Sunday, 5 October 2014

Science Fiction; How To View It?

Science Fiction as a genre has, I think, three main strands;

1) Near Future.  Taking what is possible today, looking at what is planned and pushing the boundaries just beyond that point.
2) Future.  Taking concepts that are not possible with current knowledge of science and making them possible by inventing a method which seems plausible if you don't look too closely.
3) Make It Up.  Invent a concept and ignore how it's done just run with it as long as it's a well crafted story.

Secondly, there are, I think, broadly speaking two types of consumer of science fiction;

a) Purist.  Wants the science that is presented to be as accurate as possible within the confines of the story.
b) Doesn't care as long as they are entertained.

Combining the above you get the Purist who will like type 1 stories, be OK with type 2 as long as they don't push it, and not like type 3.  The type b consumer on the other hand may not like type 1 stories if they get bogged down too much in the accuracy, will like type 2, and will definitely like type 3 for the story.

Having said that, I class myself as somewhere between the two.  I will happily sit down and nitpick the likes of Prometheus to death, but I will also happily sit down and watch an episode of Doctor Who and not bat an eyelid.  Why is that?

I think it is because broadly speaking there are two types of lie told in science fiction, Big and LittleBig Lies are things such as teleportation, faster than light travel, laser weaponry that shoots 'bolts', lightsabres, time travel.. I could go on.. and on.. and on.  The point is, all the above are known by the average viewer/reader to be physically impossible, certainly in modern science, and in the case of some permanently due to that bloke Einstein and his mate Heisenberg.  Little Lies I class as things that the purist knows are wrong and will catch and be irritated by, such as a vehicle that uses antigravity that doesn't crush anything it flies over due to the downward force physics tells us it must be applying to stay airborne; I was therefore absurdly pleased when, in the remake of Total Recall (not as good as the original but had Kate Beckinsale, so swings and roundabouts :)), the car that was plummeting to the ground having lost antigrav drive had it restored and the car parked underneath it was crushed by the force.

We then come to a point where I sit down and watch Doctor Who and ignore the fact that time travel is impossible, and you can't have an object bigger on the inside than on the outside, because they are just a vehicle for the story and it's not worth worrying about the obviously impossible.  However, I watch Independence Day and yes they have the Big Lies such as anti-gravity and a mothership that would seriously mess with the earth's gravity just by orbiting due to its mass being a quarter of the size of the moon.  What irritates me though is the small stuff, when a programme/film gets their own science wrong.  All the smaller spaceships would have had to do was fly over their target and the force of the anti-grav drive pushing down would have squashed anything under it flatter than a beer can after being stomped on.  And don't even get me started on a Mac laptop that was somehow able to seamlessly interface with alien technology.. half the time it's a *bleep* to get them to interface with other human technology, and that's not even mentioning the fact the aliens had a handy USB port to plug into, that or Jeff Goldblum carried a USB-Alien adaptor in his back pocket.  And it all worked on the same frequency, power; even the language the alien computer was programmed with was somehow compatible with earth computers.

On that basis maybe there is a third type of viewer, the purist who will watch science fiction and ignore the Big Lies because, let's face it, it would take way too much time to nitpick it all, and besides the Big Lies are often the foundation of the story; Doctor Who and the TARDIS; Star Trek and faster than light travel, teleportation etc; Star Wars and lightsabres.  What I think upsets people is when science fiction gets what they know wrong, when they step out of their Big Lie science and start tinkering with ordinary science.

For example, in a particularly heinous (my view) episode of Star Trek: Voyager called 'The 37s' they detected a trail of petrol (gasoline to US readers) in space and followed it to a 1937 pickup truck floating in space.  Not only were the tyres still inflated, but there was manure in the flatbed, and when they got it onboard the engine started first time!  Apparently all the petrol hadn't leaked out.. and there was still enough acid in the battery to create electricity.. yesss...  Later on they had a Blue Alert and landed a 750,000 tonne spaceship on a planet on three spindly looking legs.  By that point I was well beyond having equated the script with the truck's cargo.

In the final analysis though, everyone has different tastes; if you don't like it don't watch it / buy the book, but don't watch/read it - especially if it's a series with a known pedigree - and then profess surprise and/or complain about it when it does what it says on the tin.  That just annoys people.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Doctor Who - Deep Breath 8.1

Do NOT Read If You Haven't Seen Last Night's Episode Yet.

If You Have, Read On.

Right.. if you've read this far you've seen it; if you haven't why are you still reading?  Oh well, I did try to warn you..

