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Death of a truly great man

I have just learned that a truly wonderful man died a couple of weeks ago. He was my secondary school maths teacher. Harry Smith, known by all as Brab, was 86, and had been a maths teacher at the Burton Grammar School, in Burton-on-Trent, where I grew up.

A report is to be found at the Burton Mail that is is fine for the facts. ( Though I think that the dates may not be perfectly accurate )

What is known by all that knew him was that he had the ability to get the very best out of all of his pupils. With a mix of Shakespeare quotations, gentle mocking and insistence on precision in maths and English, Brab changed us all through brilliant teaching, humanity and erudition.

If we muttered an answer through lack of confidence, we were made to stand up and say in our best stentorian tones ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse’ or ‘A man has come to iron the billiard table’.

If we didn’t manage to get a solution immediately, he consoled us with ‘the impossible we do at once, miracles take a little longer’.

He taught so well that the whole of our class ( some 32 pupils iirc ) achieved the top classification at O level. He did it with style and aplomb, with a special sense of humour. He set the most evil exam questions for the Welsh schools examination board, and drilled us relentlessly in mental arithmetic.

But that was the stuff most people know.

What they did not witness was the day he came into our class after his wife had died in a car crash – a car which he was driving. So committed to his job and his boys was Brab, that two days after the accident, he arrived in our classroom for his first lesson. He was a middle-aged man, we were 13 year old kids.

We were amazed to see him, as were expecting another free period to waste. He wanted normality. He start to teach us, and managed for a while, but the strain was clear. We suggested that he go home, but as I remember he continued until he could take no more, and broke down.

Like most kids that age, we didn’t owe him anything. But we knew from that day we would never forget Harry Smith. We learnt respect. We learnt understanding. We saw love.

That was the day that we all changed, and from then on, whatever Harry did, we still loved him for it. He continued to be our maths teacher for between 4 and 6 years depending if we took A level maths.

He really was a great man and it was a real pleasure to have known him.

The election, the media, and the populace : the Nick Clegg story

So last week the UK had its first publicly televised debate with the leaders of the three main parties.

Personally, I thought it was  a tad boring, as Gordon Brown was his usual exciting self, David Cameron was too confident and was afraid to say what he wanted, and Nick Clegg was the third child who didn’t care what he said, and therefore said what he wanted to say.

The result seems to have been called by everyone as ‘win’ for Clegg. But let’s think about that.

If the media / analysts / politicians had not announced a ‘winner’ would the polls now be showing Lib Dems with such an increase in support ?

Are the media again making the news and playing the election ? Are we all so daft as to believe everything we read or see on TV.

I think this is a problem caused by the way that we have done politics in the UK. I always thought that supporting a party was the wrong way to do it. I may like a policy from one party, and another from another, but having one party in charge, with a majority in the House of Commons, means that you get all of their ill-conceived ideas.

I like the American way of having local referenda ( for that is really what voting on State issues is about ) on topics.

The fact that people can make a difference to many governmental decisions is a better system than the UK once every four or five years system. We get stuck with a party in power that does pretty much what it wants – until we have demonstrations in the street, or the Daily Mail gets a bee in its bonnet.

The they pass laws to ‘manage’ public demonstrations.

I hope that one day we get an issues based democracy in which we can all participate and influence.

Maybe after the next election, we might. Who knows what the parties will be doing to try to stay in power.

Sunshine and athletic performance

I went out on my bike yesterday. I try to do it three times a week, and have been doing so for the last two and a bit years. I keep logs through my terrific Suunto wrist-top heart rate monitor.

So I have a fairly reasonable dataset of how my heart has got stronger breathing better and my effort for a given return in distance or speed is quite easy to understand.

But the one thing that I have not managed to fully explain, is why, even at what seems to be the same level of fitness, does the sunshine enable better performance ?

The past few weeks I have been keeping within the same general parameter wrt heart rate and effort applied, but yesterday the air temp was up to 18, and my performance, wearing fewer layers, and exposing both arms and legs to the sunshine, produced an increase in average speed over 21 miles to 18.2 mph. This compares with most recent rides at 16.5-16.9 mph for similar distances, similar routes etc.

It’s not a long-term thing like getting more vitamin D. It may be an air quality thing – though warm air is less dense, so you’d think that there was less oxygen available. Is it that the body has less energy to redirect to keeping core temperature up : though the difference in air temperature has only been 4-5 degrees C.

Is it psychology, that the sun shines and all is well in the world ? Is it a placebo effect ? ( Queue the Siouxsie and the Banshees song of the same name, on their second album )

Answer on a postcard please.

Children, drugs and frankly, bad parents

Oh how the latest Louis Theroux programme is frustrating me. There is a boy in Pittsburgh, Hugh, who I feel so sorry for.

