Dont buy the Sun.

Dont buy the Sun.
Hillsborough Justice campaign - Remember the 96.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Fridaythorpe and Thixendale

On Ella Street, we meet one of our neighbours, Darren. He's glancing at the Ella Street Community Notice Board - one of the last in Hull, but still thriving. The noticeboard is brilliant, its full of local wildlife sightings - kestrels killing pigeons, hedgehogs sleeping in rosebushes and deer wandering down the freight line that runs across the back of the houses opposite. The board also, via a series of badly photocopied letters, posts the ongoing correspondence between the Ella Street Greenies and the local council. I'm proud to say that there is no greener street in Hull, and ashamed to say that, (insulating our house aside), the committees' successes in greening our verges, reducing traffic and distributing bat boxes, bees hives and bird food, as well as its involvement in community education and a local skill-swap economy, have absolutely nothing to do with us.

The ESCN is a regular stop for all residents on the way back from the local stores. Where other villages and communities have gone digital and launched badly designed websites (that people read in the privacy of their own homes - an irony that is almost sublime)the ESCN is a meeting point - people plan and gossip, chat and discuss, and gather on the corner when new notices are posted. But despite the active communalism that the board (and the street) has developed and the society-changing ideals often expressed; despite the seriously intelligent activism of committee members and ideological debates that rage into the night concerning Foucault and Friere, Indian micro-credit schemes, feminism and freeganism; despite a commitment to food sharing of free range, locally grown, micro-biotic hemp flavoured raw carrots; despite all this, the most important, eagerly viewed and regularly maintained section of the board is "Kittens: Lost and Found".

As we meet Darren by the board, RHB smiles broadly. "Did you have a good Christmas?" she asks

"OK" says Darren. Actually, Darren's accent is very strongly local, so it sounds like "Orc Haw".

RHB, then notices that Darren's been peering at the board. "You're not getting another one are you?" she asks.

Dareen sighs, but is smiling "No, but I think Meg's pregnant again" he says.

At this point, I should add the observational notes that:

a). I have left my glasses in the house. Now this should'nt affect one's cognitive functions, or any of one's other senses, unless of course, you believe in the science of Brain Gym, as exemplified in this section from the Brain Gym website, under the Section "Responses to Criticism":


BGTE: “The Brain Buttons . . . are massaged deeply with one hand while holding the
navel with the other hand. . . . “ They activate the brain for “sending messages from
the right brain hemisphere to the left side of the body, and vice versa; receiving
increased oxygen; stimulation of the carotid artery for increased blood supply to the
brain; an increased flow of electromagnetic energy.”

Professor David Atwell, neuroscientist:
“There is no evidence that rubbing these
areas promotes signaling from the right brain to the left side of the body. The brain
would only receive increased oxygen if its blood flow increased, but stimulating
receptors in the carotid sinus leads to a fall of cardiac output and potentially a
decreased oxygen flow to the brain. Massage of these points does not generate
electromagnetic energy in the form of radiated light, heat or radio waves.”

The Dennisons: Students frequently report that, when they stimulate these points,
they experience immediate improvement in left-right/right-left coordination of the
eyes and whole body, for clarity of vision and improved reading and contralateral
movement. We hypothesize that these points are electrical reflex points, and that

through their stimulation oxygen becomes more available. By “electromagnetic
energy,” we mean that subtle form of energy attested to by thousands of years of
acupuncture and traditional healing as well as a growing body of biomedical

b). Liverpool played an extremely tense match last night. The rollercoaster of emotions linked to this used up most of my emotional intelligence[Note that if you access this link, you will see that the page is "scientifically validated", therefore this concept must be true]and therefore the social 'bit' (technically speaking) of my brain, is probably quite tired and sleepy.

Hence, when returning to the bit of our conversation with Darren where he announced that Meg was pregnant, I am a little bit dozy. Not up to speed, so to speak. Probably, my Brain Buttons need a good rub. I am also labouring under the disadvantage that while RHB, in keeping with how many females communicate, knows most people by name : Darren, Simon, Russ, Tom, Claire, etc etc, I employ the male method, so that to me, the same people are: "Mate", "Our Kid", "Big Guy", "La" (this a Liverpool expression), "Geezer" and "Hello" (this latter is for ladies, out of respect). Feeling the need to contribute, I congratulate Darren fulsomely on his news:

"That's brilliant, mate.Congratulations. You'll need a bigger house. I could do your extension for you", I joke. Then, I think, and sensitively ask "I'm saying that, but is it what you both want".

Darren shrugs "Last time I was surprised, it was just twins, but we were lucky. Someone down the road wanted a black one, and someone else wanted a white one, so we were able to get rid of them".

Naturally, I'm speechless, and even RHB seems anxious to end a neighbourly conversation. I have a bad taste in my mouth, and am thinking of Darren in a new, not particularly pleasant, light. We retire to Large Mansions quickly and discuss pastrami for lunch. Suddenly I am very tired. I do a quick Elephant (copyright Brain Gym 759-2010AD. Then it occurs to me.

