Sunday, 25 December 2011

Family, French Hens and Friendships

Last week was a difficult one and I was really glad to get to Thursday, where at the close of play I decided ‘that was it’ for the 2011 academic session. It wasn’t and I spent many hours on the 23rd sorting out problems and it was late on in the evening that my Christmas break started. Yesterday was Christmas Eve, and it was a day that started dull and cloudy. I went up to High Rid with Cello, and unlike last year there was no snow, and spookily, no people.

Later on, Christmas Eve was to be transformed into Christmas Day as some of my children came to celebrate their Christmas. By 14.00 there were ten of us sitting around eating a wonderful Mushroom, and Cashew Nut and /or Turkey Roast meal – and yes the sprouts were cooked to perfection, the roasted vegetables were heads held high in a rosemary herb sauce and the mash was horseradish infused. There were no prisoners and no leftovers for the chickens to enjoy.

Today is to be a repeat performance, but with a completely different set of members of the extended family– this time with eight people sitting around the table. However, a relaxed day is envisioned as we are not planning to eat until 16.00 hours. There is a chance for Cello and I to go for a walk, and put the world to rights as we do.

And today is the first day of Christmas. I am always reminded of the song the Twelve days of Christmas on Christmas Day. January 6th is the Twelfth Day, and the Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking’

Of course (well maybe) it is the Third day of Christmas that interests me the most. This is the day that ‘my true love’ gives three French Hens which, in a biblical sense refers to Faith, Hope and Charity. Given the high degree of uncertainty there is for many people in the world at the moment, these are virtues that we are going to have to draw upon again and again over the next 12 months.

Yesterday, thanks to Mr I Pad (and don’t say anything to my little Brother Mark because he will become impossible in a I told you sort of way) I was able to speak to family and friends from around the world. Amazingly clear images and conversations all of which were achieved at a press of the button. I will speak to my little sister in Australia later on this morning but she did send me a photo of her outside Christmas tree decoration.

This is my first blog at Christmas that is actually written on Christmas Day - so it only remains to say a Merry Christmas to all my many French Hens, Family and Friends, and whereever you are and whatever you are doing, I hope it’s really good for you.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Another Six Hours Travel, but its Plymouth and not Dubai before its Red Shoe Time and an End of Week Surprise

Last week I spent an extraordinary amount of time sitting in railway carriages, waiting at train stations, searching pockets for wayward tickets, but also meeting some amazing and at times, unusual people. I am coming to the end of the Christmas Party season, and I have found it’s much easier and safer to imbibe the occasional tipple and then travel by train rather than get in a car and drive home. However, in the middle of the week I travelled down to Plymouth to take part in a PhD examination.

On the morning of this journey BBC News 24 hours started their broadcast from Plymouth Hoe. The report was about the storms and the winter weather that had engulfed the UK. We were due to have our first snow of the winter. Of course with the storms came the usual disruption of everyday life. The journey down to Plymouth took some 7 hours. The Hoe was just a collection of some distant unconnected lights seen from my hotel window. In the morning it was just possible to view the Plymouth Hoe through the buildings.

The students study was on how service users might best contribute to the acquisition and development of interpersonal skills in student mental health nurses. I was privileged to sit with another external examiner who had Hildegard Peplau as her own PhD supervisor. Peplau was possibly the first nurse theorist after Florence Nightingale and her life’s work was devoted to exploring the importance of the nurse - patient relationship and its primary importance to nursing practice. Unsurprisingly perhaps, her area of focus was on mental health care.

The journey back to Manchester was another 7 hours of disrupted travel. I will be happy if I don’t see Birmingham New Street Station for a long time to come. The last time I traveled 6-7 hours to and from Manchester the destination was Dubai – and Plymouth, as attractive as it may be, wasn't Dubai. Thursday was a second PhD viva – strange, like waiting for trains at BNS, nothing arrives for a while and then two come together.

