Month: August 2013

Poor Syria

BBC June 13th 
I haven’t been to Syria, even when I could actually get into the country. A visa isn’t easy to get and friends who did visit came back with amoebic dysentery, which is something of a metaphor for what I want to say. Everybody, it seems, is having their shout about its current problems, so I’m going to as well. Those who know me will understand that I have a degree of vested interest in some kind of calm descending, however tenuous, on that poor, sad, conflict-ridden area.
I’m not going to join the ever-increasing cohort of hand-wringers, nor do I make remark about right or wrong. When a war, uprising or whatever else one wants to call it starts and people begin killing each other, it isn’t who’s right or wrong, it’s who’s left that shapes the future. Assad is a tyrant, for sure, but his currently embattled replacements will bring their own form of tyranny. In other words, it really doesn’t matter who comes out on top, the result for the majority of the Syrian people will not be a smooth and well-oiled transition into a Western-style democracy, should they wish such an outcome; instead a captivity which may be more irksome and restrictive that the one under which they now suffer.
Civilised people all over the world are justifiably filled with moral outrage – little could be worse that a leader, however he comes to power – gassing his own people. Chemical weaponry has been deployed – of this there is little doubt. But, who deployed it and why? If it is Assad’s forces then he has to face the moral consequences, now or later. Similarly if rogue elements have found a way to supply themselves with such weapons – with the country in chaos this is surely not inconceivable, then they too will ultimately face judgement. In the meantime, Western powers are talking tough about ‘intervention’, which seems nothing more than adding fuel to an already highly unpredictable fire which Syria has threatened to widen if attacked to engulf its neighbour to the west. This single page website went viral on Twitter yesterday.

Have they attacked yet? No. (kvartakfu.com)

One thing is sure, unless the response is unanimous, calibrated and decisive, it will do more harm than good and even that cannot be guaranteed because Syria’s friends are just looking for an excuse to burn the Zionists. Sticking Western noses into Eastern wars hasn’t usually resulted in tidy, predictable conclusions. Some politicians have sanctioned intervention on the grounds that its specific outcome must be to deter or prevent any future use of chemical weapons. Such an outcome is highly desirable but completely unrealistic operationally, in short, the policy is barking mad. Using chemical weapons is appalling. But nothing changes the political logic of achieving peace in Syria. If this is not the single primary goal of any intervention, then it is muddle-headed and overzealous at best and duplicitous at worst. If the rebel forces overthrow the government, they will replace it with an Islamic dictatorship much worse than Morsi’s attempts to Islamise Egypt. Hamlet’s undiscovered country beckons bleakly. No peace there.


Burning Man

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I had read about Burning Man. Back in the Eighties, Armistead Maupin’s gay icons lay under the stars there. Part carnival, part rave, part gigantic art gallery and part just a place for a week where the world is left behind and creatives of all descriptions gather at Black Rock in the Nevada desert for a time of – let’s say – alternative living.
No electricity, no food and water. If you want it, you bring your own and you take it with you when you go. Every cigarette butt is cleared from the sand. We leave as we find. Pristine. Mad Max meets Mark Zuckerberg – yes, even the very rich turn up to hang out, network and get ideas. Clothes are optional, costumes a virtual necessity. Weird forms of transportation career wildly over the desert sand. Gigantic sculptures adorn the landscape. Fire shows and music till whenever. Watches and ordinariness are simply left behind. It is said that The Burn relies on how much you give to the inescapably anarchic creativity as a participant, not how much you absorb as a spectator. It began as a summer solstice bonfire ritual in the summer of 1986, years after the film ‘The Wicker Man’ became a cult horror classic. A wicker man was a large human shaped wicker statue allegedly used in Celtic pagan rituals for human sacrifice by burning it in effigy. Over sixty-eight thousand people are expected this year – the theme being John Frum and Cargo Cult. No, I’d never heard of them either.
Why all this? I have the rare, secondhand cachet of knowing someone who is going. I don’t know why he is going – perhaps because he’s young, successful, idealistic and clever. I am none of the above. I can’t quite figure out whether the persistent sense of unease I experience when reading about it is because the event is too radical, too hedonistic or too much fun. Perhaps I’m just too old.

