh out of Area 51.

Suddenly the engine driver appears, full of authority, and with the demeanor of someone who once knew someone who rode a bicycle and therefore can relate to wierdos, he announces he will try to get the bikes in his cab. The assembled crowd of Cumbrians (about fifty) give a small cheer and he grabs my bike and proceeds to attempt to ram it into his cabin, with the pointless optimism of someone who has never moved a piece of furniture in his life. He obviously has less chance of succeeding that the crowd of farmers and race-goers have of sobering up before Christmas but perseveres for several minutes. Then, with a few comments about "over-sized bikes", "just not made right" and (mysteriously) "its a train not a bus" he abandons his efforts and flings the bike back at me.

Dateline : Ride Day Three
Location : Somewhere in Northumbria, near Hadrian's Wall

We are on a deserted country road and have been riding for a few hours, and having argued ourselves to a standstill on the origins of agriculture, are discussing the current fad for sponsorship. It seems, we agree, that practically anyone who indulges themselves in vacations like the one we are having, feels the need to get t-shirts printed, whip up some press coverage and raise money for a 'worthy' cause as part of the process. The reality is that cycling coast to coast, snorkeling across the Irish Sea or playing poker non-stop are, like all human recreations, simply indulgences of the participants - but a wierd mass-guilt seems to have grown whereby people feel the need to justify such activities by getting "sponsored" to do them. It is unfathomable, but we feel we are missing something by not having a 'point' to our ride. So we decide to call it Broken Britain: The Ride of Hope and occupy sometime during the next few days speculating on how big the welcoming committee will be when we reach Newcastle, and discussing the good we are doing bringing hope to a blighted nation.

This however, doesnt really make us feel any worthier so attention is returned to the utterly selfish passtimes of measuring each climb, enjoying the silence, spotting birds in the hedgerows, and towards the end of each day, thinking about the meal ahead.

Dateline : Ride Day Five
Location : Downhill towards Newcastle

It takes about a day and a half to climb to the highest elevation on Hadrian's Wall by a circuitous route. And it takes about an hour and a half to descend to sea-level at breathtaking full speed. Descending on a bike looks easy, and up to a point it is - you just stop pedalling. But with some experience, you learn that there is an art to descending - techniques to employ, and lines to take that result in a faster ride. And it only gets really exciting when you are just at the limits of your ability to control the bike, but - and this is very important - are aware that you are at those limits. At that point - when it is just stupid to even attempt to apply the brakes - there are decisions to make. Such as whether to lean even steeper into the corners, whether to crouch down lower, whether to start thinking about what will happen if the chain flys loose and gets jammed in the gears. At some points in the descent, we went way past that point, and it really did become a ride of Hope.

Final Day on the Road.

The ride through Newcastle is horrible. Horrible because its through an identikit urban landscape. And horrible because we have to keep getting off to cross intersections. But mostly horrible because Red Bull has happened to Newcastle. In addition to being a favourite drink of alcoholics and heroin addicts, Red Bull are responsible for making sports like cycling, skateboarding, and even running, a fashion accessory. I dont really care about other hobbies, but the impact on such a Grand Old Man as cycling is to be regretted, and in Newcastle, once a favourite, down to earth Northern town, Bullites are everywhere. Throughout the rest of our ride, the on-road camarderie has been as it ever was. Passing cyclists wave at eachother, or you chat for a few kilometres if going in the same direction. In Newcastle however, steely eyed, lycra-clad, square-jawed Bullites overtake too close relentlessly. Approaching riders in this seasons 'must have' cycling shoes pretend to mess with their gears as we pass, refusing eye contact. Frantic 'exciting' heavy rock music pous from headphones and these boys look as if they want to look like they mean business. Personally, I doubt if, inbetween watching the 'Dave' TV channel, and flying off to Bucharest to 'grab a quick break' they've ever had the time to ride more than the ten mile poser ride along this horrible river path. There's a whole sporting culture developed of unfit, ill-informed ignorami (the plural of ignoramus) who, in the future will be fat lazy forty year olds, still drinking Red Bull and watching 'Dave TV' but with state of the art bikes gathering dust in the garage along with their snowboards, wind-surfers, skateboards and weights benches. The stuff should be banned.

Dateline: Evening of return to Hull
Location: Neighbour's back garden

"Hi, where've you been all week?" asks a friendly neighbour.

