Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I generally try to avoid commenting on matters of education, because I don't like to spill information in public that I've picked up in private conversations with friends and relatives who are teachers. In this case, however, I'm willing to make an exception. Partly because this example of government educational bullshit is particularly heinous, and partly because this is all information out there in the public eye, if you know where you look.

The following piece of fine, high quality education sector bullshit came to my attention this evening and I thought it needed sharing. What you are about to read is copied verbatim, I've not added any mistakes of my own.

Building on the successful Communicating Matters training program in [The borough I live in] a multi-disciplinary team will work with twenty settings to support and Early Language Lead Practitioner (ELLP) from each setting and facilitate networks so that good practice is cascaded and fully embedded across the authority.

It's to do with a government initiative---these are usually stupid ideas thrown up by department of education think-tanks and declared to be mandatory until the next gimmick comes along---that has been dumped on a local school. I'm not knowledgable when it comes to educational psychology, so I can't make an informed judgement of the program in question but, as someone who spends most of their day writing and editing, that paragraph offends me. It's filled with buzz words, meaningless jargon, and it's just generally badly written.

I'm sure that these programs are conceived in good faith, and most of them are based on sound research, but they're usually foisted on already overworked teachers and take money away from schools that could be spending it on something more concretely useful. On top of that, they're always fluffed out and peppered with management-speak to the point of incomprehensibility by the time they reach teachers. This means that they're unlikely to win the enthusiasm of teachers, even if there is a valid concept under all the crap.

I found an advert for a "Full-Time Primary Strategy Consultant" to assist with the program described above in another city---this would be someone who would earn equal if not more pay than a full-time teacher---which i think it worth quoting also, even if only for the further funny jargon.

A successful candidate must be able to:

a)support schools and settings in improving young children's language and communication skills , with particular emphasis on practical ways of improving practitioners' skills in supporting early language acquisition and development,

b)support schools and settings in developing the quality of provision to ensure all children access a language rich environment, raising expectations and engaging all children particularly the most disadvantaged

c)facilitate effective coaching arrangements in schools and settings and engage in the modelling of good practice in those schools and settings being supported;

d)Facilitate the development of clusters and networks, both within and between schools and settings so that good practice is cascaded and fully embedded across the authority;

e)promote social inclusion and help schools and settings to meet the needs of different groups of children, such as boys and girls, children from minority ethnic communities, children with SEN, gifted and talented children, transient children, children from travelling communities, looked after children and children learning English as an additional language;

f)support the planning and delivery of agreed central, network or school/setting based INSET, provide appropriate high quality advice and guidance to schools and settings, offer advice on relevant resources and communicate with schools and settings via agreed media;

g)participate in agreed cross-service initiatives in order to promote children's early language acquisition and development

I wish that I could say that this sort of crap was the preserve of one side of the political spectrum or the other, but it seems to be a pretty universal shade of bullshit. Teachers, doctors, nurses, and policemen are subject to this sort of thing day-in day-out all year round. They have to be proactive, and dynamic!

I'm glad I'm not a public servant.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Stock Photo Fun

I asked picture research to find some pictures to go with an article on Sadism. They like to throw images like this in with sensible ones, just to see how good you are at keeping a straight face.

I'm shit at it, obviously, and I giggled like an idiot until everyone in the office was staring at me. As was the case with the last batch of stock photos, I'm left utterly baffled as to what the photographer thought that this image was supposed to illustrate.

Any ideas?


Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Editor of South London

I spend quite a lot of time in bookshops looking through the shelves and standing outside of bookshops looking in*. As a result of all this I've started to notice certain trends in book titles and cover designs.

The one that I've noticed recently is the strange new formula for naming moderately highbrow books (you know, the sort of books read by yoga instructors, english undergraduates, and book groups). The formula goes "The Something (can be an occupation or description, something whimsical is best) of Somewhere (preferably somewhere exotic)" and seems to be pretty much mandatory these days.

