This is Audrey Bourne, my mother, in her younger days singing one of the wartime favourites I grew up with. She sang, standing on top of Letchworth fire station in 1945 on VE Day, home after her stint with the Land Army (having lied about her age). The photo shows her around that age. She sang all through my childhood and now, at 87, sings no more: she has lost none of her spirit and even if her vocal chords have failed her, her mind has not.
I set up a test site for a photography journal over at http://dev.cullaloe.net/koken/. I’ve been trying a number of alternatives and hosting options: koken is php software that runs on a Linux server over a mySql database and Apache. I happen to have one of those at dev.cullaloe.net.
So far, it looks like it has really nice features, including a tight integration with Adobe Lightroom that allows you to set up a direct publishing link. Most of the images on the site are reduced-size versions of some of my “good” photos.
I have found some bugs and irritations: the admin back-end fails completely from time to time, requiring clearing of api file cache over FTP. Themes are limited but they are quite pretty, I think, with development quite straightforward.
The original developer of this programme sold out to a new owner last year, I believe, but there seems to be some investment in bug fixing and development.
So far I don’t think it’s stable enough for a main online portfolio: you should probably just buy yourself a 500px Awesome membership for that and use the portfolio feature of that site.
On a Delta Airlines flight a number of years ago, I was lucky enough to be sat next to the author Richard Ford. This must have been shortly before he picked up a Pulitzer for his novel, The Sportswriter. Neither of us probably recall the conversation during the flight but what I do remember is that (unlike me) he made no excuse of the environment and got on with writing: scribbling in a little notebook, staring out of the window, scribbling some more, in a cycle of what I have always presumed to have been the creative process.
Personally, I find it too easy to make excuses for not writing. Wrong environment. Too noisy. Any time slot less than an hour is not enough. Must check email. Need a biscuit. Text message. Look at that dust.
I was remembering Richard’s brilliant short story collection, Rock Springs, dug it out to read again and looked him up on the web to see what he was doing. I came across a short work that he had reviewed called Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. This is a little treasure of advice for the writer: you dip in and pick up some important little nugget that will make you feel better about yourself and gently encourage you to get back to the task you’ve quite possibly been avoiding.
At least, that’s how it worked out for me.
This week’s TES Scotland was accompanied by a separate mailing containing a flyer that in bold, red print announced ATTENTION! Action Required. The flyer went on:
AS YOU ARE AWARE, TESS SUBSCRIPTIONS ARE EVOLVING. AS PART OF THIS, YOUR CURRENT TERMS AND CONDITIONS HAVE BEEN UPDATED. THESE MUST BE ACCEPTED BY FRIDAY, 5 JUNE IN ORDER TO CONTINUE RECEIVING TESS.
I wasn’t aware, actually. Following the link to the website, there are a lot of new terms and conditions that seem to be binding me into a new contract in which I:
… agree that we at our sole discretion, without notice to you, may: (i) terminate or amend the General Terms or these Additional Terms
Er, no. Not acceptable. I will not write a blank cheque. All I want is a magazine, through my door every Friday, that I can read and throw away. I don’t want anything else, thank you, least of all an open-ended commitment to your corporate insensitivity to your customers’ needs.
Frankly, I’ve not enjoyed the changes to the TESS that have taken it from a well-staffed, relevant and useful newspaper (remember those?) to something that’s over-commercialised, London centric and off the pulse that I now merely skim and recycle. The great writers are all but gone: Douglas Blane, Liz Buie, Gregor Steele: what’s left is the best efforts of the last man standing, padded out with material from another jurisdiction. If I want to keep up with the news of what’s happening in education in Scotland, there are plenty of alternatives in the mainstream, social media and networks.
There is a real gap in the market for a regular news journal for education in Scotland. Here, there are plenty of engaged and articulate teachers, lecturers and leaders who could contribute relevant, critical commentary and shared experience for the rest to enjoy and benefit from. Anybody out there fancy taking that forward?
I went to see Interstellar last night. After all the hype and ravings of friends who had seen it, I was disappointed. This three-hour epic story had the style of 1970’s sci-fi, with heavy elements of fantasy clumsily stitched together with a good deal of shark jumping. The most striking thing about the movie is the blind insularity of its American cultural setting: the mid-West is suffering from food shortages caused by blight of major crops and American astronauts save the day. The star-spangled banner is spangled everywhere you look.