 Friday was the last School Development Day of 2011. Traditionally, (in my 5th year as Head of School) it is when the Red Clogs come out. These are my Christmas Clogs, worn only from the School Development Day to Boxing Day – then they go back into storage. As those readers who have met me know that black is absolutely the colour of the day. I got my Red Clog inspiration not from my friend, colleague and Professor of Mental Health Nursing, Phil Barker (who habitually wears red clogs, and once claimed that Hildegard Peplau would be one of the six people he would include in his personal life boat) but rather from the 1948 film the Red Shoes. This is a film of a ballet dancer (Vicky) and the dilemmas she faces in choosing between love and a career. There is a wonderful conversation between the ruthless but charismatic impresario of the ballet Lermontov, who questions Vicky at a critical point in her career:

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don't know exactly why, but... I must.
Vicky: That's my answer too

Of course the film is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale in which a young woman sees a pair of red shoes in a shop window, and which are offered to her by a demonic shoemaker – of course after she accepts the shoes her life is cursed as wherever she goes and whatever she does the shoes refuse to stop dancing and the young women eventually dies from dancing exhaustion.

Dancing exhaustion is a state of being that I do understand. Unexpectedly I found myself at the MEN in Manchester on Friday night dancing to a band called Duran Duran. How I got there is a tale almost as complicated as the ballerinas and the shoe makers. Duran Duran is a British band, formed in 1978. At which time I had two children, and despite my other three children still being just a twinkle in my eye, this was a band that didn't feature on my musical radar even though the band initially were part of the New Romantic scene.

The band became popular for their music and some fairly controversial videos, which featured partial nudity and suggestions of sexuality. In the early 1980s these were shown on what was then a new music video channel on the television called MTV. However, it was another film from the mid 1940s that was the start of this revolution. Brief Encounter (1943) tells the story of housewife Laura who meets a doctor called Alec at a train station. Although she is already married, they gradually fall in love with each other. They continue to meet every Thursday in the small café at the station. This passionate pair, who don't ever exchange a kiss during the film, eventually decide to part. When Alec puts his hand on Laura's shoulder at their final meeting in the station café, it's as erotic and far more touching than just about every sex scene you'll ever see in a Duran Duran video .

But enough of such musings, Cello, who has loved the snow of the past week, is awaiting his first walk of the day and its time for me to get up and make a start. As I appear to have acquired a cold from somewhere, I can only think that walking is definitely better for my health than train travel. 

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Enduring Migration, Some Information, and Christmas Beckons.

Those of you who are regular readers of this Blog will have noticed that today’s blog was posted some three hours later than normal. I have been temporarily forced into a new Sunday morning regimen through something called Migration – and I have to say I am not a happy bunny!

Migration in the context of IT is the movement from one system to another. Strangely in a world that I assumed to be constructed around certainties and formula based approaches, it is unsettling to be told that the people managing this migration cannot tell me when I will be migrated. So until I am migrated, I have to turn off my computer at 18.00 and not turn it on again until 07.00 the following morning. This procedure has to be adhered to for the next seven days – so it will make for an interesting time I think. Still it could be worse. Our IT systems migration and hopefully improvements might have been undertaken by the same people as those involved in the failed NHS IT system.

According to the Times this week Margaret Hodge (a Labour MP), and chair of the Public Accounts Committee, described the American firm in charge of the failing NHS IT project as ‘cowboys’ who should be ‘run out of town’. Incredibly it seems that Computer Sciences Corporation was looking to increase its contract by a further £2bn even after it failed to deliver any fully functional software to the 166 NHS trusts in England. Margaret’s outrage is interesting given that way back in 2008 it was known that Labours £12bn NHS It project had run into serious trouble. Launched in 2002, the Labour Government NHS IT project was supposed to revolutionise the health service. A report published by the Public Accounts Committee last week reported that the scheme has fallen behind schedule and costs have escalated.

The cost of the electronic record element of the NHS IT project is estimated at around £7bn. To date, the Department of Health has spent £2.7bn on it. Last week the Government announced they were cutting their losses and intend to spend the remaining £4.3bn on better systems that have been proved to work and offer more value for money. However, not everything is to be lost. Spine, which stores patients' care records, the N3 Network offering a broadband network to health workers; NHSmail a unified, secure email system for the whole service, and the Choose and Book system, an appointment booking service are to be retained and developed further. The NHS has partnered up with Intellect and the Technology Trade Association to take the NHS IT improvement forward. These organisations mainly work with small to medium size companies and for me it’s great to see an antidote to one-size-fits- all approach in action.

And talking of which, this weekend the Christmas Branch went up. Now over the years this alternative (Rainbow Warrior style) approach to cutting down Christmas trees has been both ridiculed and loved. A long time ago, I would supplement my income by working in the Welsh plantations cutting down and dragging hundreds of Christmas trees out of the woods for this once a year extravaganza. I earned pence for each tree, and I knew back then that one day I would not cut any more trees down. I don’t do artificial Christmas trees, so the alternative for me at Christmas has been a Christmas Branch. In my current home I am fortunate to have a number of big mature Beech trees in the gardens, and every October I select a branch and cut and store in the garage until this weekend. Then in it comes to the house and accompanied by Sherry and Mince Pies, the branch is dressed.