Examples --

The Bookseller of Kabul
The Enchantress of Florence
The Cellist of Sarajevo

Annoyingly my list ends there, because while I've seen shitheaps of books with these sort of titles I can only remember the ones that were in the front window of waterstones today. I tried, but I couldn't find any way of searching for books with 'The' and 'of' in the title. I'll add more, especially the more po faced and pretentious ones, when I see them


*There is a branch of waterstones with a big awning near where I eat my lunch, and it rains a lot.


I've just gotten back from seeing Martin Carthy play at my local folk club. He's probably not a well known name to most, but to a select few, the man's a big deal. I was right at the front, in a venue that holds no more than 100 people, so I could hear his guitar playing and singing more clearly from the man himself than I could from the PA system.

He finished with this song -- which namechecks Shooters Hill (which is where I grew up, and about a mile from where I'm currently sitting) in the context of its former fame as a hangout/execution place of highwaymen.

Given what I've been working on, and what I've been talking about with my other half of late, I couldn't help but sit there and ponder the presentation of gender roles and sexuality in traditional folk music. Folk music is a form of cultural expression which has always existed largely out of the reach of censorship and authority. As such, the views expressed in these songs are arguably a more accurate reflection of social attitudes and behaviors than the forms of expression that were permitted in printed books and authorized plays.

It would be a stretch to far, I feel, to claim that the actions described in folk songs were ever the social norm, but they are examples of narratives which have been passed on from singer to singer for generations, which implies that the audiences liked them enough for them to stay on singers' repertoires. The events described in these songs therefore could be said to illustrate what attitudes the audiences of the time had on a number of subjects, from war, to casual sex, to domestic violence, to abortion.

Unsurprisingly, the songs written by those who were traditionally the poor buggers standing on the front-line with halberds or muskets don't have a particularly rosy view of war. Interestingly it is almost never depicted from the point of view of those who were sent off to the battlefield, but from the perspectives of the women left behind (or who chose not to be left behind). War, rather than something noble, is something that takes the martial aspirations of easily led young men and turns young men into corpses, children into orphans, and wives into widows.

Similarly, the delicate social niceties of Jane Austen's courtships are absent from from the lives of common people in folk music. Love and lust dictate who ends up with who, unless a meddling party gets stabby (which does happen a lot). People are fucking in fields, barns, the homes of sleeping parents, and the marital beds of neglectful absent husbands. Women who terminate pregnancies are treated with sympathy, abusive husbands get their comeuppance, and rapists rot away and die, punished by a vengeful god.

One particularly interesting song (which is crying out for some seriously pretentious literary analysis) involves a woman who, after enduring her drunken, abusive husband for as long as she can, stitches him--bedsheets, clothes and all-- into the bed while he sleeps off another bender. When he wakes, she beats seven shades of shit out of him with a frying pan, a cooking pot, and a rolling pin, then tells him that he ever hurts her again, she'll make sure he doesn't wake up the next morning. I think there's definitely something to be said about the use of implements traditionally associated with the subjugation of women to brain a shithead, but it's late and I can't be bothered to give it much thought right now.

There is one factor, however, that makes me rather loath to embrace the apparent consensus of these songs as evidence of a matriarchal counterculture in pre-modern england. The sort of people who sing folk music are, as a general rule, a bunch of stinky lefties (not that I have anything against stinky lefties, I'm probably one myself). I think this is probably due to the link between folk music and communism in the 1950s -- singers like Ewan McColl believed that this proletarian music would inspire working-class solidarity and lay the foundations for revolution. This is relevant because there are literally thousands of traditional folk songs out there, collected by people like Cecil Sharp and Francis James Child, so what we hear are the songs that modern singers choose to sing. I don't think that it's a major factor -- the songs are genuine, after all -- but I think that you could probably find songs to support the argument that just about any political ideology was the traditional mindset of the british people if you looked hard enough.

I expect it's already been done, but I would have thought that a comprehensive analysis of attitudes to race, gender, and sexuality in folk songs would be an interesting portrait of the prevailing social attitudes in different times and different regions.

Anyway. I'm knackered, and I should have gone to sleep a long time ago.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009


This is a rather interesting study.

