30 January 2008

Out and about in Sao Paulo

As anticipated, I have not seen that much of Sao Paulo this trip but I did see a little more today as we went across to another office. The views from the taxi were quite interesting but sadly a taxi is is not the best place to take photographs so most of the images are merely memories. The overall impression I got was that Sao Paulo is like Birmingham with what may have once been separate towns now all merged into one industrial mass. Hence while the picture I have chosen may not be particularly flattering it is also reasonably representative. And I like it because it has wires in it.

Some other views of Sao Paulo have also peculated through to consciousness after three days of immersion. They employ idiots to invent their fruit drinks, so far I have had pineapple with mint, and orange juice with carrot and beetroot. The idiot theory falls away a bit when I confess that both of these were quite nice. They don't really do beer, even if when they claim Czech heritage by calling it "Bohemia". Their salad bars are very good which is just as well as they do not understand the concept of vegetarianism. Credit cards are the main means of payment for meals, even small value snacks. Just because a card works in one place does not mean that it will work in another (a stranger bought our popcorn and coke last night as we singularly failed to find a way to pay for them).

Tomorrow is my last day here and I shall not be sad to leave, nor shall I long to come back, but it has been an interesting experience none the less and one that I am quite glad that I have had.

29 January 2008

X-Men - things just keep getting better

About the only benefit of a 12 hour flight in economy class is that it is an opportunjity to catch-up on some reading and on the flight to Sao Paulo on Sunday I read X-Men: Messiah Complex, a story crossing 13 comics and 3 titles. It was stunning! The stories are very well structured, written and drawn. These are thirteen very good comics. Stories like this remind me why I still read comics and why I tend to prefer Marvel over DC. Let me try and explain why.

Messiah Complex is a self-contained story that is momentous in scope. In the 70s when a comic front cover said "in this issue a hero dies" you knew that it was a trick and nothing major would actually happen. Now it does and heroes do die and the world they live in changes as a result. Here there are several significant changes to characters including deaths, new powers, new relationships and new purposes. Several very thick lines are drawn under the previous history of the X-Men.

Messiah Complex adds to the rich history of the Marvel Universe. It builds directly on a previous storyline, Endangered Species, which, in turn, built on House of M. It also builds on thirty years of plots and characterization of the X-Men. It swims and plays in this history rather than drowning in it or fighting it as attempts by DC to do something similar tend to do.

Messiah Complex also sets the stage for the next part of the story of the X-Men which is just starting with new books, new directions and new possibilities. That is going to be fun too.

And the really good news is that this extensive X-Men saga comes at the same time as similar momentous stories in the lives of the Hulk (Planet Hulk, World War Hulk and now Aftersmash) and the Avengers (House of M, Civil War, Initiative and Secret Invasion). This really is a good time to be reading Marvel comics.

Bridge of wires in Sao Paulo

I've been in Sao Paulo, Brazil for about 24 hours so far and this is easily the most interesting thing that I have seen!

I arrived late at night so saw little of the city as I took the long taxi ride from the airport to the Hilton hotel in the Morumbi district. (Finding a way to pay for a taxi is a long story that I'll not bore you with but I have learnt a lesson through it.) Despite the late hour there was still plenty of traffic. There were few pedestrians around but most of the bus stops were busy so I was left wondering how all those people had got to the bus stops without first being pedestrians.

The city's reputation for lawlessness made me cautious but even without that forewarning I saw few parts of the city that I would have been comfortable in had I not been surrounded by metal.

The Hilton Morumbi is one of three towers of circa 30 stories in the development, the Nokia office is in the one next to it and underneath the whole complex is a large shopping centre with several restaurants where we went for both lunch and dinner. That's likely to be the pattern for the next couple of days so even if there is stuff to see in Sao Paulo I am unlikely to see it. Not bothered by that.

26 January 2008

A happy early birthday present for me

Travel for work has rather got in the way of my birthday this year, as I'll be spending most of the day itself flying to Brazil, but the good news is that this meant that I got my main present early.

