April 2006 Archives

The nature of 'blogging' has been quite throughly explored of late; but here is the humble observation of a person who is actually trying to do it, and to find a new way of sharing ideas into the bargain.

Having now completed 150 entries over a period of six month on this Weblog, I hope I'm beginning to get the hang of it.

I read recently that a new Blog is created somewhere every second of every day, but that half of them fold within three months. Frankly, I'm not surprised. I expect that for quite a lot of people it's bit like writing a Diary, and after a while Life takes over....

More a Journal than a Diary
For me, however, this exercise has become defined in my head as 'journalistic', in the sense of examining the events and ideas of the moment - or perhaps sometimes those which are distinctly against the grain of that moment?

And in that too I'm not alone. Both The Economist and The Guardian, for instance, are currently engaged in what might be called meta-analysis of the 'meaning' of contemporary journalism; and both have concluded that a lot of it will in future involve direct engagement with the reader.

What is a blog?
Indeed, The Economist's Survey of new media, published this week, addresses the issues very clearly: A blog, argues Dave Winer who pioneered weblog software, is 'the unedited voice of a single person', preferably amateur and, in The Economist's words, having 'a raw, unpolished authenticity and individuality'. This, it seems to be agreed, is what distinguishes blogs from formal newspapers; just as blogs must in the view of readers be accessible and personal in a way that organisational productions often cannot be.

Well, obviously, I couldn't possibly comment in this particular context; but I do feel that approaching my Blog Journal over quite a time now has changed my understanding of what it's all about. To start with I was quite nervous of sharing these ideas, and then I began to feel more confident that readers would understand the spirit in which they are offered - as indeed has always been the case.

More direct and better linked?
And I suspect that I now write more directly than I did to begin with. It's quite a challenge to move away from 'academic speak' whilst still trying to stick to the established rules of evidenced-based commentary. But what I've lost in third party style has perhaps been compensated for by my better grasp now of how to link / reference my pieces to other writers' work, directly through the internet. It's a challenge always to find the right links to illustrate a given point, but I'm coming to think that even partial connection is better than none.

What next?
So what next? Well, discussions with Nick Prior, who designs this website for me, have taken me to thinking we need photographs! This will not make the weblog a newspaper, but it may help to add interest and show you more about what's what, especially when I write about events and places I know. My first assignment of this photographic sort was therefore today, in Sefton Park.

And maybe I shall try some more ideas as well... an educational or musical 'column', or something special about Liverpool, perhaps? Who knows? Or perhaps by Entry No. 200 we shall all know?

Thank you as ever for joining with us in this adventure.

Light stream (74x112) 2007 004aa.jpg It has taken the scientists quite a while to wake up to the serious dangers for science and its rational underpinnings of creationism and the 'theory' of intelligent design. But now at last this danger - to the scientific community and far beyond - is beginning to be understood and confronted.

It's taken a long time, but the scientists are at last beginning in numbers to fight back vocally against the attack from the Creationists, those mainly right-wing religious followers who believe despite the evidence that the story of the Old Testament is somehow literally true - and, even more worryingly, that it should be taught in schools. And in this rebuttal the scientists have been joined also by most mainstream churches and religious people - the large majority of whom in the case of both science and religion have until recently mainatined it is enough simply to ignore the creationists' exotic claims.

But now scientists are seeking the active support of the churches to back evolutionary theory, especially in America, where Creationism and the related 'theory' of Intelligent Design have made the most headway.

Disputing creationism is not enough
It is not however enough simply to say that scientists should dispute creationism and intelligent design.

Far more is at stake than 'just' the challenge to an explanation of the origin of life on earth - vastly significant though this is.

The ideas of the creationists are, as some have recognised for decades, an affront to rationality. It is said that the President of the United States is a prominent supporter of creationism, or at least a proponent of intelligent design, but we must ask how this can be so when he is also a lawyer.

Lawyers may indeed sustain the view that 'both sides' of an argument should be aired, but rarely do they believe this even when one of those 'sides' has barely any evidence to uphold it. So what else is going on?

