Saturday, December 13. 2014
Before I saw this film I’d seen a headline on a review describing it as the weakest of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies. Sadly, I’m forced to agree. The problem with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies unlike say The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I is that there isn’t actually a natural story here. Rather, there are the resolutions (some natural, some rather less so) to several threads that have been established, some in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and some way back in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Now if, like me, you know the actual story well, that’s not too bad (although one rather glaring confusing bit from the story stands out more in the film. But it was obvious from the audience comments around me that quite a lot of them didn’t and the movie was rather empty spectacle for them.
There is an attempt to provide a driving narrative through the story. It’s even an element that I remember from the original and while I remember it being significant I don’t remember it trying to carry the last third of the book. That narrative line is the descent into gold fever, or dragon madness as it’s called here, of Thorin Oakenshield. I think it’s very nicely handled - you see the madness nicely acted, the change in Thorin’s character and the moments of lucidity. You see the way he turns against and alienates his fellows and loses their thrust. With the magic of sound effects, at his maddest you even hear the overlay of some of the effects that were added to Smaug’s voice so the real impact of ‘Dragon’ in dragon madness is made clear.
The problem, to my mind at least, is the problem that underlies the whole film. Thorin, eventually, overcomes his madness and dies a redeemed hero, seeking and being given Bilbo’s forgiveness for his actions. All present and correct. But the resolution to his madness could have been a nice bit of character interaction. Instead it is, although admittedly pretty, a special effects extravaganza.
There’s a second problem too - I suspect with the writing. The whole madness and redemption element echoed Boromir so closely it wasn’t true for me. I can’t decide if it was deliberate (in which case I think it detracts somewhat from both) or an accident of the fact that the same minds wrote the madness. But that’s a different matter.
So, on with the spectacle:
Smaug’s encounter with Laketown - check. In fact that occurs before the title of the film is shown. Yes, ALL of it happens that fast.
Then the people of Laketown decamp to Dale, the Wood Elves arrive and there’s a stand off. Dain turns up, ready to count heads, especially pretty elven king’s heads. Then the orcs show up. Then more orcs show up. And there’s a battle. Hence the title of the film.
There are, for those of you who have seen any of the previous five films, all the fairly predictable pieces here. The big marching armies. The awesome military elves. The orcs go to war again and we’ve seen that before. In this film you get to see the dwarves go to war too, war pigs and war goats and all.
For those who are used to The Hobbit movies, there are the elements of foreshadowing. Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman turn up to rescue Gandalf from The Necromancer and find he’s Sauron and he’s resurrected the Nazgûl. For those really paying attention, some of the orcs come from Angmar. Galadriel forces Sauron back and Saruman fatefully says he’ll look after what’s left while Elrond helps her away. We all know how well THAT worked out don’t we?
In the midst of the big fights there were a number of character fights. One, in particular, is going to be the basis of a tie-in game. Yes, it’s one with a blonde elf. They didn’t pull a surprise and have him die. Unlike most of the other movies there weren’t really any moments of lightness though.
Overall this was a movie of lots and lots of style and spectacle and not really so much story. It was ending stories and in the tradition of sagas (and in keeping with the original) few of them ended well. But it’s a shame.
Bechdel test: Again no. There is a chance for a conversation again, at least one, but I don’t think it happens.
Saturday, November 29. 2014
Mockingjay Part I in many ways is a stronger film than any of the other final books in a series split into two films I’ve seen. This is largely because it is actually a complete story in and of itself - at the end of Catching Fire some of the tributes were captured by the forces of The Capitol, some by the Rebellion. Mockingjay Part I deals with the immediate aftermath of the events of the the 75th Hunger Games - that is the events of Catching Fire - the growing rebellion against the Capitol and Katniss’ part as The Mockingjay - the figurehead of the revolution - and ends with the rescue of the tributes/hostages from The Capitol.
There are some nice twists along the way (at least if you haven’t read the book) and a suitably rousing speech to both round off this film and set the groundwork for part II.
On all those levels it works really well. It maintains the balance between Katniss as the ordinary girl who sacrificed herself to save her sister - in fact very specifically reminding everyone of that at one point and making Prim’s role larger than in the previous two films now there’s no Hunger Games - but it also, perhaps even more openly than before, plays with Katniss as a public figure. The leaders of the rebellion, the new character of President Coin and the familiar Plutarch, want her to be a figurehead, a lightning rod to ignite a spark in the other districts and start the rebellion proper, to spout their lines, to act in their scenarios. She absolutely, wonderfully, sucks at it. As Haymitch points out, she’s good at things when she’s spontaneous and when she’s doing things for other people, interacting with other people. (Watching Jennifer Lawrence acting being unable to act is also fun.)
So why does this film sound like it has, to quote Buffy, but-face? If you don’t know the books, Katniss spends most of the film moping and you’re left wondering why she isn’t doing more, at least the people I went with were. If you do know the books you’re left wondering at some of the editorial choices that chop out her coping mechanisms for PTSD so completely. She’s ‘moping around and not doing more’ because she has PTSD, complete with flashbacks and more. A few bits here and there showing her wrestling with it and pulling herself together slowly might have helped show it better. It might, depending on what they do in the next film with Johanna also make more sense.
There were other changes too of course. I think the pacing has changed a little so the story is moved around and preparations for the war are largely pushed back into the second film I assume. I don’t have a problem with that, the story as presented here works sensibly as a stand alone. The claustrophobic, prison-camp sense of District 13 was played down in the film, put onto Effie being eccentric whereas in the book: well I’ve described the first part of Mockingjay as “the YA Gulag Archipelago” and it’s a description I’ll stand by. It’s also edited out a number of other things, inevitably, but it’s hard to talk about them without major spoilers for Part II and without seeing how they treat that too it’s hard to judge the overall decision. I’m not complaining too much, adaptations inevitably do these things, it’s just one where there’s a strong sense of change in the tone for me.
The change of tone and the decision to downplay Katniss’ PTSD so it’s not clear if you don’t know about it left us all feeling a little flat whether we knew the book or not, which is a shame.
As always with this series, the casting seems spot on. Both President Coin and Cressida, the two big new characters, worked really well. While Natalie Dormer isn’t on quite the stellar career path that Jennifer Lawrence is on she is probably doing the parallel in TV acting. I can imagine, given their fanbases, there will be an upsurge in Katniss/Cressida fanfic in the weeks to come.
This is good solid film. Perhaps only disappointing (and then only a little) because the bar has been so high with the previous two. If this was a standalone story rather than part III of a blockbuster series it would necessarily be somewhat different but a standalone film with this as its core story would be entirely satisfying I think. Perhaps with a bit more distance I’ll be more forgiving of the things I’d do differently here. And perhaps in films it’s that awkward third film of the tetralogy syndrome.
The ground that is set for Mockingjay Part II promises the denouement and a big action blockbuster. I know what I expect and there should be character work too but we should see Katniss returning to action mode and going to war. This might be slightly weak but there will be plenty of big bangs in the climax.