I've seen mixed reviews for the opener of series 8 and Peter Capaldi's first outing as The Doctor, inevitable really as he is the first doctor to break the 50 year old tradition of every successive actor to be younger than the last.  Some who may have liked the eye candy of Eccleston, Tennant and Smith might baulk at an older actor, but frankly that's hard luck. Deal with it.  It's the character that is important not what he looks like.

Capaldi brought a gravitas and depth to the role which I think has been missing.  That's not in any way to denigrate the above named, but he brought his experience and, yes, age to bear in an extremely powerful performance, giving in my view a superb performance as someone who - unaccountably for someone to whom it had happened 11 times before - was struggling to cope with the new face and person he had transformed into, a kind of multiple personality disorder as his brain seemed to think he was the previous incarnation, but the evidence of his eyes told him something different.

Jenna Coleman was superb as Clara, and her reaction to the change in the Doctor was extremely well portrayed.  In her own way Clara too seemed to be conflicted but in her case with her mind telling her he was the same inside but another part of her believing her eyes that he was a different person.

Neither seemed able to reconcile the conflicting evidence before them.

Neve McIntosh as Madame Vastra played the part in this episode very much in the mould of Irene Adler as portrayed in the Carole Nelson Douglas books, that of essentially a female Sherlock Holmes, complete with companion, Jenny Flint played by Catrin Stewart.  With respect to their portrayals I am going to stick my neck out and say I don't see what people are whining about with Moffat's alleged attitude to women. What attitude? IMHO he is to be commended for not sticking to the tired old 'acceptable to polite society' conventions.  Not only that Clara was a well rounded complex character with depths yet to be plumbed.

Strax.. now I have read complaints about Strax and again I am going to stick my neck out and disagree absolutely with them.  Peter Capaldi brought, as detailed above, a dark gravitas to the role and if the episode had concentrated solely on that it could in my view have become too dark.  Any successful drama needs variation, 'light and dark' is I think the term the industry uses.  Strax for me sat in the same role as Dobby the House Elf in the Harry Potter series.  While having his own serious side, he provided the occasional much needed light relief, both by himself and with his behaviour giving other characters the opportunity to react in, what for the viewer was, a humorous manner.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable and well crafted episode.  The ending scene was superbly well done, even if the plot device of a character calling from the past was not new - I saw it a week or so ago rewatching Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure on DVD.  The fact of a plot device not being new does not detract in any way from its implementation, it's a tool in the script writer's box, and it's how it's used that is important, and in this case it was extremely well done.

I'm definitely looking forward to the next episode!

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Where Next For BBC Drama?