"Nel" I ask tentatively "Erm, that conversation we had with, er, Meg, erm...."

RHB is laughing "Yes. Meg is their cat. Clare is Darren's girlfriend."

Yesterday, language was also on the menu. RHB, who is apparently capable of having birthdays without ageing, wanted a walk to signify her naissance. So we headed off to Thrixendale, about an hour north of here, there to wonder at the desrted medieval village of Wharrem Percy, news of which can be found here, (although you will have to register to access the important information enclosed) , or perhaps, more sensibly here. The road to Thrixendale, however, was wonderfully snow-blocked, inaccessible to cars, so parked Igor (a colleague's car) and just walked from Fridaythorpe to Thrixendale, with a limited excursion of about four miles (seven kilometres) along a series of deserted, frozen ridges - farmed, but empty. I have assembled an album, featuring the walk, plus a few other photos of our holiday activities below:

Christmas 2009

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Happy Christmas

At Large Mansions, emotions are running high:

"I'm so angry at you I could faint" says Sal, before slumping down into one of our Canadian acquired swivel chairs, like a rag doll returning to a state of inanimatedivity at the stroke of midnight.

It is however,much later, it is four am, and we have consumed several of the bottles of champagne that we thought we had overbought. Ridiculously (at about two am) someone notes that we shoud make plans to purchase more the next day as we are "close to running out". At two am, this observation is calmly nodded assent by all as if it is a perfectly sensible proposal.

The cause of Sal's anger is, I believe, an optimism expressed by Will and myself, and furthermore, I think that the subject over which we were expressing same was politics. Unfortunately, and in a circular vein, I cannot verify this because, de facto, we were all talking utter rubbish. This at least is fact, but should not be a cause for the immediate approbation of any one individual, because indubitably, most human conversations are utter rubbish. It's only the punchlines that matter. Hence, over the next few days, someone only has to tell another that they are 'getting so angry they are going to faint' and hilarity ensues. Another meme has been born.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Twas the eve of............

Tool using octpii, chimps and fire, chimps and teaching. Ok, maybe some of these links demonstrate the type of research that yu wuld expect from a Second Year Undergraduate - copy and paste and there's "my" argument, but there are deeper veins running underneath all of this, and there is very good research in the peer reviewed literature supporting a lot of these observations.

RHB and I were discussing these matters while shpping yesterday. More specifically, we were discussing the dangers of taking information like that presented above ie a shorthand reportage of primary source evidence and resurrecting that evidence to say something entirely different. An example of this type of stupidity might be the burgeoning belief in Brain Gym, the newest fad to sweep Educational Circles. Check out this quote from Brain Gym UK, describing one part of their programme:

"Repatterning: A sequence of movements, unique to Brain Gym, which involves co-ordinated eye and motor movements to encourage fluid whole body movement."

THe actual movements consist of rubbing your noodle vigourously in order to stimulate your "thinking buds"....but under the section "How Brain Gym Works":

The investigation of the neuroscience that underpins Brain Gym is an eagerly awaited project for the future. We can only at the present time hypothesise about why without actually knowing.

Then there is the frequently answered questions page of another Brain Gym website, which makes very scary reading.

This is all scary, because, as with Learning Styles, some educators have adopted Brain Gym with frightening speed.

Monday, 21 December 2009

The Shortest Day

Before we begin, I should get it over with. This is our Christmas contribution.

Well, its arrived, and,I may say, not before time either. To What, you might ask, is reference being made,comma question mark, that is if references can be made instead of copying and pasting from Wikipedia.In answer I can conform that Reference is towards two things really, firstly the shortest day. And secondly, confirmation that I am officially a Cannuck. Well, sort of on the second one.

The shortest day is come and gone, and frankly, good riddance to the thing. Over the last few weeks it has, (in the parlance of texting and the numerous conservative and neo-liberal blog sites that my avator Callisandra remorselessly harries), IMHO hardly been worth arising from the pile of cats, partner and blankets that is the Second Least Unfinished Room at Large Mansions. No sooner that eyes have peered over the edge of the duvet then its time reaccomodate the poor things to a hastening gloom. For myself, the window of opportunity to actually do anything is further reduced because after nearly half a century of practice, I still havent mastered the art of putting anything in the same place twice. While in spring, summer and slightly beyond, there is relatively little harm done, at least in terms of VOH (Viable Operational Hours)by these habits, in these dark days of winter three quarters of an hour spent pretending not to look for my glasses (it ceased being cute to RHB about fifteen years ago and now she just gets annoyed) represents about a quarter of the day wasted. A further fifteen minutes for keys, twelve for ATM cards, six for bike lock, cape and leggings and twenty five for the detailed "to do" list that we compiled the previous night and half the day is gone. In truth, I may as well just reduce the unnecessary expenditure of energy and go to bed in mid-November, waking bright and refreshed on January the fourth. But now, the equinox has passed. From here on in, its all going to get better - longer days, light improves, optimism reborne. There is only the minor inconvenience of a tax return, three essays and an exam to complete and life can, once again, be lived to the full.

