Thursday, December 03, 2009

You could have knocked me over with a feather!

So there I was in this pre-conference workshop at Online Educa. I wasn't the oldest person in the room, but I was certainly helping to raise the average age.

We were talking about how to meet the learning needs of an increasingly digitally literate workforce. One woman expressed the view that our generation wasn't going to be able to achieve this. That we would have to leave it to the next generation. She also seemed to feel that it would have to wait until things had slowed down a bit, so that L&D could catch up.

She wasn't talking to me. She was talking to the panel and I was not a member, but I felt compelled to answer. No doubt this was both poor conference etiquette and poor manners, but I couldn't hold my tongue.

I asked how she thought the next generation would have it any easier, since they will in their turn be followed by younger people who are more comfortable using technologies that have yet to be invented. She was confident that their current literacy would enable them to make the shift. I'm not so sure. Every generation - in fact, I don't even want to use the word 'generation' since it implies a bigger timeframe than is the reality in my experience - will see the tools with which they are familiar rendered obsolete by new inventions. We don't know what hasn't been invented yet and it may be as different from web 2.0 (and 3.0 and 4.0) as 2.0 is from 1.0. We don't know that it will be any easier for our kids to learn the future technologies than it has been for us to learn these ones.

I am also pretty certain that the rate of progress and change is not going to slow down. In fact, I suspect quite the opposite will be the case.

I find it odd that, surrounded by people whose mothers may well be my age, I am often the most 'radical' person - or at least one of the most radical people - in the room.

How can this be the case? Perhaps I am the one who is deluded.

Time will tell.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My breasts and I...

...will continue to have one another's company, it seems.

Over the last few weeks, the Romeis household has been waiting to hear whether or not I had developed breast cancer - the scourge of the women on my father's side of the family. There was reason for concern after a recent mammogram, and an ultrasound confirmed the presence of cell clusters, but the biopsy results have returned with the good news that I am in the clear.

I learned something about myself during this time, and that is that I am unafraid to face death.

Because of my family history, most of us feel as if we live under the sword of Damocles anyway. A few have opted for prophylactic subcutaneous mastectomies. I have occasionally toyed with the idea, but that is as far as it has gone.

In South Africa, with the joys of private medical care at my disposal, I was able to have screening from an early age whenever I felt the need.

When we moved to the UK over 10 years ago, I lost this safety net. Screening here is only available to women between the ages of 50 and 64, and only every three years. For a decade I tried to persuade doctors that I should be screened earlier, to no avail. They only changed their minds recently, when HRT was indicated (for obvious reasons) and I declined on the grounds that it increases the risk of breast cancer. The doctor concerned (a student, as it turned out) asked myriad questions and sent me to a geneticist who concluded that I certainly have an increased risk in comparison with the rest of the population.

She set the wheels in motion and the very first screening in more than a decade took place a few weeks later.... and revealed shadows.

We now know that the shadows are no cause for concern. But while I was waiting for further tests and the results of those tests, I realised that I was utterly calm about the whole thing. Whatever transpired, I would deal with. My faith was tested - not for the first time - and came through with flying colours.

For those who already knew about this and have expressed support in various forms, I thank you.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Wouldn't it be cool?

I went to the gym today. Okay, there's nothing interesting about that.

I was wearing my heart rate monitor. Nothing particularly interesting about that, either.

But, as I was working up a very unladylike sweat, I was keeping half an eye on my heart rate and it occurred to me...

The heart rate monitor was bought online at a random purveyor of such goods. It is not the first one I've owned, and it is a completely different make from the one I had before. But the moment I step onto any of the machines in the gym, it communicates with that machine. Just as its predecessor did before it disappeared into what I assume must be the same black hole as a host of odd socks from the Romeis household.

All around me there might be people working out on the machines, each of them wearing their own HRM, with a variety of different types represented. And in each case, the machine is faithfully relaying the information it gets from the HRM of the individual concerned.

C'mon! How cool is that?

No one has to jump through any hoops to get their HRM to talk to the machines. It just happens.

A little bit different from when I go to stay in a hotel, and have to go through a whole series of steps before my computer can talk to the Internet. And when I go to visit a colleague or a client, if it is even possible to connect to the Internet from the site at all (which is rare), I have another series of back flips to do. Otherwise I have to use a dongle.

I know. I know. Security and all that stuff.

But wouldn't it be cool?

Wouldn't it be cool if my computer and the Internet service in every locale just greeted each other like old friends who pick up where they left off? If there wasn't even a pause as I left one building and entered another?

Just daydreaming...

Friday, November 20, 2009

On being a hypocrite

Last night, I was deeply touched by an incident, the very fact of which makes a total hypocrite of me.

A friend told me that I am good at what I do - and she meant, professionally. She spoke with certainty, although she has never seen any of my work. In fact, she isn't 100% certain what it is exactly that I do. Although this friend is in many other ways vastly more gifted than I am, please don't think me arrogant for saying that I am 'cleverer' (for want of a better word) than she is. I don't think she'd dispute it.

She often asks me what it is that I do, and I explain it as best I can, while she stares attentively at me. You can all but hear the wheels turning as she wills herself to grasp this alien concept. But she is forced to admit defeat every time. Last night she related how she recently told her husband, "You know, I still don't know what it is that Karyn does, but I know she does it very well." I asked what she had to go on. She lifted her chin and said, "I just know."

Now, if Mark Berthelemy tells me I'm good at what I do, I take that as an enormous compliment. Mark knows exactly what I do... and he's seen my work. In fact we've worked together.

But there's just something deeply touching about the totally unfounded, deeply seated loyalty of a friend.

How wonderfully illogical we humans are!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On lying

I listened to a fascinating radio programme (link only available for a limited time) about lying today. Apparently, the research shows that we all lie much of the time.

The programme talked about the role of lies in the fabric of our society. One panel member even suggested that a sudden switch to complete honesty would destroy our society within 24 hours. They talked about the different kinds of lies and the intentions behind them.

I thought about it. I thought about some of the deliberate lies I have told in my life and why. I have always thought of myself as a pretty honest, transparent person... and I have the bruises to prove it ;o)... but I realised there are times when I am less so.

For example, a while ago, I bumped into someone I hadn't seen for some time and learned that she had had cancer treatment in the interim. She spoke about how no-one even noticed that she was wearing a wig, because it was such a close match to her own hair. I told her I just thought she had had new highlights. This was not true. While it was a very good wig, the parting was clearly showing a glimpse of the weave rather than scalp, and I had noticed from the get-go. I had put two and two together and assumed that chemo was involved. But I didn't say so. I decided she had had enough to deal with.

I lied.

I have told friends they look beautiful when they don't (in my estimation, anyway). I have said that I am not offended by things that have cut me to the quick. I have pretended to be confident when I have been quivering in my boots.

So yes, I am a liar. And so, according to the research, are you.

But, an interesting topic was just touched on. The impact of social media.

You see, when you tell person A you can't possibly come to her house for dinner, because you have a migraine, and then a comment appears on your Facebook page from person B the next day saying thanks for the lovely time last night.... what then?

When you claim to have worked for X company in one place and deny it in another, what are prospective employers/customers to think?

With the transparency of our lives these days and the audit trail of our contributions to the various spaces we occupy, we might have to become more honest than has been our wont.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Reflecting on Les Miserables

On Saturday, we took our sons to see Les Miserables in London. For my husband and me, it was the third time of seeing the show. For the boys, it was the first. And it had been at their request that we went. They knew the music because I play it on my iPod in the docking station in the kitchen... and because I sing it endlessly. They have often asked questions about the story line and so on, and I was delighted when they asked to be taken to see something so cultured!

They both thoroughly enjoyed the experience and have been talking about it ever since. They raise points that take me by surprise and impress me no end. They noticed things about the staging and the lighting that your average theatre goer does not notice. My elder son spoke at great length about how each character who died was immediately picked out in a bright, tight beam white spot... except Javert, who fell into darkness. I hadn't noticed that. Good one kiddo.

