The University Challenge

I’ve just booked my place at a degree ceremony and arranged the hire of my robes. I’m at the end of my Open University study journey, so here is a summary of it, condensed into one (still too long) post.

The first year of study was gentle enough. Module TU100, “My digital life” was an introductory course, intended to cover a broad range of topics including rudimentary programming, ubiquitous computing and the internet. The highlight was the SenseBoard, a little device containing various sensors (motion, temperature, light) which could be connected to your computer and programmed using Sense, a programming environment “based on” (i.e. the same as) Scratch.

TU100 was intended to get complete beginners “up to speed” so many more experienced computer geeks, like myself, found it quite easy. Indeed, after slacking off midway through the course, I got way behind and had to do one of the assignments without having read any of the previous chapters of course material. I somehow managed to score 99%. Ahem.

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Hope in University

Before reading the rest of this post, you need to play this jingle to set the mood:

Back in the summer of 2011, I was feeling miserable. I was stuck in a dead-end job with no real prospects. Turns out, you need qualifications for a decent career, and for various complicated reasons, I had left school with only GCSEs to my name.

People kept telling me I was “good with computers”. To be honest, I knew this already; my teenage years had been spent cooped up in my bedroom, knocking one out (a BASIC program) night after night.

But how to translate my hobbyist know-how into a piece of paper that I could show to employers? A look back at my tweets from the time shows what I was thinking of:-

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Culture, Clubbed

UK: “Brexit means Brexit”
EU: “OK, you can’t be in the Capital of Culture contest any more.”
UK: “Wah, not like that!”

The website Politico had a minor scoop on its hands this morning, after it got hold of a leaked letter from the European Commission stating that the UK can no longer be part of European Capital of Culture.

What is amazing is how so many reputable news organisations (and Sky News) happily went along with the meme that rapidly developed on Twitter, implying this was a pure act of spite by the European Commission.

The above tweet is rather disingenuous. The rules are perfectly clear: to host the festivities, a country must be in the EU, or part of the EEA/EFTA, or be a candidate for membership. The “outside the EU” countries that have previously hosted have all met those requirements.

I will concede that the timing of the EC’s letter is poor, coming after the five potential host cities spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on bids. However, the UK government did warn last year that Brexit may have an impact on the bids. And given the reckless way the UK has been pursuing its exit, determined to take the UK out of any organisation with the letters E-U-R-O in its name, it can’t be too surprising that the European Commission have pulled the plug. Better now than in 2019 when even more money has been spent, I suppose.

Liverpool, of course, was the last (possibly ever) European Capital of Culture in the UK. I remember the joy I felt listening to the radio when the announcement was made in 2003. Five years later, I was shivering in the crowd outside St George’s Hall to watch the opening ceremony. Giant spiders, Paul McCartney playing Anfield, The MTV Europe Music Awards and many more events, large and small, contributed to a wonderful year.

Small wonder that studies after the event put the benefit to the local region at £750 million, not to mention the boost to the city’s image. It made a refreshing change to see camera crews in the city who were not doing yet another report on social deprivation. The benefits are still being felt nearly 10 years later.

On a personal level, the boost to my own opinion of my home town was incalculable. The received wisdom was that you had to move away from Liverpool to be a success at anything. That changed for me after 2008. Suddenly, it felt like anything was possible in this city (except Everton winning a title).

Thanks to myopic, shortsighted attitudes, no other city will receive that same boost to its economy and cultural life. It’s a sad indicator of what this country will lose by turning its back on Europe.

I do want to write a longer post on Brexit at some point. I need to get to the point where I can think about it without becoming angry and tearful, so you may be waiting some time.

I heard Today, today, oh boy

Radio 4’s Today programme turned 60 today and decided to hold a special programme of self-congratulation. Unfortunately they decided to invite Michael Gove on, and that’s where it all went wrong.

Asked to describe his previous experiences of being interviewed on the programme, Gove responded thus:

What is especially horrible is that fellow panellist Neil Kinnock chimed in with his own “joke”, and the studio audience responded with laughter and applause.

Gove has apologised, but this seems to be a problem with so many areas of public life right now. On an issue which has caused distress and affected the lives of many people, the men in suits can all yuck it up and treat it as a joke. To them, this is all just another game. It’s awful.

Today is 60 years old – so maybe it’s time for it to be retired?

A tale of one city

I spent a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon in the Museum of Liverpool. It’s a wonderful place to visit, with galleries telling the story of Liverpool as a great world port, a centre of industry and commerce, and as the inspiration for art and culture the world over.

My specific reason for visiting was the new Tales from the City exhibition which opened last week. Celebrating 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales, the exhibition pulls together a variety of objects from the collections of National Museums Liverpool, to depict life in the city’s LGBT community over the past half-century or so.

