Archive for February, 2005 – A life without beauty is only half lived

Monday, February 28th, 2005


“ is on the verge of getting a death sentence.”

I occasionally pop along to cranbrook (if I did any more than that I’d spend my whole life on that site!) and have a sense of ‘use it or lose it’ when I read this announcement, so if you have found it stimulating, lend your support. And if you’ve yet to participate and share in the often stimulating discussion, pay a visit now while you can.

Classroom dynamism

Sunday, February 27th, 2005

I had a brief chat with a colleague the other day. Both of us were feeling a bit down about stuff – it’s not unusual that there are certain periods in the academic year when energy is sapped. In my first college my introduction to teaching coincided with a couple of years when Easter was unusually late, leading to really long Spring terms, and you could see it in the eyes of students and staff. I’m not sure if a lot of students realise how much energy it takes to teach and prepare! (Or indeed, that we actually prepare – well I do, I know that much for sure. I resisted a shouted invitation to a fundraising event last week with the genuine excuse that I had to prepare for a teaching session the next day. ‘You prepare?’ said the student, incredulous. I suppose I could see it as praise but it also worried me that it wasn’t clear to people that I do! However she clarified it by saing that she thought all teachers just ‘made it up’ – which is, I suppose, one of the luxuries I miss about studio cruising: you don’t really have to prepare at all, just art direct all day.

But proper teaching (ahem), well that does sap you. I’m particularly concerned about the way I have to spend evenings and (like today) weekends planning because of my part time status – I’ve no office in which to do it and am not paid for admin time (my hourly rate includes preparation of course, but the fact I have to try and make money in every spare hour means I can’t really allocate the time during the week.)

But I digress. My colleague and I weren’t moaning at the management or whatever (the situation is repeated everywhere, by the way) but simply worried about how long we could keep ‘the act’ up. It’s difficult swtiching off the concerns and delivering what amounts to a performance to students. My colleage was wondering if his students were picking up on his tiredness and if it was having an effect – if we look bored and listless we can’t expect them to be enthused, can we?
The same thing has occurred to me earlier in the week. Last Tuesday I delivered a session that I had planned meticulously and which should have run smoothly, but I was in absolute agony with a food allergy (wheat) that caused me to forget which DVDs I was supposed to be playing, what key terms meant and why I’d written most of the slides I’d produced. When the last student left the room and I heard the door lock shut I was literally doubled over with the pain. But after it had gone I spent most of the rest of the week feeling miserable that a potentially good and useful session must have come across as a badly prepared shambles. And of course it’s these later sessions that get remembered when the students come to write their end of course feedback!

Well there’s nothing you can do about things like that, I suppose, but we are in that time of year when it feels like the last few yards of a really tiring swim, when you’re in the deep end and you daren’t stop because you know you’ll drown so you have to keep going until you can grab the side of the pool. Easter’s only two weeks away now and, although I love teaching, I’m starting to look forward to the break. After Easter, of course, teaching stops for me and it’s back to flipping burgers on Thursdays and Fridays. At the moment the prospect of two days off a week is enticing (you should see the pile of books I’ve lined up to read) but it won’t be long before I start to worry about the bank balance. You can’t win, it seems. Too much to do or too little – and both as stressful as the other!

The classroom revolution

Sunday, February 27th, 2005

There’s an interesting article in today’s Observer about a Design Council pilot scheme to look at how the design of a classroom can be challenged to overcome problems associated with the traditional ‘teacher’s desk at the front’ arrangement.

When I visit universities to talk about teaching large classes I always encourage tutors to move around the room or at least stand in the middle. My best advice to a couple of tutors who rely on laptops to project Powerpoint slides has been to invest in a cheap remote control so they can stand nearer the students instead of several feet away. I finally got a new battery for my own the other day after weeks of having to stand near the computer and it was amazing how much better the session went.

Unfortunately the rooms I teach in now are so full I’m forced to stand at the front (and I notice I naturally ‘teach to the left’ as it were, my gaze tending to favour one side of the room.) There are simple ways around this – teaching to an invisible ‘T’, the back row and the middle column, tends to include everyone, for example.