THe second item on our agenda, is the "sort of" confirmation of my Canadianness. Aware that this entry has the potential to be a growing tablature of self confessed failings, I should note that I am really good at growing mustard plants. Unfortunately, I have suddenly realised that this is also not a great advertisement for my accomplishments because from growing mustrad as a soil improvement crop that I was supposed to "till" back into the soil, sometime in August, the reason I have brought them up at all is that they are still there in my garden, patiently awaiting execution. I am, in this spirit of ongoing confession, quite forgetful. And before hoisting myself on my own petard of forgetfulness, I was about to describe another failing, namely that of putting things off till the last moment and how it nearly led to me not being Canadian. So, onwards with the Canadian thing....the "sort of" status of my citizenship.

When we arrived in Canada, I hadnt really devoted any reflection to the future possibilities of nationality that might comprise issues for sombre and serious consideration over the years that might stretch out ahead of us. Matters of loyalty, of governance, ethical and moral questions, of affiliation and history, knowledge and culture all point to the complex of emotional and intellectual rationalisations that should be given proper consideration when deciding one's national allegiances. With this in mind, the five seconds after arriving on Canadian soil for the first time that it took me to decide that I wanted "in", might seem less than indicated by due process, but anyone saying that has never landed at what is effectively the middle of a pine forest (Halifax airport) in August, at dusk, when the scent of pine is at its most fragrant and the horizon is at its biggest. And they have particularly not landed there from Birmingham, England. And they have doubly not done so under the influence of 8o milligrams of the finest Valium the British National Health Service can provide.

Despite this imperative desire, it was partly in consequence of the fact that I sometimes (read 'ALWAYS') slightly (read 'ALWAYS')tend (read 'ALWAYS')to procrastinate slightly (read 'IGNORE DEADLINES COMPLETELY')when completing official forms (read 'WHEN COMPLETING OFFICIAL FORMS')that I failed to apply for citizenship at the first available opportunity. In truth, my slight procrastination is so acute that it was only as I was leaving Canada, some ten years after arriving for the first time, that I actually got round to applying for citizenship and thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. Which is possibly why, as I was on the phone today, inquiring about the status of my citizenship application ( a mere two years after submitting the relevant forms) that the helpful person from the Canadian High Commission in LOndon was slightly sceptical about the urgency of my case. Gwen, as we'll call her (as unCanadian a name as it is possible to invent), when she eventually unravelled my circumstances was sceptical:

"I just dont understand why it has taken you this long to firstly apply, secondly why you applied when you did, and thirdly why you have left it two years to make enquiries about the status of your form?"

"Well, I just didnt want to bother anyone, I suppose" I said "Besides which, its NOT urgent. We are not planning on moving back to Canada soon. Although" I added in the vain hope that The High Commission would just happen to have been recently informed of a joint research post in Euroscience and anthropological education studies awaiting in Happy Valley and were embarked, at all levels, on a global search to find the elusive perfect team for same, "we would go back if we could."

"So when do you plan return to Canada?" said Gwen "sometime in the next five years?"

"Er, I dont know"

"Next ten years?"

"Erm, maybe, let me see...well er, no. Probably. But if things change, we could go back next year."

"Is that likely?"

"Er, no. Actually, I just want the passport. Just in case."

"Perhaps if I can explain sthings a different way? " said Gwen "The whole point of immigration departments is to deal with cases of people who are actually emigrating to somewhere. If you excuse me sir, you dont seem to be going anywhere. Is that correct?"

"Well, I suppose so" I said "but my wife obtained citizenship when she was out of the country and I thought I could do the same...."

There was a slight pause, then "Your wife is a Canadian citizen?"

"Why yes. I thought you guys just knew?"

"How would we just know?" Gwen asked.

"Dunno" (slightly sulky this)"thought you just did"

Gwen paused for a little longer then said " You havent written it on your citizenship application. It is the most important factor in determining entitlement. As a member of the family class, you are entitled to citizenship........may I put you on hold sir?...."

