Saturday, 18 July 2015

A Moment by the Jetty 

For the past few years I have uploaded a photo each day to an online photo community called blipfoto.  Since its future seems less than 100% secure I may occasionally 'blip' to this blog instead.  This is by way of my starter!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Learning for Life

In praise of the MOOC!

I always enjoy having a topic up my sleeve with which to bore good friends who are sufficiently unwise to ask me what I've been doing with myself! In the last few months, my answer has been that I have been MOOC-ing about!

A MOOC is a massive open online course, offered globally to thousands of learners, free of charge, by an academic institution, through one of a growing number of online providers, in my case Futurelearn (linked with the Open University) and Coursera.

I could bore you too with further fact but better to provide links to articles before I get up close and personal;-

And for an idea of the current clients for MOOCS

If, like me, you are not the typical Moocer, fully employed, degree qualified, a 30+ year old man in a developed  or BRICS country, you may wonder whether such a course might be for you.  So I am about to bore you  fascinate you with my own experience and perhaps bring you together with the MOOC of your dreams!

Since I retired in 2010, I have taken several courses at what I call "The Wrinkly Uni": courses of, say, 4 to 10 weeks  duration, in subjects linked to Music, Forensic Psychology, Architecture, Art Appreciation, at a nearby university, convenient for the train.  I have paid for these courses and they have been of variable quality from dire to brilliant, held in classrooms either sauna-like or baltic, with 10-19 others of similar mind!  Additionally, I have taken a very demanding but excellent online course in novel writing from the same uni.  My motivation in each case has been to keep learning; to stimulate my brain; to keep me thinking and to take me as far as possible out of my comfort zone.

Now, like literally thousands of other older learners, I have found the MOOC.  Before Christmas I studied a six-week Introduction to Philosophy with the University of Edinburgh through Coursera.
Since then,  I have had a six week Introduction to Forensic Science from Strathclyde Uni  and a three week Good Brain Bad Brain Basics course from the University of Birmingham both via Futurelearn; this week I have started the second part of the latter course, now focusing on Parkinson's Disease.  Later in the year, Part 3 will focus on the Origins of Drugs and another short course will teach me How to Read a Mind with University of Nottingham.  In September, I'll be back with Coursera and Penn University for 10 weeks to learn about Modern & Contemporary American Poetry; they've already been in touch to suggest pre-reading.

I chose each course from a vast catalogue and signed up without minutes; in each case there was an estimate given of the hours 'required' to complete each week's work and these have been relatively accurate.  I take the minimalist approach, watching the videos, taking notes (45 years on, that's still my learning style), completing research and testing myself with the weekly 'test' for retention.  I post in the discussion sections, but don't get involved in the extended online debates which the Philosophy course certainly included.  I don't do the written assignments for peer evaluation (Coursera) or apply to sit an 'exam' (Futurelearn):  I don't need a certificate, although Coursera provided one and I suppose if I were in need of proof for a Personal Development file, it would be useful.

The highlights of these courses have been many:  making shoe-prints in the kitchen, using cocoa powder and olive oil; screaming at the screen when I recognised forensic science terminology in Silent Witness (and knowing where that description of F.S. originated);  encountering a chapter entitled Time Travel & Metaphysics in suggested reading; trying to learn words like Cholinesterase and hemidesmosomes; enjoying deeper insights into the work of Walter White ; following the based-on -reality murder case study and getting the right person for the crime. And what fun to be involved in three live Google Hangouts with hundreds of fellow Moocers all 'asking' who had brought the custard creams!

In most of this I am a mile outside my arts and humanities comfort zone:  having been chucked out of Biology at 13 on the grounds that I was good at English (no, I didn't understand either) I am taking courses alongside people who have degrees in science.  When we are given a topic to research online, I can't tell whether the web page I land on is for fifteen year old beginners or is a complex chapter in someone's doctoral thesis!  And while I take notes and look them over, my memory is 63 years old and would rather remember something detailed from 1957 to a broad generalisation from last week.

