Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Fame and money!

Even the seemingly good ones do it: Barack Obama is going to speak at a healthcare conference organised by a Wall Street firm. He is going to be paid $400,000 (£312,000). That's rather a lot of money. That's four years' pay at $100,000 per annum or eight years at $50,000. Call it ten to fifteen years on a more modest salary. And that's his fee for a few hours working on his speech and then an afternoon or evening of his time. Not a bad hourly rate. It is to be hoped that he donates some of it to a worthy cause, maybe something connected to healthcare!

Here's another story about money. A piano was donated to a school, a community college in Shropshire. They arranged for a piano tuner to come and give it the once-over. He discovered 633 full sovereigns and 280 half sovereigns dating between 1847 and 1915 hidden away beneath the keys. Some of the packaging suggests that the treasure was hidden somewhere between 1926 and 1946. Good quality examples of first world war-era gold sovereigns can fetch £375 each. So that little hoard is rather valuable.

The couple who donated the piano to the school seem not be claiming the hoard as theirs. Efforts have been made to trace whoever might have owned it at the time the coins were hidden. So far to no avail. The coins might be acquired by a museum, in which case the piano tuner, the discoverer of the treasure, and the school, the official owner of the piano, will be eligible for a reward. Now, that is a much better money story!

As a rule money seems to go to those who already have plenty. Nobody has offered me huge amounts of money to go and address them on some subject close to my heart. But then I am not famous.

If you are famous, people sometimes name their children after you. I read today that Syrian families are naming their children Putin as a mark of gratitude for the Russian president's support of Assad. As a Russian, Vladimir Putin will be used to such goings on. Apparently early Soviet families named their children Vladilen , for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, or Rem, for revolyutsiya mirovaya – world revolution.

 And Kosovan Albanians showed their gratitude to Britain for their part in the NATO attack on their Serb adversaries by naming their sons Tonibler!

I do not know whether to laugh or cry!

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Modern problems!

I've been reading Hadley Freeman's question column again. Along with her praise for Serena Williams for winning the Australian Open while pregnant, she slipped in a little fact about inequality: "That’s not even mentioning the fact that Williams, shockingly, makes about a fifth annually of what Roger Federer gets in sponsorship deals, a disparity that reeks of both racism and sexism."

She was also asked about which trainers she recommends that we should buy. I am amazed that some people feel the need to ask questions like that. Maybe it's just a ploy to get their name in the newspaper. Hadley neatly avoids giving any brand of trainer a boost but talks instead about a shoe designer who feels that some of his creativity is taken away from him because nowadays everyone (by which he means all ladies) wear trainers or sneakers these days.

Back in the 1950s there was apparently great variety in the type of footwear ladies wore in the summer time and he misses it. That was probably because the only kinds of sports footwear available (part from football boots and hockey boots) were black or white canvas pumps. The white one had to be kept clean with a special whitener that came in a tube with a sponge on the end. But really: creativity problems in the footwear department? Such are twenty-first century problems!

Here's another one: behind the Tate Modern in London is a block of luxury flats, Neo Bankside Towers. These rich-people flats have glass- enclosed balconies or maybe just a big expanse of glass where a wall might have been. If you go up to the top floor viewing terrace of the Tate Modern you get a lovely view of London, a panorama including the done of Sat Paul's. But you also get a lovely view into the lives of the rich folk who live next door. They ate complaining and five residents have gone so far as to bring a legal challenge demanding that the viewing platform be closed down. Maybe they should invest in net curtains.

More serious twenty-first century problems relate to feeding people. It seems there has been a serious increase in the number of people using foodbanks. And there is concern about children from poor families not getting enough to eat in the school holidays. Children who receive free school meals miss out on this provision in the holidays and return to school undernourished and unprepared to take up learning again.

Somehow it puts all the other problems into perspective!

Monday, 24 April 2017

Making choices!

There seem to be two things in particular being said about Emmanuel Macron and his having taken the lead (by a whisker) in the first round of the French presidential elections.

One opinion concentrates on the fact that his party has only existed for a year and that he has never held elected office. Is it possible that a 39 year old who has never been elected into government could become president? Well, a 70 year old who had never held elected office managed to get himself elected president of the USA! Enough said!

And then there are those who take it as read that everyone in France who didn't vote for Marine Le Pen or Emmanuel Macron in the first round will automatically switch their allegiance to Emmanuel Macron in that time-honoured way the French have of keeping the Front National in its place. But this time I am not so sure. Strange things have been happening in politics in the last year or so. Nothing can be taken for granted until the last vote is counted in two weeks' time.