Then tonight he pitched me a curved ball.

"Mom, in Les Mis, whose story do you think was the saddest?"

Wow! They were all pretty sad.

  • Jean Valjean who is imprisoned for 5 years for stealing bread to feed his sister's family, and then a further 14 for trying to escape... and who then spends most of his life on the run, having broken parole, in the process of trying to take care of Fantine's Cosette.
  • Fantine who falls in love, loses her virtue and is literally left holding the baby. In her desperation to provide for her daughter, she turns to prostitution and dies of the pox.
  • Javert, who sees life in black and white, only to have it all blow up in his face, when he is denied a heroic death, shown mercy by someone he believes to be sin personified.
  • The revolutionaries who believe that the people of France will join them, if only they set things in motion, only to find that they are alone... and to die at the barricade for absolutely no gain.
  • Eponine who starts out as her parents' little princess and winds up a street urchin in love with a student who is in love with someone else.
  • Gavroche, streetwise and defiant, who wields more power than one would expect from one so young, only to die at the barricade trying to collect bullets from the fallen soldiers to take back to the revolutionaries.
It goes on and on.

Do you know the story? Who do you think has the saddest story and why?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Where the conversation now takes place...

Some time back, I set up the Friendfeed app within Facebook so that my Twitter comments and blog posts all appear within my Facebook news feed. I now find that the conversation is shifting

People who would not previously have commented on my posts, who may indeed not even have been aware of them, have begun to participate in the conversation. However, they respond to the Friendfeed notification on my Facebook page rather than here.

Ironically, this tool which allowed me to unify my various communication streams has also fragmented it. People who comment in one space, don't get to see the comments of those who do so in the other.

I'm not really going anywhere with this observation. Just sharing. I'll be interested to see if it resolves in any way, or if I'll continue to be piggy in the middle of two conversations on the same blog post or tweet.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Taking my foot off the gas...

Last night I discovered that there was a parents' evening for my elder son's year group. He had forgotten to mention this to us and then gave the teachers some cock and bull story when they asked if we were coming. Obviously, they felt the need to see us!

The teachers subsequently sent us an email, asking to set up another appointment, because they are concerned about our son's work ethic. This was my response:

I wonder what benefit there would be to our meeting. We all know what the problem is and we all know what the solution is. Only one person has the power to bring that solution about, and he chooses not to do so. If, after reading the following, you still feel that a meeting would have value, we will gladly meet with you, but I have my doubts.

Over the years, we as parents have done more than most to go to bat for our son. He has been granted more opportunities than most. He has been more encouraged than most. We have always adopted an open door policy with teaching staff. He has been supported in every way we know how. On countless occasions, we have spoken the words, "I believe in you." This young man has stepped into each day off a firm platform of assured parental love and support. And this continues. Even now we are spending a fortune on additional tuition so that he can get a decent grade on the stats re-sit.

The sheer fact of the matter is that (name removed) has not been a good steward of the talents and resources God has so graciously given him. In his early years, it was quite clear that (name removed) was a child of exceptional abilities, some of which were recorded in academic papers. Over the years, he has chosen to squander that, and is now quite happy to settle for mediocrity. We ask him on a daily basis how he is coping with his school work. We ask him on a daily basis whether he is up to date with his assigned work. And on a daily basis, he assures us that all is well. This has now been his practice for some years. (Name removed) has been quite happy to let life happen to him and to be a spectator (and sometime victim) of the event.

I, for one, no longer have the physical or emotional strength to keep dragging that horse to water. As a learning professional myself, I value a good education more highly than most, but if (name removed) does not, that is his choice. He is 18 and an adult, now. He knows that choosing MSN over school work is likely to result in his ending up in an unfulfilling job, but in the final analysis, it is his choice to make. And, while he regularly promises to turn over a new leaf, his action speak for themselves.

We cannot force him to work. We cannot force him to tell us the truth about his workload or what he is not achieving. We cannot force him into the driver's seat of his own life. We cannot force him to care about his future. Believe me, we have tried! We have invested time, money and emotional resources. We have lectured, we have reasoned, we have guided, we have cajoled, we have threatened and we have disciplined. None of it has the made the slightest difference. The only recourse left to us is to take our hands off the situation and let him rise to the challenge or bump his head while he is still in a safe enough environment to recover from it without irreparable damage.

The ball is now in his court.
I wonder how the teachers will respond. How would you respond?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Connection speed projections in Sweden

Being a family of Swedes and South Africans living in the UK, we are often afforded an interesting vista of contrasts in terms of life experience in the three countries which impact our lives so greatly. This week is no different.

Here in the UK, there is a big push for improved broadband connection speeds. The goal is 2Mbps for every home by 2012.

Sweden has opted to aim higher. Their Minister for Communications has promised "100Mbps broadband to 90 per cent of its population by 2020, with 40 per cent having it by 2015". It will be interesting to see if they manage it.

Meantime, my South African relatives are still largely on dial up!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

...and, speaking of ethics...

This report from the BBC is not new, but it has only just come to my attention.

Once the African National Congress came to power in 1994, the South African government embarked on a programme of land redistribution. The stated goal was that 30% of agricultural land was to be placed in the hands of black people by 2014. To this end, farms were taken away from their white owners and restored to the black communities from whom the land had been taken generations before. Special loan provisions were made available to black farmers who wanted to buy land.

The problem is that much of this land has not been farmed since these provisions were set in place. You can imagine how this impinges upon the food supply and the economy of the region. You can imagine, too, how indignant are the erstwhile owners of the land and how divisive the situation is.

In a surprising move, the South African Agricultural minister has issued a 'use it or lose it' ultimatum. Having set the precedent for taking land from the hands of one group of people it deems unsuitable, it looks as if the government is quite ready to repeat the action.

Interestingly, this story appears to have received less coverage on South African websites than in the UK.

It may have been possible to justify the land redistribution the first time around, on the grounds of history and violated rights and such - although many would dispute that - but I find it interesting that the South African government would consider it within its rights to dictate how an individual may use (or not) the land that he owns, and to take it from him if he fails to comply. Does this fall within the tenets of democracy?

Of course I am saddened by the impact of the reduction in the food production. Of course I am concerned that the current owners of so many farms have allowed them to fall into disuse when the previous owners - forcibly removed - were farming them productively. Of course I dread the logical outcome of this situation.

Nevertheless, I wonder about the ethics of this move...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Xtranormal - what fun!

Here's a free tool you can use to put together some quick animated movies. It looks pretty straightforward and rather fun. I can think of umpteen uses for it, both in schools and in business.

Enough is enough!

Just no. The line was overstepped a long time ago. How on earth did it come to this? An English borough council has banned parents from overseeing their own children in play areas because they have not been vetted by the criminal records bureau. The parents now have to remain outside of a fenced off area, while their children are supervised by council appointees.

C'mon people! These are our children! When did the State get this much clout?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Talking about ethics...

Now that my major project is complete, I am treating myself to a bit of fiction. I started off with absolute pulp and have still not taken on anything particularly challenging. Or so I thought.

The book I am currently reading - My Sister's Keeper - has been made into a movie, so my sons recognised the title. They asked me what it was about, and this was when the fun began.

Because it's about a girl suing her parents for medical emancipation. A girl who was conceived to provide her leukemic elder sister with a matching donor. When the book opens, the elder sister has begun to experience kidney failure and wheels have been set in motion to give her one of her younger sister's kidneys.

But no-one ever asked her.

From the start of her life, she has been seen as the source of everything her sister needs, and she has never had a say in it. If she refuses to give her sister a kidney, the sister will die.

So now we have conversations about ethics and human rights and duties and responsibilities and all that stuff in our house.

It isn't easy, but I highly recommend it. The conversation is stimulating. My kids are being forced to think long and hard, and to frame their arguments cogently. For them, it's black and white. So I have been playing devil's advocate - "What if...", "What about..."

It makes a change from results-oriented thinking where only one answer is correct, and I believe it's done them the world of good. Perhaps they should debate this kind of thing in their 'learning to learn' sessions at school!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Inaugural lecture: Jonathan Jansen

The first black Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State, a province considered by many to be the bastion of racism in South Africa, delivered his inaugural address on Friday night. It is a speech full of hope for the future of the country. I long to see his optimism prove well-founded.

Jansen - author of Knowledge in the Blood, an account of race and apartheid in South Africa - is not known for (as he puts it) snuggling up to power. He is perhaps a surprise appointment, and I hope with every fibre of my being that it this is not window dressing. But he certainly seems to be the man for the hour. Soon after his appointment, a friend sent him a quote from the Old Testament book of Esther 4:14 “Is it possible that you have come into the kingdom for such a time as this?” See the closing anecdote of his speech for evidence of his inspirational qualities among even white Afrikaans students at the university.

I am hoping for the best here!

And as a codicil, while I knew that JRR Tolkien spent time lecturing at Fort Hare University in South Africa and is believed by many to have been inspired to write about Hobbits during many weekends in the nearby Hogsback Mountains, I had not previously realised that he was born in South Africa. Bloemfontein, in fact.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dress codes for avatars?

Gartner has expressed the view that companies should develop dress codes for their employees' avatars. Computer Weekly and ITPro have both had their say on the subject.

A few years back, when I attended a Second Life workshop, the woman who was facilitating it boasted an avatar with the face of a fox (literally, not metaphorically) and an, er, interesting outfit. My own looked and dressed like me. I felt a little staid. As if I had missed the opportunity for creativity. I was tempted to go for something a bit more outlandish, but decided that a situation might arise in which I wanted a more accurate representation of myself.

I have mixed feelings about the idea of avatar dress codes. I can understand that a company with a virtual world presence will want to project the same sort of professional image online as they do face to face. But I also wonder how far they can push this. Will it just be about dress, or will people be restricted as to body shapes and accuracy of representation? Could a large, bald man be prevented from having an avatar that is a slim man (or even woman) with a full head of hair?

As with blogging policies, there's a lot of grey area here. There's the situation in which you represent your organisation. There's the situation in which you in no way represent an organisation and are free to pursue other interests. But then there's the situation in which you represent yourself, but in a space related to your profession, and therefore populated by clients, potential clients, colleagues, competitors and so on.

I ask the same question here as I did when blogging policies were the hot topic. Where do terms of employment butt up against individual liberties? This is risky turf.

What do you reckon?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Mr Aubergine

I long since abandoned the pic of the day on the grounds that my life is too dull to generate interest photo opps on an ongoing basis. Yesterday turned out to be an exception. Meet Mr Aubergine, who constituted a part of my dinner. Isn't he cute, with his little green hat and retrousse nose? All he needs is pair of goggly eyes!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Disempowering parents

Recently, the Swedish government was considering making it illegal for parents to homeschool their children for faith reasons. At the time, I expressed the view that the state appeared to have forgotten that its role is to serve the people, not dictate to them. That parents (should) have the right to educate their children as they see fit, employing state provided education if they wish to do so.

It seems things have gone from bad to worse. A young family which had at one point made enquiries about home schooling their son decided to move to India (which is the country of the wife's birth) to work as missionaries among the poor there. This had long been something they had felt called to do, and the enquiries about homeschooling had been with this in mind. They sold up their possessions and boarded a plane. Swedish armed police stormed the plane and forcibly removed them. They then took their son from them and placed him in foster care. More of the story can be picked up here.

The traumatised wife has been hospitalised.

I can hardly articulate my reactions to this. So I will forebear, and leave you to form your own views.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Adrienne Carlson: iPhone apps for academic types

I am not an 'academic type' I realise this afresh every time I take on the challenge of writing an academic paper. However, I have synergy with a great many of the things that drive people who *are* academic types... and if any of those drivers can be addressed by an iPhone app, so much the better.

Adrienne Carlson is a relatively new contact of mine, and she has listed 100 iPhone apps for academics. Some of them I already use, while others are totally new to me. Many of these I suspect would be of equal interest to people outside of academia, too. What she hasn't done (unfortunately) is indicate which of them are free, but I guess a quick visit to the app store should determine that.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Learning in the outer edges of consciousness

Mo Costandi is a neuroscience postgraduate who writes in such a way that even lay people like me can follow most of what he has to say. Being fascinated by the mind and its relation to the brain, I am regular reader of his neurophilosophy blog.

One recent post sparks my interest as a learning geek. Have you ever wondered under what conditions a person would cease to learn? I have. I had a friend who used to teach children labelled 'ineducable'. She regularly shared stories about how her young charges would show signs that they could in fact learn.

Mo's post on 21 September shares findings that patients diagnosed as being minimally conscious or vegetative (not the same thing, read the post) can in fact learn, that there might be an awareness of surroundings even in those who exhibit no signs of such awareness.

This is exciting stuff!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mehrabian and all that jazz

Thanks to Cheryl Cooper for the pointer (via Facebook) to this video. We do so love to attach values to things, don't we? Did someone say thymotic urge? ;o)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Social media for business

I recently heard a radio documentary about what 'the media' are doing these days. It seems odd to me now to hear that term being applied to magazines and newspapers. I have been up to my neck in my major project which focuses on social media lately, so the term 'media' to me does not conjure up traditional press, or even their web presence!

However one story really stood out for me. This was the story of NME. This used to be a music industry print magazine. Like so many others, they went web some time back, with a website and a radio station.

So far, so normal. But it's what they've done since then that I found interesting.

NME has a radio channel, and they have recently launched an iPhone app. According to Nick Spence of Macworld, it has been breaking records. Using this app, iPhone users can listen to the station on their phones. Not only that, but if they hear a song they like, they can instantly purchase the download. Users can also interact synchronously with the radio station by text via the app.

The app itself isn't actually free, but at 59p, it isn't going to break the bank. And I'm pretty impressed with the way NME has used current technology to stay ahead of the curve.

Pretty cool.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Your reflections, please!

The discussion threads on my major project wiki are now open for contributions. I would love your reflection on the content.

Many of you already feature in it. Do a search on your name and see if you're one of them! I would be particularly interested if I have shared your story and it has since changed or moved on.

I wish I could have created a wiki that could be edited by the whole community, but that was unfortunately not practicable (long story). So the discussion pane at the foot of each page will have to suffice. The wiki itself is still a work in progress, although it is nearing completion.

And I'm sure I don't have to mention it, but please observe the usual rules of discussion forum etiquette ;o)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On being outed

You could scarcely have spent any time here without knowing that I am busy with a Masters' degree programme. The journey is taking far longer than I had hoped, largely due to a pothole in the road that could have swallowed a Landrover!

I have mentioned that I am busy working on my dissertation. I have even mentioned that it is to be delivered in an online format.

What I haven't mentioned... yet... is that the university withdrew its approval of the online format for dissertations. It's got to be the blue bound A4 thingummy or nothing. However, they offered me the alternative of submitting my online work as a 'major project' instead. The down side is that I now have to write an additional 3000 word paper in support of my project. This is all due to be handed in on 1 October.

What I also have never before done, was share the url for this (ahem) masterpiece. When I suddenly found it being bandied about on Twitter yesterday, I quite literally nearly fainted. I hadn't exactly been keeping it a secret. I just wasn't ready for it to be formally unveiled. I mean, it isn't even finished yet! But someone found it, the way we web 2.0 types do, and tweeted a link to it. Next thing I knew, it was being RT-ed (retweeted) hither and yon.

So, for what it's worth (and it genuinely isn't finished yet), here is the link to Karyn Romeis's Major Project. The discussion pages will be opened once the university has done its thing and graded me one way or t'other. Then you can have your say and tear the thing to shreds if you so desire. I probably won't look at it again for several months after submission while I remember what my family looks like and rediscover the meaning of the term 'leisure time'.

