Wednesday, June 28

Testing Times

A Level exams end tomorrow. In a few weeks time the newspapers and phone-ins will resume the annual debate over whether the exams have got easier over the years.

Working in a sixth form college I think I can identify a few points which may explain some of the rise in good results.

1. A Level exams are now divided into separate AS and A2 exams. Students who do not do well in the initial AS stage may then be “weeded out” and not entered for the more advanced A2 exams, keeping the overall grades higher.

2. Teaching materials are far more exam-focussed. As well as the standard textbooks, most subjects have revision guides specifically aimed at telling the students what the examiners will be looking for.

3. Marking schemes for examiners have become incredibly detailed, laying out where points can be assigned to candidates. In many cases a student can get a question wrong, but still get points for layout, use of examples or mentioning relevant theories. There is an emphasis on the process used in the argument, not just a mark for the conclusion. This means that less able candidates will still score points.

4. As a result of all the above, students seem to be less stressed. I remember waiting to go into an exam, silent, nervous and convinced I was about to demonstrate my total ignorance of the subject. Our students are relaxed, chatty, and generally confident. They have been well prepared and they know what is expected of them.

Good Luck to them all.

Tuesday, June 27

Sole Music

A lunch-time trip to fishmonger Steve Hatt in Essex Road is always worthwhile. Steve has a network of suppliers across the world who will go to extremes to send him the best of the best.

The man himself is a bit of a superstar in the British foodie world. Enter his shop and you stand a good chance of bumping into Nigel Slater or Rick Stein.

But it is the quality of his seafood that stands out. It will always be freshly caught and the prices will be high but fair. As ever when buying fish, never go to Steve's shop with a fixed idea of what fish you want. Go with open eyes and an open mind. Seasonality is all, and prices vary as the market responds to changes in availability. Find a fish that there is a glut of and you will find a bargain.

I started my plan of buying from a fishmonger at least once a week. I visited Steve’s on Thursday. Had I been watching the pennies I would have bought some of the mackerel, irridescent and rigid with freshness. Instead I went for a fine pair of lemon sole. They weren’t cheap as the pair weighed over a kilo, but they were worth every penny.

I had the ever-willing staff gut the flat fish and skin just the dark side. Cooking them couldn’t have been simpler. I just painted the skinned side with melted butter, added pepper, and put the fish on a greased baking sheet under the grill for about ten minutes. There is no need to turn the fish as the heat of the baking sheet helps cook the underside. Served with some Jersey new potatoes and some oven-roasted tomatoes and courgettes it was a simple feast. A great way to start off my summer resolutions.

Wednesday, June 21

Summer Solstice Part Two

Anyone wishing to spread the summer cheer can find a nice E-Card on the Beeb.

Summer Solstice

Today is the longest day of the year. As usual, someone in the office pointed out that the nights would be getting longer from tomorrow and winter was coming. Humbug! Summer starts today.

So. Three summer resolutions:

1. We go on holiday at the end of July. This gives me five weeks or so to lose a stone in weight. Normal weight loss programmes advise 2lb a week, but I find I lose the pounds much more quickly when I start to eat properly and take some exercise.

2. We have been talking about building a pond in our garden for ages. Now is the time to actually start, that way we will have everything in place for next spring. After all, we have a couple of frogs resident in our garden with no pond at all. Think how many we would have with access to permanent water. And they would all eat our slugs.

3. I love eating fish. I work about ten minutes walk from one of the best fishmongers in London. There are two fishmongers at the Nags Head. Yet most of the time I end up buying my fish from Waitrose. Now, excellent as the fish is, (I don’t want Kevin the fishmonger after me!), it is still very limited in the range available. Trout, Cod, Salmon, Tuna and the smoked mackerel and herring are pretty much the entire range. Lovely, but limited. So, my third resolution is to buy seafood once a week from an independent fishmonger. I should count myself lucky to have three to choose from.

Stay tuned to find out if the road to Hell really is paved with good intentions.

Saturday, June 17

My new friends in India

Some things get better as they get bigger. Salaries, for instance. Other things worsen. Companies rarely improve as they grow, and by the time they get to be multi-nationals you can pretty much rely on customer service being a high priority in the advertising and abysmal in real life.

About ten days ago I received a letter from Tiscali, my internet supplier, saying that they and British Telecom would be upgrading our network last Wednesday and that we "might" lose our internet connection for a couple of hours on that day.

Being off work that day I powered up the PC at around eleven a.m. No Connection. I checked the phone. Dead as a dodo. It still wasn't working by five in the afternoon.

I rang BT. Dialling their local rate number I was finally connected to a call centre in India. They tested the line and said it was working perfectly. I am not sure what strange sense of the word "working" they were using. I then rang Tiscali.

Tiscali also had their call centre in India. It may even have been the same one.

