Thursday, April 30, 2009

pic of the day - scaffolding

There's nothing quite like the frantic rush to do some or other last minute thing for school tomorrow, is there? Our younger son went to see a show with a school group as part of his drama curriculum. When we picked him up, we learned that his art teacher told him today that he has to produce pictures of scaffolding by tomorrow or get a yellow card.

Fortunately we had to pass several scaffolding installations on our way home, and fortunately I take my camera with me everywhere, so we manage to procure a few pics.

However, scaffolding in the dark might be quite what she was after, so we had to hit Morguefile when we got home. There was no stipulation that the photos had to have been taken by him. We also threw into the mix the photo I took of St Pancras earlier this year.

Surely that must be enough?

If not, tough. I'm not having my son working on homework at this time of the night. Until his 16th birthday he still has a bed time, and that was some time ago.

Taking a stand for education

A very brave little girl called Rekha in India (and she is just a little girl, which is what makes this story so hard for a westerner to relate to) has refused to get married, as her parents have instructed her. When her parents didn't take her refusal seriously, she sought help and support from government officials.

She wants to get an education.

While we're debating whether this or that model of education is relevant in today's world (and I'm not suggesting that that debate should stop), this girl is choosing an education - whatever education is on offer - over pre-teen marriage.

It must take huge courage to go against your culture and tradition in this fashion. And she has set a precedent. Several other girls have followed her lead. Choosing the empowerment that comes with education. No doubt, to the adults of that culture, this is seen as a breaking down of their traditions, their society. No doubt they are saying things like "This is how it was done for me, and it never did me any harm..." It's not an easy situation, and it isn't black and white.

Rekha has now decided that she wants to become a teacher, demonstrating how highly she values education. In what she probably considers a rather extreme stance, she has declared that she won't get married until she is at least 18.

Oh the irony!

So Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet drove his sports car into a ditch. Unhurt - and no doubt deeply relieved that this was the case - he stepped out of the car...

...and hurt his foot!

Several years ago, I was driving on a dirt road when I hit a patch of loose sand and lost control of the car. The car went nose first over the edge of a ravine and rolled several times on different axes before ending up on its wheels 25 metres down, with its nose pointing back up towards the road, as if it had every intention of going back there for another try.

The car was pretty much cylindrical by this time. Every window was shattered. The mirrors had come off. My luggage was strewn all over the place. The box of 3.5" floppies I had had on the back seat had landed in a small thorn tree, which now looked as if it bore rather odd fruit. It honestly looked as if no-one could possibly have survived the crash. I was completely unharmed. I kid you not. I didn't even have stiff muscles the next day.


When I tried to climb back up out of the ravine, I slipped and wrenched my knee. Note to self: remove high-heeled shoes before imitating a mountain goat.

There seems to be some danger in "Phew!"Apparently more people die during the descent from Everest than the ascent.

Perhaps there's the big adrenalin rush to deal with the critical event, and in the aftermath, we're most vulnerable. Although I'm not sure that adrenalin rush is quite the word associated with the long, arduous climb up the highest mountain on earth!

I wonder if this is a known factor, for example, in combat situations, and whether the training addresses it.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

pic of the day - clematis

This time of the year in the UK is when we find out why we put up with clematis the rest of the year, when its appearance ranges from shabby to utterly unsightly. Just look at this glorious sight!

And just to share a chuckle...

As evidence that a current ad campaign in the UK is raising awareness... after a fashion. An elderly lady was recently overheard to say that she had a beautiful chlamydia all over one side of her house.

Midweek smile

In the UK, Wednesday is often referred to as 'hump day'. To my ears, that sounds rather rude. In South Africa, it is known as 'klein Saterdag' [clayn sah-ter-dugh] which means 'little Saturday'. I think I prefer that.

Whatever the case, here is a midweek smile for you, courtesy of Bill over at EV Living. What if operating systems were airlines?

UNIX Airways
Everyone brings one piece of the plane along when they come to the airport. They all go out on the runway and put the plane together piece by piece, arguing non-stop about what kind of plane they are supposed to be building.

Everybody pushes the airplane until it glides, then they jump on and let the plane coast until it hits the ground again. Then they push again, jump on again, and so on …

Mac Airlines
All the stewards, captains, baggage handlers, and ticket agents look and act exactly the same. Every time you ask questions about details, you are gently but firmly told that you don’t need to know, don’t want to know, and everything will be done for you without your ever having to know, so just shut up.

Windows Air
The terminal is pretty and colorful, with friendly stewards, easy baggage check and boarding, and a smooth take-off. After about 10 minutes in the air, the plane explodes with no warning whatsoever.

Windows Vista Air
Just like Windows Air, but costs more, uses much bigger planes, and takes out all the other aircraft within a 40-mile radius when it explodes.

Linux Air
Disgruntled employees of all the other OS airlines decide to start their own airline. They build the planes, ticket counters, and pave the runways themselves. They charge a small fee to cover the cost of printing the ticket, but you can also download and print the ticket yourself. When you board the plane, you are given a seat, four bolts, a wrench and a copy of the seat-HOWTO.html. Once settled, the fully adjustable seat is very comfortable, the plane leaves and arrives on time without a single problem, the in-flight meal is wonderful. You try to tell customers of the other airlines about the great trip, but all they can say is, “You had to do what with the seat?”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On accents

I was listening to a radio programme today about a BBC project called Voices. In it, they touched on the fact that some of the subjects in the project chose to leave behind their regional accents when they went to university, saying that in order to be perceived as educated, they needed to dissociate themselves from that pattern of speech.

On a previous project, I worked with audio clips from people in what is known as the Black Country. The accents and dialects of this area tend to be treated with scorn, and there was concern as to whether the clips would be suitable because of the accents of the speakers.

During my short stint as a drama teacher, I was faced with a dilemma. It was during the days of apartheid and I was the first white teacher at what was primarily an Indian (as in Asian Indian) dance and drama school. Some of the parents were resentful of my presence. Others would try to wangle it so that their children came to my classes. Then they would take me to one side and ask me to teach their children to speak without an Indian accent and, in so doing, open up a whole vista of new opportunities for them.

Elocution lessons were a thing of the past by then. My own drama school had long since dropped them from the curriculum. While we were taught to adopt other accents for roles which required them, we were not taught to lose our own accents in everyday life. These were considered integral to who we were. I supported this view.

But how (at the age of 19) do you say no to a parent who is paying a fair amount of money to send their child to you for drama lessons? One parent asked me to rid their child of a stutter. This was outside of my remit, but no more so than overriding the culturual influences of a lifetime, albeit a short one. (Side note: while I did not rid him of his stutter in daily life, we found ways for him to lose it on stage... but that is another story)

I have lived int he UK for 10 years. I am still unmistakably South African from the moment I open my mouth. Ron Lubensky has been in Australia twice as long, and yet his accent identifies him as Canadian... to those with a fine enough ear not to mistake it for American.

I love the fact that, during the after-service tea on a Sunday, I can hear a different accent every few paces (although, to be honest all our children sound pretty much the same). It represents such a rich diversity of cultures, perspectives and backgrounds. It saddens me that people feel pressured to lose their accents to get ahead, or to be perceived with greater respect.

