Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Still Alive...Haven't Kicked Anyone Yet

Just a quick note to let you all know I'm still alive. At the moment, I'm sitting in the Elephant House in Edinburgh. Normally, the particular place I'm sitting wouldn't be an issue except this happens to be the coffee house where J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book.

More to come (soon, I hope), including Underground Edinburgh, the MacKenzie Poltergeist, Kennedy Fried Chicken, and other clippings from my blog file!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Today's Quote

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers.

-Thomas Pynchon, writer (1937- )

Today's Bonus Quote

The shepherd always tries to persuade the sheep that their interests and his own are the same.

-Stendal (Marie Henri Beyle), novelist (1783-1842)

Upcoming Updates

I had a safe trip to America for my brother’s wedding. It was great and everyone had a good time. I’ll write a more detailed posting about it soon. However, right now, the laptop battery is getting low. I’d plug it in, but I already tried that and it resulted in a huge flash and some noise and a tripped circuit breaker.

After finding the circuit panel (a map would have helped), I determined that the telly still works, the clock still works, and the outlet still works. It’s just the extension power strip that seems to be not working. (Probably just the fuse in the power strip…I’ll call Norma about it tomorrow.) But, since I’m not sure what the deal is with the laptop plug, I’m not going to try that again tonight. I’ll save that fun for tomorrow at work…


The short summary: They came, they saw, they said we were improving.

The somewhat longer summary: An inspector came into the second half of my maths class (just after I turned them loose on their independent work…meaning the main teaching part was over). Afterwards he asked me a question about how I determined what they already knew about the topic (I explained what I had done in yesterday’s lesson and in today’s lesson before he came in) and then told me it looked like I had a very challenging range of abilities. So, what all that means, I don’t know. But at least it’s over until the fall.

Oh, To Be a Donkey in Blackpool

According to The Times (which was reporting on a story in The Sun), the Brighton Council will have inspectors making sure that donkeys at the beach will get Fridays off, receive dental care, and get regular breaks from carrying children.

I wonder where I sign up…

Tubed Air

A story in The Times indicates that the air inside London’s subway system contains much fewer ultra-fine particulates than the air at street level. The tube system does have higher levels of iron particles, however. There is also more dust, but that dust contains lower levels of harmful particles.

That probably explains why my pollen allergies fare much better underground than aboveground.

More on the BBC’s weather reports

In an earlier post, I mentioned the lack of information from the morning BBC weather reports. (‘There will be rain except in the areas where it is clear. It will also be warm throughout the country except where it is colder…possibly.’) This week saw the introduction of ‘new and improved’ BBC weather forecasts that include an odd fly-over effect in which the viewers soar through the air over Britain.

After two days, the new reports are making headlines (actually, since it was in this morning’s papers, it’s based on only one day’s forecasts). Basically, people don’t seem to like it. But even more telling is this excerpt from The Times:

‘In winter we will see snowflakes drifting downwards. And maybe when forecasters predict the weather accurately more than two days in a row, we will see little pigs flying overhead.’

In Defens of Pore Speling

New this week includes stories about the government’s instructions to people marking the national English tests for 14-year olds (the very same test my year 9s took two weeks ago). ‘The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority confirmed that it had asked its examiners not to deduct marks for incorrect spelling in one of the two writing papers which make up the test.’ Further, the story states that across the entire test (two reading papers and two writing papers), spelling accounts for just four marks out of 100 (of which, 50 marks are for the two writing parts). The longer writing paper gives 14 marks for composition and effect, eight for sentence structure and punctuation, and eight for text structure and organisation.

Is it just me, or is it concerning that a topic as important as spelling receives no mention on the mark scheme? Perhaps in a year or so, we can just have kids submit their papers by Instant Messenger or text them in from their mobiles.

They said ‘any profession…’

In The Guardian from May 9, there is a brief mention of a former servicewoman whom the Royal Air Force has sent on a training course to become a pole dancer. It seems that under RAF rules, servicemen and women who leave after five years of service can choose retraining in any profession.

Can you imagine if a school system offered that same deal?

The Wonders of Food

I recently bought some microwave pizzas. Upon turning over the box, I read the following sentence: ‘Chicago Town Pizzas are the most versatile pizzas that you can buy!’

Imagine my excitement to realize that not only had I bought versatile pizzas but they were the most versatile pizzas I could possibly have bought! Immediately, my mind was filled with so many exciting prospects. Imagine a pizza that would do my laundry for me…a pizza that would write my lesson plans for me…a pizza that I could fly to school! I couldn’t wait.

Until, that is, I read the next sentence: ‘You can cook ‘em in the microwave in just three minutes, or in the oven.’

Um…wait. I bought the most versatile pizza that I could possibly buy and it can only do two things?! And not only that, the pizza couldn’t do anything at all…I was the one who could only do two things with the pizza.

Frankly, I’m disappointed. Surely there are other frozen pizzas that you can either microwave or cook in the oven. I suppose I’ll have to do my own laundry. And there go my flights to school. But I’m stapling the pizzas to my lesson plans.

They must have the same lawyers as the airlines

The Times has a daily section with summaries of recent court cases. On May 5, the Queen’s Bench Divisional Court (represented by Lord Justice Laws and Mr. Justice David Steele) upheld an earlier ruling that ‘a butter knife with no handle, having no cutting edge and no point, did fall within section 139.’ It seems that article 139 of the Criminal Justice Act of 1988 refers to ‘any article with a blade’ and the possession of one in certain situations can be illegal.