But it is really good fun!  It has got me hooked on BBC4 as a source of other scientific learning, on YouTube's archive of innumerable lectures, TV programmes and powerpoints on related topics. It has got me stunned by what I am carrying around in this skull of mine.

I don't care what the Guardian article has found in its research;  the people I see posting on discussion boards are often like me; retired graduates with a deep hunger for new learning and a relaxed attitude to summative assessment. It's a pity the MOOC providers haven't yet drawn in their original target audience; but they have disturbed the Boomers in their gardens and on their bracing walks, in crossword completion and coffee drinking!  Who wants to see a movie matinee on the cheap when we could be discussing methamphetamine, dendrites and multiple realizability?

Go on....  search MOOC  and see where it will take you.

Friday, 21 February 2014



No Google Glass for my eye;
no staring off into my prism;
Smartglass is not my new worldview;
I am no age Explorer!

My tiny spider scuttles
across my vitreous humour;
its wispish shadow comforts me:
I will explore new landscape.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

On Calm Reflection

As the fates would have it, I was not at home in Scotland on April 8th, but far away in icy Norfolk.  Sheltering with our three older grandchildren as they wasted coppers in an amusement arcade, I updated my Facebook status on my phone only to find a brief post saying that Margaret Thatcher had died.  I told my husband and we wondered if it were true or one of these vile hoaxes.  Taking a lot of care (in Scotland it's unlikely that random strangers will be pro-tory) I asked the two arcade supervisors to confirm the news.  They did.  There flooded over me a feeling I recognised as relief, as though, unknown to myself, I had been holding my breath just ever so slightly all these years. Possibly the relief was written on my face.  The two supervisors looked bemused.

For various reasons, I had no access to wifi when in Norfolk and missed all the immediate media and social networking responses.  I posted very little although keeping an eye on friends' activity when I could.  This enforced 'radio silence'  gave me the opportunity to observe and to reflect a little more calmly on my own reaction and on the responses of others, not battered by an atmosphere of eulogy or vilification, but in order to tell my own truth.  I have valued that hiatus.

In 1979, I was a comparatively new mum, a teacher by profession.  I was happily at the start of seven years' parenting absence, we were 'skint' but mortgaged and I had the best job in the world.  I was left of centre politically, influenced by my dad, whom I adored, with his tales of Hugh Gaitskell, his insistence on social justice and integrity and his belonging to the Cooperative movement;  I was not that long past voting for Danny The Red in a Glasgow University rectorial.

In the 1979 General Election, I voted for Margaret Thatcher.

I voted for a woman, not for the party she represented and not, in my extreme naivety, for her policies.  I voted as a feminist because I believed fervently that a woman could sort out the appalling mess we were in while also doing what women do best - caring.  She would, I was sure, gain ground for feminism, put families first, fight for the underdog, ensure we were not bullied ............ all this because she was a woman and surely had to be better than a crumpled pasty-faced man who was scared of Scargill and McGahey!    It has taken me years and years even to begin to forgive myself for that woeful level of ignorance and naivety.  Much of the obsessiveness with which I pursued social justice  for young people from areas of deprivation in the working professional life to which I returned in 1984, was the product of the 1979 shame I felt and the need to balance my own moral books; to be able to look myself in the political eye.

I don't like the street party, celebration nonsense although I understand it.  The airing of opposing views on a former leader whose pernicious influence affects all of us in the U.K. today is too healthy  a debate to be trivialised.  Let those who think the woman was a force for good have their say but let us have reasoned, evidenced argument and explication of the evils she purveyed. It is easy to come by.  Let us not demean ourselves but rather educate our sillier young people about the real reasons for our anger and show them that the greed-is-good, rampant individualism, no-such-thing-as-society attitudes are anathema to us.  Such openness is healthy and if the past week has shown the 40+ generations anything, it is that the younger generations have no idea at all that they are still living in Mrs Thatcher's creation but that there was a time when people cared more and attitudes were different.