Over the years the BBC has been viewed as the flagship of British TV Drama, particularly in historic/period drama. However, their latest outing Jamaica Inn was roundly criticised in the media for poor quality production. However, there has in my opinion of late been a tendency toward putting viewer figures – the ubiquitous 'bums on seats' – ahead of faithfulness to the original text or source on which the series is based. To illustrate this I will take four examples and put them in chronological order, and compare aspects such as costume, scenery, dialogue and script, the latter differentiating from dialogue in that it encompasses the storyline and events within it, not just what is said; an actor learning 'the script' is more properly learning their lines or dialogue. For each I will give them a mark out of five for different aspects; Accuracy – compared to original sources material; Casting; Script; Dialogue, Scenery/Locations; Costumes. That should give each a score out of 30.
Robin Hood; aired 2006-2008.
I was slightly concerned on reading the review in the TV listings magazine that the reviewer overdid the excitement at the 'new look' almost squealing with excitement 'Robin even has a hoodie!' Erm. Yes. Well if you look at his name there's probably a reason for that. However that's a reviewer's excitement chip overloading, so it can be forgiven.
Accuracy: 3: A mixed result here as the beginning was authentic to the legend, but of course as the series grew into three eventually the writers ended up going well off-piste. In addition the concerns dragging the dialogue and costume scores down also affected the accuracy.
Casting: 5: Some people may have had issues with the cast, seeing the likes of Jonas Armstrong and Lucy Griffiths as pure eye candy to capture a younger audience, but I think this misses two basic facts:
a) At the time of airing – Saturday nights about 1900 – most people of their age who might be attracted to a programme with them in it would be out with their friends, so trying to attract them with a TV programme in that time slot is probably a waste of time.
b) In the period in which Robin Hood is set – the late 12th century – people lived much shorter lives than they do now, and even in more recent times my grandfather was working in a coal-mine from the age of 12, in the mid 1920s. Therefore I think it is highly likely and quite in keeping with the period that someone may have gone on Crusade and returned home, and still be only in their mid twenties as Robin was. Similarly girls grew up faster and were often married off by their fathers as part of a diplomatic agreement, sometimes marrying as young as 14 or even younger. Therefore Robin's surprise at Marian still being single in her mid twenties is also in keeping.
The addition of Jaq as a direct replacement to Nasir in some ways disappointed me, as I remember the Michael Praed series of the late eighties and Nasir was one of my favourite characters. However she grew on me as a character and I have to concede that the choice worked well.
Script: 5: As a rule I liked the scripts. The beginning was authentic to the original legend and only really went off-piste, inevitably really, when the series ran long enough for them to run out of original source material. However I think they coped admirably with it and the new material was woven seamlessly into the original.
Dialogue: 3: Now here I did have issues; whoever decided to include Americanisms in a period 400 years before the New World was even discovered needs, in my opinion, a sharp slap around the back of the head. Repeatedly. Until the message sinks in. The very first time the Sheriff uttered the phrase 'A clue.. No!' I swore at the TV and continued to with every repetition; it's not Keith Allan's fault – he did a superb job of acting the scheming malicious Sheriff, sadly let down by appalling dialogue.
Scenery: 5: I have to say I am unable to fault the locations and scenery. Everything was in keeping with how I imagine it would have looked.
Costumes: 3: A real mixed bag. The peasantry and extras seem to have had authentic costumes in the main which blended in well with the authentic scenery. However they were not in the foreground of the shots, and those who were, well, their costuming was less well thought out – at least in my opinion. Some examples to illustrate my point:
Guy of Gisborne: Patent leather. Really BBC? Now I know Richard Armitage is a draw for many of my female friends, and there is nothing wrong in that. However I suspect they would still have watched him in authentic costume.
Lady Marian: Initially I wasn't worried, but subsequently the ball was dropped from a great height. Combat boots??? Camouflage trousers??
I feel the need for another slap coming on. It is one thing to dress a character in clothing which, while not authentic, at least looked the part, but dressing a character, and a female one at that, in trousers, and boots which would not exist for another 400 years is simply ridiculous.
Overall Score: 24/30.
Merlin; aired 2008-2012
As someone who has an interest in Arthurian Legend I was initially excited when I heard of this production, but my disquiet began almost immediately when I saw the trailers.
Accuracy: 2: Merlin scores extremely low for accuracy for a whole raft of reasons, some of which no doubt I will forget but numbering among them:
  • Uther Pendragon used sorcery to bed Arthur's mother, so there is no way he would have outlawed it.
  • Merlin was the magician who performed the spell Uther used, and as an old man at the time he could never have been younger than Prince Arthur.
  • Uther was dead by the time Arthur knew Merlin. Arthur was never a prince. He became King after the extremely famous Sword in the Stone incident.
  • Merlin was never a servant.
These are just some of the glaring errors. I would go as far as to say the only accuracy was in the names of the characters, their location being called Camelot and there was magic involved.
Casting: 3: The actors cast were good, but some were wrong for their roles. Starting with the good – Anthony Head was excellent as Uther even though his character was supposed to be dead by then. This will undoubtedly sound controversial, but although Angel Coulby is a fine actress she was completely wrong for casting as Guinevere – who by the way wasn't a servant in Camelot either (can I give a minus score for accuracy?). Colin Morgan was wrong for Merlin and it is clear from this choice alone that the BBC intended to pitch it at a young audience and decided to throw out the source material.
Script: 2: Good as far as they went. At least the final series ended authentically with the Battle of Camlann. It wandered so far off the legends in between though it was unrecognisable.
Dialogue: 3: Again nothing to really pick holes in here bar the occasional modern term slipping in, but generally OK.
Scenery: 5: The look and feel of Camelot was very well realised though and the environment in which it was shot felt authentic to the age the legends are set in.
Costumes: 5: Again a good score, with none of the glaring errors of Robin Hood which stood out like a sore thumb.
Overall Score: 20/30.
Atlantis; aired 2013
Accuracy: 0: It's difficult to know where to start with this one. On the face of it a great concept, but the execution is abysmal:
  • Mixing real people with mythological heroes and a society that archaeologists are now fairly sure did exist even if Wikipedia says Plato created the imaginary continent.
  • Pythagoras actually existed – not one of the other characters actually did.
  • Jason – of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame which are never once mentioned - never met Hercules in any of the legends.
  • Hercules did not have a girlfriend, and she was definitely not one of the Gorgons. I recall tweeting along the lines that if you're in ancient Greece [ish] and your girlfriend is called Medusa it's not going to end well.
  • Minos was not king of Atlantis.
  • Jason did not kill the Minotaur. That was Theseus, on Crete, oh that's right.. where Minos actually was King.
