Greg's Occasional News & Views

Monthly Archives: March 2010

28 March 2010

Good morning to you all on a somewhat dull day in beautiful, downtown Byfield although it’s difficult to judge at this early stage what sort of day it will develop into. It could be nice and sunny; it could stay grey and dreary. For all the discussion last weekend about Spring being ready to “burst” upon us like an atomic explosion, we are still waiting. While it’s not reverted to freezing temperatures, snow and gales (yet), we’re certainly not baking in delightfully warm or sunny temperatures; cool, overcast and decidedly dull. One can see that everything is aching to burst forth but so far most of nature seems to be keeping its head down waiting to see if the forecasters really have got something right this time. We’ll let you know but the outlook for the next week is not particularly promising; I was informed by Ms Playchute that the coming week is indeed going to revert to its formerly frigid status and the woolly jumpers, long underwear, overcoats and gloves will not get consigned to the winter storage facilities (i.e., the hooks underneath all the other stuff) for some time to come, it seems.

How do you face life’s little dilemmas, such as the one which confronted me recently? Yesterday evening Ms Playchute produced a feast of outstanding quality (and before I get myself into trouble, her feasts are always of outstanding quality). The dilemma? Which part of the banquet to eat first and which to save and savour until the end? Naturally, the carrots were dispatched first; one clearly has to get rid of such less than delightful plate-fillers before tackling the main course. Pork, roast potatoes, spinach & parmesan cakes, sausage meat stuffing, gravy and mushrooms and crisp crackling. Now, you tell me, which would you eat first and which would you save ‘til the end? And, what would be the last mouthful? Are you like me? Once you dispatch the carrots and other less desirable root crops (apart from potatoes, of course), divide the rest up into more or less equal portions deciding, as you work your way through the masterpiece, which combination to savour for the last mouthful? Or, do you work your way through each ingredient until the only remaining mouthful is your favourite?

Just for the record, my last mouthful consisted of a mixture of stuffing, potato, gravy, mushroom; the last morsel of pork had been dispatched in the previous mouthful.

The great excitement this week (for me, at least; Penny would just as soon watch paint dry) was the arrival of a new desktop computer. I can certainly sympathise with Pam’s message in the week about waiting three days for the computer to get to a state where one can actually do something. The one I have been using I’ve had for about eight years, I think, and although it is still going strong (luckily) I need to be able to do the sort of work I do for schools now a days, considerably more quickly. Actually, having said that, I don’t know why. If the computer is slow I get more opportunities to lean back in my chair and spend a happy few moments in an idle day dream. What was I thinking??!!

Having eight years of “stuff” on the old computer means that I’ve probably got about eight years worth of wading through everything before I determine what needs transferring to the new computer and what can happily be discarded. It’s so easy just to copy everything across but I am determined to resist that temptation and keep the new computer relatively clean. So, the old one is still chuntering away on the corner of the desk and every so often I realise that it has something I need and, at that point, we copy it across the network. This one is sweet, I have to say, and I am grateful to the boys for providing excellent technical advice in helping me to decide which one I should purchase. So far, so good and not too much wailing, tearing of hair or gnashing of teeth.

The following caught my eye on the BBC web site.

Teacher presents ‘competitive’, says union 

Apple

The days of apples for presents are gone

Giving presents to teachers is becoming increasingly commercialised and competitive, a teachers’ union warns.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) says pupils and parents should not feel pressurised into buying end-of-term gifts for their teachers.

In a survey of 1,000 of its members, the ATL found 93% had received gifts.

The most popular present was chocolate (85% of gifts), but one teacher was given opera tickets, another Test match tickets and another champagne.

The survey revealed some particularly lavish gifts, which included:

  • A Tiffany bracelet
  • A Mulberry handbag
  • A brace of pheasants

But not every teacher was so fortunate. One received a half-eaten chocolate bar, while another was given a ripped book with pages missing.