But in the last place I taught we had a traditional ranked lecture theatre which allowed me to walk up and down the steps so I could cue a new slide and walk up, TV presenter-like, and talk directly to the students instead of relying on the first few rows. It was a great way of encouraging the usual ‘back row’ lot to take part. It’s surprising how much effect something as simple as standing among the students can have on the dynamics of a session.

The rest of the article is well worth reading…

The Observer | UK News | In this school, the classroom revolution is now a reality – all 360 degrees of it: “A new teaching system, revolutionary in more than one sense, has been developed and tested in secret. Known as the 360 degree flexible classroom, it challenges the techniques used by teachers down the ages. Although the year eight boys of St Margaret’s High School in Aigburth look conventional enough as they file into class in their ties and blazers, they are effectively entering a Tardis full of futuristic gadgetry. When their afternoon maths lesson begins, far from having to keep themselves awake by flicking elastic bands at each other, they are careering around the room on wheels. Instead of simply standing at the front, their teacher, Tim Wadsworth, circles them on a curved ‘racetrack’, occasionally taking up a position on a podium in the centre of the room. No longer can reluctant students skulk at the back of the class or plant themselves on the periphery of the teacher’s field of vision. To the outsider the scene looks chaotic, but for the designers of this prototype and the children who have studied in it for seven weeks now, the classroom is a hit. Twelve-year-old pupil Daniel Pinder, who has maths and German lessons in the new round room, explained the benefits of the pilot project. ‘We do much more group work now – it is better because of the shape of the room. If the teachers ask us to get into groups of four we just take the brakes off our chairs and move,’ he said. His classmates sit at their own Q-Pods, special table and chair units on wheels.”


Saturday, February 26th, 2005

There’s a very good counter-argument to this article from The Times but the observations aren’t new, and I’m not unsympathetic to them. But I like a challenge so I’ll think of a suitable riposte later. In the meantime, here’s the gist of the article, which starts as a critique of the ‘fact’ that everyone in the US (including the author) now wander round in a white earbud-induced cocoon:

“Walk through any airport in the United States these days and you will see person after person gliding through the social ether as if on autopilot. Get on a subway and you’re surrounded by a bunch of Stepford commuters staring into mid-space as if anaesthetised by technology. Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t overhear, don’t observe. Just tune in and tune out.
It wouldn’t be so worrying if it weren’t part of something even bigger. Americans are beginning to narrow their lives.

You get your news from your favourite blogs, the ones that won’t challenge your view of the world. You tune into a satellite radio service that also aims directly at a small market – for new age fanatics, liberal talk or Christian rock. Television is all cable. Culture is all subculture. Your cell phones can receive e-mail feeds of your favourite blogger’s latest thoughts – seconds after he has posted them – get sports scores for your team or stock quotes of your portfolio.
Technology has given us a universe entirely for ourselves – where the serendipity of meeting a new stranger, hearing a piece of music we would never choose for ourselves or an opinion that might force us to change our mind about something are all effectively banished.
Atomisation by little white boxes and cell phones. Society without the social. Others who are chosen – not met at random.”

Fair Trials

Saturday, February 26th, 2005

My Bush joke was a deliberate provocation.

Under a 2004 Act of Parliament, introduced after 9/11, the USA has the power to demand the arrest and deportation of any UK citizen it believes has committed a crime against it. The US does not have to present any reasons for the request, or proof of a reasonable case.
The reverse is not true – the UK government cannot demand the extradition of a US citizen (or even one of its own) without presenting a reasonable case before a judge, as to do so would be against the US constitution.

Of course, this arrangement was not just dreamt up by the UK government one night, it was initiated by the USA which seems keen to talk about constitutional rights at home, but all too eager to ignore them when it suits (i.e. abroad).

There is a tug of war going on at the moment as a result of this bizarre arrangement. Three UK bankers have been accused of conspiring with the Enron accountants to defraud the NatWest bank of $7m.
UK citizens are accused of committing a crime in the UK against a UK bank, but the US wants them to stand trial in Houston, Texas. Makes perfect sense.

