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Number Crunching

Other than the birth of my children, the achievement of which I am most proud is having obtained an A at Maths GCSE. I’m pleased to say that my Maths teacher almost needed smelling salts when the results were pinned to the board, having told me I was a hopeless case for several years. (I have a stubborn streak, and schadenfreude is one of my many sins).

In a lot of ways she was right – my brain just doesn’t seem to be wired to understand abstract concepts. Addition, substraction, multiplication & division are no problem – can do the numbers game on Countdown/les chiffres et les lettres, better than the Grouch, who did not one, but three maths A-levels. Spatial awareness is fine -as illustrated by my having to show the removal men how to get my now defunct and crushed fridge into the house via a doorway, rather than horizontally through the window, and have lost count of the number of passengers holding their breath and adopting the brace position whilst I manoever my somewhat wider than standard car through narrow medieval alleyways.

But try and explain calculus/differentiation or triangles to me and a glazed expression of utter confusion will beset my features.

The reason for the above confession is that my daughter’s homework has me stumped. Luckily, once I’d translated it from French to English the Grouch was able to explain how to work out the area of a small square inside a larger one, given only that the large square was 7cm wider (& taller, I’m not that THAT thick) than the smaller and that the area of the large square minus that of the small square is 189cm2.

Anyway, the point of the post is not that I am NOT a  ‘mathos’, but that I had blithely assumed that the answer would be the same both here and in UK, maths & science being the universal language, so here’s the question :


Given that there were no brackets present I blithely assumed the answer to be 55.

Apparently not.  In France multiplication takes precedence over the order in which the calculation is written, making the answer 27.

Go figure!

PS Answers plus methodology welcome in comments!


Ashes to Ashes

I’m not very good at current affairs, so this and this aren’t exactly hot off the press.  But the pictures of thousands of fridges stacked up awaiting disposal stuck in my mind.  Apparently also in other people’s.

We have a great service where the council come round once a month for any outsize ‘rubbish’, so at 6 am this morning I dutifully dragged  an old cooker, a microwave and a beautiful but sadly defunct ‘american’ fridge over the road to the collection point. Also the carcass of a metal framed awning/pergola that fell victim to the last big storm.

Well they’ve been, and I am left shaking my head, somewhat perplexed. You see I was expecting a flat-bed truck, or a removals van, especially as I’d had to furnish a list of what was being discarded to the Mairie, so as they could plan their route. But no, it was a standard bin-van on streroids, i.e. bigger and more powerful than our standard refuse collection.  And everything was devoured on the spot – chairs, beds, mattresses, cooker, TVs, computers, scrap metal and fridge, though the van tried to spit the latter back out – it was very big – that’s why we bought it.

Am really no expert when it comes to how such things work (not tagged as technonumpty for nothing) and the fridge was already empty of the gas that goes through the compressor – the spotty Herbert we called out when it broke down saw to that (another story which shall probably appear in a different post) – and it was a self-defrosting airflow fridge-freezer. Does that mean all the noxious gasses have been removed? I hope so, because getting crushed and taken straight to landfill wasn’t quite what I thought would happen.  Ditto for the aluminium pergola.

So in future, my house and yard will have to look the municipal recyclying facility until we borrow a trailer, (and a car with a tow-hook) and take things to the depot ourselves. I only hope that when we dutifully separate metals, glass and plastic at the main tip, that they do get recycled.  At least we’ll be doing our bit to keep house prices stable – the neighbour who likes us calls us the English Gypsies, so heaven only knows what the other lot say.

Industrial relations

I can’t find the story anywhere else than here so apologies in advance for any nausea occasioned. En V.O. ici.

In summary : 60 employees of Serta, a haulage company on the verge of bankruptcy, are threatening to pollute the Seine with petrol additive, in the hope that the commercial court will approve bankruptcy rather than accept one of the two take-over offers. If the workers do get the 15,000 Euro per head payoff that they desire, they could be fined up to 100,000 E or be imprisoned for seven years on charges of extortion.

The snippet on the radio that I heard ( yes been driving again) explained that the workers would prefer to take redundancy than work for an unscrupulous employer who would coerce them into falsifying the tachograph etc.

Mind you, here in France, provided you had a permanent contract ( CDI) which are harder and harder to find, you get 2 years full pay if made redundant. The current government are trying to bring that down to 1 year.

Many entrepreneurial French youngsters go to London/the States/Canada for work as finding that all-important first job is getting harder and harder.


We don’t need no Education

Choosing the title of this post took far longer than it should – in one of my decisive moods today – anyway Pink Floyd seemed less offensive than Tony Blair, and the song fits very nicely with a future post. I’m trying to psyche myself up for the annual school shopping expedition which will blog when accomplished – not something I anticipate with any relish. Anyway here’s something far more intelligent, not something liable to happen very often here, and it’s a long one (no bishop jokes, please).

