Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Re Drowsy

Thinking about my previous post about sleeping tablets carrying a warning "Caution: May cause drowsiness", it occurred to me to wonder if homoeopathic ons carry a warning "Caution: May NOT cause drowsiness".

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Las Vegas, the Final Frontier

In the pub the other night Andy and I were recalling our experiences of theme parks. Although it isn't actually a theme park I had to share with him my experience of the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Now, I know it’s embarrassing but I’ll admit it, I was a bit of a Star Trek junkie. I watched the television programs and movies (though I lost interest later with "Enterprise"), read the books and comics and generally absorbed it all like a sponge. I can tell my Cardassian from my Ferengi, yes sir. The great thing about this attraction though is that you don’t even have to be a Trekkie. It’s all done with such panache and style that anyone who still has a ten year old lurking somewhere in his soul is sure to love it.
You get to drink in the Deep Space Nine bar, to mingle with all those alien races you've seen on TV and to examine a Star Fleet museum. Then the fun starts. You get beamed up onto the Enterprise, you get a guided tour of the bridge and sick bay. Then the ship is attacked. You are escorted onto a shuttlecraft, take part in a space battle, slingshot around the sun, travel back in time (still being chased), continue your battle in a flight above Las Vegas, crash through the side of the Las Vegas Hilton, get hastily evacuated from the shuttle into a lift and find yourself back in the bar. It's quite wonderful.

This article has previous appeared in a different form in my other blog.


As part of my efforts to sleep I considered buying (but didn't actually buy) some herbal sleeping tablets I saw in Superdrug. I was amused to see, in large letters on the box, "CAUTION: May cause drowsiness."
No kidding? Who'd have though sleeping tablets could cause drowsiness?

Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland

Obviously I haven't seen the film yet - it doesn't open here until next Friday - but yesterday I read the novelisation. I hope the film is better. The story is slight and uninvolving and the writing hasty and uncomplicated. Worse though is that nothing at all remains of the kind of Carrollian word-play that is so important to Alice. So they have their own secret language , some of which is vaguely decipherable as relating to real words, usually real German words, but so what? Crucially it isn't actually funny. Upelkuchen is a cake to make you grow? Oh, my aching sides.

Of course the point of the film is probably the visuals - they are usually the important element of a Burton movie - but a better story would seem, at this stage, to have been more promising.

One other gripe, and it's one that I have used before when referring to Disney publications of Alice related materials. You will find it a hard search to locate Lewis Carroll's name anywhere in the book. It's there, but only right down at the bottom of that microscopic list of film credits at the bottom of the back cover, so small that I can't actually read it without a magnifying glass. Otherwise the Novel is "Disney's Alice In Wonderland by T.T. Sutherland based on Linda Woolverton's Screenplay for the Tim Burton film".And it's similarly obscure in the Dorling-Kindersley Visual Guide to the film where you will locate it it in tiny print on the credits page, this book being "Disney's Alice In Wonderland written by Jo Casey and Laura Gilbert".

I find this relegation to such a lowly position of the person without whom none it would exist to be rather shameful.

A pinch of salt

Twice, yesterday I heard television presenters use the expression "take it with a pinch of salt".
Now I know I sound a bit Humpty-Dumpty-ish, but when I use this expression I know what I mean by it. I mean that although I accept what you are saying for now, I don't necessarily actually believe it.
The expression can be applied solely to information: things I've heard or read, so I couldn't understand its application in the two instances on television yesterday. One was referring to a film which might work for a documentary but this was a drama. How can you take an acknowledged work of fiction with a pinch of salt?
The other was even more unlikely. It was on a "best of the Antiques Roadshow" program and was used by a presenter to refer to a dress, not to its provenance but to the dress itself.

Am I wrong about the meaning of the phrase? Is me that's been misusing it all these years? Or is it that the people using it on TV don't really know the meaning?

Friday, 26 February 2010

Bilston Voices: A Masterclass in slant rhymes

This month I almost missed the start of Bilston Voices which explains why I have no idea why Marcia Calame, billed to open, wasn't there. As I entered, carefully trying not to make too much noise, Emma was just starting to read as half of a fill in set that she started and another member of "Women Who Write" (whose name I didn't manage to get) finished. They were reading poems from an old anthology that were very good but perhaps a little over-familiar to the regulars. Then though it was on to the billed program.
Ray Jones I have seen before. He's an entertaining writer but what makes him special is that he's a very fine reader. His opening work was a character piece narrated by a man the day after his 99th birthday in a nursing home. It was by turns poignant and hilarious and occasionally reminiscent of the Alan Bennett Talking Heads monologues. The second piece, about a man seeking marriage guidance because his wife was changing sex, was a touch less successful but nonetheless very funny.
Ray was followed by Sarah James who managed to get herself into a bit of a muddle by reading a three character play. It was a humorous, Monty Python-esque skit about Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaugin doing the ironing but as a reading it needed three distinct voices and a lot more acting and timing. My impression was that done properly it was probably very good but that it wasn't a suitable piece for this forum. Her set recovered with the subsequent poetry which was well received though not completely to my personal taste.

