“An August child knows nothing but stress” – A prespective from an August child.

Institute for Fiscal Studies data shows that August-born children in the UK do less well at school, may do less well at university (or are generally less likely to get there), and that this follows through their lives.

I was born in August, and started school at the age of 4 years 3 weeks. However, I don’t think my age was ever actually an issue within my year at school. I was in the higher streams in primary school, was confident, and pretty happy. Time for some self-analysis:

When I think back there were several things that my TEACHERS were sure I wasn’t good at. I distinctly remember an occasion (age 7) where my teacher was shocked at my skills at ‘reading out loud’. So much so that she asked me to read to the whole class!

I remember being told that I couldn’t read the higher stream books in the reading case (age 8), but never being given a reason. This was at a time when I was devouring much more difficult books at home (Sherlock Holmes, Greek myths and H.G. Wells), and had made my way through the entire children’s section at the local library.

Then, age 10, I was apparently one of the three people in my class not good enough at sport to compete in a local competition. What my teacher didn’t know was that I was part of a local athletics club, and was competing for them in regional and national competitions! The three of us were left all alone in our classroom for three days, while the rest went off to take part in the competitions.

This trend continued throughout my time at comprehensive too, where I was told by my English teacher that I “should not have read” the Hobbit (age 13) or To Kill a Mocking Bird (age 14) yet, because “we will do it next year”, and my personal best at 100m (timed at the athletics club) was greeted with disbelief by my P.E. teacher, who told me it must be wrong.

I was told by another P.E. teacher that, despite the fact that I enjoyed badminton and turned up for extra coaching, there was no way I could compete in the local tournament. Again with no explanation.

However, I also remember being taken to one side at a parent’s evening and being shown a graph of our CAT (Cognitive Abilities Test – taken age 11) scores where I scored the highest in my year, and being asked by my teacher, “Why, if you score so high, do you have such low self-belief?”

Did this leave me feeling inadequate? Will it affect my prospects in the future? Has it given me a ‘complex’ that I can’t succeed?

I’m not sure. I think I am a confident, smart individual.

I still think I am no good at sport, and refuse to run any more, though I am quite fit.

Maybe it has affected me. Once I finally finish university, having given up my first degree, I shall find out.

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Rock Art and Land Mines

The BBC World Service today published an article and interview with Sada Mire, Somali archaeologist now based in London.

Affiliated to the School of Oriental and African Studies and University College London, the 35 year old is also director of the Department of Tourism and Archaeology of Somaliland, a breakaway region of northern Somalia.

Her recent discoveries shed an amazing light on the history of the Horn of Africa: multi-coloured rock art in pink, green, and white; burial cairns; standing stones; even Chinese pottery have all been unearthed by her and her determined team.

In an area where current culture is handed down by word of mouth, in a nomadic and mobile community there is little material culture to back it up, and the process of seeking it can be dangerous – her team brave not only poisonous snakes and desert heat, but also land mines and well-armed bandits in pursuit of the documenting of her country’s cultural heritage.

The study of archaeology, wherever it takes place, relies upon the surviving remains of peoples’ lives: broken pots, fireplaces, art, buildings, even holes in the ground for tent-poles can help to build a picture of a people’s cultural heritage, and the known history of Somalia is complicated enough, with invasions from Arabia and various colonial powers, and conversions to first Christianity then Islam.

As a former student of archaeology I sincerely hope that Sada will be able to continue her work in safety, and that the information and artefacts she uncovers may be safeguarded and studied, and that other people will be encouraged by the BBC coverage to offer assistance via the Horn Heritage charity which Sada has founded.

More information on the work can be found at: Somali Heritage and Archaeology, Horn Heritage and BBC News.

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Coca and Cocaine in Peru

President Ollanta Humala of Peru has declared today that his government is to temporarily suspend its coca-eradication program after reportedly reaching only 2/5 of its eradication quota for 2011.

Coca is grown in Peru and is used traditionally as a mild stimulant – the dried leaves are chewed or made into tea, which is commercially available and is reputedly a good cure for altitude sickness and toothache (it numbs the mouth when chewed).

However, in recent years Peru’s crop has grown to enormous proportions as more and more drugs suppliers are using the area for cocaine production, having been driven out of areas of Mexico and Columbia.

Peru’s coca ‘capital’ region is inaccessible and far from the country’s capital Lima, and twelve years of eradication has had little effect, with the country being the second largest producer after Colombia.

Nearby Bolivia has legalized the growing of coca for traditional purposes, though still has an eradication program for crops deemed to be for the drugs trade.

The program, which receives US funding, has been temporarily suspended to allow the new president to re-shuffle his cabinet and drugs policy team, and the government is stated as saying that a new approach with a basis in alternative development and social inclusion would be taken.

Peru’s seizures of cocaine under President Ollanta’s predecessor Alan Garcia were less than 1/10 of those carried out in Colombia over the same period, despite the similarity on production rates. It can be hoped that the suspension will give the new President time to come up with a more successful and targeted regime.

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On Friday I watched The Redemption of General Butt Naked on UK Channel 4, a moving and disturbing film about one of Liberia’s most notorious war criminals.