We are celebrating someone's birthday, and while I would rather be in a hot bath applying lanolin to some aching limbs, there is also a chance to talk, a little, about our adventures.

"Oh, you know. Just riding coast to coast. HAdrian's Wall actually. About 200 miles. Pretty cool".

"Wow" says the neighbour " That sounds brilliant. What charity did you do that for?"

Hadrians Wall

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Hadrian's Wall

As with the last few weeks, time remains of the essence - a rare, exotic essence, hard to find and very precious. Tonight's missive will therefore be as short as the last few, but there are a few topics to address.

Hadrian's Wall cycle ride;

First item is that tomorrow morning, myself and Mosside Paul - ie ace guitarist and keyboard wizard comprising the other half of Cheek to Cheek, Paul Skarrat - are off on a journey who's outcome, presently is unknown. Months ago, feeling the need to experience the wind in our hair, the freedom of the road and miles of tramacadam crumbling beneath our wheels, we committed to ride Hadian's Wall cycleway. 174 miles of bridle paths, small roads, cycleways and ramblings meander across the hills of Norhtumbria in Northern England, roughly following the path of the wall constructed by the great Roman. The route, designed to avoid four wheeled vehicular traffic, is unbelievably convoluted. When we discussed the ride, and then booked the hostels and inns whence we would be staying, training rides were planned, a strict diet was to be observed and stamina was to be built. With about twenty four hours till we start riding, a sad tale of a summer bereft of training for the ride has unfolded. I have made furniture, done some work in Leeds,bone hiking in Scotland, gone to a wedding, visited a lighthouse, planted a few bushes, got drunk a few times and spent a total of about four hours a week on the bike. I suspect pain, particularly in the bum region, is on the horizon.

Into the hills with Brad and Amelia.

HAvent yet had time to organise these shots into an album, but we did a bit round Lochnagar a few weeks back. Brad and Amelia were scoping out a new climb here. For those interested this is Creag an Dubh Loch. I took some shots of the scenery on the way in :


AT the last moment, after a very quiet summer, my friends Luke and Tom called me in for some work in Leeds. As usual it was long days and the project is one of the more challenging ones I have been involved in. That occured last week, and so further delayed preparations for the ride. Still the physical nature of the work, and the the three hour per day commute was good stamina training.


After two years of negotiations with the UK National Health Service, I recieved a phone call from my doctor's surgery that a letter awaited at his surgery in respect of an appointment to fix my knees. I hot footed it down to the surgery, picked up the letter, raced home and opened it. To my dismay, contained within was not an appointment date, but a direction along with a password and user name to a website where, it promised, I could choose a date for my appointment. I logged on and flew through the onscreen instructions, anxious to get these knee problems finally resolved. On entering my password and user name, however, the website opened a new window, proudly displaying the name, address and phone number of HUll's muscularskeleto clinic. The onscreen directions told me to call the number. So I telephoned the number and a human voice answered. I explained my quest. The , listener, after checking my details politely congratulated me that I had successfully registered with the clinic and said a letter would be sent to me with the appointment date. Hesitantly I enquired why I could not arrange a date there and then, over the phone. The answerer confirmed that this was possible but not allowed:

"Its the rules, I'm afraid..." she explained. A letter was promised within a few weeks.

It has been three weeks since this conversation. Mentally I am prepared to return to my own doctor when I return from the wall to repeat the whole operation.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Dilithium Crystals

I walk into the small store, just past the railway arches. The store's walls abound with the sharp glittering tools necessary for the trade. The owner, a smallish, tidy gentleman nods in my direction:

"Morning, Alf " I chirrup "How's tricks?"

"Not so bad" says Alf "Bit busy, but that's Friday's for you in this game. What can I do for you? The usual?"

I affirm Alf's suggestion - not that I have a great variety of choice - and sit on one of the stools. Alf's rapidly to work, a true craftsman, and shortly he's done. I examine the results carefully - not that given the limited scope for invention I would seriously contemplate alternatives - and issue thanks to Alf for his services.

"No problem, Martin. See you next week."

Arriving back at the house, I insert one of the new keys Alf has just cut, making sure it works properly. Naturally it does, after all, Alf has had so much practice cutting my lost keys that he could probably do it by hand without using the one remaining original (actually a third or fourth generation model from the key supplied with our fornt door lock).