After the break we had Ron Davies. I don't recall ever seeing him before but his wistful tale of first love in the Black Country seemed very familiar so I think I must have. It was told with good timing and was very entertaining. The humour and gentle sense of longing for childhood innocence were delicately balanced but never slipped. Like Ray Jones in the first half he is a very good reader, though occasionally the use of character accents did seem a touch forced.

The evening finished with Andy Connor who I've definitely not seen before - I'd have remembered. His set consisted of a number of short funny poems, one long serious poem and one long funny poem. All were well crafted. The funny ones very very funny. The serious one, about the Paris tomb of the Unknown Soldier was skillfully done and my personal favourite. What struck me about his set though was that it was practically a master class in the best way to use slant rhymes. I know a lot of people Who wouldn't have liked him. They are the kind of people who think that all poetry should rhyme and that if it doesn't it isn't poetry. They should listen to Andy who, like last month's headliner, also performed rather than reading. A careful analysis of the rhymes would have found that most of them were near-misses but that was clearly an element of his style and the recitation showed just why this isn't actually important. Historically rhyming poetry is a relatively modern invention, something that the "doesn't rhyme, ain't a poem" brigade would do well to check up on.
One last thing that struck me was actually something he said in introducing his serious poem, "Life's not that simple. It would be dishonest to only write humourous verse."
It's an admirable sentiment and one I agree with wholeheartedly.

So, once more an excellent night out, marred for me only by the fact that I was dog-tired from my "neighbour problem". That too was resolved though as I rounded the evening with a couple of pints in the pub next door and went home and popped in some very effective silicon ear-plugs and managed to get my first decent sleep in a week.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Wit's End

I've given up.
It's five forty in the morning and I've given up all attempts at sleep. Sleep seems to be off the cards for the foreseeable future. We live in a semi-detached house and my neighbours have installed some kind of new electrical equipment that comes on and goes off on a timer switch. From twenty to every hour until ten to every hour it fills my house with a loud electrical hum that I just can't sleep through so my early night was a waste of effort. My sleep pattern through the last three nights, since they turned it on has been :- sleep for thirty minutes, get woken up as the bloody thing turns on, lie awake listening to it for ten minutes, spend twenty minutes going back to sleep, repeat until nervous breakdown ensues. I tried getting up and finding some earplugs even though I then run the risk of sleeping through my alarm. No good. They may block the alarm but not this low frequency irritant. I tried going downstairs to sleep on the sofa. No good. The hum, as I said, fills my whole house. So, tired and irritable, I've finally been forced to concede that sleep is out of the question and get up.
Tonight I shall try moving my bed into the room that's furthest from the adjoining wall, and closing all the doors, and using earplugs.

Complain you say? Not sure that I can. They aren't the easiest of neighbours to get on with and the equipment is most likely something medical. That room is occupied by my bedridden cousin who has breathing difficulties. It's probably something to do with that. They won't be affected by the noise because every one in the family has the same low frequency hearing impairment. They simply won't hear it but I can hear it and it's driving me crazy.

And yes, this post is entirely out of keeping with the normal style of posts in this blog but I am at my wit's end and just venting my frustration.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

They keep on proving me wrong!

When the Ofsted was over the principal of the college announced that there would be a party to celebrate. (Presumably to celebrate our success but the official results aren't out yet.)
I'm a well-known killjoy when it comes to office parties and at the time I remarked that I could think of nothing more ghastly than going to a party with the Senior Management.

And then they go and add a karaoke just to prove me wrong.

A thought experiment

Those of you who are by now, quite justifiably, fed up of my banging on about homoeopathy might as well skip this post. I ran into an old friend on the train today and he said he'd been reading my blog and been amused by my recent stuff on the subject. While we were talking a thought experiment occurred to me. Actually what occurred to me was a question and while I'm sure it must have occurred to other rational thinkers and been asked of the homoeopaths, I've certainly not seen it.

So here's my little thought experiment.

For the purposes of inquiry I'm going to assume that homoeopathy works. More than that I'm going to assume that it works exactly as claimed starting with the "like cures like" law of similars, the effect of succussion on the water and the memory of water long after the original substance has gone. I'm assuming all of it works.

Nowadays even the homoeopaths recognise that thanks to basics of molecular chemistry there comes a point when the water no longer contains any of the original substance. That's why they came up with the whole memory of water idea, so that it doesn't need to. Now I'm thinking of the point where the water we have taken from our Cn solution (the n'th 100x dilution) no longer has any molecules of the solute in it. The Cn solution itself may have but there are so few that they are all left behind when we take out the couple of drops we are going to add to pure water to get our Cn+1 solution. Fair enough the water we are taking out has the memory of what was previously in it so no problem there. Let's drip it into our imaginary Cn+1 beakerfull of water. Let's succuss (which in homoeopathic terms means bang the beaker up and down a couple of times). Let's suppose that the newly added water has now transferred its memory of the solute to all of the water in the beaker.
And let's repeat to get our Cn+2, Cn+3 and so on solutions.

