26 November 2011

Items to share (26 November 2011)

Sorry! I've just lost half-a-dozen items. Moral, don't compile stuff like this directly in the Blogger editor!
  • The unseen academy: Thomas Docherty's take on the compliance agenda driving "real" scholarship underground. Comments well worth reading
  • Now this might persuade even me to watch a Saturday night competition show. 
  • Why do we have a sense of humour?
  • Daniel Kahnemann explains the essence of his book on fast and slow thinking. I know he was first with many of the ideas behind the current (understandable) obsession with risk and judgement (see Nicholas Nassim Taleb, Dan Gardner--who is particularly good on Tetlock-- Dan Ariely, even Malcolm Gladwell in 2005) but he's late to the party with a popular account, so I hope it's good.
  • Barry Schwartz talking about the "paradox of choice" and the possible up-side of economic downturn. I hope his work is more stimulating than Renata Salecl's The Tyranny of Choice (Profile, 2011) which gathers opinions from a formidable range of writers, but very little evidence for anything.
  • More on the effort vs. talent debate, swinging back towards IQ here.

22 November 2011

On staying offline

We have our milk delivered. It does cost more than buying from a supermarket, and I suppose I am motivated a little by trying to keep alive an old-fashioned model of service (and more to the point, a service which ensures that a customer is visited at least every other day, and notices if the milk has not been taken in...).

So S. is away for a couple of weeks. I put out the milk bottles, and knowing that I won't use much, I stick a rolled-up piece of paper in the neck of one which says, "No more milk until December, thanks," and includes the house number to save the milk-person from having to remember it. Simples! Elegant! Effective!

I get a call from Patrick*. Come to think of it, when did I give the company my number? I must have started on the slippery slope when I opted to pay by direct debit... He wants me to sign up to place my milk order (and overpriced orange juice and... I shouldn't mock; if I were housebound I'd really value this service) online.

Why? Because then I wouldn't have to leave notes for the milk-person if I wanted to change the order. Use the website up to 9pm the night before, and I can change whatever I like.

But I can leave a note in a milk-bottle up to a second before the delivery, or I can actually speak to a real person if I catch them at the right moment! This is progress?

Oh, I know where the company is coming from. Orders changed on the doorstep make for inefficient loading... and when this is a premium service they need to preserve their edge.

But! It's simple. It's reliable. It has no intermediaries. It requires no more technology than a pen and paper. It even permits a degree of human interaction.

*  But all credit to Patrick (that's the name he gave me). When I said "no", he didn't push it; he signed off in a resigned manner. I got the feeling he had got the same message many many times today.

18 November 2011

Items to share (19 November 2011)

Having lost the "share" button on Google Reader, I'm adopting Jim's suggestion to offer a compilation each week:
It's been fun collecting this ("curating" is the in-word)--I think I'll carry on....

13 November 2011

On the ceremonial of remembrance

(Nothing below is intended to disparage remembrance and respect for the fallen and maimed in any military conflict, including honorable foes.)

I've just been watching this ceremony of remembrance as I always do. (The link will expire a week from posting, and may not work outside the UK). I had my reservations about the show-biz contributions, and I wonder about the (post-Diana?) shift to sentimentality rather than stoicism, but sensibilities and fashion change, even at this level.

It's the context and the communal dimension which confers the genuinely moving nature of this ceremony.

In 2006 I attended the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. (the video is not mine--it's from YouTube).

I was very disappointed. For all the precision and spit-and-polish and solemnity, it struck me as camp. More mincing than marching.

Then this year I witnessed the parallel ceremony in front of the Presidential Palace in Athens.

Our guide included it, I think, because her son had been a member of the honour guard when he did his obligatory military service. She was clearly very proud. But I'm afraid it reminded me too much of Monty Python...

I'm not saying this to mock. I just found myself speculating about how these peacocks' tails of rituals came about. Perhaps the ultimate example is the pantomime at the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir:

In each case (apart from the Ministry, of course), there seems to be something important and solemn to be commemorated, which confers prestige on those who perform the ritual, and apparently permits its evolution through generations of young men without checks and balances. And of course the significance of the ritual lies simply in the fact that it takes place. While the performance in Kashmir does refer to the rhetoric of contempt, as Michael Palin comments, there is no meaningful symbolism in the presenting of arms or the goose-stepping of the other ceremonies.