I'm feeling incredibly adventurous here, I hope you know, and my heart is in my mouth!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Caster Semenya: my 2p worth

In the furore following the news that Caster Semenya possesses the external genitalia of a woman but internal testes instead of a uterus or ovaries, I would just like to make my views known. Whether or not they make any difference remains to be seen. But one of the points of social media is that they serve as an aggregation of many views. Mine are as valid as anyone else's.

The South African government is making protests about the whole incident being both racist and sexist. This is a view supported by many South Africans in the various discussion forums on this topic.

I do not see this issue as being racist. Track events at international level are currently dominated by black people (I am told that this can be attributed to a genetic predisposition towards heightened fast twitch something or other). Semenya has not been singled out because of her race. The woman who came second is also black. She is also African. It is true, she is from a different African country (Kenya), but I don't think that would make a difference to anyone who was being racist about this. So if Semenya is stripped of her title, it will not further anyone's racist cause.

With regard to the sexism aspect...

If we want to play the sexist card, then we need to decide where the line is going to be drawn and that takes us into very grey territory. Is it sexist to say that men can't run in women's races? If so, then there needs to be just one 800m race in which men and women compete against each other. That day may come, but for now, there would be no women in that event. If then, we agree that it is right ot separate the two, we need to have a definition of what constitutes each gender. A line needs to be drawn somewhere. I think many people have been taken by surprise to learn that gender is far more of a continuum than they had previously imagined.

It is tragic for Semenya and any others like her that a quirk of nature puts them outside of the definition of woman (if indeed it does - this still has to be decided). As far as I know, no-one is vilifying the poor girl, or accusing her of any wrongdoing.

Let us look for a moment at a parallel situation: in the paralympics, athletes compete based on the extent of their (dis)ability. So an athlete who is missing just one foot would not be allowed to compete on level terms against an athlete who is missing both legs. Through no fault of his own, the former has attributes that provide an unfair advantage over the latter.

I am deeply sorry for Semenya. I think she has conducted herself with dignity throughout what must have been an embarrassing ordeal. To learn about this anomaly in the full glare of the world's press must be harrowing indeed. Not only that, but she now probably faces a future in which there is no event in which she can compete in the sport she loves. She is too much of a woman to be able to achieve anything remarkable against men, but she is too much of a man to be allowed to run against women.

And there's nothing she can do about it. If that doesn't tug at your heart strings, I don't know what would.

The harsh reality of refugees to South Africa

I haven't lost sight of the fact that this is a learning blog. I will get back to that once the pressure of my major project for my Masters' is a thing of the past. I promise.

But in the meantime, please watch these clips from which you might learn something startling about what is going on in the city I called home for 12 years. The city in which my heart still resides even after an absence of 10 years.

Warning: this ripped my gut. It might rip yours, too.

If you feel moved to do something about this, please visit the website of the Adonis Musati Project.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Unfinished symphonies

Yesterday, Dominick Dunne died aged 83. He overcame a drinking and drug problem to start writing at the age of 50... and went on to become a best-selling author.

He didn't consider himself 'too old' to start something new.

Stories of octogenarians going back to university abound. There are even stories in Africa of these old folks going back to school. Why not?

Have a look at the wikipedia entry for unfinished symphony. Many, many composers started pieces they did not live to finish.

But they started them.

Some years ago, my mother in law needed a new pair of shoes. I took her shopping. She took a shine to a certain pair of good quality shoes. Of course, the quality came at a price. Her view was that at her age, she didn't need to invest in a pair of shoes that would last and last, because she wouldn't be around very much longer herself. She chose something cheaper and altogether more ill-fitting. That was eight years ago. She is still hale and hearty and walking without the aid of a stick, with better eyesight than mine. Eight years of wearing a cheap pair of shoes (if they even lasted that long) when she could have treated her tired old feet to the sort of comfort and good craftsmanship they have earned after a lifetime of faithful service.

Have you noticed that people no longer talk about 'dying of cancer'? Nowadays, we talk about 'living with terminal cancer'. Because dammit, until you actually die, you're alive!

So why not start that thing? Enrol for that study programme. Sign up for those lifedrawing classes. Start knitting that Kaffe Fassett pattern with the 23 different yarns.

So what if you don't get to finish it?

There's a choice: you either give up on life and sit back waiting for death, or you take the chance that you might not achieve your goal in your lifetime... so you bow out still reaching, still stretching, still striving.

I know which I'd rather do! When I talk about my lifelong learning journey, I fully intend for it to last as long as I do.

Friday, August 21, 2009

On being shallow

I learnt something about myself this week. I am more shallow than I would like.

On two occasions this week, I attended meetings at sexual health clinics. When I reported to the front desk, I felt the need to make it clear that I was there in a professional capacity and not as a patient.

I was disappointed in myself. Several people have responded with variations on the theme of "Eew!" when I have mentioned my current project. I have no such reaction. I consider sexual health to be a subject of critical importance. Since the material I am working on is of a clinical nature aimed at specialising clinicians, I realise that I am going to see and include in the learning materials some rather gruesome images. I have no qualms about that. Our doctors need to know as much as possible about these matters and they will see far worse things in the course of their careers. Somebody needs to put the learning materials together. It might as well be me.

I was reminded of a group of people I once encountered. All wore matching T-shirts and name badges. They were obviously on some sort of outing. Some of them gave outward signs of some form of mental disorder, others were indentifiable as having Down Syndrome. Among the group, there were also some with no discernable impairment/special need. But of course, not all mental disorders manifest by means of any outward signs, so it was likely that some of those who seemed unimpaired had special needs, too. Some, however, had to be staff.

Such is the graciousness of these people that they felt no need to distance themselves from their charges in any outward way. They felt no need to wear anything that identified them as carers rather than patients. I was deeply impressed by this at the time.

My experience this week tells me I am far more superficial than they.

Mea culpa.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Good doll, bad doll

Linda Hartley shared this link via Twitter today. It broke my heart. No child should ever be given the impression that they are bad or ugly. Just look at these precious little faces as they effectively write themselves off as both of these things! These kids need a dose of Maya Angelou!

What are we teaching our children?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Maya Angelou: And still I rise

If you know me personally, or if you have been reading this blog for some time, you will know that I have a love for stories of triumph. I am prone to standing up and whooping (at the very least metaphorically) for sheer joy at all that is unquenchable, indomitable and indefatigable. Like you, I have been crushed, battered, bruised and broken at some points along life's journey. Like you, I have had to overcome these setbacks.

Does Angelou not capture it perfectly with her words? And does she not perform her words with consummate skill?

I like to carry with me into every project a sense of the people who will use my resources, of their own falling and rising. I like to to strive with every resource I create to make a small contribution to that rising.

How 'bout you?

Monday, August 17, 2009

This wondrous world we live in

Apparently, a competition is underway to name seven new wonders of the world. This site would like to suggest a few lesser known alternatives. Just looking at the photos gives me such a lift. Is this little planet of ours not rich in natural wonders fit to blow the mind?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Interactive crime map

The BBC has published an interactive map of crime patterns in Oxford. Apparently, Oxford was selected because it is the closest thing to a typical British city in respect of its demographics and crime statistics.

It's a very useful map, but some people are expressing concerns. Think of it like this:

  1. You see how the crime rate is increasing in your city
  2. You become afraid
  3. You want something to be done about it
  4. You are told that the only 'something' that can be done involves curtailing civil liberties
  5. You trade your liberties for increased security
Hmmm. Not easy. Presumably we don't want to choose ignorance, but we also need to steer clear of fearmongering.

Learning to touch type

Jane Hart has listed five sites where you can learn to touch type online, free of charge. As the ratio of keyboarding to writing changes, it becomes increasingly useful to have good keyboarding skills.

When I was at school, typing was only available to girls and only those in their final three years of high school. The choice was that or maths. So choosing typing was like opting for a female stereotype many of us were trying hard to escape. I took maths.

But keyboarding is now a part of pretty much everyone's daily life, and it stands to reason that our kids need keyboarding skills now as much as our grandparents needed penmanship skills. As far as I know, this is still not an integral part of the primary school curriculum.