During a short play with an iPod Touch in the Apple shop in Kingston upon Thames, I managed to get a map and check the weather forecast for Sao Paulo (it is going to be very wet), send a couple of emails, spend my gold on Kings of Chaos and have a fun time doing all this. And in the few hours since owning one I have read some emails, checked the football scores and had even more fun.

I'll also use it as an iPod too and I have loaded my other present, Neil Gaiman reading his preferred version of Neverwhere, to listen to during my two long-haul flights this week. I'll also be taking my iPod Nano to catch up on some podcasts and my iPod Shuffle for the music!

25 January 2008

Kiev roofscape

My last picture of Kiev is this view from my hotel window. I chose it because I very much like the restored building with the green roof, the way this contrasts with the building next to it, and the new building in the background.

My second trip to Kiev was better than the first mainly because this time I was in a hotel that is in the centre of the city which meant that a short walk took you past many interesting places. There was also a better choice of restaurant.

The hotel guided us to a Ukrainian restaurant, Taras, in Schevcheno Park next to various museums and the university. Luckily the menu was in English (and Ukrainian) and they also had pictures of most of the dishes so you could get a really good idea of what they all were.
We liked it so much that we went there two evenings in a row!

23 January 2008

Not all of Kiev has been refurbished

There are a lot of fantastic Baroque and modern buildings in central Kiev which makes it a great place for anybody who is interested in architecture to explore. But it is not all like this. This road leads down from the Opera House to the main street so is very central, is surrounded by lovely buildings but is clearly in a state of disrepair. I think that it looks fantastic as it is, which is why I took the photograph!

21 January 2008

New year's tree in Independence Square, Kiev

In Ukraine, so I was told today, trees are decorated for the new year and it is a good sign if they can be kept looking healthy for a long time. Unlike in the UK where they should be taken down twelve days after Christmas or risk bringing bad luck, they can stay up until the next big festival on 1st May.

This tree is in Independence Square and looks its best after dark when the lights come into their own. The pattern of lights moves all the time and after a few attempts I managed to capture it with most of them on.

20 January 2008

Back in Kiev

It would appear to be four months since I was last in Kiev, where does the time go?! This time I traveled there during the day on a Sunday and managed to get a few hours explore time in before it got too dark. This is the Golden Gate, which is just down the road from my hotel.

A little further down the road is the main street in Kiev, Khreschatyk. During the week this is a busy thorough fare but, unlike London, it has wide pavements. Today there was even more space for pedestrians as most of the road is closed to traffic at weekends. This is a very popular place for Ukrainians and I saw many people taking photographs of their friends in front of famous landmarks, particularly in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).

18 January 2008

BCSA meeting at the BAFTA

I have mixed feelings about meetings, some are very interesting and productive (BACEE, TFPL Bath Club, some work meetings) while others (most at Lambeth Council or at Kingston Council) are a depressing waste of time. However, even the most boring meeting can be rescued by a good location, and a good location makes a good meeting even better.

On Thursday we had a BCSA meeting at BAFTA, which is in the heart of London at 195 Piccadilly. The image above is familiar as the design for the BAFTA Awards but this one is about a metre tall and decorates the stairwell just below the second floor bar.

We had our meeting in a quiet corner of the bar (sadly, due to severe delays on the Piccadilly Line, I arrived too late to enjoy a drink before the meeting) which has this rather lovely ceiling.

The meeting itself was OK though (to be very stereotypical) I had a hard time explaining Facebook to Czechoslovak ex-pats in their golden years! I ended up taking lots of actions, which I tend to do at meetings, another reason for not liking them!

16 January 2008

It's my birthday soon ...

... and my old IBM ThinkPad X21 (running Windows98) has just died, so guess what I am thinking of buying for myself :-)

14 January 2008

Two Pints ... live and kicking!

Series 7 of Two Pints ... got off to a great start on Sunday night with a live broadcast in front of a studio audience, including me! I am directly above the word "Johnny" on the first line and behind the lady in green.

We were not sure how popular a recording of the show on a windy Sunday night would be but we left here at 4:45pm and got to BBC Television Centre in White City and hour later and an hour and a half before the doors to the site were due to open. We seemed to be in our usual place in the queue which I estimated at the time to be around 120th.

