I heart maths

Wolfram | Alpha is a very powerful computational search engine. While Google does feature the ability to do some calculations, Wolfram | Alpha takes this a whole new level including the ability to solve and plot equations.

For example, take this mathematical equation:

Equation

which you must enter into Wolfram | Alpha in this format:

x^2+(y-(x^2)^(1/3))^2 = 1

Wolfram | Alpha plots it like this:

This mathematical formula (x squared plus y minus the cube root of x squared squared equals one) plots the shape of a love heart

x squared plus y minus the cube root of x squared squared equals one

There’s something lovely about maths.

Is this the last alphabet that English will ever have?

I wasn’t great at English at high school. I just didn’t connect with it, and none of my teachers really set my heart on fire with passion for this odd, largely-stolen language of ours.

That was until I went to university in 1989 and had to learn another language: biblical Hebrew. In order to learn that I needed to brush up on my understanding of language, grammar and syntax.

Thanks to Dr Jim Martin, Dr Robin Salters and Mr Peter Coxon for the first time in my life I began to feel excited about language. I studied Hebrew (3 years) and Greek (1 year) and after I’d graduated I had a rather failed attempt at trying to learn Scottish Gaelic and I began to read more about English, its grammar and history.

I rather enjoyed this three minute video by Tom Scott about the English alphabet. I have often wished that we still had a few of these characters in our alphabet, not least because then my name might have been spelled Garð.

Derek

A couple of weeks ago I took out a 30 days trial of Netflix. It’s been great fun watching TV shows, stand-up comedy and films on my PC, on my phone, and streamed to our television. I stumbled on a seven-part TV series called Derek, written by and starring Ricky Gervais.

I remember when I first watched The Office. I actually had no idea it was a comedy at the start. It felt so awkward and uncomfortable until I cottoned-on that this was a comedy. So I was perhaps more than a little apprehensive when I began watching Derek.

Ricky Gervais plays Derek Noakes, a 49 year old care worker at Broad Hill old folks’ home. Derek has been described by some as high-functioning autistic, by another as ‘learning disabled’, or ‘of low mental acuity with impaired language skills’. Gervais himself seemingly maintains that Derek is definitely not mentally disabled. He is, however, extraordinarily kind.

Gervais said, apparently, that the show was inspired by family members who work in care homes and with children with learning difficulties.

There is so much that could have gone wrong, so many potential opportunities to be cruel. And yet I found it one of the most profound and moving programmes I’ve watched for a long time. It moved me to tears more than once. The final episode especially, and Kev’s monologue in particular where he talks about his regrets. It’s an astonishing piece of drama, tremendous writing, and beautifully acted.

It is funny, it is sad, it is awkward, it’s rude, it’s vulnerable, it’s touching: it’s filled with the reality of every day life. I’m looking forward to series two.

Rediscovering honest blogging

Where I love to sit and listen, and pray and think.

In my study, where I love to sit and listen, and pray and think.

This is a blog post I’ve been trying to find the courage, and the words, to post for quite a few months now. I made a commitment with myself to post it in the first week or this year. Here we are four weeks later… but here it is.

For the last few years I’ve felt bad about not blogging here more often. I’ve missed it, apart from anything else, partly because it helps me to think things through but also because in not writing I feel that I’ve not been honest with either myself or others. Let me explain.

Blogging

I started blogging shortly after I got married in 1999, following our move to Inverness. Although I didn’t call it ‘blogging’ at the time, it was a simple way to let family and friends know what we were up to. I had acquired a domain name (gareth-and-jane-saunders.co.uk) which I still own, had taught myself HTML and I hand-coded every page and news update. It was fun… apart from using FTP over a dial-up connection. When I moved to Edinburgh in 2003 I installed a new piece of software called WordPress which was then at version 0.71. I loved it and I’ve stuck with WordPress ever since; it’s now at version 3.8.1.

For years I blogged about all sorts of things big and small, both serious and fun. I enjoyed the creativity, I enjoyed being silly, I enjoyed having somewhere that I could refer back to: my blog also became a record of how I’d made stuff or fixed stuff, with the benefit that it was also there in the public-domain for other people to find and use.

Writing is thinking

I enjoyed that the writing helped me to think things through. In that sense it was like a journal. An article on A List Apart two weeks ago, called ‘Writing is thinking’, confirmed this for me. In it Sally Kerrigan writes:

I’m asking that you start with thinking. I suspect, if you’re a reader, you’re already a thinker—which means you’re halfway there. Really. Because writing—that first leap into taking your idea and making it a Thing People Read—isn’t really about wording. It’s about thinking.

I enjoy thinking. I enjoying thinking things through and arriving at a conclusion, an opinion. That said, I’ve never really considered that I’m good at sharing my opinion about things, but I guess that I must be if I have written about them. At theological college I always used to joke that I was born to reflect and not shine.

Crisis of confidence

In 2005 I read a blog post by a friend, Kelvin Holdsworth, entitled ‘How to blog’ in which he offers twelve eleven tips (number nine is missing, for some reason) on how to be a good blogger. Tip number three is ‘blogging is performance, not real life’.