Still assuming that everything works according to the mechanisms supposed we have a very interesting question arising. In what way are these dilutions actually diluting anything? Is the transferred memory somehow getting weaker each time? Or is it staying the same. If it's staying the same then we might as well stop as soon as Cn+1 is reached because after that all we are producing is more of the same. If however it's somehow getting weaker then we now have a whole different level of weirdness in the mechanism. Not only does water have a memory of what was once in it, not only can it transfer that memory to new water that never had anything in it but there is a potentially infinite number of different ever paler copies of the original memory. Remarkable stuff this water. It can take an infinite series of ever fainter impressions and there is a mechanism by which these impressions in becoming fainter become more potent.
Perhaps it doesn't work like that. Maybe it's like an infinite series of photocopies but everyone knows that you get escalating copying errors that way. Your thousandth generation copy is likely to be completely unreadable compared to your first generation original so that if this is the mechanism you could end up with anything, but you could be fairly certain that it wouldn't be whatever it said on the label.

I'm rather bewildered now. Either the point of diluting it is lost because it keeps on making accurate copies indefinitely or the water is such a miraculous thing that a C100 solution has a fainter memory than a C99 solution when there has been nothing of the original left since about C14.

Surely someone must have asked the homoeopaths about exactly how this works. My guess is that they will say they don't know but it does work and anyway science can't explain everything.
Which, of course, is just another way of saying, "it's magic".

I'll try not to go on about it any more.

Surrogate outcomes in education

I have recommended several times Ben Goldacre's book, Bad Science. It's a particular favourite of mine, dealing, as it does, with the ways that people misrepresent, misuse and generally misunderstand science. A section I was re-reading only yesterday deals with the tricks that are used when publishing the results of drugs trials. It's interesting in itself but one of them struck a chord with me as having a wider application, specifically an application in my own area - education.
I'll tie the threads up later but first I need to make a couple of detours, one to explain what he was talking about in medical terms and one to deal with the rather more vexed question of what education is actually for.
The specific "trick" that I was reading about was measuring surrogate outcomes. When you are testing a drug you have, one presumes, a reason for doing so. There is something that you expect that drug to do. It might be to prevent heart attacks, to alleviate pain, to treat cancer. You therefore design a test, hopefully a properly thought out randomised double-blind trial, and see if patients on the new drug show the required result without too many undesired side effects. But not all drugs trials do this. Some measure surrogate outcomes. For example a drug to prevent strokes might use reduction in blood pressure as a surrogate outcome. It isn't actually checking how many patients have a reduced stroke risk it's checking how many patients have reduced blood pressure and extrapolating that this equates to a reduced stroke risk. It's measuring something that is easily and quickly measurable and then using that to say that the drug has achieved it's desired result. Whether this is a good or a bad thing you can find out by reading Ben's book. The relevence it has to teaching I'll come to later.
OK. Detour number two. What is education for? I'd argue that education is to equip people with skills or knowledge that they don't already have so that they can lead a happier, more fulfilled and possibly (though not necessarilly) more productive life. This isn't actually what the Government would like education to be for. The Government would like education to have one aim - to get people out of education, off benefits and into work. The "productive" bit above is the only one they are really interested in. The "happier" and "more fulfilled" bits don't really concern them. Because it's, ultimately, the Government who pay for it they call the shots and schools and colleges toe the line and make education about preparation for work.
Now, as I've ranted before, the Government is also obsessed with targets and measurability. This might be viewed as a good thing. Evidence based education surely is as valid a concept as evidence based medicine. After all if we are trying to educate people, for whichever set of reasons, it would be useful to have some evidence that the way we are doing it works. Targets and measurability can be viewed as tools to achieve this aim.
So, how do we measure whether the way we are doing it works? We use exams, and a finer example of a surrogate outcome would be hard to find. An exam doesn't test whether the person taking it has acquired the skills or knowledge they set out to get, it tests whether they have acquired the skill of passing an exam. This is especially true in the "soft" subjects, such as languages - subjects where what is being learned isn't simply a list of facts or procedures. I have only this morning been devising some materials for my class to prepare them for their forthcoming reading exam. The materials are very carefully tailored to include practice at exactly the kinds of question that I know will be on the paper and these aren't language questions at all. They are things that we would never ask in real life unless we were, perhaps, doing a course in semantics or semiotics. What is the purpose of this text? Who is the intended audience for this text? How would you describe the language in this text?
I will dilligently teach them how to answer all these and more, but I know and they know that what I am teaching them has little if anything to do with the basic skills of speaking, reading and writing that they need. I am teaching them how to pass the exam. Passing the exam is the measure of my success and theirs, but it is a surrogate outcome.
Of course that's specific to the design of the exam that we use in our college and different exams may correlate more - or less - closely with the actual language skill in question but whether they do or don't correlate is largely irrelevent. A surrogate outcome is NOT measuring the actual desired objective, it's measuring something else and then claiming that because this is positive then it follows that the real outcome must also be positive.
It doesn't follow. Exams test exam passing ability. They test how well the students have been coached to produce the answers that the exam board expects.
And we need to accept that this is the case and, if we can, find a better way of doing things, or at least a better exam design, or any decisions and policy we make based on our results will be fundamentally flawed.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Instinctive body language?