Next , I start work on another key, this time the computer variety. Recent troubles with the very instrument this note is being scrawled upon have meant that the computer has had to go away to computer hospital. It has been recieved back, but the problems remain so next week it is back into the University to be repaired again. 'What, I wonder' you may muse ' Might be this technical glitch?' And if computer literate you might, for want of something better to do, consider the options - hard drive, drivers, sound card, applications, operating systems. And if you were to communicate these concerns to yours truly you would be repeating the actions of one Red Haired Boffin. Quite how fruitless such ponderings are, at least when expressed to yours truly, can be illustrated by this reconstructed conversation.

"Nel. Its brokened."

"What is, my cherub?"

"The 'puter thing. It broked and now it wont work"

"What happened, my dove?"

"Last week it worked. THis week it dont work. I hate it?"

"Let me see if I can help you darling. What happens when you boot up?"


"What happens when you start it up?


"Have you loaded any software recently? ANy new applications?"


"Did you touch anything other than the "ON" switch I labelled for you?"

"'ourse not. 'Ust typed summat.Now it broke. That 'puter - it dont like me"

"Oh, you silly sausage. Computers are just a series of on/off switches. They dont have any personal should'nt get frustrated like you did last time. You did'nt ....well... hit it again did you?"

AT this point in the conversation, I jump up dramatically, point to the skyline above the houses opposite and shout "Look !!! Aliens are landing! "

RHB is un-decived and laughs indulgently. "Dont worry my little freckleless one. I'll sort it out. You go and play your guitar."

Two hours later, a Tasmanian Devil stalks into the room where am diligently practising my scales, and between hyperventilations, screeches "WHERE IS YOUR BIGGEST HAMMER??? THE ONE YOU USED ON CONCRETIA??"

SOmewhat alarmed, I dive into my tool kit and provide the required instrument which is then snatched out of my hand. The hammer leads the way back down stairs as a furious psychologist practises, assessing how much swing she can achieve. In a flash I realise what she is intending, so I pass her on the stairs, grab the nearest available cat and place it on my computer. Rapidly returning to sanity (on sight of a small furry creature), and with bulging eyes gradually returning to normal, RHB lowers the hammer. "THis computer really hates you doesnt it? WHich" she continues " I dont mind, except that it seems to think I have something to do with you and now it hates me as well."

In other news, there are two agenda items of note. THe first is that Cheek to Cheek have been commisioned to record a movie soundtrack. I am of course, perfectly serious about this. Whether our soundtrack gets accepted or not is another matter, but the local charity I work for is making a film and we are doing the soundtrack, so that has kept us busy.

The second agenda item is that the best health service in the world has finally accepted that having torn ligaments/tendons/cartilage is a problem for a not-quite-fifty year old. After second, third and even fourth opinions, and two years of wrangling, I have been able to persuade the local hospital to take the first steps to repairing the damage which lurks around my knees. Previously, under the best health service in the world, the fact that walking was, occasionally, so painful as to make the act not worthwhile, has been deemed "not a serious enough problem", "not treatable", "tolerable and not urgent" and "an attempt to claim disability benefit". Now however, I have been able to persuade a consultant that it is at least worth the while of the best health service in the world to conduct a minor surgical procedure to rectify the problem. [Note: a friend from a different country had a similair problem and was fixed within six months].

Finally, the table pictured at he top of this, by now totally random post, is one we made entirley form recycled materials. The local university was throwing out its old lab benches, so I spent two days skip=diving and pulling out large chunks of usuable 100 year old mahogany and oak. What the picture shows is a former physics lab bench, which is now our dining room table. We are very proud of it and look forward to scratching it up with friends in the near future and for some time to come.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Zoo's Who?

Glasgow/Stirling July 2010

Frankly, it's an outrage. No, I'm not banging on about the very existence of Blair Drummond Castle, located in the safari park we are visiting, although that same existence is indicative of a feudal modality by no means long erased from our history. And I'm not wittering on about animal rights, although the sights of the larger animals in the park, caged in the necessary cause of establishing breeding populations because of our inability to look after any portion of this small blue planet, did make me sad. As previously stated, this blog is infrequently given to matters political, so it is not these undoubtedly important issues that have caused my sap to rise. No, what is important on this day, and is utterly, utterly wrong is that after not having seen my erstwhile neighbour - one Mr Chris Carriere - for a good few years, and after singing his praises far and wide throughout the Shires of Yorkshire and beyond, the same Mr (how it grieves me to give him a gentleman's form of address) Carriere has acted with breathtaking mendacity and cheated in our race down the aqua slide, shoving off on his hessian mat before the count of "One, Two, THREE " is up.

