Sunday, 30 May 2010

Spare Time

Friends have asked what I do in my spare time. Well, I seem to spend a lot of it reading blogs! I look at blogs to do with volunteering and education, including technology in education. That last one takes a disproportionate amount of my interest. There is a revolution happening on the Internet, and education/research seems to be the driver for it. It's on all fronts. It's not simply about 'traditional' web-based reference resources and applications, it's also the instant technologies termed "Real-Time Web", though in computing terms there's nothing "Real Time" about it. It's "Web 2.0", though that term doesn't convey any information either.

So, to give an idea of what I'm talking about, here are a few of them:

Blogger, Delicious, Digg, Facebook, FriendFeed, Instapaper, MySpace, Orkut,, Posterous, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Tumblr, Twitter, Wiki, Edmodo, Diigo, Animoto, Zoho suite, Glogster, LiveBinders, Vocaroo, Typewith.Me, Schoology, Wall Wisher, Creator.zoho, Xtranormal, Skype, Voicethread,, Google Friend Connect, Scibblar, Polleverywhere, Survey Monkey, sliderocket, screentoaster, Blogtalk, skitch, Wordle, Moodle, Bighuge Labs, hypercam, Scribble Maps, Google Web Apps, Microsoft Web Apps, Screenr, Wordpress, Tagxedo, Voicethread, Storybird, PICNIK, Screencastle, BetterLesson, Google Earth, LinoIt, Grooveshark, GoAnimate, Evernote, Fotobabble, Meebo, NirvanaHQ, Jing, Google sites, Edublogs, xtranormal, Prezi, yodio, Primary Pad, Zotero, twite, iPadio, TinyChat, Desire2Learn, Doodle, Flixtime, Shidonni, Aviary, ZackAttack, Board800, Weebly Education, Audioboo, Drop Box, Glogster, igoogle, Mixbook, Wallwisher, Voicethread, Youtube, all things Google, Vimeo, Embed It In, Mind Meister, Ning, Prezi, Alice, Blabberize.

And believe me, that is far from an exhaustive list.

I might stand a chance of keeping up if only I could get off the starting blocks!

So today I subscribe to 138 blogs just to stay in the race. Those I look at frequently are loosely grouped as:
7 General
11 Edu-English
24 volunteering
29 Edu-tech

plus 67 Edu-tech blogs which I look at less frequently.

And the Edu-tech guys are posting stuff between once a week and five times a day.

Friday, 28 May 2010


I have toothache. It's a painful nuisance and has been making me pretty irritable. You might think I should simply go to the dentist but it's not quite that easy - yes, there are plenty to choose from, but the ones around here are no good, perform extractions as soon as look at you, and have unhygienic facilities, or so I'm told. I've got the name of a good dentist but he's in Galle, a long, tiring, three-and-a-half hour bus ride away, but I think I'm going to have to bite the bullet. I'll give them a call next week and I expect it'll involve three or four visits (probably a crown or bridge will be needed). Meanwhile I'm investing in Ibuprofen.

Right now it's the Vesak two-day holiday. Yesterday (Thurs 27th) was the Poya day - the full moon - which is the more significant day. It's all to do with the celebration of Buddha's birth and life and, with 85% of the population here being Buddhist, I expected a big event.

I decided to take a walk around Tangalle to see what was happening. First thing I noticed was the amplified chanting from the temples. Unlike India, I don't have noise thrust down my eardrums every second of the day and, in fact, the temples here make very little noise. What is more annoying is the airhorns fitted on every large vehicle, and some small too, and they like to use them! But today the noise wasn't too bad and even the temples were quite subdued. There were a few buses about, big and small, one or two lorries, and an unusual number of Land Master hand-tractors, pulling trailers of people, going in all directions. Houses sported sparse decorations, mostly paper lanterns, but it was quite breezy so I doubt if many had their candles lit in the evening. Nearly all of the shops were shut but I did eventually find one to sell me rice and curry for lunch. The place was swarming with flies and, as my forearms were dripping with sweat, they all wanted to settle on me. I couldn't stand it so wrapped the rice up in the plastic sheet it had come in and went back to my guest house. All in all, a bit of a non-event, really!

Monday, 24 May 2010


Last Friday I'd arranged to go to the Malapatha School to help out with the computing classes. I was looking forward to it and had twice phoned to confirm that I'd be coming. It's a small rural school with about 80 kids, grades 6 to 11, and they come from fairly poor backgrounds. Many of the parents make rough clay pots for a living, the type you see everywhere for containing curd/yoghurt. The school has decent computing facilities but the teachers need a little bit of training. Excellent, I thought. This is what I'm here to do.

When I got there the classes had all been cancelled, of course, and no one had bothered to tell me. Instead, the kids in every class were making lanterns for Vesak, and the teachers were mostly sitting about, doing not a lot, as far as I could tell. To be fair, they told me it's not normally like this.

I sat with the kids in the various grades for a while, chatting and watching them make their "atapattama" (literally 8-sided). The older children had found some bamboo, cut it down and split it, so each class had a length of split cane. The children then had sharp knives and bits of string, paste and tissue paper, and were fashioning lanterns without any guidance from the teachers. Even the youngest was happily splitting, chopping and trimming. They do the same thing every year at home and at school so I guess no guidance is needed, and they were surprisingly enthusiastic.

I talked with the teachers for a while, about integrating IT into their classes. The general response was "not a hope". The science teacher said that at best he had one free period a day in which to prepare and do admin, his curriculum was so thick and wouldn't allow deviation, the kids couldn't speak English and wouldn't understand, the timetable couldn't be altered to avoid clashes over the computers, the kids were being trained to pass exams and not trained to understand, and so on. But he wanted my phone number so that we could meet and he, sans class, could practice speaking English with me. The negativity is disheartening.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Yala National Park

Yesterday, I went on a tour at Yala National Park with Niranjan and Sophie from ASL, and a couple of tourist guys. The park is a three-hour drive east of Tangalle and covers 378 square miles (242,000 acres). The part the public are allowed to see is known as Block 1, and even that covers 54 square miles (35,000 acres). By any measure it's pretty big! A hundred years ago it was a game reserve for the rich to come and take pot shots at the wildlife. At least that may have helped preserve the area from human inhabitation.

Niranjan had arranged the transport - a van took us to Tissa where we picked up a Landrover and continued to the park. Locals pay about LKR 100 to get in, but us foreigners pay LKR 2200! For the record, it worked out at LKR 6000 for van and driver (from Weligama), LKR 4000 for Landrover and driver (from Tissa), and LKR 11,000 for entry and guide, all divided between the five of us so that's LKR4200 each, or about £26 in real money. A bit steep but that's what you've got to pay for a chance to see leopards and elephants in the wild.

Actually, it was a really good day out and turned into a bit of a safari adventure. The area is mostly low-lying and sandy, with some lagoons and wetlands, and some rock hills strewn about. This is in the dry semi-arid region of Sri Lanka but it had just rained the day before and the water holes were full. The part we were in had a areas of grassy open space and areas of scrubby bushes and trees - good for camouflage! The chances of seeing a leopard were about one in three, we were told, but we DID see one! Very fleetingly, but I managed to get a photo of it. which, although a lousy shot, was better than the others managed to get!

So what did we see? Water buffalo (wild and domestic), pelicans, a vivid-blue kingfisher, wild boar, a cobra, many spotted deer, some large deer, black-collared hare, kites, eagles, someone saw the rear of a black bear, crocodiles, elephants and the leopard! There were loads of birds, large and small, and we spotted the national bird, a Ceylon Jungle Fowl, which is meant to be common but this was the first and only one I've seen in my four weeks here.

