Month: July 2013

Inheriting the Earth

Am I supposed to be meek? Am I meek enough? What does it mean to be meek and what does it suggest about me? For the last several days I have been surrounded by what might best be described as archetypes of the alpha male.

Men with Popeye forearms who hunt, skydive, strip down engines from gigantic motorcycles and build walls using massive power tools. For someone for whom wall-building is an alien craft, this has been both somewhat unsettling and has provoked a few inner thoughts. I watch, hands like violin cases, as structures emerge amidst the piles of dust, with me generally staying out of the way. Mostly, the French artisan is affable, genial and hardworking, but not longsuffering when it comes to his perception of fools. A gentle inquiry as to why the pool filter was positioned above the water surface, instead of 50cm below it as specified in the instruction manual, was met with a terse ‘you read too much’. I smiled and walked away.
A friend has written a little meditation about meekness, which, to use a grunting, masculine metaphor, primed the pump for my own thinking. ‘Meek’ is an old-fashioned, almost derogatory word. It initially suggests spinelessness, docility, conformity, a willingness to give way or even submit by threat of force to the will or opinion of others without good reason (italics mine). The meek are the doormats, trodden on and walked over by the strong. Meek is weak.
When I taught physics, a favourite exam question in material science was to ask the candidate to explain the difference between common terms such as tough or brittle, hard or soft. It’s interesting that the derivation for the word ‘meek’ comes from an Old Norse word meaning ‘soft’, in the sense of ‘compliant’ – not as we might currently use the word – instead, compliant people are easy to deal with, prepared to listen and if necessary compromise, actively choosing not to take offence. An alternative is from the Greek word for a horse that has been properly broken in and is ready for battle (italics again mine). The Book of Mormon – hardly my favourite reference – suggests that the ‘natural man’ is savagely self-seeking, driven by bodily desires which must be ‘put off’, thereby becoming ‘meek’. The meek, we are told, will inherit the earth. There’s reward in there somewhere, although I have enough trouble already with nine acres of wild land here. Taking as natural an interpretation as the Matthian beatitudes suggest, meekness is used there in the sense of poverty or powerlessness. The meek won’t just miraculously dispossess the strong and plunder their goods, but their very attributes of kindness and reasonable behaviour dispose others to think well of them – an absolutely alien concept at the time. Nietzsche believed that this kind of thinking resulted in a slave mentality, and only the strong could be permitted to survive, a philosophy whose application became only too clear a half-century later as Hitler put into practice ideas that Nietzsche only raved about.

Now, back to the inconveniently elevated filter. I chose to give way to another’s opinion, despite having evidence that it might be flawed; instead taking the longer view that if it really mattered it could be fixed and the loss of goodwill an argument would have caused would make future interaction more difficult. Does this make me meek, I wonder? No, it certainly doesn’t, but it suggests a willingness to become more so, which might just be all that God asks of me.

Cloud School

My last post was a grumpy diatribe about a member of HM Government, amongst other things. In particular, I took exception to his educational philosophy, alleging, probably correctly, that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about and his rather pompous comments about the teaching of history have come in for a well-earned stint at the pillory. He has quaint notions that a grasp of the chronology of Kings and Queens of England is going to somehow bring the broad sweep of history and hence, presumably, some degree of national identity to people whose immediate ancestors may have come from some far-flung corner of the Empire. It might be cynical to suggest it, but it looks as if he’s slipping patriotism under the educational radar, thereby invoking national pride and by inference, more Tory votes.It won’t work. Any of it. For a long time it’s become clear to me that the Facebook generation quite legitimately feels that when it walks through the door of a school, it is stepping back in time, the worst possible outcome for the young. Restrictions on mobile phones and use of tablet technology forces participants to engage with fusty old ideas like the use of an index in a textbook, use an actual pen to write with and be able to do the kind of arithmetic which a machine does instantaneously. I love the sensual sweep of a pen on a page and, although it might be thought outrageous to ask, how many of us regularly write things down? With a pen? How many of us calculate our supermarket bill in our heads, when a clearly itemised bill is routinely presented to us at checkout? I do, but I’m a bit strange like that. More and more, people can rely on a tablet to scratch down ideas, write notes, do simple calculations, to check prices, in other words, to run the equivalent of an Empire. It was the British who came up with the whole notion of an Education, since they had a business to run on which the sun never set and as long as all the worker bees who made sure that the system ran smoothly had a basic and identical grasp of fundamental communication methods, supplied in a neat lookalike package, a clerk in Bangalore was interchangeable with another in Bradford. The British invented micromanagement then exported it worldwide. Came across an interesting TED talk the other day – worth a look – which made the rather radical assertion that we don’t really need schools in the traditional sense at all any more. An ex-teacher of computer programming made a hole in the wall of his institution into a next door slum, into which he installed a computer connected to the Internet. Children gathered and without instruction had figured out in a few hours what it could do for them. They taught each other how to work the mouse, how to browse and so on. Further experiments revealed that answers to very difficult questions could be discovered by nine-year-olds with access to appropriate technology. So, if a group of ragged slum kids in southern India really, really want to know which King followed Henry II, what he looked like, achieved, and how he died, they can find out in a snap. All most diverting. But, it still isn’t enough because knowledge without understanding is like having wealth with nothing to spend it on. So, the educational behemoth won’t be diverted so easily and will lumber along for a few more decades yet in pretty much its present form. I wish I knew what it would look like years from now, but I don’t. And, I don’t think anyone else does either.