More's the pity.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Playing the hand you've been dealt

Today, the English printed press is almost universal in its choice of lead story. The details have been released of the three perpertrators in the death of 'Baby P' - as he was known to the British public for long after his real name (Peter) was made known elsewhere in the world. Not only have their names been published, but much background information as well.

What emerges in respect of the mother is a picture of a girl with a tragic past and a history of self-absorbed poor choices. In respect of the two men, the picture is of a history of brutality and sadistic tendencies.

The debate rages today as to whether it was wise to have revealed this information. There are fears that this will result in the release of a torrent of anger and hatred from the British public. On one radio show, mention was made of the possible change of identity for the three on their release and of relocation to Canada. I can't imagine that this would be a popular option with Canadians!

As I read the reports, trying to avoid the purple prose of some of the tabloids, I realise that all three of these people were probably subjected to some pretty awful things in their early lives. Things which were bound to have had a negative effect. But I'm here today to say that you don't have to follow the path to its logical conclusion.

My own early life was not a pretty picture and, by the age of 20, I was on track to be a lost cause. I think I can bank on those who know me to back me up when I say that I am not.

I am not trying to big myself up here, by any manner of means. I am just hoping that perhaps even one person whose life looks set on an inexorably negative path will read this and know that it doesn't have to be that way.

You have a choice.

I urge you to summon up the strength for one moment to stop expending all your energy on blaming your parents, your teachers and the system, and take a good, long look at yourself in the mirror. This is where you are now. This is the reality of your life. These are the cards you hold. What happens next is up to you. Take control of it yourself. Choose not to be the victim of your circumstances. Choose to overcome them. Choose to be the very best you that you can be in spite of it all. There are very probably hands reached out to you. Stop being such a stiff-neck and grab hold of them. Go back to school if you want to. Call a helpline if you can. Book yourself in on that rehab programme if you need to. Tell someone what you've decided to do. Take a deep breath. Straighten your shoulders. Lift your chin. Put your hand to the plough. Do not look back.

You can do this.

You can.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Revisiting the subject of bullying

You might not have heard the name Tom Daley before. Especially if you are neither British nor interested in the sport of diving. So, a little background.

Tom was selected for the British olympic squad and competed in Beijing. Team GB did not fare very well, but Daley was quite philosophical about it, in spite of the hail of criticism that inevitably followed.

Something he was less able to overcome was bullying at school. Daley spoke out about his situation and the whole country was aware of the seriousness of it. Eventually things got so bad that he felt forced to change schools. Sadly, this is something we see more and more of - that the victim winds up having to change schools because 'the system' is powerless to take effective action against the perpetrators.

Daley recently won gold in the individual event in Fort Lauderdale. Hopefully that will silence some of his critics.

I am pleased that Daley's profile, coupled with his willingness to speak out, has shone a spotlight on this problem. My sons' head teacher is of the view that bullying is a universal problem, that there isn't a school in the world which is free of it. This is not to say that she condones it. Quite the contrary. But she recognises how common it is.

And of course, most kids aren't like Tom Daley. They don't have his profile. The country's press doesn't howl in outrage when they are bullied. So they may feel as if there is no-one to whom they can turn.

My own sons both begged me not to take up the matter with the school authorities, believing that this would only make matters worse. I overrode one of them... and proved him right. Things did get worse. Then my husband stepped in and pushed a little harder. We hope that we might have begun to see the light at the end of the tunnel of torment.

Yes, bullying probably is in every school. It is certainly in many workplaces. And it takes a variety of forms. But that doesn't make it right. We shouldn't put up with it.

Friday, August 07, 2009


Have you ever played the game called associations? Two people face up to each other. One starts by saying a single word. The other responds with an associated word. The idea is not to hesitate or repeat any words. The idea is also... and this is the tricky bit... not to call out a word that is associated with your own last word, but with that of your opponent/partner.

There are certain things that just belong together in our minds. Certain words and phrases that evoke specific mental images.

For example, I'll bet if I said "skinned knee," most people would picture a school boy in short trousers. Skinned knees are things that happen on playgrounds, or out in the neighbourhood aren't they?

Well I skinned my knee yesterday. As I got out of my car, the door decided to swing shut again and smashed into my knee. The movement of my trouser leg against my skin under the weight and force of the door took the skin off my knee cap. Then, of course, my trouser leg stuck to the (ahem) wound, so that the next time I stood up, it ripped away painfully.

I had forgotten how painful a skinned knee can be. Even when it hardly bleeds.

In my days in the high school netball team, I skinned my knees many times on the tarmac surface of the court with my aggressive style of play (all determination and little skill). It was no big deal then. It was part of the scenery, and therefore unremarkable.

But take a thing out of context. Put it somewhere unexpected and it attracts a lot of attention. People ask me about my knee. A middle aged woman with a skinned knee is an unexpected sight.

Itiel Dror talks about this a lot in his work. One of the tests he does to demonstrate this is to read off a list of words to test subjects, then to give them a certain amount of time to recall as many of them as possible. Usually, many people recall the first few and the last few, with very few or none at all remembering those in the middle, resulting in a parabolic chart.

Then he repeats the experiment. This time, somewhere near the middle of the list, the word 'penis' is mentioned. Almost without fail, absolutely everyone remembers that word. The resulting chart is appropriately phallic (an effect that would no doubt be spoiled if you put the stand out word nearer to the start or end of the list - Itiel is something of a showman, too).

Even among intelligent, scholarly adults, the word is unexpected enough to draw attention. To be memorable.

It's a good learning design tip. Surprise them. Throw in a curved ball. Why not?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Goodnight Harry

Today was the funeral of Harry Patch who died last month aged 111. His death follows shortly after that of Henry Allingham, another WWI veteran who had been the world's oldest man at the time of his death. The officiating clergyman called it "the end of an era". That phrase gets used a lot and is seldom warranted. Today I believe it was justified. With Harry's death the last first hand voice from the trench warfare of the First World War has been lost. From now on, it all becomes hearsay and second hand accounts.

Harry kept silent about his war experiences for decades after the war. When he did speak, it was to condemn war in the strongest terms. He said no conflict was worth the loss of a single life. I tend to agree with him. Having heard since his death of some of the atrocities that he witnessed, I find it remarkable that anyone returned from the trenches to lead a normal life.

At Harry's request, his funeral was attended by a German Charg' Affaires, whose reflection can be heard here. His whole life was about peace and reconciliation, which was further reflected by the choice of song performed for the occasion by a chorister, and performed here by the inimitable Joan Baez.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Exploring mentalities and mindsets

I find it fascinating to explore what motivates people to behave the way they do. The more I understand about what motivates people, the more likely I am to create engaging resources.

Yesterday, as I drove along the winding country road to fetch my son from work, no fewer than four times did I come around a bend to be faced by a car taking the bend hell for leather from the other side, encroaching onto my side of the road. In one instance car was plumb in the centre of the road (which a friend of mine refers to as 'taking your half out of the middle'). On that occasion, we narrowly avoided a collision, because there was nowhere for me to go: an embankment came all the way up to the edge of the tarmac on my side. On the other three occasions, I had to mount the grass verge to avoid a partial head-on.

I know that I am a particularly defensive driver. These other folks, I would hazard to say, are plainly not. Why not? Why do I drive differently from them? Have two near-fatal collisions in my life have given me a glimpse of my own mortality and fragility? Is it because I'm a Mom and have become accustomed to protective parent mode? Do I care more about my car than they do theirs? Am I over-cautious? Are they thoughtless? Do they have that same sense of 'it won't happen to me' that sees people having unprotected sex or experimenting with addictive drugs? Do they rely on the other person giving way (a kind of 'chicken')? Are they playing the odds that no-one will come from the other side in the few seconds it takes them to get through the bend?

If you're someone who drives like my four close encounters yesterday, I'm really curious to know. What goes through your mind as you cross over the white line on that bend?