I could go on but you get the idea. The BBC - rather than make a fantasy drama based on authentic Greek myths which could have run for years without repetition and still be entertaining – chose to slam together several disparate elements which have virtually nothing to do with each other and hope it works. I wouldn't so much say they went off-piste as booked a holiday in the Cairngorms in Scotland but actually went skiing in the Blue Mountain range in Australia.
Casting: 4: I could criticise heavily but it's not the actors fault they've been given a turkey. My main gripes are with Pythagoras and Hercules. Pythagoras is too young and Hercules – retired? How exactly do you retire from being the son of Zeus and human mother Alcmene? I'm pretty sure you don't. Hercules the hero reduced to a comedy figure, as Gimli was in Peter Jackson's otherwise mostly excellent Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
Script: 1: Well OK one for entertainment value. Zero accuracy because it's been cobbled together from too many different sources to make any reasonable guess. Where it does have an identifiable source it's wrong (see accuracy above). The ball wasn't dropped in this regard, more stamped on with heavy spiked boots.
Dialogue: 3: Well they spoke. In sentences. It's just what they said wasn't right for the period they're supposed to portray. That's fine for Jason who is from the 21st Century, but nobody else is.. there should have been more of a contrast.
Scenery: 5: Archaeologists have a fairly good idea of where Atlantis – or the civilisation Plato may have been referring to - was before a volcanic eruption that made Krakatoa look like an attack of hiccups ruined everyone's day. Given that they lived at the same time as Ancient Greece we have solid source material to base opinion on, and I have to say that in this respect I think the BBC actually managed to get it right. The locations/scenery of Atlantis looked good.
Costumes: 5: Again this is an area where the BBC got it mostly right – more right than Robin Hood anyway.. combat boots.. really? Sorry I'll shut up now. The point is the BBC can do it right if they want to, it's just a matter of the production team wanting to.
Overall Score: 18/30.
The Musketeers; aired 2014
Accuracy: 4: I have not read Alexander Dumas' original so I am erring on caution by giving an accuracy score of 4 – there are undoubtedly errors an aficionado would spot. However the details I do know were correct, such as the names, places, relationships and general storyline of how they all met. In fact it corrected a misconception I had from previous movies which gave the impression of the setting being somewhere in the 18th century. In addition something that always puzzled me was why musketeers used swords as their weapon of choice. This adaptation has given a much needed air of realism to that element. This being the latest of the four to air it seems the BBC have returned to their comfort zone, and it is something they are very good at.
Casting: 5: I can't fault the casting. All the actors filled their assigned roles admirably. In particular I must draw attention to Peter Capaldi's inspired portrayal of the scheming Cardinal Richelieu, and it is a great pity that – due no doubt to his casting as the new Doctor Who – he will not be returning for the second season. All the others were well suited to their roles and eminently believable.
Script: 4: Again the only reason to lose a point here is my inherent caution. In addition as the series progresses with a second being commissioned already it is possible, indeed likely, the writers will run out of original source material. However, what they have provided thus far is entertaining while maintaining for the more discerning viewer a reasonably convincing storyline.
Dialogue: 4: The occasional slip, but I'm afraid my penchant for correct accents loses them a mark here. In the same vein that the characters in Beowulf did not come from Wales, London and America etc - something the actors did not bother to disguise – The Musketeers is set in 17th Century France and the odd French accent wouldn't have gone amiss. Sadly in this the BBC are following the modern trend of just letting actors speak their lines rather than attempt authenticity.
Scenery: 5: Locations were, as is becoming quite frequent in this genre, Eastern Europe, and because of that they work extremely well. As always the lighting helps but overall the impression of 17th Century France is portrayed very well.
Costumes: 5: There may be the odd nitpick from historical costume specialists but the look of the production, as with the locations and scenery was well thought out and inoffensive.
Overall Score: 27/30.
To summarise then. For a long time I have had a suspicion, often supported by the evidence of programming decisions, that the BBC dislike science fiction and fantasy as genres. Evidence such as moving Outcasts every week so that viewers lost track of when it was on and they then cited low viewing figures as a reason to cancel the series. The one exception to this lacklustre interest in these genres is the ever popular Doctor Who which the BBC plug for all it's worth. Why do I mention this? Simple. In the above four examples of BBC Drama, two are firmly in the fantasy genre, one is in the 'Legends' genre but firmly rooted in a specific time-frame in British history, and one is based on a widely respected body of work of literary fiction.
It is with no surprise at all that I see, having totalled the scores for each, that the latter – The Musketeers – scores highest, given that period drama is the BBC's bread and butter. We'll ignore Jamaica Inn for the moment and the criticism that drew as it is in fairness not representative of the BBC's normal high standards.
The lower three all sat in the same prime-time Saturday evening slot of approximately 1900 which is the first indication of motive. Given the desire for high viewing figures at that time, perhaps it is not surprising then that the BBC sacrificed quality and accuracy for pure entertainment at any cost. I will concede that if you ignore any attempt to compare the following with the original bodies of work they were based on – assuming one can be identified – then they are entertaining in and of themselves. However, there is no rule I am aware of that says you cannot entertain and educate at the same time. An earlier blog of mine touches on this very subject.
Next in line comes the legend based squarely in a precise period of British history with known historical figures woven into the legend – Robin Hood. This is close enough to normal BBC fare for the production team to be well within their comfort zone. However as mentioned in the review, we do see hints of the production pandering toward 'bums on seats' to a degree with the casting.
In a poor third place comes the higher scoring of the two fantasy based series - Merlin. I personally think that authors such as Sir Thomas Malory and Chretien de Trois deserve the same care and consideration to their body of work as more modern authors, such as Alexander Dumas. The BBC it seems do not agree and are happy to run roughshod over the work reinterpreting it to a point where it is barely recognisable. In this case - with the single exception of Anthony Head, who may well appeal to older female viewers anyway – the casting of young attractive actors panders shamelessly to a younger target audience without bothering them with details such as an accurate portrayal of events as described in the original texts. While very broadly speaking Uther dies, Arthur becomes King, Merlin ascends to greatness as a magician, Morgana defects to the dark side, and Mordred kills Arthur at Camlann, most of these events happen in the wrong order and in the wrong context.
Finally we come to arguably, and mathematically by score, by far the worst of the bunch. Atlantis. I will not repeat the reasons in detail here; suffice to say it is a clear example of the BBC throwing a generic fantasy series together with little or no care as to its accuracy or production.
When will the BBC give equal care and attention, and indeed respect to the body of work of authors such as Tolkien, Lewis, Azimov, Clarke et al? I hope this blog has shown that the BBC are capable of high quality drama such as The Musketeers. It is to be hoped then that they turn their undoubted skill in this to other than their favourite genres and give their viewers a more rounded experience.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Don't Feed The Trolls..