And one teacher reportedly received “a second-hand photo album with dog hair all over it”.

After chocolates, flowers or plants were the most popular gift (53%), followed by alcohol (49%) and toiletries (48%).

The most common time of year to receive a gift was at the end of the academic year (70%), followed by religious festivals such as Christmas, Hanukah or Eid (63%).

Most schools and colleges (59%) did not have a policy on gifts from pupils, the ATL survey found.

On Monday, ATL members will debate a motion at their annual conference in Manchester on whether the practice of giving gifts has become too competitive.

Primary school teacher Chris Clarke said: “Although I am very grateful that pupils and their parents appreciate what I do for them, I do feel that in our school there is a culture of present-giving that can become almost unhealthy.

“I make a point of especially praising those pupils who make gifts or cards rather than buy them.”

Pressure from shops
Kathy White, a head of department in a further education college, said: “I think the pressure to give gifts to teachers has been increased by the card shops as at the end of year there are a wide range of gifts.

“The best ‘gift’ I have ever received is a card made by a group of learners where each contributed, adding how I had changed their lives and how my belief in them had motivated them.”

ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “Although most staff like getting presents from their pupils to show their hard work is appreciated, they don’t expect them.

“Staff certainly don’t want their pupils to feel they have to give presents and feel humiliated if they can’t afford to do so.

“Staff are just as delighted by a handmade gift or card – the thought really does count.”

The ATL surveyed 1,016 primary, secondary and further education staff in February and March.

Well, I certainly never received a Tiffany bracelet when I was teaching and, indeed, I am struggling to remember ever having received a gift at all. (Perhaps it’s mainly primary aged pupils who tend to give presents, he says hopefully).

And finally, this was also on the BBC site sometime this week:

ButterA butter sculptor from Leicestershire is hoping his minutely detailed works of art will win the world cup at a competition in Luxembourg.

Vipula Athukorale is aiming to claim the top prize at the Salon International de la Gastronomie in November against other food artists.

The level of detail in his work is so fine that he cannot even breathe on the butter before cutting figures.

He explains to Nina Warhurst how he gets the level of detail into his work.

And, if you want to see some of these masterpieces and to know what he says to Nina Warhurst, you can find the clip here.

And finally, finally, the bastards have done it again. I woke up this morning to discover that the idiots have taken another hour from me without my consent. I looked out the window at the sheep in the neighbouring field and they couldn’t care less what time the clock said; they were happily grazing. The wood pigeon on the pergola similarly didn’t give a toss for the time of day: the sun was up and so was he/she. Why do we put up with it??!!

Love to you all,

Greg

 

21 March 2010

Man, is my NCAA basketball bracket in a mess after yesterday’s upsets. How is everyone else’s? At least my overall pick for the championship is still in the mix.

According to an article on the Guardian web site, Spring is getting ready to EXPLODE in the UK. “Get on with it,” is what we say!

Apparently, this has been the longest and hardest winter in the UK for thirty years with twice as many frosty nights as usual. Well, at least that’s what the Met Office (those pesky weather forecasters) say and, while they may not be so hot at predicting the weather, I guess they do know what they’re talking abut when they are reflecting on the weather gone by. So, I think we’ll have to take their word for it and, I have to say, this is also our perception.

Snowdrops at Chipping WardenAccording to the article, swathes of the countryside which should be green by now are still dull and grey and many spring flowers could be delayed by up to a month! But it’s not all bad news: amongst those celebrating the late arrival of spring are galanthophiles or lovers of Snowdrops (no, I didn’t know what it meant either). Indeed, our personal observations would suggest that there certainly are an abundance of snowdrops this year, great swathes of white brushed across the river banks and under the trees. Others who are delighted with the news of a record-breaking cold winter are those who enjoy the company of bats; the hard, cold winter provides an opportunity for a deep, refreshing hibernation, especially amongst the baby bats. So, that’s good news.

