Thursday, July 31, 2008

Happy birthday to me!

DH gave me a very thoughtful birthday present tonight - two Lexan wine glasses to take camping with us! The stem detaches to make it easier to pack them, and they should last us many years as they are supposedly "nearly indestructible".

Note to self: remember the corkscrew when packing!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The nature of fear

Is this a scary picture?

Believe it or not, for a long time as a child, I was scared of daffodils!

DD sat and watched two episodes of Dr Who with me last night . I remember watching Dr Who as a child and being terrified by it. She watched cybermen, Daleks and disappearing children and loved it. On the other hand, every time the ads came on for the next show - Robin Hood - she put her hands over her eyes and refused to watch. Apparently men in tights with archery equipment are much scarier than aliens.

It makes sense though. The thing I was most frightened by in Dr Who was the daffodils. There were what were probably aliens looking like rotund, jolly men selling daffodils. When people got the daffodils home and went to sniff them, the daffodils sprayed plastic on their face. It stopped them from breathing and they died. I was terrified of daffodils for years afterwards. The aliens, the Daleks, the cybermen, were clearly not real, and therefore not scary. The daffodils and the men in tights with bows and arrows are real, and therefore much more threatening.

Are Time Lords British?

The article Are Time Lords British? on the BBC site today is more about accents than the question of whether Time Lords are really British.
Accents clearly matter to the way we see people because we think they tell us something about their upbringing and influences. Geographical accident of birth seems less influential than the values and social background we interpret from the way they speak.
The author is surprised that John Barrowman's American accent disappears when he is talking to his parents, to be replaced by the Glaswegian accent of his childhood. DH wouldn't be at all surprised by that as he's often heard my accent change. The author comments:
We all do it a bit, I suspect. Chameleon-like, we change our tone slightly to fit in with our surroundings.
Of course, if your British accent is changing to another British accent and you're still in the UK, it's not particularly noticeable. Change your accent to a 'foreign' accent, and it stands out like a sore thumb.
as Barrowman's voice changed to broad Glaswegian, I couldn't help myself seeing the actor in a different way. Even though he describes himself quite correctly as a British actor, his Illinois intonation is perplexing. Despite the illogicality of the argument, something inside me suggests he can't be properly "British" with a voice like that.
By that standard, despite their British passports, I doubt anyone in the UK will ever consider my children 'properly' British. I don't think I am anymore either . . .

Commenter Emjay mentioned Jeremy Clarkson's article from today's Sunday Times on exactly this topic of accents.
According to the scholars, you can zigzag across America for a year and encounter only four different accents (I find that a bit hard to believe, but whatever). In Britain you can drive for just one day and each time you stop for petrol, the cashier will sound different. It’s Punjabi in the morning, Hindi at lunchtime and Tamil in the evening.
He's far more entertaining than I am on the subject!
. . . when the world finally realises French, German and, yes, even Mandarin Chinese have no place in a modern English-speaking world, we can continue to have our national, and indeed regional, differences highlighted every time we open our mouths to order a McDonald’s.

Camping (part one)

When I was growing up, we regularly went camping on our summer holidays. I'm sure my parents would have quite liked to stay in hotels, but with three children and long summer holidays because they were both teachers, camping was the affordable option. It allowed us to spend 5 weeks at a time in continental Europe. Most summers we spent the whole five weeks in France. One summer we started out in the Netherlands, traveled across Europe to northern Italy, and back to Belgium.

DH (an avid camper and Eagle Scout) had a hard time understanding at first when I tried to explain about the camping we did in Europe. He's the kind of guy who goes camping when there's several feet of snow on the ground and WITHOUT a tent just for the fun of it!

My descriptions of our camping trips seemed to leave him confused. A tent with a bedroom, a kitchen inside it and room for a table?

1 Bedroom
2 Kitchen Area
3 Bedroom
4 Bedroom
5 Living Area
Campsites with hot showers? Campsites where fresh bread was delivered every morning? Camping in vineyards or the grounds of a château? Evening meals that took several hours to prepare and just as long to eat?