The tour lasted about three and a half hours and involved a stop at Patanangala Beach. The beach itself was gorgeous, as you'll see from the photos, but just a hundred metres back were plinth remnants of six houses which had been swept away in the Dec 26, 2004 Tsunami. Apparently 47 people died here, including holiday makers but, reportedly, few animals perished.

On the way back out of the park we managed to slip off the road into a deep rut. Despite the 4-wheel drive we couldn't get out: the front leaf-spring was jammed in the dirt and the tyres had little grip and just spun, filling the air with black smoke and burning rubber. We attempted to push it out, placing rocks under the wheel in the rut, and one guy started to dig around the leaf spring with a tree branch, but in the end we were saved by a Toyota pickup which dragged us out backwards with a towing strop. By then it was starting to get dark, and it gets dark pretty quickly around here, so we fairly flew down the dirt tracks rally-style, and made the exit just before the six-thirty closing time. It all added to the adventure of the day!

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Google Documents

I've been playing with Goole Documents for most of today.  Or perhaps I should rather say "struggling with".  They can't be serious, surely?  This has been out for 4+ years and the features are still pitiful.  Try inserting a table - 5 rows by 5 cols is the max, then, if you need more, you have to add one row/col at a time.  Try merging cells - no can do. Try inserting an image - fine, if you don't want text beside it and certainly not possible within a table.  Want to copy and paste from one table to another - not a chance. Measurements, like column widths, are in inches only.  It's useless!

So why am I trying to use Google Documents?  It's Cloud Computing, innit!  The document is kept online and can be accessed and edited by anyone who has permission.  Adopt Sri Lanka serves 80 schools, the profiles of which are kept on hard disk.  The two offices each look after 40 schools.  But sometimes one office needs to look at the records of the other, or one staff member needs to work from the other office. And then sometimes a manager might need to go out of the country yet keep tabs on the schools.   Cloud computing is the obvious answer - with a browser and a password you can pick up and edit the documents from anywhere with an Internet connection, and multiple editors can simultaneously collaborate in the production.

Fantastic in theory, but Google's implementation is buggy.  Microsoft are rolling out their web apps in the next month or so - no longer will you need MSOffice installed on your PC.  You can bet that MS's offering will be far more capable than this ,,, thing.

Morning Routine

My day starts at 05:45 or so.  I've been getting up early and going for a walk along the beach, taking my camera with me to catch the sunrise.  But yesterday and today I just stayed at the guest-house doing, well, not a lot.  Perhaps the novelty is wearing off a bit or perhaps it's because the skies have been overcast and less tempting. 

School days are 07:30 to 13:30, or 12:30 if you're a junior.  That means kids are setting off at seven or even six-thirty.  Many walk past my door.  This morning I spotted a father taking his daughter on his bicycle.  She sat side-saddle on the crossbar holding a big umbrella over them while he pedalled slowly along.  Since she was dressed in white and the umbrella was cane-handled: it looked most genteel!  Yep, the kids' uniforms are mostly white and they wear it every day, unlike Kovalam, India, where it was reserved for Wednesdays only.  It looks very smart but is it practical, I wonder!  The older boys wear trousers, the younger ones shorts, and the girls wear skirts which come just below the knee - no more and no less.

I have a shower, shave and breakfast, and maybe wash a bucket of laundry, and then set off for work.  It's about fifteen minutes to town and then a further five to 201/B Matara Road.  I aim to get through the town before eight because that's when the National Anthem is blasted out and everything grinds to a halt.  Police, in their brown uniforms, are positioned all around the centre and ensure that everyone stops where they are: buses, cars, cyclists, trucks, pedestrians, everyone.  I've been caught out once or twice but will now dive into a cafe for a cuppa or, if I'm nearly out of the area, pretend I can't hear it and keep walking.  It goes on for what seems an eternity but is probably five minutes; it sounds quite tuneless but then it's difficult to judge from the distorted din.