As well as the food problem, there is an unexplained problem of dust, perhaps due to soil erosion from the decimation of crops. Up steps the hero who mysteriously finds himself at a secret NASA facility near his farm. By now the plot punchline has revealed itself. The story tries to bring some cool popular physics ideas to the fore, with black holes and wormholes key features of the eventual trip to space to save the human race, or at least the white Americans of the corn belt.
There is much of the physics in the film which makes it attractive for a school trip: Scottish Higher students should be able to have fun picking over the many movie-maker’s errors: the twin paradox, relativity, gravitational gradients, event horizons and some very basic Newtonian mechanics are all at the Godzilla level of believability. There’s a lot more in the rich seam of “Hollywood Physics” throughout this story.
The signature US film-maker’s stereotype is predictably here: there’s a woman on the mission, and she makes the stupid mistake that signals that things are all going to go wrong. A change of genre appears when Matt Damon goes rogue in proper B-Western fashion and attacks the Sheriff. The movie passes through a pale imitation of Kubrick’s 2001 before getting a little emotional, staying just short of melodrama before delivering the final credibility seppuku by sending the hero back for the stranded girl.
This is a horribly narcissistic movie about Americans saving America/The World (the terms are interchangeable in this context) with ignorance, A Bad Guy and some nauseating moralising, badly done. I wish I’d gone to see the Turing film instead.
There’s a lens in every piece of writing and an agenda in most. In George Veletsianos’ Networked Scholars course this week, we are asked to engage with Zeynep Tufekci‘s blog post, which is a piece of emotive writing about another piece of emotive writing in the Grauniad by Emma Keller, about another piece of emotive writing by Lisa Adams, who is blogging about grief and her own battle with cancer.
Each piece takes a stance. Lisa’s stance is perhaps the most authentic as the writing is her own about her own experience. I’m not sure the blog she writes is one I would subscribe to but I understand why she does it: in the same situation, I am likely to be just as loud about it, for at least as long as it is helpful. There must come a time when writing her blog will cease to be relevant to her.
I didn’t find Emma’s article offensive or even critical: I thought she merely asked a question and certainly wasn’t what Zeynep calls “cancer-shaming”. Nor did Emma misrepresent what was happening to Lisa. If there’s fake politically-correct hysteria anywhere here, it’s in Zeynep’s squealing about Emma’s methods. The obtuseness of Zeynep’s complaints is irresponsible for whipping up emotion: for example, her response to Bill Keller’s piece on Lisa – itself tactful, insightful and personal, in my opinion – is disingenuous at best. At worst, it falsifies the content and meaning of what Bill Keller wrote in order to be further outraged.
What is evident in reading these pieces is that social media and blogs are powerful channels through which opinion may be manipulated. Rigour is not required to achieve this as readers, like the baying pitchfork-carrying mobs in a Hammer Horror, respond with such Twitter outrage that the offending item is removed, as in the case of Emma Keller’s article. The Kellers wrote in even tones using moderated language about a woman coping through writing publicly. What Zeynep Tufekci did was to twist that into something very nasty.
A colleague recently asked for suggestions for music which got me thinking that everyone should at least have a rough idea of what to play were they ever to be invited onto Roy Plomley’s Desert Island Discs. Now, it’s a vanity to even momentarily entertain the idea that one is of sufficient public interest to be invited onto this great British Radio programme, but that didn’t stop me preparing my list. Here it is.
The rules of being cast away on the imaginary island might seem a little anachronistic in this digital age but they boil down to these: you’re allowed 8 discs – tracks, in the modern vernacular – and the means to play them, presumably mechanical as there is no source of power for electronic devices. Concessions are that you can take with you a holy or philosophical book, the complete works of Shakespeare and one other book, plus one luxury item, provided that it doesn’t aid your escape from the island.