Bechdel test: As you’d expect, this film passes easily. There are a host of named female characters - Katniss, Prim, Coin, Cressida, Effie, Egregia (and more) and Katniss at least has conversations with all of those I’ve named (several of them speak to each other independently of Katniss too). Some of the conversations are about Peeta but lots of them are about things entirely unrelated to men.
Although the Bechdel test is a low bar (and yet far too many films still fail it without good cause), this film puts both Egregia (rebel commander for District 8 ) and President Coin as women in positions of political and military authority without batting an eyelid. Cressida was one of The Capitol’s most respected TV directors before running away to film The Mockingjay, who (even in the midst of PTSD) is strong in many ways and powerful in others, even if it takes her little sister to point this out to her. Prim is also growing up and growing in stature - although it’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, District 13 are training her to be a doctor which is still a high prestige role. That’s not really down to an enlightened original script - it’s a female author whose story they are adapting - but they have kept all these strong female roles in place which is good to see. Lets hope some more script writers are inspired to do follow suit.
And as for those that say female leads can’t carry a tentpole movie - from the figures I’ve seen reported although Mockingjay Part I is the weakest of the three films so far, it’s still had the first weekend best box office in the US of the year. Do you really think Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlet Johansen and the like can’t put the bums on seats and get the dollars out of pockets? The data suggest you’re just wrong. You’re running out of credible excuses, and in the language that the people that ultimately make these decisions to the tune of $130M+ in the US last weekend alone.
Tuesday, November 25. 2014
Is it terrible that the first thing I thought, after hearing the news that the Grand Jury decided there was no case to answer for the cop that shot Michael Brown was "I wonder just how many of them were white?"
President Obama might say, he has to say, that America is country where the rule of law holds sway. In a country where that is true it ought to be the case that the law applies equally to all. (There will be miscarriages of justice: no system is perfect; but it should in essence be even-handed regardless of power, privilege, money or their lack.) I haven't seen the evidence, I didn't hear the testimony but I can't help wonder... did a mostly white grand jury believe the white cop over the black people eye witnesses, particularly when guided by a white lawyer or two?
It's easy for me to sit here and point the finger at America. But yesterday we had Teresa May announce new measures against terrorism. Now, while I'm not convinced that 40 attacks defeated in 4 years plus 1 that's got through is really grounds for majorly ramping up the powers of the security forces, I don't object in principle to there being laws on the books that allow the security forces to act properly to defend against terrorist plots. But there are proposals in the bill the bill that seem to be striving to make Muslims second-class citizens. I'm sure she will argue "Oh, not all of them, only the dangerous ones" but how do you define "prevent radicalising students" and the like? Students are always going to be radical - young people tend to be extreme and passionate. That doesn't mean they have to become terrorists but it can lead down that route. But clamping down on students doing extreme and youthful things... that's really not going to go well. Picking on the ones that worship Allah in particular, in case they become terrorists or Jihadists - congratulations, you're going to push them faster down the rabbit hole, and pull their parents after them. And suddenly Ferguson, MO. will look like a picnic as it spreads to the streets of Britain.
It turns out, after some research, the grand jury had 9 white and 3 black members. Why am I even less surprised.
Friday, November 21. 2014
So we have, sadly but not really surprisingly, our secondly elected UKIP MP, for Rochester and Strood. Various people are pronouncing over the results and so, inevitably, am I.
There are a few things that really stand out at first look:
Taking these in order:
Are there any general lessons to take from this result?
I think the answer is a tentative yes.
Sunday, November 16. 2014
Alan Turing is, in many ways, an unlikely centre for a biopic. He was certainly gay. That shouldn’t matter in 2014 and there have been gay heroes of biopics before (Milk springs to mind) but it’s good to see nonetheless. In The Imitation Game he is portrayed as somewhere on the Autistic Spectrum (more on that later) - and that makes him as unsympathetic a hero in a film as you might imagine. He is also perhaps the nerdiest of all nerds through history - this is the man called the father of modern computing for a reason - and not only did he develop the still widely used test for successful AI, and be one of the leading lights in the team that broke the “unbreakable code” and shorten World War II he successfully applied his intellect in a huge range of fields by applying maths to them - he is, for example, the person who worked out how spots and stripes (on animal coats) work.
And yet, despite this, here is this film about him. It’s wonderfully inaccurate in places. There was no woman in his hut of cross-word enthusiasts, and the core team was bigger. But as a story it works. It shows us a driven, irascible mathematical genius who (not as single-handedly as we might be lead to believe) helped shorten the war, saved millions of lives and was then told, like so many others, to forget it every happened, not tell anyone, and finally convicted of gross indecency and left in a situation from which suicide was his only tenable option at the age of 41.
As a quick example of ‘not telling anyone’ they interviewed one of the women that actually worked at Bletchley Park during the war and met (very, very briefly) Alan Turing on the radio in time with the film’s UK release. She said, when they asked what she did, she told them it was secret, if they pressed, rather than tell them the truth, all the girls used to say “Oh, we type out the orders for who gets the medals” which of course made them very popular with the service men.
Structurally this is a rather neat story within a film. Most of the film is set, technically, as Turing tells a story in response to a question to the detective who arrests him for indecency but thinks he might have a spy (his war records have been completely removed) and wants to know what he got up to during the war. Turing tells him, and in a neat twist, the answer is meant to also be used by the detective to judge whether Turing himself is a human or a machine. Turing is using himself as the subject in a Turing test. (Hence, presumably, some of the ASD references that are laid heavily through the film - although some form of schizophrenia would be more apt.)
Retro-fitting diagnoses of ASD to non-living individuals is always tricky because too many of the elements require knowing what happens if something that seems like an indicator is disrupted. “Routines beyond the norm” is an indicator for example. Turing, apparently liked an apple before going to bed. That is not directly an indicator - I like to read for a little while after going to bed, it is a routine - what marks it out as a “routine beyond the norm” is the extent to which you will go to avoid it being disrupted or the extent of distress or similar if it is disrupted. Sometimes I’m too tired to read, and I just go to sleep, no problem. If, for example, Turing refused to go bed, waited up to find a shop that would sell him an apple before he could go to bed, then it would qualify. Otherwise it’s just a slightly obsessive bedtime snack. There’s a good discussion of the actual case for Turing and his retro-fitted Asperger’s diagnosis here. It’s worth noting that the film has no such doubts, piles up the snippets to leave us in no doubt either. However, it’s also worth noting if you take a less formal ‘indicators for Aspergers and ASD’ list and look at coders, mathematicians and many academics, they almost all score more highly than the general population without necessarily scoring highly enough to be recommended for a more formal assessment.
