29 May, 2015

Springtime sandal shopping

It's spring which means...time to shop for sandals for the kids again.

I have never been a great fan of shoe shopping for myself -- a legacy of having large feet and it being impossible to find shoes in my size when I was young. I have memories of being dragged from shop to shop with assistants making increasingly cutting remarks about the size of my feet. That wouldn't happen these days, of course -- people actually seem to care about kids and their feelings now! But not so back in the 70s.

My kids have quite large feet too, but at least shops have now tumbled to the fact that not all girls possess petite tootsies and it is possible to purchase larger sizes. However, my oldest is now at the age where Clarks is a no-no and Schuh is much more the thing, whereas my youngest still prefers the offering from Clarks, so we now have to visit twice as many shops. Schuh is also expensive, which rather limits the choices for my oldest, as I (perhaps unreasonably?) baulk at paying over £40 for a pair of kids' sandals.

So, we headed into our local town a couple of days ago and visited the requisite shops. My oldest identified some sandals that she liked, but which were expensive. My youngest was measured up in Clarks, but when the assistant returned from the stock room she declared that they had no sandals whatsoever in my daughter's size. So, we came home empty handed on both fronts.

The problem is that the kids still need their sandals. So, I started up my laptop and managed to find the expensive sandals for sale significantly cheaper with a reputable online supplier. Hurrah! And we managed to find some sandals that my youngest liked the look of in the Clarks online shop. These are now on order for delivery to our local store.

Let's just hope they fit when they arrive, otherwise it'll be back to the drawing board again!

23 May, 2015

The Cotswold town of Burford

We had a fabulous family day out in the Cotswold town of Burford today. We used to visit Burford a lot when we first moved to Oxfordshire, but haven't visited for a long time and, as far as I remember, we haven't taken the kids there. So, we packed up a picnic and decided to give it a go.

We started off by doing a four mile walk in the countryside surrounding Burford. The Cotswolds landscape is truly gorgeous and we climbed lots of stiles (the kids love stiles), saw some foals (the kids love foals) and took in the tiny church in the village of Widford (very peaceful with beautiful wall paintings). We had our picnic in a lush valley bottom, halfway round the walk -- the perfect picnic spot.

After our walk, we got 'proper' ice creams in Burford (waffle cones and non-mass produced ice cream) and had a look round the numerous shops in the town. We particularly liked the Cotswold Cheese Company (lots of lovely cheeses, olives and savoury biscuits, with a cafe at the back where you could enjoy tasting platters and a glass of wine) and Burford Woodcraft (we were keen to show this shop to the kids as we bought our current coffee table there when we first moved down to Oxford, almost twenty years ago now).

On the way back to the car, we popped into Burford's church, which is very large with spectacular stained glass (fitting for a former wealthy wool town), and bought a couple of plants for our garden from a 'nursery' (actually an extensive Cotswold stone house which sells all sorts of cottage garden plants to passing tourists).

I arrived home feeling relaxed and restored. An excellent outcome for a bank holiday Saturday!

16 May, 2015

Wearables and the coffee shop experience

I heard an interesting article last week on Radio 4's Today programme about so-called 'wearables' -- wearable technology such as smart watches. This article covered the uses to which such wearable devices can be put -- transferring our personal data to other devices in order to make our lives easier, for instance. The example given, which really made my ears prick up, was that your smart watch might be used to transfer your personal beverage preferences to the computer at your local coffee shop, with the result that your coffee would be ready and waiting for you on your arrival. No need to queue. No need to take time to decide whether or not you'd like to try the coffee of the week.  No need whatsoever to speak to another human being. Simply grab and go -- in the most literal sense.

The general gist of the Today programme discussion covered the ethics and data protection aspects of such practice -- is it safe or desirable for people's personal data to be transmitted in this way? Research showed that opinion on this issue is divided, with, perhaps predictably, the very young (those already most comfortable with mobile devices, social media, etc.) voicing the least concern.

But my interest lay in the social -- or lack of social -- aspects of such practice in relation to the coffee shop experience. I actively enjoy going into a coffee shop, standing in a queue, observing the people around me, interacting with the barista to order my coffee (pass the time of day, have a joke...). I can't imagine anything worse than grabbing my coffee and leaving without any social interaction whatsoever.

Am I unusual in this, I wonder? Or am I one of many set-in-their-ways, middle-aged people who feel just the same? (And, as a largely irrelevant aside, who takes a word like 'wearables' seriously anyway?!)

02 May, 2015

The Hard Problem

Last weekend, I had a wonderful treat. My husband and I went to see Tom Stoppard's new play, 'The Hard Problem', at the National Theatre on London's South Bank.

Tom Stoppard is my all-time favourite playwright, simply because his plays are so intelligent and make you think in a way that no other plays do. So I was very excited when I found out that Stoppard had written a new play, and I was lucky enough to be given tickets for my birthday.

'The Hard Problem' didn't disappoint. Essentially, the play is about the problem of consciousness--how, given the materialist nature of science, it is possible to adequately explain the phenomenon of consciousness in purely scientific (i.e. physical) terms (via neurobiology, for example). The vast majority of scientists, psychologists and philosophers today believe that the mind (or consciousness) in some way reduces to brain activity, hence can be explained in physical or scientific terms. However, they all agree that no-one to date has come close to doing so -- simply because, they argue, the brain (and mind) is simply too complex for us to understand at this stage. Hence, the problem of consciousness is the Hard Problem for scientists.

Stoppard's play explores the flip side of the coin -- that perhaps the mind or consciousness cannot be reduced to physical brain activity. The key protagonist of this argument within the play is Hilary, a psychologist who feels extreme sorrow and guilt for having given her daughter up for adoption and who prays to God for forgiveness. These concepts -- sorrow, guilt, forgiveness and God -- are  not, she believes, rooted in the physical. Rather, they are something more than physical.

As is typical with Stoppard, the play is fast moving and covers a variety of topics. Areas that loom large are the nature of altruism, the behaviour of financial markets, whether or not machines can think, and what any of this has to do with how people behave in the real world (outside academia) day to day.

I loved this play. My academic background is in philosophy, which means that I was familiar with most of the concepts discussed. However, that kind of knowledge isn't necessary to enjoy the play -- I know of several non-specialists who loved it. All you need is an ability to listen carefully and to think outside the box.

My husband and I came out of the theatre discussing the issues raised in the play and we are still discussing them. Wonderful!