A few minutes later, Gwen returned with the welcome news that she had checked my files including my original documentation as a landed immigrant, and she happily can confirm that RHB is not only a citizen, but is also my wife. Furthermore, continuing to live with RHB, even thouh we live in HUll, counts as living on Canadian soil. Therefore, I am de facto a Canadian citizen. In principle, my application has been accepted. All that remains are the formalities, which present a considerable difficulty, because technically, when I applied for citizenship, I applied to the wrong office. In a fit of stupidity that I can only describe as 'not uncharacteristic', I managed to misinterpret the relevant instructions on the original form and sent my form to the St John's office in Newfoundland. AS I was actually living in the UK at the time, I should have sent my form to the HIgh Commission in London. After some discussion, the best advice is to wait until I return to Canada, contact the ST John office and arrange a swearing in. Other options involve re-processing, more money and the possibilitiy that I'll do something else to derail the process. In the end, I am satisfied. I am Canadian, sort of. English, sort of. Irish, a bit and somewhat Scouse.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Year of the Grad


"Adbh-duse be, dere's ur boil-ehs?" I ask.

"Boilers sir ? Second aisle, heating services" the assistant answers, somewhat warily.

"Doh, doh..." I am suddenly extremely angry, and I can tell, not only by the expression on the assistant's face, but also by the strange sensations in my left cheek that I am changing colour with the rapidity of a cuttle-fish in heat, flashing alternately bright red then pale green "DOH....Bant to buy a DOYLET...excuse me..."

A flurry of paper tissue flies out of every pocket, the warehouse spins impressively and an explosive sneeze brings me to a low crouch. When, and only when, I am satisfied that there will be no more sneezes, I force the mass of sodden ex-tree back into every pocket that isnt already full of wet tissue, and slowly unbend like a Maori warrior at the end of his haka. The assistant is no-where to be seen. I suddenly need the toilet so I run to customer services, past the "out of order" sign on the mens toilet and grab a cubicle, undoing my pants as I enter. The toilet is completely devoid of water. This is what I believe is known as a connundrum. In an act of stupidity that proves Douglas' theories regarding 'matter out of place' I reassemble my garb, leave the men's washroom and enter the women's. Frantically I fling myself into the appropriate space.

What to do after presents another connundrum, because now, I am 'matter out of place' and this is England. I can hear that a party has entered and is hovering outside the cubicle next to mine loudly shouting at a tearful child to hurry up. I decide to act, so I brazenly open the door and wash my hands. The 'lady' with child looks at me, outraged, so I offer " 'ext oor's doken, and I bad do ...". She shoots me a disbelieving look, so I dry hands quickly and leave, wondering whether that evening she'll tell her partner about this, possibly in the bathroom they share as they are getting ready for bed.

All of which is a long way of describing that at the moment, the lurgy that affected RHB last week has now hit your author with, if anything, double the intensity. After three days, I started forgetting what "normal" is, and it was only in a mood of defiance and utter boredom on day four and a half that I irresponsibly (in terms of spreading this to other people) decided to venture out at all. At first, the illness was convenient, co-inciding with a need to write 10,000 words on matters academical by 18th January. The days went well - I would write most of the day, happily sniffling to myself, with a close eye on the clock, then as the time approached that RHB was due home I would prepare a soothing cold remedy, keeping an even closer ear on the sound of the front door opening. As it opened, I would hurl myself into the bedroom, dive under the covers and try to look as sick as possible,pathetically sipping my remedy, all in the vain hope of extending RHB's notoriously short "zone of proximal sympathy". Needless to say, it didnt work, and even more, by day four I was completely bored with me being ill, but I had at least finished 3000 words.

Having said all that, no matter how much I enjoy writing, it does tend to involve ideas. Ideas, like cats, are troublesome things - they sleep most of the time, hardly stirring, and infinitely capable of looking after themselves as long as you dont disturb them. But, if you do (foolishly) start playing with them, they get incredibly excited, and like cats, they just will not leave you alone. They prowl round and round the room, rumbling softly, rubbing themselves against your legs and generally getting underfoot. Unlike dogs though, cats (and ideas) are not obedient, they are unpredictable - just as you think you understand the game, they skittishly shoot off at a tangent, then stop suddenly to give themselves a good groom. There's no "down boy" with ideas. Or cats. So I find the best idea is to just leave them alone every now and then, ignore them completely and they'll settle down. That is my excuse for needing an excursion to buy a toilet, and is also the longest preamble even I have ever written to what I originally meant to write in this post. So I have, in an almost unprecedented act, edited this post, gone back to the start, and entered "PART ONE" so you can come back to "PART TWO" on another occasion.

PART TWO.How we got the cats.....

The original idea behind this entry was to bring you a series of seasonal-ish feelgood stories, bearing in mind that if we humans had any sense at all, we would do what this season is really for which is to hunker down under a big pile of fur, swap a few tales and not emerge until Spring. This story is mostly, in the spirit of the season, a way of saying "Thanks" to Ethan and Sue.

The Year of the Grad, by our measurement of time, is that great period that lasted somewhere between two and a half and three calendar years when we were in London, Ontario and was the height of our friendship with CCP and Toly's previous owner, J Culham. [Incidentally, Toly, JC's former cat now resides happily with JC's mum on gthe great Northern Plains and JC herself has two new cats.] The reason this period of our lives was The Year of the Grad was that despite its other shortcomings, London, at the time, boasted the best University bar in the world - the GRAD pub.