This film is not an accurate biography. It is a biopic and it is a well-crafted and largely fun story. It has its dramas, its highs and lows. It has the comedy master manipulator from MI6. Some of what he says and does is actually incredibly sinister but he really does come across as light relief and the film does rather need him to be that escape valve. But he does it well, just like everyone else. If you’re going to obsess over every detail of Turing’s life and the Bletchley history they got wrong (including missing out a certain Commander Ian Fleming) then you probably shouldn’t go and see it. Otherwise treat yourself to a gloriously British splash of the most unlikely war hero out there. The ending is, inevitably sad but fitting.
Bechdel test: I think no. There are three named women I can think of. Two of them even have a conversation. But it’s about men. And for the history purists, one of the women definitely didn’t exist - although the other really did and what she said (although not to the core team) really did help them crack Enigma.
Friday, November 14. 2014
When it comes to world-building genre books, particularly in my favourite genres, used to have it hard. Fantasy worlds, along with SF universes required setting up and explaining. That changed though, as some writers suggest, and for many years they had it easy. You could barely poke a fantasy novel without finding elves who are nearly always tall, unfailingly beautiful, magically talented and tied to nature. Equally dwarves are stocky, doughty, tough, grumpy and practical. It is, perhaps, inevitable that elves and dwarves hate each other since they’re so dissimilar. But it’s also incredibly lazy. There were a few choices to be made - were dragons wise and beneficent or powerful and evil? Or perhaps both, with dragons battling each other. But they were few and far between.
If you move to urban fantasy you have, instead, vampires and werewolves, both sexy as hell, but at war with each other for some reason. Both stay hidden from humans for some reason too, at least normally. And into this world a poor mortal, normally female, falls. Some urban fantasies mix it up a little and add magic users, elves, or everyone knowing what’s going on but the genre staple is already well established. There are distinct subsets that add male mortals falling into the magical realms too - if they are going to go into adult territory they often but not always end up being gay fiction or skew into kink. Romance still likes its alpha males for the most part and mortal women in a world of vampires or werewolves fits that neatly. They may, instead, have a mortal protagonist that is too young for any sexy times, too young for gender to really have developed.
There is an alternate branch of urban fantasy that takes a religious or quasi-religious view. Rather than vampires and werewolves, we have angels, demons and the like in the shadows. This may or may not be tied to an overarching religious morality - it often specifically denies it in fact while using the trappings and structures.
This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to write a good book with those staples and not exert yourself too much on the world-building. And equally there were always authors that struck out and wrote outside those norms over the years. But I’m starting to see a move to throw off the old standards and develop new worlds, new standards and strike out without those familiar forms. Not just the odd rebel but significant numbers of authors are doing it.
The problem? It doesn’t always work well.
I have at least one book I’ve finished (and ended up enjoying) solely because I’d read two other books by the same author and so I trusted the author to get through the rough patches. And they were, in my opinion, VERY rough. The first third of the book was so busy building the world it neglected to build plot and character in a way that made me care. There’s a truism of writing that you show, don’t tell. Like all truisms its a rule that can be broken but this book was more like reading the CIA factbook on the world than being in the world. Not exactly easy reading. Eventually plot and character started to emerge and it tied together into a coherent whole and it worked, and worked well enough I’ll buy the next book in the series, but even now - some weeks later - I still remember how close I was to giving up on it. I’m glad I persevered but it was a close run thing. Things that were fairly obviously going to be plot were embedded early enough to help hook me and drag me through to when the hooks started to have bait and then proper flesh added. In some ways it was kind of backwards - the pain of the hook was obvious instead of it being a hidden clue it was all that was dragging me through the drudgery of the heavy world-building. This book, the others, had its share of odd new words and like them used them mostly for nouns. However it played strongly with other things - families were routinely group families and the like for example, and in particular with gender roles and identity, including one character whose physical sex changes to and fro over time.
I equally have one book I’ve just given up on. I don’t know the author from any other books but the world she was trying to create seemed interesting at first. It was just so opaque that half-way through the book I didn’t care about the characters nor enough about the world and its incredibly awkward terminology. There were bits of plot starting to emerge - this is half way through remember - but I just didn’t care. Reading it was a chore not a pleasure and no one was forcing me to read it, so it was a chore I decided to quit.
When it’s done well though, it can work really well. There is a book I’ve just finished reading that is probably packed with more weird new terms than both of the other two I’ve mentioned put together, and not an elf or a dwarf in sight (not even with a different name). With one exception they’re well chosen and the way they’re introduced is also well handled. We’re shown the words in usage in a way that seems natural to the character that introduces us to the term but at the same time lets us get used to it without flooding us with new language. They’re chosen to be alien but similar enough to words that I know and I think most will know that there’s a half reminder in the name, plus they’re used in ways that help remind us what’s going on. It doubtless helps that most of the strange words are nouns for strange summoned creatures, so the characters can talk about the gwastryl flying around (which is more like a bat than a kestrel but it’s a hunting flying thing still) and so on. This book isn’t entirely without flaws - there are certainly minor characters who are lazily drawn in from the bag of cheap stereotypes “pick any 2, get 1 free!” - but mostly they’re well enough drawn that it doesn’t grate too badly even when you meet one of these minor players. And because they’re applied to the characters rather than lazily to the races or nationalities it grates rather less.
Although I’ve picked three examples to illustrate the point (they’re three of the last four straight fantasy books I’ve read) it’s good to see we’re starting to see an explosion away from the safe old territory of elves, dwarves and the like. There have always been a few fantasy authors doing this (maybe 1 or 2 in a year), but it’s starting to become common at last (maybe tipping towards a majority even). Now we need to see them relearning the skills to build their worlds well.
Although tangential to what I really wanted to talk about, it’s worth noting alongside this, that all three of the books I’m talking about refer openly to gay relationships as an integral, accepted part of society. One of them has a more complex constructed gender system as well. While the Ancien Régime patriarchy in parts of the US, and various entrenched opinions in the UK, the old heads in the Kremlin and more are opposed to gay rights, step down a generation or so and it seems the battle is over. I can only hope that’s true in Russia, and it doesn’t mean its not going to be a horrible 30 years until Putin and his cronies are gone and the laws can be repealed. But I have hope they will be.
Sunday, November 2. 2014
A while ago I posted about the Tower of London and the centenary memorial they are doing with a poppy for every Commonwealth soldier that died.
Planting the poppies is not quite complete (it will finish next week, on 11/11, armistice day) but it is getting there. It's now almost impossible to see all poppies sensibly in a single shot, but there are a few good shots that give you some idea of what it looks like, a couple courtesy of the Metropolitan Police helicopter.
If you want to keep more up to date, the hashtag #TowerPoppies is the place to go.
Sunday, October 19. 2014
Ched Evans - no I hadn't remembered his name either - was a footballer until he raped a 19 year old. You may consider the fact the she was so drunk she couldn't consent means it wasn't rape "She didn't say no" but the law disagrees and so do I. I also wonder just how much pleasure he can have got from a partner who was so out of it she couldn't even consent but that's by the by. I am full of admiration for her in going to the police and going through the whole process of the trial and getting him convicted.