For those readers of a certain age – of which I am one – I am not referring to the creatures from fairy tales that lurked under bridges and had issues with goats. On this occasion I mean the vermin which infests the Internet. Having been online the best part of twenty years I have come across them frequently, and the advice I was given when I first started on the Internet all those years ago still holds true, and is the title of this blog. So, what does it mean?

A troll in the Internet sense is not 'a nasty person', or 'somebody who I don't agree with' per se, although elements of both come into the manifestation of a troll. A troll to put it bluntly, is a brainless cretin who has nothing better to do with their time than to upset others, and who derives enjoyment from the outrage and upset their comments and actions engender. So, they spend their time posting inflammatory comments on the Internet, and then sit back revelling in the uproar their effort has caused.


(NOTE: I am not in any way advocating the below nor am I saying I hold either of the following opinions, they are examples only.)

On a Christian based mailing list:

Anyone who believes in God is a moron.

For reasons which should be obvious to all, if this were a genuine post it is a statement intended to enrage the members of the mailing list.

On Twitter:

People who use Twitter need to get a life!

There was an actual example on Twitter the other day which I will not repeat as I then run the risk of upsetting people who may not have seen the original, and that is the exact opposite of the purpose of the blog.  However, I will say it was clear to all that the poster intended to offend as no apology was made for any offence which may have been caused, indeed judging by their Timeline they appeared to revel in the attention. Others commented in the poster's defence saying it was 'obviously' a joke. Had this been true then the poster would have followed up with an apology for their ill-judged humour but they did not, and I therefore reject the 'joke' defence out of hand. This is a classic example of the Troll in action, and regrettably their intended reaction occurred judging by the responses that were posted, and comments made, both on Twitter and Facebook.

This is a clear hallmark of a deliberate troll, an offensive remark made with no attempt to apologise once the offence it has caused becomes obvious.

There is of course a very important point that must be made here. As a rule a Troll's intent is simply to upset and enrage people, it is not to break the law; after all they need their continued liberty to pursue their hobby of upsetting people [I do wish blogs had a sarcasm tag!]. Therefore it must be clearly understood that comments which clearly have illegal content such as those inciting violence or hatred against others are not Trolls in the true sense and are a definite exception to the rule stated in the title above. However I am sure that you dear reader have the ability to tell the difference between the two types and act accordingly.