Monday, August 03, 2009


Alex Dawson has put out a request: Where do you find sanctuary? He invites replies in whatever medium you like: words, images, video, etc.

So here's mine. There are a few places.

The first is in prayer. When I pray I feel as if I am surrounded by an inviolate bubble. As if I have taken refuge in the biggest, safest lap in the universe.

The second, more corporeal place is right here. In these eyes:
Twenty one years later, after two children, innumerable wrinkles, several grey hairs (in spite of my best attempts with hair colour), and a significant increase in weight, he still looks at me with love, affection, fondness and - blow me down - desire.

The third is here. Our family room at home. People boggle at the colour scheme of neon colours but we absolutely love it. It is our family bolt hole, and we spend a lot of time here together.

Counting my blessings

As longer term readers will know, I had a bit of a bumpy ride on the journey to adulthood. Divorced parents in an age when this was uncommon. A permanent shortage of money which meant that I went without a lot of things my peers took for granted. Add to that some bad choices both on my mother's part and mine, and you have a recipe for disaster. The fact that my life is far from disastrous today, is something for which I am permanently grateful.

On a recent trip home, my Mom told me "You did a good job of raising yourself," which I took as an apology for the choices she made in respect of me. And it is true that, by and large, I did raise myself. My childhood was neither easy nor happy, but over the course of the last 24 hours, I have come across two different stories that put things into perspective.

This story in Cape Town's Cape Argus newspaper tells the story of a boy of 15 called Tapiwe who left Zimbabwe after the death of both his parents in search of a better life in South Africa, only to find that the streets were not paved with gold, after all. He became one of Cape Town's many homeless people, sleeping under a bridge. He worries about his little sister, whom he left in the care of neighbours back in Kwekwe. He hopes to be able to find a way to support her, but is unable to get work in South Africa because he is under age. The Adonis Musati Project is trying to help him complete his education and improve his chances of securing a decent job.

Last night, our church heard from a young man called Minjun from North Korea whose father died in prison when he was only 9 years old, after the authorities learned that he was making trips into China to earn money to feed his family. Because of his father's criminal record, he was unable to get into a decent school. At 17, without daring to tell his mother, he left North Korea for China and from there made his way to South Korea to start a new life. He struggles with guilt for having left without telling his mother and he worries about the treatment she will receive because of his 'betrayal'. He told us of the many people in N. Korea who are dying of starvation and of the poor medical care provision which saw his little brother die in early childhood of TB - an eminently treatable disease (my own father had it and was successfully treated).

What hammered these two stories home to me is that my elder son is the age that Minjun was when he fled from North Korea, while my younger son is the same age as Tapiwe. I am so glad that neither of them needs to have to face a journey like this, all alone.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Dead Aid

For anyone who has not yet cottoned on to why our current, conscience appeasing way of delivering humanitarian aid to Africa isn't working, please read this book. It wasn't written by a rock star or a Hollywood celeb. It was written by a Zambian economist called Dambiso Moyo.

This is one girl who has her head screwed on right. What a pity the big wigs aren't listening to her... yet!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Fun

CIO magazine has a list of forty great time-wasting sites for a Friday (you have to sit through a bit of an ad first, more's the pity). This one generates comic strips, but there are all sorts of other fun things to while away a Friday afternoon instead of working.

pic of the day - have we turned the corner?

I went to the hairdresser today for a long overdue haircut. The woman who owns the salon tells me that business is on the up and people are starting to book colour treatments again. Apparently, just a short while ago, people were doing their own colour treatments at home and only going into the salon for a cut and finish. Is this a sign of an increasing optimism? Has the recession bottomed out?

'scuse the photo - I'm not great at self portraits.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

pic of the day - my (brand) new car

We've taken advantage of the UK govt scrappage scheme and scrapped John's old banger. We also traded in my car and consolidated to get one brand new car. My first one. Ever. John has twice had brand new cars, but they have always been company cars, so it's a first for him, too. Apologies for the poor focus. My camera couldn't cope with the LCD.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

That first pay cheque

Do you remember your first pay cheque? What extravagance did you indulge in?

My elder son has a summer job working in an office. Today he received his first pay... well, it wasn't really a cheque, it was paid in by BACS transfer, but you know what I mean. He's had part time jobs before, but this is a full time, if temporary job. Rather well paid, too, for a lad of seventeen.

So how do you suppose he spoiled himself?

A box of 10 chocolate eclairs from the bakery, for the princely sum of £2.

He has always been careful with money. When he was little, he would ask for something such as, say, the Beano comic, to which my husband would respond, "Sure. You can buy it with your pocket money. That's what it's for." My son almost always chose to do without.

He does plan to take his girlfriend out for a nice dinner, but other than that, the money is earmarked for a car when he goes to university.

Shades of his paternal grandmother who grew up in the great depression and tends to turn a penny over five times before deciding to put it back into her pocket. It obviously skipped a generation, though - my husband doesn't have that kind of fiscal discipline!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Honest work

I recently heard a radio interview with Anna Sam. If you haven't already heard of her, I suspect her book is going to be a corker. I'm looking forward to reading it. To quote The Independent,

was part of a legion of 170,000 French women who are, in her words, “omnipresent but invisible”. She was a “beepeuse” (a woman who beeps) or, more officially, a “hôtesse de caisse” (till-hostess). In other words, she was a supermarket check-out girl.
She began to blog about her experiences, and, when her blog gained stellar popularity, this was repurposed as a book which is about to be translated into seven languages.

Her experiences should have us all playing closer attention to the way we treat the 'invisible people'. During her interview she shared how mothers often tell their children without attempting to lower their voices, that, unless they work harder at school, they're going to wind up stuck in a dead end job like this.

My children encountered similar snootiness at their previous school, where teachers frequently told kids that, unless they put in more effort, they would wind up flipping burgers at [insert franchise name here].

All over the UK at the moment immigrants from Latvia and Poland (among other places) are stacking supermarket shelves and picking and packing in warehouses. They are diligent and conscientious. Relieved to be working when so many are out of work. Some of them suffer abuse from their neighbours who hurl insults (and worse) at them for "coming over here and taking our jobs." Trouble is, said neighbours didn't want those jobs to begin with. To accept work of that nature would be to take on a label they were too proud to accept, because their parents and teachers told them that those jobs were beneath contempt.

Surely the burgers need to be flipped, the bins emptied, the shelves stacked and the merchandise picked and packed? Why should there be shame associated with providing this service? Admittedly, these are not highly paid jobs - they are not particularly highly skilled. But what of that? It's an honest day's work, which is more than can be said for some of the wheelers and dealers in the world of blue chips.

It's an odd society which doesn't want to do the work, but doesn't want any outsiders coming and doing it, either.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bad news? Good news?

Sometimes what one person thinks is bad news can strike another as good news. A forecast of rain might be bad news for the holidaymaker and great news for the farmer. It's all a matter of perspective.

Today, the geneticist told me I will be placed on an increased risk register and screened annually for breast cancer. Is this bad news? A doctor may have thought so.

For me, it's great news.

When we first moved to the UK a decade ago, I expected to able to have the same screening I had had in South Africa. There it had been elective, but my medical insurance had gladly paid for it. So, once a year, I had a mammogram and a professional palpation.

On the NHS, elective screening is not on offer, and I didn't have the money to opt for private screening. I explained my family history to them, but they were not convinced that this constituted a sufficiently increased risk to warrant screening over and above the standard provision of a three-yearly mammogram between the ages of 50 and 64. No palpations are made at all. I'm not sure what happens after 64.

The doctor who broke this news to me was puzzled that I didn't receive it cheerfully. Didn't I understand that he was telling me I was at no greater risk than the next person?

In the intervening years, additional events within my family have meant that I am now being offered the annual screening. I am delighted. The doctor who broke this news to me this morning fully understood this. Perhaps it helps that this time it was a woman.

Can you say safety net?