We had a large frame tent, with an inner tent that was the bedroom area. The outer tent area had room for a stove, a table and stools, and storage for things that didn't fit in the inner tent. There were large windows with curtains, and the entire front of the tent could be opened up in the daytime. It was mostly very civilized, especially when we went camping with our friends.


Their dad was a professional chef. During the day as we were sight-seeing, we would check out the menus posted outside the restaurants and he would tell us which dishes he could prepare on the 4 gas burners and two grills ('broilers') we had between us. Then we'd go food shopping. After a cup of tea and perhaps a slice of fruit cake on our return to the campsite in the late afternoon, he would start work preparing dinner. He cooked most of the evening meals on condition that we were his commis-chefs doing any prep-work he asked us to and he NEVER did any dishes. I remember many an evening staggering off to the toilet block to do the dishes long after the lights on the campsite were out, relying on the moonlight to find our way there and back. Over the course of a five week trip we would eventually break several of the real wine glasses we had brought with us and (horror of horrors) resort to drinking wine out of plastic 'glasses'. (Looking at the few photos I have and realizing that sometimes we bought wine in plastic bottles, I don't think drinking such cheap plonk out of plastic could have been particularly detrimental!) Eventually we discovered Arcoroc tumblers at a French hypermarket. They are made of glass, but they seem to bounce most of the time when they hit the ground! I think eventually we graduated to a slightly better class of vin de table too.

It was not exactly 'camping sauvage', we weren't roughing it, but it wasn't the lap of luxury either. We didn't have a fridge, as the rental tents in France do nowadays. Back then, I don't remember a single site that we stayed at ever having a washing machine and dryer, although I do remember one where there was an iron you could use. There were usually several sets of sinks though - shallow sinks for washing dishes, very deep sinks with built-in washboards for washing clothes, and sinks for washing people. The last were usually indoors, the others outdoors. Depending on the location, there was sometimes a sink designated for gutting fish.


We often stayed at sites where hot water cost extra. In that case, we would heat water on the stove for doing dishes. There was one site in the Netherlands where there was no hot water at all, not even for showers. We stayed there for several days, and I vividly remember the searing headache I got when I finally gave in and washed my hair in the seemingly ice-cold water.

Thinking of 'bathrooms' as Americans call them, many campsites had the 'squat' ('Turkish') toilets. They should have been really easy to keep clean with a high-pressure hose. Unfortunately, we found that when there were lots of people at the site who were unused to them, they were often disgusting. They were usually at their cleanest when we were the only foreigners on the entire campsite.

Although our vacations were not entirely stress-free, certainly not for my parents who did so much of the work and particularly during our teenage years when we were being obnoxious, I have wonderful memories of them. I hope my kids will have good memories of camping with us, but camping with DH is a little different. Remember, he likes camping in the snow with no tent . . .

Monday, July 21, 2008

How not to sound American

The BBC has an article today on how to sound American. Apparently I've been doing it all wrong for the last 23 years. People in the UK seem to be fooled though as they always think I'm American, even when I'm doing my best to sound English again. Americans aren't so sure, as they often ask me if I'm from Australia or New Zealand. I suppose, given my job, I really should work at perfecting my American accent - teaching newcomers to the United States how to speak English! (Of course, I always joke that they had to hire a Brit to teach 'proper' English!)

In the comments on the BBC article, someone noted that English people trying to do an American accent often put on a Southern American accent. For some reason my Dear Daughter often sounds like a Southerner. I have never particularly noticed her sounding English in the first place though - after all, she was born here and has spent relatively little time in the UK. Maybe the Southern accent is her overcompensating in trying to make sure she sounds really American? Is she imitating my accent?

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Midland

"You have a Midland accent" is just another way of saying "you don't have an accent." You probably are from the Midland (Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri) but then for all we know you could be from Florida or Charleston or one of those big southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas. You have a good voice for TV and radio.

The South
The West
The Inland North
The Northeast
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

No, apparently not, so she's probably just imitating some character on TV!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Simon's Cat - TV dinner

DH likes the Simon's Cat videos - he thinks the cat is cute. I like the Simon's Cat videos too. I think they show the true nature of the feline species.

Friday, July 18, 2008

This blog is rated . . .