Thus to the advice. Don't Feed The Trolls. As outlined above, a troll's raison d'etre is to upset and enrage people and to revel in the resultant reactions of their offences. If they do not get any reaction and they are starved of the attention they crave their impact is effectively neutered. While it is true that some may be persistent and try greater and greater means to offend, many will just give up and go away. Of course there is the possibility that some of the more cretinous individuals may cross the line and end up making slanderous or otherwise illegal comments at which point they may be reported to the relevant law enforcement authorities, however I think – at least hope – that these are in the minority.

In a nutshell, if someone posts a comment you find offensive, step away from the keyboard, think to yourself 'Are they doing it just to get attention and/or upset people?' and if they are ignore it. Put simply in four words.

Don't Feed The Trolls.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Where Now For Education?

With the publication of the PISA rankings for education across the world a widespread debate has inevitably ensued. Why is the UK so low? What are we doing wrong? Should we copy [insert miscellaneous country ranked higher than us – there's plenty of choice!]?'

To the latter question I say an emphatic No.  Whilst Korea for example may have higher achieving students than the UK, according to the BBC Breakfast current affairs television programme they also have an alarmingly high suicide rate among the young.  Therefore it can be reasonably assumed that their way is not the right way for everyone.  Apart from which, according to BBC Radio Wales this lunchtime Wales used to be the envy of the world for education and yet now we are the lowest in the UK.  What is required is for us to look back at what we used to do right and correct where we deviated from that path.

Education is a devolved area in the UK with different bodies controlling England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I suggest this is a basic error from which all else grows. My reasoning is simple; I have a friend in Germany where each region has a separate education body as well, and this has resulted in a situation where Saxony is deemed to have harder examinations than others; therefore a high achieving student from Saxony is a more desirable employee than one from another region with perceived lower standards. In the UK this could easily translate into students from one country being preferred over those from another. Only with a cohesive single strategy between all four will this be avoided.

We are also ignoring the basic building blocks of education. I am 43 years old and left mainstream education many years ago. I am also disabled and spent the first seven years up to the age of 12 in Special Education, only at that point entering mainstream education. Previously I have been a somewhat harsh critic of special education, however my experience of the last few years has given me significant pause for thought. At the age of 35 I decided to study for a degree, and given my employment at that time was in the IT sector I chose an IT related discipline and enrolled.

One of the first lectures was in Quantitative Methods and Statistics (QMS) which came as a bit of a shock given that I had not touched a mathematics book for 18 years at that point. More of a surprise was the lecturer's opening gambit of progressing around the room asking students random times table questions. I was in the middle of the thought 'What is she doing?' when it became all too obvious. Many of the students, indeed it seemed the majority, struggled with the answers, and some were incorrect. I remind you at this point that in that room only two of us had at any point been in Special Education, every other student had at that point spent 12 years or more in mainstream education.

The above raises two questions.

a) How could students pass GCSE Mathematics – a core requirement for any degree course not just IT based ones – with such poor mental arithmetic skills?
b) If such basic building blocks are omitted in Mathematics, what else is being ignored in other subjects? Grammar in English? To watch some talent or reality TV shows my answer to that one is an emphatic Yes.

The final point may not seem education based but having given it some thought it could well be at the core of all else, not only education. There has been for many years a culture of not allowing children to fail, or I should say to feel they have failed, be that at sport etc, or academically, and this I believe is a badly flawed concept.

Currently a child goes to school, takes exams and tests and mostly passes due to the lowering of standards to achieve this – whatever anyone says standards have lowered because the pass rate at GCSE and A Level has increased every year for 25 years, and any statistician will tell you no dataset is perfect. If they fail they are consoled and told it doesn't matter 'You'll do better next time..' That child then grows and leaves school, perhaps to go to university, and for the first time is treated like an adult. Adults are not cushioned from failure as they are supposed to know how to deal with it. If you go to an employer having made a mess of a contract tender and cost the company thousands of pounds in lost revenue they won't accept 'I'll do better next time..' they will be more likely to show you the door to find another job.

Consider the difference in contestants on a talent show such as X-Factor. Irrespective of personal opinion on the merits, or lack thereof, of the programme itself, compare how different contestants deal with failure. The older contestants in their late twenties and upwards are upset of course, but the late teens and early twenties are positively distraught, a common wailing refrain being 'My life is over!' between sobs. Of course it isn't but it is likely that this is the first failure that they have had to face in their comparatively short lives because the education system has failed them abysmally in this respect.