Listening to and reading about reaction while I was furth of Scotland also made me realise that I take it for granted when at home and certainly did while I was working,  that the political views of those around me will be left of centre! As we move towards 2014, we will need to question our assumptions in any political debate that we are all on the same side!

When the American people  repeatedly voted for the likes of Bush senior and junior, I would shake my head and wonder loudly what on earth they were thinking about!  I had the cheek to query their sanity on Dubya's second victory!  I will not do that again:  I have been surprised that comment from across the globe seems to ignore the fact that a view from the outside, interesting as it might be, will lack the first-hand experience.  From now on I am hands-off with U.S. voting preferences!

But more than anything, I was immensely disturbed by the pronouncements of young audience members on last week's Question Time.  Polly Toynbee, Ming Campbell and Ken Clark were exceptional and David Blunkett was also reasonable .   But the young audience were horrifyingly ignorant!  Here were politics students, modern feminists et al who believed that Thatcherism had "stopped" when John Major melted greyly into Number 10; that Margaret Thatcher was a 'role-model' for young women today, that she had helped women improve their lot!   It was blood-freezing stuff.  Thank goodness for the brilliance of the panel members, all of whom hit the latter nail firmly on the head!  Women who have worked in a man's world know what it's like to work with a Thatcher style woman; Women Beware Women as the playwright said!

Then it hit me.  These 20-something, intelligent, earnest, young people had fallen for the Thatcher myth; they couldn't see the evils which her critics talked of; they thought her influence had died long before her death:  what was the clamour about?

 How different were these 'kids' from the 29-year-old mum who despite all she had been brought up to believe, despite all her own values, still went out and voted ... only once in her life ... for Margaret Thatcher?

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Learning from Experience.

Two linked staples of the current media agenda are the need to 'cure' the NHS and the challenge of the  'baby boomer' generation's entry into '60s' which relate to their age rather than their era.  How will an overstretched, under-skilled, morale-deprived NHS cope with the needs of a generation which has lived its life as a centre of attention and which will not conform to expectations of age?

Despite the awful experiences of both parents at the hands of the NHS, I have tried to remain open-minded, but recent experience has made me pause.

I am not ill. I have always enjoyed robust good health, last visited a doctor two years ago and have stayed overnight in hospital only for childbirth. In my final 12 years of work I was absent through illness once ... for three days. I consider a visit to the doctor an admission of defeat; if I do have to resort to it, I use the appointment to seek advice on how to help myself.  Like the ex-teacher I am, I read and research carefully to aid this process.  I believe in self help.

In the past three months I have been suffering excruciating pain in my lower back, groins, buttocks, hips and legs:  I have never had an unbroken night's sleep and, at its worst, the pain has reduced me to yelps and tears in public places.  I have refused to see a doctor, hoping instead that yoga, stretches, heat and as little ibuprofen as possible would see me through.

Finally, after one crying jag brought on by gardening,  I acceded to my family's pleas.   GP 1 told me we would have to find out where this pain was coming from.  GP 2 agreed.  There followed blood tests which were pronounced absolutely clear. Yesterday came the X-ray results; I had to discuss these by phone with G.P. 3 .  Thus began a demoralising conversation:

 First the good news.  My X-rays showed wear and tear in both hips and lower back that is normal "for someone born in 1950".   No need for ortho consultation  as we are "a long way away from that"   Just pain killers and anti-inflammatories (GP2 had advised avoiding them if possible).

So, I ask, it's just self-help to deal with this pain then?  


Should I just keep at the yoga , swimming etc ?  Should I assume any exercise is good?


The pain sort of reminds me of sciatica I had years ago.  Could that be a possibility?

"Oh well that doesn't show on an X-ray because it's nerves"  He can certainly tell from my level of articulacy that I will already know this, so

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!   I see.

What we're interested in, he says, is whether you need an ortho consult.  And you don't.

So really, I need to do self help to deal with this .........?

Uhuh! (sic)

At that point I thought there wasn't much more to say!  Whatever he wanted to communicate, what I  actually heard was,  "You're 62, woman!  This pain is normal for that age.  Sort it. Buy some pills. Now get off the line because there are tens of others behind you."

Personal anecdote this may be, but it raises some serious issues.   I am a highly educated, retired professional, articulate, comfortably off, time-rich and well acquainted with Google and You Tube.  However, the area I live in and which this large practice serves has major deprivation as its norm.  In fairness, my need to be sufficiently pain-free to enjoy gardening, tennis, walking, yoga, foreign trips, must pale into insignificance compared with the GP's caseload of diseases and ailments which are exacerbated by poverty and lifestyle and lead to lower than average life expectancy.  Many 62 year olds in this area are in the last decade of their lives.  If good fortune, self-help and heredity play an appropriate part, I have good reason to expect another twenty years and more.  Which of us demands the GP's attention?  I understand.

But surely, when that GP recognises from a voice, from questions and reactions that a client is capable of self-help, given a bit of extra advice, why not offer it, in the hope of increasing the years before she joins those who need referral to a specialist?  Thousands of us are willing to self help if we are simply pointed in the right direction. The assumption must be made that we are looking for another twenty or thirty years! We're looking after ourselves, watching our diet, our alcohol intake; we don't smoke, we exercise, we hone our intellectual skills; we are the Boomers.

I have now spent hours researching the cause of the pain I am experiencing, because I simply will not give in to it.   Normal wear and tear does not produce this level of pain; sciatica and piriformis syndrome do!  And strangely, in researching the latter following a remark from my yoga teacher, I found a list of symptoms I could have written myself!  I now know from my research  that the GP could have given me a phone number (as one of his staff has now done!)  for self referral to a physiotherapist; that there is a huge online advice resource for my NHS area; that osteopaths and chiropractic are governed by safety regulations; that the practice can arrange acupuncture; that Youtube is laden with suitable exercise videos; that diclofenac is causing concern and that you have to  be careful with ibuprofen ................... I have the intellectual capacity, the wide circle of supportive peers, and the technology to research;  what about the 62 year old who does not have these resources? 

We all have to learn how to see the ageing of the Boomers as a plus to society, rather than a drag.  Many of us are more than willing to look after ourselves, given targeted  support when we really need it. A few minutes pointing us to appropriate support will leave space in the GPs' waiting rooms for our less fortunate peers. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Defend Our National Jazz Orchestra!

This is the letter I have sent today to The First Minister.

