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Adventures Close to Home


Adventures Close to Home


Rasping the Silence

For a long time I would hardly have dared agree that my father and I had anything in common.

And yet one of the unlikely features of the eclectic bookshelves at home was a large collection of Aldous Huxley. Several rows of Chatto and Windus hardbacks, filled out with one or two older editions and a few paperbacks of some later works including Doors of Perception and Island. I must have started with Brave New World but when I ventured further afield I must have been a little surprised as I was introduced to anarchism, Buddhism and the possibilities of psychoactive drugs, none of which have I ever associated with my dad.

He must have first read them in his early twenties. Over the years, I've asked him several times what attracted him to Huxley. After all, no other author is so generously represented in his library. And he does seem an odd choice for someone with a strong patriarchal disciplinarian streak. But he could never answer. He'd just fob me off with a shrug and change the subject.

Recently he has re-read them. Now in his late eighties, he is still within Huxley's spell. He still can't say why, although he did say that while he enjoyed the books while he read them, he soon forgot almost everything about them, as if they are a special place, safely adrift from the rest of his life, where alternative passions can thrive a while without guilt.

But then he stops. There is something. And before long he is talking about the title essay in Music at Night. Huxley is listening to Beethoven's Missa Solemnis on record. 'It would have been a '78' then, of course. And when the piece finishes, he has this lovely way of describing it.' And my dad quotes from memory, word perfect:
With a stupid insect-like insistence, a steel point rasps and rasps the silence.
'All those 's's,' he says. 'It's almost onomatopoeic, isn't it?' And he repeats the line, cherishing every syllable, momentarily lost in deep appreciation.

It then struck me that at the core of my dad's love of classical music - he's an obsessive collector and cataloguer of recordings, many of them taken from the radio - is not, perhaps, the music itself: the composition or the performance. What absorbs him most are the - largely domestic - rituals of listening. Maybe this is why he finds so precious those moments of transition, that take him away or (in this case) back to the world he has absented himself from.

Whatever the reason, we now share a favourite sentence.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Tue 16 Sep 2014 11:48 GMT+0100

Discovered in 2012

Personal review of the year. Another self-indulgent Hogmanay tradition.

Sightlines. Kathleen Jamie's third book of prose and without doubt her best, wonderfully-crafted observations balancing the serious and the comic, tackling subjects from icebergs to a pathologist's slab.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. The Forth-Clyde sometimes feels like my second home, but it doesn't match the delights of a dawdle on a warm Sunday in Georgetown in a part of DC I hadn't been in before

Disquiet Junto. I have been an occasional contributor to this group which is given a weekly challenge by Marc Weidenbaum in San Francisco, inspiring some intriguing and often beautiful music, sound and noise.

Raspberry Pi. It was a long wait for this tiny computer that is taking the geek-world by storm, and another while I sought cables to match, but worth it when the wee red fruit lit up the screen. Some fun learning ahead.

Kafou. The UK's first major survey of Haitian art was mounted by Nottingham Contemporary this autumn, with an impressive series of related events. The sequined flags and metal sculptures stood out for me.

Amour. Michael Haneke's horror film unfolds entirely within the confines of a Parisian apartment, in which an elderly couple are stalked by dementia and paralysis. Clinical, terrifying and yet disarmingly tender.

The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below. Of the large cast of memorable characters in José Maria Arguedas' last novel, it's the stinky class-riven port of Chimbote where their paths cross that steals the show.

The Eskdalemuir Harmonium. An astonishing delicate, intense mix of music, spoken voice and field recordings by Chris Dooks and Machinefabriek, featuring an old harmonium in a Scottish farmhouse.

Borgen. I enjoyed The Killing and The Bridge, but preferred this of the imported Nordic dramas so far. Oversized offices, cramped family breakfasts, that turquoise light, and a mesmerising Sidse Babett Knudsen..

Cille Bhride. Kathleen MacInnes has been called the Laphroaig of Gaelic song. Perhaps it's her husky voice, or the long, warm finish of this album's elegant arrangements. There's snow on Drumochter but a cosy fire indoors..

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Mon 31 Dec 2012 2:28 GMT+0000

The Problem with 'Screen Time'

'Ban under-threes from watching television, says study.' This is how the Guardian reported the findings of a recent article - 'Time for a View on Screen Time' by Aric Sigman - that reviews evidence on the effects on physical and mental health of watching television and using computers.

Watching TV by Jay Parker.

Articles like this - that grab attention by tickling the guilt to which so many parents are susceptible - always annoy me. It often turns out that the scientific research arrives at much more qualified conclusions than the journalist allows. And in any case the possibility that there might be considerable disagreement on the issue in question - among scientists - is not always made clear.

Here, though, the summary appears to be broadly accurate, helped by the fact that the original paper ends with specific recommendations. Furthermore it quotes Dorothy Bishop, a professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford University, who argues that Sigman's paper is not 'an impartial expert review of evidence for effects on health and child development' and points out that Sigman 'does not appear to have any academic or clinical position, or to have done any original research on this topic.' Most importantly of all: 'His comments about impact of screen time on brain development and empathy seem speculative in my opinion, and the arguments that he makes could equally well be used to conclude that children should not read books.'

Some of these remarks are beside the point. The article doesn't claim to be anything more than a summary of existing research, and the author's ability to do this is surely not dependent on holding an academic or clinical position. But, as reported, the article does seem insufficiently aware of an obvious objection: we know that long periods of physical inactivity are probably not good for you, especially if it was not accompanied by social interaction. Surely it is this, rather than specifically 'screen time', that would help to account for increasing obesity and heart problems in children or their compromised intellectual and emotional development.

But what is also problematic (and this is my main concern here) is the assumption that 'screen time' is incompatible with physical activity and social interaction. It seems to me that 'screen time' covers a highly diverse range of activities - watching televisio; playing games; solving puzzles; following instructions; listening to music; conducting conversations via text, email, messaging or social media; reading and writing anything from status updates to full-length books; making video calls; editing and mixing sounds and images; and so on.

Furthermore, even the traditionally most passive of these - watching television on your own without the ability to change channels or adjust the volume - is often far from mindless consumption. When I walk in on my five-year-old watching a programme, the chances are that he's commenting out loud on the action, anticipating dialogue, answering questions, expressing surprise or delight, laughing, belting out a song that is playing or - in the case of Tree Fu Tom - standing up, striking poses and trying out moves in imitation of someone on screen. And once I've joined him, he'll ask me things, or draw my attention to something that is happening or about to happen. Sometimes we'll laugh together in appreciation or pour scorn on something badly executed.

I was intrigued enough to read Sigman's original paper. Could it really be so uninterested in the nuances and variety of so-called 'screen time'? It would appear so. I even checked out two or three primary research papers that he cites, curious about the methods they used. Typically, data about 'screen time' seems to be collected by asking individuals (or their parents) to complete diaries or questionnaires indicating the number of hours they spend watching television or using computers each day. Thus:
The average time spent each day (weekdays and weekend days combined) in screen time (TV, video, computer, and video game usage) was assessed from parent-reported values. Time spent watching TV was defined as minutes spent watching TV, videotapes, or DVDs. Computer use was defined as minutes spent using a home computer or video game. Screen time was computed by summing minutes spent in TV viewing and computer use. ('Associations between sedentary behavior and blood pressure in young children', p726)
In at least one case this data was derived from devices attached to participants' televisions and computers which would record when they were in use, together with a programme of incentives to ensure different levels of usage in the groups being compared. This is worth quoting at length, as it requires a degree of domestic surveillance that takes us into the realm of dystopian science fiction:
After completing a telephone screen, families attended an orientation, and, if interested, parents read and signed the informed consent and then completed a questionnaire that assessed the numbers of televisions, television video game units, VCR and DVD players, and computers in the home. Approximately 1 week later, a TV Allowance was attached to each television and computer monitor in the home by a research assistant [...] who recorded the numbers of televisions and computers and their locations in the home. The TV Allowance is an automated device that controls and monitors the use of televisions or computer monitors, including television, video game systems, DVD players, VCRs, and computers. The appliance was plugged into the TV Allowance, the plug was locked in, and the device was plugged into the wall. To turn on the television or computer monitor, each family member used an individually selected 4-digit code. To protect against the participating child watching television or playing a computer game on other family members' time, the participating child was not informed of the codes of other family members. If the child learned the codes of another family member, these codes were changed. The TV Allowance sums the minutes of use for each code to objectively determine use of that device.

Baseline television and computer use was measured during a 3-week period. Seventy families met eligibility criteria and were randomized into intervention and control groups [....] Families were recruited in cohorts, were stratified by child sex, and were randomized by the study statistician [...] in blocks of 2 without replacement using a random number generator limited to 2 numbers. Group assignments were provided to the project coordinator [....]

Study staff [... ] set the weekly time budgets for television viewing, computer use, and associated behaviors. Budgets were reduced by 10% of their baseline amount per month for children in the intervention group until the budget was reduced by 50%. When the budget was reached, the television or computer monitor could not be turned on for the remainder of the week. Study staff could set different amounts of time for each child in a household, if desired, to reduce conflict if another child was not on the program. Parents and non-participating family members could use their code to watch television or to use computers without being on a budget.

Children in the intervention group earned $0.25 for each half hour under budget, up to $2.00 per week. Parents were instructed to praise the participating child for reducing television viewing and for engaging in alternative behaviors. Decreases were also reinforced by a star chart. At each home visit, a study staff member reviewed the star chart and praised the child for the number of stickers earned. When the child reached the 50% decrease at 6 months, the star charts were discontinued, and changes were supported through monthly newsletters and by parental praise for behavior change. The intervention group received ideas for alternatives to sedentary behavior, a tailored monthly newsletter with parenting tips to reduce sedentary behavior, and information about how to rearrange the home environment to reduce access to sedentary behavior. Children in the control group were provided free access to television and computers and received $2.00 per week for participating, independent of their behavior change. Control families received a newsletter to provide parenting tips, sample praise statements, and child-appropriate activities and recipes. ('A randomized trial of the effects of reducing television viewing and computer use on body mass index in young children', p240).
But as far as I could tell, no tests made any distinctions finer than that between one electronic device and another.

Why collect such bland information? It is as if one set up controlled clinical trials to establish whether eating sandwiches was bad for you, or swallowing pills, or going out at night. It is of course perfectly possible that, after quantifying this data, you find that doing more of one thing was probably doing you more harm than less, and to recommend that we cut down on one or other of them. But - even if we accepted the results of these tests - we might think, before making recommendations, to investigate whether it was certain types of sandwiches (with high levels of salt, sugar or saturated fat, for example) that was the main case of harm and if so it might be more effective to recommend reducing our consumption of these sandwiches rather than others. And of course the dangers of going out at night must depend a great deal on what you do: attend an evening class, cycle on busy roads, play bingo, babysit for a friend, deal drugs, or drink alcohol and smoke solidly for twelve hours.

So why don't these finer distinctions come into play here? One reason must be that it is much harder to quantify ways of watching television or using computers, as opposed to simply calculating the time spent engaged in these activites. Having resolved to model one's research on clinical trials, the appropriateness of this mathematical model is taken for granted, even though it just may not be possible to make the distinctions thought necessary.

But another reason must be the fairly widespread - but hardly 'scientific' - antipathy towards television and its successors, an antipathy that is directed at an easily identifiable target - a product or an industry - that feeds on a simplistic moral division that sets technology against apparently more wholesome forms of activity such as reading and social interaction, a rhetoric that dominates Sigman's article. Researchers more wary of this 'common sense' might have devised methods that tested these assumptions more thoroughly, and Sigman might have challenged them to do so.

The problem here is that both reading, painting, writing, social interaction are not distinct from 'screen time' but overlap with it. Many people now prefer to read ebooks than bound books; a good deal of creative design is now accomplished on a laptop rather than with paper, pens and brushes. Social media are so-called because of the, er, social interaction they permit (and demand certain standards of etiquette), although what they herald is the possibllity of increasingly polyphonic conversations already implicit in email, sms and instant messaging services which were originally largely one-to-one.

Until we can find ways of identifying different ways of engaging with computers and televisions and mapping these against certain standards of physical and mental health, we are not likely to learn very much.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Sat 13 Oct 2012 6:56 GMT+0100

First Things

Có a dh' éireas anns a' mhadainn
's a chì ròs geal am bial an latha?

(Who rises in the morning
and sees a white rose in the mouth of the day?)
Somhairle MacGill-Eain (Sorley MacLean)

Of all our lost times, early mornings are perhaps the most elusive, half-lived in the stupor of reflex. I wonder if we can win them back by trapping something of their singular configurations.

For a long time I went to bed late. That had to stop. I am much more alert in the mornings and - in theory at least - can make better use of my time then. Last night I was up past midnight, so I set my alarm for 6.30 instead of 5.30. Or so I thought, but the referee of habit must have over-ruled the linesman of decision, and I didn't even realize the mistake until I had already got yanked my legs over the side and made it to the bathroom.