I notice that the authors themselves were extremely reluctant to speculate even slightly on the nature of the link -- preferring the good old standby 'Further research is needed' which can mean anything from "we have no idea what this means" to "we wouldn't touch this argument with a barge pole". I suspect that it's the latter in this case. Thanks to the internet, of course, we have no shortage of editorializing from both sides of the science vs. the jesus debate. It's going to be difficult for either side to get much mileage out of this one though, seeing as you can turn the conclusion upside down and it still makes sense, if you see what I mean. The same result can be read either as "religious folk fight harder, and love life -- heathens just give up because they're weak and feeble without jesus power" or as "Godless folk do not fear death, and go out calmly -- whilst religious people's certainty in the shiny hereafter falls down in the face of the big sleep".

Most of the reports in the American media seem to be favoring the former. See Most Devout Most Likely to Fight Death to the End, Religious Likely to Prolong Life, Study Finds and the church-newsletter stylings of Patients with Terminal Cancer Turning to Religion.


Sunday, March 15, 2009


I'm currently sitting in the strange wicker chair thing at the end of my garden. This is remarkable for two reasons: The first is that it's a lovely warm sunny day - the first of the year. The second is that I'm typing this on my new laptop. To be specific it's a Samsung NC10, which sits at the fairly large and shiny end of the netbook market. I have only had it for about a week, so this isn't going to be a detailed review of the thing. With the exception of the slightly annoyingly small trackpad though, it's the best new invention ever.

Laptops are hardly a new invention, I know, but this new breed of laptops that are actually portable are something of a revelation. I know that they've always existed, but in the past they've been so stupidly expensive that nobody who wasn't a wealthy professional ubernerd ever bought them.

When I was at university lots of people had laptops, but those laptops rarely ever left the desks they usually sat on, in fact, most of them probably moved around less than my tower PC. I think most laptops are essentially the ideal computer for someone who moves house a lot, but their usefulness for those who want to take them out of the house is rather limited. I found that when taken off the desk they sat on (and actually used on the lap they are nominally intended for) they were uncomfortable, hot, and heavy. I don't know whether this fear was justified, but their thinness coupled with their tea-tray size, convinced me that they would be extremely easy to bend or break.The last nail in the coffin of the idea of a laptop as a portable computer was always the battery life, which never seemed to exceed an hour or two, rendering them fairly useless if more than 4 metres from a plug socket.

I think that the reason for this is that it wasn't until a few years ago that intel showed any interest whatsoever in reducing the power comsumption of their processors. Up until that point processor design was like 1950s american car design, the efficiency of their engines just wasn't seen as relevant. For example, the power supply in my tower PC (which is no mighty behemoth) draws around 450 watts when it's switched on. This laptop consumes about 15. There's very little difference in processing power between the two, just a couple of years of research into power efficiency. The upshot of this is that my new laptop can go for between 4 and 7 hours (depending on what I'm doing) on one charge -- making it actually practical to take my work outside. Not that I have any work with me this weekend, although i do have plenty to do.


Thursday, March 12, 2009


In recent months I've spent a lot of time reading and writing about the study of human sexual behavior. In the course of my research I have encountered two things in great abundance. The first is statistics, the second is arguments about sexual morality.

There's a huge amount that I want to say on these two things, and most importantly on how these two things are often intertwined, but I can't seem to get my thoughts to form into a straight line. I don't have much experience writing to persuade. What little ability I had with persuasive and argumentative language has been eroded by the style of writing I've had to adapt to at work. I can write to explain reasonably well though, so I'll try and put my thoughts into that shape and see if I have any more success expressing myself than with the 2000 words of badly composed argument that I've already written.

Research projects into the subject of human sexuality often struggle to obtain funding (One leading academic had her funding cut after a scientifically ignorant senator mocked her research as worthless government expenditure) and face difficulties obtaining information from a large and representative sample. This means that there haven't been a whole lot of rigorous, large scale studies into general human sexual behavior done in the western world (and buggerall anywhere else). You hear about the findings of sex research in the media all the time, but any experience with the field---or any serious examination of the claims of these survey results---invariably show you that at best, they are based on misinterpretations of rigorous research, and at worst are nothing more than publicity stunts for the respectable commercial fringes of the sex industry.