If a child fails when they are young they will learn it is not a nice feeling, but that it is a fact of life and will happen to them from time to time and they will learn to deal with it. Should that same child fail academically they will feel the same upset, but rather than be consoled 'it doesn't matter' they will learn that the way to avoid failure is to try harder. It is of course obvious that some will still fail, but the crucial lesson which is often overlooked is simply the satisfaction of knowing you did your best. Fail when you didn't try hard enough or were not pushed to do your best then the path only leads to regret for what might have been. Fail when you know you tried your utmost then the pill is a much less bitter one to swallow.

I strongly believe that a combination of the above factors properly addressed will lead to the UK returning to the higher echelons of the academic world.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Don't Know? Don't Say!

Now, before I go any further let's get one thing straight. I like a good laugh as much as the next person. I also agree with what Dave Gorman once said in a stand-up routine, to the effect that if the disabled – of which I am one – want to be fully integrated into society we have to accept that humour is part of that acceptance, to whit laughing at ourselves and allowing others to laugh with us is part and parcel of that. One of my favourite jokes is about one of my disabilities, Hydrocephalus; unfortunately it relies heavily on sound so doesn't translate into a blog. A stand-up routine I love is from Chris Addison who did an hilarious piece describing pirates as disabled sailors. I've seen it several times and I still laugh every time.
So that's the good part out of the way. Now onto the bad.
Humour based on ignorance is not humour. It's offensive. Tonight I watched a stand-up routine from a comedian who clearly hadn't done his research properly – if at all - and simply plucked a common disability out of the air to compare with an eating disorder. His misfortune – quite apart from the laziness inherent in the lack of research – was to single out my disability. Now, I grant you the routine was from 2011 and in the intervening years he may have had his error pointed out to him, but have the thousands who saw the routine also been informed of his error?
My major disability is Spina Bifida – I minored in Hydrocephalus (See? Humour! :) ) and for those not familiar with the condition, simply put it is a malformation of the spinal cord in the womb which results in varying degrees of paralysis and other side effects depending on where on the cord the malformation occurs. In my case, and that of many others, it results in an inability to walk and thus many of those who have Spina Bifida are wheelchair users.
The condition this ill-informed individual compared Spina Bifida to was wheat intolerance and Coeliac Disease. The latter is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine. Symptoms include pain and discomfort in the digestive tract, chronic constipation and diarrhoea and many others. Vitamin deficiencies are often noted in people with coeliac disease owing to the reduced ability of the small intestine to properly absorb nutrients from food.
The offending line in question suggested that people with wheat intolerance 'act like they've got Spina Bifida..' Hopefully having read the two descriptions above you will, dear reader, appreciate what an asinine comment this was.
I'm going to be blunt here because the individual concerned is a public figure and has his words and opinions exposed to hundreds, if not in the low thousands, of people at a time, possibly millions on television. The man's an idiot. Firstly for not bothering to research his material properly, but then for exposing the thousands in the auditorium and watching the televised event to his ill-informed humour. The saying 'With great power comes great responsibility' is I feel appropriate here, as his words have the potential to shape what everyone thinks who attends one of his performances, or the millions who will have watched him on television. I hope that knowing they are watching a comedian they won't go away with the belief that he knows what he's talking about, because if they do they will think Spina Bifida is an eating disorder, or conversely they may think Coeliac Disease means you can't walk.
People in the public eye, especially those whose job entails addressing large numbers of the public, have a duty and responsibility to know what they are talking about. Not only comedians, but actors, music artists, politicians, in fact anyone who routinely finds themselves in front of a camera and feels obliged to have an opinion. These people have fans who in some cases hang on their every word and believe what they say – and that they can speak English properly but that's a whole separate blog.
The point of this story is quite simply if, while in the public eye, you're quizzed on a subject you know nothing about have the honesty to say so, and if you don't know about a subject don't make it up!

Monday, 7 October 2013

Ace cafe with quite a nice ancient monument attached..

This is what the BBC Headline said.  Now, I don't go to visitor attractions (VAs) very often, but having been on holiday twice in the past six weeks I have, and this article rubs me up the wrong way.

The initial section of the article is taken up by a food writer, and of course he's going to say the cafe and food provision is important.  No, you don't want food poisoning, but as long as it's of edible, decent quality you don't need a Michelin Star either.  As a food writer he has a vested interest in there being more places to eat.  I can accept that people want to be fed and watered, depending on the size of the VA they may need a meal half way round in order to spend enough time there to see everything, however the food should never take precedence over the VA itself, and if it does you have to ask 'Why did you bother visiting in the first place, just go to a restaurant if you want to eat out..'