The ‘Enron Three’ have only one get-out clause: they can’t be deported if they are already standing trial in the UK. But the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has refused to prosecute them because – get this – there are already proceedings against them in the US!
So the three bankers have taken the unusual step of seeking a judicial review of the SFO’s decision not to prosecute.
There are good reasons for them to go to such lengths. For one thing they will most likely languish in a US jail for two years before the trial begins (as ‘flight risks’ with no US address they wouldn’t be allowed bail). For another, they claim being tried in Houston – Enron’s home town – will not guarantee them a fair trial. And, if found guilty, they would face far harsher sentences than in the UK.
But there is another, far more worrying factor here. The UK has extradition agreements with a lot of countries but the common factor seems to be that they are all signatories to the Convention on Human Rights. The USA, famously, is not.

It’s quite possible this story is not being covered in the USA. In fact, it’s not exactly front page news over here in the UK. After all, who’s interested in three bankers being accused of fraud? Particularly when we’ve got a star footballer and his pop star wife having a baby, and a right royal cock up over the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Camilla Parker-Bowles?
I’ve only heard about this story through the New Statesman magazine (which also seemed to be the only source of criticism of the Act when it was first proposed). Yet it seems to be one of major importance.

My joke could be seen as an incitement to kill the President and it’s not impossible that some district attorney or federal prosecutor in the USA could request my arrest and extradition – and there’d be nothing to stop it.
Think that’s a bit of an exaggeration? Well look again at the story above – three Britons, accused of a crime in Britain, against a British bank. The only ‘interest’ from a US perspective is the alleged involvement of someone from Enron – there’s not even a ‘terrorist’ connection, which was the reason for the Act in the first place!

If you’re reading this in the USA and think it’s less than ideal that the US has the power to arrest and extradite British citizens without presenting a case, please tell someone who you think should do something about it.

Bush’s Lucky Escape

Saturday, February 26th, 2005

So George Bush came to Europe this week, and managed to piss just about everybody off in the process.

Apparently everywhere he went, there were snipers on every roof. And still he got away.

Anoraks at the ready: New Doctor Who images

Monday, February 21st, 2005

Oh I feel like a schoolboy again! At the time of writing it’s 32 days, 19 hours and 32 minutes until the new series of Doctor Who begins (not that I’ve got a counter running on my desktop or anything sad like that. Oh no).
The first ‘official’ photos from the series have leaked on to the net and I grabbed copies. I know you want to see but just in case you’re putting it off until you see it for real I’ll just post links rather than the actual images. (The images are taking some time to upload to my server so keep trying – I’m synchronising a lot of stuff at the moment).

The first one shows Christopher Ecclestone in the grip of a familiar enemy (I won’t tell you who it is, even though it’s not a secret, just in case you really are looking to be surprised next month and know your Who mythology – if you don’t you’ll be none the wiser).

The second shows Billie Piper (who I have to admit is rather fanciable – hope there’s an action figure!) in what looks like the new TARDIS console room – but it doesn’t give too much away about the interior so feel free to have a look).

I have to say, it’s looking good from these two shots. The trailers proper start soon – can’t wait.

Yes, I’m a sad SF fan boy. We all need our vices.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Sunday, February 20th, 2005

I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind last weekend. It’s a film that I completely missed when it was on release, and I think the few times I heard someone mention it I equated the title with a ‘feelgood’ or ‘life affirming’ movie that I wouldn’t enjoy.
But it got lots of mentions in end of year reviews and Simon Pegg, who wrote and directed Shaun of the Dead and was one of the creators of the genius TV comedy Spaced, put it on his list of top movies of 2004.
So I thought I’d give it a go, despite the fact it has Jim Carrey in the lead role. I’m not a fan of his at all, and I’ve found that potentially good movies have been spoilt with his casting. However, that’s a personal opinion that I know is at odds with most people, so what do I know?

Anyway. This film is not at all what I expected. It has the feel of a low budget European movie with lots of handheld camera work, a non-linear plot (that’s a poor description – you’ll find yourself wondering if you’ve missed a bit about 20 minutes in, and gradually things start to make sense, but so slowly that it’ll be half an hour after the film’s finished that you think ‘oh, I get it…’) and some great acting. Oh and Kirsten Dunst in her pants jumping up and down on a bed. And Kate Winslett finally playing a role that shows she can be a good actor. (I used to live near her – well, near where she used to live when she was growing up. If things had been different she could have divorced me; ah, fate).

Carrey is very good – occasionally he lapses into his usual goofiness but on the whole he comes across as a guy waiting for a good script. He’s a bit like Tom Hanks in that respect – another actor I disliked after his early films but who’s found salvation in good writing and good direction.