So, be careful about walking the streets of England with dull butter knives. It might just be illegal

Forms, forms, forms

Okay, after having filled in literally kazillions of forms since my arrival in the UK, I had to fill in two more today. (Actually, I filled in about five, but I’m only going to talk about two.) Since the government runs the healthcare over here, UK travellers to other countries in Europe have to carry a special form in case they need emergency medical care. The form you carry is called an E-111 and has to be approved by the Post Office. (You just have to find a post office that stocks the E-111 forms…several times, I’ve seen signs saying the Post Office was currently out of E-111 forms. Imagine…a government office out of forms. It must feel rather unsettling.)

(As a side note, from what I gather, the Post Office serves as a general catch-all government forms repository. You can get travel insurance, fill in passport applications, pay your car tax, exchange money, but stationary supplies, and get your medical forms approved. On good days, you can even buy stamps.)

Rather than risk the Post Office being out of E-111 forms, I downloaded one from the Internet. I also downloaded the application form for the E-111 form. I filled out the application for the E-111 and then I filled out the E-111 (after messing it up once and having to reprint one and walk to the next building to get it from the printer).

After my copious experiences filling out forms and trying to get things approved, I made certain I was ready for this one. I didn’t want to Post Office lady to deny my E-111 on the grounds that I had an American accent and therefore wasn’t entitled to an E-111 form. (I am entitled to one…I’m a maths teacher.) I headed to the Post Office with my E-111 form (carefully printed on white, high quality paper in accordance with the instructions), my application for an E-111 form, my passport, my original work permit, my letter saying my work permit has been extended for 36 months, and an original letter form my school saying I was employed there.

After only six minutes in the queue (that in itself is amazing), I reached the window. I handed her my application form and my E-111. She asked me one question (was I planning on moving in the next 12 months?) and stamped my form. Ten minutes from when I entered the Post Office I was leaving with my virtually unquestioned E-111 approved and in my hand.

I’m still amazed.

Exciting British Words

Recently, The Telegraph ran a story about a popular investment trust that came under fire for poor performance. One analyst said that ‘the new structure is a hotchpotch and it seems unclear what the overall objective has become.’ Another said that ‘it has been forced to reinvent itself but it is a bit of a muddle.’

You have to love a place that describes a 13.3% decline in performance as a ‘hotchpotch’ and a ‘muddle.’ Enron must have been ‘hurleyburley’ and ‘wonkey.’

(Okay, the REALLY scary thing is that hotchpotch is in the spell check dictionary.)

Further Educational Follies

In an attempt to ‘quantify emotional distress and the impact it can have on pupils’ exam performance,’ the Joint Council for Qualifications has recommended that certain ‘special circumstances’ result in extra marks on exams.

For example, if a student’s pet dies on the day of an exam, the candidate is awarded 2% extra marks. If the student is unfortunate enough to have their pet die the day before the exam, the student only gets 1% extra marks.

Here’s what traumatic events are worth to students:

Recent family bereavement or a terminally ill parent: 5%
A severe car accident or the death of a distant relative: 4%
A freshly broken limb, recent domestic crisis, or organ disease: 3%
A ‘broken limb on the mend’ or hay fever: 2%
A headache: 1%

I wonder if you can add things together? Let’s say that my dog died this morning even though I threw myself in front of a speeding car to try and save him. I ended up with a broken arm and a bump on my head. Do I get 10% extra marks? And more importantly, is that twice as traumatic as the death of a parent?

What we will end up having is every student complaining of a headache (after all, who’s going to prove them wrong?), some students planning to off their pets (I wonder if a goldfish is worth less than a dog?), and a few students actually trying to study for exams.

Okay, I applaud the thought that sometimes things happen and students don’t always perform their best each time they take a test. But, instead of saying, ‘Golly, sorry your mom died this week…you still have to take the exam but you get 5% extra marks!’ maybe we could stop putting so much emphasis on ONE EXAM.

Languages and Beverages

Remember my quest to learn other languages by drinking Coke products? Last week I bought a Diet Coke (actually, it was a ‘Coke Light’) in the Heathrow Airport. (It wasn’t cold…in fact, it was rather warm…blech.) Anyway, other than the ‘Coke Light’ in English, the rest of the label was printed in some cross between hieroglyphics and Swahili. I don’t recall ever seeing this language before.

An examination of the stuck-on paper ingredient label (probably to comply with labelling laws) said the drink was ‘Produce of Georgia.’ I’m guessing it was somewhat east of Atlanta.


On some of its planes (though not the 747 from December’s flight – that was older than…well…than…look, it was old, okay?), United Airlines has spiffy seatback monitors on which one can view the in-flight movies. (Virgin has even better ones – in addition to the movies, you can also play games.) You can also view the plane’s progress on a computer-generated map. The map shows the locations of certain cities to help you figure out just where you are flying over. Some cities (like Cardiff, London, Boston, New York, and Washington), I had heard of. Some places
(like the Quabbin Reservoir) I was not familiar with. One city, though, had me shaking my head.

Evidently located in England, the name was Kuujjuaq. Seriously. I am telling you the absolute truth. And to make sure I got it correct, I watched the screen intently and write the name on my in-flight airsick bag.