I didn’t fully agree with it and it got me worried. Sure, some of my blog posts could be described as ‘performance’: playing the fool, showing off, trying to make my audience laugh. But many other posts were about reminding myself how I had done something (like how to change the node type on a Windows network) or simply sharing with friends and family what was going on at home. I didn’t consider these as a performance: I was trying to be genuine and honest and authentic.

micro-blogging vs traditional blogging?

In November 2006 I joined Facebook, back in the day when you needed a university email address to sign up (go me!). In January 2008 (six years and one day ago, to be exact) I signed up to Twitter, having resisted for about a year. I began micro-blogging.

My updates were more up-to-date and shorter, they were quicker to write, but they also invited more immediate feedback. It was when I saw that my micro-blogging could become a conversation that I really saw the value of social media, and Twitter especially. I hooked my Twitter account into Facebook and so anything posted on one network was immediately echoed in another. It became a quick and easy way to keep in touch, and for the conversation to be more two-way than my blog comments allowed.

Over the next few years my posting to this blog declined. Here are the number of posts by year:

  • 2003 (26 posts) — First installed WordPress (June)
  • 2004 (138)
  • 2005 (415)
  • 2006 (409) — Joined Facebook (Nov)
  • 2007 (423)
  • 2008 (368) — Joined Twitter (Jan); Reuben and Joshua born (Nov)
  • 2009 (35)
  • 2010 (59)
  • 2011 (165) — Isaac born (Jan)
  • 2012 (34)
  • 2013 (48)

It seems that micro-blogging (Facebook and Twitter) in itself didn’t contribute to my reduction in writing longer posts. Which is interesting, at least to me, because I had always tacitly assumed that’s what had caused it.

Factored into this, of course, is the fact that I also got involved with other blogs:

(and more) which meant that my focus was diverted away from this channel exclusively; my blogging habit got a little diluted, you might say, not simply by micro-blogs and social media but also by other ‘full’ blogs.

Parental crisis

Looking back, the biggest factor that stopped me blogging so regularly was (obviously) the birth of my twin boys Reuben and Joshua in November 2008.

Despite having more to say, I had less time, less energy, and less sleep—which was not conducive to thinking things through to any depth beyond the most immediate. (Ah! Those days when it felt like my thoughts were literally falling out of my head!) In 2009 I posted only 35 articles, and I almost doubled that the following year.

But if I’m honest, it wasn’t just the lack of sleep that prevented me from writing. As we clocked-up the boys’ first few months I realised that I was becoming more withdrawn. I certainly felt that I was out of my depth, as I’m sure many first-time dads feel. I had an enormous learning curve, not only with the practicalities of feeding, winding, changing, bathing, and dressing a baby (and two for that matter!), but there was also the learning curve in managing myself and my relationship with Jane under such trying conditions. We were both utterly exhausted and (with hindsight we know now) Jane was descending into post-natal depression. I felt incredibly alone and incredibly vulnerable, more so than at any other time in my life.

I had always prided myself in sharing even the difficult periods of my life with others, whether that be being bullied at school or the death of my father. But somehow throughout 2009 I felt locked in: between a rock and a hard place. I was highly critical of my own perceived failings and I felt too vulnerable to reach out and ask for the help or advice that I really wanted. Except in a few cases, I felt too afraid to post on my blog things like ‘I found X useful today when looking after the boys’ or ‘I don’t know how to do Y’, because when I said such things in the ‘real world’ I felt bombarded by the advice given to me: ‘Oh, you should do this…’, ‘No! Try that…’, ‘This other way worked for me…’.

The worse piece of advice, as well-meaning as it was always offered, was, ‘It does get better.’ I knew that it must. It just never helped me at the time. It never took away the pain of now. Like the man standing on the shore watching another drowning shouting, ‘It does get better once you reach the shore. Or learn to swim’. I wanted someone to throw me a life-ring to help me float for a while, so that I didn’t need to use any more energy treading water, and for them to simply stay beside me for company.

And so I felt locked in, unable to reach out, afraid of not being able to cope with the consequences of baring my soul, admitting my weaknesses, and asking for help. So I wrote nothing… or at least when I did, it was ‘performance’. I shared the cute moments, the proud moments, the funny conversations, the humorous anecdotes. These were the moments that didn’t require me to open myself up to criticism. These were the moments that hid the darker moments: the pain and uncertainty and honesty.

My genuine and authentic self

Chrys Bader wrote a fabulous blog post on 15 December 2013 entitled ‘The end of the Facebook era’ in which he wrote,

Now that social networking has become universal, we’ve become increasingly sensitive to what we share on Facebook. Speaking on a stage in front of a mixed audience of family, friends, and acquaintances makes it hard for most of us to be our genuine and authentic selves. As a result, we tend to see people sharing only their proudest moments in an attempt to portray their best selves. We filter too much, and with that, we lose real human connection.

As your Facebook network becomes saturated, it can feel very public. It puts the focus on managing your image, rather than truly bonding with people.