Back in February, my blog was rated family friendly:

Now apparently my blog is rated PG:
OnePlusYou Quizzes and Widgets
Why? Mostly because of this article about roadworks, but also because I wrote about getting sick from eating at KFC in Taipei! (Offending words: crack and torture.)

I guess that's why ratings systems are only guides. My kids are still terrified by some G rated Disney-type movies, but for some reason find Torchwood fascinating and will hide outside the room while we're watching it so they can watch it too!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Time For Some Campaignin'

I had this blogpost scheduled to post tonight and then found that Gaby of Bloody Brilliant had beaten me to it. I do like JibJab!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Chocolate for blood

Well, yes, I may indeed have chocolate for blood given my love for chocolate, but I'm talking bribes here . . .

The Red Cross is offering chocolate in exchange for blood donations. No, I don't know how much chocolate they're offering, or even what quality. (It's not that I'm not interested because my blood is mostly chocolate in the first place, but because, irritatingly, they won't take blood from Mad Cows like me!) Would it be worth donating blood if I could just for a couple of ounces of milk chocolate of inferior quality? Yes, of course! Not because any chocolate is better than none, but because it is simply A Good Thing To Do! I do hope this works and brings them lots of new volunteers who become regulars once they realize how easy it is to do!

The photo is courtesy of DH who saw the sign on his way to work and thought of me!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Curved grades

I am grateful that my entire degree result depended on the exams I did at the end of my final year when I 'd finally figured out that being a student was a full-time job and I needed to work at it. Had I been an undergraduate in the United States, my all-important grade-point-average (GPA) would have been so far in the toilet by the end of my second year, I probably would have dropped out. Or maybe not.

An average passing grade in a university class at the time in the UK was between 50 and 60%. When I arrived in the United States and started teaching undergraduate classes here, I frightened my first class by awarding what I thought were OK grades for their first assignment. Then I was told by my department head that my class average should be 80%. I was stunned - I thought 70 was an excellent grade! Many of my students asked me when they got less than 80% if I would 'curve' my grades.

I guess that was pretty common in maths and science classes where sometimes the class average was 40%. Rather than berate the students for not having studied, the teacher would assume that the test had been too hard and adjust the average. I'm not entirely sure how they did that - I think some teachers had a rather more complicated approach than "The average is 60, so I'll add 20 to everyone's score." My students sometimes accused me of being unfair because I didn't 'curve'. Some didn't want to accept my concept of "You get what you get." Once I got used to the inflated grading standards, I found I really didn't have to do that anyway. The average in my classes almost always hovered around 80% with no jiggery-pokery on my part. There would be a few A's, a few D's or F's, but the average would almost always be in the range of 79 to 81 - a B minus. I'm not quite sure how I did that, but it just happened.

My last teaching job (before this one) I didn't have to give grades at all. I did for one project and it was amazing how freaked out the students were. They had no idea whether I was a 'tough' or 'easy' grader or what they had to do to please me. Umm - follow the (four pages of step-by-step) directions! They didn't believe me when I said it was perfectly possible, but extremely unlikely, for everyone to get an A.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Does my butt . . .

DH walked into the room and asked, "Does my butt look flat in these jeans?"

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Crack sealing

I had never realized before this week that they do so much of this that they need special signs for it, as opposed to signs that just say "Road work ahead"!

Friday, July 04, 2008


Torn between the delight of watching the wild rabbits in the garden and the annoyance of seeing said wild rabbits eating my plants, I realize I need a new camera with a better telephoto lens!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Post American World and the Future of Freedom

I have a book on hold at the local library - The Post American World and the Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria. I'm not holding my breath, as it appears 27 other people have put the book on hold too! If the author's talk at the Commonwealth Club of California is anything to go by, it will be a very interesting read. He speaks of Americans' lack of awareness of what is going on outside their borders, and of how the balance of economic power has shifted over the past few years. He is extremely articulate and to summarize his talk here would not do him justice. Here's an extract from his book:

Look around. The world's tallest building is in Taipei, and will soon be in Dubai. Its largest publicly traded company is in Beijing. Its biggest refinery is being constructed in India. Its largest passenger airplane is built in Europe. The largest investment fund on the planet is in Abu Dhabi; the biggest movie industry is Bollywood, not Hollywood. Once quintessentially American icons have been usurped by the natives. The largest Ferris wheel is in Singapore. The largest casino is in Macao, which overtook Las Vegas in gambling revenues last year. America no longer dominates even its favorite sport, shopping. The Mall of America in Minnesota once boasted that it was the largest shopping mall in the world. Today it wouldn't make the top ten. In the most recent rankings, only two of the world's ten richest people are American. These lists are arbitrary and a bit silly, but consider that only ten years ago, the United States would have serenely topped almost every one of these categories.

