31 December 2012

Items to Share: 31 December 2012

Education Focus 
  • Neuroskeptic: How Intelligent is IQ? IQ's in the news at the moment thanks to a paper called Fractionating Human Intelligence from Canadian psychologists Adam Hampshire and colleagues. Some say it 'debunks the IQ myth' -but does it? The study started out with a huge online IQ test...  
Other Business
  • 100 Diagrams That Changed the World | Brain Pickings "Since the dawn of recorded history, we’ve been using visual depictions to map the Earth, order the heavens, make sense of time, dissect the human body, organize the natural world, perform music, and even concretize abstract concepts like consciousness and love."
  • Archbishop's Thought for the Day: 'if all you have is a gun,… 'In his final Thought for the Day this morning on BBC Radio 4, the Archbishop of Canterbury talks about the recent killings in Connecticut and discounts the argument often put forward that "it's not guns that kill, it's people", saying: "People use guns. But in a sense guns use people, too."' ... a thoughtful gloss on Maslow's "if your only tool is a hammer..." and the aftermath of Sandy Hook. (Re-posted from Christmas Eve)
Very best wishes for 2013!

29 December 2012

On IT skills

I've just had an irritating evening. Both my sons decided they needed to avail themselves of Dad's Back-office Services (TM) to create some quotes and invoices. Thar's OK, up to a point, but what annoys me is that they don't have the content worked out clearly and expect me to sit there while they leaf through suppliers' catalogues deciding what mark-up they can get away with on various materials. If I were being paid by my time (or at all) I wouldn't mind so much...

OK--I was a teacher. Why do I not teach them to do these invoices themselves? I have done. Very badly. Last time I was working away from home for a few days, S. let them loose on my laptop to do the paperwork for themselves. She complained that they were up in the study for most of the evening, "helping" each other, generated piles of scrap paper--and littering my hard drive with unlabelled files just dropped in whatever folder I had last used.

R. has some excuse. He's now in his mid-forties, and all this stuff never featured in his formal education, and he has never owned a computer, so although I get irritated with his failure even to make a note of his customers' surnames or postcodes, I don't expect him to handle file-management or version control or even typing beyond painful hunt-and-peck level.

But CJ is younger, and computers have been round in his life since I got my first (Amstrad 8256) when he was five years old, and he got a Sinclair Spectrum + 2 at six or seven, before being led astray by games consoles a year or two later.  IT (not yet ICT) featured--rather falteringly, granted--in his primary school education and was routine at high school from 1994 onwards...

I'm not just ranting about his lack of skill, though. He is clearly accomplished in many tasks--ICT is after all not just one thing. His gaming skills may be a little rusty, but they are still accessible. He can do all kinds of things on his smartphone that I don't even understand. It's just that he uses a word-processor when he should use a spreadsheet--we're not yet anywhere near an accounts package...

In fact, he's very accomplished at all the things he has never been taught. I'd go further and hypothesise that in real-world ICT practice there is an inverse correlation between the skill level achieved by learners and the amount of formal teaching they receive. The speed at which I see adolescents texting in the street or on the bus amazes me. I'm sure that any efforts to incorporate social media into a formal curriculum would only hinder, slow or even halt its expansion and user base.

In part, then, I am for once inclined to applaud Michael Gove's recognition of the inadequacies of the current national ICT curriculum.

A clear disconnection has developed between curriculum aspirations and outcomes, parallel to the divergence in the late '50s and early '60s between formal and informal curricula in music. In secondary school, my classmates and I--very mildly by current standards-- subverted formal music lessons and affected to despise them. It was an attitude reciprocated by our teachers, who referred to popular musicians as three-chord wonders. Nevertheless one of my friends--while affecting the same disdain as the rest of us for "music appreciation"--was practicing for countless hours to master all 88 tracks of Django Reinhardt's solos in his LP collection, and he was not alone.*

As Illich put it:
A second major illusion on which the school system rests is that most learning is the result of teaching. Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place of confinement during an increasing part of their lives (Illich, 1970:12)

...and I had a J R Hartley moment: R had told his girlfriend about how he is credited in the acknowledgements of one of my books--had I a copy to spare? No, but--it's on Amazon, for £0.01. (+ £2.80 p&p!) withdrawn from library stock somewhere. Not a boost to my literary ego, but a reasonable present!

*  He has no direct web presence, but search for him and get countless references to professional musicians who "studied under David Taplin at the University of Huddersfield".

22 December 2012

On being a "deviationist" in several senses...

