Monday, 30 August 2010

Melancholy moods

I haven't felt much like writing anything much just lately - so I haven't! In fact, to tell the truth I haven't felt much like anything else either. I don't really know why: maybe it's the tell-tale signs of another summer drawing to a close. It was good while it lasted, but all too brief. The long hot spell fizzled out rather unceremoniously into the more usual British combination of cloud and rain: although as I write this it's sunny outside and the rain has eased off today, there's nevertheless a distinct chill in the air with the promise of another cold night. Autumn is not far off.

Or maybe I'm just feeling my age (more than usual). Unfulfilled promises, missed opportunities - and underneath it all the hope that tomorrow will be better than today. Perhaps a bit more of the good old 'carpe diem' wouldn't go amiss? Quite possibly.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Getting a result

This week, as round about the same time in every year, I was interested to see the publication of the A Level results. Congratulations must go of course to the 27% who scored a grade A, and especially to the one in twelve who scored the new A*. I daresay the record numbers will once again fuel the debate over whether A Levels are "easier" than they used to be. I spotted, tucked away towards the bottom of the article, a table showing that when I took mine back in 1966, I was one of around only just over 8% of pupils to get a Grade A for two of mine - a figure which looks as if it remained fairly constant for the next two decades before starting to climb steadily. There's now a huge range of subjects offered at A level - some traditional and some more 'esoteric' - compared to the academic ones in my day, for which a decent grade of O level pass was usually required before you could even start the course.

All that is small consolation for the significant numbers of students who have so far been unable to secure a university place. The pressure in that area seems to be there every bit as much ever, going to university still being the 'ultimate goal' to follow on from a successful education at school just as it used to be. And so off I went, at the age of 17, with high hopes and aspirations for the future. Fate decided otherwise, however, and after only two terms I dropped out - one of apparently around 15% of students to do so, I found out later. I've always felt guilty about it: whichever way you slice it, it was a wasted opportunity and nowadays there are a whole number of different alternative courses and other options which might've saved the day. Perhaps rather bizarrely it's something I've always avoided revealing to anybody, and I think this is only the second time I've actually written about it.

But of course life doesn't always turn out the way you plan it, and while I've often wondered idly over the years what would have become of me had I pursued the idea of becoming a linguist, or *shudders* a teacher, I don't feel I've done too badly. I've survived to tell the tale, anyway!

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Will the person who has 12,000 of our books on loan please return some of them.

According to the local paper today, there are apparently 12,000 library books missing over the last three years. It's not altogether clear exactly what "missing" means, as the article starts off talking about knowing who's got them but not how to get them back, which isn't really "missing" as in 'we don't know where they are'.

When I was working in libraries, people who borrowed stuff from us generally brought it back, and most of them did so on time, although the fines levied on those who didn't were a nice little earner for the Council. The cry of "What!! I could've bought it for that amount" inevitably resulted whenever the charge rose to more than a couple of quid, and the likelihood of getting something back decreased more or less in proportion to the rate at which the fines went up. For a while, I think at the auditors' suggestion, they experimented with taking people to Court, but needless to say the people they chose to sue hadn't got any money, so it was simply an experiment in pouring further money down the drain without getting a result. Peversely enough, the one thing that did seem to work was "sending the boys round": contrary to what you might've expected, most people were quite relieved to get the books off their hands without further ado, which was the main object of the exercise.

On the other hand, the article's a bit vague over whether theft (as in taking a book without actually bothering to "borrow" it first) is included in the figures. It always used to be difficult to quantify this, as it was often simply the fact you couldn't find something when a customer asked for it which prompted the "missing?" categorization. Even then there wasn't any conclusive proof it hadn't simply been put back in the wrong place. I won't go into all the ins and outs of security systems other than to say that it's not really feasible to tag every £2.99 paperback in and out each time - any more than it is for a supermarket to tag every tub of margarine that they sell.

But given that book borrowing from libraries has been declining steadily for a number of years now, it seems logical to suppose that book losses have too, and the comparative figures they've quoted in the article do seem to bear out that inference.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Big Brother is watching... but Big Sister talks as well!

A "news" item this morning writes about the hidden identity of the 'mystery voice' behind self-service checkouts at supermarkets. Other than saying that she - it's obviously (and apparently deliberately) a female - reminds me of a primary school teacher addressing a group of slightly backward six-year olds, I don't really care who she is. But as with many such articles, the interesting part I find is the comments people have been making in response to it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly it's revealing a 'love-it-or-loathe-it' pattern of comments, with rather more than I personally would've anticipated expressing opposition on the grounds of job losses. With a bank of six self-serve terminals, the "attendant", as he/she is called, can in theory serve six customers compared to the one at a staffed checkout - but not all six at the same time: it's simply redistributing the waiting. Ideally, most of the six wouldn't need help, but in practice they do - which highlights the other common type of comment, namely that they're unnecessarily awkward to use.