Food for thought

On the aforementioned trip to Oxford today, I came across this poster on the door in the loo (er.. bathroom). No, I hadn't taken my camera in there with me - although that wouldn't be the weirdest place I have taken it. I took this picture with my phone. In case you can't read it, it says:

If your home has something other than a dirt floor, you are in the top half of the world's population
If your home has a roof, a door, windows and more than one room, you are in the top 20%
If you have refrigeration, you are in the top 5%
If you have a car, a microwave, a video, a computer and this toilet has a cubicle door, then you are in the top 1%.
At the bottom is a Mahatma Ghandi quote: "We must be the change we want to see in the world"

I'm assuming that, although it isn't mentioned, this top x% refers to material wealth. There's a lot that could be said about the chosen wording, in spite of which, this is a sobering way of representing this data.

pic of the day - Oxford

Today I had a meeting with my dissertation supervisor. This meant a trip to Oxford and back. Initially, we had these meetings via Skype, but I was such a jibbering wreck for a while that it seemed better to go the f2f route... at least for a while. It's very ungreen, but the drive gives me time to listen to BBC radio 4 (a talk radio programme, which my family will not countenance). Today - among other things - I heard Salman Rushdie doing a critical analysis of The Wizard of Oz. I kid you not!

Monday, April 27, 2009

pic of the day - *&%$ boiler!

Blooming thing's on the fritz. We can get heat through the central heating radiators, but no hot water through the taps. Of course the plumber didn't come when he said he would. However, when I described the problem, he was pretty certain that the diversion valve was knackered. That sounds about right, so I gave him the make and model details so that he could order it and hit the ground running when he arrives.

His response (and I kid you not) was to suck his teeth and tell me that that kind of boiler is at least 15-20 years old. Considering that the boiler is in a part of the house that was only built 3 years ago, this seems highly unlikely.

Fortunately, in the boys' bathroom, there is an electric shower which is still running hot, so we are at least able to stay clean, you will be pleased to learn.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

On sanctuary

An incident which occurred during our morning service today reminded me of a scene in the animated movie of the Hunchback of Notre Dame where someone (I think it was Esmeralda) bangs on the door of the church and calls for sanctuary. Once the doors have been opened to her, sanctuary is assured. No-one would dare defile the house of God.

Our own church is attended by a few homeless people. During the morning service, three local gang members barged in and started demanding money from one such couple (I'm not even going to speculate what it was for). Fortunately no mention was made of weapons, and the community worker who supports the homeless couple was on hand to take the matter outside and mediate. Few people in the service were even aware of what had happened.

Of course, far worse things have happened. In 1993, many people we knew were present when terrorists invaded a church service with grenades and automatic weapons. Eleven people were killed and many others were maimed. While yesterday's event was nowhere near the scale of the event at St James church in Cape Town nearly 16 years ago, it still left me feeling unnerved.

Mosques, churches and temples all over the world have been violently attacked over the years.

Of course, I am not about to stop attending the meetings because of incidents like this. I believe with all my heart that the doors of the church should be open to one and all. This includes both perpetrator and victim. One Salvation Army officer puts it something like this: If the ladies of your church can safely leave their handbags on the chairs while they drink their after-meeting tea, the church is not doing its job.

I have been thinking about sanctuary since I learned about the incident this morning.

When I was a child shuttling between my exciting, flamboyant Dad and my unexciting, dependable Mom. I used to feel a pang of such disappointment as I left my Dad. My Mom was so 'boring'. But, as the plane landed in our home town, I was more than ready to be home. My Mom was also safe. She was my sanctuary, even thought she worked full time, the home she provided me was my safe place to which I could retreat. The excitement of my Dad's life lacked peace and security.

Today, I have a home of my own, where I can close the door behind me. But electronic media allow into my sanctuary hate-filled communications from people who detest and despise everything I am and everything I stand for. The same is true for my children. My home is not the haven to my children that my mother's was to me.

Increasingly it seems that sanctuary is about people and situations rather than in places. No place is sacrosanct any more.

We try to be our children's sanctuary by being the people they run to when it all gets too much. We try to be a sanctuary for hurting friends and relatives, so that they can withdraw for a while and regroup. I find my own sanctuary in prayer, where I feel as if I am climbing into the mightiest lap in the universe and taking shelter. I also find sanctuary in the people who know me well enough that I don't have to pretend with them. I find sanctuary in the unexpected emails and private tweets/Facebook messages from friends in this space who take it upon themselves to affirm me without feeling the need to let the whole world know that they are doing so. I find sanctuary in the public hugs I get from my teenage sons, and in their explosively angry responses to anyone who appears to be trying to threaten me. I find sanctuary in the look in my husband's eyes when I am dishevelled, unlovely and suffering from a severe-case of morning-breath.

And what about our homeless couple? Where is their safe place? They have no home to retreat to. They will get moved on from any of the places they try to find shelter. They are vulnerable to the gangs and the dealers out on the streets. The council has refused to provide them with shelter.

As far as I know, someone in the church has provided them with a place to stay. I don't know if they have accepted the offer. When I arrive at the church building on a Sunday morning, they are always already on the lawn, with several bags. Because people in the church treat them with kindness, it must have seemed like a sanctuary to them... until yesterday.

And what has this got to do with learning? Well, think about the kid who is being bullied at school. The kid who comes from an abusive home. How is this poor child ever supposed to be in a frame of mind conducive to learning? If his entire mental capacity is absorbed with staying safe, there is none left over for learning.

My elder son's learning journey has been very bumpy recently thanks to victimisation at school. Things are improving, though, as he begins to identify some allies, assisted by a sanctuary-wielding teacher, who reports a marked improvement in his entire demeanour.

I know there is a limit to what schools - as organisations, and teachers - as individuals, can do for children at risk. And I would be the last one to try to lay an extra burden on them, when they already seem to be expected to shoulder an increasing portion of what used to be a parental burden. So please don't think that I am suggesting that route. However, by keeping our antennae up, I believe we can make a difference.

pic of the day - pamper time

The recent marked (and unexpected) improvement in my mobility has meant I have been able to reinstate my Sunday night ritual of a DIY pedicure. Neglected looking feet give me the heeby-jeebies.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

pic of the day - snug as a bug

We have a wonderful deck in our back garden. We also have a wonderful gas patio heater and several deliciously soft blankets for the express purpose of facilitating outdoor living. I took full advantage tonight, as my husband took care of an impromptu barbecue. Bliss.

One of my boys secured evidence.

On being a photographer... or not

Because of my pic of the day project, I tend to go everywhere with my large camera slung around my neck. Yes, I have an iPhone with a built in camera. I also have a teeny tiny camcorder which takes still shots. But I like my camera. It's nothing fancy, it's a Kodak EasyShareDX6490.

Because I walk my dog at roughly the same time every day, I encounter the same people regularly. And, in their English way, they went from walking past me, to acknowledging me, to greeting me, to asking me, "Are you a photographer?"

Well? Am I?

When I was chatting to some people about my early memories a few days ago, one said, "You should be a writer."

Well? Aren't I?

After all, I write this blog, as well as magazine articles and the occasional academic paper.

Do you have to earn your living at something to call yourself that thing? I guess not. But I'm pretty sure that's what most people think you mean. For example, I used to know a rather eccentric woman who referred to herself as a writer and a dancer. She wrote what I considered atrocious poetry and letters to magazine editors. And she performed what I regarded as rather graceless dances during worship time in church. It is entirely possible that I was being uncharitable and bitchy, and I don't mean to imply that she should have stopped doing any of those things that so obviously gave her so much pleasure. After all, she should do what she does for her, regardless of what intolerant, narrow people like me might think. Nevertheless, she will serve to illustrate my example. Is she or isn't she a dancer? A poet? A writer?

In the process of taking photos, like Barbara Ganley, I find that I am seeing things differently. That somewhere along the way, I have figured out how to take a halfway decent photo. I love this one, for example:
I notice that my younger son has a quirky way with the camera that I am only just becoing brave enough to try.

There are all sorts of reasons for this, but broadly, his empowerment occurs on two levels.

Firstly, apart from the fact that he probably started out with more natural talent than I have, he has grown up with a lot more 'yes you can' than I did. He has experienced encouragement at every turn and his off-the-wall wackiness has always been treated as a major plus rather than a social no-no, as it was by my own somewhat repressed family.