When I Googled it, it appears to be in Canada rather than England. That makes more sense but I'm positive it was shown near England on the map...

Ah, Dentists

In a fit of responsibility, I managed to schedule a dental cleaning and check-up during my American Tour, which was fortunate since it turns out that I have a cracked tooth. To be more exact, I have a cracked distomarginal ridge through tooth number 31. In English, this means that I need to get a crown (insert crown and England jokes here), a procedure that evidently takes more than the 15 minutes left in my dental appointment.

Which left me having to find a dentist (insert dentist and England jokes here). Soon.

Fortunately, in just one phone call I managed to get an appointment next Tuesday, which somewhat diminishes the horrible, terrible story I set out to tell just a few sentences ago….

Why I Am Grumpy With United Airlines

I get to Dulles Airport and wait in line for 62 minutes to check in. At the counter, they hand me a card and tell me to check in at the gate. After going through security (moo…moo…moo…(that’s the sound of cattle being herded)) and riding the mobile transporter thing (they were cool about 17 years ago when I was 13…now the airport is too busy for them and they’re just a hassle), I found the gate but no gate agent. I left the gate for long enough to wee and buy a Diet Coke and the gate line was huge. So, after waiting another 21 minutes, I got to the desk and was told that there were twenty people waiting for seats and I would be called later. When I tried to ask a question, she repeated the same thing. When I tried to ask if I was even on the flight, she repeated the same thing. So, I had to wait and wait and wait to even find out if I had a seat on the plane. (In all fairness, the delay was made even longer by the poor weather outside.)

My question is this: Why do I have to wait so long to check in and then be told I have to go wait in a different line in a different building to get a seat assignment? Out of the entire plane, only twenty of us had to do this, so obviously they were able to make seating arrangements for most people.

(To clarify, I know the airlines have nothing to do with the security or the mobile transporter things. But, all the same, the security procedure seems fairly hotchpotch and pretty muddled – you shuffle barefoot (at least the didn’t make me remove my belt this time) while dragging your plastic tub (which you had to get yourself) down a row of tables, pass through a metal detector, and then grab your luggage and plastic tub while hopping madly trying to put on your shoes before getting shoved over by the people pouring in behind you…honestly, would a row of chairs be too much to ask? And, as for the mobile transporter things, I think Dulles is trying to put in underground walkways. I hope so, because they are desperately needed. As I mentioned, once they were pretty cool. When you had to go to the ‘new midfield terminal,’ it was a big deal. Now, though, just about everyone has to go to one of the several midfield terminals and there really aren’t enough transporters to do the job efficiently…but they are trying.)

None of this changes the fact that I had the same problem with United Airlines in December when I flew to England. Flying from England, however, was great. You just walk up to the counter (no hour-long line) and go. It almost makes the airport experience fun. Almost. But at least Heathrow has the nice shopping/waiting area before you go to the gates.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Legal Tender

It seems that Best Buy had a problem with some $2 bills recently.


Saturday, May 07, 2005

Today's Quote

Against my will, in the course of my travels, the belief that everything worth knowing was known at Cambridge gradually wore off. In this respect my travels were very useful to me.
-Bertrand Russell philosopher, mathematician, author, Nobel laureate (1872-1970)

Allergy Season

Ah yes…it’s spring. That means the days are longer, the temperature is warmer, everything is getting greener, and the pollen starts. And that means that the odd simultaneous totally-stuffed-up-while-running-like-crazy nose thing starts. This will probably start going away soon, though. Just in time for me to get to America and start breathing that pollen.

Permanent Record

When I was in school, it was about the worst threat we could imagine: ‘It will go on your permanent record!’ The fact that none of us had ever SEEN our permanent records had nothing to do with it. The mere threat was enough to keep us (mostly) in line.

It has been years since I considered my permanent record. Sure, my college transcripts have been sent hither and yon, but that’s what happens with college transcripts. In the United States, though, after you enter college, all thoughts of high school transcripts are long gone.

But, I’m not in the United States anymore. In order to apply for the program to prepare me to apply for my British teaching qualification, I had to provide a high school transcript. Now, what would you do if you needed a high school transcript? I mean, I didn’t even know if I could still get one. Thanks to the wonders of email, though, I was able to request an official transcript sent to my school and an unofficial transcript sent to me. (My high school guidance counsellor’s exact words were, ‘your transcript hasn’t turned to dust yet, but it will soon.’)

When I got home from school today, an envelope stamped ‘UNOFFICIAL TRANSCRIPT’ in bright red was sitting on the table waiting for me. The first page was a nice form letter inviting me to contact the school registrar if I had any further questions. (I didn’t even know my high school HAD a registrar, but evidently they do.)

Attached to the letter was a double-sided page (thrice stamped ‘UNOFFICIAL TRANSCRIPT’ in bright red ink) full of information. It may not be my entire permanent record, but it has quite a bit of information. First, it has my school pictures from my first three years of high school. My, I look young! Along the lower left side, there are four boxes for my ‘Activities and Interests.’ I certainly was involved in quite a bit during those four years: JCL, science club, Latin awards, Honor Court, volunteering at the public library and the local theatre, church choir, science fair awards, president of the youth group, senior play, academic letters in Latin, science and drama, a second letter in Latin, senior class historian… The rest of that side of the page is mainly results of standardized tests. There are my SAT scores, PSAT scores, and a few others that aren’t labelled. I really am curious what a couple of the tests were; I scored in the 99th percentile in several areas.