Floating By Rote

Pay attention, everyone!

A lifetime ago, I used to try to teach people things, getting them to a place where they could compete with the best, get in to good universities, follow careers and generally prepare them to be productive members of society. It wasn’t a bad way to spend one’s working life, I suppose, and over the years, I’ve seen the whole educational kaleidoscope played out in a multitude of ways. It seems obvious that someone who gets a class to make cardboard models of a Roman fort is made of different stuff intellectually to a colleague teaching how to approximate square roots, say, by the Newton-Raphson method which isn’t particularly difficult but requires a different level of concentration and engagement. (Be honest. How many of you clicked the link?)  But, what is taught is of much less consequence than how it is taught. Different methods demonstrate that teaching is, of course, mixed ability, rather like the classes that sit in front of them. Engaging a class is a craft, requiring the expenditure of a good deal of emotional energy. Good teachers are passionate about this. They hope people ask deep questions, develop ideas and use what they have learned. Holding a class in the palm of one’s hand is worth more than apes, ivory or peacocks, as are the magic words ‘I never understood that before…’. But, it’s not always like that. Sometimes, the dynamics don’t work. Some students simply want to disrupt, because they can and it amuses them to do so. I once taught in a school in Kuwait where behaviour was so bad that teachers ran, sobbing, from the room or refused to cross the threshold. One boy – his father owned the school – took three of his friends roof-climbing instead of attending his English class and was helpless with laughter when the principal tried to threaten, then coax him down as they bombarded him with nuts. 

‘Education, education, education’ (Tony Blair



Meantime, the rest of the class, fully aware of where the absentees were, rioted quietly as the teacher waved his arms about.

Two bad back-to-back classes can leave even experienced practitioners feeling drained and eviscerated. What, I wonder, makes a good teacher? I used to mentor new entrants to the profession, jump through endless hoops to justify any comments I made and the conclusions I came to. The bottom line, however, was really very simple. Assuming a candidate was appropriately well-versed in his particular corpus of knowledge, after about twenty minutes watching them in action I could tell whether someone was going to make it or not. Mostly it was body language, quick-wittedness and an indefinably Thespian feel to events in the classroom which made up my mind. And, mostly, I was right.

I still take an interest in education generally and British education in particular, much as one might gaze on a field of corn growing, in which one has little personal investment, but, it’s nice to see the results of others’ labour. For years, while in the UK, I engaged myself with national curricula, inspections, grade boundaries, differentiation in the classroom (ha!) monitoring and all the other ill-fitting flummery with which the profession has had to clothe itself in the last few decades. There’s a sense in which everyone has some vested interest in how kids get educated but it’s a political and territorial minefield. Successive governments seem to love letting slip the dogs of war to demolish and reconstruct with wearyingly predictable regularity at the expense of yet another cohort of hapless youngsters who have no say in the matter. It is as if the education portfolio in the House is the political equivalent of the SAS. Bright young politicians with a grievously inflated sense of their own competence and worth seem to be allowed to pull out the pin and go over the top which furthers their political careers as the swashbucklers and risk takers of the green benches in the House. People are still licking their wounds from the 1970’s when one particular Education Minister – the ‘milk-snatcher’- went on to higher and nobler things like becoming Prime Minister but not before doing more damage than Bonaparte via the dank labyrinth of a National Curriculum. The present incumbent’s approach looks worryingly similar. For those who don’t know, he’s a fellow called Michael Gove. In case you can’t be bothered to look up his educational pedigree, in brief, he’s Scottish, privately educated, became president of the Oxford Union, and secretary of his local Young Conservatives.

