Testing times

Today, in one of the myriad of initiatives for which this government (and its recent predecessors) are justly famed, tougher testing for new teachers was proudly announced.  Initiatives are supposed to be a prelude to action, but most of the governmental kind seem more an of an alternative to action and act as a prelude only to further initiatives.

Anyway, the latest “idea” is that new teachers should be tested to ensure that they have some basic skills in mathematics, literacy and reasoning (a suitably dumbed-down Trivium for the 21st century).  All good skills to possess and pass on to the young, but I found myself wondering why this has been limited to teachers.  I can think of a number of other groups who might benefit: MPs, those writing and reviewing tenders (or potential culls) and those hoping to work in the financial sector sprang rather quickly to my mind.

Perhaps the most pressing case might be the staff of the Daily Telegraph, who recently managed to produce the most massive fail spanning all three areas.  The dear old Torygraph manage to announce to the world that there were only 100 cod left in the North Sea – somehow ignoring the many tens of thousands caught by fisherfolk every day.  The actual number of cod left in the North Sea has been more accurately estimated at 400 million – so a mere 6 orders of magnitude out.  Their error was broadly the same as confusing the number of people aged 110 or older in this country with its total population.  Surely even the tea lady could have pointed out the idiocy of this claim before it was published.  Proper reading of the report on which they number was based, a little very basic maths or some very basic reasoning would surely have saved red faces all-round.

Talking of surprisingly large numbers, the splendid Hugo Rifkind reported – via Twitter- that the UK imported more than half-a-million ash trees from the EU in 2011.  Oddly, no-one was very interested in this stat – but ever the contrarian, I very much was.  Given their propensity to self-seed – my parents have to remove a number of imports new ash trees to match our imports from their lawn each year – it seems extraordinary that we are importing the things.  If anyone in authority is reading this blog, I can put them in touch with my progenitors who I’m sure would be willing to let a few hundred thousand ash tree seedlings go for a very reasonable price (buyer collects).  I am similarly amazed that we import mint – a plant described as mildly invasive in much the same way that the Poles would have described their German neighbours in 1939 – and rosemary which is quite rapidly taking over my garden (not down to my fingers having a particularly viridian hue and in despite of my benign neglect and attempts to eat it).  All these unnecessary imports must be doing little for local employment, our balance of payments or attempts to keep unpleasant plant diseases from arriving from overseas.  Perhaps, we should also add a little basic gardening knowledge to the new teachers’ Trivium when we make it a compulsory requirement for our leaders and policy makers.

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Protestant air freshener

In this modern age, the Ulster Unionist and the more fundamentalist Rangers supporter can always take recourse to Glade’s products when seeking to mask unwanted odours around the home.  Indeed, based on some of their advertising, these products seem to have supplanted the role taken by television in the 20th century or the Lares in Ancient Rome as a domestic shrine to gather around.  They are also very keen for us to know that they are produced by a family company, though I do wonder why this is such a good thing.  I don’t know the Johnsons myself (I don’t get out much these days), but there have been some pretty dodgy family-run businesses over the years which have given a very poor name to god-parenting (loath as I am to indulge in Italian-American stereotypes).  Still, I am indulging in the sin of digression and so should move on.

I’m not sure what the Puritans of an earlier era might have used when presented with the same problem. Perhaps the whole move to the new world was an attempt to leave the unpleasant scents of the old one behind them.

One thing which became very clear to me during a brief glimpse of “Who do you think you are?” earlier this evening is that none of these groups would have countenanced the bowl of dried petals (or other barely scented plant matter) so beloved of many a middle-class dwelling.  From William Russell to the Reverend Ian Paisley, all such hard-line protestants have been very clear about their absolute rejection of pot-pourri.

Or that’s what they seem to be saying…

More eggs, fewer baskets

Yesterday, I went to the cinema.  Nothing that unusual there, though I did have to visit one of Cambridge’s two multiplex offerings as my chosen film, the well-reviewed Looper, was not available at the Arts Picturehouse.  Still, a little occasional slumming is good for the soul I’m sure – though I was slightly alarmed to find that Cineworld boasts bouncers and bag searches.

It was not an entirely successful visit.  Just before the film was due to start, there was a very brief (<5 seconds) of power outage.  In days of yore, this would have been a minor inconvenience – the projector would have ground to a halt and then re-started when the power came back.  However, we have now gone digital – so the power cut crashed the whole cinema.  After about 30 minutes, I presume that someone had managed to re-boot the cinema and our film started – power failure spared us the ad reels and trailers, so not all bad!  I have no idea what happened to films already running, but I doubt there was positive outcome.

We were then treated to some 40 minutes of the film, before it was stopped and we were all evacuated for our own safety.  Apparently, the emergency lighting was broken: all of it!  Not really an issue in this modern world, as I should imagine almost everyone in the cinema was carrying their own torch in the form of a brightly glowing mobile phone.  I suspect we were actually evacuated to avoid issues with the cinema’s insurance policy or license: still, always best to blame anything that might be unpopular on health, safety, or failing that Europe (as these are three concepts assumed to be universally reviled.  As someone who has occasionally read a little history, I suspect our mill working ancestors of the 19th century would be amazed how little respect we grant to our hard-won health and safety).