Who knows what deals might be done behind closed doors over the coming two weeks?

Coincidentally we have been watching a French series, "Les Hommes de l'Ombre", the title translated to "Spin" in English, all about the French political scene and the spin-doctoring that goes on, the manipulation of image and the wheeling and dealing that can undo all the careful spinning. And so, as regards who will be the next President of France,we shall just have to wait and see.

Decsribed by journalist John Crace as "zen-like", Jeremy Corbyn appears to refuse to be spun, trying hard during a TV interview to evade questions about whether he would actually press the button to fire a nuclear weapon or be prepared to send a drone to bomb a specific place where hypothetically the leader of ISIS was known to be hiding. His non-committal answers had the Labour Party in a spin explaining exactly what the party's position is on such matters and, of course, had other parties declaring that he would be chaotic as prime minister.

Here's a link to an article about the lack of idealism in the modern political world. Among other things it tells us that "Theresa May is an important example – she appears to blow with each political wind, with political expediency as her main signpost." I have no more to say about her!

Moving on to other things, last week Serena Williams told the world that she is expecting a baby. Cue a whole lot of discussion about how amazing it is that she continued to play tennis (and win) while pregnant. Further discussion went on about the advisability of doing all sorts of things while pregnant. Some people are tired and ill while pregnant but for most women pregnancy is not a disease. I would imagine that Serena Williams is pretty fit and probably can continue doing what she usually does. I remember a PE teacher I worked with demonstrating all kinds of very energetic gymnastics exercises while pregnant. And don't forget all the less famous women who carry on cleaning floors, working machines in factories, carrying shopping and frequently carrying a toddler around on their hip for large parts of the day, all while pregnant!

And finally, here is a little something that amused me from an article on inventions that were not really needed:

"The US technology industry has a long history of over-engineering complex answers to problems that others can deal with fairly easily. During the space race, Nasa had to work out how to deal with the fact that ballpoint pens relied on gravity to work by dragging the ink down the tube and on to the page. Fisher, a pen company, developed the space pen, which used pressurised air in a sealed cartridge to force the ink out of the front instead. It could not only work in space, it would write upside down on earth, or even underwater, at temperatures from -35C (-31F) to 120C (248F).

 The Russians used a pencil."

Keep things simple and expect the unexpected!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

How to feed the world!

Apparently Weetabix is owned by a Chinese company, Bright Foods. Oh, no! My mistake; Bright Foods has recently sold Weetabix to a US company, Post Holdings. Bright Foods thought that they could sell lots of Weetabix in China but the Chinese have been unimpressed.

The Australians add Vegemite (Antipodean Marmite) to Weetabix, which sounds like a disgusting thing to do, but it seems that they invented Weetabix about a century ago, so I suppose they are entitled to do such things with it. However the UK buys 71% of all the Weetbix there is.

Weetabix was the go-to breakfast of my childhood, served with hot milk on cold winter mornings, allowed to go soggy and porridgy in that case, but eaten while still crisp if served with cold milk. And I know a fair few children who were practically weaned on Weetabix.

Today's post looks as though it is going to be about food. Not at all inappropriate as I was baking a birthday cake at nine o'clock this morning and went on to feed the family and celebrate our daughter's birthday. In fact the birthday is tomorrow but today was a good day to get everyone together.

As I chopped and stirred and did other culinary stuff in the kitchen, I listened to The Food Programme on Radio Four. Today they were concentrating on the humble potato, which is in reality more complicated and far less humble than we ever imagined. I learned all sorts of strange facts:
  •  The people of Peru used to dry potatoes and store them to see them through lean times. The Spaniards, the Conquistadores, were not impressed and only tried eating them because they had nothing else to eat. 
  •  When the potato was introduced to Europe the Church preached against it. There is no mention of the potato in the Bible and therefore it must be an abomination, not one of God's creations at all, and therefore should not be eaten. (I am sure the people who rail against the consumption of carbohydrates would agree with that. I was not aware that there was a list of acceptable food in the Bible. The fatted calf was killed when the Prodigal Son came home. Wine gets a mention, as do loaves and fishes. But are carrots and cabbage referred to positively? What about sweetcorn? I doubt very much whether coffee is written about in the Bible. 
  •  There are lots of varieties of potatoes. In the Andes they grew all of these varieties but only a very limited number were introduced to Europe. And so when the potato blight came along in the mid nineteenth century it was able to wipe out the crop as there was insufficient variety to provide resistance. At that time the population of Ireland stood at around 8 million. Masses of the rural poor relied on the potato for their staple diet. An acre of fertilized potato field could yield up to 12 tons of potatoes, enough to feed a family of six for a year with leftovers going to the family's animals. And so when the potatoes failed, masses of people died of starvation and masses emigrated. The population of Ireland, around 5 million now, I think, has never recovered. Amazing! 
  •  Getting back to that filed that could produce up to 12 tons of potatoes, potato enthusiasts tell us that if we switched our attention to potatoes instead of grain crops, we could solve the problem of how to feed the world's growing population. 
  •  There is even an International Potato Centre. Based in Lima, Peru (appropriately enough) it is a research facility that "seeks to reduce poverty and achieve food security on a sustained basis in developing countries through scientific research and related activities on potato, sweet potato, other root and tuber crops, and on the improved management of natural resources in the Andes and other mountain areas. It was established in 1971 by decree of the Peruvian government." 
  •  As well as giving me all this fascinating insight into the potato, a "vegetable which is rich in protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin and Vitamin C", the programme suggested new and amazing ways of cooking it! Potatoes and lemon! How does that grab you? 

