Saturday, December 22, 2012

A New York Christmas Tale

Walt Kowalski held his policeman's cap in front of him and slowly revolved it in his hands as he contemplated 30 years service with the NYPD. He looked at the badge which, when he was on the beat would ordinarily cover his spiritual eye, then inverted the cap so that the brim pointed upwards, walked over to the stove, where a pot of coffee stood coldly from the day before and poured the contents into the cap as far as the brim, then went over to the fish tank situated beside the doorway and, taking out the smallest goldfish, put it in the coffee-filled cap. He considered which method would work best; should he bend forward, as though to touch his toes, and then, transferring the full weight of his body onto his hands and arms, lower his head into the cap, and slowly raise his legs until they were perpendicular to the floor, pointing to the heavens? This would allow him to press down on the cap as he stood up and minimise the loss of coffee, but some of the advantages of this method would be offset by the fact that he hadn't been anywhere near being able to touch his toes for nearly twenty five years - his rotund bulk rendering the likelihood of this ever happening nigh on impossible, and even if he had been capable of getting into that position, he wasn't sure if he had enough strength in his arms to complete the whole cycle of the manoeuvre. Spending a working day on the streets of New York City with a cap full of coffee and a goldfish swimming around inside it was a powerful thought and sufficiently enticing to almost shift the mechanisms in Kowalski's mind from the planning stage to intent and then actualisation, but too many pastrami sandwiches, donuts, hot dogs and an unending river of cheap, black coffee were the chain that anchored his thought to the reality seabed. He knew all too well that the alternative was a non-starter: by the time he he had flipped the cap and wedged it onto his head, all of the coffee and the fish, of course, would be splashed out on the floor and drenching his shoulders, neck and scalp - and what remained of a once proud body of hair. He scooped the fish out of the cap with a plastic beaker that still contained a few drops of the vodka he had drunk alone to celebrate his 30th Christmas as a serving officer, plopped it back into the tank - along with slightly more drops of coffee than he had intended, and placed the wet cap on his head. A fair amount of coffee trickled over his ears, down his neck and a few drops made it as far as his eyes - and even his mouth (which he licked away with his tongue), confirming that plan B would not have worked. He glanced at this portly outline reflected by the light of the Christmas tree in the glass of the fish tank and, adjusting the cap more securely on his head, walked over to the front door, where his coat was hanging. This Christmas night would be one where the snow-covered New York City streets would not see a cop controlling traffic with an icey halo of fish-filled coffee under his badge of office after all.

Friday, December 21, 2012

'Dry' humour

We sometimes say that someone has a 'dry' sense of humour. The word is a little tricky to explain, but usually it involves the listener having to think a little bit before they 'get' the humour ('get' means 'understand' or 'appreciate'). It also involves the speaker (the person with the 'dry' sense of humour) being a little bit provocative / teasing / and even cynical (perhaps?). This kind of humour can be strong (i.e. very sarcastic) or mild (very playful). I think that Roger Moore, the actor who played James Bond, is a good example of someone with a dry sense of humour. When he was asked (in Waitrose's weekly publication) about his childhood memories of food, he said that his mother always cooked and that his father was terrible at cooking - whenever he fried an egg, he always ended up with the yoke on the outside and the white in the middle!
Now THAT's what I call dry!

Examples of dry humour:

Horatio Nelson:

Vince Curry, Commentator:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Today I made contact with my first student! We will be setting up regular online meetings and I will share some of the tasks that we work on as we go along. It will be a great opportunity for me to work on developing or using ICT tools in my  online teaching and for the student, I hope that this experience will be similarly rewarding. The student will remain anonymous - although I will be discussing in my blog entries what we do in the lessons (with their permission). I am hoping that my 'business' will break even by the end of the year, and seeing that the end of the year is in twelve days' time, that there is no expenditure and no income attached to the business (the lessons being free) - it looks as though I can start celebrating immediately!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Perfect Job