Secondly, on a more practical level, because he doesn't have to spend money on having his photos developed, there is no risk involved in taking failed photos. There is room for lots of process learning, rather than a purely results-focused approach. The first photos I ever took, I had a 12 exposure film, which I took in to the pharmacy for development. Only three of them were developed. I was so embarrassed when the pharmacist tried to give me some tips (with several other customers within earshot), that I ran out of the store. I felt as if I was being smirked at.

My son has never had to deal with that kind of humiliation. Courtesy of the digital equipment at his disposal, he gets to see his photos immediately and he can decide for himself what might work better. He can try several different approaches and see what works and what doesn't. He has taken so many photos of the sort that people buy from iStock to use in elearning and PowerPoint presos. He took this in a cafe right on the beachfront in Cape Town. See how the damp, salty air has formed a layer on the glass:

I don't know that I consider myself a photographer. But I have taken some pretty decent shots, especially lately.

Have I learnt to be creative? I don't think I would put it that way. I think I would say that I have learned practical skills on the one hand. On the other, I have developed the courage to give expression to creativity that I have always had.

Am I more creative than the next person? I honestly don't know the answer to this question. I know that I am creative-but-not-artistic. Candidly, some of the things I do are considerably better than other people's efforts in the same field. But perhaps they simply need to learn how to express their creativity better. Or perhaps their creativity is better expressed in other media (such as flower-arranging, where I have amply demonstrated my lack of skill).

What I do find is that I look at the world diferently at the moment, and am learning to find picturesqueness (is that even a word) if not beauty in unexpected places.

Friday, April 24, 2009

pic of the day - a thing I can't do

I have occasionally been asked, "Is there anything you can't do?" Of course, there are many things I can't do, but because I don't spend my time doing them, people tend not to know about them. So here is evidence of something I can't do. I can't arrange flowers for toffee!

We had a flower-arranging demo at our ladies' group tonight, and then we each had a go. Mine was without a doubt the worst one there.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

pic of the day - a treasure

Yes, the recipe book is wonderful. It is the work of a woman with a Finnish mother, Greek father and Italian husband who has lived in many countries (yes, including South Africa). I highly recommend it (and the others in the series) and I am delighted to be its new owner. I received it today from a friend.

It's the friend who is the treasure.

On 17 June this year, I will have been in the UK for 10 years. It has taken a long time. It has been a hard road. But I am finally beginning to feel at home.

Part of the reason for this may well be my utter loss of hope for the future of South Africa.

Another significant part is that, for the first time in 10 years, I don't feel like a foreigner in our church. A good third (I'm guessing) of the congregation speaks English with an accent that is not native to these isles. Many of them speak it as a second (third? fourth?) language. With that many 'foreigners' around, there's no room for barriers.

But a very important part is having a good girlfriend to do girlie things with. Especially if that friend takes it into her head to surprise you with gifts like this! ;o)

South African general election

Yesterday, South Africans went to the polls. In stark contrast to the recent American elections, there seems to have been a lack of optimism. Instead, there appears to have been either resigned desperation or angry defiance.

With the count not yet complete, the ANC has 66% of the votes counted thus far, and is likely -once again- to garner the two thirds majority necessary to repeal entrenched clauses in the constitution. Facebook friends are now clutching at straws like:

...the DA has enough seats to be strong opposition, and will very likely win the Western Cape.
I am praying !that there will be enough votes for the DA and Cope to form a coalition and save us from an ANC two thirds majority! Is that a pipe dream?
Breaking news can be found here.

What's your earliest memory?

During a break in yesterday's workshop, a group of us were talking about memory.

I would love to engage Dror one-to-one in discussion about the role of memory in learning, but we don't occupy any of the same spaces. My own view is that he overplays its significance in the light of the tools we now have at our disposal to do our remembering for us. I'm more persuaded of the Siemens/Downes connectivism view that learning is about making connections. Dror appears to use memory tests as an assessment of learning during his research. I'm not so sure about this.

Look at this conversation on my FB status last night and this morning.

As a quick aside, I want to highlight the lovely mix of responses and the fact that social and shared-interest friends are engaging with me and - by extension - each other.

In case it isn't clear, Sharon Clark (who is a social friend with whom I do not ordinarily discuss learning - although this might change!) says:

Knowledge is now defined as knowing where to find information not knowing information. Personally I don't think that is a bad thing. It is impossible to know everything about everything, but if you know where to find what you need to know does it really matter that the information is stored on a server somewhere rather than in your head?

The big problem with the younger generation is that they aren't being taught how to discriminate between dodgy sources of information and good sources.
I could have written those words myself. In fact I have written very similar words on more than one occasion.

But going back to the subject of early memory. Over the years, I have come to realise that my earliest memories go back far further than most. I'm sure we all remember a lot more than we realise and, as Dror would tell us, the problem is not memory, it's retrieval.

I have related some of my early memories to my mother. Situations and conversations I remember with absolute clarity, only to discover that I couldn't even have been three years old at the time.

The common thread for me is senses. One memory involves drinking orange squash out of plastic (Hart, for other South Africans of similar vintage) cups with little handles on the side. I remember that we were standing in the kitchen at the time: my Mom, my Dad and me. The layout of the kitchen is very clear in my mind, as is our relative positions. I asked my mother why her drink was a different colour from mine. I remember her explaining that it just seemed so because the light came through the different coloured cups. I have several other memories of the same period. Not just snapshots, but whole scenes. Every single one centres on a sensory experience. Sight. Sound. Touch. But above all, taste and smell. I remember the smell of creosote on my skin in one situation, the taste of raw sweet potatoes in another, the taste of condensed milk and the smell of the medicine it was disguising when I was being treated for tick-bite fever.

Have I been sub(un?)consciously meta-tagging my experiences all my life with sensory labels? If, as I suspect, I am synaesthetic, this would make perfect sense. Certain sensory experiences bring memories flooding back to me with such clarity that I might as well be back in that moment.

A certain smell always takes me back to being 15 years old and watching Jesus of Nazareth for the first time. I won't go into detail (it's quite gross), but the full intensity of my emotional response to the movie is just an inhalation away - even though my opinion of the movie and my reactions to it have changed dramatically since then.

I'm fairly confident that the role of memory in learning - and life - has laready changed and will continue to change. I wonder if this, in turn, will change the way we remember.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

pic of the day - Itiel Dror

Today I attended a Learning and Skills Group workshop presented by Itiel Dror (pictured here with his brain-in-a-jar).

I find it fascinating learning about the brain, and often wish I could just sit down with the guy and subject him to a barrage of questions. Some of the throwaway statements he makes leave me going "But but but..." But he has usually moved on by then. So much to cover, so little time.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On being an encourager's encourager

If you've been coming here for a while, you'll know that I am committed to being an encourager, enabler, empowerer. It's why I do what I do.

You will also know that I am a complete tigress when it comes to my kids. My view is that, until they are in a position to fight their own battles, their parents are the bottom line, the people on whom they must be able to depend to fight their corner for them. We have fought our kids' corner against ludicrous odds. Sometimes we have won. Sometimes we have lost spectacularly.

The point is that I will take on anyone or anything when it comes to my boys. My husband is nowhere near as combative as I am, but he backs me to the hilt when I take on an opponent he believes to be in the wrong. I play offence. He plays defence. It works. There was even an occasion when he needed me to go to bat for him, when he was in hospital and a series of administrative inefficiencies meant that he was not being discharged. I got him out within two hours. You may not be able to fight city hall, but the day may well come when I die trying! Many people have vowed that the day they need someone to fight their corner, they will make a beeline for me.