My recent rediscovery of the awesomeness of science (something I'll write about in more detail at some point) means that I've been throwing myself into the research for this project with rather a lot of enthusiasm. Checking methodology used to obtain figures quoted by writers, analysing existing research, and generally poring over pages and pages of numerical data. It's not exciting, but I do find it interesting, especially when I notice some trend, relevant to my work, that the authors didn't mention in their summary.

I'm currently working on an article which discusses the field of sex research, and the problems associated with it. This means that I've been buried in the numbers rather deeper than usual of late. I've been getting really frustrated with the fierce ongoing debate in the US over the morality of homosexuality - or any other behavior that isn't married couples silently screwing with the lights off. The intrusion of ideological debates into this field makes it very hard to objectively assess the merits of any piece of research. If the findings of a study support one side's agenda then they ring-fence it, and brand anyone who criticises it (not matter how legitimate their criticisms) a godless liberal scumbag, or a reactionary bigot (according to their preference).

The thing that gets on my nerves the most about this situation is that there isn't any sensible reason for these statistics to be such a battleground issue. What causes the most controversy are the figures on the prevalence of homosexuality in the population at large. On the one hand, you have gay rights groups pointing to findings like those of the Kinsey reports (which stated that around 10 percent of men are exclusively homosexual) and saying “look, lots of people are gay, it’s natural, so stop persecuting us” and on the other hand you have the jesus-gang pointing to statistics like the 1993 Guttenmacher institute study (which estimated that only 1-2 percent of adults were exclusively homosexual) and saying “see, hardly anyone does it -- it’s unnatural and therefore wrong.”

There are of course the other Christians who are in a state of denial about the idea of sex research, who believe that if nobody ever enquires about it then 'sinful' behavior sort of doesn't happen. Like a strange 'schrodinger's bedroom' scenario. Those people are a significant minority, but they aren't really relevant to this rant.

This seems to me to be one of the rare ethical debates where the most common arguments on both sides are really fucking stupid. Natural does not mean good, plenty of evil things are natural; similarly unnatural does not mean bad, as there are plenty of good things that aren't natural in the least. Both sides seem to be arguing morals without actually ever debating why the issues in question are right or wrong.

This is a phenomenon I have observed before. I rediscovered a book the other day, called "Sexual Revolutions in Early America" which I recall reading, in part, during my degree. The book essentially takes the same dumb argument over what is natural and what isn't into the field of history, arguing that colonial America was just as sexually open and varied as modern America and therefore (with the exception of some pious ramblings about STDs and prostitution) it's all good.

The defining characteristic of this debate seems to be an unwillingness to make any kind of value judgement based on a rational assessment of the benefits or damages that this tolerance of sexual minorities might have. I expect this from religious groups, as they get their opinions on the subject from ancient texts, but it's annoying coming from those who are aware that the enlightenment took place.

Many of the liberal activists seem to be operating within the distinctly morally relativistic fields of post-modernist thought, in which concepts of good and evil are social constructs, and therefore unpleasant restrictions of natural human behavior.

I've never understood post-modernist critical theory, it seems to me to be what Wolfgang Pauli wonderfully described as "not even wrong". The complete rejection of objectivity and the concept of objective reality undermines any attempt to prove or disprove anything. If the enlightenment has taught us anything, it is that spending ages thinking about ideas that can't be proven either way is a huge waste of everyone's time.

I can't help but think that if liberals dropped the post-modernist stuff, and just argued from pragmatic, humanitarian principles they'd achieve a great deal more in the advancement of gay rights, and scientifically minded people would be able to get on with the serious business of trying to figure out what people like to do with no clothes on without being interfered with.


Saturday, March 07, 2009


When I first started playing bass in 2002 Michael "Flea" Balzary, bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was probably my most important musical influence. It was his playing that pulled me away from the punk and pop-punk that I was listening to at that time and made me start trying to get my funk on.