During the civil war of the early 1990’s the Butt Naked brigade were among the most feared. Children and young men, running and dancing through the streets, unafraid of bullets or knives, and all whilst utterly stark naked – a disturbing concept just to imagine, but this was reality.

But then the General, Mr Joshua Milton Blahyi, disappeared, only to reappear years later in the guise of a preacher. The film shows him as a general, as a preacher, and as a father.

I do not want to judge whether his actions show genuine remorse, or simply a knowledge that preaching is another way of holding power over your people. However, I hope that his remorse and willingness to admit his crimes is genuine, and that it may help to bring a shattered country slowly back to hope.

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Moving on out – Castro’s changing Cuba

President Raul Castro is an interesting man. Some may say enlightened.

During the last decades Communist states the world over have been experiencing a collective identity crisis. China has the “Great Capitalist Experiment”, meaning that they have become one of the greatest export economies in the world whilst still assuming the guise of a communist state. North Korea has gone in the opposite direction, and has cut itself off from the world at large, retreating behind its verdant green jungle walls.

Cuba in more interesting. It has played capitalist with the tourism industry, but few of the island’s residents had access to the income this brought. It was isolationist in its rules on technology – mobile phones were outlawed, yet everyone could find one on a none-too-well-hidden black market. And it was genuinely communist in its health and education services, and in the market-garden economies throughout the island. Now it looks as if things are changing, and not just because locals can now have legal mobile phones and their own businesses, as introduced in radical reforms last year.

Now there is the possibility that rules on emigration, much maligned by the West, may be withdrawn. Currently in order to exit the country, even to visit relatives, Cuban nationals have to obtain permission from the government, a hangover from the days when emigration for political reasons was rife. Now this may change. This is one example from among a plethora of reviews of government bureaucracy which threaten the jobs of thousands as the President tries to rid the state of “all sorts of nonsense”.

The changes under Raul Castro have so far been rapid, progressive and realistic. They are also a drastic change from the country’s history. It will be interesting to watch and learn where this still old-school but decidedly ‘revolutionary’ leader takes his beautiful country next.

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The heat is on!

Sitting in a brand new residential building, with the weather a nice 28 degrees C outside, sweating. The windows open to let in a breeze, all the curtains closed to minimise heat gain from the sun, the door to the hallway ajar for a through-draft, and the forced ventilation on maximum. New buildings are well-insulated, but how will they cope in the future?

The building in which I live is almost definitely a level 5 according to the UK government’s Code for Sustainable Homes (2008). It has “adequate” ventilation, the windows’ lack of functionality compensated for by switched vents to reduce draughts and therefore heat loss. It has solar panels to take advantage of the position relative to the sun, and to reduce energy consumption. It is well-insulated and has small windows to reduce heat lost through “cold bridging”. All of these aspects help to reduce the impact that the building will have on CO2 emmissions, and therefore on climate change.

However, as I sit here, sweating in the heat of a warm summer day, I wonder how will this building fare in the century to come?

The life-span of a building varies, but generally the building I live in could be expected to last, in it’s current use, or re-furbished, for at least 50 years, preferably 100. By then the UK Climate Projections 2009 (UKCP09) predict that, at a reasonable mean estimate, where I live, London, the average daily temperature in summer could have risen by between 2.5 and 5 degrees C. The average daily maximum temperature here between 1971 and 2000 was, in July, 23 degrees C (Source: Met Office), with the last ten years consistently above this mean. If this were to raise by 5 degrees our average daily temperature would be as it is today. 28 degrees C.

On a hot day, the temperature may well reach 35 degrees C.

The building in which I live is brand new and meets all of the government’s requirements for combating climate change, but it fails utterly to take into account the changes that may take place over its life-span. It may be reduced to obsolescence before its time, becoming uninhabitable due to its inability to cool the interior rooms sufficiently – in part due to exactly the CO2 output reducing technologies employed in its construction.

Developers and businesses need to learn these lessons now, before it is too late. Offices in the City of London are already unusable during heatwaves; with an increase in temperatures this could have a major effect on the economy.

Thought needs to be given, in designing and specifying new buildings, to ways in which they not only reduce emissions and waste, but also to ways in which they can continue to do this in a changing climate. Air-con is not a simple, or sustainable, answer.

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More on death . . .

Queenie was 59 years old. Born in 1952, she lived an active and fulfilling life as an entertainer, waterskiier, and sometime musician. This week the group of people caring for her in her retirement decided, after assessing her deteriorating quality of life and worsening state of health, that she should die.

Queenie the elephant was given a lethal injection and died at the Wild Adventures park in Georgia, USA.

Elephants are hugely intelligent animals both emotionally and mentally. They mourn their dead, fiercely protect the vulnerable, and “flirt” to find their favourite mate. Whether Queenie had friends at her park or not, it is worth wondering whether she was shown as much respect in her dying days as she would have been shown by other elephants, who would have waited with her in her illness and her final days, caring for her in her pain, and possibly covering her body with branches to prevent it being mauled by predators.

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