The other side of the page has my yearly grades. (Yeah, we’ll just quickly pass over most of this.) I was more than a bit surprised to see a final A- grade in PE my junior year. (Yeah, me…an A- in PE…must be a mistake.) It also seems that I took three AP (that’s Advanced Placement) classes my senior year: English, Government, and Physics. Now, I remember taking them, but I don’t remember that they were AP classes. I don’t think any of us took the AP tests…I know I didn’t…but that might explain why I didn’t have to take the first semester of college English.

There’s also a box where my credits are tallied. I had 28 credits rather than just the 24 required to graduate. (I never understood how some of those people managed to be allowed to leave school after 6th period every day.) My GPA and class rank are also there. In fact, those are given for the beginning of my junior year, the beginning of my senior year, the end of the first quarter of my senior year, and the final standings. Happily, my GPA steadily (but slowly) crept up each time. My class standing varied a bit, but not more than three places each time.

I suppose you could ask if I worked hard enough in high school (probably not) or you could ask if I could have done better (certainly), however I’m not sure that things would have changed much. I was admitted into my first choice university into my first choice major. I changed my major once (from one type of engineering to another) and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering. I was admitted to graduate school (despite deciding to begin looking into applying to graduate school the week after the application deadline). I earned my master’s degree in education. I got a good job (okay, ‘good’ is debatable, but it was a job in my field, doing what I wanted to do, and I was able to support myself). I got a job teaching in England. Okay, maybe it’s not correct to say that things wouldn’t have changed much if I had done better in high school, but I’m not sure I would have wanted things to have changed much.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

International Tour

Readers may be happy to know that the long-awaited House of Tomorrow American tour is almost here. Although small by both time and geographic considerations, this will be my first North American tour in some time. Most of my appearances and speaking engagements will not be open to the public; however, I still have a limited number of openings in my schedule. Those interested in booking me for a speaking engagement or other appearance should contact me very soon so that my tour schedule can be finalised.


Since Monday was a Bank Holiday* here and the weather was great, I decided to take the train to Cambridge. Now, the first thing I noticed about Cambridge was the vast bicycle parks outside the station. I’m talking hundreds of bikes, all lined up waiting for eager riders. Unfortunately for me, it seems the bikes actually belong to people and are waiting for certain SPECIFIC riders. Which led me to the second thing I noticed about Cambridge. The train station is a bit of a distance from the centre of town. There are busses that go straight from the station to town, a fact that dawned on me about halfway to the centre of town. But I had a nice walk anyway. Well, other than dodging the bikes. Cambridge is the only town I’ve ever visited where you are much more likely to get run over by a bike than by a car.

Once arriving in the town centre, I decided to get some lunch. You can get just about any kind of food you want in Cambridge (except for Mexican, it seems). I decided on a place called The Cow where I got a six-inch pizza, a very nice mixed green salad, and a pint of Diet Pepsi for £5.90. After lunch, I went to the outdoor market and bought a chocolate chip pastry twist to eat while I walked about.

To give an attempt of a comparison, in some ways, Cambridge reminds me of Charlottesville, Virginia. They both have the feeling of being small towns with great architecture. Of course, Cambridge has older architecture, but still… Cambridge also has a small river passing through. (It’s the River Cam…get it? Cam-bridge? Okay…anyway.) You can walk along parts of the river or you can rent small boats (called punts) to pole along. The river has some locks making it great for houseboats. (Since it has locks, I suppose that makes it a canal, but I’m not positive.) So, in some ways, walking along the water in Cambridge is a bit like the River Walk in San Antonio (but without the Mexican restaurants).

Cambridge also has these great, wide-open green spaces. Since today was so nice, the spaces were filled with people enjoying the day. The only troubling thing is the names of these spaces. I passed Parker’s Piece, which was fine, but soon I found myself looking at Christ’s Pieces. Forgive me, but it sounds too much like either a sacrilegious candy or a huge, horrid mess.

Just across the street from King’s College is Great St. Mary’s Church. I went in once, just after lunch, and there was a service going on so I didn’t stay. I did notice the people in academic robes (it was almost like seeing a Harry Potter church service) and the clouds of incense (way more than I’ve seen, or inhaled, in one place ever before). I went back later and climbed the tower. (There’s just something about a steep, narrow spiral staircase that I simply can’t avoid.) After wedging myself up 123 worn steps, I ended up on the top of the tower overlooking Cambridge. It was worth the view.

Since I had to return to work the next day, I decided not to stay too long. So, I hoofed my way back to the train station and enjoyed a pleasant ride home.

*I’m not exactly sure why we have Bank Holidays here or even why that’s what they’re called. I just know it meant we had the day off from school. This Bank Holiday was due to May Day.


On Saturday, I decided to go to Brighton. Less than an hour from London, Brighton is one of England’s very popular seaside towns. When I first arrived, despite being nearly noon, it was still so foggy I could barely see the ocean even from the beach. Luckily, after getting some lunch, the fog burned off and the clouds moved away, leaving a clear, bright afternoon.

Ah…the beach. It conjures up images of running across the sand, jumping through waves, and relaxing on a smooth, soft beach. Unfortunately, this is Brighton. Yes, there is a beach and there are waves. However, this still being May, the ocean is still freezing. And, this being Brighton, there isn’t any sand - the beach is entirely rocks.