It's not something you claim, more something you confess (usually under duress).

I recently watched "The Golden Age of Steam Railways" on BBC4 about the redevelopment of the Talyllyn and Ffestiniog narrow-gauge railways in North Wales; the last 15 minutes or so concerned the construction of the "deviation", a loop from Dduallt round the the Tanygrisiau reservoir to restore the full track to Blaenau Festiniog. Like the page I linked to, that last sentence probably told you more than you ever wanted to know about the potentially obsessional world of the railway enthusiast.

I have enormous respect for the thousands of people who worked on what must count as one of the greatest purely voluntary civil engineering projects ever undertaken, over a ten year period. My involvement was trivial and incidental, so I claim no credit--but I do have a debt to the project, for what I learned.

First, I participated in a weekend working-party. Leave London after work on Friday, pile into a minibus, drive up the A5--largely pre-motorway--arrive on site at 11pm in the dark and climb to the base in a Nissen hut (no plumbing) --work every possible hour until dark on Sunday, and then travel back. And pay expenses for the privilege...

... and a week's working party, noted here, rather nostalgically.

My previous account concluded, "Wouldn't have missed it for the world." That is rather over-stating it. I can come clean. I hated every minute of it. I did it out of some perverse sense of duty and allegiance to an organisation which I really enjoyed belonging to in my teens, and out of loyalty to a good friend who was leading the group and who wanted a sidekick...

However, some memories do abide...
  • From today's perspective, the whole set-up appears naively trusting--I don't remember even having to provide a character reference to become a leader of a residential group of 12-15 year old boys, based in a Nissen hut up a mountain and totally isolated from the rest of the world (other than on foot over difficult terrain) between 8 pm and 8 am. It was not simply a "safeguarding" issue--that term and indeed that concern were unknown then. Indeed, I suspect that to have raised concerns about potential abuse would have been one of the few grounds for disqualifying anyone from participation--it would have drawn attention to an unhealthy preoccupation with such matters.
  • As I recall, the team leader received a cash float for expenses. He did keep it in a locked cash-box--but I seem to remember he brought his own box, and he kept track of expenditure in a notebook. In those days printed receipts were unknown, so if someone forgot to ask for a written one, we had to rely on memory and price labels.
  • We did have a first-aid box, with the usual compliment of bandages and the like--but as far as I know there was no check on the first-aid qualifications of the leaders. (That may not have been noticed, because one of us was a medical student--which status does not of course guarantee practical first-aid competence.)
  • We spent our days hacking at rocks with picks and shovels. The health and safety precautions surrounding the use of explosives were indeed quite tight--only the Colonel (Campbell, who lived half-way down the mountain) had explosives clearance--and I remember going to pick up the gelignite from the depot in the valley, which was plastered with score-boards announcing "220 days since the last accident", and the like.
  • But I don't recall any hard hats, steel-capped boots, eye- or ear-protection...
I could go on.

But in a related vein: a few days ago, I and a few former colleagues--all with a background in education, although I was probably the oldest--met for one of our occasional walks. The conversation turned to the Jimmy Savile case, and an animated discussion about whether "it was all different in those days" was a legitimate defence for the conspiracy of silence which surrounded his abusive acts. (I won't say "alleged". He's dead, and if I had heard those rumours then so had everyone with any connection with children's services. And I've written about abuse here, and here, in particular.)

It strikes me that;
  • We assume (ideological hegemony) that our current values are best/correct/right... (How dare I suggest otherwise? "I was beaten every day and b****red every night at [boarding] School, and it didn't do me any harm!"---is no longer a legitimate claim.*) ....
  • Our predecessors were not: 1: naive-- 2: ignorant-- 3: in denial-- 4: complicit-- 5: participant in relation to abuse. That categorisation is itself predicated on a frame of reference focused on the detection of presumed abuse.
  • There's a clear divergence here between an approach to any initiative which is about the maximisation of happiness (the utilitarian "hedonic calculus" in its most benign form) and about the prevention/mitigation of harm, even when the latter is a pre-requisite of the former. The harm perspective claims the high ground so much that it can never be claimed that enough has been done on that front, and so there is never enough energy left for the happiness agenda**. (I leave aside the possibility that some organisations in the field have a vested interest in exaggerating risk in order to raise their profile and their funds...)
What has happened to our perspective and discourse, particularly relating to young people and risk, in the past thirty years? Why? Can and should the pendulum swing back? What are the costs of the current defensive approach--both social and personal?