Anyway, while rape is a heinous crime he was a repeated rapist, he wasn't a particularly violent rapist - he didn't go out and stalk his prey and abduct her, nor rape her repeatedly. I'm not saying that makes him a nice person but in the scale of scumbag rapists, he is merely a scumbag rather than a scumbag of the deepest, darkest hue. Perhaps because of this he was only sentenced to five years in prison and with the normal rules that apply in this country, he was released on Friday. I don't know how much impact the rape had on the then 19 year old woman he raped - I'm sure it was more than zero and I honestly don't know that if any of those things would have made it better or worse. I can only think how they'd have made it for me and acknowledge thereby that they're different for everyone. What I do hope is that the explosion of news coverage about her rapist being released, enough that it's made me think and write this, hasn't made things worse for her.
Normally, and my liberal leanings fully support this, the law says released prisoners who have done their time are eligible to go back to work with certain obvious exceptions: as a rapist, Ched Evans is on the sex offenders register and can't work anywhere that's going to be an issue obviously. However, his old job wouldn't preclude that. No, the problem is that Ched Evans was a successful footballer for Division One (that's actually the third tier of English professional football, yes it's confusing) Sheffield United and that would be the obvious place for him to go back to work. He's no David Beckham in terms of his talent or his earning potential but if he does go back to playing football he's going to be cheered by thousands every Saturday and earn more every week than most of us earn in a year. He is going to be a role-model for lots of little boys. Is that really what we want? A rapist as a role-model?
I hope Sheffield United stop and think of their role in the community and don't offer him a new contract. I don't wish particular ill on Ched Evans - he was stupid as much as scumbag and he has done his time. He deserves to get a job. I don't know what his other talents and skills are but I don't think he should be left jobless for life. I'm just sure he doesn't deserve a job where he gains public adulation and support and is held up as a role model. Unless he goes out and becomes a public figure to spearhead a campaign to educate young men with a better slogan than "No means No" of course.
I'm sure that would be incredibly hard for the woman he raped to live with. But she might be able to manage it with the thought that he's stopping other people raping women like her.
But whatever is going to happen let our last thoughts be with her. All the coverage I've seen has focussed on him. It's not that uncommon to be honest - celebrities being released from prison as well as sent to prison are news (I'm not sure why). Perhaps that should change as well. I hope the 2.5 years he spent in prison is enough and she is at peace and hearing his name so often in the last couple of days hasn't brought it all back to her.
Friday, October 17. 2014
OS X: Yosemite (10.10) is out as another free download.
Visually there are three changes that will catch the eye of most users.
The first of these is the flattening of everything. If you're used to iOS 7+ this won't be too much of a shock - the buttons etc. will be familiar and the change of the red, yellow and green gems to flat buttons isn't that shocking - the colours have remained, and their position. It took me a few minutes to get used to this and then I was OK with it. The thing that IS different though - if you're used to using the green button to maximise that's now option-click, the green button has defaulted to click to make the app full-screen. There doesn't seem to be a defaults write option to change that either.
The second of these will probably be the paired colours of dock and menu bar. I don't like the pale dock, I find the dock items low contrast on it. So, after some surfing, it's switch to dark mode. This gives me a nicer dock but a dark menu bar too. For all the menus and the Apple items and quite a few other items in the menu bar that's OK. However, for example, the Google Drive icon (black) on the dark menu bar... invisible. (About 99% of my menu bar items work just fine though - Dropbox just swaps to a white box for example, that is the big one that doesn't. Adium doesn't out of the box, but it took about 2 minutes to find a plug-in for the menu-bar icons and get coloured ones.)
The third is the redesigned core app icons. They all remain identifiable but different. They're fine to my eye but some people will doubtless moan. iTunes is the one that's changed the most.
There are many changes under the skin. If you do Get Info on an item, each item has Prevent App Nap in it's info options. App Nap is a new thing designed to extend lap-top battery life. I understand why it's there, but since I'm not on a laptop I'd quite like the option to turn it off globally! Safari now lets you have DuckDuckGo as your default search engine without a hack. I have switched to that, although I mostly use Alfred to search so it might not get hit up a lot. You can do various things like draw on images directly in Mail, and send big attachments. I've played with marking up images and it's all pretty easy and straight-forward - it won't replace something like Pixelmator or Photoshop for serious work but it does the job to draw a box or two and write something on a picture. But, all of these things aren't really first thoughts.
I had to update a couple of Apps (Coda, TotalFinder) but neither of those was huge for me, and there were more changes that went on via the App Store, particularly to Pages and Numbers to use iCloud Drive which I haven't used yet but I know is there. The tiny little poke I've had at it makes it seem very easy to use - you can make folders and so on, rather like with dropbox, but you essentially just share with yourself.
The small number of things I have actually done so far, including writing this, chatting in gChat using Adium, a bit of transcoding with Handbrake to watch stuff on my Apple TV have all gone without a hitch. All the things like Handoff, iCloud Drive and so on will take some time to get to know but I'm looking forward to them.
Tuesday, October 14. 2014
George Osborne has been smugly telling us that his austerity measures have been working - getting Britain back to work, making the economy grow and so forth. Opinion is, naturally, divided about just how much of that is actually his doing, how well we might have done if he'd followed the more normal measures of borrowing and investing during a recession: governments are NOT families and don't have to balance to books in the same way.
One of the other things that the Conservative government, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith in particular, have announced is a whole-hearted onslaught on so-called benefits scroungers. Lets set aside the completely righteous anger of the long-term disabled who are being told they can't have maintenance allowance because they're not sick enough. Lets set aside the stupidity of people being told to move out of houses where councils and charities have invested hundreds of thousands of pounds making them suitable for their needs because they've got a spare bedroom. We won't forget them, never forget them but put them aside just for a few minutes. We know that IDS's brand of "caring conservatism" means "I only care for me."
No, lets look at a different thing, a problem that Osborne, and by extension IDS will care about. You see all those people being forced off JSA and into crappy low-paid jobs, and all those people in work but not getting a pay rise - including the nurses, ambulance drivers and all the rest of them, but especially the ones in crappy jobs - they're not paying any tax because they're not reaching the tax threshold.
The story has always been that if you get people off benefits and into work they contribute to the economy and pay taxes. Of course the truth is more complex than that. Many people in work get some sorts of benefits - child benefit being the most obvious, but family tax credit and so on are out there too. (The names change but there are quite a few benefits around for low paid workers.) A lot of the essentials that people in low paid jobs buy don't carry VAT (or in the case of energy low rated VAT). If you work full time in a job that pays 50% over the minimum wage - that's not a bad job these days - you only just pay income tax (although you pay national insurance earlier than that of course). The bit of benefit's budget that pays out has changed but the old story about them paying back in is no longer true. It used to be that about 20% of the population paid no direct tax. Latest estimates are that it's more like 35%.