Not because of decor, or ales, and certainly not because of the food. And not because of the crap bar bands that would occasionally play rubbish CW, but possibly because of layout. Also the habits of the staff who were in post tended towards the social. THere was also a converge of practices within departments such that quite a few departments actively encouraged collaboration, not only within, but also across departments. So Mel Goodale and others formed the Group on Action and Perception in psychology, and the Physics department was grouped into a spectacularly successful(according to them) world leading group on fluids. The result was that at the Grad pub, on Friday nights, the oak table effect was in full force as people gathered to enthusiastically discuss ideas, life and hockey. There were also, in a very academic fashion, huge amounts of hormones flying round the room. The essential component of any fundamentally good human experience ie sex, was present in full force.

Six on Friday would find the grad pub packed with brains, all happily jostling at the bar (there were a lot of English people there), and once served, groups would cram themselves in to the rows of refectory style tables arranged across the room. The place got pretty crowded, dividing lines between groups would be blurred, and given the transitory nature of academia, new people were always coming or going, so after a few pints it was not unusual to find yourself talking to a maths guy in the mistaken belief he was a clinical psychologist. RHB, naturally, would often join in conversations with other groups, introducing herself and all of our group and inviting them out to dinner, which is why, when I watched Liverpool's 2005 triumph in Istanbul at the Grad pub, I was with a group consisting of a Moroccan chemist, a Brazilian-Japanese technology guy, two Dutch historians and about seven physicists, including German Martin. These were good times.

During the Year of the Grad, Sue, Nel's cousin and occasional reader of these missives, came to visit, along with Ethan, her seven year old boy. At the time of Sue's visit, I mostly had to work, which was unfortunate, but every evening, Ethan and I would go to the local park and kick a soccer ball around. As for days out, well South West Ontario is not the most interesting place for visitors - it is flat and practically featureless. The nearby Great Lakes look like any other crappy seaside and there's no history that hasnt disappeared under highways or shopping malls, so a degree of inventiveness was required to come up with really things to do. Ethan had, after all, travelled a huge distance and we wanted him to have fun. We went to Niagara, a small forest and did a lot of driving.

One day, we decided to go to a corn maze in a nearby farm. The maize was fun and the farm even better, because the farmers were young and wanted to show us (me and Ethan) their tractors. Next to the entrance of the maze was a huge falling down barn. We raced off into the maze and had great fun getting totally lost, and my memory, which is of course perfect, tells me that me and Ethan teamed up and won, completing the maze in record time. What actually happened was that I wandered out dead last, having found only two of the fourteen markers. RHB was waiting for me

"You have to come look in the barn". She was smiling.

It took me a second to accommodate to the gloom of the barn, but when I did, there was movement everywhere. Over huge haystacks, under machines, climbing on stable dividers and crawling out of sacks were twenty three kittens, pouncing, fighting and chasing. It is debatable who's eyes were wider - the kittens or my companions. The farmer joined us.

"Arent they cute?" she asked needlessly "I really want to keep them, but...we just cant look after them all. So...."

Ethan can be described in many ways. Energetic, boyish, friendly, grown up for his age, football crazy, but one thing Ethan can never be described as is 'stupid'. He glanced quickly at Sue, and RHB, and asked ".....'so' what? What happens if you cant look after them all". His eyes were wide, but maybe also, as can be observed if you examine even the most 'innocent' child very carefully, slightly calculating. He used the same eyes to glance again at RHB. Her eyes were bright.

On the drive home, lists of 'Who could take the cats?' began to be drawn up. There was no question that we would take two, although six was the initial number proposed. A few days later, Ethan and Sue's visit ended. Over the next few weeks, this search for homes for the moggies grew into a campaign, with Nel, and Jo, the farmer (with whom she wasby now of course, firm friends) exchanging e-mails, and suggestions. Two weeks later we picked up Calli and Tosh in one small cat carrier and drove them home. We put the cats in a quiet room to let them settle down and headed for the internet, googling "How to Look Afer cats". The advice was to keep them in a small quiet area until they got used to their new home, so we dutifully spent the next week watching the cats escape from every quiet area we constructed and run behind the couch. They got their shots that week, but pretty soon were playing furiously. By the end of the week we needed a drink.

At the Grad pub, I bumped into Ommi, one of the physics gang.

"How's it going?" I asked, glad to see a friendly face.

He sniffed noisily and he was pronouncing all his constanants as "b" or "D". "Oh,ok, dust bot these alledies, dou know.."

"That sucks" I said, "...hayfever?"

"Nah" said Ommi " My bife dot this e-bail brom dumdere about all these dad cads bat beed bescuing and bot wod d'out belling be... bind of as subise. But I'b allergic. 's a real bain. I hade bats. WB'here are dou buys sibbing?"