On the other hand, small birds traditionally suffer through a cold winter as do herons and kingfishers if the water is frozen for any significant period of time. Thank goodness Penelope’s Pantry provided some welcome sustenance during the really cold and snowy days.

Still, today is the vernal equinox so at least we are headed in the right direction. And, according to the same article, the swallows, swifts, willow warblers, ring ouzel and housemartins are well on their migratory way back to the UK. We’ll let you know when ours arrive.

Now for the bad news: the Met Office is “predicting” that Spring is set to explode. However, based on previous experiences, their powers of prediction are somewhat limited (witness last summer’s prediction of a “barbeque” summer and the repeated warnings of Himalayan snow-drifts). Since they’ve now predicted it, does this mean that Spring will never arrive?

I commented a few weeks ago about the 40 something males who participate in a vigorous workout in the Jacuzzi at the gym each week. I have another observation which I hope someone can explain. Why are adolescent young men under the impression that spraying litres of aerosol deodorant all over themselves is a substitute for soap and water?

VI see these lads in the changing rooms who have just returned from a strenuous bit of exercise; they might have been lifting weights in the gym or, more probably, played in a football/soccer match in the sports hall. They come to the changing room dripping with perspiration yet the concept of a shower after exercise is clearly absurd. So, instead they wipe themselves off with a towel, get dressed and then proceed to spray enough aerosol deodorant to suffocate a small village all over themselves and, get this, their clothes!

Notice that the preferred sequence is to get at least partially dressed before utilising the deodorant – I am not kidding nor making this up. After getting more or less dressed, they open their shirt and spray their underarms, chest and stomach. I’ve not yet observed anyone stretching the band of their Jockey shorts to spray their nether regions but I am guessing that this is not beyond the realm of possibility. Then, having ensured that the top half of their torso is sufficiently deodorised, they then spray all over their shirt and/or sweater as well!

Clearly their objective here is to mask the stench of their exercise with the “perfume” provided by the deodorant, rather similar to the way in which the Elizabethan aristocracy would indeed use perfume to mask their smells in the 16th century. Still, this is the 21st century and we have ready access to plentiful, warm water and soap. I appreciate that the advertising industry has convinced generations that the only way a young woman/girl will be remotely interested in you is because of the scent provided by a particular brand of deodorant but I am not buying it.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of saving time or perhaps it’s because they’re hoping that any young women who venture sufficiently close to these lads will be overcome by the fumes and faint at their feet. Any thoughts?

Yours smelling lovely without the use of gallons of deodorant,

Love to you all,

Greg

14 March 2010

Good morning to you all on what hopefully looks as if it could turn in to a fairly reasonable and tolerable day. The sky is clear (at the moment), the temperature, while not excessively comfortable is, at least not flesh-freezingly frigid and the forecast is not half bad. If it doesn’t deteriorate we could be looking at the first real bike ride of the new decade! We’ll see.

While I didn’t get to physically meet her, I recently had the opportunity of accompanying Ms Playchute to the home of her New Best Friend. She was walking Molly across the fields the other day and came across a woman who was similarly walking two golden retrievers. They got to chatting as fellow dog-walkers often do and, during the course of the discussion Penny was asked whether she was a gardener. When the answer was in the affirmative, Penny’s NBF revealed that she has an enormous mountain of fabulously, well-rotted horse manure and that if Ms Playchute wanted any she was more than welcome to come round and remove any amount.

We’ve had previous descriptions In the Befouled Weakly News of the affection with which Ms Playchute adores well-rotted manure. So, as you can imagine, when Penelope arrived home after the walk she was ecstatic with delight and, a few days later at the first available opportunity, she scoured the garage and back garden collecting every conceivable container so that she could go along and collect a car-full of manure. Naturally, I was anxious and keen to be of assistance, hence my opportunity of visiting the home of Penelope’s NBF. It seems that the NBF was off to their holiday home in France for a week or so but we were able to clamber all over a smouldering pile of poo and transport several car-loads back which have now been dispersed around the raised vegetable beds and the back borders. She still needs several more loads so perhaps I’ll get to meet the NBF after all.