It's astounding what you can learn from the radio!

Saturday, 22 April 2017

I was right all along!

Sometimes the newspapers just confirm things that you have long held to be true.

For example, there is a type of footwear called Crocs, made of a soft plastic or rubber material. Shaped a bit like clogs, you can wear them into the sea or paddling through puddles if you wish. They come in a range of colours, mainly nursery colours in my opinion. Which brings me to my opinion of them. They are great for children. In fact, I was convinced for quite some time that they were only made in children's sizes.

And then I started to see adults wearing them! Now, they may well be extremely comfortable to wear but there are other, more adult looking shoes around which are also very comfortable. Adults should not consider wearing them except, at the very outside, to toddle down to the swimming pool on a summer's day. Anyway, somebody asked the delightful Hadley Freeman this question in her regular column: "I have read that Crocs are now acceptable, but I’m wary about wearing them because of all the old associations. Or has their newfound trendiness overcome these issues?" Her response had a lot of waffle about how we should all be more like Dylan and stand by what we truly believe in but in the end she concluded that the questioner should just give up the idea of wearing Crocs, ever again!

And then there is the question of how you should read a book. Is it acceptable to skip to the end to discover the fate of the protagonist or who did, in fact, commit the crime, and then go back and enjoy the book for the quality of the writing? I have commented before about my occasional habit of reading very quickly to discover the plot and then rereading to fully appreciate the prose style. I know people who scoff at this. But here is a link to an article saying that such a practice is really a good idea.

 “Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing,” said Christenfeld, a UC San Diego professor of social psychology, somewhere in the article.

Vindicated! At least as regards my reading habits. Nobody finds it odd that we listen to the same piece of music over and over. Or that we look again and again at the same paintings. Or indeed, reread the same poems. So why not do the same with prose?

More seriously, today I came across a short item about A-Level modern foreign languages. Back when I was a teacher of A-Level languages I was often asked to justify why certain students who achieved the coveted A grade in certain other subjects only managed a B in French or Spanish. My colleagues and I would be mocked if we suggested that it was actually more difficult in our subjects. Some people must have half believed us, however, as I can remember at least one student advised to choose another subject as she planned to apply to Oxford University (not to study a language) and would need to achieve A grades in all subjects. The hidden message was that an A for Spanish could not be guaranteed.

And now experts are saying that the number of native speakers - usually the bilingual offspring of a Brit married to a Frenchman, German, Spaniard or Italian - sitting the A-Level exams is affecting the distribution of grades, moving up the grade boundaries and (just imagine!) making life more difficult for the non-native speaker candidates!

There you go!

Friday, 21 April 2017

Things going on in my world!

It seems as though the madness of the modern world continues: a terrorist attack in Paris last night. Isis has claimed responsibility but we have reached a point where we cannot be sure that such an attack is part of a large organisation's co-ordinated nastiness or a random individual working on his own. This one had been charged in the past with attempts to attack the police. But whatever the reality of the situation Isis have claimed it. Individual attacks still spread the fear.

One of the French presidential candidtes was reported in last night's news to have said that we have perhaps to accept such terrorist attacks as part of modern city living. And France has had its share: Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan, Nice and now Paris again. The mayor of London apparently said something similar some time ago and received a whole lot of criticism for doing so. No doubt this French politician will also be criticised. And yet, there is truth is what they say. And accepting that it is part of modern life does not mean giving in. Accepting is perhaps the wrong word; acknowledging is better. But we have to make sure that life in our big cities carries on despite the fear. Otherwise the terrorists have won.