Cut loose from meaning, there is merely performance. On the one hand, those who perished deserve better than that. On the other, they too were young men like these--perhaps it is what they would have done--before they did the other things young soldiers do given the chance...

12 November 2011

On academic ritual

(Post delayed.)

Another two graduation ceremonies, yesterday. I had thought six years ago that one might have been my last, but a year later it was still going strong, and it has done ever since. But circumstances have changed; from three graduands six years ago, the PCE courses now dominate not one but two ceremonies, albeit in a smaller venue. Pity that the non-graduate and the post-graduate students, who have studied in the same rooms and times for two years, were separated arbitrarily by label for the ceremonies, rather than by grouped locations--but it has still been progress. I think.

After all, one of our nominations for the award of an honorary doctorate was accepted! Pity that the ceremony selected had nothing to do with education, and none of the people who nominated him were able to attend, and the audience who heard his address probably had little idea of what he was talking about. To be fair, he did feature as a guest speaker yesterday, for one of the ceremonies, before he jetted off for a conference elsewhere--and his address was as pointed as can be. It's not often that you hear an academic--admittedly claiming Glasgow dialect--using the term "bulls**t" in a formal speech...

And the guest speaker for the evening ceremony may not have had the same credibility for those of us in the PCE community, but he was very accomplished and had his own impressive record.

But... for all the rhetoric about celebrating and valuing achievement, what does it say to our graduating students attending, that in the opening address, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor celebrated at some length the achievements of the Faculty without a single mention of the post-compulsory education sector--from which hailed about 75% of the graduands about to be presented? (To be fair to her, her remarks were scripted by someone else, probably, but that someone should have known better.)

Moreover, every single graduating student present passed across the dais to shake hands with the officiating... officials. Somehow, one would have assumed that after shaking hands and exchanging a few banal phrases with mature students (mean age 35+ and current maximum 68--or was that when you started the course, Maurice?) the platform party would have twigged that these are not callow 21-year-olds taking their first steps into a big scary world? (This stereotype is both unfair and disturbingly accurate.)

However, although our invited guest speaker adopted the ingenious rhetorical device of re-evaluating the advice he had been given at his original graduation in 1964,* and a recognition that the world is changing so fast that any advice for today will he useless tomorrow, the tone inexorably tended towards "wise advice".

Afterwards, my colleagues and I rated the performances (it's what we do!) No, we don't keep a league table... We were pretty scathing that no-one performing on the platform seemed to have given any thought to the context of the event, and that this failure to learn has characterised them for years. They simply dust off last year's remarks (after all very few people other than the academics ever hear them twice) and just possibly update them with reference to the ever-tougher job market (in which your new degree will stand you in good stead) or some other nugget of news which is recognisable of the current year. If I had been one of this cohort of graduates sitting through the ceremony, I should have been pretty insulted to be ignored and treated as a stereotyped 21-year-old...

But it occurs to me that we may have got this entirely wrong.Our speaker did refer to the ritual aspects of academic life--the robes, the processions and the certificates. And both speakers recognised that the status of "graduand", like that of bride, is a very ephemeral one. It is transitional, or indeed liminal. Graduation (like the whole business of going to "uni" for mainstream students) is a rite of passage, the principal object of which is to manage and communicate the change in status, to self and others.

* I didn't believe a word of it. At my graduation the address was given by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. I have no idea what he said.

06 November 2011

On new film library

Thanks to the Advances in the History of Psychology blog for publicising this new initiative from the University of Chicago, digitising and making available some classic clips, including Watson's "Little Albert" conditioning experiments from 1920.

Until recently, I should just have added it with one click to my "Shared Items", and a link would automatically have popped up in the side bar, but Google Reader has now dropped that feature (in favour of forcing one to use Google+, which is not the same thing at all. So "Shared Items" will gradually dwindle and I'll have to post directly about stuff which catches my eye.