Is body language so instinctive that we can't help ourselves, even when no one is watching?
I ask because yesterday on the Metro I sat opposite to someone who was speaking to a friend on a hands-free telephone headset. He was making exactly the same kind of gestures that he would make if he were in a lively face-to-face conversation. It was fascinating to watch. As he said "look, this is how I see it" he had the arms apart, palms up gesture, as he said "I suppose" so he shrugged. He nodded and shook his head. He raised his eyes to the roof. At one stage he even pointed his finger at the imaginary chest of his unseen partner.
I have always thought that body language is at least partly feedback driven, we react according to how the people we are with react but it looks as if some people react whether or not there is anyone there to provide the feedback.
I wonder if anyone has ever done any research into this.


The Wright Stuff, a daily discussion program in the UK, has really surpassed itself today. An assertion, meant to be humorous, that the heaviest bobsleigh team should always win because they fall faster merely shows a basic misunderstanding of physics. An assertion that thinking good thoughts makes good things happen and that this is a "real science not something I just made up" shows that quasi-religious superstitious beliefs are alive and well.
However the main thing was a discussion of that old favourite, homoeopathy, and specifically of whether or not it should be available funded by the NHS.
This started with what I find a rather startling statistical claim, that 80% of GPs believe it shouldn't be funded. Only 80%. Who are these other 20% who believe it should be? I want to know if my GP is one of them so that I can change to another, more rational, GP, if he is.
Following on from this the panel are happily promoting this nonsense, with streams of anecdotal evidence. There are occasional nods towards rationality with references to "if people believe it works" but on the whole it's a whole program of "my grandmother's asthma was cured by homoeopathy". It's dispiriting stuff.
Caller after caller is promoting alternate therapies and suggesting that far from having less money spent on it we should divert a far higher proportion of the NHS budget to it. The old canard of "evil pharmaceutical companies" versus "natural remedies" is trotted out regularly.
The current caller wants to scrap all the hospitals because "they are not there to heal people, they are there to make money". She wants to replace them with "holistic health centres" because everything, even cancer, will "cure itself" if people just believe and lead a spiritual life.
Every single caller and every member of the panel has had a "homoeopathy has helped me/ my grandmother/ my nephew/ my cat" tale to tell.
The only critical thing at all was from the host himself who referred to a friend who contracted malaria because he was taking homoeopathic anti-malarial pills instead of ones that actually do anything. But even the host has insisted throughout as referring to it as "taking very small amounts" of a drug. He isn't a stupid man so he must know that "very small amounts" here means "none", that the dilution levels go billions of times past the Avogadro limit and so leave no molecules at all of the original substance.
Another panellist has trotted out the "science doesn't know everything" line. They have consistently referred to the treatments as "not proven to work" rather than the more accurate "proven not to work". One of them has actually, in the same week that we have had this story , happily promoted Chinese medicine as being as valid as western medicine.

This stream of uncritical belief in fairy tales is depressing.
And now I'm so depressed I think I'll go away and take a homoeopathic suicide pill. Much good may it do me.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Alan Partridge Lives!

A news story that passed me by this week until it was mentioned on a new panel show this evening, was this.
Apparently I was wrong when I thought that "Deal or No Deal", thirty minutes of people choosing random numbers, was the absolute nadir for television quiz shows. Now Noel Edmonds has thought of a whole new level, a quiz show where the quizmaster is a monkey. The proposed title of the show (which hasn't actually been commissioned, but it's surely just a matter of time) is "Beat The Monkey", an unfortunate choice that was only emphasised by a slip by Victoria Coren, a panelist on the show where I heard about it, who referred to it as "Spank The Monkey".

I'll bet that when Steve Coogan had Alan Partridge desperately pitch the idea of Monkey Tennis to an unsympathetic executive he had no idea that his joke would soon seem sane by comparison to the ideas they really come up with.

It was a favour after all

In a way the decision of the chains to go head to head with Disney over Alice in Wonderland has done me a favour. I know that Cineworld has now backed down and said they will show it but it's too late, I've decided that as there is an IMAX cinema about fifteen minutes walk from my work I will go to the opening day showing at three O'clock - I finish early on Fridays. I've booked my ticket and I shall be there at least an hour before it starts to try to get a good seat.
This will be the first of this latest generation of 3D films that I've seen, though a long time ago I saw an IMAX presentation of an underwater documentary.