Here’s the little clever-trousers snapped for posterity when still a ghastly oik at the back of the room, peppering his teachers with questions to which he already knew the answers.  When he applied for a job at Conservative Research Department he was turned down because he was ‘insufficiently political’, also ‘insufficiently conservative’. He then got a job as a journalist, which he seemed reasonably good at. So, what have we got so far? Slick operator, both verbally and on paper, with a chip on his shoulder. After less than seven years in Parliament, he snags a Cabinet job about which he knows nothing and it’s time to get his own back, which he seems to be doing with remarkable ruthlessness. Clicking on the cartoon makes it larger.

‘Independence Day’ starring Michael Gove

He is going to make kids memorise stuff again, which isn’t of itself a bad thing, unless it happens to be the chronology of the British Monarchy instead of the War Poets. The first will make you a republican, the second a pacifist. Go figure. All this floating by rote will have to be done with larger classes because some previous incompetent hadn’t figured out that more kids of a particular age will need more space in which to house them to memorise stuff, so groundsmen’s sheds all over the country will now become music rooms. He’s been told that he has to big up the teaching profession and tell everyone how wonderful it is when it’s transparently obvious that he thinks they’re a crowd of indolent, time-serving lollygaggers. No wonder the NUT tabled a motion of no confidence in him at their 2013 Conference and, to quote the gentleman out of context, returning his own words to him, when he “weeps hot tears for a life spent serving an ideology of wickedness will he ever be worth listening to”. The ideology of wickedness, is, of course, his own flamboyantly inflatable ego.

People have been flapping around, squeaking excitedly about the shiniest new educational toy ever since someone thought it a good scheme to make kids go to school. Truth is, after all these years, the politicians still don’t know how to do education. They don’t know because they have the attention span of a grapefruit when it comes to making decisions which are meant to have lasting consequences. They never did, as it happens, but like to try to convince everyone that last season’s ideas should be trashed just because they’re not new, as if educational method could be handled in the same way as buying a car. For some, whichever methode du jour is employed, attending a traditional school is and always will be a waste of time, for others, it’s a perfect place to think, create and learn.

Rosalind Franklin b July 25th 1920

Today is Rosie Franklin’s birthday – there’s even a Google logo of her.  She was a brilliant scholar, my professor’s professor at Birkbeck, a pioneer in DNA crystallography and was robbed of the Nobel by Watson and Crick. Doubtless for her, the latter was true.

One, the Other or Neither

I’ve always been a secret admirer rather than a disciple of the possibility of the interconnectedness of things, a rather rosily anthropic, post – Jungian view of the world; if there is no ‘we’ which transcends space and time then, why not? The Universe seems to suggest that there ought to be. Looking at reviews for Cloud Atlas before having actually seen it, I might have been convinced that the creators of The Matrix’s sprawlingly ambitious epic from the allegedly unfilmable 2004 book is either a masterpiece or a disaster. It’s a bit – no, a lot – long and the six-part ramble where characters reappear as someone else separated by centuries, popping up like hares in a meadow makes it difficult to emotionally connect with the material. And yet, almost because of, not in spite of, the effort required to engage with it, I found myself being forced to commit to following a series of unlikely and ultimately mostly tragic storylines. 
I have to admit to having read the book first, so basically got the idea of the connections it was supposed to be making; the reappearance of the same people in vastly different guises over a span of hundreds of years. These came across as quite weighty in the book, but much too subtle and tenuous for a shortspan moviegoer who might well have been put off by the undoubtedly excessive use of latex to have you asking, just for a second “is that…?”. I would not go so far as to suggest that it in any way led me to transcendence, but there was more than a little aftertaste of possibility which will stay with me.