Congratulations George. In your drive to not pay anyone except the super-rich and dive to the bottom as quickly as possible you've managed to shoot yourself in the foot. Reducing the deficit needs two things - lower outgoings and higher income. But the more you try to drive the outgoings down the more you're driving the income down too. Wake up and think about what the numbers are actually telling you even if you're too dumb to accept it when people tell you the model you insist is right is based on flawed data.
Friday, October 10. 2014
Yesterday Britain elected its first UKIP MP. (In a couple of weeks or so it might well elect its second.) That wasn't really a shock - the local, popular, sitting MP defected to UKIP, resigned and triggered a by-election and stood for re-election. Clacton, his constituency, being skewed old and blue (or purple now) fits the stereotype for UKIP to do well. Add a popular constituency MP and a mid-term by-election and you've got the makings of a UKIP MP. And lo, it came to pass. It's depressing but not surprising.
It wouldn't surprise me to see it repeated at the general election too. The mantra of "Vote UKIP, get Milliband" might work, but it's hardly the most positive reason to vote for the tories. Voters on the right are dissatisfied with the tories and looking for something different.
What is more interesting, in terms of the general election is the other by-election result. Heywood and Middleton (it's in Greater Manchester if, like me, you didn't know) returned a Labour MP. No apparent shock there. Labour got about 40.9% of the votes. Not bad. Actually slightly up since the general election of 2010 (40.1%) but still a huge drop off since the glory days of well over 55%! No, the real shock is that UKIP got close enough that there was what they call a block check of the voting numbers (that's not quite a recount, but the step before, to see if it's worth calling for a recount) and polled 38.7% of the vote up a massive 36.1%! The message of "Vote UKIP, get Milliband" not only might not work, it just might not be true. Clearly UKIP took a massive chunk out of both the Conservatives (-14.9%) and the LibDems (-17.6%) for this gain but getting within 600 votes of Labour within Manchester gives some credence to their threat that "it's not only in the South that we can win seats."
Now, of course, it is always risky to judge from be-elections. Turnout in Heywood and Middleton was only 36%. At the general election it's likely to be 10% or so higher. If they're mostly Labour voters and the other votes stay stable, there's suddenly a HUGE Labour majority and nothing to worry about as far as Labour are concerned and this is all just a by-election blip. If they vote in line with this poll, it's still a comfortable Labour hold, and a Labour majority as the Tory vote crumbles across the UK and the Tory negative campaign slogan turns out to be true. But a small change in circumstances - insane though it seems to say after a 36.1% gain but a further increase in UKIP popularity, or something like a rise in the Green vote pulling away disaffected Labour voters and we could have a genuine power-sharing government, with three medium-large parties and the relatively small parties (Greens, SNP, PC, the Northern Irish Parties the rump of the LibDems) actually holding the balance of power.
Thursday, October 9. 2014
After not only a book but well over 100 movies about Dracula, calling your film Dracula Untold requires a fair amount of courage. If they're going to succeed it also requires a fair degree of spoilers, although I will try to keep them to a minimum.
The story is, fairly loosely but not terribly so (with my admittedly far from detailed knowledge), set in a period of history when Eastern Europe was a buffer between the expanding Turkish empire and the rest of Europe. Hostage exchange of noble sons, the taking of slaves to fight as Janissaries, slave-soldiers (who were highly skilled and respected) and the like and all sorts of other nastiness was common.
From that setting, Young Dracula had been trained as a Janissary but then sent home as a vassal prince, to keep his people paying tribute in silver, pacified without an army. I don't think this ever happened, but it's not totally crazy and it works as part of the story. He's happily married, with a beautiful wife and a son the age he was when he was taken as a hostage and slave.
There is an obviously not random encounter with a monster in a cave in the woods. Dracula doesn't know what it is (nor, more surprisingly, do his guards) and we meet the vampire, which has managed to eat a regiment of Turkish scouts.
This prompts the sultan to demand 1,000 boys to train as Janissaries, and Dracula's son as a hostage. This, in turn, drives Dracula to fight back, despite not having an army. In the first of the new bits, at least for me, he makes a deal with the devil, more or less. The ur-vampire in the cave lets Dracula drink his blood. It will partially transform him for 3 days. If he can resist the urge to drink for 3 days he will be restored and go free, but for 3 days he will have the full powers of a vampire to fight back against the Turks.
The section that follows is, in some ways the weakest part of the film, as well as the longest. Dracula quickly uncovers the strengths and weaknesses of his new state. It's all cometently handled, although a few of the more intimate, character-driven bits are well-handled. He manages to hide this from everyone except his wife for a while, again, competently handled. There are a number of fight scenes. Some of them are pretty, a few not so much. The film strives for stylish and noir but lacks the budget to really pull it off. It does have some good ideas and a few very nicely executed pieces but it can't manage to maintain it throughout and so some of the fight scenes are rather scattered and relatively poor to make up for the one or two where they went to town on the effects budget.
When they do go to town on the special effects they had some clever ideas and some nice effects it has to be said. Dracula versus an army is something I've not seen and works surprisingly well, at least for this soldier-Dracula.
There is the inevitable discovery by the people he's trying to protect and their reaction but actually a nice twist on the story there, which I won't spoil.
And there is the final inevitable choice. Will he succumb to temptation and take blood or not? I could see how the story was building, you can probably guess what the outcome will be in fact even before you sit down. But, just in case, I won't say. It's not novel, but you sometimes hear storytellers talk about writing a story so the plot earns the climax, the characters earn their kiss at the end or whatever. I wouldn't have complained if they'd added a big twist and rejected my expectations but I equally felt they'd worked up to this and earned the finale that they did give us and I don't mind it.
There are, almost, two final scenes. One is a tidying up of the story back at the end of the three days after Dracula's bargain concluded. That had some novel elements and was well handled. The second basically sets up for a follow-up film. It could be the story of Dracula's son for example and the ur-vampire trying to convert him if you believe Dracula died of old age...
This had a nicely written plot, it was only over 4 days or so so there weren't sprawling storyline elements to get away, but it hung together better than many plots. It's also got a decently developed central character and supporting cast. It's got new slants on things, or mixtures of things into a new whole, a sufficiently novel take that I think it lives up to the boast of its name as well. The weakest part is really the action parts that the trailer I saw would make you think is what they're trying to sell it on.
Like a lot of these films, it's not great. And our opinions of it were split - but the person with the lowest opinion is also the person that as a rule just doesn't like vampires. So bearing that in mind, if you like a good vampire flick you might well enjoy this one too.
Bechdel test. No. I'm pretty sure (without checking IMDB) there are only two named female roles and they never meet. There are a number of ways there could have two named female character who have a conversation easily enough - the wife and her lady's maid, the son's nanny, the family could have had a son and a daughter and so on. There are other female characters around, but they're basically random peasants in the background. The wife (her name is mentioned so often I can't remember it the next day) does talk to a female character (but not by name) and it's about a male character.
Friday, September 26. 2014
Talk about a nasty question.