Maybe I should have been a civil rights activist or something ;o)

Of course, the boys have to learn to assume the mantel themselves, so, as they grow older, we encourage them to handle more and more on their own. We also accept support and input from other quarters.

And there's a flip side to all of this, which is why I am posting about this today. If you're prepared to challenge any and everyone to a duel when they do your kids wrong, you have got to prepared to make mention of the positive input you get, too.

My beleaguered elder son feels he has one solitary ally at school in the form of one of his maths teachers. Ms Verity. I use her real name simply because I find it so touchingly apt. Ms Truth. She sees exactly what is going on. She is not blinded by the antics of his tormentors. She speaks encouragement into his life all the time. She provides him with targeted worksheets that address his particular weaknesses in the subject. She builds him up at every opportunity.

When the pastoral teacher tried to intervene in the victimisation, things got worse. His mentor nods and says he understands but, according to my son, he clearly doesn't. He has implored me not to phone the man, predicting that I will be fobbed off with platitudes. So it's just us and Ms Verity.

Yesterday, I phoned to thank her for being such a stalwart. We had a wonderful heart to heart. She asked what else she could do, but we decided that to do any more would be to make it obvious that she was doing something. That would probably be no good thing. We discussed potential courses of action. We discussed the primary tormentor's tactics and the best way for my son to deal with her.

So there a few things here: first of all , there is a partnership between school and home - open, frank communication about our shared interest in a hurting young man. Second, there is a tailored approach based on the specifics of the situation. Instead of following the step by step protocol in the manner of the failed attempts by the pastoral support teacher. Third, and most importantly, there is a teacher who is going the extra mile... and a parent who is prepared to commend her for it.

There are real human beings involved in this story. Each of whom has expectations, quirks, strengths and weaknesses. A procedural approach can only go so far before one of those factors causes it to fall apart.

Trying to do things by the book has its limits. I am deeply grateful that Ms Verity has the courage to look past the book, see the human beings involved, and address the situation based on that.

I hope that my phone call yesterday has been encouragement to her to keep on keeping on.

Who will you encourage today?

If the earth were a sandwich

A nice tool from zefrank for kids and adults alike to have a play with. Find out where you would end up if you dug a hole clean through the centre of the earth from where you are now.

We learn that:

  • The British would not wind up in Australia, after all, although I suppose it's not far off
  • It would be the South Americans rather than the USA who would end up in China
  • South Africans would end up in the Pacific between the north west USA and Japan
  • Canadians would end up in the ocean in the region of Antarctica.

Monday, April 20, 2009

LPoD - a horse of a different colour

Having posted a photo of a spotted horse for today's pic of the day, I decided to find out what the proper term was for such a horse. According to this article, it is a leopard appaloosa.

I didn't realise how many different named varieties there were. I'm glad I looked it up, too, because I learnt something else. There is a certain colouration that I have always loved, but I have never known what to call it. No-one I have asked has been able to help me, either - not even horsey people (obviously my description left much to be desired!). But this article tells me that my favourite horse colour is a palomino, closely followed by a buckskin.

pic of the day - horse

I'm scared of horses. Have I mentioned this before? I can't remember.

I think they are magnificent looking beasts, and (when I can bring myself to stroke them) they have the most velvety soft top lips. But I don't usually like to get too close to them - and I very much prefer to have some sort of barrier between them and me.

I can't bear to watch horse-racing, because I can't stand the sight of a pocket sized human being beating the cr*p out of a fine example poetry in motion horse-dom which is already running as fast as it can.

There are some horses in a field near Jessie's 'school'. We even have sessions during which the dogs are expected to behave themselves near horses. I am making huge progress in overcoming my fear and hope to put it behind me (as I have done with sailing and boats in general), but I still have to ask the facilitator to hold Jessie's leash during these sessions, so as not to communicate my fear to her.

I stopped to take a photo of them today on my way home from class. I'm not sure if the fact that this horse is white with small brown spots still qualifies it to be a skewbald.

As I took the shot, the horse shook its head, and I muttered at it for being a bad subject. But looking at the photos now, I like this one the most. There is a vitality to it that the other, more traditional shots lack.

yesterday's pic of the day - tea

Hardly an inspiring shot. Yesterday it was my turn to serve tea at the evening service. The lady who was on with me got there first and laid out the cups. It made me realise how ridiculously nit-picky I am that I noticed that she didn't lay them out the way that I do.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

pic of the day - music, maestro!

For the second night in a row, we went to eat out tonight. Not at a restaurant, but at the home of a friend. John was put in charge of music selection, a role he took on with much gusto!

I recommend... Martin Waddell

If you have/teach very young kids. If you love children's books. If you (or your older children) have an interest in doing some public readings for little kids, please look in on the works of one of my favourite children's authors.

I don't remember what made me think of him, but think of him I did, so here we are.

I confess to being less of a fan of his work for kids old enough to read for themselves. But his work aimed at the sort of audience who consumes their stories at bedtime, snuggled down in the crook of Mom/Dad's arm... well, there are few who compare, in my view.

His stories are loving and gentle and affirming. So much so, that I regularly read the last page with a catch in my throat, to the puzzlement of my wide-eyed sons.

You're probably familiar with some of his work already, even if you don't know it, but here (in no particular order) are some of my favourites:

  • Owl Babies. Three baby owls discuss whether or not they're afraid while their mother is off hunting.
  • The entire Big Bear, Little Bear series, which recounts conversations between Big Bear and little bear. What is so lovely about this is that the relationship between these two, while one assumes them to be parent and child, is not nailed down in such a way as to exclude aunts and uncles, grandparents, godparents and even babysitters.
  • Once There Were Giants. A tender story about the changing perspective involved in being little, becoming big and then producing a little one of one's own.
  • Rosie's Babies. Nothing to do with Rosemary's Baby (although the title may be a knowing wink at parents). A story about becoming an older sibling with the arrival of a new baby.
Let me hasten to add that not all our stories were gentle Waddell types. There were some rather more swashbuckling ones, too - especially when I was making them up! But when I remember reading to my boys, the first author that comes to mind is Waddell.

Reading to our children was one of our most treasured activities. There is nothing quite like being curled up with a sleepy boy whose head smells of baby shampoo, and sharing an adventure with him before he goes to sleep.

Stand by me

This collaboration was recorded asynchronously using several artists from all around the world, who never actually saw each other. What a fantastic metaphor. What a great choice of song.

Later update: here's the trailer to explain the Playing for Change project:

pic of the day - good food, good wine, good company

One of my favourite ways to spend an evening is to have a meal with friends. Tonight, we went to visit a couple who recently went on a trip to Cape Town. Appropriately enough, they served South African wine with the meal. I'm not usually a Pinotage fan, but this wasn't bad at all.

Friday, April 17, 2009

LPoD - Marjorie Latimer and the coelacanth

This is a demonstration of something I told Graham Wegner yonks ago, when he was dissing his 'ordinary' home town of Adelaide, Australia. I pointed out that what to him is ordinary is most exotic to the rest of us. Well, the time has come for me to realise that this applies to me, too!

I have always been most scathing about the city in which I lived from the age of 10 until I left with a sigh of relief at 24. I once told my mother (who still lives there, along with most of my remaining family) that it was the *rse end of the earth, to which she retorted, "Well, it's a good thing you're just passing through, then!" Can you tell where I get my sense of humour from?

And then it came to light during a Twitter conversation today with Zoe Rose, aka Coelacanthro, that something that had formed such an integral part of the tapestry of my life was actually something very exciting and of global import.

Just off the coast of East London (that's a city on the east coast of South Africa, not a region in the capital of England), in 1938, a coelacanth was caught. So what, you might say. So what, indeed! This was a fish with 'legs' that had been thought extinct for some time. It was hailed as a living dinosaur, although it actually predates dinosaurs by several million years.