We’ve had a couple of great days this week in the sense of being bright and sunny but it has remained stubbornly cold. Still, Spring cannot be too far away: the snow drops are up, the daffodils are just about ready to pop open, yesterday Leamington was awash with the lovely colours of swathes of crocuses and some of the trees are just beginning to show the faintest tinge of colour at the tips of the branches. Surely, it won’t be too much longer, please!

Our expedition to Leamington yesterday was to provide some modest assistance to Nick and Lucy who were moving from one side of the town to the other. The new place is in Cubbington very near where they lived for a number of years on Roxburgh Crescent. The new place – 111 Stirling Avenue, Cubbington, Leamington Spa, CV32 7HW – is very nice and, most importantly, has more room and a nice garden. In particular, it has more space in one of the three bedrooms so that Nick can have a bit more space in his study for all the stuff he needs. Once they get settled it will be very nice indeed.

Finally, here’s something that we never knew before!

Absent-mindedness is a middle-aged male problem, research shows
Women come out best in listening and recollection tests in study by University of London’s Institute of Education

It’s been an endless source of aggravation between the sexes; how can men so easily forget birthdays, anniversaries, and even friends’ names?

Not, it seems, because they cannot be bothered to remember. Research suggests that, in middle age at least, absent-minded-ness is a particularly male problem.

At the age of 50, women’s verbal memory outperforms their male counterparts by a significant margin, a report by the Institute of Education, University of London suggests.

A survey of more than 9,600 middle-aged British men and women showed that women outscored men in two listening and recollection tests.

“Men performed significantly more poorly in the verbal memory tests: particularly on the delayed memory test,” the authors, Matthew Brown and Brian Dodgeon, said.

“This was quite a surprising result, since women turning 50 tend to do worse: another study has shown that during the menopause women do not do so well.”

Participants in the first test listened to 10 common words being read out and were then given two minutes to recall as many as possible. The second test required them to list the same 10 words about five minutes later. Women scored almost 5% more than men, on average, in the first test, and nearly 8% more in the second.

Women were less accurate in a third test requiring them to cross out as many “Ps” and “Ws” as possible in a page filled with rows of random letters. They had, however, scanned letters faster than men.

In a fourth test, naming as many animals as they could in a minute, men and women had identical scores. Each could name 22 animals, on average. The study did not test whether men are better than women at recalling numbers; previous studies have shown that women tend to do better on word recognition tests.

Those tested were members of the National Child Development Study who have been tracked since their birth in 1958. They were tested at age 16, and the latest tests will help estimate the impact that exercise, diet, smoking, alcohol and depression have had on mental abilities. Initial analysis shows those who exercised at least once a month did better on all tests, on average, than those who did not. Non-smokers, including ex-smokers, also outscored smokers in the first of the “word recall” tests, even after social background was taken into consideration.

“Although measuring gender differences was not the central purpose of tests, the differences between men and women were interesting,” the authors said.

Well, thank goodness for that. I thought I was beginning to lose my mind!

Love to you all,

Greg

7 March 2010

Good morning on what looks like it could be a moderately promising day. We’ve had a couple of positively grand days during the week – perhaps not quite as warm as one might like but the clear, blue skies and bright sunshine almost make up for the fact that the temperature is still only slightly on the right side of buggeringly cold. Still, a few photos will brighten things up.