Good Science makes Bad Sound Bites

There's an advertisement running on TV at the moment for a loan company. In it someone wants to borrow £70 for five days and is told it will only cost him £9.20. So he can get the £70 today and five days later he can pay back £79.20. It's pretty clear and it's up to the student whether he borrows it or not. Less clear, though stated in the print at the bottom of the screen, is that this equates to an annual percentage rate of 2689%. So if he doesn't pay back his £70 for a year it will have become £1882. After two years it would be more than £50,000. Of course it's very unlikely that the loan company wouldn't intervene rather more quickly than that.

This is an example of how language can be used to hide mathematical facts. It's actually rather unusual in that an absolute figure is being used to hide a percentage. Much more common is the other way round, especially in the press and even more especially in reporting of science.
We routinely see instances in the press of quoted figures along the lines of "eating x causes a 25% higher risk of cancer"* and this, as it is stated, is entirely meaningless. The figures are usually abstracted from scientific papers which have details of exactly what the quoted figure means and how it was derived but the newspapers very rarely bother with that because good science doesn't make for good sound bites.
What they do when quoting statistics like this is use the "relative risk increase" which is a very misleading figure. What they need to do is quote the "absolute risk" or the "absolute risk increase".

In the example above 25% sounds quite dramatic but if the sample size was 1000 and in the population not eating X four developed cancer while in the sample eating X five did then the absolute risk has has gone from 0.4% to 0.5% an "absolute risk increase" of 0.1%, or one in a thousand, which isn't even statistically significant compared to the background level.

This 0.1% is EXACTLY the same information as the previous 25% but described using a much less dramatic, and much more easily understood, figure. Words and mathematics sometimes make very uneasy bedfellows, especially when mediated by the people with a vested interest - be it the vested interest of a loan company wanting to make money or a journalist wanting to sell papers.

(*Incidentally I chose this example because one of the books I read , Ben Goldacre's excellent Bad Science, suggested facetiously that the newspapers are engaged in a process of dividing every substance on Earth into two groups - ones that cause cancer and ones that cure it, in the case of at least one of our National papers in the UK we get an X causes/cures cancer story, pretty well every week.)

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Tourist choreography

The Observer this week had a travel article about North Korea, a surprise piece as journalists are not usually allowed into the country. What it showed me, as someone who has been there, was just how thoroughly choreographed travel in that country actually is. Apart from our cock-up at the airport - a problem down to Beijing sending our luggage to the wrong country, rather than any Korean difficulty - Carole Cadwalladr's trip was, from her description, identical in every way to mine. The visit to the Mausoleum was the same. So were the trips to the Friendship Exhibition and the Demilitarized Zone. Even the surreal stop at the services on the otherwise empty motorway was the same.
I'm willing to bet that the Miss Kim who showed her around was the very same Miss Kim who showed us around, a charming and accomplished guide, and that their cameraman was the same tall, silent and rather spooky cameraman who glided in and out of our tour.
There can be no other place on Earth where your travel routine is so utterly fixed and undeviating. One thing in the article that I did disagree with was whether or not the adulation given to Great and Dear Leaders is entirely genuine. I agree it looks that way, and if I were a DPRK citizen mine would look that way too. I didn't get the impression that it would be a terribly safe place to look any other way. She also seems to have regarded the occasional glimpse of rural life (from a bus passing by very quickly) as quaint, but to me it looked like the very meagrest of subsistance farming.
Of course she is a journalist and I'm not so she may well simply be sticking to the agreed line to avoid making travel to the country even more difficult, whereas I was a normal tourist who happens to enjoy sharing his travel experiences.

Didn't affect me though. Duh.

Half-term this week and what does that mean? Right! Daytime television, is what it means.
Right now I have on a discussion show and they are earnestly considering the question of whether Ouija boards are bad. Apparently one of the toy companies is producing them again and marketing them, shock-horror, at children.
What's amusing and sad at the same time is that the callers to the show are clearly all in need of professional mental health care.
The first caller had me, as they say on the internet, ROFLMAO. She started off clearly stating that while she had been heavily into playing with her Ouija board as a child it hadn't affected her in any way. Now, though, she was implacably opposed to them because since joining the Spiritualist movement she had learned about the evil dangers they pose.
Er... run that by me again. You were into Ouija boards as a child and grew up to join the Spiritualist movement. While it's not actually evidence of causality it's certainly correlation. Of course this was a thought that didn't seem to have occurred to her.
Another caller claimed that her childish experiments with a Ouija board had led first of all to the glass flying around the room and smashing and subsequently to hauntings, poltergeist activity, possessions, doppelgangers and so on and had ultimately needed priestly intervention to exorcise the family home. Given that she seemed to believe everything she was saying, I'd say that if she hasn't already sought professional help, by which I mean psychiatric rather than religious, it's probably time she considered it.

For what its worth, now that I've stopped laughing (and I know that laughter and ridicule aren't actually the appropriate responses here), I'm opposed to Ouija boards too. They clearly have a detrimental effect on the mental health and stability of some people who use them . I shouldn't have laughed at either of those two women. It's actually sad not funny. Encouraging irrational beliefs seems to me not to be a good idea.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Ongoing: Valentine's Day Bonus

A little bonus poem not based on one of the pictures in the book. I'll write it inside the cover somewhere.

Who says it takes two to play?
I sent myself a card today.
The one from last year's in the drawer
And next year I will send one more.
If it wasn't for my well-known thrift
I'd buy myself a little gift.
But though my own card will suffice,
Someone else's would be nice.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Ongoing #21

Back to the regular sequence for the next one.

First a brief word for anyone stumbling across this post without having read any earlier ones. Among the other things on this blog I am writing a series of poems each of which is inspired by one of the doodles in a book I bought where there are various half-drawn pictures for you to complete.
The latest doodle shows a Japanese looking girl flying a dragon kite.

Even for the very few regular readers there is additional backstory involved in this poem. I have a poem I wrote a long time ago called "Dragon Fight". It was about a morning in Oludeniz where I sat on the beach watching two hang-gliders above the sea.

This is a sequel. Of sorts.

Dragon Fight 2

I once saw dragons fighting in the sky.
I watched them soar and dive, I watched them die,
And when they lay, dismembered, on the sand
I shook my head, rose to my feet, and turned and walked inland.

I carried with me memories of the fray,
Though the magic of the moment drained away
And my world became, again, mundane
But even now, I close my eyes, and see the dragons rise again.

Curiouser and curiouser

The adaptations of Alice keep on coming.
Today I bought the DVD of Malice In Wonderland, a film starring Danny Dyer and Maggie Grace.
It's quite a difficult one to describe but I'd have to say it's among the more off-the-wall adaptations. From the box I was expecting a gangster flick connected loosely, perhaps in the manner of a homage, to the Alice story. What I got was an out-and-out adaptation, a dark and surreal adaptation, to be sure,but it's far more Alice than crime thriller.
The story is filled with weird and rather sleazy characters, all variants on the familiar Wonderland cast. The outside world, non-wonderland, story makes little sense but not as little as the inside world Wonderland makes. It manages to be both dark and gloomy and colourful at the same time - like an abandoned fairground at night, with all the rides running but no customers: a scene which is in fact partially mirrored by one in the movie.
It's rather difficult to decide on who exactly the target audience for this film is, though. It's too weird and too incoherent for a mainstream audience, far too adult (with it's drug use and fetishism) for a general audience, far too far from it's source material for most fans of the book.
It's unlikely to have any kind of widespread appeal. I'm not even sure if I liked it or not.
I'm going to have to watch it again to even try to decide.

Friday, 12 February 2010

They can't do this to me!

Apparently Disney want to shorten the gap between the cinema and DVD releases of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland fro 17 to 12 weeks. The three biggest cinema chains in the UK - Odeon, Vue and Cineworld say that if Disney don't change their corporate mind they will not show the film. Between them these three chains have 95% of the UK's 3D screens. It might prove impossible for me to find a 3D screening, or indeed any screening at all.

Let's hope somewhere along the line sanit prevails.

Sunday, 7 February 2010


The "Downfall" meme is rather old nowadays but this one appealed at the moment.
Can't think why.

Recycling again

I accidentally clicked on the link to my original blog - the one with a bare handful of posts scattered over a couple of years. I read them again. One of them was about how I hadn't posted much. Well, about "time" really, and about perceptions of time. I thought I'd update and rehash it here (and correct some of the more egregious typos.)