Going to war abroad has to satisfy what can be boiled down to two questions. Is it legal? Is it reasonable?
IANAL but when you've been invited in to "help" by the government of the country as recognised by the UN then there's a pretty decent chance it's legal. OK, about 10 years ago we were part of the alliance that toppled the previous government and helped establish the conditions that led to this one being elected. But countries like China and Russia didn't have to recognise this new government and have at the UN. It might not be a perfect way to judge a legitimate government but it's not a terrible one.
Reasonable is much harder - in some ways it's an umbrella question for lots of other questions. What are our aims? What will we achieve by what we're planning to do? What will it cost - that's in money, lives (both ours, theirs and civilians and the risk of radicalising people and strikes against here and so on), the risk of escalation and all the rest of it?
And here we enter a balance of judgement. Will bombing ISIL in Iraq achieve anything? The ISIL people have driven out most of the people they seemed to want to drive out, so they can disperse and return later, retreating into Syria. OK, other people are bombing Syria, so what we're doing is clearly only a token. So why bother? Fundamentally, as elsewhere, an aerial campaign against land forces won't win the war. An aerial campaign supporting a ground campaign can make it a lot easier but someone is going to have to put boots on the ground. This vote isn't about that of course. Perhaps the idea is to interdict the area by bombing raids until the Iraqi army can put their boots on the ground. Given 3 divisions evaporated in the face of ISIL a few months ago, how long is that going to take? Even then, they retreat into Syria and regroup and return. Given the state of Syria no one is going to be seriously putting boots on the ground there to drive ISIL out.
I don't have answers to these questions. But the news this morning suggests we could be bombing parts of Iraq for 3 years. They haven't said how expensive this might be. We're constantly told we're living in times of great austerity. Every month, at least, we hear reports about NICE saying that the cost of a particular treatment is too high to justify its use in the NHS. I hate that we have to have that cold blooded calculation whilst completely understanding it and endorsing the process and supporting the people that have to go through the data and make it. Do the expected gains justify the undoubted billions that flying to Iraq (presumably from airbases in Cyprus) and dropping bombs all over it for the next three years would cost?
Government is about hard decisions. There's a hard decision for you. Can we spend less and achieve more by increased diplomatic and aid efforts in the region, not drop a bomb and save some money to spend elsewhere? My inclination tends to yes. There's too many ways bombing only in Iraq doesn't seem to make sense, or seems to be a token, a stroking of male egos: "Of course we're a serious world power, looking, we're bombing with you aren't we?"
I have no doubt we will bomb ISIL. Callmedave wouldn't have called a vote if he thought there was any chance he could lose this one after he lost the vote to intervene in Syria last year. I'm not even sure it's the wrong decision. They say the adult world is one where the world isn't black and white. Here's a prime example. It's going to boil down to a binary decision - yes or no. If I had a vote (thankfully I don't) I'm pretty sure I'd vote no. 70% sure. But I have enough uncertainties that, apart from the most jingoistic of arguments I can understand why people will vote yes too.
Tuesday, September 23. 2014
Let me first off say I'm glad I didn't go to the cinema to see this. As it is, I only half-watched.
That might be unfair on the film - I've got nothing against Brad Pitt. He's easy on the eye, he's a thorough competent actor.
But compared to the book which takes both a structure and a sub-genre of which I'm not really fond and makes a smart, interesting and intelligent book (reviewed here) a very standard Hollywood action-adventure with zombies it's a shame. Heck, it takes a book that would, I admit, be hell to film as is but that is set AFTER the war and turn it into a film set at the outbreak of the war up to the (completely different) turning point that allows humans to start fighting back.
There are a few easter eggs that made me, as someone who knows the book, think there are going to be nods throughout. But then they go to Israel and completely divert. Oh well.
It would be very quick to list the ways the film is similar to the book once you get past the title.
There you go, you've read it. It has zombies, yes. But in the book they're your classic shufflers, in the film they're super-fast. The book is truly international (China, Japan, South Africa, Israel, England, Jamaica, Canada and more get there parts) the film is basically America with a diversion into Israel for a couple of scenes and so on and so on.
If I was more of a fan of zombie apocalypse movies it might be good. There are cool moments, when Brad spends all his hero points at the end and walks past the zombies. But, unless this sort of movie is really your cup of tea, I'd avoid it. For what it's worth, I also saw Zombieland recently. Much better - it's kind of silly but it's meant to be funny and it is.
Bechdel test? Yes, I think so. In the early part when I was hoping it would be closer to the book and not just share a title there are various interchanges between Karin, Constance and Rachel (Brad Pitt's character's wife and daughters). They're about asthma, pet dogs as presents, toy dogs and the like and although they're mostly not extensive they're back and forth several times - certainly long enough to count as conversations.
Tuesday, September 16. 2014
following a series of broadcasts about education reforms on the radio, I've been inspired (in part by those shows) to stop and think about what I would do, if I were in charge.
There are a couple of caveats up front:
So, on to my education policy.
School obviously starts with the very basics - reading, spelling, writing, counting and has 11 years to produce people ready to go out and (theoretically) join the world of work or to move on into further education, be that an apprenticeship or other on the job training, or some sort of education focusing on aiming them towards a university place.
I haven't done enough work with children under 14 to really comment on what's going on there in detail, but I have and sometimes still do work with adults with poor numeracy and literacy skills sufficiently to say there is an issue with how they are taught that starts under 14, under 11 even.
What do we really need to give our school leavers? I'm going to propose a list of core competencies in alphabetical order (sometimes with some jargon terms that I will explain later) and then some add on options for different groups.
My list of tracks and their skills is necessarily incomplete: there need to be tracks for, for example, technical skills for people intending to do apprenticeships (I guess that would include D&T and the like), people wanting to enter the caring and social work professions, people wanting to do artistic courses, humanities, social sciences and so on. I simply don't know what the right skill sets would be. If I were writing a real manifesto, I would go and have a consultation and fill in the details, but there is enough here to flesh out what it going on. I also don't want to make this post much longer than it's already going to be.
Literacy and numeracy are different to maths and English as we normally think of them. They're less academic and they're focused on the sorts of skills people actually use in everyday life. Out go things like sines, integration and the like, while things like actually learning about timetabling, budgeting and the like are included for example. Maths, the academic subject, appears in the science track (and there might need to be a maths track with, perhaps maths, philosophy and logic or something). The focus is definitely on the skills that are needed for adult life, the academic extras are only added for those that will need them. This is a common theme throughout the core curriculum.