Tales from the City exhibit at the Museum of Liverpool

Despite being a part of said community, my knowledge of the city’s LGBT history is superficial to say the least. This exhibition has come at the perfect time for me, because I know I am a Bad Gay and need to do better.

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Enjoy the little things

It’s fair to say the last few months have been a bit tough for me. I thought the end of Open University work would remove my main source of stress, but issues at work, worries over the clusterfuck that is Brexit, and various other issues have conspired to make me decidedly unhappy.

Yesterday I went for a long walk, all the way from my house in Aigburth into Liverpool city centre, a distance of about 7.5 km. I used to do this all the time before I got buried under the pressure of studying, so it was good to get back onto the riverside for the 90 minute stroll along Otterspool Promenade. Despite being October, the sun was shining and it was warm enough to not wear a coat. I breathed deeply, inhaling the fresh air.

My walk ended at the Albert Dock, where I stopped for a rest and a coffee. Rather than feeling tired, I actually felt invigorated. Walking through the dock complex, my ears detected a real mix of languages and accents: American, Polish, German, an Arabic dialect, as well as pure Scouse. All these people, visitors and locals alike, had one thing in common: they were enjoying all that the City of Liverpool has to offer. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pride.

View of waterfront buildings including the Museum of Liverpool and Albert Dock

For one afternoon, life’s problems took a back seat and I was able to focus on the enjoyment I was feeling in that moment. I got home later that afternoon feeling more cheerful than I had felt in a long time. The phrase “you need to get out more” has never been more accurate.

Sent to Coventry

EMU vehicle at Electric Railway Museum

I loitered in the bus bay at Coventry railway station for an extended period of time. I had been promised a heritage bus service to the Electric Railway Museum, but the scheduled departure time came and went, and none was forthcoming. Eventually a clapped out minibus showed up, with an apologetic driver informing me and the other waiting trainspotters that the proper bus had broken down. With gearbox grinding, we set off down country lanes to the museum site, in a field next to Coventry Airport.

Photo of various railway vehicles and station building at Electric Railway Museum

Electric trains are the bastard stepchild of the railway preservation world. You need electricity to run them, and since no heritage lines have a convenient third rail or overhead line available, that means the best you can hope for is for is a static display in a museum, or some awkward Frankenstein’s monster arrangement where the train gets lashed-up to a diesel locomotive and dragged around. All this means that preserved lines are reluctant to use up their valuable space with vehicles that can’t earn their keep. That’s a crying shame, because electric trains have played a vital role on the railway network for well over a century, and their history is not properly documented.

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Eighty Poo

It’s time to write on the fascinating subject of buses – specifically, the local route that takes me into town.

No, wait! Come back! This is not a parochial moan, of interest to no-one outside south Liverpool, but hopefully an interesting story which shines some light on the state of bus services, and the problems bus users encounter.

Route 82 is one of Liverpool’s trunk routes, linking Speke, Garston, Aigburth and Dingle with the city centre. I’m not entirely sure how long it has existed for, but a 1960s Liverpool Corporation bus map shows it, so that’s at least half a century. It has survived the upheavals of deregulation and privatisation largely intact. Until last month, the main changes were a series of minor reroutings in the city centre as pedestrianisation and one-way systems were implemented.

Today, the route is shared between Stagecoach and Arriva, who operate a Quality Partnership agreement, with a co-ordinated timetable and acceptance of the other operator’s prepaid tickets. The introduction of the quality agreement has been beneficial to passengers, no longer subject to arbitrary changes at the whim of the operators. Or at least, that’s what we thought.

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Avon Calling

Statue of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon

This is NOT a catch-up post!

I had a nice day in Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday with my friends Andrew and David. I was there for a total of 6 hours (with a three hour train journey at the beginning and end of the day) but I squeezed quite a bit in.

We arrived to find the town centre ridiculously busy thanks to the Stratford Food Festival taking place that weekend. Delicious smells of cooking food wafted over us as we made our way along the streets. Not good for someone who is trying to diet.

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Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin

Photo of Berlin Skyline, showing TV Tower, Reichstag and other buildings

This is another catch-up post from last year.

My third trip to Berlin, and I had three days to squeeze in as much as possible. What did I do? Read on…

IT’S THAT TOWER AGAIN – The Berliner Fernsehturm looms large over the city, a glorious relic of the 60s, erected by the old Communist regime to show off to its neighbours on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

Photo of the TV Tower in Berlin, looking upward from the base

I had visited before, in 2012, but that time I had only visited the viewing deck. This time, I ventured up to dine at the Sphere Restaurant (advance booking recommended).

I felt a certain amount of smugness as my friend Boris arrived late following flight delays (my train was right on time) but was slightly worried that we would lose our dinner reservation. No worries, as it turns out having a native German speaker with you helps smooth things over, and we were shown to our table 20 minutes late.

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