Monday, 14 December 2009

'Confused' of Hull

Confused, discombobulated, experiencing cognitive dissonance, unable to sleep, undecided, indecisive, alarmed, optimistic, supremely pessimistic, prone to nightmares, perturbed and with an immense urge to drink enormous quantities of alcohol.
And that describes only how I feel about the shortest of the three essays I have to complete by January 18th.

The problem is that I used to have an easy life which chiefly consisted of mixing with the perpetually halitosic whiners that constitute "joiners" in the UK, drinking as much as it was possible to on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday and simply working for a living. The biggest, most creative and grandest thoughts were mostly given to how I could avoid doing things - overtime, loading trucks, going for a drink with "the lads", taking on extra unpaid responsibility and these plans were constrained mostly because the solutions availabe were:

...becoming a pop star
... winning the lottery
.... having such a serious industrial injury that I either had to retire(on a handsome compensation packet) and therefore could'nt work or died as a result of the serious industrial injury (without compensation being directly available to me) and therefore could'nt work.

As I had, a few years ago, passed the age at which so much wealth was accumulated in a short time via pop stardom that work became unnecessary, and I had no intention of being hurt or dying I had one option - the lottery. I did have two barriers to my lottery plan:

- a serious political objection on the grounds that it is essentially another tax on poor people combined with a contention that all of us already pay to much tax and the things we are paying for via the lottery (school books, sports facilities for kids and theatre) should already be paid from our current taxes.

- kept forgetting to buy any tickets.

So education was decided. I was advised I would 'enjoy' it. I was told I would be 'good' at it. It would be 'rewarding' was the nod I recieved. And would, in the future, lead to better opportunities.

So friggin what?

I mean, if all this education malarkey i s going to be like the last week - continually questioning perfectly good prejudices that I've had for years, I have to ask if it is of any value at all. And I am not the only one. The new vice dean or chancellor, or whatever he is, of our University, shares my distaste for knowledge. And we are not alone - most politicians, in a mood reflective of the current economic climate, want nothing to do with anything that tells them anything. What is demanded, apparently is, in the vernacular of joinery, 'stuff that does shit'. [I should emphasize here that the emphasis of that sentence should not be on the 'does shit' bit, but on the 'stuff' part. In the interests of brevity, I should therefore rephrase my typification as "What is demanded, is practical applications that make money"].

Isnt this the real world, I hear the cry? Well, it is, like my essays, a little more complicated than that. Despite the fact that Team Antikythera lost last week's debate on the relevance of genius in Innovation (a clearer case of tactical voting I have never seen, and a travesty of justice as our opposition turned up thinking they had to argue our case which resulted in their case being a hastily flung together mish-mash of "erms", "likes" and "its just obvious"s)the question of genius relating to the development of technology is fairly clear. Genii, or inventors (although obvioulsy not all genii are inventors and vice versa) tend to be broody coves, a little bit eccentric, insular. Trousers, when they remeber to wear them tend to be too short. Underwear is often worn outside the breech and hair is invariably unkempt. This is because, quite unlike cats (who you wil notice are usually very well kempt unless one throws them out in the rain because of incessant miaowing when one is trying to type), genii (or inventors) have their minds on higher things - "truths" as one bright spark described it.

But technology, and society, does not move forward on ideas alone. Someone has to use the brilliant ideas of the inventors. These people are innovators. They are invariably smooth, slightly untrustworthy, perhaps glib. Like cats, they are perfectly groomed, and, like cats, the uppermost thought in their mind is "What's in it for me?". Innovators license or agree copyright renumeration (=steal) the ideas of inventors and apply them to the real world as surely as a cat will attempt to lick the butter off your toast. Inventors are incapable of doing this because they are too busy being trapped in phone boxes or tying both sets of showlaces together or have just moved on to the next invention, trouserless.

The relationship is symbiotic, and for many years, it has sort of worked in a system of Universities and sponsorship and patronage. [I say "sort of" because we do live within societies that are stratified, so that despite overwhelming evidence, the freedom to be a genius or inventor has, until recently only been afforded to the upper (financial) echelons. I am left wondering that if the net had been cast more widely we would have had more, and better, inventors, although it is harder from someone from humble origins be a genius because clogs didnt have shoelaces]. But now, the "business" model has pervaded all. Inventors, it is declared, must do stuff or die.

This new model is thoroughly in line with the paradigms of our times. To create a better health service, more administration (not of medicines) is needed. To educate people more effectively, more inspections of the process (without fundamentally learning from those inspections) must be done. To reduce traffic, more roads must be built. We have learnt nothing from the Greeks, those masters of imbalance. To the Greeks, genius was everything, but doing anything was distasteful. The Greeks were too busy worrying about shadows on walls and inventing words like epistemology to bother with innovators. I am very afraid that our gravestone will read "Good at making vacuum cleaners".