First two discs
The first disc sent me back to Letchworth, where I grew up in a house full of music. My mother sang all her life until age overtook her vocal cords. She still has the same passion for music, particularly Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto number 2, which would often play as I took my weekly bath on a Sunday evening. Mum is and always was a girl who liked fun, however, and was as likely to be found lost in a boogie-woogie – her favourite being Down the road a piece. My first two discs reflect my mother’s influence, therefore: the first, a classical masterpiece rendered by Isao Tomita electronically to great effect, especially from about 5 min 30 sec, where the effect of percussion leading in a sweeping chorus still moves me as much now as when I first heard it 35 years ago.
The second of my desert island discs is possibly the best blues track I ever heard. I played this as a teenager, over and over again, and have never tired of hearing it. From Fleetwood Mac’s early years, it was the B side to Albatross, another instrumental that showed the expressive power of the electric guitar in the hands of a master – in this case, Peter Green, and on my second disc, Danny Kirwan. Catch the contrast between the blue notes and the happy middle eight.
The guitar is an instrument I have been playing for almost fifty years. I’m still pretty mediocre, despite a period as a professional bass player.
Guitars, voices and songs
I wondered if I might take a guitar with me to the island. In the interests of not driving myself crazy with frustration and rage at my own inability to play as well as I’d like, it will be better that I don’t. Instead, a track featuring one of my favourite guitarists of all time, Ritchie Blackmore. The band Deep Purple produced the most incredible quality music, not least due to the influence of Jon Lord. In my time as a bass player, I owned a Rickenbacker that was supposed to have belonged to Roger Glover of the same band. The vocalist Ian Gillan is most closely associated with Deep Purple, but for me, the greatest voice for Blackmore’s guitar belonged to David Coverdale. Here they both are, doing what they both do best.
My work took me around the world, where I would often be working shifts in the air-conditioned sterility of the computer room, waiting for code to compile and link. In the splendid isolation of those places, I often listened to cassette tapes through headphones, loud. One artist that accompanied me in that place during an extended trip to Seattle was Joni Mitchell, whose album Blue was played end to end, stopping only half way through to turn the tape around. My island disc from that album features the delicious sound of the Appalachian Dulcimer.
Songs of significance
I have never hung on to my career at all costs, preferring to recognise that a point has been reached where further progress is impossible, further contribution wasted and that a new path beckons. These points have often featured significant songs or music and the next track is an example. I used it as the introduction to a corporate presentation shortly before I left the corporation.
In a similar way, I found the music of Omar Faruk Tekbilek to be significant, drawn as I was at the time to Islam. As Muhammad Bilal, I spent a number of years with that faith and as part of that community, the Ummah. The imam at my local mosque had a beautiful singing voice and would often lead the singing of a naat, a poem in praise of the Prophet. One in particular, I still sometimes catch myself singing the chorus of: Mustafa Jaan-e-Rehmat Pe Laakhon Salaam.
“Islam” means “peace” and I found a peace here that I hadn’t experienced before, in the prayer and the respect for all, men and women, “sons of Abraham”, for nature, for knowledge and science. It breaks my heart to see how the great religion that Islam is, can be so sullied by the actions of lunatics, dead cultural habits and the ignorant. Here, the music and lyrics of Omar Faruk Tekbilek are evocative of a place of peace for the Muslim, particularly the spiritual Sufi, a garden.
I have now spent a significant part of my adult life in Scotland. I consider it to be my home, with all of its strange cultures and heritages, most of which are imports. The pipes, originating as they did in Egypt, are perhaps iconic for Scottish culture and there is nothing so stirring as hearing the massed pipes and drums of a decent rendering of Highland Cathedral. The tune is, of course, written by a couple of Germans, which I think is funny. I don’t want any of that on the island. What I will have is a single track by Matt Rach, a young French guitarist whose talent I am insanely jealous of and whose music, whether covers or his own material, is quite exceptionally, furiously, good. This one will do: it’s his cover of the theme from Rosemary’s Baby.
My final track seems to the perfect synthesis of the music I have loved the most, crossing cultural, religious and national boundaries in a way that digs deep into my psyche. I can do nothing when I hear this but close my eyes and listen to it. It was written by the cellist Joceyln Pook for Akram Khan’s DESH, a full-length contemporary dance solo. I have never seen the dance. I like to think that this unresolved rift in the balance of harmony in my life makes me immortal.
I am free of God now but recognise the value of values and the power of prayer. There is no peace like the peace of the mosque; no hope so vain as the hope of salvation; no service but that which is given unconditionally and without recognition. That said, I have no need of the religious or philosophical Book: neither the Bible nor Qu’ran are any use to me now. If I need fiction, I have the complete works of Shakespeare, altogether more credible a read.
I was thinking that I might take for my own choice Sun Tzu’s Art of War. If I have nobody to fight a war with but myself it may offer a route to greater self-awareness. However, I have settled on a brilliant little book that will keep me occupied and mentally stimulated until I am rescued from the island: The Chicken from Minsk: And 99 Other Infuriating Brainteasers. I was recommended this book several years ago and finally bought one, second-hand, for a penny. To give you a flavour of the book, from the back cover:
Besides chess playing and problem solving, drinking is and always has been the most common form of recreation in Russia. Vassily has acquired a 12 litre bucket of vodka and wishes to share it with Pyotr. However, all Pyotr has is an empty 8 litre bottle and an empty 5 litre bottle. How can the vodka be divided evenly?
The Luxury item and the One Disc I’d Save
I was considering an Appalachian Dulcimer, so that I could learn to play “A Case of You” – the one disc I would save from the waves if I had to – but realised that I would probably break the strings quite quickly. A longer-lasting luxury, depending on how much I am permitted to have of this, would be writing and sketching materials. Writing is the one thing I have never tired of: and when I do, I tend to sketch. Not very well, but like the guitar playing, well enough for my own entertainment.
Which is probably good news for the other inhabitants of the island.
Last night, I was interviewed by John Johnston of Sandaig Primary fame, digital educator and edu-technology guru whose wisdom is now informing our Scottish Executive. As any of my students will know, I talk too much. Our nominal 30 minutes extended beyond 50 but I think it made for interesting listening. I am thankful to John for not adopting a Paxman persona (or taxman, as my autocorrected text to him pleaded). The consummate radio show host, he quickly put me at ease, pushed a couple of buttons and off we went.
We talked about the changing structure of education and what schools might look like in 2020; professional networks and the Cambridge tutorial and other “inverted” models of teaching where the learning takes place principally when the teacher is not present.
If you’d like to hear the show, you can find it here. Links to some of the sites mentioned in the programme are below:
- http://cullaloe.com/blog/2013/11/20/selm4s13/ <== post on the SELMAS conference
… a crossword. One of the interesting things about being a producer of online material – whether that be blogs, learning resources, online community sites or crosswords, is that sometimes you get no direct response. Feedback is important so that you can gauge whether or not what you’re doing is any good. If it’s rubbish, you can consider whether it’s worth the effort doing it again. If it’s brilliant, you can be encouraged to keep doing it. If it’s in between, you can find out how to improve it.
Some of the things I do online yield positive responses: the physics resources site I run over at sptr.net gets little response online but when I meet users or engage in one-on-one email exchanges, I often get positive comments about how useful it is, and this encourages me to keep working at it. It’s a nice feeling to be making lives easier.
Sometimes, though, you can work hard to put something “out there” and get little to nothing back. Two examples: one, is the audio commentaries and reflections I publish through iTunes and AudioBoo. Although most of these get thousands of listeners, which itself is gratifying, I almost never get a response. It’s a bit like shouting at the radio. I know how that feels, I do it often enough.
The other example is the cryptic crosswords I have been publishing over the past year – 7 in total. As any cruciverbalist will tell you, these take quite a bit of effort to put together, even with the aid of the brilliant tool that I use, John Stevens’ Magnum Opus program. Despite a couple of thousand downloads, I have only ever received a handful of comments or solutions.
So. I saw a guy in Costa yesterday, settling down with the Saturday Times Crossword. He’d finished a substantial chunk of it by the time he got up to leave, so I wrote the web address of my most recent puzzle on a receipt and pressed it upon him and asked him to take a look and let me know what he thought. Bless his heart, he did so, posting the magic words, “Enjoyed the crossword…”.
You have no idea how good that made me feel. Click the puzzle if you’d like to try one.