He is ( to me ) fighting his mother, his sister, and his doctors. He is cogent, bright and rational. Why do they think he has a problem that they can ‘fix’ with drugs ? I have a feeling that they do not input enough into Hugh or discuss enough how he sees things : they appear to force their own views way too much, and suppress any original view that he might bring to the situation. His words are such that he understands so much more than he is given credit for. He may a bit veering to Aspergers, but there is nothing wrong with that. After all, aren’t all human males a bit that way inclined ?

Yes of course, we did not see an un-medicated Hugh in the film, but I am almost certain that although he has mood swings, they will be brought on something that either his family of friends say or do that grates with Hugh’s sense of balance.

It is so sad that the US appears to be leading the way in cosmetic psychopharmacology. Is it so hard to understand your own kids ? As to his parents, would you really take notice of educated people who put their dog on anti-anxiety drugs ? Could it be that parents are all too guilty of imprinting their own fears, dislikes and poorly reasoned understanding of the world on their children ?

Why can’t parents accept that kids are kids. Why can’t they climb trees ? Why can’t they fall out with their parents occasionally ? Why aren’t they allowed to smarter than their parents ? Why are they not allowed to question their parents when they make illogical, irrational or insufficiently thought through statements ?

Kids say what they think when they think it – if you can’t cope, it’s not their problem : it’s yours.

I wish more kids were like Hugh.

And fewer parents like Bob and Barbro.

Talk more, people. Play more. Let your kids be kids, and help them grow.

David Cameron – Again

So after I was reminded of a post about the Cameron’s third child, they are having a fourth. See the previous posts for what I think.

There will be more random thoughts about the way that politicians operate while we go through the month of them trying to get us to vote for them.

A dream

When I’m rich, and I mean when I’m really, really rich with money wondering where it should go, I’d like to start a school.

A school for 5-11  year olds. One that instill the wonder of the world. One that enables them to think more, to learn more and to enjoy more.

When I was that age, I don’t remember having much more than a blackboard and books. No computers, no TV, no multimedia experiences to stop my imagination from working.

Just words. And committed teachers.

We all start off with wonder and will to learn, but it gets knocked out of most us. You have to be really keen to learn more than just that that is required to pass exams in the UK.

My school will take kids that may not have a library at home, or have parents that understand quantum mechanics. I reckon that we can help all kids learn and enjoy learning. We just do it the wrong way at the moment.

Yes, I know again, a blog entry that simplifies things is tempting, but I have to account for the need for politicians to measure everything, a world that has made instant gratification a religion, and a society that seems to laugh at anyone who knows more than what happened last night in the popular soap operas on TV.

But I absolutely believe we have to do something different – and do it soon.

We need the attitude. We need the excitement of learning.

We need the right to be knowledgeable, to understand, to love information.

We need the right to grin at the beauty of maths, to gasp at the impossibility of quantum entanglement, to cry at the end of movies and smile when we see a fox running along the road.

Keyboards – and why all things new are not always better

So I see that Lenovo have removed the SysRq key and changed the mechanics for the their ThinkPad keyboards. http://www.osnews.com/story/22731/Lenovo_Alters_ThinkPad_Keyboards_Removes_SysReq has the story and a really quite interesting discussion.

However, this gives me a great excuse to vent a little on keyboards in general.

First, who ever foisted the touchpad / trackpad thing on humanity should be shot. I fully admit to have used ThinkPads since they first appeared, and to being an absolute bigot on the benefits of the TrackPoint, but how could anyone think that having a flat surface that is easy to catch whilst typing, that requires one to take one’s fingers off the keyboard ( and by that I mean the characters that one actually wants to enter into mail or whatever application one is using ) and that takes more space than is actually needed, is beyond me.

Even as I type this, the pad thing is making the cursor go all over the shop. Maybe I’m an untidy typer, but I can’t be alone.

I know that IBM licenced the TrackPoint to other manufacturers, and that they probably charged way too much for the licence, but I wonder how many hours are wasted in a typical work day, for all of those people using keyboards with touchpads whilst they move their hands unecessarily. Don’t even start me on mice – sometimes they are useful, but let’s be honest, how long does it take to move your hand to the mouse, when the good old fashioned Tab key or PF key can come to assist ?

And whilst on keyboards, the drive to reduce cost, rather than maintain or increase efficiency for the user, has meant several interesting technologies on us. Modern plastic, membrane keyboards being the the most heinous perpetrators of this sin.

So yes, we can buy keyboards for 10 ( choose your unit of currency ) but if anyone has used an old IBM M series keyboard, they will understand that efficiency and productivity can be enhanced using such a wonderful device. Take a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Model_M_keyboard for more information.  They may be a little noisy, but they are a wonderful piece of engineering.

I wonder whatever happened to the 1 second response time to user input that we used to spec when creating new application and networks on mainframes …. but I guess that is another story 🙂