The woman who made the discovery, in amongst the catch of a local fisherman, was Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who was then the curator of the city's museum (let's not just skim over the realisation that this was a woman holding down a senior position before the second world war!). She didn't know what the fish was, just that it was almost certainly important. The find was confirmed by Prof. JLB Smith of Rhodes University, in Grahamstown. When I say it like that, it does no justice to Courtenay-Latimer's persistence. Smith was not an easy man to contact, or to engage, and several others had already told her that the fish was just a grouper.

However, once Smith was engaged, he was totally committed to the project of the 'living fossil'. When another coelacanth was caught off the Comores in 1953, he kept it in a box beside his bed all the way back home. It must have been a little niffy, to say the least!

The coelacanth still holds pride of place in the East London museum, as far as I know. I have seen it so often that it was only today that it dawned on me what a privilege it was to have such ease of access to such a unique specimen.

I once met Marjorie Latimer, albeit fleetingly, when she came to watch a show in which I was appearing in the local theatre. She was quite a feisty woman, considered something of a national treasure by the locals, who lived to the ripe old age of 97, dying in 2004.

Her life and mine had another rather odd overlap. When we visited East London in 2001, my mother gave me a rather large sum of money with the strict instructions that I was to spend it on a beautiful piece of jewellery (she becomes quite exasperated at my reluctance to spend money on myself). I went to a local jewellery designer, who was busy making repairs to a titanium coelacanth brooch he had made for Latimer's 90th birthday some years previously. He proudly showed it to me. Sadly, the coelacanth is not really a pretty fish, so it does not lend itself easily to design, but I'm sure that Latimer was tickled pink to have it, because of its significance in her life. And it must have proved successful, because the designer has gone on to create a whole range of coelacanth (and dolos - but that's another story) jewellery.

You can find a more complete account of the story here, and of course, wikipedia can tell you more about the dinofish itself. This site is also an excellent source of information and images for those interested in the topic.

iPhone apps (free)

I promise not to go on and on about my iPhone, but I thought that my journey of discovery might be of help to others out there new to the world of the device. I won't review the device itself, far more professional people have already done that one to death.

What I did was put a message out on Twitter and Facebook asking my peeps for some suggestions with regard to must-have apps. For now, I am restricting myself to freebies, even though a few very useful sounding apps with price tags have been suggested, too.

Facebook - pretty much Facebook on the go. Very handy.

LinkedIn - as before, this is LinkedIn on the go.

Remember the milk - this is an app which allows you to take your to-do list with you wherever you go. You can organise your list according to a range of criteria, and you have the capacity to prioritise your tasks, too. I no longer use Outlook, but, when I did, I tended to be one of the few people who made full use of the Tasks feature. This is something like that... but right in your handbag/pocket.

Freshbooks - this is a great one for us independent consultant types. It allows you to track time and then bill your clients. You can annotate the entries, and they will queue up when you're off-line.

Evernote - this was the winner of the TechCrunch best mobile startup award. It more or less lets you make notes about anything and everything that happens in your life, using text, photos and audio. It autosynchronises your notes with your computer and the web, and it is able to search text snapshots.

Sugarsync - gives you access to all your PCs and Macs, even when they are switched off. Which of us hasn't experienced the dismay of finding ourselves without a crucial file? It sounds phenomenal.

reQall - a voice enabled memory aid to integrate your iPhone, email, text messaging and IM into an organiser/reminder system.

Wikipanion - allowing you access to wikipedia via your phone. So cool.

Animoto - as with a few of the others, this is a phone version of the web app. I've used and enjoyed Animoto before, so I can see this one coming in handy!

Skype - free calls via Skype from your mobile in any free wifi zone.

Of course, because I'm a sucker for them, I have also downloaded a few free games:

Hangman - I downloaded this one pretty much straight away. I have won every game, as you would expect ;o), but it gave me great practice at figuring out how to select the right letter from the on-screen keyboard!

Touch lite - the full version of this has a price tag. The lite version is one of those games where you eliminate set of adjacent blocks in the same colour in an attempt to clear the board. The larger the set, the more points it will earn you.

reMovem free - similar to the Touch blocks game, but with bubbles

Scramble - like its Facebook counterpart, this timed game involves forming words from adjacent letters in a random assemblage. In spite of my skill at and love for word games, I really suck at this one!

Sudoku - what it says on the tin

wordee lite - Ugh! I am awful at this game! You get a collection of letters in a grid, and you have to move them around to form a mini crossword. When a letter is in the right place, it glows. The problem is, you cant just move a letter at a time. You have to move a whole row or column. Epic fail. Once again, the full version has a price tag.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

LPOD - iPhone sim card

So I bought this iPhone, and brought it home, where I decided to try to install the sim card.

Erm, ri-ight.

I sat there, pressing buttons and doing all manner of finger contortions to try to get the phone open. No joy. I felt like a stone age woman faced with the internal combustion engine.

Totally stumped, I went to my peeps, via Twitter. Tell me again how Twitter isn't a learning tool...

Within moments, I had several responses. One of which was a link to this YouTube video. Tell me again how YouTube doesn't have relevant content...

Sim card installed within seconds. Only then did I understand that that was what the little picture on the inside front cover of the instruction manual wallet thingy was trying to tell me. Duh!

On reflection, it makes sense not to have to take the phone apart to get the sim card out.

pic of the day - oh yes, I did!

I've been using a PAYG mobile for business for the past 6 months, and it had an annoying habit of making a little 'squidge' noise in my ear and cutting off at the most inconvenient moments. Mostly, this would be because my credit ran out mid-call, but it would do it at other times, for inexplicable reasons.

So I went to look into the idea of a contract through the limited company I set up a few months ago (Learning Anorak Ltd). To my astonishment, for less than I had been paying for talk time each month, I could have a iPhone, so...

I have an iPhone.

Now to figure out how to use the thing!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

pic of the day - more flowers

I don't know what this is, they started to open in a garden along the road from our house a couple of days ago. Isn't the flower beautiful? But I'm also fascinated by the bud. With the black furry tips on each bract. It looks like a cross between a plant and a caterpillar!

Prepare to be wowed!

I've never watched a single episode of Britain's Got Talent. I just happened across this video on YouTube today.

Everyone has somethng to offer and you find the most startling talents in the most unlikely places. Watch this homely, socially awkward woman sing this very powerful and perhaps poignantly appropriate song (embedding disabled, but please watch it anyway - you won't regret it!). This is my husband's favourite song from Les Mis. I have got to send him this link!

Everyone laughed at her. Watch the snooty little lass right at the beginning sneering at this woman who has none of the raw material that she herself has been blessed with. Then look at how Susan makes them eat their contempt. Tell me you don't want to stand up and cheer!

She gets my vote. You go, girl! You do it for all the nobodies out there!

On being a starfish rescuer

A comment on one my of my earlier posts today put me in mind of this story by Jeff Roberts (reproduced below). I had only heard it told up to the end of the fourth paragraph before, so it was an education to me to discover that that was only half the story. I'm trying to decide whether the second half adds to or detracts from the first half. What do you think?

One morning after a particularly fearsome storm, a man arose early and decided to go for a walk along the sea. As he neared the beach, the early riser saw an old man in the distance slowly, yet purposely, ambling down the shoreline. As he watched, the old man stopped, picked something up, and tossed it into the ocean. Then, the old man slowly straightened himself up, walked several more feet, stooped down, and once again picked up something, which he tossed into the sea.