On the internet I read that the beach was made of pebbles. I don’t know about you, but ‘pebbles’ generally calls to mind small rocks about the size of peas. You know, bigger than the stuff in small aquariums (that would be ‘gravel’) but smaller than the crushed rocks they use on driveways (hmmm…that would be ‘gravel,’ too…). (Somewhere, I’ve seen a list of rock size and the proper rock term to describe it…I need to look for that.)

Oh sure, there were some little pea-sized rocks on the beach, but most were the size of walnuts. And I’m talking about the walnuts when they fall off the trees and still have those green, yucky husks on them. You know, the size of chicken eggs. Extra large, grade A chicken eggs. So, lying on the beach in Brighton is, well, like lying on a pile of rocks. At least the rocks are generally rounded rather than having all those sharp edges. But still, a round rock jutting up in the centre of your spine is still enough to annoy you.

Have you ever tried to climb a pile of that gravel they dump in your driveway before it gets spread about? You take one step and the gravel starts to shift under you. Once the gravel is spread out and is reasonably deep (several inches is plenty), each step is like slogging through, oh I don’t know…it’s almost like slogging through one of those ball pits at Chucky Cheese. Combine that with bare feet. Yeah, fun.

Such is the beach in Brighton. It’s a rocky, shifting, hard-to-love beach.

But luckily, God saw fit to place a beach in the midst of all the touristy money-traps and souvenir shops in Brighton. (What is it about a beach that just screams ‘miniature golf’ and ‘tacky plastic junk’?) Otherwise, all those naff shops would just be sitting in the middle of nowhere.

Once you’ve burned…I mean…laid on the beach for long enough, and once you’ve walked to the end of the piers, head inland a bit. Not much, but just out of sight of the water. There you go. Now look around. What do you see? Yes! It’s this little shopping area called The Lanes. See the narrow streets, the interesting shops, and the restaurants? Now, go just a bit further.

By walking just a bit further, you’ll come across a Middle Eastern styled building complete with shapely domes and spires. (My Lonely Planet says it’s a mixture of Moorish and Indian styles.) That’s the Royal Pavilion, once a palace of one of the King Georges – IV, I believe. I didn’t get to go in because I found it too late.

What I did get to go inside was the El Mexicano. They call themselves ‘A Taste of Mexico.’ For a starter, I had the nachos – chips with melted cheese and sliced jalapenos with red salsa on the side. The chips were thick without being too thick; the melted cheese was actual cheese (two kinds), not gloopy cheese-like sauce. For my main course, I had the Tacos el Cameron (my Spanish isn’t great, but evidently there was someone named Cameron and I took his food). It had stir-fried shrimp and tuna and some vegetables and spices all wrapped up in a tortilla and lightly fried (just enough to be brown and crispy, not enough to by drippy and greasy). Served with rice, a small salady thing and guacamole, it was wonderful. (www.elmexicano.co.uk)

I took the train back to London, walked about some, and headed home. Here’s a helpful hint: when you see a poster marked ‘STOP – READ THIS IF YOU ARE TRAVELLING BY TRAIN THIS WEEKEND’ you probably should. Those posters explained why no trains were running to Stevenage that night. You read that correctly. Imagine my surprise to watch the train departure board, looking for ‘Stevenage,’ watching all those little town names scroll by, thinking ‘gosh…where is Stevenage?’

It seems that, due to planned engineering works, there were no trains between Welwyn and Stevenage after 1500 on Saturday through until sometime Monday. Luckily, there were rail replacement coaches from Welwyn to Stevenage. (And all that was explained on the posters. But, honestly, I don’t remember seeing those posters Saturday morning…really.)

Anyway, I got home safely.

Buzz Off

From the Daily Telegraph last Saturday (April 23):

Police are looking for 30,000 bees missing from a hive in Pershore, Worcestershire. “They could have travelled in any direction,” said a spokesman.


Last Saturday (April 23) I took the train to Canterbury. Since I slept late that morning, I didn’t arrive in Canterbury until early afternoon. The Canterbury West station is quite near the old city walls. Passing by the gates and into the old town, you feel a sense of what the city must have been like hundreds of years ago. The streets are lined with shops and filled with people. Moving through the streets, I saw signs pointing to the Cathedral. Like a pilgrim of old, I make my way in the directions of the sign. Unlike pilgrims of old, I hadn’t travelled for days or weeks and I hadn’t told too many tales along the way.

I arrived at the Cathedral in time for Evensong. A nice gentleman welcomed me to the ‘Mother Church’. (What St. Peter’s is to the Catholic Church, Canterbury Cathedral is to the Church of England.) It was St. George’s Day so the candles in the quire were lit. (St. George is the patron saint of England - similar to how St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. There’s just less drinking.) Since I was one of the first to arrive for Evensong, I was able to sit in the quire right next to the choir. (Evidently, ‘quire’ refers to the place in a cathedral, and ‘choir’ refers to the people who are singing there. You pronounce them the same, though.) It was very nice. The postlude, however, was slightly unnerving. Never having heard Pomp and Circumstances played at any event other than a graduation, I expected to see people in caps and gowns wandering about at any minute. As a side note, evidently the full version of Pomp and Circumstances goes on halfway to forever and includes one part that sounds rather like a calliope.