Molly and Ms Playchute on the walk at Edgecote
Old stone bridge over the Cherwell at Edgecote
Fence at Edgecote
Old wall at Edgecote
Sluice gate on the mill pond at Edgecote House
Old door to the vegetable garden at Edgecote
Snowdrops at Edgecote House
Snowdrops and Celandine at Chipping Warden

Molly and Ms Playchute on the walk at Edgecote

Old stone bridge over the Cherwell at Edgecote

Fence at Edgecote

Old wall at Edgecote

Sluice gate on the mill pond at Edgecote House

Old door to the vegetable garden at Edgecote

Snowdrops at Edgecote House

Snowdrops and Celandine at Chipping Warden

Ms Playchute and I made our annual expedition to the Byfield Quiz Night yesterday evening and emerged relatively unscathed from the adventure. For some reason, a couple in the village (the woman from whom we borrowed the apartment in Prague a few years ago) seem to have come to the woefully mistaken conclusion that we are some sort of asset on a Quiz team and, in spite of our protestations that nothing could be further from the truth, as well as our pathetic performances year after year, they always give us a call in the middle of February to secure our services at the annual quiz night in early March. Naturally, it’s as much as either Ms Playchute or myself can do to remember our names for the entry form but yesterday evening we were on top form, finishing fourth overall. (And, before you speculate that there were four teams in the evening’s competition, let me assure you that there were considerably more than four. Well, there were sixteen so still not too bad).

And, even better, for the first time in as long as I can remember, we actually won one of the raffle prizes. I am now the proud owner of a set of “Lamborghini” eau de toilette and body spray which looks as if it has been passed around every raffle competition since the early 1970s. I can see a donation to another local charitable event in my future. Hmm, I wonder if whomever originally donated this all those years ago is still around to have a chance to win it back again?

Not sure what quality and quantity of coverage you’ve had of the Chilcott enquiry, if any. This is the enquiry into the decision to go to war in Iraq and an investigation into the way in which the war has been conducted. We’ve now had all the “big players” and it is very interesting to note the ways in which they were all 100% correct about the decisions taken, that no mistakes have been made and that they would do the same thing again.

Alistair Campbell testified some weeks ago. He was Tony Blair’s principal adviser during the period and he is widely credited with authoring the “dodgy dossier” which claimed that Iraq could launch its weapons of mass destruction threatening the UK in forty-five minutes. Much of the analysis in the dossier was plagiarised from a PhD student off the internet, it seems and all three statements have since been widely discredited. Yet he is still adamant that the dossier was accurate. What planet do these people live on? If you say something sufficiently often with sufficient purpose does it somehow become true?

Then we had the blessed St Tony himself who similarly had no regrets, made no mistakes and would do exactly the same thing again. He did get himself into a bit of a muddle having forgotten that the war, originally, was intended to get rid of all those pesky weapons of mass destruction. He was, it seems, OK with the concept of regime change right from the outset, even though that would clearly have been illegal under international law.

And on Friday we had Gordon Brown’s initial testimony. Again, you will no doubt be surprised to learn that no mistakes were made, that he would support the war again and that the service personnel have had all the resources and equipment that money can buy (which will come as a surprise to the military personnel who have been clamouring for more equipment, particularly helicopters, almost from day one). At least Gordon did have the sensitivity to express “regret” at all the lives which have been lost, something that Tony did not do even when handed the opportunity on a platter by the enquiry. I suppose, above all, it really is true that politicians learn nothing from either their own mistakes or the evidence of history.

I ran across the following on the Time web site a few days ago although it’s also been on the BBC web site and several others. Apologies for the length.

Study: Are Liberals Smarter Than Conservatives?
By John Cloud Friday, Feb. 26, 2010
The notion that liberals are smarter than conservatives is familiar to anyone who has spent time on a college campus. The College Democrats are said to be ugly, smug and intellectual; the College Republicans, pretty, belligerent and dumb. There’s enough truth in both stereotypes that the vast majority of college students opt not to join either club.

But are liberals actually smarter? A libertarian (and, as such, nonpartisan) researcher, Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science, has just written a paper that is set to be published in March by the journal Social Psychology Quarterly. The paper investigates not only whether conservatives are dumber than liberals but also why that might be so.