Economics and authority
The position of those who support creationism is usually authoritarian, and often anti-intellectual. This is in many respects evident in the current enthusiasm of some to promote such beliefs in Britain. In the USA, perhaps, this stance is even more established.

Many on the right of politics and religion like certainty. They do not feel comfortable with complex debates about evidence; and they are happier when intellectual challenge is replaced by the logic of big business. In other words, there is a deterministic preference here for authority and authoritarianiam to come together so that all is right with the world. God has pre-ordained the universe and our place in it, and this place is evidenced by our wealth (or not) and our religious observance. It's an old-established way of thinking. Let there be no more debate!

A chasm between world views
For the vast majority of scientists there is a vast chasm between the exploration of the evolutionary paradigm and the determinism of the religious right. Small wonder then that scientists have been ill-prepared for the creationist onslaught.

And sadly small wonder too that many who might challenge the attack on science have not done so, perhaps for fear that in so doing they might also put at risk the funding of their research. There are significant numbers of wealthy benefactors out there who are comfortable with the idea of a creationist world and their hypothecated place in it.

Perhaps the scientists have failed to appreciate how precarious is the wider understanding of their work. Perhaps they have continued in their research mostly oblivious of the threat to their way of interpreting the world.

Fundamental issues
Neither of these positions can be seen as any more than innocent or at worst naive. But what is at stake is fundamental. Few people would wish to dispute the entitlement of individuals to perceive the world and all that is in it in their own way. Many however, the scientists amongst them, must now challenge more overtly and vigorously the view that we can dispense with informed debate and rationality. At last this is beginning visibly to happen.

Theatre Museum London (small).jpg Covent Garden's Theatre Museum is the National Museum of the Performing Arts, a unique and special place. But it is currently under threat of closure. An urgent rescue bid is being considered by the Museum's nearby neighbour, the Royal Opera House. Success in this venture is not only essential for the greater good of both parties, but also offers encouragement to those who see that to survive the arts must work together.

Royal Opera House Covent Garden.jpg The national Theatre Museum in Covent Garden has been under serious threat for a while now. If anything, my conviction - shared, of course, by many others - that this would be a disaster, grows by the day.

But it seems that a way may now be found to put things right. The Museum Theatre's nearest neighbour, the Royal Opera House, is looking to see if it can take over the running of the Museum, before it is closed and its contents get mothballed in the V & A in South Kensington.

Performing arts working together
Covent Garden.jpg We must hope this 'rescue bid' between close neighbours, and in a fantastic setting, is successful. Not only does it make huge sense in terms of synergy in a given locality - with perhaps the greater push towards full use of this unique set of resources which could follow - but it is also a story which needs to be shared, with a big message... Together the arts, and especially the performing arts, can flourish. Set apart, this isn't so easy.

It's a lesson we almost learnt the hard way in Liverpool's Hope Street a decade ago, when we had to lauch the CAMPAM slogan - Once lost, we will not get it back! CAMPAM was the Campaign to Promote the Arts on Merseyside. In the early 1990s we fought and won a long and weary battle to make sure that Liverpool didn't lose its Everyman and Playhouse Theatres, or indeed the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

ROH shield.jpg History doesn't need to repeat itself. The Theatre Museum and the Royal Opera House, side by side in Covent Garden, were surely made for each other. I really hope the matchmaking drama we now see before us has a happy ending, soon.

The Theatre Museum, London

Covent Garden: The Untold Story - Dispatches from the English Culture War, 1945-2000

Read more articles on the National Theatre Museum.

Ness Gardens (small) 11.8.05 002.jpg Ness Botanic Gardens, owned by the University of Liverpool, are a delightful example of how learning and enjoyment can come together. They are the creation of a cotton merchant who wanted to share his absorbing interest in plants from across the world (and especially from the Himalayas) with the people of his hometown, Liverpool. This work, begun in 1898, continues to prosper to the present time.

Ness Botanic Gardens are on the Wirral near Chester, away from the River Mersey facing the splendid windswept views of the Dee Estuary which overlook the North Wales coast. They offer delightful views which take one back to more pastoral times, and include the habitats of many species of birds and wildlife.

Ness Gardens 11.8.05 005.jpg This apparent tranquility and timelessness has not however prevented some very forward-looking management on the part of those responsible for the site. Just this week (14 April 2006) saw the opening of the new Horsfall Rushby Visitor Centre, designed alongside a wider programme of development to encourage year-round enjoyment of this special location.

Where academic excellence meets family fun
The story of the Gardens is both unusual and enlightening. They were created by a Liverpool cotton merchant, the Fabian Arthur Kilpin Bulley, who wanted to establish in Britain the 'new' Himalayan and Chinese mountain plants he had funded the plant explorers George Forrest and Frank Kingdom Ward to discover . And so in 1898 began the adventure which was to become Ness Gardens, a place of elegance and education, as it welcomed vistors from near and far.

In 1942 Arthur Bulley died and left his ever-expanding Gardens to his daughter Lois (1901-1995), who presented them to the University of Liverpool in 1948, with an endowment of £75,000 per annum on the understanding that they be kept open for the public. Her intention that this beautiful place continue to fascinate and inform both young and older people is reflected in the current Visitor Centre, scientific programme and educational developments.

Journey of discovery
Ness Gardens 11.8.05 008.jpg Our own involvement in Ness Gardens began back in the 1970s, when a reseach student friend at Liverpool University experienced what, at that time, seemed like a cruel blow. He had been assiduously observing a derelict site in the city centre to find out what sort of road-side plants and grasses best grew on such unpromising terrain when, because of a misunderstanding by a Council employee about location, a ton of topsoil was dumped on his experimental venue. The anguish was terrible - should there be an official complaint because the experiment was ruined; or should there be celebration of the act of reclaiming the derelict site for better use, albeit by mistake?

Resolution of this dilemma arrived in the form of an offer to recreate the dereliction by transporting a huge load of rubble to a fenced-off location at the edge of the University's Ness Gardens. Our humble role in this adventure was occasionally to give our friend a lift over to the site to continue his work. The experiment was repeated, the results brought forth much in the way of understanding how to use grasses to reclaim land, the young scientist's career was launched to great acclaim - and we became regulars at Ness Gardens.

The research and development continues
The striking thing about Ness Gardens is that, not only does it change dramatically with the seasons, but it has consistently expanded and grown over the years. The Gardens have spread across much more of the site, with a growing number of areas of specialist interest (the latest is the 'Prehistoric Garden' just created from an existing clay marl pit); and the world-class science has similarly developed over time.

Here is a place always worth the journey, where there is a conscious intention to deliver first-class research in the context of a welcome for everyone. Support the Friends of Ness Gardens if you can - and be sure to visit their new Centre and see the Gardens for yourself.

It has been over a decade since the campaign to renew Liverpool's Hope Street was first mooted; but now at last we're almost there. To mark the event, all the partners involved have agreed to host a day in June [later deferred to Sunday 17 Septmeber '06] of arts-based celebration on the street. The arts, as ever, will give us common cause and help us to enjoy together the space which we have all been hoping to see refurbished for so long.

Today marks a new phase in the development of Liverpool's Hope Street Quarter.

It may not have looked much to the casual observer - just a handful of people talking about an event in June. But to me it seems really significant: we, that is HOPES: The Hope Street Association and Liverpool Vision and the City Council have agreed to co-host a celebration of the completion of the Hope Street refurbishment, open to all who want to be there, and acknowledging the very complex partnerships which we have had to nurture over the past few years to get to where we are today.

The arts as common ground
Here, if ever there was one, is an example of how people coming from very different places can find common ground - a particularly apt metaphor in this instance - through the arts and community activity. If everything goes according to plan, mid June this year will see people from many communities sharing a friendly, family, fun event in Hope Street, enjoying the many ways in which we can all become involved in arts and community activities. [Later note: the event eventually came about on 17 September '06, as part of a wider Hope Street Festival Day.]