I was persuaded on the back of rave reviews to shell out eleven euros to go and see Frances Ha.Frances is a showcase for the nearly haves-have-nots, played with comedic awkwardness, whimsy and optimism with brief nods to Woody Allen’s Jewish Brooklyn and French New Wave in altogether appropriate black and white. She lives in New York, but doesn’t have an apartment, she’s almost a dancer, but hasn’t quite got a job, she has a best friend from Vassar days who isn’t actually speaking to her, she’s a clumsy little Bridget Jones, living with dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams which change with almost metronomic regularity – how could one girl be so spectacularly and repeatedly unlucky. She’s puppyish, hopeless and almost promising; she won me over, but it took an exasperatingly long time to do so. I think I might be too old for Noah Baumbach’s brand of self-indulgent indie output which masquerades as honesty. In its defence it cost a whole lot less to make than ‘Cloud Atlas’  and was cinematographically superior, without a hint of latex. One, the other or neither? I really can’t make up my mind.

Comings and Goings

I bought a T shirt the other day. It has a cosily nostalgic image on the front of what looks like a weathered ’57 Chevy driving toward the viewer along a dead straight Californian highway. The inevitable caption reads ‘Every Summer Has Its Own Story’. Being summer, and Sandytown in the middle of Ramadan is inhospitable beyond endurance to the infidel, some friends came to stay en passant for a few days, adding their own twists and turns to the otherwise linear nature of our existence. It’s become common for expat travellers to stop by here on their way to somewhere else and we were pleased to welcome them. It’s instructive and indeed inevitable however to make comparisons about the way we were and the way we are now. The iconic 1971 film “Summer of ‘42” about sexual awakening, tragedy and loss had a line which has always stayed with me. ‘Life is full of small comings and goings. What is important is how well you arrive at your destination’. We all seek to make the journey joyful, valuable and meaningful. A different context brings a different social and emotional perspective – which we tend to mostly shrug off. I found myself wondering how those I knew well years ago might now find me, and I them. With that in mind, as I thought about our guests and ourselves, it seemed as if subtle changes had taken place in all of us. Superficially, all was as it had always been. One of us, through sheer, choleric discipline, had lost almost half their body weight and was running almost 5km a day, which made them edgier, sharper and if possible, more determined. Another’s lifestyle change meant that they were no longer subject to the tyranny of timetables and rules, instead has found other, different avenues of interest, which, of course, was me. At first, I thought that this might simply be a function of getting older, but it wasn’t. I saw it more in terms of heightened observation – an increased ability to perceive the details, as if on a country walk, a particular rock formation, passed a thousand times, is noticed almost for the first time, hence takes on a new meaning. I too was traveling; at this particular moment, not in a geographical sense, more as if a different conveyance was taking me where I needed to go; one which had a more panoramic view of the landscape. I read somewhere recently about a church which closed for the whole of July, just because it seemed a good idea. When I feel like it – however one might choose to read between the lines – I go into Paris and attend ACP. Mostly, I’m quite glad I did, but it’s not a compulsion, a necessity, socially or spiritually, for me to drag myself out of bed on a Sunday morning, clamber in the car and head for the station. Perhaps for certain personality types, the thought of not attending is as appalling as my own apparent lack of motivation, but, that’s OK.

Lost in Cyberspace

To many young people, the Web increasingly seems like a good-natured auditorium filled with people just like themselves wanting to be amused. People write, share and network on social media sites with a candour which in some cases is nothing short of appalling. The information they post is mined, filtered and archived ostensibly to make search engine algorithms smarter. Software uses fuzzily nice, inoffensive language – people are invited to ‘connect’ with ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ – where’s the harm?  The older people get, however, the more concerned they are about protecting their online privacy. There is direct correlation between users’ ages and their willingness to use PayPal, for example, supposing that a sweaty little adolescent dwarf in a back bedroom somewhere is busily siphoning their money into an offshore bank account. But, what about all the data that you thought was private, but actually isn’t? 

The media has been in overflow about the Edward Snowden affair which has raised all kinds of nasty speculation about what information is actually recorded, sifted, analysed and archived by governments and their shadowy apocalyptic horsemen whose motivation, allegedly, is to uncover terrorist activity, but the reality is, finding out everything about everybody might just be quite useful one day. Everyone is asking whether he is some kind of Assange clone – a hero for opening what looks to be a particularly gnarly can of worms, or a treasonous hound who has, in some as yet unspecified fashion, made some of his country’s best-kept secret methods available to a foreign and generally not very benevolent power. As the story unfolds, it seems more probable that the latter will turn out to be closer to the truth. Speculation is feverish as to why he abandoned – or fled – his Hawaii apartment, citing a need for medical treatment abroad, then surfacing in Hong Kong – go figure – his data would be a gold mine to Chinese intelligence services and the Chinese are one of the few people on the planet prepared to stand up to the Americans. The Americans are looking increasingly desperate to get their hands on him and the country hopping he has already done suggests that it has been carefully orchestrated by people with considerably more political savvy than he has. Today, he is pathetically marooned, shuffling around inside the transit zone at Sheremetyevo airport and considering at least three asylum options. In theory, he could stay there for years and where he ends up is anyone’s guess, but I can’t help wondering if some tragic accident might befall him en route. His condition is a metaphor for his own actions – he is as lost in real space as his data is in cyberspace.