Intrigued, the early riser moved closer. As he drew near, he realized suddenly what the old man was doing. Littered all down the shoreline, as far as the eye could see, were thousands upon thousands of starfish cast out from the ocean by the fury of the now-passed storm. As the early riser watched, the old man bent down, gently picked up a small, helpless starfish, and tossed it back into the ocean. He repeated the same process every few feet.

After a minute or two, the early riser approached the old man. "Good morning, sir" he said. "I couldn't help notice what you're doing. I commend you for what you're trying to do, but the storm has washed up thousands of starfish on this beach. You can't possibly save them all! What possible difference do you hope to accomplish?"

The old man paused for a long time, pondering the early riser's question. Finally, without saying a word, he bent down, picked up a starfish, and tossed it far into the ocean. "It made a difference to that one," he said.

Now, it was the early riser's turn to be silent. As he looked at the old man with growing admiration, it seemed as if the years fell away, revealing someone wise, noble, and strong enough to stand up to any challenge. Deeply moved, the early riser struggled for the right words, but none would come. At last, he too, bent down, picked up a starfish, and tossed it into the ocean. The old man, watched intently. He spoke not a word, but his nod and a wink said all that was needed. "Well," the early riser said as he looked out at the thousands of starfish stranded on the beach before them, "It looks like we've got a lot of work to do."

Just then, the two men realized they were not alone. Others out for their Saturday morning walks and jogs had witnessed what had taken place. When they saw what the old man and early riser were attempting to do, they too bent down and picked up starfish of their own. Soon, the morning sun shone down upon hundreds of good Samaritans - young, old, black, white, rich, and poor; each working diligently to save as many starfish as he or she was able. What had started out as one, had grown into an army of kindness.

Some time later, an amazing thing happened. As the last starfish was tossed into the ocean, a spontaneous cheer broke out among the starfish rescuers. People hugged and high-fived each other. Some exchanged names and numbers and promised to stay in touch. Others walked off together to share breakfast with new friends. To a person, each one felt they had done something important and had made a difference.

That morning, in the span of only two hours, five thousand starfish were saved, and hundreds of lives were transformed. All because one person cared enough to try to make a difference.

I've no doubt turned your stomach and rolled your eyes before with this assertion, but I reckon we surprise ourselves with how fulfilled we can feel when we do something selfless.

In a recent debate I had, someone was taking the view that my rights had been violated in a certain situation and couldn't understand why I wasn't as angry about it as they had been under similar circumstances. This person has been nursing that anger for almost as long as I have been alive.

My own view is that this attitude is largely what is wrong with society today. We are all so focused on 'my rights' that we become far too self-involved. If we look outward instead of inward, if we demonstrate concern for one another instead of stamping our feet like petulant toddlers who can't have their own way, if we can break out of our self-pity cycle and start to look for ways to give other people a leg-up, we find ourselves in a much better place as individuals, which inevitably has a ripple effect.

This is why I do what I do. I thrive on being the person who gets to give someone else a leg up, even if that takes them to a place I've never been and would like to go. Wendy Wickham once called me an 'evil enabler'. I am happy to own that epithet... and any others of that ilk!

I'm dead serious. This is not namby pamby, pink and fluffy New Age psychobabble - you would have to go a long way to find someone less enchanted with New Age stuff than me. This is genuinely how I live my life.... and it works! Give it a go and tell me I'm wrong.

Training dogs and developing people

Mark Berthelemy wrote an excellent post some time back in which he questioned the suitability of the word 'training' in relation to people, arguing that it is more applicable to dogs. It is one I have linked to more than once before, and this post is in no way a contradiction of that, nor am I trying to equate human learners to dogs.

But I would like to explore the analogy from a slightly different angle.

This morning, as I walked Jessie, I passed a woman, a teenage girl and a baby in a buggy. Jessie walked obediently at my side. She didn't pull on the leash to sniff at them. She didn't bark at the buggy... or the people. The woman remarked to the teenager, "Now if I could find a dog like that, I'd prepared to have one. Look how good she is. Why can't I find a dog like that?"

Of course, I was proud of my gorgeous girl, but I was also somewhat puzzled at the woman's attitude. Did she think Jessie was born like that? And that was when my mind dived off down the analogy rabbit hole.

Jessie walks nicely because I have taught her how to do that. And it has been flipping hard work! In order to teach her, I had to learn what to do myself. I didn't pack her off to a training programme and expect her to come back all sweetness, light and obedience. I had to experiment with leads, harnesses and collars. I took her (still take her) to weekly classes, where I am the one doing most of the learning. I learn how to get the best out of her. I watch other dog owners with their dogs and pay attention to the little things they do. I provide Jessie with incentives. I give her encouragement. I praise her when she gets it right. I correct her when she gets it wrong. I praise her for trying.

I don't call her in once a year or once a day and give her an update on her performance. I catch her doing things right and I catch her doing things wrong. I respond to both immediately. When she noms her own toys, I tell her she's a good girl and give her an affectionate pat. When she noms my headphones (again), I tell her she's a bad girl and I take them away from her. I am engaged with her on an ongoing basis.

When we go out for walks, I tell her what a good girl she is when she walks nicely. When she pulls on the leash, I give it a sideways yank to deprive her of her forward impetus (a bit like a horse, really).

Because she has a tendency to steal food off the kitchen counters, I lay baking trays along the front edge of the counter, with the food behind. When she tries to steal the food, she brings a baking tray down with a resounding clatter, which she hates (can't say I blame her - I'm not too keen on it myself), so there are reminders to tell her that what she is doing is wrong.

Because she is a rather dominant bitch (oy, I heard that!), I have had to teach her manners in relating to other dogs. As she goes bounding up to them, all puff and strut, I yell, "Nicely!" and she drops into a sphinx position, waiting for the other dog to approach her, or to indicate in some doggy way that her approach has been noted and deemed acceptable.

It has been, it continues to be hard work. And I have to do it with her. It costs money. It takes time. It takes effort. But the reward is that she knows what she is supposed to be doing, and she does it... most of the time.

So, yes, it is about training, in this instance. But it is also about performance support and performance management... ALL THE TIME.

On this conversation

Yesterday, I was going back over discussions on blog posts I have been tracking and something rather unsettling came to light. To put things into context, bear with me while I take a quick detour down Allegory Lane.

My stepdad isn't a very bright man. He's a lovely, salt of the earth, blue collar guy who cares about nature and the outdoors. However, when he is with my extended family, he comes over all insecure. The conversation flows fast and furious, full of wit and riposte... and he can't keep up. So he drinks a little too much and makes loud, off-topic statements, trying to claim a space in the conversation for himself - usually without success. One of my uncles is a deeply gentle, gracious man, who can almost always be relied upon to engage him one to one. One of my aunts is quite patronising and condescending towards him, but my stepdad doesn't have the subtlety of nature to have realised this (especially after a few beers)... and he adores her. My heart aches for him when I see him in this uncomfortable position - especially when he embarrasses himself.

Yesterday, I began to wonder if I am not like my stepdad in this read/write web conversation. For the first time in a long time (since CoComment stopped working for me, really), I was looking at a long list of the conversations to which I have contributed. I comment on many posts, but am seldom drawn into the conversation. Other comments will refer to one another, but my comments seem to off in a side eddy somewhere. I don't think I had had that vantage point from which to view this vista before.

I began to wonder whether in fact, I have anything of value to add in this space. Not in a self-pitying, bring-on-the-violins kind of way. More from the perspective of my dissertation. You see, I have been taking the view that the whole web 2.0 social media/networking thing had empowered the whole community, the whole connected world to access the conversation. And in theory, this is absolutely true. But in practice, the community has the power to vote with its feet, to ignore posts it finds uninteresting, to ignore the loud off-topic statements that come from the slightly insecure person in the corner who hasn't quite figured out that s/he is out of his/her league. So, in fact, it becomes a self-selecting conversation between those who 'get it'.