So I shuffled into a dressing gown, made my usual pot of coffee and climbed into the sleeping bag on the sofa, for, like yesterday, there was a tickling chill in the air. It was too dark to read in bed, but here, in the living room, I had a good lamp, and a handy table. Waiting for me, as yet unopened, was Ghost Works by Daphne Marlatt, and I settled down to enjoy the first few chapters.

I bought it last year, after being intrigued by the discussion of it by Justin Edwards and Rune Graulund in their Mobility at Large as an example of an experimental travel narrative. It tells its story almost in slow motion, dwelling on the small details of sensations and thoughts. In the first chapter, the sentences tend be short, but the links between paragraphs - laid out on the page so that each one begins directly below where the last one ends - give it a train-like flow, while in the second, the impressions follow as successions of long clauses, joined with ampersand after ampersand.

My thoughts began to drift. I kept having to go back a few lines and re-read, sometimes aloud, to keep my concentration aloft. Occasionally I looked up to see the outline of the building opposite - chimneys, dormer windows, TV aerials - take shape against the sky, at first a pale grey, and then - suddenly, it seemed, though half an hour had passed - arrogantly blue, embossed with neat strokes of cloud.

Also on the table was a world atlas. It was useful when I was reading the book I just finished - Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana - because many of the Indian placenames were unfamiliar to me. Now I found myself tracing Marlatt's journey from Mérida to Progreso.

At around 7 o'clock and on cue the man with Tourette's - a familiar figure round these parts, unmistakable with his briefcase and signature fedora - became audible, shouting insults and obscenities as he rounded the corner and made his way down the street below my window. 'Arseholes!' I heard, just before he merged into the now mezzo-forte rumble of traffic on the main road.

The next time I paused, I realized it had taken me two hours to read 22 pages. Car doors slammed, shutters released, footsteps hocketed on the pavement and on the floorboards above. Water started to gush and squeal in the pipes. He'd be getting up now, I thought. His mum would be making his breakfast and packing his lunch-bag, despairing, perhaps, at the length of time it takes him to get his socks on.

The phone rang. It was not a number I recognised and I didn't answer it. The caller hung up halfway through the recorded voicemail message. Heaving myself back on the sofa, I knocked over the coffee, and cursed. I wiped up the mess with a discoloured scrunched ball of paper towels still lying nearby from an almost identical accident two days ago.

This time I took it through to the kitchen and disposed of it properly. And while the bath ran I returned to my nest and picked up a philosophy book I borrowed from the university library. It was The Persistence of Subjectivity, a collection of essays by Robert Pippin on post-Kantian philosophy. I began the chapter on 'Gadamer's Hegel', picking up the argument here and there, but much of it sailed past me like a convoy of buses heading back to the depot.

He'd be heading out to the school bus - walking down the hill today, because his scooter was here, ready to assist his more strenuous voyage in tomorrow. Meanwhile the chatter and laughter of schoolgirls began to fill the street as they ambled past reminding me the water must be ready for my dip.

I closed my Pippin, rolled up the sleeping bag, and prepared to make my appearance on the balcony of the day ahead, already planning what I was going to write at the laptop on the table when I emerged from the steam.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Tue 18 Sep 2012 10:02 GMT+0100

Language Games

My son started school the other week and he's bring home some unusual words and phrases, seasoning his familiar speech with brògan, dearg, buidhe, uaine, suidh sìos, madainn mhath, tha mi duilich, gabh mo leisgeull, ceart ma-thà. What is going on?

He has, of course, begun his immersion in Gaelic Medium Education, in his case at the Glasgow Gaelic School. We were told that our children would pick up the language very quickly, even if they hadn't been exposed to it before. The challenge was always going to be for the parents who hadn't. And they were right, although I hadn't reckoned on it becoming manifest so soon.

My parents are English, although they did holiday frequently in the Highlands and Islands. I'm told I was named for Sgùrr Alasdair, the highest peak on the Isle of Skye, and the first trip I made that I faintly remember was in a van that famously broke down in Beauly in the early hours of a Sunday morning on what was then a day and half's drive from Lancashire to Assynt.

My father's bookshelves amply testify to an interest in Scottish history and topography. He also tried to learn Gaelic, subscribing to the newspaper Sruth for a while, and even took his primitive portable tape recorder (one that looked like this) along when he was invited to spend the evening with Mr McLeod, who lived a few miles down the road from the cottage we used to rent near Achmelvich, delighted to capture a three-way conversation between him, his wife and - unexpectedly dropping in - the postman.