Perhaps we ought to bear in mind that perspective/paradigm can have a significant role to play in how the material we include in a learning resource is received by the learner. With this in mind, it is so sad that the learner is so seldom involved in the process of the development of new learning materials in the workplace.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A stirring video

I have John Zurovchak to thank for the link to this video. A well known song, but just see how the choir has used their bodies to recreate an African storm at the beginning. So creative.

I was deeply touched that the piece made him think of me! It fair choked me up.

pic of the day - sky

It's been some time since I posted one of these. I have been surprised to learn how many people have missed my daily photos both here and on Facebook. Primarily the combination of the volume of work going on in my dissertation and the worry about my son's girlfriend's health have been sidetracking me.

I am on day three of an induction workshop on a new contract, and this pic was taken at lunch time int he atrium area of the Regus offices in Southampton.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The worst case scenario

Never once when I was at school did I hear of a well-known children's author visiting a school to read some of his/her works. But, in the UK, this is a fairly common occurrence. There are even websites which make it possible for a school to find an author willing to do this.

Of course, the author gains exposure to his target audience, but he also gets to share some of his passion for literature, for stories, for the wonder of words with a new generation of children.

The children get to hear a new story, they get to meet a famous author.

You would have thought that it was a win-win situation.

But a group of Britain's best known children's authors have called a halt to these visits because of the introduction of a new vetting process designed to protect the children from would-be predators. Under the new scheme, people who want to work with children will have register on a national database at a cost of £64.

Yesterday morning, I heard Philip Pullman, who is one of the authors taking this stance, talking about their decision on the radio. He called it "dispiriting." As he points out "Children are abused in the home, not in classes of 30 or groups of 200 in the assembly hall with teachers looking on." I believe he has a point.

Anthony Horowitz is similarly put out, "After 30 years writing books, visiting schools, hospitals, prisons, spreading an enthusiasm for culture and literary, I find this incredibly insulting."

A DCSF spokesman explains "This is because visitors to schools, even if they are supervised by a teacher at all times, are being placed in a unique position of trust where they can easily become deeply liked and trusted by pupils."

What worries me is that we are teaching children and society at large to view with suspicion the relationship between an adult and a child, to view every child as a potential victim and every adult as a potential predator. Some schools have even banned parents from the schools' sports day and swimming galas for fear that one or two or 20 of the parents might have nefarious intentions.

I would have thought that the relationship between children and adults in society was under enough strain. Of course, it is nothing short of tragic when a child is abused by an adult. But is legislation like this not teaching children that is the norm? Are we not creating the impression that the State is there to protect the dear little children from the nasty, wicked grown ups?

I once knew a paedophile. I boarded in his house for my first 6 months at college. Fortunately for me, I was far too old for his tastes. But I can say that the girl who was the object of his twisted attentions at the time was the daughter of close friends of his. These were people who trusted him and were delighted that he was prepared to contribute to her upbringing so generously.

I deeply regret that I never had the courage to tell the child's parents what was going on under their very noses. Not that I think they would have believed me for a moment, of course.

I'm uncomfortable with the thought that we are placing every adult under suspicion with the measures we introduce. I predict that, rather than protecting our children, it will further polarise and fracture our society, thereby affording the deviant greater latitude in which to forge a relationship of trust with a child whose life is devoid of healthy relationships with an extended circle of adults.

But I pray that I'm wrong.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Making oneself (mis)understood

We had an evening of board games at our house tonight. Present were three Latvians who speak varying degrees of English, a South African (moi), two Swedish nationals - one with an English accent and one with a South African accent (my son and husband respectively), an Irishman and two English nationals, one of whom has a somewhat Zimbabwean accent. Quite a mixed bag!

We realised early on that we had to avoid some games because they were definitely biased towards the English speaking people present (Scene It, 30 Seconds, etc.). The evening went off very well, but there was a somewhat interesting interlude when one of the Latvians (the one with the strongest English) was playing battleships with the Irishman. She knew the rules. He didn't. So she was trying to explain them to him, but he was struggling with her accent and she was struggling to find the right words... and with his accent. Heck I struggle with his accent, too. It took me three attempts a few weeks ago to figure out what he meant when he told me that Obama had gone out for a 'borrgorr'.

Somehow the game got underway, but there were hiccups.

  • When he says A and E, they sound very similar to an unpractised ear
  • She calls H 'ush' while he calls it 'haitch' - so she kept thinking he was saying 8
  • In Latvian, the letter I is called 'ee' (as it is in several other languages) and she kept mixing the two up
But the best was G and J. They simply could not figure out which one the other meant. She would say G and he would ask, "Juh?" To which she would respond "Yes. Juh." Of course, she was no doubt thinking of words like geography, and had no idea that we call J 'juh' and G 'guh'. Then he would say J and she would have no idea which he meant either. Fittingly enough for a church group, they settled on J for Jesus and G for God.

Then, as I drove her home later, she told me how nervous she was about driving in England, because she is used to driving on the left. I pointed out that we do drive on the left in England, but that I had always thought they drove on the right in Latvia. No, she insisted. They drive on the left. It is we who drive on the right. Since we were in the car at the time, quite clearly driving on the left side of the road, I assumed she was confusing the words for left and right. Then it dawned on me. When we talk about the side on which we drive, we refer to the side of the road on which we travel. When she does, she refers to the side of the car on which the driver sits.

As we get to know these ladies better, I foresee many such misunderstandings, and it occurs to me that a simple translation isn't always enough to ensure clarity of understanding. There are frames of reference and paradigms in play.

For those of us who are called upon to develop multilingual resources, this might well be a consideration. It might be worth having a sense check with the translator and looking for a more readily understood transliteration instead.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The naïve persona

Recently, Irmelo Aro posted a link to the Logicomix site on her Facebook page which was accompanied by an extract from the site

The role of narrator is given to the most eloquent and spirited of the story’s protagonists, the great logician, philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell. It is through his eyes that the plights of such great thinkers as Frege, Hilbert, Poincaré, Wittgenstein and Gödel come to life, and through his own passionate involvement in the quest that the various narrative strands come together.
This set me thinking about the role of the narrator in a narrative and the skill that it takes to create such a persona. In particular, I thought of two very different books in which the narrator is anything but a great logician, etc. I had never thought about what it was that these two books had in common. But over the past few days it has dawned on me that the authors have used a similar device, albeit very differently applied, to similar effect. In both cases, the reader has the advantage over the narrator.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee creates Scout Finch, a tomboyish girl being raised -together with her older, more insightful brother - by her widowed father. Scout has little insight into the events playing out in her life, but she records them just the same, knowing that they are important but not sure why. We, the reader understand the nuances she has missed, and see a world of prejudice and injustice of which she remains blithely unaware.

In Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, the autistic teenager Christopher shares with us the contents of his photographic mind without any insight into what it is that those photographs show. Faithfully, he reproduces the minutiae of his observations, allowing us to piece together a story that is deeper and more poignant, with a greater impact on Christopher's life than he realises.

I wonder if there is a way to translate this device to the design of a learning resource - placing the user in the position of advantage, where they are able to make connections and draw conclusions which we have only obliquely revealed.


The things you can't give

Right now, my younger son's girlfriend is desperately ill in hospital. So ill that he isn't even allowed to see her. Stress levels in our house are through the roof, as you can imagine, although he is holding up better than I would under the circumstances, I think.

When my kids were little, their heartaches were over things that it was within my power to soothe. I could scoop them into my lap and hold them there while they sobbed, stroking their heads and making those meaningless soothing noises we make. As they have grown up, however, their problems have gone beyond my scope. Initially, I could still exert influence. Then I could help them with advice and support. Now their problems and heartaches include things in which I am about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Watching my son going through this agony, even trying to imagine the agony of the girl's parents fills me with a sense of urgency to do something that will make it right. And yet...

The helplessness I feel is utterly overwhelming. If I could donate health the way you can a kidney or a pint of blood, I would do it in a heartbeat. But there are some things you just can't gift (and I use the word deliberately) another person, no matter how willing you are, no matter what sacrifice you would be prepared to make to see it happen.

