Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Hot Compost

Almost the first job at Pig Sty Ave v2.0 was to weed the fruit bush bed, and cut back the severely overgrown bushes. There'd been attempts to pull back the feral bushes with strings and bits of wood stuck in the bed. So I hacked my way through it, piling all the cuttings and weeds and wood and string onto a pile which grew over six foot tall.

Last week was mostly going through that pile, chopping up the fruit bush cutting to manageable size, and putting the bits of wood onto the woodpile-for-burning, (as opposed to the woodpile-for-wildlife), and separating out the weeds to compost. To this last I could add two other big heaps of mostly nettles from other parts of the garden. And of course the inevitable docks and grasses.

So I got a big heap of twigs, some of which will go on the woodpile-for-wildlife, the rest for kindling. The weeds I need to hot compost - not because I'm in a particular hurry for the compost, but because they'll be full of nettle and grass seeds, and hot composting should kill them. I ended up with a pile about 5ft high, which I've now turned twice, but it hasn't heated up in the middle...

The problem might be that a lot of the weeds were massive nettles, some of them 6 ft tall, so the pile is very stalky. So the next job, as I turn the pile again, is to go at it with the hdgh and chop up the stalks. I've already tried this, and dear me it's bloody hard work, but needs must. As I've watched cleared beds failing to feed the phacelia, and even weeds being reluctant to grow, I'm concluding this poor allotment is starved. So I need all the compost I can get. Shit, also, but that's another story.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Randomizing an array of text in an xlsx document

I had a list of statements in a likert test for test administrators:

But I didn't want the respondents (after a hard day administering test in a busy school) to go onto autopilot, if possible, so I needed a quick way to randomise the statements - the sort function will only sort them alphabetically, ascending or descending.

No problem, once I'd worked it out.

Get the RAND function on a cell in the row of the first cell:

Drag the formula down the column adjoining your column of text, and it gives each row a genuinely random number:

Now sort that column, doesn't matter ascending or descending, expanding the sort to include your column of text. Just delete your column of random numbers. And voila, a now truly random set of statements for your likert. Easy-peasy.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Auld Barrows and Bog Gardens?

Quite close to the entrance to Pig Sty Avenue v2.0 there was a mysterious mound of earth, with a water barrel on top of it at a crazy angle. I moved the barrel. And started with the intention of levelling the mound. Hmm. This has clearly been a rubbish heap, which someone has decided to throw some soil over. Plastic bags, beer cans, and a distressing amount of broken glass. I gave it a few hours over the weekend, filled four barrow's full with rubbish, and I'm still not there. Just to make things a little more interesting, there was a very big and nasty bramble growing in amongst all the rubbish, and I had to get gangster on it with the spit, (see photo).

Words cannot describe how annoying a mixture of plastic carrier bags and broken glass can be when mixed in with soil. Eventually, the only recourse is to rake everything out and then pick through it to get the glass and the bags, not to mention the beer cans and bits of wood and half bricks. It's raining now, but I'm going back tonight anyway to get this finished. I won't rest until this bit is rubbish free.

This erstwhile rubbish heap is at part of the line of where the hedgerow's going to run. I've also got to grub out some very dead shrubs. So dead are they, I'm afraid someone's used a strong weedkiller on them, and the ground where they've stood might be toxic. (I had a mushkila kebir at PSA v1 because my predecessor had, it appeared, decided to kill the weed growing by the path with something illegal, so that a foot either side of the path was poisoned and nothing would grow). We shall see. I'll put some phacelia in before the hedge plants, and see if it grows.

I've also started on moving the dozen or so plastic and glass doors, and door sized sheets of glass which are stacked up nearby. Slowly, slowly, slowly...

There were three wheelbarrows. One I'm using now, it just wanted the tyre pumped up.  Another one might be in working order too. But a third one was completely goosed, rusted away to absurdity. I threw it in the "metals" area by the rubbish skip. The next day it was gone, although the council hasn't been to collect rubbish. I assume someone's been to a garden show where they've had an old wheelbarrow as a planter, and decided to do the same. Which is fair enough, except that it just looks like an auld barrow with plants in it. Might be ok in a domestic garden, (might). But in an allotment?