A cold and not particularly pleasant 90 minutes later they started to let people into the site but they only had one security x-ray machine working (they had two last time) so it took us another 30 minutes to get on to site.

At that time we were allocated ticket numbers 140 and 141. I guess that we were slightly lower than expected due to the larger number of guests that had been invited.

The good news was that we were given a voucher for a free drink in the bar the bad news was that there was a long queue and we only had 20 minutes before the doors to the studio opened. In the end I managed to get and gurgle a bottle of Carling (?!) and chomp a cheese, tomato and mushroom panini.

We were then led into the studio and as there were only two of us we were squeezed into a couple of seats in the central block. The warm-up guy did his stuff and before we realized it, it was time for the show.

If you are a fan then you'll have seen the show and if you are not then there is no point telling you the plot, so here are a couple of observations instead. Firstly, it rally was all live, apart from one very short clip of Corinthina tied up in his cot. The set was layed out as usual with Janet's house on the left, the Archer on the left and Gaz's flat at the back in the middle. The difference was that they had lots of cameras in place to cover all the sets at the same time, rather than using fewer cameras and moving them around.

Clearly the script had been designed to be recorded in one take with few costume changes and no outside sequences but I was impressed with the risks they took with things that could have gone wrong, such as Gaz's fire eating and Janet catching a peanut in her mouth. I suspect that Donna was meant to catch the beer mat first time though!

There must have been a few other glitches that I did not spot at the time as the show over ran by a few minutes. This was corrected quickly and the repeat later that evening (which I watched, of course) had a few minor cuts. If you taped the first broadcast then keep the tape, it will never be shown again!

The excellent show made all the waiting worthwhile and the evening was rounded off nicely with a couple of quick pints before closing time in Richmond!

13 January 2008

A busy time for international politics

I'm not sure if it is just because it is the start of a new year or if it is a symptom of a growing instability and uneasiness in the world but my inbox is filling with invitations to meetings and news international developments.

Unfortunately I am unable to attend the meeting organised by CND on 22 January about OPPOSING US MISSILE DEFENCE: A EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVE as I shall be working in Kiev then. The speakers include Lubomir ZAORÁLEK MP, Shadow Foreign Minister from the Czech Republic, which is another reason why I would have liked to attend.

One meeting that I should be able to get to is Towards a progressive immigration policy, organised by Compass: direction for the democratic left, on 29 January. If you want to know what my views on immigration are then watch Planet Corduroy by Marcus Brigstocke!

On Saturday 15 March there is a Stop the War march in London which I hope to be on, having been on most of them over the last five years, including the one last year. Incidentally, Marcus Brigstocke was there too.

I have, of course, voted for the anti-Iraq war protesters in the Channel 4 Political awards.

Finally, it is good to see recognition for the International Crisis Group who have just been listed as one of the top ten think-tanks in the world. They continue to provide thoughtfully analysis on all the potential crisis situations in the world (there ate lots of them). Anyone who wants a broad understanding of what is happening in the world would do well to start here.

11 January 2008

Is Kingston Council as good at Education as it thinks it is?

One of the hardest things about being on education committees in Kingston upon Thames is having to put up with the constant mantra that they are outstanding and Ofsted agrees with them, when my own experience is that they generally do not have much of a clue. Some of my reasons for this are given in my previous posts on education. But now the truth may be coming out!

One of the (many, many) things that I do not like about our education department is the grief they give us over our lowly league table position when the reasons for our apparent poor performance are the low levels of prior achievement for many of our children and the insufficient funding we get from the council to meet this need (see previous postings on the funding of schools for the proof of this). One of our counter-arguments is that our Contextual Value Add (CVA) is above 100 (by definition the average performance improvement for all children across all schools in the country), so we must be doing something right.

Now the secondary results published this week show that Kingston upon Thames has a CVA of 998.9 against the national average of 1000. Put simply, equivalent children make less progress in Kingston's secondary schools than the national average. Kingston is less than average.

It will be interesting to see how they try to maintain the "we are outstanding" stance after that. Sadly, I think that they will try and they will still convince most people. At least I'll continue to have the satisfaction of knowing that I am right.