 

 

 

 

Practising Distraction

Someone remarked the other day “When I am reading, I tend to fidget with things – my fingernails, the edge of a page, my hair, anything I can get my hands on. It’s a nervous habit borne out of restlessness.” This person is quite young. She can listen to music, solve mathematics problems and absorb information from a screen apparently all at the same time. She belongs to a new generation of instant-gratification technology, a spinoff from which is a tendency to lay blame for some small shortcoming or other outside of oneself.  As I write this, it’s a certainty that I shall be interrupted. I shall have to stop what I am doing, reconfigure the prefrontal cortex and start again later. But, having stopped doing this, I cannot get back to exactly where I was before. I have to re-read what I‘ve written, marshal a train of thought, establish whether this fresh configuration matches the last one or not, then a few more sentences tumble untidily on to the page. If I don’t and the finished product doesn’t match my expectations, I blame the interruption, not me. When I ‘work’ if one dignifies this kind of thing with such important a word, I need silence. If someone is listening to music in the same room– I can’t concentrate. If visitors come, their loud enthusiasms fracture my thoughts and derail the train where my consciousness is leading me. Thoughts unravel and I can’t quite concentrate on what I want to say next. An interruption now beckons. I have to put this down and deal with it. The interruption, ironically, concerns our Internet router. The phone line drops out for no apparent reason. The ADSL stops, then starts again. It can’t multitask, in other words.

Many people boast about being able to multitask, especially women. I watch Gipsy as she cooks, chops, answers the phone and watches TV, apparently simultaneously and marvel at her multitasking ability. But, is she really doing several things at once? I wonder sometimes. The research is almost unanimous, quite a rarity in social science, and asserts that chronic multitaskers show an enormous range of deficits. They’re really not very good at all kinds of cognitive tasks since the very act of multitasking interferes with the ability to focus on one thing at a time.They are not fully present in conversations. If that irritating little bleep informs me that I have an instant message on my phone, the urge to check and see whether something earth-shattering has happened is almost overwhelming. If I stop, look, respond, I’m then tempted to check my social media feeds. In other words, I am practising distraction, which is stressful and unhealthy, so, I’ve just stopped doing it, silencing the cacophony of voices demanding my attention, now. I have taken to turning the sound off. Nothing is important enough that it can’t wait for me to finish up what I’m doing before dealing with it. ‘What? Your mother just got run over by a bus!’ So what. Will it change either prognosis or future events if I haven’t found out for a few minutes? Absolutely not. Am I an uncaring, mindless brute because I have abandoned my mother for a few minutes? No, I’m not, and I don’t need to feel guilty about it. Of course, persistent procrastination isn’t the issue. Were I to do nothing for a week, all of the above could be legitimately targeted at me.
I’m coming to the conclusion that multitasking doesn’t exist. In terms of our prefrontal cortex, we don’t multi anything, we just switch very rapidly from one thing to another, much as my router is trying to do. Imagine the chaos if all the traffic lights in the world simply disappeared. If each car could be compared to a piece of information, the consequent gridlock would quickly result in nobody getting anywhere. Put another way, it’s entirely justifiable to fine people heavily for jumping a red light, since it has consequences for everyone else’s well-being. The reason we can breathe and walk at the same time is because different areas of our brains are involved. My router isn’t as smart as that. Bits have to wait their turn as if in a traffic queue before being fired off as different information packets down the line. Several weeks down here in the country slows me down, as it should, and as a result I get to write posts like this which need a measured, leisurely approach – no sprinting is required and it seems to me that people who live in big cities are angry most of the time because they are forced into a multitasking environment which isn’t good for them. Slow down, people… 