His playing was also the main reason why I bought the bass that I did when I came to get my own instrument. I wanted something like a musicman stingray (his bass of choice, most of the time), but didn't have the £1,200 spare to buy one, so I bought a cheap copy. It wasn't a terrible bass, and with my dad's instruction and my own personal curiosity I was able to maintain and, to an extent, improve its playability.

This wasn't a cheap beginner bass though, if it wasn't for the fact that I'd been playing my dad's bass for 6 months I wouldn't have been willing to spend £250 on an instrument. Most people, as I'm sure you all know, don't have a gibson EB-3 laying about in a cupboard that you can play until you think you're confident enough to want an instrument of your own. Most people, when they decide that they want to play a guitar or a bass, have to wrangle the thing from skeptical parents, or their own meagre funds. The instruments you can afford or obtain with such means are not good.

I've played a lot of guitars and basses belonging to beginner musicians. With a few exceptions these instruments were usually so bad that I could barely play them. I'd usually end up sitting around fixing the action, adjusting the neck, and raising the pickups to the right height, as well as setting the tremolo and the intonation. It often took quite a while to get them to the point where someone might be reasonably expected to learn to play on them. I came across these sad instruments so often that I started to carry a set of screwdrivers, allen keys, and a little socket-spanner around in my bag when I was going to a house i'd not been before.

All this is why I was glad to see that Flea has started his own bass company; not making high-end boutique instruments, but cheap and cheerful instruments for students. Most importantly he's made the playability of the instruments the key feature. I don't know how much these things are going to cost, or if they'll be as good as they promise to be, but I hope they're a success. I think too many people get their self-esteem shat upon when they can't play an instrument they want to play, not knowing that it's just because it's shit.

They look pretty cool as well, in a painfully lurid sort of way. I think that their appearance, coupled with their simple electronics, might make them popular with grown-up musicians as well.


Thursday, March 05, 2009


Read this. It's only a short little news piece, also covered on the Beeb (with a less infuriating headline).

I'm pretty used to Catholicism-flavored madness---such as the recent case in Italy in which prominent Catholics decided that it was unethical to switch off the life-support of a woman who had been brain-dead for a few years because she 'could still have children'---but this case is really something else. I mean, come on, a 9 year old girl---who was raped---is carrying twins that she doesn't want and that will probably kill her a long time before they could be delivered, and the local priests think that it's evil to terminate the pregnancy?

I mean, ugh.. Even if you discount the mental trauma of unwanted childbirth at nine years old, just the quantifiable medical considerations are enough to make opposing the idea the act of a crazy person.


The other thing about the nbc article, after the initial shock of the content, is the headline. I mean come on, 'alleged'? She's only nine years old for fuck's sake! Are they suggesting that a nine year old girl was soliciting sex from her stepfather?

This makes me so many different flavors of angry that it makes me go cross eyed.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Am I stoned?

Or can I hear more music?
It's much too hipstertacular for me, I know, but I do rather like the Mae Shi. Even if their songs seem to be imbued with the sort of peculiar christian cosmology that you can only get through the serious overuse of psychedelics.

I've just finished writing a 1,500-word rambling blog post which, after proofreading, I've decided will never see the light of day; at least, not in its current form. It's much too far into the realms of shop, and without the things I don't want to say, I think that it's rather toothless and stupid sounding.

I was inspired to write it by this article which got me all riled up and cranky. It's made me more determined than ever to check every statistic, no matter how many times I've heard it before (or how plausible it sounds to me) and to pick my words with great care when I have to summarize someone else's research. Mostly it's just made me paranoid about my own ignorance, and what grevious misrepresentations I may have perpetrated myself.

This article is very interesting, and is quite similar to the sort of things i've been doing myself recently. It's amazing how many 'accepted' facts and statistics disappear in a puff of bullshit-smelling smoke if you look at them closely enough, and follow them home.


Pointless fact: I always spell the word 'definite' wrong. I know exactly how it is supposed to be spelled, but for some unfathomable reason my fingers always write 'definate'