I've been visiting the Perlyn Hotel most mornings for my 'curry and rice' lunch packet.  It's pretty basic food but fills a hole.  However, one of the reasons to go there and nowhere else is the girl behind the counter - she has this sweet, embarrassed, shy, smile when I come in.  All the other staff tease her but she bravely perseveres and giggles and beams at me.  It's difficult to say how old she is, perhaps 17, perhaps 30, but her smile kick-starts my day!

I've found that there's a bakery just across the road from the Perlyn and I'll get a couple of plain buns or filled rolls there to have later.  The prices are all marked on the cabinets so it's one of the few places I feel I'm not paying over the odds because of my skin colour.  And it's all freshly baked and tasty.

Then it's off up Matara Road.  There'll be more police stationed along the way, often in groups, and some stationed outside the President's House.  Tangalle is his home town, you see.  The building is behind a dark green wall and not visible from the road so I've no idea how large or grand it is.  It's possibly the family home rather than his personal residence - I don't know for sure.  Anyway, there will be both policemen and policewomen, again in brown, the men wearing trousers or shorts, and the women skirts, some of which come above the knee!  Perhaps it's so they can run faster!  Many of the officers have badges and service ribbons dripping off them, and many carry guns.  Apparently they are much despised though I've had no problems so far. 

I pass two statutes on the way, one with inordinately large hands, both with fingers raised in some commanding show of personality.  Who they are I have yet to discover!  Then it's into the office.  I'll be first there so I get to unpadlock the roller-shutter door.  The trapped heat will then hit me so it's a case of nipping up the stairs, unlocking the door and quickly switching the a/c on before I melt!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Rohan Goas : Review

Dear Rohan ,

When I bought a pair of your Goas trousers last October I thought your half-price offer might be too good to be true  but, like the sucker I am for a good deal, I went ahead and bought a pair.  After all, all the other Rohan products I've ever bought over the years have been wonderful performers - how could I possibly go wrong?  So I ordered a pair on-line, and tried them out for 6 months in India.  And now I'm trying them out in Sri Lanka.

After many hours of wearing them and living with them I have come to a clear conclusion : 
They're Absolute C R A P !!!

Let me explain :
A drawcord made from thin elastic which makes it impossible to get the right tension.  If it's too loose, they fall down.  If it's too tight, it digs into your stomach.  There is no "just right" position.  When you mistakenly believe you've found it, try putting some coins or a mobile phone in the pockets - watch them slide gracefully over your hips and descend to the floor.

The pockets are lined with some material which sticks to your hands.  That means you either can't get your sweaty hands in or, if you succeed, you empty the contents on the floor when you pull your sweaty hands out. 

The shape of the pockets barely allows a wallet to be stuffed in, let alone your hands.

The coin-catcher design certainly works.  In fact it works so well that you can't get the bloody things out!

The pocket with the inner pocket, multiple seams and blind voids, is thick and consequently makes you and the material damp and sweaty.

The inner pocket is secured with Velcro - so much for discrete stashing of cash.  That's if you can open it at all.   And if you do manage to get your sweaty hands into your sweaty pockets you can never figure out whether your hand is in the same pocket as the coins or in some parallel universe.

"Lightweight travel essentials. Supremely comfortable, fast drying, light, packable and most indestructible. The fit has been recently refined for extra comfort and the design of the waist adjuster and pockets has been improved.
So, if you liked the original Goas, you’re going to love the new, distilled version. And, don’t worry, everything we’ve left is all that you need."

I'd like to know how bad the original Goas were for anyone to love these.  Just how awful were those waist adjusters and pockets before?  And "Supremely comfortable"?  Not when they're falling around your knees or cutting grooves in your belly.  "Most indestructible"?  I'm seriously tempted to put a match to them to find out.