I was introduced to several languages at school - Latin (all but forgotten now), German (surviving at elementary phrase-book level) and French, which I was much more determined to master when I fell in love with Rimbaud and Lautréamont. I've continued to read French to the point at which I can get through a novel in less than twice the time it takes to read one in English, though my conversational skills are fairly limited. I can understand instructions and ask for what I want, but I'd be struggling to engage in interesting chat.

For a long time Gaelic didn't interest me beyond a mild fascination with the way English versions of Gaelic placenames often appeared to be attempts to find English morphemes that vaguely approximated to the Gaelic pronunciation rather than translations. Thus Àisir Mòr became Oldshoremore. But when I started working at the Scottish Music Information Centre in the early 1990s, I found myself having to read out Gaelic titles or names over the phone, and, to avoid embarrasment, began to teach myself the language following a course devised by An Comunn Gàidhealach.

The course was one of my dad's, consisting of a boxed set of ten LPs with a booklet. According to the date on the records, it was already ancient, but - if the even older language materials passed on to me were any guide - it seemed to differ significantly from the reprints of text books from the turn of the last century: dry, systematic, technical, lacking illustrations, and introducing a vocabulary suggestive of a rural frontier life (man, woman, fire, smoke, wood, saw, cave, hill, cairn, calf, eagle, rat, berry) that has remained locked in time.

In the 1960s, though, change was in the air, and from the first lesson, we are invited into a defiantly suburban home, with a three-piece suite, a standard lamp, a cake stand, a foot-stool, and - most dramatically of all - a telebhisean.

My enthusiasm did not last. Four lessons in as many months and I gave in. Then nearly twenty years later, with a child at an age where decisions had to be made, his mother suggested we put in a placement request for the Gaelic School. I wasn't keen at first - remembering my eternal disappointment when my own parents shovelled me off to a posh grammar in a neighbouring town rather than the local one where most of my friends went. But I slowly came round to the idea. I attended some evening classes, and though I missed too many of them, I eventually began teaching myself the language again in earnest.

During the summer I found myself advancing on two fronts. On the one hand, there was Gaelic in Twelve Weeks and its accompanying CDs, which I transferred to my smartphone, and I have studiously applied myself to the exercises, refusing to move on to the next lesson until I felt I had truly mastered the previous. On the other, there was a DVD set of the first series of Speaking Our Language, the TV programme that first aired in the late 1990s and the books that went with it, which I watch with Jack several evenings a week.

With the book, I listen to the CDs and follow in the text. Then I try to write down what is being said, without referring to the book. And then I try and translate from Gaelic from the English in the text. In between times, when I'm out and about, I listen to the recordings as many times as it takes for the individual words and phrases to take shape and be recognizable, while repeating them to myself to improve my pronunciation. Only when I feel I can do all this without thinking too much and not making many mistakes do I allow myself to move on to the next lesson. After about four months, I'm about ready to tackle lesson four. So much for twelve weeks.

The television programmes are a gentler way in. We're three-quarters through the first series on our second run. Programmes are organised around topics (greetings, goodbyes, telling the time, travelling, instructions and orders, and so on) and you learn a series of useful phrases (often in dialogue form) without being required to systematically learn all the forms of a pronoun or preposition or tackle the rules governing lenition. Jack loves watching these programmes, especially the soap opera Aig an Taigh embedded within them. With the help of the books, I jot down some of the key points to help me remember them, and some of them stick, though by the second half of the series, a lot of them just vanish as soon as the credits roll. I think we'll have to watch some of them yet again, before we get Series Two.

When I think of how long it took me to absorb enough French for me to make a decent stab at writing something like this post in that language - and even now, I'd have to consult a dictionary at least once a sentence - the task ahead is daunting. But each time I feel ready for something new - conjugating verbs, the names of the seasons, another round of prepositional pronouns - a shiver of achievement makes it all worthwhile. One day I might even talk to a stranger.

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created by Alasdair Pettinger Sat 8 Sep 2012 10:50 GMT+0100
Adventures Close to Home 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | Next  




Rasping the Silence
Discovered in 2012
The Problem with 'Screen Time'
First Things
Language Games
The Hall is Full of Noises
Unwaving the Flag
Malcolm X as Photographer
An Outline of a Critique of Political Economy
Our Future
Playing with Chekhov
Not Biking but Hiking
House Music
Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema
Shall I Compare Thee to a Hampshire Town?
Listening to Britain
Keynotes, Signals and Soundmarks
See Emily Play
Things to do on a rainy afternoon
Retweeting Retrouvé