Knowledge organisation and learning skills is a loose term about learning how to learn. Most of us change jobs as adults these days, sometimes several times. We will be retrained in those new jobs, we'll learn new skills as the tools we use change and so on. This is school learning to help us learn how to manage and cope with those things effectively. I learnt this, in reverse, when I was teaching people with learning difficulties, and more formally when I was doing my teacher training. It made a huge difference - about 25 years too late! I'm not suggesting 5 year olds learn about domains of learning and connectivism and other models of learning, not in a formal sense anyway, but for everyone learning about how we learn, how we connect knowledge and skills, the techniques that can help us learn new things (and the different ways we as individuals can learn better) can only help here. What I'm saying is that skills that we're assumed to pick up along the way should be specifically taught. One of the things that I think ought to be in here (possibly twice) is learning a foreign language as a conversational skill, not a formal skill, although there will be other ways to practise this as you are exposed to new skills later on. However, learning new languages to a conversational level is a useful life skill. I'd suggest perhaps two of Arabic, Chinese and Polish would be good in most communities (various other languages depending on where you live might have other priorities - Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Somali or whatever), although finding teachers for two of French, German and Spanish is probably easier in most places.
Problem analysis and solving is another set of skills that we're assumed to pick up along the way. I think we need to be taught them - a surprising number of adults don't know how to do this. This needs to cover practical things and more academic things but everyone needs these sort of skills. We'll all be faced with problems from trying to live on a budget to cooking Christmas dinner to decorating a house to fixing a car to... whatever. Actually practising the skills to help us tackle the process of solving the problem will help. (Just because you, at however old you are, think all of these things are simple quite possibly reflects practise. How easily did you manage them the first time? Quite a lot of my friends - most of them have degrees, many of them have higher degrees too, have hilarious stories of the first time they tried, and messed up, cooking Christmas dinner for their friends.) In this area as well we will add some emotional analysis and problem solving skills too. I'm not suggesting everyone learns NLP and CBT but some ability to understand and express their emotional needs and understand the emotional needs of others can't actually hurt.
Project work and team work skills are skills that, in some ways, could be taken out into a track skill. But, actually, they end up being in just about every track, so they went back into core skills simply because they're so important everywhere. One of the educators in the radio series about reforming education suggested that because cross-class project work is hard, the learning outcomes are soft and mushy we shouldn't do it, or we should leave it for only the most able students. No. We need to do it, because when children leave school, almost all of them will be working somewhere where they do these things. They need to be properly organised, properly led, properly integrated into the curriculum. Thus they're core skills. They need to start early and be properly led and integrated throughout the children's time in school so they become natural. They have to be organised in such a way that there is someone leading the project and the project isn't left for different subject teachers to try and pick relevant learning outcomes out of the wreckage. Subject teachers, for these new subjects, will contribute and extract elements of learning from the project of course, but there needs to be a project manager teacher, who guides the project and guides the students overall activity in the project as well. I agree it can be hard to learn clearly from project work. So rather than abandoning it as too hard, lets dedicate a teacher to making sure the students do learn the right things from it, and make sure the students practise the skill lots. The employers will thank us for it.
Same thing goes for team work skills. It might be that the project manager teacher can be the team work skills teacher. It might be, I suspect it will be that managing a project as the teacher for it is a very demanding job. But sorting them for a whole school would be something that I see as being done in a rotational basis, so the project manager runs one on, one off (to prepare for the next one) and is the team work skills teacher while the other project manager teacher is doing their thing and they alternate. This would seem like a reasonable plan at first look. (Again, were this a proper manifesto, we'd have a consultation, a trial, see what it looks like and adjust as necessary but at first look this seems reasonable.)
Citizenship skills contains a miscellany of social and moral education and history. Not history so much as a set of dates and events, but a sense of how the culture of Britain has been shaped. That's going to include some wars and things obviously (WWI and WWII both shaped the culture of Britain more than a little). I'm going to include into citizenship skills some odd things like basic cookery, use of a washing machine, sewing and the like. I am also going include some discussion of different religions and cultures as we find them in the UK - they are part of the culture and being a citizen in the modern UK after all, and some reading that would currently be English Literature set texts - but probably some others too. I think there is a placing for thinking about how our books, plays and TV reflect on our history and how we see ourselves as British and it should be included here. This would, if I write a joined manifesto, clearly cross-over to the citizenship exam for new citizens.
PE is in the list here but not wholly assessed, hence the mark next to it. I think PE is important to be included mostly for basic fitness and getting kids active. I have mixed memories of games lessons - I liked some of them a lot and hated others with a passion. I did a lot of sport after leaving school, and alongside school (and I'm paying for it now with bad knees and a bad back). But I think if you don't write it in to the core curriculum, it will be squeezed out. I think a system that encourages younger children to move around more, and breaks the day more with optional activity times even up to 18 would be good. Certainly with younger children, they like running around, we need to let them do that. Not all the time, but they can't sit at a desk for 6 hours a day either. This element of PE should be assessable for those who opt for it. However, PE should also contain a compulsory, assessed element of human biology looking at basic anatomy, physiology, reproductive biology, nutrition and the like. I don't care what your religion teaches, it is important that people know the basics of how their bodies work, what having sex means and leads to and so on. You can teach them out of school not to have sex because it's immoral if you choose. In school they will be taught the mechanics of how babies are made and the like.
Perhaps most dramatically, this core skill set are NOT assessed by exam. They are assessed by portfolio. Demonstrate you can do them not in an artificially pressurised situation. Advancement through school isn't determined by age, you are put into groups based on your age to some extent - to limit bullying and the like - but also your progress and your needs. The aim is that as many students as possible complete at least the core set to what we currently call level 2 by 16 (actually for most by 15 or earlier so there is space for at least one additional track). Level 2 equips them for a basic adult job. There will be people the system fails - there will always be people any system fails - but lets keep it down and focus on getting people there.
Some students will, of course, do far better than this. The school system needs to be flexible enough to cope with them too. This is the idea of these smaller add-on tracks. If you already have the skills to problem solve and to learn, if you're able in literacy, numeracy and IT skills, (perhaps if you're clearly well ahead of schedule to get to target levels by 16 alongside your core skills before you reach that level) you have the skills to start picking these more traditionally academic skills up as well. And, by and large, the more academic approach is only useful for those going to university. I'm biased (as I sit here with my PhD, my 2 teaching qualifications and all the rest) in thinking that all learning is useful. But even I wonder just how useful the Geography O-level I took was... Or the history of dreadnoughts in WWI that I vaguely remember (only because WWI is all over the BBC in the centenary years at the moment and dredging it back to the forefront somewhat).
I'm not saying that those things shouldn't be available but lets keep the learning at first to the core skills and then to the fields that interest the student, or (like Latin for science track students) are relevant (and can be shown to be so to the students). Remember here, you are probably talking to students that 13 or 14 before they are picking up these skills. They are picking up things they are interested in, engaged in. Explaining to students who want to learn sciences and are coming across all these latinate terms why understanding some latin will help them in future shouldn't be a hard sell. The most able students might pick up several tracks - and that should be encouraged - but with only one track plus the core skills you should still have a fairly rounded education.