Ditto the whole bog garden concept, which I was briefly contemplating. I want to eat neeps, not bloody bog-myrtle. So I'm garnering rubble, and I'm going to dig some proper drainage trenches, and fill the bottom with rubble for a french drain, fill it all in, and grow stuff to eat. Thank you.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Pig Sty Avenue v2.0

The photo is facing south, from the bottom of the allotment. At the moment, I've only got a half-plot,  to the left of the photo.  It was all weeds a few weeks ago, and now it's dug over and seeded with phacelia. There are fruit bushes (blackcurrants, redcurrant, gooseberries) along the left hand margin. These were grotesquely overgrown, coming half way across the main bed almost, and I had to cut them right back, sacrificing lots of fruit in the process. There are two rows of bushes, the ones you can see, and another row behind them. The plan is to move all the bushes from the front row elsewhere, and cut the back row right down to incorporate them into the hedgerow, which will follow that line.

The tree you can see on the left is a cherry - actually there are two of them. They've gone feral, most of the cherries are 30ft high, food for the wood pigeons, which I'm beginning to regard as allotment gangsters, robbing everything in sight, and having noisy parties. So I'm going to coppice the cherry trees, and they'll grow back as part of the hedgerow. I should do that now, apparently, because later pruning can lead to silver leaf disease, but I'm pretty sure there are birds nesting there, and I've already disturbed two nests, a wren's and a dunnock's, amongst the tall nettles, and I don't want to disturb any more, so I'm going to wait and risk that - I'll do it as soon as the leaves start to turn, and I'm sure there are no nests there. Besides, I don't know if the advice about pruning applies to coppicing - perhaps not, as the growth will be totally new. We shall see. They're no bloody good as they stand, and they're blocking out too much light.

The big pile standing on the left is the weeds I've dug up, and the fruit bush cuttings. I've to go through that soon, separate out the wood (and put it into a woodpile), and hot-compost everything else (and hopefully kill any seeds in it). The bits of dressed but rotten timber there are the tip of an iceberg - there must be a ton of it around the allotment. I've tried burning it in the cages you can see to the right of the path, but it's very slow and produces a lot of smoke because the wood's so wet and rotten. I have a feeling I pissed off my neighbours with this last weekend. So all rotten but dressed/treated wood is going into a pile, and then a bonfire on November 5th, when no-one will notice.

The path is wonky, and needs straightened. And the right hand side, that's another story...

Friday, July 17, 2015

My Libyan Hoe

Actually, I've just found out, it's a heavy duty grubbing hoe. That's it back in Libya, on the left. It cost buttons in the hardware store, but a lot more when I decided to take it home because my luggage was overweight. Dad kept it in a cupboard for me pending the day when I got my own allotment again. And finally, yesterday, it got back into action.

At the bottom of Pig Sty Avenue (Glasgow), there are two great heaps of earth, covered in nettles. I dealt with the nettles, and tried first with a garden fork, and then with a spade to clear the mounds. But at some point there must have been something substantial planted on these mounds, fruit bushes probably, because they were wick with heavy roots. Enter the Libyan hoe. I must have had some kind of premonition when I brought it home back in 2008, because it is the perfect tool for the job. I can dig into the mound, through the roots, grub them out, and then use it to pull the soil forward.  I can finish the job in a couple of hours now - it would have taken weeks of heartbreak with a spade.

I tried out the hoe on the top end of the allotment, where there's two or three inches of earth (held together by (now dead, glyphosated) grass. Underneath there's all kinds of bricks, timbers, god knows what else - it's going to be like Time Team when I get started on it. But the Libyan HDGH is perfect for that, too, cutting through the earth, you can get in amongst the bricks and rotten timbers and gently lever them out.