After Evensong, I had some time to walk around the Cathedral. I saw the place where the shrine to Thomas Becket used to be – the actual shrine was destroyed during the reformation – a candle burns in its place. Walking further around the Cathedral, I came to the spot where Pope John Paul II and the Archbishop of Canterbury knelt to pray during the Pope’s historic visit. Visitors can also descend into the crypt. I didn’t pay extra for a guided tour or for a recorded guide, but when I go again, I probably will – there’s so much there and there aren’t many descriptions posted.

That’s about all I did in Canterbury. It seems that the town folds up at 5:30 in the evening. So I left.

Disgusting yet oddly fascinating

In The Times on Tuesday (April 26) there was a report about exploding frogs in Hamburg, Germany. Yes, that’s correct…exploding frogs. It seems that during the day, the frogs do the normal frog activities: hopping about, croaking, and eating flies. After nightfall, however, they suddenly start to swell to three times their normal size, expanding until they burst. And, evidently, ‘their entrails are expelled distances of up to one metre.’ One wildlife expert likened the explosion to ‘hitting a slightly rotten orange with a golf iron.’

Scientists don’t yet seem to know why these German frogs are popping. One explanation is that the frogs are infected with some type of virus or bacteria although water samples taken from the so-called ‘Pond of Death’ show no signs of obvious bacteria or pollution. Another explanation is that a new breed of aggressive crows has been attacking the frogs. Scientists fear that the swelling-up defence mechanism the frogs use then gets out of control.

You know, every day I seem to find something new to fear. I mean, what type of person goes about hitting slightly rotten oranges with golf irons?

I Must Have These

On Tuesday (April 26), The Times had a photo of the latest in garden accessories: a set of three garden gnomes commemorating the upcoming national election. The garden gnomes are each a caricature of the three major political party leaders. Really, who wouldn’t want a grinning Tony Blair in your garden?

Link here...


Following the terrible Japanese train disaster last week, newspapers had a number of articles comparing the Japanese rail system to the British system. The most interesting fact was this:

In 2001, 95 percent of Japanese bullet trains (the high-speed, super fast ones) arrived on time. Of those that were late, they were late by an average of 24 seconds. The same year, 78 percent of British trains arrived “on time,” a term meaning less than ten minutes late.

What's in a Name?

From letters to The Times last week:

Sir, The British-based Polish conductor Jerzy Maksymuik is generally known to his British colleagues as Jersey Makey-Music.

What a Character

I recently finished reading the British novel Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde. Despite being fairly minor characters, these two people have most memorable names:

Braxton Hicks (it’s obviously a contraction of something else)
Brik Schitt-Hawse (you may have to say it out loud…)

A Quote I Don’t Understand

I heard this on the telly this week:

‘Give him a yard and he took a metre.’

Oh yeah, that extra ten centimetres is really going to mess things up…

From My Woolie's Bag

I can’t even remember when I last visited Woolworth’s but I have a plastic bag from there. It has a joke printed on it:

Q: Why did the biscuit cry?

A: Because his mum was a wafer so long.

Quality and Sustainability

I have been giving some thought recently to the ideas of quality and sustainability and how they relate to education. Much has been said and written lately about the quality of British education. Basically, the gist is that the quality overall is not too good.

What I have not seen mentioned is anything about the sustainability of British education. Actually, I do not recall ever seeing this term used to describe education. (It certainly may have been applied, but I have not seen it.) Normally, the concept of sustainability is applied to things like logging and other businesses. If you are a logging company and you chop down all the trees without making sure that you plant and care for enough seedlings, seen you will end up with no more mature trees to harvest. Similarly, if you run some other type of business, you need to make certain that you do not expand faster than you can maintain. It does no good to open new outlets of a store if you cannot maintain the production and supply chain.

Now, despite the fact that business models cannot always be successfully applied to education, the concept of sustainability deserves some notice. Currently, Britain is unable to sustain its educational system. By that, I mean that Britain’s educational system is not producing enough teachers. As a result, in order to have enough teachers in the classrooms, schools are forced to recruit from other countries. While the shortage seems to be across the subject areas, it is particularly acute in mathematics and science. A number of institutes of higher education are even closing their mathematics departments due to lack of students. Such closures will only lead to further shortages, since the students interested in pursuing higher-level mathematics are becoming more and more limited in their options.

It seems that the only way to make sure that Britain, or any nation for that matter, to educate their children is to make sure that the educational system can sustain itself. This is one reason that organizations such as the Peace Corps focused both on teaching children and training teachers while also concentrating on other basic issues like farming and access to clean water.

So, what does quality have to do with sustainability?

Everything. Though two separate issues with varying causes and remedies, improving one can only be done by improving the other. To make sure more students become teachers, it is critical to make sure we have high quality schools. Similarly, to make sure we have high-quality schools, we need to make sure we produce as many well-trained teachers as we can.

Much can be said, and indeed much has been said and written, about why schools are declining. However, until the long-term quality/sustainability cycle is taken into account, little lasting improvements can be made.

My New Favourite Excuse

If it works for the train companies, why wouldn’t it work for me? Let’s give it a go:

‘Due to planned engineering works, I’ll be late for work tomorrow.’

‘Due to planned engineering works, my lesson plans aren’t finished yet.’

‘Due to planned engineering works, I really need to have that extra cake for dessert.’

‘Due to planned engineering works, this blog won’t be updated for several days.’