And this makes me worried about us also-rans. If 2.0 spaces do not, in fact, enable us to engage because what we have to say is not high-brow enough, does that not effectively reduce the pool of contributions? Are we not back with a form of elitism, albeit a more democratic one?

My mother-in-law has a little homily stuck on the side of her fridge:

The forest would be a quiet place if no birds sang but the best.

I know this sounds all Zen tree-falls-in-forest-ish, but if we're making our contributions and they are being ignored/overlooked/choose your word, are we really making any contribution at all? Do we really have access to the conversation? Are we really engaged in the exchange, adding our 2p worth to the sum of the network's knowledge?

Hmm. Is a puzzlement....

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

pic of the day - Karyn the red nosed girl, dear!

Guess what the Easter bunny brought me! Wretched little rodent!

Monday, April 13, 2009

pic of the day - braai

Pronounced like the word 'bright', only without the T, this is the South African word for barbecue (it's Afrikaans for 'grill'). It is something South Africans (and Swedes who grew up there, apparently) do at the least provocation.

Look at my three men, having an almost religious experience, here!

John is a dab hand at braai-ing and the boys are apt apprentices. The 'South Africa shop' we visit regularly had ribs on Saturday, so we feasted today. I am as full as a tick!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

pic of the day - Mary at the cross

Today's pic of the day is of me rather than by me. We had a special Easter service at our church this evening and I performed a monologue I developed about Mary at the cross. It was one I had done several times before, but never to an English audience, and I wasn't sure how they would cope with the very raw emotions.

It was fine.

On being hated... and loved

I recently found myself embroiled in a bitter exchange of emails with someone whose anger I had unintentionally aroused. It got pretty ugly.

I mentioned to my family that I was taking flak from someone I didn't even know, and they of course, reacted with the sort of indignation that families are known for. I more or less expected that.

What I didn't expect was the reaction I got on Twitter. I didn't want to burden my followers with the tawdry details (nor will I do so with you). I simply said that I had come under fire from a hater. I got immediate public and private messages of support.

One person said: Let us know who it is Karyn - you roll with a large crew....
Another said: Try not to feed it. Their problem.

A few offered help. What could they do, they asked. Kathy Sierra, who knows more about this kind of thing than anyone, sent messages of encouragement, which I deeply appreciated. Most of the private messages told me how valued I was. Some even said that it hurt them to think of a person like me being treated badly by anyone. How sweet is that?

It made me realise that I have come to matter to my Twitter friends. That we have moved beyond a shared interest in learning-related stuff.

Thanks, guys. I am deeply touched.

The exchange of emails (for reasons I won't go into), took me on a trip back down through the years of my life. I had an unhappy childhood and, to make matters worse, I made some pretty poor choices along the way. I should be a wreck. I should be miserable. I have experienced more than my fair share of body blows along the way. But I am not. I am actually quite a cheerful soul, with more bounce than the average rubber ball. My life is a million miles away from where I was heading. If you have been reading my blog for a while, you will know about my faith, and will know why I believe this is so. But the point is that many (most?) of us don't turn out the way people expect we will.

Don't write anyone off, okay - 'specially not today. Today is a Resurrection Sunday. Whether or not you share my faith, this is a day which represents a complete turnaround from defeat to victory.

I have shaken off the hatred which flooded my inbox for a while, and I choose to embrace all the affirmations of genuine affection which followed it.

As I said: bounce.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

pic of the day - tree top walk

Today the family went to a place that boasts a tree top walk. I really does end up at tree top height. To my surprise, my fear of heights didn't bother me. However, those two hobgoblins you can see in the centre of the picture discovered that the suspension bridge type construction meant that jumping up and down resulted in a very satisfying degree of movement which had me turning green with motion sickness. This in turn caused them to laugh raucously and jump about all the more.

Honestly, where were their parents? Oh, wait a minute, one of them was behind the camera and the other was staring at a tree with rapt attention.

I think I'll disown them!

Friday, April 10, 2009

pic of the day - simnel cake

Simnel cake is an Easter tradition in the UK. This is the first year we've had one and I confess this is a 'bought it myself' type.

This one isn't 'proper' though - the marzipan balls are all wrong. If the cake has 11 balls of marzipan, they should be around the edge, representing the remaining disciples after Judas's betrayal and suicide. If there is to be a ball in the centre, it should be the 12th ball, the centre one representing Christ.

Ah well, I've never been much of a one for these traditional trappings. It tasted good... and that's the point of a cake, isn't it?

Thursday, April 09, 2009

For you Mac owners...

I've never owned a Mac. I used one recently to access my emails while staying with friends. Prior to that, the last time I used an Apple machine was in 1982 to record my drama students' progress records.

But this (thanks Cathy Moore) is one cool way to present data of this sort. There's a really reasonably priced Mac for Windows app called nolimits. I have app envy.

The one thing that is lacking is fairground noises and screaming as house prices plummet. My younger son and I supplied these as we watched and it definitely improved things!

Technology doesn't have to be high tech

The winner of the FT Climate Change Challenge is a solar powered cardboard oven. Two cardbaord boxes, one inside the other, with an acrylic lid. Estimated cost to make: £3.50.


It reminds me of an invention during my high school years. It was called the wonder box. Simply a cardboard box lined with newspaper on the bottom, and cushions filled with polystyrene beads around the sides and top.

My Gran had one which she used to cook the potatoes for our family barbecue.

It worked like this: you would bring the pot of potatoes (or whatever) to the boil on the stove in the usual way. Then you would pop the pot into the box, tucking the cushions around it, and covering it with another. Then close the box and leave it. It always made perfect potatoes and you couldn't burn them, either!

Here is a slightly more sophisticated version.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

pic of the day - blood

A friend of mine is encouraging me to consider becoming a bood donor. He invited me to come with him tonight when he gave blood. It's undeniably a good thing to do, and my mother and both her parents gave blood for as long as they were allowed to. But, I don't do well with needles and I mean, look at that one - it's like a flipping yoghurt straw!

LPoD - UK toilets

Okay, this is not really a learning point for me. Consider this a public service post.

Apologies for the return to the Jeff Dunham theme, but last night he revealed that he was perplexed by English toilets. It was rather reminiscent of that moment in Demolition Man, when Sylvester Stallone, aka John Spartan questions the 'three seashells' which have replaced the toilet paper of his own day.

So, because I have no qualms about discussing such matters, just in case any other Americans (ahem, Mrs Vicki) are planning to make the trip across the pond, I thought I'd give you a heads up.

In the UK, all newer toilets in private homes and public loos (erm... bathrooms - have never understood why they're called that when there is no bath), are fitted with a two-button flush device instead of a single handle, or hand wave sensor thingy (how I hate those - they always go off and the most inconvenient moments!). This is a requirement. I'm not sure at quite what level this requirement has been set, but if you stay in a hotel or visit a public convenience, you will almost certainly be faced with this mystery.

One button will always be larger than the other. The large button will result in a full flush, emptying the entire cistern. The smaller one is one you have to hold down for as long as necessary for each occasion. A user-controlled flush, if you like.

I leave it to you to figure out when you might need to use which. I realise there are limits to what you would be comfortable reading here.

The reason for this is that it saves water. Europe is far more focused on environmental issues than many American citizens are accustomed to, it seems to me (no offence, or anything).

As I'm writing this, I can think of all sorts of learning design analogies, but I guess that might be pushing your tolerance too far, as well, so we'll leave it there, shall we?

On watching Jeff Dunham learn

Last night's show at the Hammersmith Apollo (sheesh, what a dump!) was Jeff Dunham's first and only show in the UK. He had only arrived from the USA that afternoon, so he had had no time to imbibe any culture or vocabulary. He more or less had to figure it out on the fly, and he was probably jet lagged to boot.