"You will have to get B.T. to test the line"

I told him they had, and nothing was wrong apart from the fact that it wasn't working.

"We will ask B.T. to check the line again. Wait until tomorrow and if it isn't working, ring us then".

Tommorrow found us still cut off from from the phone and the interweb.

Ticali "We have checked and there is a fault. We will have start a new broadband connection for you. This will take up to five working days."

I pointed out that there wasn't a fault until they caused it. I asked about a refund of my line connection fee for the time I was cut off.

"You will need to contact our billing department for that"

I did not dare ask which continent the billing department was on. It may even be manned by extra-terrestrials.

On the evening of the second day (oops, a bit biblical there) I checked the phone again. Still dead. I got my mobile and phoned myself. (I should point out that this is something which I do not usually do. Though I have been known to send myself emails as reminders.)

I phoned myself. And somebody answered. Considering that they had been getting all of our calls for the last day and a half they were very friendly. Mind you, they had plenty of time to answer because nobody who rang them on their number was able to get through.

They seem to have had quite a good time talking to total strangers. A strange sort of blitz spirit thing. My Mum spent quite a while talking to them.

It turns out they too were both BT and Tiscali customers.

I rang BT again.

"You will need to test your equipment. If we send an engineer round and the fault is with your equipment you will have to pay £65.00"

I got him to try and ring our number rather than test it. I dare say he had a lovely time talking to our patient and understanding fellow customers. He rang back afterwards and apologised.

We finally got everything working at lunchtime today.

Goodness knows if either company will give us a refund on the rental.

At least now I know what "a two hour break in service" really means.

And I did get to speak to some very nice people.

Sunday, June 11

Looks like summer has arrived.

Our visiting cat is basking in the sun, resting from his exertions chasing bees, flies, moths, squirrels and frogs in our garden. A few weeks ago I wrote about our worries that he might be a stray. I am glad to say that after a few discrete enquiries we have established that he does indeed have a home, only five houses further along from us.

We have named him Tigger, but our informant tells us his original given name is in fact Humphrey! What’s more, Humphrey has a brother, named Bernard! (His owner is obviously a fan of the eighties T.V. comedy “Yes Minister”.)

They now both come round regularly, with Humphrey the more regular visitor. They share many of the same looks and behaviours, though Bernard is heavier looking and slightly more pushy.

Bernard not being Pushy.

Apparently both of them are absolute floozies, charming their way into most of the houses between their home and ours. (Humphrey is called “Tom” by our next door neighbours. He must have more identities than an M.I. 5 agent.)

They do appreciate comfort, as you can see below.

TiggerTomHumphrey is pussy non grata with our next door neighbours at the moment. This may have something to do with the three dead birds he has deposited outside their window as a seasonal gift. The young girl of the house naturally found this most distressing, and has insisted on the corpses being buried at the end of the garden, with “appropriate words” being said and twigs pushed into the ground as markers.

They are both consummate hunters. There will be more twigs in the ground before this summer is over.

Monday, June 5

Another Week Older and Deeper in Debt

I will start off by apologising once again to my loyal readership – (you have to believe that someone out there occasionally finds your messages washed up on the shore along with the other thousand million bottles.)

Excuses for not posting? To be honest I just haven’t made the time. Life has done its usual routine of creeping up quietly and then hitting me on the back of the head.
We were hoping to go away for the latter part of last week, a little city break. Barcelona maybe. Then everything started to slide.

First our washing machine broke down. A minor problem, but annoying for my wife and I and absolutely devastating for my mother-in-law. She lives with us, but really she Lives To Launder. She will seek out stuff to wash. She is an addict. We actually let the washing machine detergent run out every so often just to see her twitch when the withdrawal symptoms start. We ordered a new machine as the other one had been run into the ground. That was going to take a week to arrive.

Then Transco stepped onto the scene, in the form of a gas engineer sent to replace our venerable gas meter. Friday afternoon he turns up, changes the meter, tests it, and condemns our entire gas installation as Immediately Dangerous. Switches the gas off at the meter and runs for his van before we get a chance to say “Wha…?”

So we now have no washing machine, no hot water, no central heating, and only an electric oven and a microwave to cook on. And the weather was unseasonably cold.

Then over the weekend my Mother (over eighty, like my mother-in-law) announces that her only companion, her dog, is on its last legs. Cue instant guilt feelings from her only borne child.

By last Monday it became obvious that Barcelona was going to have to wait.

The majority of last week was spent tidying up and sorting things in the attic ready for the gas fitters to come in. This is a process akin to playing Tetris, the game where you have to move small blocks so that you can make room to put others in their place. The local charity shops received an unexpected windfall, and I suspect the Bin Men will be muttering about us for weeks to come.

This afternoon the fitter finished. All we need do now is put back everything that we moved out of his way. We’ll have a heck of a job with the widescreen T.V.

Oh, that reminds me. The Video broke down last week too…..