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


After the third time of asking, I am inclined to enact the full joke. If I did so, the full joke would go something like this:

MAZZER: "Sorry to disturb you, but can I just use that computer for three minutes to print off one tiny thing? As soon as I'm done, I'll be gone"

STUDENT : "Well. I dunno....I'm very busy....."

MAZZER : "So it's 'no' then?"

STUDENT : "Well, I got all this stuff to do..."

MAZZER: "Not even just two minutes? Its a real emergency..."

STUDENT; "Well - isnt there another computer free. I'm really busy. Sorry, and all but..."

MAZZER : "OK, no problem. I guess that means a shag is out of the question then?"

Not, I must emphasize that this conversation actually occured. And not that I am not at fault for failing to print off what I need to print off, but it is three minutes to two (or 'of two' if you are Canadian) and Team Antikythera meets at two. I have completely forgotten to print off my contribution ot the group and am searching the library desperate for a computer, one I can hijack just long enough to print a page or two fo A4. Failing utterly to find someone who is willing to eschew Facebook long enough to let me print my pages, I head to the photocopiers and make badly photocopied version of my notes. There's no way Rhian, or Joe is going to accept these, let alone agree to wear the big cardboard boxes on their heads that I have devised as essential elements in my plan to enhance the arguments of two great philosophers.

Yes, its seminar time again, and this time Team Antikythera are the prosecution, fiercely pressing the point that "Genius is a useful concept in understanding Innovation". Unlike our last debate, where, (as my colleague Ed phrased it), we stoutly argued that the Greeks and Romans were NOT technological underachievers but were in fact the first environmentalists - while we in fact felt like we were "defending a murderer" - Team Antikythera, at least for this debate, believes we are on the side of the angels. So much so that we have enlisted the philosophers Schonenbauer and Kant to the same team (which is a bit like having Monbiot and Pilmer join forces, or even more unlikely, Steven Harper and anyone with a brain)and have decided to rid ourselves entirely of the cheap tricks that won us the last debate. We decide to rid ourslves of the cheap tricks that won us the last debate, that is, until I point out that accuracy in debate is one thing, but how did it feel to win last time? We immediately examine the possibilities of wearing large cardboard boxes on our heads, each of a different size and labelled in semi permanent marker "Einstein's brain - enlarged thinking bit" or "Typical Fascist Brain - note smaller cognitive areas" - such devices would undoubtedly make a big visual impact.

The great thing about all of this, is that where the first debate was essentially the product of Joe's hard, solid historiographic work and my cheap debating tactics, in this second debate the team is all onside - solid, determined and goal oriented. Ideas, and laughter, flow. Now it doesnt matter whether we win or lose - the oak tables that my mate JJ dreamt about when we both first started at University have become a reality - idea are discussed, dissected, debated. Cravats are donned and briar stemmed pipes are waved at eachother as facts, philosophies, ideas and opinions are fly round the room like a million Congolese Fruit bats taking off from the roost. Eventually though, one of the team needs to go and sort out a problem with her rented accomodation, so we part, leaving R to find the accomodation officer and discuss whether mice eating her food is a reasonable problem for her to deal with or whether the landlord should invest in a few traps.

I walk home through the perpetual grey English rain, my mood so elevated that there are only minor regrets that it is not minus C and snowing, and find RHB at home in the middle of the day. This is almost a surprise. Almost, because RHB has been ill for a few days now (with one of the minor but extremely inconveniencing "bugs" that - we have convinced ourselves - we never used to get in Canada) but I have become accustomed to the fact that like most boffins, ill or not, RHB would usually be happier at work falsifying data and plotting to usurp the peer review procedure than have a day off work, even when very sick. The fact that she is at home, and under about fourteen duvets and six cats is enough to cause a degree of concern.

I examine the patient closely and am relieved - there is no temperature, only a slight reddening flush of the cheeks (which I have to admit makes her even more attractive) and she has come home not in desperation, but in wisdom, as she feels "a bit better today" but still weak. I toy with the notion of telling her that two nights previoulsy, the sight of her simultaneously vomiting and crying at four am was (in the event of her not actually dying) quite a humourous image(if one discounts the undoubted distress experienced by the vomiter), but decide she's not well enough yet. Instead, I bore her into sleep (the best remedy) with a detailed explanation of Merton's views on genius.