I realised that is how I felt about my blog. I had lost the real human connection. My posts were increasingly impersonal posts about web technology or videos that I had enjoyed. I had begun to feel that my every move was being watched and judged, and so I posted nothing that revealed any more of the real me than was absolutely necessary.

I included part of that quotation in our Christmas newsletter 2013 before talking about some of the significant but in other ways trivial events of our family life from last year. I prefixed those tales with what was really a challenge to myself: let’s connect!

And so, here I am. This is one of my primary challenges for 2014: to rediscover honest blogging. I want to share more of my genuine and authentic self on my blog this year, and on social media. I want to explore more about what I think—and there’s a lot to think about this year: the referendum on Scottish independence, the economy, the state of the Christian church in today’s society, as well as family life, work, music and a million other things. Maybe this is the year I learn to shine as well as reflect. Let’s connect!

Me playing a Christmas tree guitar by Mearso

Illustration of me dressed as a priest playing a Christmas tree guitar, by Kevin Mears

Illustration by Kevin Mears (@mearso)

Last week on my 195 metal CDs blog I reviewed Laibach—Volk Tour London CC Club (2007); I gave it 60%. It was my first introduction to the Slovakian band so it’s fair to say that I have not been a fan.

But I know someone who is: Kevin Mears.

I met Kevin at an Institutional Web Management Workshop conference a few years ago, and when our conversation inevitably turned to music Kevin asked if I’d heard of Laibach. I hadn’t. He recommended them. I listened to them and gave them 6/10.

So I fired off a tweet to Kevin and having asked if he’d like a free CD, dropped it in the post. Another random act of kindness clocked up I thought nothing more of it.

Until I received a package a few days later, which included a small Christmas card and a note from Kevin saying thanks and that he was including a wee something as a thank you present.

My first thought when I read that was: I really hope it’s one of his drawings. And to my delight it was. It was a portrait of me, in my clerical dog collar, playing a guitar in the shape of a Christmas tree! Like you do.

I think it’s brilliant! I’ll have to take this to my friend Phil to get framed when I’m next in St Andrews.

Thank you Kevin.

Strike action called for 31 October #fairpayinHE

Unite newsflash email: Strike action in Higher Education 31 October

Unite newsflash email: Strike action in Higher Education 31 October

Yesterday I received an email from Unite the Union. of which I am a member, calling me out to strike in favour of fair pay on Thursday 31 October.

I joined Amicus (MSF Clergy and Churchworkers branch) in 2003 which later merged with the TGWU and became Unite the Union. My reason for joining a union began with a letter I received on 11 January 2003 which gave me six weeks to leave my then position as assistant curate, a post that according to canon law requires me to be given three months’ notice. I felt wonderfully supported by the union and their advice was really helpful even if I was made to be felt like a trouble-maker by getting involved with the unions. When I moved from full-time church employment to the university in 2006 I kept my union membership up and simply moved branches from churchworkers to higher education.

A few years ago while the University of St Andrews was merging two units (Business Improvements and IT Services) the three main unions that support those working in higher education: UCU, Unison and Unite were a very present help to those of us caught up in the uncertainty of the restructure.

For the last few years these three unions have been working collaboratively to negotiate better annual pay rises for university employees, with little success. Over the last four years the following offers have been made, to the best of my knowledge:

  • 2009: 0.5%
  • 2010: 0.4%
  • 2011: 0.5%
  • 2012: 1.0%

This year, I believe, the offer was again for a 1.0% pay increase. According to the email from Unite that means “in real terms [pay] has been cut by 13%” during the past five years while the salaries of UK university principals and vice-chancellors has very often gone up. (I received a PDF of vice-chancellors’ remuneration 2011-2012 which showed that while some VCs’ salaries decreased by up to 42%, some had increased by as much as 111%!)

Over the last few years I’ve received ballot papers from Unite asking it we wanted to accept these low pay offers, and if all unions rejected the offer would we be prepared to take matters further with work-to-rule directives or strike action. Each year the vote has returned a ‘no’ to strike action from my union. Until now.

On Thursday 31 October (a week today) the members of Unite, UCU and Unison have been recommended to take strike action at universities across the UK.

There is more information about the strike on the following unions’ websites:

You can also sign the petition.

Given that strike action is such a serious sanction the unions recommend that all members observe the strike. Not doing so rather undermines the bargaining power that the unions have and makes it harder to protect its members.

The union has supported me tremendously over the last ten years, time for me to support them supporting me. So, it looks like I’m going on strike next week.

Ever wondered why there’s so much debt?

I love this video—10 year old Holly explains where debt and money come from.

Please watch the video, I’d love to know your thoughts.

This is something that I’ve been getting more and more concerned about over the last couple of years: where does our money come from, why is there so much debt, why do prices just keep going up and up and up?

I can’t remember where I first came across the Positive Money campaign, but over the next month or two I’m going to take a closer look at what they’ve written and published. What I’ve read so far sounds promising.

I’ll report back…