These factoids reflect a seismic shift in power and attitudes. It is one that I sense when I travel around the world. In America, we are still debating the nature and extent of anti-Americanism. One side says that the problem is real and worrying and that we must woo the world back. The other says this is the inevitable price of power and that many of these countries are envious—and vaguely French—so we can safely ignore their griping. But while we argue over why they hate us, "they" have moved on, and are now far more interested in other, more dynamic parts of the globe. The world has shifted from anti-Americanism to post-Americanism.

If the topic is at all interesting to you, you can buy or borrow his book, read an excerpt online or download the free podcast of his talk at the Commonwealth Club here.

Apparently Zakaria has a show on CNN on Sundays and I think I might make the effort to watch it.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A degree of inflation

When I was an undergraduate (back in the early 1980's) a First Class degree was nigh on impossible to get. It was somewhat easier in the sciences or maths, but in a language - forget about it! How did the joke go? Something along the lines of, only truly outstanding students would ever earn over 70%, the professor who wrote the exam might be able to score 80%, but only God could get over 90%. In my department, an average on your finals of 60% or above earned you an upper second class degree, over 70% was a First. If you scored over 70% (or it may have been 80% - I no longer remember) on the final oral exam, it was noted in your degree result that you passed the oral exam "With Distinction."

No one in my department had earned a First in seven years, but we knew that Mike would get one. He was absolutely brilliant! His year-abroad dissertation read more like a Master's thesis. If anyone was going to get a First, Mike would. He didn't. We were given times for our oral exam, and told to report half an hour BEFORE the exam in order to prepare. Mike arrived early, only to find that in fact he had left himself only 15 minutes to prepare. Even he couldn't do himself justice. Although I'm sure his average on the written papers was easily a First, he was not awarded one because he did not pass the oral exam "With Distinction". In talking to the professors after the results were announced, one of them made the comment that it didn't really matter if Mike got a First or not - he was very clearly headed for a doctorate and once he had that no one would ever ask what his undergraduate degree result was.

Sure enough, Mike went on to earn his doctorate, become a published academic, and teach at the university level. Several years ago though, he quit academia. I remember that somewhere amongst his reasons, was the dumbing down of the curriculum, so it did not surprise me to read today:
The number of students achieving a first class degree at UK universities has more than doubled since the mid-1990s.

Among last year's university leavers, 61% achieved a first class or upper second class degree.
An upper second used to mean that your performance was above average! How can 61% of university leavers be above average? Twelve years ago, only 45% of university leavers had an upper second or a first. The sad thing is that this appears to be happening because Universities want students to like them. They think that if they become known for giving good grades, more students will want to go there. I was very happy with my undergraduate education. The fact that I earned an upper second class honours degree with Distinction in the oral exam, does not change my degree of satisfaction with the university. (Yes, on paper I did better than Mike, but I will always be honest about the fact that he was a FAR better student than I was.) Believe it or not, the fact that I was given a Dean's Warning (A Bad Thing!) at the end of both my first and second years, is what makes me happy with the education I received. After the second one I was asked to consider whether I really thought I was 'degree material'. I was not simply allowed to pass because I'd got in to uni. in the first place. It was made extremely clear to me that if I wanted a degree, let alone a decent one, I was going to have to work for it. That was probably the most valuable lesson I learned in my undergraduate years, and is one I have applied to many situations since then. Of course nowadays, no one ever asks me even at a job interview what my degree result was, but I am proud of the degree I earned and I am saddened at the thought that today's students are being denied the chance to earn something of value.
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