The second point is one made by several people quoted in the article who made their feelings known on the Trip Advisor website.  Ancient monuments, living museums - such as that at St Fagan's, the Museum of Welsh Life - and stately homes etc are old and should be viewed in a setting which is in keeping with their natural age.  I would personally find it extremely jarring and unpleasant to visit, for example, a Georgian house to find a modern steel and glass cube next to it as a visitor's centre cum cafe.

There is of course justification for combining the old and new in some instances.  The Cutty Sark visitor centre in Greenwich, London for example. Here they have intelligently used new materials and architectural techniques to build an ultra modern facility to enhance the visitors' experience by illustrating how the Cutty Sark would have looked at sea, and in doing so have created an extra bonus as the method used serves to preserve what remains of the clipper.  In situations such as this it makes perfect sense to utilise facilities in this way.

The argument is made in the article that the visitors' centres and cafes subsidise the entrance fee and fund the upkeep of the VA, however there are other ways of doing this without spoiling the experience for the visitors who actually come for the VA itself, not just because they make a nice cup of coffee.

To illustrate my points I will refer to two VAs I visited recently on holiday:

St David's Cathedral in West Wales.

1500 years old and, quite obviously an ancient building which would jar very badly with a modern structure.  However equally obviously they need funding for maintenance, to pay guides and other staff who work there and the usual costs of running a VA.  There is no mandatory entrance fee but, according to their website, they require an average of £4 per adult to keep financially stable.  So, how do they manage this?

Firstly they recognise that many visitors, even atheists such as myself, admire the incredible architecture and the achievement and skill of constructing such a large building and will want to take photographs.  A £2 fee is charged for a photographer's permit, and given that I shot 63 photographs while I was there, equates to 3.17 pence each, which is ridiculously cheap by any measure.

They also have a shop within the cathedral, but they have made intelligent use of the space available in the cathedral itself, cordoning off one small section of the nave with wooden friezes carved in keeping with the rest of the architecture, which are unobtrusive and do not spoil the overall feel of the place, yet simultaneously provide a defined area where visitors can go to purchase souvenirs and gifts.

Adjacent to the cathedral is the Bishop's Palace, of a similar age, and here I noted an instance of extremely intelligent integration of the old and new.  Self evidently visitors will at some point require a public toilet, and obviously a modern portaloo or something of that ilk would look quite out of place next to a 6th century ruined building.  To solve this they do have toilets built there but, as I noticed, the normal Men/Women/Disabled signs to indicate their presence had been carved in the same type of stone, using the same style, as the rest of the building, such that while they were recognisable as modern symbols for a modern purpose, their appearance was in keeping with their surroundings of 1500 years of age.

Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.

My second example of good planning is the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.  This is a much more modern VA than the cathedral obviously, and yet it still needs to retain the authentic feel of the original, a working RAF Bomber Command station of World War II vintage.  You enter via the shop, which in the more modern setting is perfectly acceptable as all the merchandise is in keeping with the whole theme, indeed some is specific to that Centre itself, such as the DVDs telling the story of its creation.

Here they also recognise that visitors will at some point require feeding, inevitable in fact given that they offer full day VIP passes as one of their attractions.  To facilitate this obvious need they utilise the NAAFI, the original service eatery which service personnel would have eaten at during the war.  At the same time this is located right next to the dispersal where the main attraction of the centre, 'Just Jane' one of only two operational Avro Lancaster bombers in the UK can be seen outside, maintaining the atmosphere of an age gone by.

Unlike the cathedral, the LAHC has a unique product, the opportunity for members of the public to have a taxy ride in a Lancaster and experience the sights, sounds and smells that the brave men of 70 years ago experienced on a daily basis - minus flying and being shot at of course!  The VIP days too which incorporate a taxy ride are a unique selling point, and so perhaps they do not have quite the same need to gain funds through the gift shop and NAAFI.  However, I would argue that even if this were the case - and everyone needs funds to keep their operation going - they have ensured that the facilities they provide are sympathetic to the age and purpose of their main focus.

That final point is, in my view, the key to success for all visitors.  If you want to create an extra revenue stream, consider charging a small fee for a photographic permit - depending on the nature of the VA this may not be viable, but I think is worth considering in most cases.  If however you cannot, then by all means create a gift shop and restaurant in order to maintain revenue, but in doing so please keep the look and feel of the new facilities in keeping with that of the VA.  A sympathetic solution to this question will please not only the visitors the BBC article alludes to - those who only go there for the food, but also the visitors such as myself who go there because we want to experience the VA itself.