Pig Sty Avenue (Glasgow) is becoming something of an obsession. I'm not reading books, watching telly, or practicing the piano. When I'm not there digging or hoeing, I'm staring out of the window, planning hedgerows, greenhouses, ponds, sheds, moving earth around.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Modal Disempowerment: Get up (get on up)

That's me back into English Language Assessment, full time. And escaping at last the allurements of the Common European Framework of Reference to explore the way they do things in the USA, on the basis that when America has an educational paradigm shift, the rest of the world starts writing lesson plans. I've quickly learned that not only the US but Canada, Australia, The Philippines and many (most?) International Schools are using the PreK-12 structure.

A good starting point is a paper by the TESOL International Association (motto: "Advancing Excellence in English Language Teaching") entitled Implementing the Common Core State Standards for English Learners: The Changing Role of the ESL Teacher, from April 2013, (which reminds me, I'd better start to learn to write references again, like, today). A sentence on p2 caught my eye: "TESOL International Association believes that ESL teachers can and should play a critical role in the success of the CCSS." [Emphasis supplied]. 

"Can and should". One evening a few months ago, whilst still toiling under the desert sun, I watched a BBC documentary about James Brown. It showed a recording of an American talk show he participated in during the late 70s. Another participant was an older, well-dressed white man, who was not identified. He adopted a rather embarrassingly matey attitude towards the Godfather of Soul, several times using the vocative function (to the man who almost everyone else addressed as Mr Brown), "Jimmy". 

If this was getting on Brown's nerves, he didn't show it straight away, but when the older guy said, adopting a pained look, of Brown's equal status in America, "You should be, Jimmy...", Brown just lost it. "Should be!" He stood up as if to walk out, controlled himself somewhat and sat down again, (this is James Brown we're talking about). The balance of power in the discussion shifted from the WASP to the Godfather. 

So what we're seeing here is the use of modals can and should as a get out. ESL teachers PLAY a critical role in paradigm shifts. Everyone in America IS equal. Let's just look out for mealy mouthed modals delivered by old men with facial expressions of theatrical regret. 


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Back to Nature, Not Necessarily in a Good Way

Getting to the top of the waiting list at the Kennyhill Allotments in Riddrie coincided nicely with getting back from Saudi. I've been almost every day since. I've got half of the plot held by a gardener who's getting on a bit. He clearly knows his onions: the soil is beautiful. One side is fruit bushes which had overgrown and were straggling onto the main bed, and were besides getting choked with nettles, so I've been clearing them, and cutting back the bushes, even though it's really the wrong time of year for pruning.

It was nearly job-done tonight, just a few feet and one more bush, a few dozen stinging nettles and couple of brambles to sort out. And then I saw a nest in front of me. Two listless looking chicks, one dead one discarded to the side. I swore and stepped back. I'd cleared the whole area of stinging nettles and feral fruit bushes, pausing as I'd been going along this thirty yard stretch, happy that it was starting to look like a garden. And I'd nearly finished, so here was this nest, wrens, exposed, nowhere to hide. I thought briefly of covering them with cuttings... daft idea. Nature. Natural selection. And then I saw a pair of magpies land on the roof of the dilapidated shed, watching me.

I went to the shed, it was pouring with rain anyway, so a good idea to take shelter. An adult wren appeared and went towards the nest, which I couldn't quite see now from this angle. And then wee jenny wren flew to an old table right by me, and looked at me. "I know," I said. She flew off. And then one of the magpies headed for the nest. I heard no noise. She reappeared, flew to a post a few yards from me. She looked me right in the eyes, and wiped her beak on the post, looked at me some more, wiped her beak again. I thought about how obvious it is that birds are descended from dinosaurs.

I didn't go back to examine the crime scene. That was enough gardening for today, I got on my bike and headed for the Lea Rigg and my customary post-gardening pint. Be nice to be amongst humans. But we're weird. Tonight was "Psychic Night".  Seven quid entrance fee, and it was filling up with middle aged ladies, so I took my pint to the side room, finished it more quickly than usual, and got back on the bike.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Safe Back Home With Mrs Kemble

Got home last Friday. After nearly four months practising on the semi-weighted Yamaha, the Kemble felt "rich and strange". Eccentric, even. My first thought was, "We're going to need a better piano". This was especially so with regard to sensitivity - getting a wee pianissimo note out was really difficult. So on Saturday when I happened to be in Biggar's in Sauchiehall St anyway, I had a shot on all of the pianos in the showroom. The digitals, mostly Yahamas, were fine, very touch sensitive, but of course soulless. But the acoustics, even a Broadwood baby grand, weren't appreciably better than my Kemble at home.