Someone had obviously told him that the English hate the French, because he touched on that quite early on. But there were moments when some of the jokes didn't work because the audience didn't understand them. One of these involved what I think might have been an American chocolate bar. Another was a reference to Depend products (Walter says, "Does Depend make a thong?"). My kids told me afterwards I was the only person in the whole auditorium who got that joke (we have Depend in South Africa, too - in the UK it's called Tena). Embarrassingly for them, I laughed exactly as I would have done if the whole audience had got the joke. Ever had one of those moments?

But what was interesting was the way Jeff handled these moments. When the audience didn't laugh, he would have a discussion with his dummy about it. For example, when we didn't get the reference to the chocolate bar. He said to Walter, "Maybe they don't have those here," to which Walter replied, "Maybe I should have said 'masher and bangs'." They then had a brief exchange about what that might be, both declaring themselves clueless. Then, way later in the programme, Jeff suddenly declared triumphantly, apropos nothing at all, "It's 'bangers and mash'!" I guess that was another heads up he had been given - perhaps by his taxi driver.

When the Depend joke flopped, he said "Well, either they don't have thongs or they don't have Depend." Then he moved on with the show.

Can you imagine how vulnerable he felt, not knowing which jokes would work and which would not? His learning was happening in a very public arena (the show was sold out and the theatre seats over 3,700 people. There were people standing around the edges, too!). But he had the presence of mind to handle his learning and moments of 'failure' (if you could call them that) in a way that further endeared him to the audience. It could so easily have gone horribly wrong. But he said from the outset that he didn't know how much of the humour would transfer across the pond. And, bless his heart, he started with London. We speak English. He goes from here into mainland Europe, where the audiences will primarily not be native speakers of the language.

I wish him every success.

Oh, and just a little aside... a few seats away from us, a woman was clutching a Peanut doll. Peanut is my absolute favourite. So I went over to find out where she had got him. My opening line was, "I have a serious case of Peanut envy." My sons, to whom my husband had explained the sort-of-pun told me as I returned to my seat that I took a risk making a joke like that to complete stranger. My reply? "Anyone who has spent this much money getting here, certainly has enough of a sense of humour to handle it!"

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. My husband knew little about Jeff Dunham beforehand, not having imbibed his every YouTube video the way the boys and I have, so it was a gamble. But it paid off. He roared with laughter the whole way through.

... and I am now utterly broke. I'm expecting my bank manager to knock on the door any moment!

yesterday's pic of the day - Jeffuh-ffuh DunHAM

Woohoo! The day finally came. We got to see Jeff Dunham live at the Hammersmith Apollo last night. I gave my husband the tickets for his birthday all the way back in February.

It was Jeff Dunham's first (and only) show in England. I'm planning a post on it, so I won't say more now. Except that, in spite of all the notices banning photography in the auditorium, loads of people were doing exactly that, and the bright lights of their cameras and phones were quite distracting. As you can see, I also took one photo before the show started, for this feature.... and that was without a flash.

By the time we got home it was 2am, so I decided to wait until a more civilised hour before posting the picture... and get some sleep!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

On grieving

A few weeks ago, a video I was watching with a group of people (I forget where), included a clip about the growing violence in South Africa. At one stage, the camera zoomed in on a bunch of hurting, angry (black) women, shouting their fears and concerns into the camera.

Tears welled up in my eyes and I said to a friend, "Look. My people." She laughed, thinking I was joking. Her reaction is not uncommon - after all, my skin is what we term 'white'. But I was born and raised in South Africa among its people, as were my parents and grandparents. Even most of my great-grandparents... and futher back than that.

My bloodline includes English, Scottish and Dutch settlers as well as black slaves. I have an honorary Xhosa name, given to me somewhere along the way - Thandiwe (the one we love). They are 'my people' - the colour of their skin is entirely irrelevant. We share generations of history. So the future of the country is of equal significance to us all.

It is unfortunate that this article appears in a sensationalist UK newspaper, but I ask you to see past the purple prose to the real menace that underlies it.

I don't care that Jacob Zuma has four wives. That is a cultural issue. Many Zulu men have more than one wife. I don't care that he likes to dress and dance like a Zulu warrior. That is his heritage and he has every right to celebrate it. None of that is anything to fear, as far as I am concerned.

But I do fear for the future of my beloved country. And I fear even more when I see Madiba looking so frail. While he is alive, the deep love and respect that most South Africans have for him might hold catastrophe at bay. But he will not live forever. And as he ages, it will become increasingly easy to hide truths from him, should they become too unpalatable.

I have a great deal of respect for Helen Zille and if, as this report states, "her words are heavy with fear for the future," then there must indeed be grounds for fear.

Many of my liberal South African friends (of all colours) are expressing abhorrence for Zuma's increasingly colourful rhetoric. Many have taken up the chant, "Not my president!"

Is my homeland headed for more war and bloodshed?

I suspect so.

I hope I am wrong. To make a successful future for itself, South Africa needs all her people. She needs to leave racial hatred behind, not stoke its hideous fires back up again.

Monday, April 06, 2009

pic of the day - magnolia

I apologise if you're getting tired of the floral theme, but I hope you agree that this magnolia is absolutely exquisite!

On making allowance for the other idiot

These tweets from Andy Carvin resonated with me. People are often so focused on the results they're after, that they don't consider the risk to other people... or even sometimes themselves.

Just recently, my elder son was driving in proper traffic for only about the 5th time ever. We were passing a school, when the 4X4 in front of us suddenly slammed on anchors, right in the traffic. The passenger door opened and a woman got out. Then, as her husband drove away, she ran across the road right in front of us.

Our car was plastered with L plates to alert people to the fact that the driver was a learner. From this, one should deduce that the driver is not yet confident or competent enough to be expected to cope with unpredictable behaviour. But I have been astonished, since we started down this particular path, how many people do stupid things right in front of a car which bears indications that this might be a poor life choice.

Can you imagine the psychological impact on a teenager who has knocked down and injured or killed a pedestrian? Or who has ploughed into the side of a car that has jumped the lights, only to learn that said car was carrying a baby in the back seat? My mother had the misfortune to knock down two children who ran out into the street in front of her car, killing one instantly. It was two years before she could drive down that road again... and she had to have me in the car at the time (I don't know why it is that people often declare themselves brave enough to do things they had previously been too afraid to try, when I am with them!). My mother had been driving for decades at the time, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had not been to blame. In the same situation, my son would have neither advantage.

It occurs to me that learning to drive is not just about learning to control a vehicle. It is not even about learning to control a vehicle in traffic. It is about learning to respond to what my own driving teacher (decades ago) called 'the other idiot'. The traffic is not a single entity. It is a collection of other drivers in other vehicles, as well as pedestrians, cyclists and the odd animal. Each driver has certain skills and weaknesses, certain quirks and idiosyncracies. Each vehicle has certain strengths and weaknesses. Each pedestrian has their own issues and distractions - like the woman who stepped out in front of my car recently as she chatted on her mobile phone, blissfully unaware of the test to my reflexes and my car's brakes. Fortunately for her, both passed!

There is always context.

And this is one of my hot topics. Teaching people skills in isolation is less than half the job. They need to know how to apply these. They need to know how these are relevant to them.

Yes, they should be figuring much of that out for themselves. But sadly, much teaching and corporate training doesn't encourage that kind of thought. We need to be different. We need to encourage and facilitate independent thought, whether our audience comprises adults or children. Whether we are delivering our learning face to face, online, 1:many, 1:1. Get people thinking, what does this mean to me? How am I going to use this? What other factors could have influence? What would I do then?

This means introducing far more questions into our andra/pedagogy.