9 January 2008

You can tell a lot about a man from his study

This was going to be a simple confession about my addiction to pens and the joy that I have had in liberating them from stationery cupboards and conference stands around the world but when I cam to take a photograph of those on my desk in my study the realization suddenly hit me that I have several other things that I could confess to and the evidence for these is for all to see in my study.

This is part of my desk, about half of it is shown here. I bought it in Habitat some 25 years ago when the Black Ash finish was trendy and I still like it. The simple answer to "why are there 2 PC on your desk?" is "Because the third is downstairs in the living room". By coincidence they are all IBM Thinkpads. Also in the picture are three mobile phones, again for good reasons.

The discerning viewer may be able to tell that between the two PCs are 5 pen pots, all from Muji, and a desk tidy with three pen compartments. A quick count makes that over 120 pens, and that does not include those in the two pencil cases just about visible on the left edge of the picture, nor does it count those in the rest of the house where Muji pen holders are more common that light bulbs.

This view of my study is far too revealing!

The piles of comics on the floor should not be a surprise to anyone, nor should the two long boxes of comics behind them. The other boxes of comics are elsewhere in the room. In the bookcase at the back of the picture are graphic novels, e.g. Sandman, Daredevil and Dreadstar. My plan is to get some custom built shelving, probably System 180 stuff (I have a lot of this including a desk, a wardrobe and a bed), to keep all my comics in but I need to do some work to design them first.

Also in the bookcase are a few books. Most of them are old, battered and written by Leslie Charteris and featuring The Saint. Hopefully the rumors of a new TV series will come true this year.

What looks as though it might be a black bag in the middle of the picture is, in fact, fourteen black bags in the middle of the picture, and there are at least seven other bags spread around the room. My addiction to cheap bags with corporate logos on is probably even worse than that for cheap pens with corporate logos on.

I could not show you the big bookcase in the room, nor the filing cabinet in the desk, otherwise I would have to explain why I need so much A4 paper that either has a corporate logo on each page or which has been nicely bound into a book with a corporate logo on the cover.

Time to go to the pub and think about things!

8 January 2008

Two Pints is back on Sunday and I'll be there!!

Series 7 of the fabulous Two Pints of Lager and ... starts this Sunday on BBC Three at 9pm.

The first episode is being shown live and I am delighted to say that my tickets arrived this morning so I'll be there.

What fun!

The rest of the series has already been filmed and I went to a recording of one of the episodes in early December. On the evidence of that episode the new series is going to be as good as it ever was.

6 January 2008

Building Schools for the Future

The Labour Government has put vast amounts of money into the building of new schools and the rebuilding/refurbishment of existing schools. This is a good thing generally but unfortunately a lot of the money has been wasted by local councils who have little idea of how to spend the money and by builders who have seen all this extra demand as an excuse to simply put up there prices.

In Kingston upon Thames the local council has asked schools to describe their visions for the future as the start of the process of deciding how to spend the next round of funding. We have responded but the framing of the questions shows just how little the council understands about how schools and schooling are changing and the extent to which they are likely to change over the next fifty years plus, which is the expected life of the new school buildings.

This is one example that explains why I strongly believe that local councils should have nothing to do with the management or organization of schools.

2 January 2008

At last, a posh tomato sauce!

Having eaten a substantial amount of Heinz tomato ketchup over the years, the introduction of an up-market tomato sauce is most welcome!

Tiptree Tomato Sauce is darker and thicker than the mass-market sauces and tastes just great.

My usual lunch is now cheese on toast flavored by Tiptree tomato sauce and fresh ground black pepper - it's yummy!

1 January 2008

My operating system is now ten years old

It might seem odd for somebody who has worked in the IT industry for almost thirty years but the operating system on my main computer at home is running an operating system that is now ten years old!

The PC (an IBM ThinkPad X21) still works well enough but I suspect that 2008 is that year that will finally see it replaced, probably by one of the new Macs that are rumoured.

My pride at still running Windows 98 was dented a little at Heathrow recently when one of the displays above the check-in desks, instead of showing the flight details, was displaying the Windows 95 logo!