And, again, mostly, these subjects should avoid final exams. Nobody in work actually gets tested in ways that resemble exams, so why do we rely on exams for school leavers? Research projects, paper writing - and I'm not talking about original, breakthrough science here, but you can still do good science that's been done before if you do science, you can study books that been studied before, translate standard texts, whatever - should form the assessments. We can mark these things in standard ways, we do at almost all levels after all. Why do we insist on exams still when we know they're not relevant to any actual work model?
I'm not saying there isn't a space for testing in the form of quizzes and the like that resemble current exams in a less formal setting and without the consequences for poor marks. Imparting (or sharing) knowledge, testing the acquisition of knowledge, is certainly part of education. In the early years it is probably one of the most important parts of the education system too. Quizzes in the sense of "What is the chemical formula for sodium?" or "what does le chien mean?" all have a place. They're just not the final assessment, they should be small, light-weight tests and seen as such.
But, if we're planning education properly, as we move through the system, the style of questions should change from what is, define, describe and the like, to more in depth questions where we're asking students to analyse, compare, discuss and the like. In core skills, even for those that are not going beyond that level, 16 year olds should be at that level. For those going on to higher education the basics should be able to be picked up quickly and integrated into higher understanding rapidly. You can't do manipulation of a chemical equation until you understand the symbols, but if you can manipulate an equation thanks to your numeracy core skills, adding the chemical symbols is a small amount of factual learning, a small amount of extra skills to understand what chemical equations mean (they're a bit different to maths equations) and then a fairly easy amount of extra understanding to add. There is a short phase where the define, state etc. questions are important, and you can quickly move to discuss, compare, analyse.
This approach would be a sea-change in education. It would break the form and year system apart and put the onus on the education system to actually treat the learner as an individual, rather than attempt to do within the constraints of the form and year structure. This is tricky - you would have unpredictable class sizes and, at first glance people finishing at random times through the year. End of year exams are excellent for giving you a structure where most people move along smoothly at more or less the same rate, class sizes and allocation of resources (such as teachers, school spaces and so on) are predictable.
However, with a portfolio building approach, as long as topic-groups start regularly - say every half term if we stay with the current school structure - there won't be a long gap before moving into an appropriate new group if you finish one portfolio section. This does require portfolio element groups that we expect the bulk of students to take about half a term to complete but that isn't beyond the realms of developing. For those students that miss on something, work for the next level up always includes explaining what you've been doing at this level. The time between finishing what you've just completed and starting in the next group, be that one lesson or a few weeks can be spent helping and building evidence of helping towards the next level without wasting your time. It would also usefully consolidate and help them practise their skills of course.
Alternatively, in schools all the way along but particularly as the students get closer to 16, support classes can be made available in this time. Lets assume we build a learning module which expects 60% of students to complete it in normal class time in half a term. The more able students should be able to complete early and pick and complete their core material early and pick up their extra tracks. Those students who are on track to complete some early but are struggling in some areas will be encouraged to complete some early and in their 'spare' time will get extra classes to help with the material with which they are struggling. Likewise, in the time between completing a module and starting a new module at the start of the next half-term there is time for extra work in other modules. Yes, this requires extra staff who are generalists and able to support a wide range of skills. But, equally, remember the core curriculum is now key skills rather than subject specific skills. We might not expect a languages teacher to be a great mathematician, but we should expect them to be functionally numerate and able to support a numeracy learner, certainly with a bit of help. We should expect all teachers to be literate. We should expect them all to be capable of using IT equipment. We're not, here, asking the Biology teacher to support someone learning German, we're expecting all our teachers to be more or less capable, functional adults. When learners get on to the specific tracks they will be in smaller groups, need more specialist support but should be able to get it from the specialist teachers for their subject track.
It is hard, without trying it, to say exactly how many students this extra time will pick up. I would suggest that if a module should be completed by 60% of students in the normal time, with well structured extra support like this about 70-80% of students will complete, lagging on one half-term's work or less in a year.
Given that, the aim is that the core curriculum as laid out is completed by most (the 60%) by the end of the current year 10. This, quite deliberately, gives everyone some time to learn something on a specific track. More able students might well have two years worth of learning - roughly the equivalent (although different in style) to 2 years study for GCSEs in specialist subjects but remember that is two years intensive study, more like A-level intensity. This also allows those who are lagging a little a chance to catch up still. We should find a more literate and numerate, a more IT capable workforce, while having a student body entering HE that are still well grounded in their core subjects while having a well rounded whole-person education.
This, as you might guess, gives a limit and a structure on the additional track modules. They should be generally regarded as one year learning modules, or rather 6 half-term portfolio building elements. I imagine (I have talked of more able students having 2 years of study in these tracks) a track, say humanities, and an advanced track, advanced humanities, so those that finish early can press on into the second year of material. They could also take two different tracks. Those who finish really early should be encouraged to take two or more tracks and then (if they desire) an advanced track.
Although I've limited this so far to education up to 16, we had the option to take O-level maths and AO-level additional maths. At A-level we had maths and further maths. Once I got to university it was clear that in every topic the curriculum meant that depending on your exam board you'd probably missed some topics that people with (theoretically identical) A-levels had covered, but equally they have gaps that you'd covered. The exception being, if you'd taken further maths, you'd probably covered all the same topics, you'd picked up the topics from everyone else's A-level syllabus too.
Essentially, this idea with the normal track and advanced track, and this will press on into post-16 education, is that you can gradually fill ALL the elements of pre-university learning if you have the time and the desire, before you go to university. Universities won't offer 3-A's they will, instead will list required portfolio skills demonstrated. But, rather than just maths having maths and further maths, in essence all subjects will have it.
In an ideal world this should produce a group of school leavers who are better equipped - literate, numerate, strong IT skills and able to learn new skills through life than the current school system. That's good. It will pick up the 16 year school leavers and give more of them the skills they need to enter the workplace, while not neglecting the other elements of social and cultural development and rounding and development that school also helps foster.
It will also give the more able students a solid grounding in all those skills and then intensive academic study in a group of skills for a period of time. Skills that they should appreciate and be engaged in.
This won't stop learners being stroppy and disaffected - teenagers are always going to be like that. But, to some extent it might ameliorate it because you won't be faced with "MIss, when will I ever need to know about X?" because the skills should be at least fairly related to work. Those who are more able should be studying things they have chosen to study and will therefore be engaged most of the time anyway.
Countering the obvious criticisms:
The biggest surprise I had when writing this is that, in some ways, it could be described as a return to Victorian values - a term from a political place that usually makes my skin crawl. But, actually, producing a workforce that is educated and ready for work, with those who are able to do more provided with the opportunity to do more is kind of the Victorian idea of what education should be. This is, of course, far more extensive, covers more years and so on than the Victorians ever dreamt of but that's what it actually does. it also doesn't assume that just because your parents are rich, or poor, you will do well, or badly. If you've got what it takes, you'll get the lessons you can take and the support to go as far as you can. Or, alternatively, the support you need. A return to properly minimalist, focussed education isn't a bad thing. It's Victorian values only in as much as the Victorians were really the first to articulate and deliver mass education.
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