Having got some six months' experience of using them regularly now, I'd say that they seem to be designed mainly on the assumption that the customer is going to put a basket of stuff through slowly and carefully, one item at a time. Whacking a trolley-load through quickly and expertly does seem to throw it a bit, and 'Madam The Voice' can't keep up with you. A mismatch between how the store thinks customers are going to use something, compared to how they actually do in practice, perhaps?

But queues or not, my guess is that they have a very long way to go before they overtake traditional staffed checkouts as most customers' preferred way of paying.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Bonfire of the Quangos

Whenever we need to get a prescription re-ordered from the Doctor's surgery, I send them an e-mail: it's quick, free, convenient and - until recently - reliable. However, the chemist had apparently been told there wasn't anything ready last time they went to collect it, and the receptionists have been claiming not to have received the order. So since it was the third time this has happened, I decided I'd had enough. I don't know how reliable or otherwise the NHS mail servers are, but on the assumption that it may be an IT problem rather than any particular fault of the surgery's, I contacted NHS Coventry - the body responsible for running NHS services locally, and soon-to-be-abolished under the government's new Quango-purging initiative.

This morning I got the paperwork telling me how they're going about *hopefully* getting something done about the problem. There was also a two-page 'anti-discrimination' questionnaire. Normally I just bin these pieces of nosey politically-correct nonsense, but this particular one took the biscuit. As well as asking for my postcode (which was on the envelope they'd sent it in) and my sex (which they could have had a shot at deducing from the "Mr" it was addressed to), it asked whether I was - amongst other things - bisexual, agnostic or gender-reassigned. Huh?? What the hell has that got to do with why my e-mails are going missing? Any questions, it said, could be directed to the "Head of Equality and Human Rights". With a title like that, he or she has got to be earning more in a day than I get in a week. Whatever.... I bet they'll make a superb 'guy' with which to crown this particular Quango bonfire!

Monday, 9 August 2010

The information age

A couple of unrelated posts/messages today got me thinking about how much we take the Internet for granted nowadays as an easy way of finding out about everything.

When I was a small boy, growing up in a Wiltshire village, most of what I learned I was taught at school. I don't think I was particularly inquisitive anyway: if my parents took me out anywhere I might've asked about something I found interesting, but if they didn't know the answer that would generally have been the end of it. We didn't have any books to speak of at home: I don't know if the village had a library but I don't remember going to one, and when we eventually got a TV there was only one channel with no daytime programmes. We didn't have a phone, but occasionally sent off a coupon for something-or-other and by the time it came I'd usually lost interest in whatever it was.

Hobbies, too, were pretty much restricted in the same way. I think it was while we were still in Germany that I started an embryonic stamp collection. I liked the bright attractive design of the German stamps, and I got the occasional British one if anyone sent us anything from back home. But I suppose to have progressed anywhere with it would've entailed buying a magazine or a book, or maybe joining a club. I suppose I just wasn't that interested in the end. I don't know what happened to it, I didn't keep it - but I did start collecting coins once our travels took us further afield, and I still have a small tin full of assorted coins from Germany, Hong Kong and points inbetween, including a bundle of Hong Kong 1-cent notes, which I imagine have got to be the ultimate in "not worth the paper they're printed on". Incidentally I also salvaged a complete range of 1960s pre-decimal money (sadly not a mint set, so they're not worth anything) but even down to the lowly farthing which I remember having to use in Junior school arithmetic lessons, but not the real thing in practice. I never bothered getting hold of a coin catalogue which would've been the only real way to see if I'd got anything rare enough to be of any value, though.

And of course I wouldn't have been able to keep an online diary. I could have kept a written one - but I was certainly no Pepys, and while with the benefit of hindsight it's perhaps a shame I can't look back and see what I was thinking and doing as I grew up, in all honesty it wouldn't have much more than idle curiosity value at best and at worst might well have distorted some things into assuming much more significance than they actually had.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Rough and tumble

I was looking at an email or two earlier, when my attention was distracted by some piercing screaming in the street outside: it sounded like someone was being murdered! I got up to take a look out of the window, and saw that the toddler across the street must've fallen off his bike and hurt himself. His mother came out and correctly worked out that the screaming was almost certainly in inverse proportion to the actual physical damage and calmed him down a bit before scooping up him and the bike.

A bit later on, I took the dog out to do as nature required, and he spotted us and waved. As we waved back I didn't notice a plaster or anything: he got back on his bike and rode up and down the drive once more, apparently none the worse for the experience. I daresay it'll become part of dozens of uneventful everyday childhood mishaps that he won't even remember in years to come.

I doubtless had many of the same experiences at his age. When I was leafing through some old photo albums at my sister's at Christmas, I came across a snapshot of me on a bike (or a trike, in fact) - I don't remember having it, riding it or falling off it - yet I obviously did the first two, and probably all three. If I had an accident, my mother would apply whatever was necessary - be a it a kiss, a wipe over, or a plaster - and it was soon forgotten. However traumatic I probably made it sound when it happened, the natural resilience of a young child heals all sorts of wounds without in most cases leaving so much as a trace to remember them by.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Old chestnuts

A news article today resurrects the age-old argument about tongue piercings being bad for your teath, citing "research" carried out at the University of Buffalo and reported in the Journal of Clinical Orthodontics. All sounds very authoritative, but whatever the research consisted of, it hasn't discovered anything new - the claims of tongue piercings damaging teeth have been doing the rounds for as long as the piercing itself has, certainly for as long as I can remember, anyway.

It's fairly self-evident that if you deliberately scrape a metal object against your teeth, then sooner or later it's going to wear the enamel away: that is, after all, the whole principle on which a dentist's drill works! More spurious is the claim that "constant pushing of the stud against the teeth - every day with no break - will move them or drive them apart" You don't do this naturally, not with a standard centre tongue barbell, any more than you suck your thumb or a dummy constantly. And with more of an eye on the sensationalism than the facts, the author of the article couldn't resist the temptation to mention the alleged link to brain abscesses - an extremely rare and unlikely complication, especially when compared to the many thousands of tongue piercings performed safely and successfully every year.

My tongue piercing is now nearly ten years old. Most of the time I'm not really aware of it: it doesn't cause me any trouble. I've had my fair share of teeth problems and expensive dentistry, but that's more or less entirely down to lapses in teeth brushing and deficiencies in general oral hygiene!

Friday, 6 August 2010

A brief trip back in time

I got hold yesterday of an old copy of "Warwickshire & Worcestershire Life" - which I vaguely remember as a very expensive glossy upmarket monthly magazine, long since defunct (or at least in that particular format). What made it interesting for me is that it had an illustrated 4-page article - from December 1970 - about my old school. There was a bit of a historical introduction, but mainly it took the form of an extended interview with 'Fred' Williamson, my old Headmaster.

It was written around the time that successive governments were alternately introducing and then abandoning plans to turn education comprehensive and the article concluded (rather optimistically in the light of subsequent events) that it seemed "unlikely that there will be any dramatic change in status during the next four of five years". In fact by 1974 plans to 'go comprehensive' had been approved and Leamington College for Boys ended life as a grammar school three years later.

The Headmaster is quoted as saying that he foresaw the end of the eleven-plus in its then-current format but that he couldn't see how you could "avoid streaming in a comprehensive school with a wide IQ range". The article adds that streaming had been abandoned at the Boys College - which must've only just happened: it was still in full swing when I was a pupil there. Prompted presumably by the interviewer to sum up the school in a catch-phrase, "A good all-rounder" is used as the title for the piece. I think I'd tend to agree with that. It was an interesting choice of phrase, too, in the context of the present tendency for schools to push for some sort of particular specialism status, though I suppose arguably a grammar school is (or was) a specialism in itself?

Monday, 2 August 2010

Burn, baby, burn

Today I finally got round to backing up some of my computer files onto CDs. It's one of those things I'd been meaning to do for a while, that I used to do more-or-less regularly and got out of the habit of. I've been doing automated back-ups on a weekly schedule for some time, but of course they're not really going to be of much use if the whole machine goes wrong or the hard drive crashes and I can't access anything at all. The PC I've got now has a pre-installed version of Nero 8, which I actually bought a copy of some time ago for the computer I had before: although it's not the latest version it does the job in a nice hassle-free way, so I'm not in any hurry to upgrade it. I'm a definite believer in the theory that the easier a routine chore is to do, the more likely you are to do it!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Work till you drop

I took Raggs for her customary walk in the woods this morning: being a bright little bean she's cottoned on fast to the significance of Sunday morning and starts to stamp her feet if she thinks I'm not getting ready quickly enough. It's an innovation which I introduced in fact after I gave up work altogether in October 2008 - almost two years ago now - and certainly it's been a change for the better.

I can't say I was sorry to give up work, and I'm more than a little mystified by some of the thinking behind the government's new idea of
scrapping a "fixed retirement age". While in theory allowing workers who want to carry on working and who are capable of it is a 'good idea', it's inevitably I think going to produce a situation in which those who don't want to carry on are effectively forced to, simply because they can't afford not to - especially when the pension age starts to rise.

The other effect it's almost certainly going to produce is a worsening of the already high levels of youth unemployment as fewer jobs are 'freed up' through retirement. If you make the assumption that there aren't enough jobs to go round for everybody, then faced with a choice between bored pensioners with no job and nothing to do and bored youths in the same boat, it's a bit of a no-brainer to work out which is going to cause the most trouble!