Icebreakers

As I sit here by my pool, watching the sun go down on another near-perfect day, my thoughts have inexplicably turned to my many friends who are still labouring at the chalkface in various parts of the world. With no end in sight, I thought they might enjoy a little commencement encouragement, as it were. Perhaps they could show this to their new classes over the next few days as a kind of icebreaker. I’m sure it would be genuinely valuable. Pin it up somewhere next to the Discipline Policy document. 
“It’s the first few days of the school year. Everybody’s grown a bit and after an exchange of pleasantries you can get down to the serious business of School which, as everyone knows, is to make your teachers’ lives as miserable as possible. Also, you get a first peek at the freshest lambs to the slaughter, the New Teachers.
Going to an international school is quite fun because the staff there don’t often last very long and you get to torment a new intake quite regularly. Some of them do have a trick or two up their sleeves, but as long as you keep your heads you’ll have them all sobbing in the corridors in no time at all. Remember, low-level disruption is a first line skill, not a last resort. If you can get him (or her) to stop talking and demand quiet enough times in the lesson – this can be done with relatively minor whispering and muttering while their back is turned – you can actually hear them grinding their teeth in frustration. Falling off one’s chair can often waste several minutes, especially when you paste a look of injured surprise on your face while clambering very slowly to your feet. It’s particularly amusing when the teacher asks you if you are ‘all right’. Since you’ve been practising break-falls in your judo class since you were five, you have come to no harm at all, so a little  judicious elbow rubbing plus pained expression might get you a chitty to see the Nurse, which effectively means that you get the rest of the lesson off. Don’t make the elementary mistake of taking your stuff with you – it arouses suspicion. A well-briefed colleague will offer, kindly,  to take it for you at the end of the lesson. 
Missile-throwing is an advanced exercise, not to be attempted by the faint of heart, but, as long as you watch for the mirror above the teacher’s head – a nasty, underhand ploy which means they can actually see you while writing on the board –  you can sometimes get a quick whiplash shot off undetected. It takes a brave soul with quick reactions and good aim to get a rubber right on the back of his head without any trial shots first, so try it out on classmates in break. Practice makes perfect.
Having mastered the basics, we can now move on to more sophisticated techniques, the business of cheating – such an unfair way of looking at things, I think.
Class tests are the Nemesis, the spirit of divine retribution against all who succumb to Promethean hubris and imagine that they can get away with doing nothing. The implacable executrix of justice – and sacrificial goddess of all educators – gets her own back. So, here are a few simple tips on how to circumvent her mendacity with minimal effort. I make no reference to any people groups in particular, but, you all know who you are….
·                     If asked to write a critique about a poem, write the title of the poem followed by the words “is about man’s relationship with nature.” This will appeal to your teacher who’s probably a tree-hugging anorak.
·                     If you’re going to permanently tattoo answers on your forearm, make sure a) they are correct – have a grown-up check them first for you – b) you tattoo them the right way round – important for physics – and make sure it’s for an exam in a subject you really love.
·                     Have everyone take out their textbooks and cheat all at once, sometimes referred to as the ‘Oh, Captain, my Captain’ principle. They can’t fail everybody. Or, can they?
·                     Offer the teacher money. You get more pocket money than their salary so it sometimes works, really it does, if the price is right. Physicists are expensive. Be advised.
·                     When passing notes that have answers written on them, be sure not to label the note “Test Answers”, ’cause it’s a bummer if you get caught.
·                     Some schools equip classrooms with hidden cameras to catch cheaters, or entrepreneurs, whichever you prefer. A simple low-inductance capacitor bank appropriately modulated with a three-way phase adapter discharged into a single-loop antenna can send out an electromagnetic pulse capable of disabling all cameras within a three-block radius. This will give you a two point five minute window at the most. Use it well. Regrettably, however, your iPhone upon which you had been relying for external text updates, will also fail to function. Don’t get caught plugging it in, will you…
·                     It is notoriously difficult to cheat on most applied mathematics tests, since the teacher might actually expect you to apply what you have learned. It’s probably best to avoid taking these classes altogether.
·                     Visits to the bathroom can be a most productive method for harvesting information. Holding your breath until your face gets really red before putting your hand up usually has the desired effect and a crabwise scuttle out of the door adds a nicely Thespian verisimilitude. You are not advised to write the whole of Hamlet’s soliloquy on the wall of Cubicle Number Three, since this might arouse suspicion from an overzealous cleaner.
·                     No matter how small, crib notes can be conspicuous, especially when used as missiles. As an alternative you could commit them to memory for an innovative, unencumbered cheating method.”