Genius cannot be defined. There's no doubt in my mind that there exists a state, or possibly individuals, who reveal to the world a thing that can be objectively described as truth. Picasso's Guernica, Einstein's work, Darwin's evolution, Shakespeare's plays, Laurel and Hardy's Piano moving sketch and the first person to domesticate cats spring to mind as examples of global genius, but maybe individuals can also generate moments of genius that only apply to their on lives. I look at RHB sleeping (and thankfully just ill and not dead), wholly responsible for my current situation as a student and decide that this idea, while not empirically testable, is also probably true.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Good Aztec

"Hold him closer to the flames, Anacoana" said Huemac, the Good Aztec, "otherwise he'll never learn"

Anacoana dutifully lowered the struggling child closer the flames of the fire while Huemac poked more cactus spines(dipped in chilli oil) into the soft flesh of the boy's thigh. After about five more minutes, Huemac nodded and Anacoana let the child go. Huemac addressed the child solemnly:

"Now son, do you understand how important it is not to make your toy houses more than one storey high?...." The boy nodded "....and why?" asked Huemac. "Yes" said Huemac's son, "The Jaguar God doesnt like us to have houses more than one storey high. Unless we're nobles, its an insult to Heaven and we should be killed if we build a two strorey house. Or wear cotton. Or cough from the left side of our mouths. " Satisfied, Huemac turned to Anacoana "Give him some extra cocaine with his chocolate at bedtime - he's been a good boy to accept his punishment and learn from it."

Huemac threw on a cloak and headed for the door. "I'm off to watch our oldest lad at the ball game. Hopefully he'll score a few goals and have his still beating heart ripped out of his chest later tonight" he said, but just as he was about to step outside, a final thought struck him, so he turned back to Anacoana "Make sure you wrap the little one's head tightly - it's not pointy enough. If that kid's head isnt as pointy as an arrow by the spring plantings, he'll wont grow up clever enough to be an architect."

All of which explains why evolutionary psychologists are, fundamentally, wrong.

I should, perhaps, expand. Throughout the voyages that constitute my scholarly endeavours, I have been subjected to a barrage of theories, models and paradigms on learning. Fairly soon after starting my degree, it became obvious that rather than a neat procession of modelling, experimentation, observation and hypothesis forming leading to a narrower and more accurate focus which eventually becomes a consensus forming a solid theoretical base from which aspiring pedagologists could launch their careers, the field of studying learning more resembled a disorganised yacht regatta.

From the headlands of studenthood, one gazes down at the harbour of theory. Yachts of different shapes and sizes mill around, apparently at random. Some boats, the good ship "Paiget", for example, work but only for very short journeys. Others, like the "SS Learning Styles" have their sails rigged underwater - tides getting them to their destinations, although the crew swear it's the wind doing the work. Still others - the "Merry Humanist" for example, sail round in ever decreasing circles in a knid of self satisfied ballet. At the moment, the one catching my attention is the "Veritable Evolutionist" - a brilliantly designed ship - sleek of line, ruthlessly efficient, relentlessly logical and 'yar'. Oh! how 'yar'. The only problem with this ship is that it has no room for humans.

I realise as I have been writing this that, like a post_Modernist trying to explain why a combustion engine works, I have become completely caught up in my own metaphor and, in true post Modernist vein, have completely failed to say anything of significance. So I will try again.

The evolutionary psychology, or evolutionary anthropological theories of human development mostly hold that the preponderance of human behaviours can be explained in terms of evolution. Lately these theories have been - once again - gaining ground, especially in the educational field as the nonsense of learning styles, split brains and beating the child senseless have all fallen by the wayside. Simply put, evolutionary psychology/anthropology are fairly deterministic, biologically based models that ascribe and try to explain the bulk of human behaviour through evolutionary principles. Some of the work, especially that of Geary( see for example who I've been ploughing through recently is very powerful. Geary, (in short and with apologies to him because his theories are nuanced and elegant) presents a two-fold mechanism for human learning - a "folk" mechanism whereby we learn easily (things that are directly related to survival) and a "novel learning" mechanism that requires us to exert some effort via accessing memory, working memory and active cognitive processes. Because most of what we learn in schools is "novel", school learning is for most people effortful.

But heres the rub. Humans throughout the history of civilisation have overwhelming been the cause of our own "novel" situations as we have invented cultures like Huemacs. So while evolutionary ideas might well explain HOW we negotiate the cultural structures and oddities we construct, they still do not explain WHY we constructed diverse cultures in the first place that were so heavily laden with practises and behaviours that were at best irrelevant (adaptationally) and at worst such a bad idea (like binding your children's head or adopting agriculture) that we had to employ an enormously "expensive" (biologically speaking) "novel learning" mechanism practically continuously.

It is a monstrous problem - just how different are humans from animals? In fact, the answer is already partly out there(in some very diverse, but reputable, literature), and itself presents a whole bunch of new problems, because other strands of research have begun to suggest that we arent that much different form animals but that animals are much, much, much more complicated than we previoulsy believed. Evolution it seems, explains a hwole bunch of things. Apart from the ones I am interested in.

Wolf trails

Just a quickie!

Here's a link where you can follow the movements of a radio-collar tagged artic wolf.

As soon as I work out how to redesignthe pages again ( the last redesign fgailed because I was trying to do something fancy-pants) I'll post this as a link.

But this wolf page is actually my favourite page at the moment. In fact, I think its the best blog in the world right now.