It was though, as the attached slide show illustrates, a damn close run thing, with Mazzer nearly catching the Canadian at the bottom. Shades of the winter Olympics, methinks! And joking aside - in case you hadnt realised I was joking - we had a great day at Blair Drummond Safari park with Joanie, Chris, Lena and Iain. The meeting - sadly only one day - was much shorter than we had initially planned. The original sketch was a meeting in the Outer Hebrides, where the guys spent a week or so, for a few dyas closer to wilderness, but ideals and cash conflict, with pragmatism winning the upper hand. Travelling within the UK is hideously expensive and involved as we are in the "credit crunch" (AKA Global economic meltdown) an absence of employment has tightened reduced our own money supply temporarily so a more economical overnight trip to Glasgow (where their vacation was ending) was arranged.

However as a group, we are made of sterner stuff tha to allow minor things like the imminent collapse of society to spoil a good time. The Carriere-Veitch contingent have, after all, survived frequent suspensions of democracy via the Harpon tyranny, and self and Large have two cats, so collectively, we're a pretty tough group. In short, we had a great time. It is slightly irksome, for self and Large that most of our favourite people live an ocean away, but on the average day, that is closer than London, UK, if travelling time due to roadworks is taken into account. Having met up with Joe and Anna, Grasshooper and Burt last year, and JC and then the Carriere-Veitch Syndicate this year, Nel and I estimated that we only have to encourage about another fourteen Canadians to visit the UK and we can legitimately claim to have hosted a nation, as it is common knowledge that the population of Canada is "about twenty".

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

How to change a bicycle Rear Wheel; Number one in a Series of Simple "How to's". Sponsored by Calli, Tosh, Lilly, Hannibal, Diego and Several Brians

Many of us like to go cycling, especially in the summer. The joy of the wind in the hair, the clasp of tight lycra round the speculative organs and the knowledge that unless you've just eaten Mazzer and Burt's famous "Drunken Pineapple Chicken", your journey will be totally emission free. However, your carefree days of cycling can be endangered by some common problems. Possibly the worst of these is an attempted murder by a lunatic hit and run driver. If this should happen to you, resulting in stress breaks to the rear wheel spokes, dont just swap out the good back wheel for a crappy olod one you happen to have lying around, leaving the good one to fester under a pile of insulation in your unfinished loft for 2 years. No, act promptly - fixin' up that old back wheel is easier than you think. Here's how:

Step 1: Find said back wheel under boxes when inexplicably searching for favourite Halloween costume in middle of summer, preferably when you are supposed to be making a new fireplace.

Step 2: Identify problem with wheel.

Step 3: Search internet for possible solutions. You may be tempted at this point to spend over $15,000 on a new wheel but as you have already committed £500 of your family fortune to buying shares in Liverpool Football Club (without telling your partner) as part of a fan-based syndicate you decide that the easy to follow instructions on how to change the wheel are easy. Especially as you are, allegedly, "handy".

Step 4: Rush out, and buy new wheel anyway because you discover that it takes weeks to get the parts - hub, gears etc whereas you can buy a complete pre-assembled wheel locally, for cheaper. Your plan is to strip the new wheel of the parts you need, and replace the old worn parts on your original wheel with these new parts. It is a brilliant plan.

Step 5: Discover, on re-reading the various internet guides, that you have none of the correct tools. decide to improvise. (Note: Its actually day six of your repair by now).

Step 6: Start improvising. Results are oil on best hiking pants, 2 scared cats, big grooves in the grass where the wheel has spun out of control as you try to unscrew the hub, and a suspected broken finger from hammer impacts. You are at "step one" of the internet "how to". The gear cassette remains attached to the wheel.

Step 7: Go out and buy most of the correct tools for the job.

Step 8: Realise NOT buying a bench mounted vise was mistake. Consider building garden shed in order to house vise. Check "bike repair" budget.