In compensation for my personal and perhaps reckless deforestation of Wales, every year I also buy a ‘Christmas’ tree with roots and plant this outside, sometimes in my gardens but sometimes on the hills that surround the house.

And wandering around my garden yesterday looking for somewhere to plant this tree I couldn’t help but notice just how well Mother Nature does in dressing her own trees. For example, both a Crab Apple tree with its miniature bauble like fruit and a Silver Birch with its funky fungi looking splendid in the autumn air.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Information Bubbles and the Search for the Perfect Red Wine Continues

Last week I came face to face with someone who in the words of Eli Pariser, described the way in which at any particular time, we create, enter and inhabit a bubble that allows us to make sense of the incomprehensible, the inexplicable, the exciting but unknown aspects of the world we live in and in doing so, we are able to retain some sense of ontological security. OK Eli doesn’t say all of that, it is of course my interpretation of his work. In his book The Filter Bubble, Eli argues that why we might all live in the era of personalization, our world views are being distorted by the change in the way media is being consumed by internet users.

In a week where I explored with a group of new Masters students the impact of what I call a Focauldian governance of the UK Public Sector, I find Eli to be an intriguing online organiser and disorganiser. He has been a long term critic of the way in which in the new information age algorithms, code and robots curate search engine result – amid as such, can we ever be sure were seeing the whole picture? Some would answer yes, resoundingly.

Last week I dealt with two Academic Misconduct cases, where through Turnitin, colleagues were able to say, and say categorically, that students involved had extensively copied from other peoples work and presented it as their own. I also waited with two colleagues for life changing information to filter through and reach us. And when it did, the information in itself did not help make sense of what, up to that point might have seemed a perfectly rationale world.

Importantly, for me and perhaps all of us, (with the possible exception of those asleep on the train to Preston) is the growing need to get to grips with the way in which the so called information age is changing human life profoundly. Arguably an almost unfettered access to information is changing culture, language, and it has even changed the thought process – legitimisation by Wikipedia rules OK.

This week the UK Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley observed that many patients will benefit directly from Governmental efforts to make health data transparent and easy to use by the medical research community. Allegedly such free access will fuel advances in treatment, as well as positioning the UK as a centre of excellence for research. Of course this access to personal data is a good thing, but I wonder where all this information has come from, where it is stored and who is using it for what other purposes. Whether any of this prolific collection of data and information will make a difference to patient care or patient choice remains to be seen.
Also this week I have been involved in looking at the work of colleagues in the College and the wider University in relation to the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF). It was good to see that in the main we are already in a good position. As I have noted before, UK research papers attract 11% of the world’s citations and make up 14% of the world’s highly cited output, including 17% of the world’s research papers with more than 500 citations and 20% of those with more than 1000 citations. The average research impact of UK publications now surpasses that of the US and we manage all of this on very limited State support. The UK spends 4% of the world’s Gross Expenditure on research, and the UK boast 6% of the world’s researchers who are authors on 8% of the world’s research articles and reviews published in internationally influential journals.

And as my research mentor enters his last couple of weeks with us the search for the Perfect Red Wine continues afoot. Finding and drinking the right amount of red wine is of course, as the research evidence suggests, crucial to our health and well being. This week in an attempt to contribute to this knowledge base, I have imbued some very indifferent Italian, some superlative Australian, and some excellent, if somewhat overpriced Chillan red wine. The wine from Chile was a Syrah Mouvedre from the Maipo Valley. The taste was of elegant aromas of dark fruits such as black cherries and redcurrants with rich chocolaty notes, with hints of toffee and nutmeg. So far the Chillan is winning – although of course, a little more empirical research is required.

And for all those Rainbow Warriors out there - sorry but yesterday I had to ditch the solar powered Christmas Tree lights on my Weeping Birch tree. They never got past 7.5 minutes of feeble illumination. So I rejoined the National Grid and now enjoy warm whitel lights glowing brightly in the darkness. However, unlike my neighbour with his unattractive grey plastic junction box, I utlised a blue tit nesting box to bring the wires, transformers and so on together in a totally eco friendly way.