I had originally intended it to be a weekly blog of about a thousand words. A thousand words ? Once a week ? About travel ?
Piece of cake. After all I'd done it before - I used to write a newspaper column with exactly that brief. It didn't prove to be as easy as I'd thought it would to get down to it though. Time was the problem, and sometimes nowadays it still is - though my post count on this blog is phenomenal by comparison. There's always something else that has to be done, something with a more urgent command of my time. Back then there was work. I had started a new career ,teaching, a year earlier and I'd never been as happy in a job, but it took my time. Right now there is also work. I'm a lot more experienced now and orders of magnitude faster at finding resources and planning lessons but it still takes time - and this week is Ofsted so recently it's taken even more time. Then there's my other writing. I may be an infrequent attendee at my writers' group now, but I do post on various boards and spend an inordinate amount of time penning poems and travel items, mostly for my own amusement. Then there's my social life. It may not be MUCH of a social life but I really wouldn't like the life of a starving recluse penning his magnum opus in a lonely garret.
Yes time is the problem.
What, I hope you are asking, does all this have to do with travel. Quite a lot actually because if ever there is a circumstance where time becomes a real problem it's on a one week holiday in an interesting place. Now I know that for some people a holiday is a week lying on a beach or getting hammered in a bar but that isn't me. I like to be doing things.
Take the trip I made to Catalonia. I started that trip in Barcelona. I arrived at my hotel at lunch time on Saturday and took the three O'clock train out on Monday. In between I even managed a trip out to Montserrat.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and with its benefit maybe I'd have been better not doing that trip. There was such a long list of things I wanted to do in Barcelona, and in fact I managed to achieve almost none of it. Second on the list was to spend time looking at the Gaudi architecture for which the city is famous. Well I did spend half a morning at Segrada Familia but as for the rest, many of which are even more interesting, I took pictures whenever I walked past but took no time to explore. Number one on my list, I confess, was too important to treat so superficially - the Museo Picasso. It was one of the main reasons for my visit to the city so having whizzed round the cathedral in an hour and a half I spent the rest of the day at this fine gallery. Even so, I was a little rushed as there was the unexpected bonus of an additional exhibition of Picasso caricatures.
That was it for Barcelona though - from a list of a dozen things to see and do, two crossed off. One and a half really.
You see the problem. Time.

On the long trips time takes on a stranger role - though sometimes as tyrannical. When you are stuck somewhere - seven weeks in Ecuador for example - then time ceases to be meaningful in any real sense. You can potter and amble where otherwise you might sprint and stride. You can sit for a day at a sidewalk cafe fending off the postcard vendors and drinking beer. You can lose yourself in Quito's labyrinthine and exhausting old town streets.
Then suddenly you have to move on. There's a fixed time for your bus to be leaving and you have allowed yourself to become settled in the hostel, allowed your rucksack to become unpacked.
Aware of your neglect time gets its own back by making your last sight of the city you are leaving a jumbled profusion of rushing and dashing and panic.
There is a duality to the way time behaves when your plans involve fifteen countries and nine months stretching out around you. In the big picture it seems unimportant. After all what does it matter if you cross into another country tomorrow or in two days time.
If you are stuck for an extra week in Rawalpindi while the officials at the Chinese embassy throw every possible obstacle in the way of the visas you will need next month then so be it. Have a weekend in the mountains, get out of the city and relax.
If you are temporarily stranded in Quito awaiting the arrival of others from your group then catch the bus out to Otovalo, spend a day visiting the cattle market or the huge open market that fills the city streets. Never mind that you have no use for a cow, however cheap, or a bolt of brightly coloured silk that an ox couldn't carry. It doesn't matter because at that level time doesn't matter.
Just keep in the back of your mind though a small clock ticking so that time doesn't jump out from some dark corner one morning and surprise you with a bus or train timetable that says you are leaving in an hour - better get your skates on with the packing.

And now time is against me again. I need to get back to doing some work for the inspection - though I've done most of it already - and ensure that I don't do too miserably if I get observed.

It was my habit in that old blog to finish every entry with a poem. This one was finished with one I wrote when I was about twenty. It wasn’t very good, but, for what it’s worth, here it is again. It’s about time - specifically about Wednesday.


Wednesday was a slow day
even by my standards
of self-indulgent indolence.
The painting-by-numbers
regimented routine,
the dull and empty silence
did not vary.
No worrying tremors shook
the waiting seismograph
of my inattention.
No dark, pock-marked sunspots
disturbed my shining face
with apprehension
or made me wary.

I spent the whole morning
solving the crossword clues
folded flat on my desk.
C , four blanks, ION,
"the unkindest cut of all".
A simple clue or simple truth -
Though I’d say both.
In the afternoon I stared
with gaping goldfish mouth
and alligator eyes
at the girl in the black sweater
whose captive bosom bounced
and with every breath and sigh
disturbed my sloth.

Ongoing 20: She Isn't There

This is probably more of a song lyric than a poem, and it's a bit of a cheat in other ways too. I composed it in my head on the metro on the way to work. I wrote it down when I got to work. I tidied it up on the metro on the way home. Then I cheated, instead of following the sequence of doodles, as I have been doing so far, I skipped ahead in the doodles book to find one where it would fit. The one I found has a small drawing of Nelson in the bottom corner with a telescope to his eye looking at a blank page and saying "I see no ships."
So this poem wasn't inspired by the doodle but what the hell, it fits and I made the rules so I can break them.

She isn't there

From the corner of my eye
I thought I saw her passing by.
It should have come as no surprise
To turn my head and realise
She wasn't there.
In my dreams, I've often seen
The way I think things should have been
But as soon as morning breaks
I wake remembering my mistakes.
She isn't there.
Everything brings her to me
I see her face in every tree.
She's somewhere in every crowd
And her form's in every cloud.
But she isn't there.
I remember all we said
And where our darkest moments led.
The anger driving us apart
Was a stake through both our hearts.
She isn't there.
The last day that we spent
Had begun with good intent,
A pleasant walk beside the lake:
Who could know the turn we'd take.
She isn't there.
And then she was no more.
I was alone upon the shore
And the lake was dark and cold
And mute, it's tale untold.
She wasn't there.
I sometimes stand and look upon
The water where my love has gone.
Passing strangers stare at me.
They do not know, they cannot see.
She isn't there.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Ongoing 19: Five dreams of travel

The next doodle is of dreamcatchers.