Yeah, I think that just might work…

Something I Really Like

Hanging up my laundry on the line outside, after carefully wiping the lines with a damp rag to make sure all the gunk is removed, and after making sure I’m using my own clean, not-hung-outside-in-all-the-gunk clothes pegs, and after being almost finished, only to feel drops of rain. Then I look up at the bright, shining sun and see maybe one or two clouds. Then I feel more rain drops. Then I look up at the bright, shining sun and see maybe one or two clouds. Then I feel even more rain drops. Then I give up and take the clothes in.

But, at least I felt the rain now, rather than hours later when my laundry was nearly dry only to be soaked again.

The Head

Did you ever watch the television show Third Rock from the Sun? The basic premise was that a group of four aliens arrived on earth to live among the humans. Hilarity ensued. (Yeah, I know, not an original premise at all.) Evidently, they landed on earth and took human names: Tom, Dick, Harry, and Sally. They often referred to their leader, The Big Giant Head.

So, when people at school mention that they just talked to The Head, it makes me giggle just a bit.

And that’s often how she’s referred to – The Head. As in, ‘The Head is looking for you,’ or ‘I just gave that lesson plan to The Head,’ or ‘Don’t make me take your sodding carcass straight to The Head.’

It makes you wonder. I mean, I get these visions of a giant cranium perched atop a mighty throne in the office. But don’t worry. She has arms, legs, and a torso as well.


Jules Destrooper Cinnamon Biscuits Enrobed with Chocolate. They’re really quite yummy. And, they’re Purveyed to the Belgian Royal Household.

(Just a side note: Since Jules Destrooper are Purveyors to the Belgian Royal Household, wouldn’t that mean that the biscuits are then Purveyed to the Belgian Royal Household?)


Ah, spring. The time when trees are filled with now leaves, flowers start to bloom, and spiders start to roam about. I’m fine with those small ones that creep around on the wall. Generally, I’ll just ignore them and move one. After all, it’s live and let live, right?

But last night, I’m lying in bed reading and I see this huge black thing striding across the floor. It’s so big that it feels no need to creep or to scurry; it confidently treads across my carpet with confidence. This is the spider the others call ‘The Enforcer.’ It briefly stops, stares me down, and threatens to break my thumbs if I don’t repay my loan.

No, wait, that’s the Italian guy down the hall. We were talking about the spider.

This spider is bigger than a dinner plate. And it’s standing there laughing at me.

So I wait until it stops laughing and turns away. I creep towards it. It’s funny, but as I get closer, it looks less the size of a dinner plate, and more the size of a black, furry, 50p coin with legs. But still, it’s big. I grab my shoe. I slowly lift it into the air. And…WHAM!

‘So,’ I say to the flat, crumpled mess on the floor, ‘who’s laughing now?’

If only I had a shoe big enough for that Italian guy…

(Important note: Although the role of The Enforcer is played by a large Italian man who happens to enforce loan repayments for a group known as ‘The Family,’ I am in no way implying that he is typical of all Italians. In fact, I know for certain that some Italians are women.)

Sunday Telly

It’s Sunday afternoon and on the telly there are sports (Live World Snooker Championships and the Chinese Motocross Grand Prix…really), old movies (Columbo – The Most Dangerous Match (1973), Camelot (1967) and The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)), and the weekly roundup of the daily BBC soap opera (EastEnders). Clearly, someone it trying to tell me to get out of the house and do something.

Either that, or British television is desperately trying to copy American Sunday afternoon television.

My Pay

Avid readers of this blog will remember the difficulties I have had in simply getting my pay. Well, I am pleased to let you all know that Friday (April 29) was payday and I actually had my pay deposited into my bank account without any further action needed on my part. In addition, I think I am finally in the proper income tax band (well, at least I’m in a lower income tax band). And, not only that, but I got a raise! Due to some nationwide teacher pay increase, I got a £537 annual pay raise. That works out to a monthly raise of £44.75.

Now, before you get too excited, I’m still trying to get my pension straightened out and I’m still trying to get a National Insurance Number, but at least I’m getting a few major issues out of the way.

The Land of the Little People

On Wednesday of this past week, I had the chance to visit Ash Tree Primary School. Since it backs up to my school, it’s a simple matter to pop down the path for an hour or so. I observed in a year 6 maths class. When I got there, I was amazed at the behaviour – the kids were sitting without talking, raising their hands, and participating.

So, that got me thinking. Sure, kids change a bit in the month between year 6 and year 7, but they can’t change THAT much. So why do the year 6 kids behave nearly perfectly when some of the year 7 kids act like they’ve never been in a classroom before?

There are probably a ton of reasons but here are two I think are major ones:
School expectations – If you’re a year 6 kid in a school where everyone is properly behaved, you quickly learn what is allowed and expected of you. Similarly, if you’re a year 7 kid in a school where everyone runs around, screams and shouts, and disrupts, you quickly learn what is allowed and expected of you.
School timetables – The year 6 kids I saw have the same teacher for each subject. Plus, they had the same teacher last year. Unfortunately, when they get to year 7, they will be thrown into a situation where not only do they have a different teacher for each subject, but, chances are, for some classes, they will have more than one teacher. (When I got here, my year 7 class was timetabled to have three separate teachers for maths – one teacher three times a fortnight, one teacher twice a fortnight, and one teacher once a fortnight. That wasn’t counting any supply teachers they might have had as well.)