Step 9: Fix garden pomd while having "a bit of a think".

Step 10: Take newly bought wheel, old wheel and half-ruined tools to bike shop. Pretend nephew is cack-handed and a bit daft. Nice man agrees to fix "your" wheel. Maintain pretence that wheel is "nephew's".

I hope the guide helps. Next week's guide is "How to Make Raffia Garden Chairs using only materials from your own garden". Should be lots of fun, and be careful to read up on the fact sheet "Drying garden cuttings in the toilet" before starting this project, as you il need a good supply of raffia substitute for the project.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

End of the road blues: Part Two

We are, I think, all familiar with this famous North American road sign. Having laughed heartily, and, it must be confessed, with a degree of superiority, at whoever planned, designed and then installed the above, it was somewhat humbling to discover that the Scots, famed across the world as engineers, could also concieve of turnpike insanity on an equal level. The first glimmer of this came about five miles up the half-metalled single track clifftop track that leads to Rubha Reidha. As our car crawled along, clinging to the path with every ounce of traction available to it, my companions were marvelling at the 300 ft cliffs that plunged away on our left. Suddenly, a hairpin bend took us slightly inland as the road followed a ravine back inland. Another few twists, then the road plunged downwards and darted across the ravine as if it had lost patience looking for a way across. The bridge that (somewhat reluctantly judging by its construction) had followed the road, seemed to be made of old Zimmer frames and bike parts, and on the other side, I could see that the road twisted sharply left, then leapt almost vertically up the hillside as if relieved to be free of the gorge. I slowed the car so that it crawled down the hill, then lined it up along the bridge and gunned it ferociously. We shot across the shambolic span, then more vicious acceleration as the car strained to make the top of the opposite slope without stalling.
As we crested the hill, Culham and Large laughed:"Did you see that sign?"

I was too frightened to pay attention to road signs, but fortunately, later in the holiday, we had time to record it for posterity. The sign, placed just at the approach to the bridge, was the following:

A couple of miles on, another gorge, another sign. It was as if the roadbuilders were challenging truckers:

And finally, about a mile before the lighthouse, the stakes were raised. The final gorge to cross was, it has to be admitted, slightly less imposing than the previous ones. The bridge was, however, still determinedly flimsy. So, just in case a truck much heavier than the 7.5 tonne ones banned from the two previous bridges had decided that 7.5 tonnes was a lower weight limit, the last bridge was protected by the following sign, a sign which refers to what would be called in North America 18 wheeler tractor trailers.
The road also featured in our first encounter with our fellow lighthouserers. Before launching into that tale, I should illuminate it slightly with the information that having learnt Canadian hinking etiquette from two of Nova Scotia's leading plodders, I have, since my arrival in this country, continued the tradition. On a local Sunday hike, amid the gentle hills of the East Riding Of Yorkshire, for example, I will insist on stopping someone on the path and enquiring if they have water, emergency supplies, a map, compass, sturdy shoes, a whistle and all the accoutrements necessary for wilderness venturing. Of course, the East Riding of Yorkshire is hardly the wilderness and the fact that the person being grilled is probably just walking off a hearty Sunday lunch, and that, in this crowded country the last thing they want is a conversation with a stranger, and also that in this part of England, a fully equipped supermarket, not to mention their house, is usually just over the brow of the nearest hill often makes the question superfluous, but it is a hard habit to shake. Thus spotting a lonely hiker( at nearly ten in the evening) five miles away from shelter trudging up a cliff-top Scotish track, I felt justified in applying the Canadian convention.

I slowed the car gradually as we approached, creeping up behind the hiker until my window was level with her. Once in position, I hit the window control, but unfortunately hit the wrong one, winding the rear window down. Upper most in my mind was the need to ascertain that a fellow hiker was in no danger, so while continuing to drive, and frantically jabbing controls on the armrest to try to get the window down, I started bellowing "ARE YOU ALRIGHT?", "DO YOU NEED WATER???", "IS EVERYTHING OK". While this was going on Cristiana, an Italian of our acquaintance who has never (despite living in Canada and the UK for some time) quite lost what she would willingly describe as a cultural volatility, started shouting at me "What the F***'s are you doing". Additionally, my control jabbing was misguided and the wing mirrors were waggling frantically as the car weaved jerkily along the road. Meanwhile the hiker had on her face an expression similar to that of a startled heron. Taking a slight shake of her head to mean that she was ok, I sped off down the road towards the lighthouse, front and rear windows winding up and down and side mirrors circling merrily, Cristiana still shouting and Nel cackling. It shoud be added, in the interests of historicity, that in truth, we had no water whatsoever in the car. Nevertheless, I felt the gesture was the important thing, and if the hiker had expressed a need for liquid, then one of the bottles of Stella Artois that had been warming in the trunk since Inverness would substituted nicely.