I'm reminded of Daddy Walker's famous telegram in Swallows and Amazons (1930) in response to the children's request to go sailing; "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN" Today that approach would be regarded as tantamount to abuse.

* For the record, I do agree.

** Of course, the reality of some risk, however unlikely, will always remain. Since I starting drafting this post, the Newtown massacre has taken place. Followed by the bizarre and chilling take on it by Wayne LaPierre of the NRA.

18 December 2012

On a culinary con

S. gave me the book of  Jamie's 15-minute meals as part of my birthday present, concluding her inscription with "Now feed me!"

I've now cooked a dozen or so of his recipes--more or less. Why so vague? That goes to the heart of the issue...
  • Some of the ingredients are rather obscure, so I substituted others. "Prepared polenta" is a cheat. I can't even find ordinary polenta at Waitrose. And yesterday it took three members of (brilliantly keen to help) staff to locate the bulgur wheat. Frankly, all these staples taste of very little, so why not list substitutes in the recipes? So I can legitimately be accused of not following instructions properly. OK--I've not done that for forty years... Read on...
  • because the whole project is driven by a silly and arbitrary constraint--fifteen minutes. Get real. Yes, assuming that you have lined up all the prep at the head of the recipe, zapping ingredients and cooking them may take only a few minutes, but that is catering-speak, not home-cooking-speak. "15-minute meals" is an appealing marketing idea, but it imposes a stupid structure on almost all of the recipes (exempting some of the fish and veggie ones). 
Assuming that each "meal" (read "course") consists of meat/fish + veg/salad + staple  (potato/ pasta/ rice-based carbohydrate), Jamie's staff* have been driven down the line of creating:
  • something which can be portioned, beaten and flavoured/seasoned to be fried or grilled in a few minutes.
  • a salad or quick-cooked vegetables
  • a filler--probably not potatoes because they take too long
--and there are only so many variations on the theme. So most of the recipes I have tried share:
"On a large sheet of greaseproof paper, toss the [meat] with salt, pepper [herb/spice 1] and [herb/spice 2]. Fold over the paper then bash and flatten the [meat] to 1.5 cm thick with a rolling pin."
(I don't know how to 'toss' with those dry ingredients on a sheet of greaseproof paper without making a dreadful mess, incidentally--but I do admit that greaseproof paper works better than the clingfilm I have been wont to use...) There isn't very much alternative if you are going to cook meat in about ten minutes--the cuts, moreover, have to be premium and expensive.

And there is no time for subtlety in seasoning, so most recipes call for chillies and garlic. But if you are going down that route and time is of the essence, why can't you use chilli and/or garlic and/or ginger and/or anchovy... puree? Delia conceded that in How to Cheat at Cooking so why not Jamie?

What both Jamie and Delia have in common, however, is far too many ingredients (Delia's first edition in the '70s was much better in this respect). On my latest effort with Jamie, (p.40) not only did I substitute couscous for polenta (with some knock-on changes), but I dumped the asparagus and the spinach. Even so, my notes read; "lots of flavours --not much flavour overall. Confused."

I know little in this field, but I would have expected that the test cooks would have systematically tried recipes with and without the seasonings and sides, and decided which made a difference and which were swamped. I'm sure that the 80/20 rule applies here as much as in the rest of the world.

So--why this post? It's not a formal review, and apparently the book is not doing as well as Jamie's previous Christmas offerings, in any case.

It's not about the book, or the Jamie brand*--it's about the approach. Apparently, for all the popularity of cooking shows on TV and the (tie-in, of course) books, fewer and fewer people are cooking from scratch at home (sorry, too many sources of variable quality to evaluate).

Recipe books are a dead end, a cul-de-sac. They reinforce the difference between the chef (chief) who originates the recipe, and the compliant cook, who follows it. They are the culinary counterpart of Freire's banking model of education.

It's interesting to think about alternatives.As long as they taste good!

* "Jamie Oliver" ceased to be a person and became a brand about a decade ago. I'm sure he signs off each project which bears his name, but he cannot possibly develop them all personally.

16 December 2012

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09 December 2012

08 December 2012

On what to do after the end of the world...

According to NASA, the world will not end on St Lucy's Day*. I'm going to stick my neck out and believe them.

It's the original cognitive dissonance scenario: celebrate instead with this classic sketch.

And just carry on...

* This dating may not work any more, although it would be a pity to lose it; Donne was of course writing before the calendar adjustment of 1752.... Still, 21 December 2012 seems to be the deadline.

02 December 2012

Items to share: 2 December 12