And so I got back down to it. Next mushqila, all of the white keys from B4 to G5 are liable to stick, making RH scales impossible to play. And not from want of trying: I thought maybe they just needed plenty of work, and they'd loosen up, but no. Meanwhile, (I was so pleased to get my fingers on Mrs K, I was for playing every note), B0 and C1 sound exactly the same, and the felts on the dampers for all of the lowest octave or so have a queer, fuzzy look. I got straight on to David Boyce, (who tuned Mrs K back in 2013 when she first arrived), to find that the conversation we'd had back then about working in Saudi had borne fruit, and he's still out there with his feet in the desert sand. He gave me the number of another tuner/technician, who's on holiday but back next week.

In the meantime, therefore, with C2 - C4 not sticking and being more-or-less in tune, I'm obliged to do LH scales and arpeggios, and LH Lincolnshire Poacher, whilst waiting for the non-Saudified tuner/technician. Which is turning out fine. I've been concentrating on the C scale. And for the first time I've started to practice with the metronome. The recommended minimum BPM for the Grade 1 scales is♩= 60, which turned out to be quite painfully slow, so I've got it now at♩= 72, andante, a healthy pulse, hot weather walking pace. C maj I've got down nicely, looking at the music or the metronome, fingers right up the keys. Just started today on G maj.

I watched a BBC documentary a few weeks back about restoring a war damaged Yamaha concert grand in Gaza. The technician said that all pianos have souls. Reluctant as I am to admit that even humans have "souls", I nevertheless know what she meant. Maybe "personalities" or "idiosyncrasies" would be a better way of describing it, especially in an older piano, where each instrument even if it's made by the same people from the same materials will have tiny differences manifest in the grain of the wood, and whether the vital work was done on a Wednesday morning or a Friday afternoon, say...

Khalas, I'm going back to G maj LH.

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Don't practice until you get it right. Practice until you can't get it wrong."

There is no source for this quotation, which in itself is inspirational: pedagogue musicians have perhaps been saying it to their students for the last two or three thousand years. At work, we've been enduring "Traffic Week", (a colossal exercise in "teslik"), and everyone was given a kind of party bag containing colouring books and crayons, (dished out to grown men, mind), and a pack of cards to play some kind of Happy Families safety game. So I've given each of the cards a value from the ABRSM Grade 1 Piano syllabus scales and broken chords.

For example, the card "Follow The Speed Limit" on a red background = A minor harmonic RH. That was the first one I turned over, and I set about learning the scale, playing it again, again, again; looking at the music, looking at the keys, looking at my hands, looking out the window, slowly, quickly, pianissimo, fortissimo, again, again, again. The same mistakes kept coming up, mis-playing the F on the way up, or playing the G as a natural... slowly, slowly, it took shape. I could look out of the window and feel (for example), the F sharp brush against finger 3 but not sounding as I played the F natural on the way back down, hitting its sweet spot right at the top of the key.

And this morning I've drawn "Pedestrian Crossing Zone" on a blue background, which is D minor harmonic LH. That should keep me out of mischief this weekend. Hitherto, I was a bit snooty about playing these single handed scales, wanting to play them all two handed. But now that I've spent a week with A minor harmonic, I understand what the ABRSM syllabus designers have done: single handed scales and broken chords are the smallest building blocks at this Grade. One needs to get a really intimate knowledge of that scale or chord, how it sounds, and looks on the staff, and feels under the hand. Again, again, again.

It feels as if this is where the actual work starts, this is learning to play the piano in achievable wee chunks: scales, chords, pieces, grade by grade. And when I'm watching my hands and fingers as I play without any conscious input, playing as if I can't get it wrong, they are beginning to look like a piano player's hands.