I've tried to love them, I really have, but there's no getting away from it :
They're crap and they're going in the bin.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Saturday, in which Clive sits on a Woman's Leg

Yesterday, Saturday, I'd been invited over to Galle by a couple I met on my first day here - Alan and Jo, retired English teachers who were volunteering their years of experience at schools near Unawatuna Beach.  Galle is 62km from Tangalle and, it turns out, it's not a pleasant journey.  It didn't help that I was tired due to a sleepless night from feeling sick and a headache.

I managed to get a seat on a bus at Tangalle just because that's where the bus empties.  It was a real stop-start journey, with much braking and accelerating as we picked up more and more passengers. But after about 20km we were involved in an accident.  It had been raining heavily and a braking lorry aquaplaned across the road right in front of us. Actually I'm surprised that there aren't more accidents judging by the speed people go at with their near-bald tyres. I was watching out the front window, trying not to be travel sick, and saw it all happening in slow motion.  Our driver did his best to avoid it but there was a load thump and judder as the truck hit our front bumper on the nearside and slewed past us.  A cyclist only just managed to jump out of the way as the lorry ground to a halt - there were no injuries, thankfully. Where it stopped, I was level with the lorry driver's cab and could see everything in it - including the box of switches and wires on the passenger's seat.  I presume that this was the dashboard.  You could see it was all bodged together with bits of sticky tape and the cab itself had been welded and patched in countless places.  Alan later told me that Sri Lanka is a nation of breakers and repairers, and I can well believe it!

We blocked the road for 15 minutes while nothing much seemed to happen until the bus suddenly emptied.  I've seen far worse damage on working buses in India but this one was going nowhere until the police arrived.  The conductor arranged to reimburse everyone and, as luck would have it, after our guy decided he could pull off the road to allow the queues to move, another bus came along immediately.  I changed at Matara and managed to cram onto an overfull bus to Galle.

I'd decided to travel early so that I could visit a Mobitel outlet to arrange mobile internet and thought I might even have some time for sightseeing.  As it was, it took a lot longer than I'd expected (it always does!) so then I had to rush off to Jo and Alan's for lunch.  After an enjoyable afternoon, it was time to leave.  I caught a bus which ended up being about as crowded as you can get.  The rows of seats in all of these buses are arranged as three plus two so the narrow aisles are packed with people standing arse to arse.  The conductor and folk trying to get off find themselves half-suspended between others, and have to heave themselves over bodies and limbs.  A window seat in a row of three miraculously became free beside me but getting to it meant I had to be pushed in by the old guy at the aisle and had to momentarily sit on the leg of the woman passenger in the middle.  It was most jolly!

Both journeys to and from Galle took 3 and a half hours.  It's not something I'll undertake lightly again.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

In the President's Shadow

After a walk along the beach at sunrise, and after helping these fishermen push their boat to a safe piece of sand, I encountered some water buffalo waiting to go for a dip in the lagoons. Where the concrete eventually peters out at about 2km from town, the beach road turns into a dirt track which goes on for a distance I've yet to explore. It's an area of murky lagoons, frequented only by the foolhardy and the thick skinned. If the infections in the water don't get you then the creatures living in it probably will. The beast I spotted was either a crocodile or a damned big lizard - either way, I didn't fancy investigating closer!

Back in Tangalle I ventured down to the harbour. I hadn't expected to be able to get there by walking along the beach but, what I'd taken to be a river passing through the centre of town turned out to be another long, skinny, land-locked lagoon. I was told that the sea overcame the sand bridge once or twice a year which must give it a chance to refresh the stagnant water.

Tangalle's only roundabout not only hosts one of the largest self-promoting posters I've seen in my life (showing the SL President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose 23 year-old son won the local parliamentary elections a couple of weeks ago) but notice what's underneath it. Yep, cows! Both son and cows benefitting from being in the president's shadow!

And finally, these three Muslim children (4, 10 and 12) charmed me for half an hour while I indulged in two slices of bread with strawberry jam, and some of the sweetest, sickliest milky tea I've ever, ever forced myself to drink!

A few more photos from Sri Lanka...