The short answer: Kanazawa’s paper shows that more-intelligent people are more likely to say they are liberal. They are also less likely to say they go to religious services. These aren’t entirely new findings; last year, for example, a British team found that kids with higher intelligence scores were more likely to grow into adults who vote for Liberal Democrats, even after the researchers controlled for socioeconomics. What’s new in Kanazawa’s paper is a provocative theory about why intelligence might correlate with liberalism. He argues that smarter people are more willing to espouse “evolutionarily novel” values — that is, values that did not exist in our ancestral environment, including weird ideas about, say, helping genetically unrelated strangers (liberalism, as Kanazawa defines it), which never would have occurred to us back when we had to hunt to feed our own clan and our only real technology was fire.

Kanazawa offers this view of how such novel values sprang up in our ancestors: Imagine you are a caveman (if it helps, you are wearing a loincloth and have never shaved). Lightning strikes a tree near your cave, and fire threatens. What do you do? Natural selection would have favored the smart specimen who could quickly conceive answers to such a problem (or other rare catastrophes like sudden drought or flood), even if — or maybe especially if — those answers were unusual ones that few others in your tribe could generate. So, the theory goes, genes for intelligence got wrapped up with genes for unnatural thinking.

It’s an elegant theory, but based on Kanazawa’s own evidence, I’m not sure he’s right. In his paper, Kanazawa begins by noting, accurately, that psychologists don’t have a good understanding of why people embrace the values they do. Many kids share their parents’ values, but at the same time many adolescents define themselves in opposition to what their parents believe. We know that most people firm up their values when they are in their 20s, but some people experience conversions to new religions, new political parties, new artistic tastes and even new cuisines after middle age. As Kanazawa notes, this multiplicity of views — a multiplicity you find within both cultures and individuals — is one reason economists have largely abandoned the study of values with a single Latin phrase, De gustibus non est disputandum: there’s no accounting for taste.

Kanazawa doesn’t disagree, but he believes scientists can account for whether people like new tastes or old, radical tastes or Establishment ones. He points out that there’s a strong correlation between liberalism and openness to new kinds of experiences. But openness to new experience isn’t necessarily intelligent (cocaine is fun; accidental cocaine overdose is not).

So are liberals smarter? Kanazawa quotes from two surveys that support the hypothesis that liberals are more intelligent. One is the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which is often called Add Health. The other is the General Social Survey (GSS). The Add Health study shows that the mean IQ of adolescents who identify themselves as “very liberal” is 106, compared with a mean IQ of 95 for those calling themselves “very conservative.” The Add Health study is huge — more than 20,000 kids — and this difference is highly statistically significant.

But self-identification is often misleading; do kids really know what it means to be liberal? The GSS data are instructive here: Kanazawa found that more-intelligent GSS respondents (as measured by a quick but highly reliable synonym test) were less likely to agree that the government has a responsibility to reduce income and wealth differences. In other words, intelligent people might like to portray themselves as liberal. But in the end, they know that it’s good to be the king.

The jury may be out on whether conservatives are less intelligent than liberals, but there’s evidence that they may be physically stronger. Last year, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a fascinating paper by Aaron Sell, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The authors measured the strength of 343 students using weight-lifting machines at a gym. The participating students completed questionnaires designed to measure, among other things, their proneness to anger, their history of fighting and their fondness for aggression as a way to solve both individual and geopolitical problems.

Sell, Tooby and Cosmides found that men (but not women) with the most physical strength were the most likely to feel entitled to good treatment, anger easily, view themselves as successful in winning conflicts and believe in physical force as a tool for resolving interpersonal and international conflicts. Women who thought of themselves as pretty showed the same pattern of greater aggression. All of which means that if you are a liberal who believes you’re smarter than conservatives, you probably shouldn’t bring that up around them. You might not like them when they’re angry.

I guess I must be very, very smart!

Love to you all,

Greg

March 2010
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