I’m thinking of applying to a Master’s of Education program that focuses on researching a particular area of teaching and learning. I think I’ve found my topic.


This week’s Sunday Telegraph Magazine had a list of fifty recent American babies’ names. They are:

I mean, what are people thinking? Can you just imagine?

What happens when the dear child has her birthday party at the skating rink? The announcer says, ‘And now, Easy Roller Skating Rink is pleased to wish a very happy seventh birthday to Placenta! Awww….isn’t she adorable?’

And what about As-Matik? There’s a kid who will never get his medical history correct. :
‘You’re asthmatic?’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. What’s your name?’
‘I know that, but what’s your name?’
It’s like ‘Who’s on First?’ for the new century.

And Uneek? Beautiphul? Simplisiti? Pamperme? I see three children who will never kwite master the phine artt of spelling or punkchewashun.

What about Blunt and Weed? Gee, let’s advertise the fact our parents are fond of certain substances. Same goes for DeVodka and Tequilla.

How long before we read about trademark infringement suits against little Chevette, darling Hilton, sweet L’Oreal, and dear Gulfstream?

Now, Elyzibethe and Karryllinne aren’t too bad, I suppose. It’s just the natural extension of Katie, Katy, Cathy, Kathy, Kathie, Kristie, and Kirstie. But Sharmonica? I mean really.

And if you’re going to name your kids after someone famous, would you really pick Affleck (Ben), Spacy (Kevin) or Rumsfeld (Donald)?

But I suppose you could have some fun with these names. Could you imagine twins named Tall and Dwarf? Or Harlotte and Virgin?

Seriously, imagine adults with these names. Think about graduation time or a job interview. Yes, I know, all names were at some point made up by someone. But to name a kid Poopsie?

Heavens. If this is what’s happened in America since December, my American Tour comes not a minute too soon. I henceforth announce my campaign to bring back some commonsense and foresight into naming kids. If you must make up an original name (but NOT Uneek) that nobody else has, could you possibly manage not to saddle your kid with unreasonable labels? Kids get picked on enough without given names like Dwarf or Poopsie. If you must call your kid something like that, it’s called a nickname, folks, not a given name. A name shouldn’t be a nod to a passing interest (Tequilla and Weed). It shouldn’t be a company (L’Oreal and Gulfstream). It shouldn’t be a room (Gym). It shouldn’t be some cutsey name (Poopsie or Pamperme). It’s a person, for Pete’s sake, not a stuffed animal.*

Then again, I do like the name Hawke. Really.

(Just as a side note…even though I like the name Hawke, that does NOT open the door to naming your kid after random other birds you may find in the guidebook: Oriole, Pigeon, Chicken, Peacock, Eagle, Chickadee, or Cardinal. The names Robin and Jay remain acceptable. Authorisation is still pending on Crane and Kestrel.)

(As another side note, if you must find something different, how about using names already established as acceptable in other countries? Callum and Alfie are quite common in England, yet I never met a single one in America. Okay, I’m still deciding about Alfie, but still it beats Rage.)

(Okay, here’s yet another side note…recently there was a huge uproar here in England when footballer David Beckham and his wife Victoria (formerly Posh Spice) named their newest son Cruz. It seems that in Spain, Cruz is a girl’s name. It’s like all the English papers forgot about all the English girls named Charlie and all the English boys named Ashley. I happen to like the name Cruz. Of course, I also like Max, Zak, Dru, Nic, and Ari.)

*And here we have the problem, I believe. Too many people are looking at kids as something fun to have around for a while, like a stuffed animal or something. Kids are work (trust me, I’m a teacher) and they stick around long after they stop being cute (trust me, I’m a teacher).

One summer I worked at a company where they hired a security guard named Buffy. Oh yeah, real intimidating.

Intelligent Enough for Oxford? or Look Before You Leap

Evidently, at dawn on May Day, it is a tradition at Oxford for undergraduates to leap (fully clothed with some in ball gowns and formal jackets) twenty-five feet from the Magdalen Bridge to the River Cherwell below. Unfortunately, they neglected to see that, this year, the river was only three feet deep.

It seems that neither the fences put in place to deter the jumpers nor the police officers nearby were enough to keep 100 Oxford students from jumping. According to the Sunday Telegraph, more than thirty students were injured. Some students were treated at the scene, but ten were taken to the hospital with spinal injuries, broken legs, ankles, and ribs. One student was impaled on a 6ft fence.

You know, I always thought you had to be really smart to get into Oxford.

But, evidently, you don’t.

Some British Statistics

From the Sunday Telegraph (actually, from a Sunday Telegraph story about a new book by Simon Briscoe called Britain in Numbers)…

There are more children with special education needs than there are attending private school. (This is especially telling in light of the next statistic…)

There is a record number of children in private school.

Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is the world’s third largest employer after the Chinese army and the Indian railways. (So why do people here have to wait so long for medical services?)

390,000 people put their religion in the national census as Jedi, the ‘noble order of protectors’ from the Star Wars films. If listed with main faiths, it would have come in fourth, above Sikhism. (Now, I’m really, REALLY curious about numbers one through three.)

Happy May Day

To celebrate May Day, I got the day off work courtesy of the British government. I also got an email greeting from Radio Havana courtesy of the Cuban government. Now, there’s an interesting mix of celebratory stuff.

Today's Quote

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!
-Lewis Carroll, mathematician and writer (1832-1898)