A few years ago I saw an advertisement for a job, which involved working with Google. I was on a sabbatical at the time and thought that it would be an excellent opportunity to gain experience in working for a prestigious company - whilst doing something very different from teaching. The job was to be a driver on the Google Maps project; what was exciting about the project - or this part of it, was that the area I was to map was the Sahara Desert! It was too good an opportunity to miss and so I duly applied and, to cut a long story short, was fortunate enough to get the position. One July morning, about seven weeks after my interview, I found myself at the wheel of a large Toyota Jeep, alongside my navigator - Al, parked just outside Tamanrasset, on the first morning of the project. 'Al' was not his full name; his name was Arabic, but the latter part was unfamiliar-sounding and he was not able to make clear to me how it should be pronounced - and so I made do with 'Al', which basically means 'The' in English. Our job was to cover every square mile of sand of the Sahara, capturing it on film, to complement the satellite shots that had been taken by Al's counterpart in Google's Space arm GSA - a chap by the name of Mustafa. This was a BIG job and our training was not quite what I would have expected for such a task - 10 days at base camp in Camber Sands with a delightful man, called Barry, who had once read 'Beau Geste' and worked for a little Chef in the Dorking area. Well, you may be expecting to hear tales of near-death from lack of water, or over-exposure to the sun or our getting disoriented and going endlessly over the same route blindly and desperately - like the Thompsons in the Tintin book 'Black Gold' or the narrator at the end of Tom McCarthy's 'Remainder', where the plane he is in traces the infinity symbol in the sky in a delightfully iterative motif. Well, fortunately or unfortunately, it was not to be. No sooner had I turned the key and fired the ignition, than 'Al' began to cry -at first sniffling, and then letting out big sobs, his shoulders heaving with emotion and his fingers working frantically to wipe the tears from his eyes. Ironically, many of the tears were cascading onto the Ordnance survey map of the Sahara Desert that was spread out on his lap, symbolically rehydrating the barren expanse of sand in which we were to have been spending the next year of our lives. I say 'were to have been spending' - not only because, as a teacher, I can, but also because that was the start and end of the project. As I learned later in an email from Barry, 'Al' or Al ṣifr, to give him his full name, had been discharged from the Mali Naval reserves (they have a small reserve force that is charged with protecting Lake Faguibine from potential military threats). Al had been discharged following a breakdown brought about by his sense of humiliation at having to wade, with his trousers rolled up to his knees, in water that - because of processes of increasing aridity mean that the average water depth is only 50 centimetres. This was something that must have been awful for someone as proud as Al apparently was, and frustrating for him, being in sole command of a brand new, state of the art rubber dinghy - with oars hewn from Lebanese Cedar wood. It emerged that the vast expanses of sand, stretching symbolically for miles in every direction on the map that covered his knees like a blanket on a pensioner on a cold winter's day in England, mockingly recalled to him that humiliation - and foretold of a thankless task ahead where, what we would be photographing for the next year (at least), would most likely be of no greater interest to most people than the photographs of sand taken by Mustafa, 400 km above the Earth's surface. Needless to say, that was the end of the project for me - I returned prematurely to England - without even the opportunity to add this position to my CV. I heard some months later, that Al had recovered from his breakdown and had opened  a small sandwich bar in a village not too far from Lake Faguibine (which recalled for me the old joke about why you can never go hungry in the desert - 'because of the sand which is there'!) It seemed that the business was doing quite well - enough for him and his family to keep their head above water - so to speak. Perhaps the strangest thing to emerge from the whole fiasco was the meaning of Al's name - the second bit, I mean. It turns out that ṣifr, from which the English word 'Cypher' is derived, actually means 'nothing'!

The Sahara seen from Space

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Sublime Cafe

If ever you are at a loss as to where to eat, have a coffee, meet a friend, or just while away the hours over a good book in the heart of London, then I really recommend that you visit this wonderfully charming cafe in Marylebone: Paul Rothe and Son. There aren't really so many cafes like this any more, where there should almost be a charge that you pay in order to be able to have the privilege of paying again for the pleasure of sitting there and eating or drinking! There has been a cafe / shop here for over a century and the reason for its longevity is surely the good nature of the family that have run it since it started.


To be at at loss + as to + where / when / who / why / what + infinitive:
'I was at a loss as to where to go after work'; 'I was at a loss as to who to speak to about my problem'; 'I was at a loss as to how much to pay the waiter'.

To while away the hours
'To pass time in a leisurely way' - generally when we while away the hours or time, it's doing those pleasurable things that may not seem to be too productive to the rest of the world (like reading a book with a cup of tea or coffee and a delicious, sweet, naughty snack)!

This is a noun that is used to describe the state or condition of lasting a long time: Rolling Stones are known for their longevity (as are turtles - the animal, not the band!).

'.....the reason for its longevity is surely the good nature of the family that have run it since it started.'

The reason for X is Y: the reason for + noun phrase + is + noun phrase:

The reason for my cold is the cold weather.
The reason for my lateness / being late is the inefficiency of the London Underground.*

*this is is just an example; the London Underground is one of the most efficient underground railway systems in the whole of London (or even the 'hole' of London).

Day one

Today is day one of a new service for anyone who wishes to improve their English language - whatever their level. The service is absolutely free. Over the next few weeks I will be adding tasks that you can work on to improve your grammar and vocabulary knowledge and your reading and listening skills. I also hope to set up an interactive, online classroom, where you will be able to have a private lesson for 20 minutes. I hope that this will allow you to focus on your own specific needs.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

I think I've got it!

I think I'm getting the hang of DS106... I think the idea is to learn about digital technology and have fun doing it! Here is today's task: