Heroes : the one man I would have loved to have dinner with died 30 years ago

John Lennon

I grew up to the Beatles soundtrack. Starting with walking to school, in the snow, singing “I wanna hold your hand” at the top of our voices, and continuing through working in a battery egg shed singing “Across the Universe”.

More than that though, John Lennon would have changed the  world had he lived now. His uncompromising directness would have gone down so well in the age of open source, wikileaks and freedom of information.

I would have loved to have an hour with him. Yes, I’d probably stumble and stall in the conversation, but that wouldn’t have mattered.

I heard the news that he had been shot when I was relieved from my night shift, trying to fix an IBM mainframe. Darn. I had only just been trained on the 370/158, and had not run the EARS diagnostic disk. Richard Bubien came in ( it was his account ) told me the news and ran EARS. Machine fixed : life changed.

As I drove home, every other tune on the radio was either a Lennon solo or a Beatles song. I cried most of the way home.  Maybe it was that I hadn’t slept for more than 30 hours. Maybe it was because I went into mourning. Maybe I had lost a friend I never knew.

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Sorry – UK Politics again. And students.

So I am really pleased that our student population has woken from it’s collective slumber. 1968 was a little extreme, as was 1990, but at least people were moved to do something. I had understood that the majority of students were so concerned about grades that they did not want to rock anyone else’s boat.

But now, they have found a common cause. Problem is, I’m not at all sure that it is the common cause that they should have found.

Yes, the Liberal Democrats promised much before the election, and it was pretty obvious that even though they formed a coalition with the Conservatives, they would have to play second fiddle to most policy decisions ( well, at least the ones that are contrary to what the Conservatives promised before they got elected ).

It doesn’t mean that they are evil, or bad, but it does mean that they have had a great experience of what needs to be done to be in power.

In fact, I believe that the coalition is possibly the best thing to have happened to the UK for long time. Notwithstanding the budget issues, that there are now two different political views being discussed within the government has to be good. Rather that than a more dictatorial process of previous governments.

So why have the students latched onto the wrong case ?  The cause for free University training is absolutely a good one. I wholeheartedly believe that we should offer free education to degree level. However, with a target of 50% of all 18 year olds going to University, I am also pretty sure that we cannot really afford to pay for many of the courses, and maybe there should be some more thought put into the real cost of courses, the actual salaries gained by students of some of courses, and how best to deliver the training. I could just suggest that canceling our nuclear deterrent would pay for us all to go back to University : but I won’t. Today.

Yes, OK, so I am getting on, and I did get free University ( for a year 🙂 ). I was doing pure sciences, and I would use this situation to seriously look at funding courses that need a full 3 years of training : and those that can help us get out of our current situation.

I have always believed that every person has at least one major skill that they can use to benefit society ( and I hope that doesn’t sound condescending in any way, as it isn’t meant to ), but really, we don’t need degrees in some of the things that we degrees in now. Vocational training, apprenticeships, part time courses, shorter but more intense courses. The list of possibilities is large.

So, yes, I really appreciate our student population becoming more vocal, but I think they should maybe think a little harder before they shout.

And certainly should think before they appear on television suggesting that if one year’s fees are 9,000 GBP then three year’s fees would be 21,000 GBP : it doesn’t really help your cause….

Simpler times

Yes, I know that catching sight of your early teenage self at my age is not the most productive thing to do, but I was listening to Planet Rock on the radio and there came the strains of “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac.

I very quickly went back to hearing it for the first time. I was about 13 I guess, and I was playing with my big brother’s reel to reel tape machine ( btw, worth following the Delia Derbyshire link from Wikipedia …. great woman, and we owe her so much ).

I was in awe of it. It sounded terrible with the equipment to hand. The speaker was a very limited range single cone, probably not even reaching more than 6KHz, and the tape was, well, tape. But it was absolutely magic. Strong composition, strong lyrics, and pretty powerful when you’re trying to work out how the world works.

That’s probably why I shot back in time so quickly when I heard it again – I haven’t heard it for ages. Was ever life so much simpler then ?

I have to admit to doing that sort of thing a lot though. Music is a brilliant time machine. I can tell you when I bought certain CDs, or what I was doing when I was listening to particular bits of music. I wonder how that works.

I know I am not alone in doing this, but why should music cause such a strong reaction ? There has been research done on it ( This for instance ).

Damn, why didn’t someone invite me to The Music and Brain Forum at Stanford.

And the other thing. Why on earth did I get the tingles when Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds was on the radio yesterday !!! That response should be reserved for special music with special memories or tunes. I guess it must mean something to me after all. I wonder what associated trauma I have locked away forever !?

Iconoclasts and Received Wisdom

There are many things that are currently winding me up. If it’s not well spoken TV presenters mis-using less and fewer ( and it’s so easy to work out what is the correct usage : if you can count them, use fewer ) or that state of democracy in the western world, or at least the USA, it’s received wisdom that does it for me.

I was listening to the radio the other day, and someone who had been actively involved around the Unions in the 70s, said something along the lines of “I don’t want to have a ‘told you so’ moment” but …

Which set me thinking. Why do we seem to think that saying I told you so is such a heinous crime ? If you were right, and the people making the decisions did not listen, received wisdom is that you did not put your case forward with sufficient vigour. Well, in reality, told you so moments often come because those making the decisions simply do not listen, or chose to ignore because they think they know better.

There are lots of books written about how to get your point across to your senior managers ( or even your immediate manager ), but in real life it is not often that they change their minds. They probably read all of those management books about being strong and decisive, and showing leadership, forgetting to listen to their most useful resource, their team.

So while listening to the radio, I began to think of other key received wisdom phrases : and then last night there was a BBC Horizon programme covering asteroids.

It then struck me that having an open mind is something that is actually pretty rare. Planetary scientists could not understand why an asteroid had a tail. Water is a pretty good guess, as it causes the tails on comets, but because no-one had seen water on any other asteroid, they kinda refused to believe that this one might have water encapsulated in the rock making up the asteroid.

And then there was a film and debate on Channel 4 about “What the Greens got wrong”. Not a particularly good programme, in fact, but interesting to see how apparently closed minded and dogmatic some of the leading Green proponents have been over the years, not looking at the whole picture.

Related to that, was the recent release of Mink from a Mink farm in Ireland. Slightly different, I know, but do the people who did this ever read about how the Otter is now found in almost every river in England, and that the Water Vole is recovering well after being virtually wiped out by Mink on the 70s and 80s ?

Back to the theme though.

It appears to me that there are too few people asking questions, rocking boats, and upsetting the status quo through not listening to received wisdom.

I for one vote for having more of them.

A Levels, skewing distribution curves, and education for all

They have done it again. The students of UK ( OK, England and Wales ) have had another record year of passing their A Levels. For those not lucky enough to have gone through this process, these are exams taken by mostly 18 year olds to determine if they can qualify for a place at University.

The concern for me, and many others, is how can every year be a record year ? This year 27% of students attained an A or A* pass ( or for a different report on the same, try Sky News ). There is talk of dumbing down the results or over specialisation, and to a great extent I agree with that assertion. I see our own son, and am sometimes amazed at what he was not taught at school in subjects that I know well and did for A level myself.

But what really made me put fingers on keyboard again was an interview with Ed Balls, candidate for the Labour Party Leadership here in the UK, and ex-Education minister, on the BBC’s Newsnight last night ( 18 August ).

He was asked about how the education system, for which he and the Labour Party government had increased the budget dramatically, had failed the kids not fortunate enough to go to a private or grammar school ( parents not rich enough, or kids not passing the selective entrance exam ).

He said that they had made the A* grade so that the brightest and most able students could standout. This of course was necessary because with a normal distribution curve, there would never be 27% of anything getting top of anything, and there must be a fairly average normal distribution curve in student’s abilities ( most measurements of human endeavours will show a regular normal, or poisson, distribution curve ). Fine, I like that. Especially as my son got straight A’s with no sweat, and even got more than 90% in all of his subjects. To give anyone with 70% or more the same rating, seems to undervalue a 90% mark by some way. So yes, an A* would be a great idea, even though it means grade inflation, which I do not think is a good think. Although, if it has the effect of spreading the attainment curve to a more realistic shape – you know, most people will attain 50% kind of curve – then that may actually be a good thing. Now that would be OK if the Universities looked at A* students, and took them on, as they are the best students in the UK at the moment.

However, Mr Balls, went on to explain that he had told the Universities NOT to choose students on the A* status ! Sorry. Run that by me again. You invented A* grades to show the best students, and then tell Universities and colleges not to use this as a measure of their student intake ?