Sometimes I dream of being somewhere else - and not always when I'm asleep. I dream places I have been, places I haven't been and places that do not exist outside the pages of books or the corners of my imagination. When I wake up I lie still, willing myself to be in a warm sleeping bag in a cold morning on the hard ground in the distant mountains. And then I open my eyes in my own bedroom.
And then I write.

Five Dreams of Travel

1. Iguassu

Below I hear the thunder roar,
While in the sky I turn and soar,
Become the spirit of the air
Escape the Gods of Water's Lair.

2. Peru

The morning mists that hide the view
Have filled the world with silence too,
But here and there the cover breaks
And ancient Machu Picchu takes
The centre stage in my mind's eye.
I, from the Sun Gate, watch and sigh.

3. Bryce Canyon

The world is full of twisted spires
In hues of roses, berries, fires.
The path I tread that weaves between
The maze-like walls, the deep ravine,
Is lit by random fractured light -
Here dark, there light, here dark, there light.
The canyon's rocks like dancers stand
In frozen stately saraband.

4. Philippines

A fire is set upon the sand
And in the dark she holds my hand.
I want to turn to see here face,
But time has fixed me in my place.

5. China

The boat is long and low and wide,
The water grey and slow: we glide
Through mountains mirrored low and high
Upon the river that holds the sky.


1. I walked on the wooden paths that they have built in the safer parts of the falls, I approached the thundering cataract in a boat, I descended through the trees on the tracks to approach the base where the noise made all thought of speech impossible and the spray soaked me to the skin in the space of a single heartbeat - but best of all I flew high above the the falls in a helicopter and saw them in all their glory, as if a Titan's axe had been smashed into the ground and then lifted to leave a raw and gaping wound in the planets side.

2. We reached the Sun Gate before dawn, hiking up the last few kilometres of the Inca trail in the dark. We stood, breathless and eager, and waited for the dawn. Mist covered the ruins, stole the view and deadened all sound. Here and there, now and again, it parted, gave a tantalising view of the ruins and I imagined them as they might have been, covered in gold, full of the buzz of a living city waking to a new day.

3. A row of rocks that looked like musicians turned to stone lined the rim of Bryce Canyon. Turning around I saw another that looked for all the world like a pedestal with a civic statue of Queen Victoria. Everything was in shades of red, everything looked like roses or berries or fire. The path was smooth and flat and even and took me through an alien landscape, through a Martian wonderland. Or perhaps, as the morning sun turned the twisted rock to flames, the road to hell.

4. In the distance there was a fire on the sand and people trying to celebrate the new year with fireworks. We sat at the end of the beach on a log and held hands in silence. There was the soft lapping sound of the waves, the faint rustle of the trees behind us. And now, even in the dreams, I am almost unable to recall her face. Perhaps I will have the dream again and be able to turn to see her. Or perhaps not.

5. The Karst scenery rose all around us like the molehills of the gods. The water was slow as the boat drifted along the surface. I played counting games with a Chinese girl who knew only the numbers in English. The water was a perfect reflection of the mountains and the sky. Cormorant fisherman watched from the shallows, villagers watched from the shore. We watched them watching us.

Would you like sugar with that?

Today's Calvin And Hobbes strip reminded me that there is a game you can play when you eat out in America. The concept is really easy but it’s almost impossible to win. The idea is to order your food without the waitress asking you a single question. I had been in America for a couple of weeks but hadn't eaten out much and I wasn’t up to speed on it yet so I approached the counter and asked,
“A coffee and a Bacon Lettuce and Tomato sandwich please.”
Without looking up the waitress asked,
“Wheat, white or rye?”
Nonplussed I paused and when she looked up at the delay I asked for wheat.
She nodded and wrote it down.
“Miracle whip or mayo?”
I was getting the hang of it now and unhesitatingly asked for mayo.
“Toasted or plain?”
“And would you like latte, mocha, espresso or regular?”
Unfazed by the switch to discussing my coffee requirements I went for the Latte.
“Small, regular or large?”
“With or without sugar?”
“Cream, milk, non dairy creamer or black?”
“With milk please”.

Clearly I should have asked for ‘an untoasted BLT sandwich on wheat bread with mayonnaise and a large Latte coffee with milk but no sugar.”
If I had then it’s a sure bet that she would have come back with
“Will that be cash or charge?”

(This annecdote can be found in my other blog where I posted my entire unpublished book about my travels in North and South America.)