As a (much) younger man, I used to repair the emergency lighting (and the automatic door closer mechanisms) at the block of flats where I was then resident.  These did fail, but did so as individuals – each one had its own backup power supply (or battery as we used to call them) and bulb.  To lose the entire building would have taken dozens of individual failures – and so, an evacuation was never needed.  I suspect the cinema has a single (if mis-named) uninterrupted power supply (UPS) for the whole building which must have been tripped by the power failure.  Centralisation may look like a great idea, but it does lead to a single point of failure.  Apparently, an engineer was called (though my friends who are engineers, would probably prefer me to refer to her as a technician) and the cinema was likely to remain closed for the rest of the day.  Sometimes more primitive technology which lacks a single mode of failure and can be fixed by an unskilled idiot (like the younger me) beats its over-centralised modern counterparts into a cocked hat.  Sadly, this tendency exists rather more widely than the world of the muliplex cinema – so that a single error can now inconvenience millions.  As a society we do seem to be keeping ever more of our eggs in ever fewer baskets and then trying to cut the costs of basket maintenance: I think there may be a lot of metaphorical omelette to be eaten in the future.

I now have to decide whether I want to see the film again, sitting through a first 40 minutes which will now lack any novelty.  I suspect not: the first chunk did not inspire me to continue, though the film was perhaps starting to become interesting.  However, the film is about time travel and it is a terrible mistake in such films to give the audience time to think as then all the inconsistencies and paradoxes become all too obvious.  The biggest error occurs very early on, and has nothing to do with temporal engineering.  Our “hero” is learning French from a futuristic version of an écouter et répèter style MP3 file but makes a pronunciation error which could only have arisen if he was working from a written source.  Very sloppy work!  I think I shall imagine my own ending and use my compensatory voucher to see something new…

Compare and contrast

As September drew to its inevitable conclusion, so too did my first Open University course. AA100 ended not with an examination, but with a 2000 word End of Module Assignment in lieu thereof  – to be selected from a choice of three on the general topic of leisure.  As I’d never written one before, I went with one of the classics of the genre and decided to hazard a “compare and contrast” style essay.

It may be a classic, but it is a hopelessly dull way to write – or at least it was in my hands. Previous essays had been arguing for or against something which provides some narrative drive, but C&C has nothing just a whole load of “on the one hand” and “on the other”.  Still, it was surprising how little has changed leisure-wise between ancient Rome and the 19th century seaside in many ways.  Also, somewhat of a shock to learn that for much of the Victorian period white cliffs were deeply unfashionable and were covered up (much like table legs) where possible.

Not sure what to do next with my studies, it would seem that I need to move to a higher level – but that requires narrowing the scope of my study and I’m finding it hard to choose one subject area.  Still, it won’t start until February at the earliest, so I should have a little more time for the blog: truly, every silver lining has a cloud.

To celebrate the end of “term” as it were, I went into London for a day of arts-based fun, which did have hints of the apocryphal busman’s holiday about it.  This is especially true as the first item on my personal agenda was to see Bronze at the Royal Academy: a return to TMA05.  This is a really stunning exhibition with some quite extraordinary works of art in bronze: some particularly fine examples from Benin but also some absolute corkers from civilisations I’d never even heard of before.  There was even a very fine dog from the Renaissance (as part of a larger group), a period which is otherwise somewhat of a cultural desert for me. I know this is my failing rather than that of the period, but so much of their art looks like what it is – which I find rather dull, if undeniably very competent.

Regular readers will be unsurprised to learn that I managed to fit in a trip to 10 Greek Street for some vital sustenance.  I’d been away for several weeks – and so was presumably suffering the vegetarian equivalent of cold turkey, cold nut roast anyone? – but they remembered me and the food and wine was as excellent as ever.

I round off proceedings with a trip to the theatre: a new venue for me, the Duchess Theatre just off Aldwych.  Yes, I know I’m not a duchess (yet) but they seemed pretty relaxed with the entry requirements and I gained egress without issue (as I also lack offspring).  The theatre lacks the heavy ornamentation and gilding which marks much of the West End, but made up for this with excellent sight lines and extremely good leg room.  However, it did let itself down a little with the very hard seats.  I’m thinking of establishing an equivalent of the Mohs scale (used for rocks) to be applied to seating.  I’m thinking 10 would be bare concrete and 1 would be so soft and cushioning that even a junior female royal would be unable to detect a legume concealed at its base: which would place the Duchess around 7.5.  I think that perhaps  I should add this rating to all future reviews of seated events: the use of stats seemed to work for Wisden and Bridget Jones’ diary and so must be worth a try.

I went to see Our Boys which was extremely good – though you do get to see an awful lot more of Lewis’s Sgt Hathaway than I had ever either expected or desired.  The play provides laughs but was also genuinely moving and thought provoking.  Oh no, I’m still stuck in C&C mode!  Looks like I may need longer to detox than I thought…