Despite the fact that Marine Le Pen and at least one other candidate said they would not be campaigning today, the last day of campaigning before the first round of the election on Sunday, she has been accused of dirty dealing. French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron has accused his rivals of using the killing of the police officer yesterday to score political points. This, of course, might well be true.

Meanwhile, back on our side of the channel, things go on in a rather chaotic fashion. The prime minister is reported to be losing her staff; public relations people are leaving her. Not what she needs having called an election. Perhaps the various bits of opposition can get together and take advantage of the opportunity. However, I am not holding my breath.

As for us, well, we spent a good part of the day building a rowing machine. The instructions that came with it were confusing to say the least but Phil cleverly found a video clip on youtube which we studied and then followed carefully, step by step, comparing our reality with what was on screen.

Job successfully completed. The wonders of modern technology!

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Getting satisfaction!

Well, there seems to be something of a consensus that the parties of the left should get their act together and collaborate to defeat Theresa May. Here is a link to the estimable Paul Mason on that subject. An eminently sensible man, from the North of course, he should be read and listened to by politicians! That's all I have to say on the matter for the time being.

The results of a recent survey show that British teenagers are amongst the most competitive but also the most likely to be bullied.

"British teenagers are highly motivated about their school work, but are more anxious, more likely to be bullied and are less satisfied with life than many of their peers elsewhere in the world, according to a survey.

Almost a quarter of British pupils who took part in the poll say they are being bullied a few times a month, while more than 14% say they are bullied frequently, making the UK the fourth worst affected of all 34 countries surveyed.

Anxiety levels are also high in British classrooms with seven out of 10 pupils (72%) admitting they feel anxious before taking a test, even if they are well prepared – the third highest in the survey. Girls are particularly badly affected, with 81% reporting anxiety before exams, compared with 63% of boys."

In a way, I suppose the bullying goes along with being competitive. Pushing others around is a way of establishing your own superiority. But why are our youngsters like this? Do we not praise them and love them enough, so that they have low self esteem and need to take it out on others? Or is it a product of all the testing?

That last is a tricky one. Throughout my school life - not so much in the infant school but certainly in junior school and in secondary school - we had internal exams twice a year and as we got the results of the exams, worked out our average marks and our position in class, which went on your school report. My girls' grammar school, emulating public schools with its house system involving house sports teams and house drama and public speaking competitions, had "mark readings" where the headmistress went through the exam results of each girl in the class, praising the "honours" (results over 75%) and expressing dismay at the "failures" (marks below 40%). Somehow your best successes (Modern Languages and English in my case) were cancelled out by your inadequacies, even if only one subject (Music). I always felt sorry for the poor girls at the bottom of the class who "failed" three or more subjects. And we were already the crème de la crème, the grammar school girls, selected at age eleven to be the ones to succeed!

And yet mostly we didn't bully each other. I suppose it must have gone on to some extent; I make no claims for us being the perfect generation. And of course there were cliques and certain groups who were more popular than others and so on. And yet, mostly we just got on and little was heard of bullying, apart from a general opinion that the PE teacher was a real bully!

Maybe it was the size of the school; with only around 600 girls it was possible for the staff to know and keep an eye on everyone much more effectively. Maybe it was just a less pressurised age. Social media was a thing of the future. Women's magazines were aimed at our mothers and teenage magazines were only just making their appearance. Ah! The age of innocence!

And now the pressure is certainly there, and especially, it seems, on the girls:

 "Obesity is higher among boys, yet girls were more likely to think they were fat, with a quarter of 15-year-old girls being on a diet. In England, 50% of girls and 25% of boys were concerned they were too fat, higher than the international average of 43% for girls and 22% for boys. In Scotland, 55% of girls and 27% of boys said they were too fat, compared with 52% of girls and 30% of boys in Wales."

That last comes from an article about levels of satisfaction among teenagers.

Maybe we just concentrate too much on the competitive elements of society, inspecting everything to within an inch of its life. A journalist called Patrick Barkham was writing about children being allowed to run free and had this to say about nursery schools:

"My three-year-old spent the holidays getting misty-eyed about his forest school nursery. And so he should. When I interviewed several innovative outdoor nurseries a few years ago, I found teachers frustrated by Ofsted withholding “outstanding” ratings. One nursery was informed that its children didn’t have enough IT opportunities."

Really? Nursery children who did not have "enough IT opportunities"? Whatever next?

He did go on to mention improvements: "Perhaps now Ofsted inspectors are learning, because his nursery has just been judged "outstanding in all areas."

So change is possible!