( for those with a UK IP address, use the BBC iPlayer to see the interview if you like. Sorry, it’s  not available to the rest of the world though as you don’t pay the TV Licence 🙂 ).

Oh gee. Politicians can be so stuck up their own dogma they completely lose sight of any rational thought.

I’m sorry, but statistically, there is a wide variation of academic ability in the general population. We know that to be true. Always has been.

Some people make excellent bricklayers. They have a feel for the material, they have a perfect eye, and they can make a building look stunning through their skills. ( and I’m a tad jealous, as although I like bricklaying, and am not bad at it, I can’t get that extra 10% to gain perfection ). Others can do intensely complex thought experiments on how the universe behaves. Others can deliver performances on stage that make you cry. All skills, all valuable to a mixed society.

So why does the education system not encourage these wide range of skills ? Why does the education system insist that 50% of 18 years old go to University ?

I believe the answer is that it is just too hard for a politician to say the logical thing : some people are better at some things than others.

The BBC, poor English, Rhinos and Chinese Medicine

So I am watching the BBC news as I regularly do. Getting annoyed and distracted by it too, as I do all too often do these days.

The reason is simple. Not only do they believe that their viewers should not see reports that contain pictures of dead or dying people or animals or parts of the same ( which they never show by the way, unlike Al Jazeera TV who have a great belief in showing it as bad as it is ), but they also believe that if there is the slightest chance of viewers being upset by the pictures, the have to warn them before the report.

They warn them within the most stupid statement a broadcaster has ever dreamt up.

“This report contains graphic images”

People !!! You at the BBC are in the TV business, of course TV reports contain graphic images. That is your business. Graphic images ! You have managed to reduce the size of the irrelevant and distracting tickers that ran along the bottom of the screen, so can you please work on your use of accepted English words.

This time the report was of Rhino poaching in Africa. Terrible, terrible. We do not have the right to kill these fantastic animals to tear off their horns for some spurious use in Traditional Chinese medicine.

We don’t have the right to chase any animal to extinction in the mistaken belief that rhino horn cures a variety of ills, or the tiger penis cures impotence. If the tiger is as important to Chinese culture as the dragon, maybe that same belief will be the driver to make tigers extinct, just like the dragons …..

Stop it. Stop it before it’s too late. And don’t rely on tigers being kept captive in Vietnam. It surely is not a sustainable solution.

If you want to try natural remedies, try the plants. That is a much more rational and promising approach to getting people back to health. Many of our drugs have been derived from plants. They work rather well, are mostly easy to look after and propagate and grow in almost every country you need them to.

Maybe I’ll discuss the anthropogenic extinction event another day …. just so long as I don’t get onto the correct usage of “less” and “fewer” in the media … they really should learn to be more responsible with their use of language.

I like our garden.

Thinking more on it, I love our little wooded garden.

To have a whole, compact ecosystem just outside your front door, back door, bedroom doors and on your roof is really something special. This morning we had a young fox by the back door.

The other day we had a very noisy male Tawny owl watching us manually remove slugs from our veg beds ( in the dark, of course ). We had a Grass snake recently, often get Slow Worms, have a pleasant plague of tiny Toads, as well as some adults. Newts keep turning up all over ( and yes, I do know that they are protected ). We had two young Pike in the pond before the  lack of rain meant it drained away.

There is a Kingfisher flitting up and down the canal. We had a Wood mouse on our terrace a couple of weeks ago. A Harvest mouse on the roof. Add all the birds that bred this year, from Nuthatches to Wrens ( shame the Great Spotted Woodpeckers lost all of their chicks this year – probably to a Magpie that managed to get into the hole in the Crack Willow they were in )

With the Meadow Browns, Red Admirals, Commas, Small Coppers and the rest, to the Darters, various Damselflies and Grasshoppers, we get a lot of flying insects too. Pity we haven’t managed to get the Stag Beetles to take up residence yet, but we have lots of rotting wood waiting for them.

I always wanted a garden like this – and we’re doing pretty well at getting it sorted. Add the organic gardening practices, and it’s amazing what turns up on a quite small plot.

Now if we can get more people to let their gardens go a bit more wild, plant a few more native plants that the Bees and  Hoverflies can enjoy, and get their kids to spend a few more minutes observing, the world will be a happier place.