The connectivity is why this event is so important for me. On the one hand we have very large organisations - the North West Development Agency in this instance - and on the other, we hope, the smallest arts groups and people from local communities, all sharing the successful completion of a long and testing project, over a decade in the making.

We're not quite there yet - there are still many other things to attend to as we make progress on this exciting regeneration programme - but we're well on the way. And the door is open to everyone who wants to be involved!

Travel takes many forms. The idea behind the 'Windowgazer Guide', a booklet explaining what can be seen as one's train travels from London Euston northwards, is excellent. Here is a concept which can take us not only on physical journeys, but also on journeys of discovery of many sorts, scientific, environmental, cultural and much more.

How many people know that, as their train passes Stafford on the way northwards from London Euston, they are right by the 360 acres of the Doxey Marshes, an especially important breeding ground for lapwing, redshank, snipe, yellow wagtail, sedge, warbler and pochard? Or that a short while thereafter as they get to Crewe they are at the centre of a town celebrated in 1936 by W H Auden and Benjamin Britten in a documentary (Night Mail) extolling the work of the Royal Mail trains?

These are two of the interesting facts which I learnt from the Train Manager as he read from a travel guide over the public address system, on my journey home from Euston just this week.

It's one of those odd co-incidences that the same day I 'discovered' the Windowgazer Guide I also learnt that today (9 April 2006) is the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of one of Britain's greatest bridge builders, Isambard Kingdon Brunel - the man, so my Windowgazer Guide tells me, who came with his colleague engineer Thomas Locke especially to observe the installation of Robert Stephenson's pioneering Britannia tubular bridge, now spanning the Menai Strait which divides Angelsey from the rest of Wales. My interest already alerted by the commentary on my train journey, I found the story of Brunel immediately relevant and memorable.

Always something new
This has set me pondering the many ways in which we can learn something new every day.

The Windowgazer Guide I saw is a free publication available on the Virgin Train North West line from Euston to Wolverhampton, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. You obtain it from the refreshment carriage bookshelf, and it offers all sorts of interesting information about your journey.

The scope for this sort of publication, drawing together information across the whole range of arts and science is enormous. And it's not 'just' trains which offer opportunities of this sort. Almost every journey does the same.

Bringing local knowledge to bear
The trend towards local access to the internet, be it via schools and community centres, libraries, housing associations or whatever, affords huge scope here. It would be great to see projects across the country which encourage local people to share their knowledge via the internet so that we can enjoy journeys illuminated by fascinating facts and ideas, wherever we go. What we learn might sometimes spark new and beneficial ideas of all sorts, who knows?

Perhaps there's a way that someone could use the 'Grid' to make available a route map of the U.K., with trainlines, roads, canals and whatever else marked out, onto which individuals and local communities could add their particular knowledge of where they live and work?

Getting from A to B is one form of travel. Sharing information and enjoying new ideas is another, perhaps even bigger, adventure.

World Health Day

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'Working together for health' is this year's slogan for World Health Day (today).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) quite rightly asks that we take time just for one day in the year to think about what 'Health' actually means. So today, 7 April 2006, is World Health Day.

This year's strapline is 'working together for health'. Reduction in child mortality, improvements in maternal health and combatting HIV / AIDS, malaria and other diseases are amongst the Millennium Development Goals ** which all Member States are signed up to meet by the year 2015.

[** The other five goals are eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women, environmental sustainability and a global parnership for development.]

A time to reflect?
But here we are in Britain, one of the half-dozen most wealthy countries in the world, and even we don't get it right on all counts. There is plenty to worry about in the health of our nation; but it cannot be said, as of some other countries, that anyone 'has' to starve or die of cold, lack of clean water or because of any of the other horrendous experiences of people in other parts of the world. In the U.K. we have choices, and we have resources, which really do mean this never has to happen.

I say this neither (I hope) to make inappropriate comparisons - poverty in health or anything else in the U.K. is relative; poverty elsewhere is grimly absolute - nor to offer bland pronouncements about what we 'ought' to do to reduce such awful suffering in other areas of the globe.

What I seek to understand more clearly is how we can think in a more joined-up way.

Only connect...
We in Britain, like those in other first world countries, mostly know that how we treat our bodies and what we do to promote sustainability are critical both for ourselves and to what happens to people elsewhere, as well as people here. We know too that responsibility for this lies with us personally and as parents, as well as with 'the government', or 'them'.

There's a message here. It's at base very simple. The fundamental question is, how do we deliver action?

If World Health Day does nothing else, perhaps it encourages us to reflect how, across the globe, we are all interconnected and interdependent. The 'links' are there, on the internet and, even more importantly, in our hearts and minds.

Human resource specialists seem to spend a lot of time these days developing ways of 'testing' potential employees. Technology does have a part to play in assessing candidiates for jobs, not least because it comprises an attempt to move beyond stereoypical and unfair assumptions. But to work to greatest effect technologically-led assessment must be considered carefully, and with due acknowledgement of the difficulties of 'proving' it is meaningful. If educators made the same deterministic (and dubious) assumptions as some human resource managers, there would be far less call for educational services.

Like everything else in our brave new technological world, 'human resourcing' has been re-branded as a science.

In many ways, this is to be applauded. Anything which moves us on from the old-style way of 'jobs for the boys' has to be an improvement. But in at least one respect it's worrying.

New-style appointment procedures
Many appointment procedures now begin with an application form which asks questions about how the propective employee has tackled a variety of challenges, followed by 'assessment' at a 'centre'. And only after all that does a real human being perhaps deign to conduct a personal conversation or interview with candidates about the post in question.

So, once the standard information has been recorded, the initial application form in these cases often states that in one way or another that 'past experience is the best indicator of future performance'. This is generally the prelude to a requirement that the applicant gives 'brief' accounts of how he or she dealt with a difficult situation, resolved a dilemma or took a fractious group of people to some sort of resolution of their problems.

Real scenarios, or imagined?
Wonderful. Presumably in every case the job the applicant is going for requires a vivid imagination? Because the only sure thing we can learn from such accounts is that people are good - or not - at writing (very) short stories. These may indeed be stories related to the skills and scenarios of the post in question, but they are hardly testable against hard evidence.

Degree certificates may not tell us much, but they do confirm that a job applicant's claim to be a graduate (or whatever) is genuine. Such genuineness cannot be established for these 'mini stories'. Of course many people do tell the truth when they give accounts of their past actions; but it's a certainty that not all of them will be doing so.

Thus we are confronted by a situation in which those who stick firmly to the truth (as they understand it) are likely to be competing against others who are not so fussy about such matters... or who simply have convenient memories. In this context, what useful value can anyone put on the assumption that person's future actions will follow from their reported history?

Assessing what?
Then there's the second stage of the selection process. For some posts it is fair enough to ask the candidate to perform tasks like the one s/he aspires to in the job on offer. If you say you can type forty words a minute, then here's your chance to demonstrate that. If you claim to be able to work with spreadsheets, please go ahead and show you can.

But some tasks, especially at more senior levels, require careful and balanced judgement. They are about bringing experience and human insight to bear on difficult situations. They require a wide grasp of the influencing factors and a steadfastness in terms of dealing with people.

I.Q. tests by another name?
In such tasks there is little reason to suppose, as increasingly is assumed, that non-contextualised 'verbal reasoning' tests and the like will take us very far. An untitled poorly written paragraph of general assertions such as often appears as part of these 'tests', giving no indication of who wrote it, or for whom, makes little sense to those who know that all real-world interaction takes place in the context of unarticulated as well as formal intentions. This real-life exerience makes it pretty problematic to answer stark multiple choice (i.e. non-discursive, computer-markable) questions about what such paragraphs supposed to 'mean'.

Perhaps there's an irony, given the observations above, in the likelihood that only those without much imagination may be comfortable responding to such mechanistic examination.

The validity of I.Q. (Intelligence Quotient) tests has been under challenge for a full half century now; and the British '11 Plus' examination - in some respects a precursor of these types of mechanistic tets - is rightly history, discredited and still a cause of great distress to many whom it so cruelly labelled unsuitable for more academic or rigourous secondary education.

The clash between the premises of education and those of candidiate selection
Checking out the general abilitiies of people going for particular jobs is a sensible idea. Myers Briggs tests, for instance, give a useful - though not infallable - indication of how a person might approach given situations, thus helping everyone (including the candidate) to assess whether s/he is 'right for the job'.

This, however, is a long way from the claim that what's happened in the past is a good indicator of a perons's future behaviour and capability. Indeed, those of us who have worked in adult (and perhaps even children's) education would be out of business entirely if everyone believed this to be so.

Of course past experience helps to mould future behaviour; but much more important, given a general level of aptitude and attitude, is the opportunity which presents, or does not present, to learn and develop.

How do they know?
It's a question which I've asked before, but it still seems reasonable: How do the decision-makers actually know that their way of doing things selects the best applicants? And the answer is, unless they've followed up those who weren't successful, and compared them (using fully valid criteria) with those who were, they cannot know for sure.

The human resource specialists and assessment centre gurus may be covering their backs and keeping some employers happy whilst they're at it. And no doubt some do a very good job. But it still seems indefensible to claim that they really know what potential employees are 'like' on the basis of their new-style forms and some of the tests which have been devised for selection.

Those of us who have more belief in the capacity of people to grow and learn might fear the new 'science' of human resourcing sometimes gets dangerously close to the dismally deterministic ways of the discredited 'educationalists' of yore.

Frankly, were I a prospective employer, I'd expect more for my human resource investment than that.

Dawn (small).jpg'Daylight saving' is a strange notion. But 'daylight energy saving' is a very different consideration. How we arrange the hours of light and darkness across our working day has many impacts - which makes it all the more curious that so little high profile or current research has been focused on British Summer Time and rationales for why the clocks 'go back' in the Winter.

My recent piece on British Summer Time has drawn a lot of comment, both on and off this website.

Highway at night.jpgThere are people who seem simply not to mind whether / when it's light or dark as they go about their daily business, but there are many others who have responded quite strongly in terms of their need for as much daylight as possible. It must be very helpful in some ways not to mind how dark it is, but it's quite incomprehensible to others that there are folk who genuinely 'don't mind'. Perhaps it's rather like being 'colour blind' - if you don't perceive the difference between red and green you just accept (and may not even know about) it; or maybe some of us have physiologies which are more photo-sensitive than others.

Daylight saving is energy saving
The most important thing to come out of the discussions so far, however, is not that people may have different personal preferences, but that the terms of engagement in this debate are becoming clearer.

One striking aspect of so-called 'daylight saving' which is emerging, alongside the prime safety considerations, is its significance not only potentially for business efficiency, but also, even more crucially, for energy. It does begin to look very much as though more 'summertime' would keep energy consumption down.

Where's the evidence?
A big surprise in all this is the paucity of serious publicly available evidence other than on safety (avoidance of accidents). It seems in some respects that the last substantial governmental research in this area was conducted in 1989.

That was now seventeen years ago. Since then, it need hardy be said, much has changed.

Business and technological practices are much different from those dismal years of two decades ago. Our consciousness of the energy crisis and of ecological issues is far better developed now than it was then. The public (electorate) is now far more aware of the issues of sustainability than they could possibly have been in the 1980s.

What's the cost-benefit of 'daylight saving'?
So where is the cost-benefit analysis of the different ways in wihich we might distribute the eternally pre-ordained number of daylight hours we have at our disposal, summer and winter? Common sense suggests that arranging things so there's as much daylight as possible in the hours when most people can use it is a good start.

If anybody really knows the answer, please just let us know!

The full debate about BST is in the section of this website entitled
BST: British Summer Time & 'Daylight Saving' (The Clocks Go Back & Forward).....

Read the discussion of this article which follows the book E-store...