The plot is intriguing, and quite science fictiony at heart, but you wouldn’t know it when you’re watching it. I won’t give away too much but it will ring a bell for anyone who’s been in love, fallen out of love, wished you’d never met the other person, and then found yourself bumping into them in the bizarrest circumstances and doing it all over again.

A good film for a night in and a bottle of wine but it will surprise you I think, particularly if you’re expecting something like Bruce Almighty.

Sugar candy kisses

Saturday, February 19th, 2005

The other weekend, before giving up sweets (or ‘candy’ as the Americans call them) for Lent, I had a bit of a blow-out. I went to the local supermarket and bought a few bags of sweets and sat watching TV while pigging out.

Sundays were always sweets day when i was growing up. We’d be given £1 to go to Harrisons, a sweet shop about 10 minutes walk away (though it seemed longer). We’d buy a selection of things like Midget Gems, Sherbert Bon Bons, Liquorice torpedos, all in quater-pound bags or, if money was tight, 2 ounce bags. And the owner would measure out the sweets from a glass jar into his scales and pop them in a white paper bag.

If there was any money left over we’d buy penny chews: Black Jacks, Fruit Salad and all the rest.

Ah, those were the days…

It’s quite rare to find shops that still sell sweets this way. Most sweet shops are closed down now, but as the story below from the Guardian suggests, the market is growing again. I noticed the pub we met in before we went to play bingo the other week sold sweets from jars.

While I was eating my hoard I briefly considered opneing a sweet shop, wondering if it would be successful in Brighton. I reckon it would…

Something interesting in the article, if you read the full version, is an explanation of the British love of boiled sweets. It seems that our colonies included most of the sugar producing countries in the world, so sugar – once a luxury and very expensive – became so cheap that anyone could buy it and use it to make things. Consequently the boiled sweet industry grew up, supported by lots of small businesses making sweets from their kitchens.

In France, meanwhile, sugar remained expensive as their colonies weren’t sugar-producing. But they did have lots of gum, so whereas we had boiled sweets, the French came up with chews. And it seems one Frenchman brought his gum skills to Britain and invented Rowntrees fruit pastilles, something we remain grateful for to this day.

If you fancy treating yourself to some authentic British sweets, try By law, things can’t be sold in quarter pounds anymore so they’re sold in quarter kilos instead. Not quite the same.

Guardian Unlimited | The Guardian | Sugar candy kisses: “The bell tinkles as you push open the door of the sweet shop and then you are inside, gazing up at row upon row of shining glass jars crammed with multicoloured globules that seem to beckon at you from behind the counter. Then there are boxes of delicacies closer to hand: liquorice bootlaces, lollipops, fruit salad chews, gobstoppers, all temptingly displayed on every available surface…It sounds like a childhood dream, but I have just had exactly this experience in an old-fashioned sweet shop in south-east London, where all our favourite boiled sweets – which you may imagine no longer exist – are still on sale, weighed out by the quarter. The odd thing is, the sweet shop, Hope & Greenwood in East Dulwich, is not some old family concern but a brand new business, set up last August in an effort to capitalise on a surge in interest in old-fashioned sweets in local stores, supermarkets and internet sites. If you know where to look, you can still buy Space Dust (or something like it called Fiz Wiz), barley sugar, traffic light lollies, Bazooka bubble gum, kola kubes, sherbet pips, rhubarb and custards, clove balls, parma violets, sherbet fountains – even sweet ‘Spanish’ tobacco. These classic sweets still look and taste exactly the same: the recipes do not change and most are still made by the same companies. All that has been lying dormant is our lust for them.” Read more

Official: Britons are most cultured Europeans

Saturday, February 19th, 2005

From today’s Guardian. Can’t say I’m surprised 😉

Guardian Unlimited | Arts news | Official: Britons are most cultured Europeans: “The Italians have Michelangelo, the French Molière and the Germans Beethoven. But, according to an Italian survey, the British – the beer-swilling, tabloid-reading, supposedly sports-crazy British – are more cultured than any of them. They go to more concerts, films, plays, galleries and libraries than almost anyone in Europe. They even manage to visit more ruins and monuments than the Italians.” Read more…