For a year or so now have been reading A, a very thoughtful lady with whom I share many interests. In short (something I say a lot, but that rarely happens), though we’ve never met I just adore her. Earlier this year she did a post on bilingual education and somewhat misguidedly asked for my opinion, prompting the longest comment I’ve ever made.  More recently I found a related article here at  http://scienceblogs.com/neurophilosophy. Many thanks go to Stan at Sentence First for finding the article in the first place.  As is the way with this blogging lark, I can’t remember how I came across him, but I’m very glad I did. It was either via Wordslinger, Virtual Linguist, or Lynneguist.

Here follows the comment I made chez A Changing Life, but please go to the original post first, as others were far more pertinent than I.



Heck, throw a small subject at me, why don’t you?

I’ll break it down into subsections to make my brain hurt less (have a gueule de bois this morning)

A) To be truly and totally bilingual one needs to have grown up with a parent of each language and hopefully also been educated in both so that each is as fluent,natural and erudite as the other. In the developed world this tends to be children of diplomatic families. Labourers also repatriate for work but are less likely to be both parents different maternal language. In other parts of the world however, bi or even tri-lingualism are much more common with indiginous languages being used within extended family and parents making sure their children understand the ‘imposed’ language (usually French or English in preparation for school.

B) My kids are almost bilingual (most people would class them as fully-so, but I’m a terror for splitting hairs/infinitives).
They live in and are schooled in France but with two English parents and a Daddy that doesn’t DO languages. We speak English at home and watch the Beeb, though I will yell at them in French when out and about (ex au-pair). There are marked linguistic differences between them. The Daught, though still wee when transplanted had already been through playgroup/kindergarten in England and subsequently did Reception class in an English speaking school (French system wouldn’t accept her health problems and I refused to send a very intelligent child to special school). Despite being in the French system since GS Maternelle (age 5-6) she still shows a marked preference for English and an aversion to French.
The Boy, though less than two years younger has known nothing other than the French system (won’t say better/worse, will diplomatically stick with different). He has more vocab gaps in English than French and when talking about something for the first time in English comes out with some very Norman expressions (that’s Guillaume le batârd not Wisdom).

{Bii) Most people class me as tri-lingual as German (used to be, less so now after a decade in la Belle Patrie) on a par with French and I have no difficulties understanding or expressing ideas on most any subject in either language, however the way I construct my sentences is most definitely non-native. Also, unless I’m able to remain aloof and continue thinking in English, I find it taxing to switch between the two as, if I’m thinking in French the German gets masked, and vice versa. This is to do with how memory pathways are formed, put simply both are in the foreign language slot) My kids don’t have that problem (see C)}

C) Am no neurologist, but have been told by those who know these things that if a language is learned by living with a ‘target’ language parent or by being exclusively educated in the target language it takes (5 years from age 2 to 7) for the brain to develop truly bilingual pathways. That is to say that after age 2 to 3 the target language is not registered as the natural norm for communication, and after 8 the brain pathways are starting to ‘solidify’ therefore the target language would be classed as ‘foreign’ and stored in the same way as I do French/German. A child raised from birth/very early childhood through to end primary school will use the language in a natural way even if subsequently moved. There have been plenty of cases with refugees not realising they speak Polish/German as had moved from there at a young age, (for obvious reasons will not be breaking Godwins Law on A’s blog), until later in adulthood noticing that the rest of the family don’t understand the gibberish found by accident on the radio/overheard in a shop queue).
Unfortunately, starting to learn a new language after the age of 9, even with total immersion, one is unlikely to become truly bilingual.

D) Pros & Cons :
Pros : Any extended stay in a different language as a child opens the ear and makes subsequent language learning a lot easier, even a different one from that experienced.

Bilingual kids also tend to be good at Maths and music, and most importantly with regard to the icky IQ tests, at lateral thinking; bilingual also means bi-cultural so an acceptance that different ways of doing things are equally valid – a good example is the way maths is taught very differently in France and the UK, but the answer should (usually) be the same.

{About 6 months back read a brilliant article on IQ tests by someone who scores very high but values practical/emotional intelligence more – if I have time will forward, might even have been via Relax Max}

Cons : I have no scientific proof, but have noticed a far higher incidence of dyslexia, dyspraxia and ambidextrousness? in the bilingual kids. When this is severe the parents have little choice but to stick to the language used for school as it isn’t worth a kid being ever unable to read in both, better to concentrate on one, even the foreign one if repatriation isn’t feasible.

Not all teachers in the host country will be understanding, or even tolerant of the quirks that come from being raised bi-culturally. I have horror stories too numerous for here of teachers from ‘l’édu nat’ not permitting questions from kids who’ve been taught, English-style, to be curious.