You can't give a dyslexic person the ability to see the letters the right way around and in the proper order. I used to volunteer at my kids' primary school, doing extra reading with the kids who struggled. There was one little girl who simply could not get the squiggles on the page to resolve into anything meaningful. I tried and tried to help her.... and failed. She was no better at reading when I left than she had been when I started.

When someone dies, you can't give their loved ones relief from the agony of loss. How many times have you been faced with that sympathy card at the office, in which you must write something meaningful for someone whose idea of normality has just been turned on its head?

You can't give the gift of empathy to a person with the autistic spectrum disorders that deprive them of that. Sure you can teach them cognitive processes to use to identify other people's feelings, but that still falls far short.

You can't make it possible for a colour blind person to see the world in technicolour.

There are some things you simply cannot fix. Some gifts you simply cannot give. Some lessons you simply cannot ensure that people will ever learn.

There is a scene in one of the Neverending Story movies in which the evil witch/queen has stolen all but one of Bastian's memories. He has but one left, which he will lose the next time he makes a wish. In a moment of astonishing insight, he says "I wish you had a heart." Of course, his wish is granted, which reverses all the ill that has been done as the temptress reverses all her actions in a wave of remorse.

And if I had that power for even a moment, would I have the insight to wield it exactly right? Probably not.

I am willing. I am not able.

Tough lesson to learn... and mine is probably one of the easier ones among those affected.

No applause, please, we're posh

Now that we're in the height of summer, a great English tradition is getting underway. Friday sees the start of the BBC Proms season. This is a series of classical music concerts held around the country which has been running for 115 years, now. The prices are low, and include standing room tickets. There is no dress code and, while children under the age of 5 are not permitted within the auditorium, parents of older children are encouraged to bring them along.

For the past 14 years, the programme has included Proms in the Park which takes place in the open air of London's Hyde Park, in which the programme is extended to include more contemporary pop music.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the idea is to widen the appeal of serious music. To take this music to John Commoner who might not otherwise get to hear it and, even if he does, can probably not afford to attend performances very often.

I think it's a lovely idea.

This morning I discovered that there are those who object to it. One man in particular, whose name I (fortunately) missed, was being interviewed on the radio. He objects to the gaucheness of the inexperienced audience. He didn't quite put it like that, but that's what it amounts to. He finds it unacceptable that they applaud between movements and then don't allow a moment of silence before applauding at the end of a piece. To make things even more complicated for the earnest soul who would like to get it right so as not to offend the cognoscenti, it seems that it is in fact fine to burst into applause at the end of a spirited piece. It is only at the end of a more reflective piece that one should take time to allow the music to die away completely before applauding. The man was of the view that the silence at the end of such a piece is very much a part of the music. He's probably right.

I've never really paid conscious attention to my own applauding habits at a recital, but I'm pretty sure I break some of the rules.

The presenter had the courage to suggest to the man that he being was a bit of a snob. I'm with him.

Perhaps that moment of reverential silence at the end of a piece is the result of a deep appreciation for the beauty of the piece, the emotions it evokes, the skill of the musicians. But how can we learn that appreciation if we are never exposed to such works? And in the early stages of our exposure, our appreciation must still grow.

Perhaps our man has no appreciation for Chinese folk music, for example, because he has no insight into it. So, how would he respond the first few times he hears a performance? Will his behaviour meet with the approval of long-standing fans? If not, should he just stay away so as not to cause offence?

Let's pretend you and I are the cognoscenti of... oh, I don't know... learning, for argument's sake. Let's pretend some members of our audience simply have no regard for the 'proper' way to learn, the right way to use a learning resource, the deep, rich experience that is learning.


Are we to take a leaf out of this man's book and find fault with them? Are we to deride their lack of sophistication? Or are we to delight in the fact that they are making an effort to broaden their experience, to recognise that we are in a very privileged position and to determine to do our very best work so as to awaken in them a passion they didn't even know they had?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Saturday's pic of the day - garden

I wish I could say that this is how my garden looks. This is the garden in which we spent Saturday afternoon sharing a cream tea with some of the other leaders from our church.

Friday, July 10, 2009

pic of the day - ecclesiastes 3:2

This butterfly has decided that my bathroom is the place it wants to meet its end. It isn't quite dead yet, but by tomorrow morning it will all be over. Such a short lifespan, but such beauty while it lasts.

What would YOUR label say?

One of my teenage Facebook friends was experimenting recently with one of those random status generators. One day her status read something along the lines of: If I were to wear a packaging label, what would it say? My response was highly complimentary, just for the record.

I was thinking about that yesterday and it reminded me of a few incidents.

The first was many years ago, when I was in a hairdressing salon. A wealthy woman, of the sort who brings a tiny white dog to the salon with her, was having her hair washed. Suddenly, she leapt to her feet and stormed over to the manager. "I have been asking the shampoo girl to bring me another cup of tea, and she is just ignoring me! She is unspeakably rude! Don't you teach your staff about customer service?"

"Sorry about that, Mrs X, but she isn't rude, she's deaf. When she is standing behind you at the basin and can't see your mouth moving, she doesn't realise you're speaking to her. I'll arrange some more tea for you."

"Deaf? Well why didn't she tell me? She should wear a sign around her neck that says 'I'm deaf' so that people know!"

At this, the manager's client spoke coolly from her chair, without even turning her head, "Why? You don't wear one that says 'I'm a self-important bitch.'"

Of course, the woman stormed out of the salon in high dudgeon, with shampoo still in her hair.

Some years later, I had a deaf student in the IT college where I was working. Because of her disability, she had been unable to find a post working with early years children as she had qualified to do, and was packing shelves in the local supermarket. To my horror, I came across her one day, wearing a large badge proclaiming I AM DEAF.

It was my turn to storm to the manager and demand an explanation.

The manager said that they didn't want there to be complaints that Rachel (not her real name) was rude, so they thought it best to warn customers. Perhaps he was related to the hair salon woman! I said, "Two things. First - she wears a large, old-fashioned hearing aid, plainly visible because her hair is always tied up. There's your 'warning' to the customers. Second - perhaps that guy over there should wear a sign warning of his speech impediment that makes it difficult to follow what he's saying, and that one should wear one that says that he's not terribly bright, and the woman on your customer service counter should wear one that says that she's just plain rude. All these things are no less likely to affect the level of customer service they offer. I know! Perhaps everyone should wear a label. What would yours say?"

I didn't stick around long enough to find out what his would say. I was shaking with rage and indignation at the thought of the humiliation Rachel had been forced to endure, and I had to get out of there.

Yesterday, I demonstrated that I should probably wear a label that warns people that my fixation with resolution and the 'big pink bow' in every situation causes me to ride roughshod over people's feelings from time to time. I tend to assume that people want to know the answers, you see.

In response to a comment on one of my recent posts, I related an incident during my final year of school. We were being given a series of lessons on relationships (beyond just sex ed), and the teacher was explaining to us how, as women, we should just learn to let the man win in a dispute. That it would be better for the relationship in the long run. I asked, "Why not just take out the encyclopaedia (yes, it was that long ago!) and look it up?" She snapped back, "Yes, I also used to be a big mouth, and it cost me my first marriage!"

Well, I have been happily married for 21 years and I still prefer the option of 'looking it up'. I'm not talking about when you're arguing about matters of principle, which are dependent on subjective codes of morality, ethics, etc. I'm talking about when you and your husband can't agree whether there were more deaths in Germany or Russia during WWII, when you are sure that Aunty Beryl was wearing a wig at your wedding, but your Mom says not. Verifiable facts. Stuff that you can look up. Because when you have looked it up, you both know. You have certainty. You have resolution. You have your big pink bow. Sure, somebody no doubt 'won' the argument and somebody 'lost', but that's a side issue.

Perhaps I should go through life wearing a big pink bow.

What would your label say? What labels have you allocated -perhaps subconsciously - to your learners?