About an hour later, we were settled into the kitchen of the hostel partaking of some liquid refreshment, probably discussing underpants or cats (I had put a cap on the allowed duration of academic conversation per diem) when a mousey head, accompanied by an equally mousey face, poked its head round the door. We all cried a cheery "Hello!", but for a second, I wondered where I had seen that face before. It was only as the face suddenly withdrew from the crack between door and post, in a fashion reminiscent of a doormouse surprised by a snake, that I relaised it was our hiker from the road. The next four days were like living with a ghost. I would emerge from the common shower facility, then, just as I was entering my room down the corridor, would feel a wisp of wind. I would turn just in time to see the shower-room door slam shut and hear the sound of the lock being thrown and what also sounded like large objects being pushed againstit from the other side. I would enter the kitchen for breakfast, short-sighted and dozy as always, half-noticing someone eating at the table, then by the time I had turned round, they would be gone, their meal apprently abandoned mid-mouthful. It was a bit like living on the Marie Celeste.

Others in the lighthouse were equally strange. In the refrectory was a "Wildlife Spotted" whiteboard. Soon after arriving, a smug European pair began to fill this board - "Sea Otter: 7.15am". "Pod of Orcas: 8.20am" "Played water polo with seals until got bored: 18.00 - 22.00". The only word they exchanged with us were the names of the wildlife they had seen, how early in the morning they had seen it, and where, accompanied with a knowing smile. JC rapidly became convinced they were making it up, and proposed retaliatory strikes in the form of made up postings "Kraken: 13.00", "Went to dinner with mermaids: awful hangover" "Unicorn and foal borrowed £2.50. Will return same time tomorrow".

Then there was also the fact that everyone else went to bed at about 10pm despite two very, very comfortable sitting rooms, ideal for groups to gather and chew the fat. This early a-bed is forgivable if they were engaged in vigourous outdoor pursuits requiring an early start, but in truth we saw no sign of that. And the idea occured that they all wanted solitude, but this also seems illogical to me. While I didnt particularly want to have a full blown party, it seems very odd that people would voluntarily go to a hostel where all the facilities are shared and to not want to share even a "hello", but the fact remains that getting a conversation out of most of the other guests was like prising a mollusc off a rock. In truth, what most of the other guests seemed to do was to walk out of the hostel's door in the morning, amble up the headland, remove enormous binoculars from their bags and look at things all day. Inevitably, there was conflict, between our diverse lifestyles and that of the other guests.......

On our third evening I was telling Cristiana, during a particularly aggressive moment, that what I was offering, right there and then, in front of Nel and Jody, was a one-time offer. I continued:

"This is the best offer you've ever had. Turn your back on this, baby, and you'll regret it for ever. And I wont forget. So what's it to be? Right here, right now, on this table - everything you've ever wanted? Or nothing! Zip! Nada. I got it, you want it, lets do it! "

Cristiana's face grew thunderous.

"F**k you, asshole. Keep it. I donna wanna! I got plenty". She made the Italian hand signal at me that means "you are dismissed".

Culham and Large exchanged glances. Large though for a second and glanced briefly at me;

"I've never seen you play Monopoly so recklessly before" she said, before continuing "You're going to go bankrupt, but I'll give you something for the railway stations".

Just at that moment, a head peeked round the door. It was a guy RHB had been talking to earlier, a nightclub owner from London, here with his huband. We assumed that out of all the guests we'd met, being nightclub owners, they'd be up for a laugh.

"Excuse me, it's nearly eleven pm. I'm sleeping right above you. Could you keep the noise down?".

Naturally we did. In fact, we packed up and the next day drove to Inverness, where JC caught a flight to Italy, then Durham where CCP lives, then finally Hull where the cats were waiting and my phone was screaming text messages at me demanding that I travel to London the next day to work.