As with Max I’ll post the caveat that all the above is hearsay and circumstantial, not scientific fact. And am in complete agreement with Max that a lot of ‘knowledge’ is culturally based – get your remote control out and compare your scores on ‘Les chiffres et les lettres’/Countdown, ‘Questions pour un Champion’/Millionaire and le ‘Maillon Faible’/Weakest Link. Voilà un défi!

Earth, Wind and Fire (works)

Am on coffee number three and the brain still won’t function. Had the bright idea of going stargazing last night so hauled the kids out of bed and trundled carrimats and sleeping backs up the hill to the farmer’s field to watch the shooting stars. (Our garden’s covered with tress so doesn’t have an uninterrupted view of the sky).
The kids enjoyed the adventure – they’ve been camping before, but never without a tent, and my back feels better than it has in ages. Were awoken by The Grouch phoning this morning to find out where we were. (Reply – nope, we haven’t left you, …yet, evil grin!)  The kids slept through the somewhat perplexed deer ambling past at dawn. Unfortunately have found that the camera on my phone only works in broad daylight or indoors at night so no Bambi pictures. Besides, moving to get a pickie would have startled them and I didn’t fancy having to explain to school in September why the kids have hoofmarks on their heads!
Returned to civilisation, if our house can be called that, very dusty and with a strange metallic taste in our mouths – bloody OP’s so the usual morning routine has been put into reverse – showers before breakfast before back to bed.

The customer is always right

During the road-trip,(4700km in just over a fortnight),  it was a joy to listen to Radio 4, most of the way up through France, and of course in the UK. Of several snippets that captured my interest was an interview with Lady/Baroness X  (sorry, both title and name elude me) on the harmonisation of European Consumer Rights. (And no I can’t find it on the Beeb either). I’m fairly sure I recognised her name from reading http://lordsoftheblog.net

In the UK, consumer rights are pretty well protected, with most large retailers, and often smaller concerns too, offering customer service that exceeds the statutory requirements. For example most will happily let you take clothes back, just because you didn’t like the colour, with the proviso that all the sales labels are still attached. I once took a very expensive party dress back, because the fabric went weird after washing. (And no, it wasn’t labelled dry-clean only, I’m not that cheeky!).

If a product is faulty the customer can insist on a full refund, after all if Brand X washing machine breaks down after a week, the consumer is hardly likely to trust the same make and model as a replacement. It showed that we’ve been living in France for too long, when we took Mother’s set-top box, which started misbehaving within 2 days of purchase back to the retailer fully prepared to do battle (UK TV is going digital), only to find them offering us the next model up to compensate for the inconvenience. In the end we changed make and model.

Over here I’ve lost count of the number of lifeless gadgets cluttering up the house that seem pre-programmed to give up the ghost as soon as they leave the shop. I’m informed that our house insurance covers lawyers fees, but who in their right mind would want to go through that sort of hassle for a toaster!   (The way I got ripped off when buying this laptop is another example of Customer Service à la française).

In fairness I must say that things have improved greatly in recent years – the local supermarket made no fuss when I took back an MP3 that didn’t work – well I say no fuss, they said it was the OS on my computer, but when I pointed out that I’d tried it with Windows 2000, XP and Vista, and that if they wanted I’d go home and try it on 98 & 95 they shrugged gallicly and admitted defeat. (another gallic trait, je taquine).

In short, UK consumer protection regulations, let alone the retail practices that go beyond them, outclass the rest of Europe by a long shot.  And, in order to standardise rights across Europe, the British consumer would have to forego some of their legal rights.

Given where I live, despite the myriad petty annoyances, it should come as no surprise that I am pro-European.  And in general I’m in favour of harmonising regulations across the EU as the whole economic point, setting aside the political for now (if not forever), is to free up the movement of goods, services and people, but why oh why can’t we cherry pick the best bits of each countries legislation rather than the citizens of country X having to lose hard-won rights.

Lost in Translation

Dans la Vienne, des salariés menacent de faire sauter leur usine – Economie – Le Monde.fr. (link valid until 26/07/09)

is the basis for the Telegraph story that caught my fancy yesterday,    French workers threaten ‘to blow up’ car factory – Telegraph.

“Pour tenter de négocier cette indemnité, trois cars, soit environ 150 salariés…”, Le Monde, compared to the Telegraph’s  “Mr Eyermann said two coach loads of workers had visited…”

As a translation error, it’s basic but of very little consequence; it doesn’t change the meaning or time-line of the story.  It just struck me as a particulary odd error, after all three coaches don’t suddenly morph into two, however indicative that may be of the current economic situation.

Two much commoner errors  would have been

  • three car loads of workers – having read the French version, the image of 150 disgruntled machinists crammed into  3 cars tickled my fancy, reminiscent of student hi-jinks.
  • 3/4 of  150 workers – trois cars being homonymous with trois-quarts, mind you the product would be  112.5 workers – part-timer or missing body parts?

I’m probably the only person on the planet that finds this funny, so sorry if you’ve been bored. Will try harder next time.