Carpe diem.

Letter to A



Dear A. You’re seventeen years old and the world is a great place to be right now. Especially London. During a conversation with Boswell in September 1777, the famous diarist Samuel Johnson once said “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.”  Now I know that patience isn’t really a virtue possessed in great abundance by the young, but it’s a skill best learned through practice. The Bedouin of the Sinai make honey, hanging the honeycombs in fine muslin bags. The honey drips through incredibly slowly, but they never squeeze the bag to make it flow faster. If they did, the honey would streak and contain impurity, which decreases its value. So, they wait. Now, even though I’m old, tear yourself away from whatever you’re doing, please bear with me and try not to stop reading until you get to the end.
Mick Jagger in a skirt, 1969
When I was seventeen, the Rolling Stones performed in Hyde Park and I was there. I suppose I didn’t much care that I’d been forbidden to go, since I got caught at the train station on the way home and had to mow my housemaster’s lawn as a punishment. I’m sure you have a greater respect for authority than I had when I was your age. Which really brings me to what I want to say. This afternoon I was cleaning my pool, which is a slow, deliberate process that can’t be rushed, and I found myself wondering, had I been given a piece of advice when I was seventeen, what would it have been and how would it have changed me? Advice, of course, has the great merit of being free of charge, so, listen up, because it’s not going to cost you a penny.
‘Things look different from up here’
I wonder if you remember the movie – ‘Dead Poets Society’ – click for the trailer. Robin Williams played an iconic teacher who was finally dismissed from an exclusive private school for boys because his teaching methods were, let’s say, a little unorthodox. Get to see it. It’s worth the time. He quoted the Latin phrase ‘carpe diem’ to his class which I had first heard years before, having had to translate it at school. It means, as I’m sure you know, ‘seize the day’.
Horace (65 BCE-8 BCE) was one of the world’s greatest lyric poets. He used this phrase in an epic poem in which a man was encouraged to forget his mourning and embrace life to the full. carpe diem really means ‘grab the opportunities and make the most of the present moment’. Instead of pondering the past – even beating yourself up about it – or worrying about the future, the poet encourages us to live in the here and now. People of my age need to hear it too because we can waste so much time reflecting on the past, the things that happened, why they happened to us, what we did wrong and so on. Conversely, young people spend a lot of time daydreaming about a brighter future, about the things they’d like to do or become one day. Nothing wrong with that, but, y’know what? Yesterday is gone, tomorrow isn’t here yet, and today is your only chance to make a difference. So, make the most of it.
It’s a good idea, as well as good psychology, to see each day as both a gift and an opportunity. You can use it to enjoy life, to get something started or completed. The present moment is the only time in history that you personally can use to do something worthwhile and to change the world for the better, small step by small step, using the things you’ve already learned. Which brings me to what I want to say next. Most of the stuff you actually have to learn in school is completely useless. Think about it – when was the last time you actually needed to solve a quadratic equation? At the gym, perhaps? Or the restaurant? Er, no. Now, I’m not bashing education; the task or process of learning things that don’t seem to make much sense is sometimes more important than the material itself. So, what have we learned that is really, really useful and will last us a lifetime, and where did we learn it? Kindergarten. That’s where. I want to encourage you to click on this link  – yes, it’s in bold type for a reason – I really, really want you to read it because I couldn’t say it better myself and if you genuinely want to make something of yourself, you could do a lot worse than start right here. 
OK. I’m done. You can go back to Facebook or YouTube, or whatever. Alternatively, try reading a poem. Here’s one that Dead Poets quotes from…