Among other consequences of this rather grubby little story, we might like to bear in mind that Snowden’s revelations will clarify something that we do seem to have trouble grasping: the Internet is not just a playground where we can exercise our freedoms as we wish and be friendly with everybody.


Apocalypse Soon

Botticelli’s map

It’s true. I really think that I must have been living under a rock for the last twenty years. Without giving too much away, I’ve just finished reading Dan Brown’s latest scamper into improbability, based around the symbology of Florentine Dante Aligheri and his graphic depictions of Hell. I’m not going to offer a book review, others will pull it apart more savagely than I, but in brief, a brilliant but sociopathic scientist unleashes a virus with an infection rate of 100% on an unsuspecting world with a view, in Scrooge’s words to ‘decreasing the surplus population’. We are given glimpses of genetic engineering and its possibilities, which is really what caught my attention. Why do I think I have been blissfully oblivious for two decades? Perhaps because I was unaware that there exists a worldwide movement, apparently gathering in momentum, comprising thinkers and intellectuals known collectively as Transhumanists – the ‘trans’ referring to transcendence – whose eventual goal is to use technology to fundamentally transform the human condition through accelerated genetic manipulation, effectively taking control of human evolution. They believe that there is a perfectionist ethical imperative to strive for progress and improvement in the human condition. It may, for example, be possible to eradicate disease, increase intelligence – not just by a little, but by several orders of magnitude, and overcome current human limitations such as ageing and finite lifespan, generally transforming the human condition so radically that ‘homo sapiens’ becomes little more than a Neanderthal rump. We who are left will have been superseded and overtaken by a longer-living, smarter and faster posthuman species. What nonsense, I thought, nervously peering into the abyss. But, apparently not. Many have begun wrestling with the ethics and feasibility of such radical leaps forward since the philosopher Max More began to articulate a futurist perspective back in 1990. Some believe that the emergence of a rapidly changing technological landscape will inevitably lead to the notion of a ‘singularity’ a phrase of John von Neumann, meaning ‘ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue’  – where computer-enhanced superintelligences redesign successive generations of themselves spectacularly quickly. People are assigning real timeframes based on current technological achievement and a little creative extrapolation; best median could be as short as a quarter century from now.
Attitudes to transcendence aren’t new. Some have proposed that the Epic of Gilgamesh – a reworking or perhaps an archetype of Noah’s Flood – is an early example of transcendent thinking. A remnant survive an apocalypse in order to rebuild and reshape a newer, braver world. Others, myself included, believe that most of these ideas are self-indulgent power trips, filled with illusion, dreams and thinly clad scientific flights of fancy. When God is reduced to nothing more than an ethically irritating abstraction such Promethean hubris is not only dangerous but also inevitable.

I’ve lived in some of the largest population centres on the planet, from Istanbul to Karachi and the experience left me with mild, manageable claustrophobic tendencies and a belief that mankind was almost certainly not constructed to exist sharing each square kilometer with ten thousand others. I recently visited Shanghai – the third largest city in Asia, whose population density was less than either but it was so vast that hours of travel in choking pollution was required to get from one side to the other of its gigantic urban sprawl. When I left it, I fleetingly wondered for how much longer the planet could tolerate exponential population growth without triggering an extinction scenario of Biblical proportions. Which is going to get us first, global warming or overpopulation?
I found myself wondering; if superintelligence ever became a reality, how long it would take these newly minted superbeings to figure out that the most pragmatic way to ensure their survival would be to extinguish a frighteningly large number of we lesser mortals – in other words, ordinary people, making the Holocaust look like a road accident and doubtless equipping their own with whatever their technology could devise by way of an ark. If current thinking is anywhere near the truth, I might even be around to see it.