Dear Mr Salmond,
It was my great pleasure, yesterday evening, to attend one in the latest series of concerts with The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra at the Royal Conservatoire.  Collaborating and performing with Randy Brecker, in celebration of the sublime talent of the late Michael Brecker, the Orchestra gave an outstanding performance, as its regular home and growing international audiences have come to expect.
In his plea that this Orchestra deserved support at the highest level as well as from its audiences, Randy Brecker was not the first to heap praise on the Orchestra, testifying to a now international reputation which draws admiration from across Europe not only for the musicians, for their brilliant leader, Tommy Smith, and for the innovativion and creativity of their multi-dimensional projects, but also for our nation as one which, though small in size, can nevertheless produce talent on this scale, developed over a comparatively short period and continuing to surge towards ever greater potential as its influence in music education increases exponentially and more and more young people play and listen to jazz because this Orchestra and its individual members have given them access to it.
 I know that you cannot fail to be aware of the decisions of Creative Scotland in changing the way in which it ‘supports’ the SNJO.  It seems to me beyond belief that such a lack of understanding and fairness should be considered appropriate in the treatment of such a high-profile, Europe-leading and pioneering ensemble!
It goes against all notions of equity to require the SNJO to bid, and therefore work, project by project, unable to plan long-term and therefore losing access to world-renowned international musicians with whom its creative collaborations have been so successful and who are then well-placed to spread news of the SNJO’s quality.  
Alone amongst a clutch of national arts companies,  the SNJO seems to be targeted by Creative Scotland’s imagination-deficit;  Although I detest opera and rarely attend classical music concerts , I support absolutely the need for the national companies to have direct grant support.  Yet, fine though our companies may be, I have never heard Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera or indeed The S.N.O., described as “the best in Europe” or “the only one of its kind in the U.K.”. Both apply to the SNJO!
Yesterday saw the highly significant launch of a C.D., entitled Celebration , on which SNJO perform with Arild Andersen.  The fact that this C.D. is being issued by the highly prestigious E.C.M. label is a unique testimony to all that I have said above concerned the Orchestra’s status.  
And so, as Europe lauds the Orchestra; as the U.K. Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Ensemble goes to The SNJO , and glory for Scotland is garnered, by association all of this happens, Creative Scotland repays Tommy Smith and the Orchestra by delivering an extremely damaging blow to its ability to pursue excellence!  It is a shocking reflection on us, making Scotland look like a small country in which small minds make the big decisions and negatively target success.  This surely cannot be comfortable for a Scottish Government.
I am acutely aware that grant funding has to be ‘earned’.  I support funding for small, one-off, community arts projects.  I am in favour of increased accessibility, on the understanding that it is something different from popularism.  But we are talking here about a National orchestra ; a group of highly talented musicians led by a man of international stature who has bred in them through his teaching, mentoring and leadership over nearly two decades, a commitment not only to musicianship and innovative creativity but to the promotion of jazz education in schools and beyond.  These musicians take extremely seriously their role in the national community.  They understand accessibility and equalities and they are doing something about it!
I would beg you to use all your influence to have Creative Scotland, and indeed, the Scottish Government, look again at the securing of long-term funding for the SNJO so that it can stand shoulder to shoulder with,  if not ahead of, the S.N. O., Scottish Ballet and Scottish Opera in making Scotland a giant in Europe and world wide in its support for excellence in the enriching arts.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Is this a Cause for Concern?

It was a perfectly ordinary trip to Tesco for my husband and me.   It was a pleasant enough day outside. Parking was easy.  The shop wasn't busy.  It certainly wasn't an intrinsically stressful environment for shoppers.

But as we chatted idly about what we needed to buy and who would search for the croutons, and what we'd have for lunch, I became aware of a couple, perhaps in their late 60s, who were moving in our direction.  The male was haranguing the female, his body language very aggressive and gesticulating in apparent anger.  She was quieter and was responding but clearly she wasn't doing as he wanted.  As they passed us and he insisted that she "go down this way!"  I saw that he was gripping her arm.  It was an unpleasant scene.  "If you ever spoke to me like that I..." I said to my husband " ..... I think I'd lamp you!" We smiled at the irony.

I have to clarify.  This was not in the nature of marital niggling and low-level squabbling: couples who've been together for 40 years recognise the day to day affectionate grumbling that comes with closeness.  This wasn't even a full-blown "I -don't-care-if-we're-in-public-we-are-having-this-argument-right-now!" kind of thing.  They looked like a well dressed, ordinary couple; they showed no signs of being under the influence.  Even given the current heightened awareness of Alzheimer's behaviour and consequent partner frustration, I didn't read their interactions as one of carer and sufferer.  I believed that I was seeing a bully in action and their age made it shocking.

However, the parmesan cheese had to be bought and on we trolleyed.

In the wine aisle, as we debated tempranillo versus merlot, I was utterly astonished to find another couple right beside us, in what could have been a rerun of the previous scenario!   This pair seemed to be in their 70s and he was actually dragging her hand back from her choice of wine as he said loudly 'NO!  Not that!"  He muttered and moaned "For godsake! I told you ...."   Again, no sign of drinking or of dementia behaviours:  just bullying.  Another male talking 'at' a woman as though she were dirt and verging on physical contact to make her do as he wished.

 I've since wondered if perhaps these incidents did indeed betray the very early signs of dementia taking the form of unreasonably aggressive interactions.  I can't possibly know.

But I did worry that those women seemed so cowed and accepting.  My husband thought maybe they'd been treated like that for so long, they hardly even noticed.  I wonder.