Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Newton's Giants


I was in an anonymous French village the other day. Someone had mounted a cartwheel, one and a half metres high in a stand, a forlorn reminder of the absence of its fellow and the cart that it was made to pull. The wood was solid, if damaged, its iron rim still intact. It reminded me of a medicine wheel, the Native American spiritual map, echoing the universal symbolism of Four Directions, the Sacred Circle and the Tree of Life as themes of interdependence and duality expressed in the yin yang or taiji symbol. Some might suggest that it is a kind of mandala, a meditation device similar to “walking the labyrinth” in some Christian traditions. 
For Native Americans, “medicine” was closely associated with balance, cosmic unity, and finding one’s individual gifts, - or calling, as Christians might say - and thus, is akin to the Eastern concept of karma and 'good medicine' might be translated to mean a 'powerful truth'.
When I was young, I remember reading the I Ching - the Book of Changes, and coming to the realisation that I was a good deal more attuned to the yin or receptive, rather than the active yang - the soft and pliable will defeat the hard and strong, as I was taught in martial arts school all those years ago. As an ex-global vagabond - or nomad - moving through a different stage in life it is as if  as the medicine wheel turns it is showing me different patterns, much as the stars change their positions, reassuring constants in cycles of often chaotic change.
Labyrinth and Nave, Chartres Cathedral
People I know have recently returned 'home', a journey which they saw as necessary but for me carried little meaning. In conversation the other day, it became almost painfully clear that in a very primal sense, no matter how far we have travelled and how much we have seen we are shaped by the landscape of our upbringing, by specific events and social engineering as well as our perception of place. But our identity is equally influenced by how we roll the bones or interpret our heritage.  In life, as in a game of hazard, skill will make something of the worst of throws. The basic human question Who am I? is not just about self-discovery or finding the 'hero within' but about finding our place in the world. Such a journey may begin in childhood but is by no means restricted to it, indeed Lewis' 'hopeful traveller' is the archetype of a philosophically nomadic lifestyle.
It's not surprising that memoir is such a popular genre. Underlying the angst, trips and missteps that such recollection brings, it represents our search for anchorage, rooted in a half-remembered past. Some good sailors can just let the boat drift, having the courage to wander compassless into an unknown future and in so doing, find a different perspective on the past, since the very subjectivity of examination changes the reality of the experience. Other prefer more stable horizons and consequently may miss out on what Newton once called "standing on giants' shoulders". It's instructive to reflect on the fact that Newton had not plucked this phrase out of the air - it is a quote from the twelfth century French philosopher Bernard of Chartres, hence a perfect metaphor. He was credited with the remark that 'we  Moderns are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants (the Ancients), and thus we are able to see more and farther than they. And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.' What a very comforting thought.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Phenomenal Education


Finland, surprisingly
Finland  has one of the best education systems in the world. It regularly ranks at or near the top in mathematics, reading, and science in the PISA rankings, despite the fact that the Finns are generally unimpressed with ranking systems. People flock to learn how the Finns do it - their kids  don't start school until they are seven and stay in the same school environment throughout their school career - there s no such thing as primary and secondary school. Teaching is a very high-status profession, teaching universities are very hard to get in to and attract the best and sometimes but not always the brightest across the board; nevertheless most of the teachers are a lot smarter than their cleverest students. Most teachers have a postgraduate qualification, they are called by their first names and the kids wear slippers indoors. The Finns have constructed a publicly funded comprehensive system without selecting, tracking, or streaming students during their common basic education and the school network has been spread so that there is a school near home whenever possible or, if in rural areas, free transportation is provided to more widely dispersed schools. Their national curriculum is very fluid, locally adaptable to differing circumstances and students will, from 2016, be able to have a hand in its construction. Inclusive special education within the classroom and instructional efforts to minimize low achievement are also typical of Nordic educational strategy. But this alone does not guarantee the kind of success they enjoy and the country is not resting on its laurels, instead pushing the envelope of more radical ideas. In some schools they are considering abandoning teaching by subject for teaching ‘by phenomenon’. Traditional lessons such as Eng.Lit and even physics are already being phased out among 16-year-olds in schools in Helsinki. We used to call it ‘cross-curricular studies’ and everybody hated it (except me) because they felt expert in their own field but out of their depth in areas into which students might stray out of curiosity. The Finns are reworking this idea by teaching "phenomena" - such as the European Union, which encompasses learning languages, history, politics, and geography. No more of an hour of history followed by an hour of maths. The idea aims to eliminate one of the biggest protests of students everywhere: “What is the point of learning this?” Now, each subject can be anchored to the reason for learning it. A teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of food science, math, languages - to help serve foreign customers - writing skills and communication skills. For the more academically able, reading Dickens as a part of understanding the social fabric of Victorian England and Empire with history, fashion, art, furniture design, and music seems quite a sensible way of doing things since many of the old ways of teaching have no practical purpose. Years ago, we did what was called ‘group work’ round octagonal tables which was supposed to improve students’ communication skills. It didn’t work because discipline became almost impossible to maintain and over half of the participants just wanted to do something else. It’s quite clear that educational practices have to change – the Snapchat generation are unimpressed with books and the chorus of protest gets more strident every year. My solution is threefold. Firstly and most importantly, there has to be deep rooted and permanent paradigm shifts in societal norms about child/parent roles to roll back the job of discipline, or better, training, squarely back where it has always belonged – at the feet of the parents. Second, provide and pay for very highly qualified, naturally able teachers or facilitators who have the approach of a polymath and the skill and enthusiasm to foster it in others, thus earning societal respect. (Note – are there enough of such people and will defence cuts raise the tenfold increase in revenue required?)  Third, tiny class or ‘cluster’ sizes. People learn from people they like, know and respect. A bearded autocrat droning on at the front of a lecture hall won’t engage thirty fourteen-year-olds, whereas one person around a table with eight of them might do rather better. However, as we become more adept at tracking what students can do and how they learn, the days of whole classes learning the same thing look numbered. The way we do things in fifty years is going to make today’s methods look as antiquated as learning Virgil’s Georgics, although, ironically, their study was of itself a cross-curricular kaleidoscope of ideas.
Reading this back to myself, it's dismaying to reflect on the fact that there isn't a single original thought here at all. It is quite appalling, unnecessary and wilfully wasteful of talent to have to watch four out of every ten newly qualified teachers in the UK  leave the profession, mostly in defeat when it is quite clear that the lion's share of blame lies not with their expertise, their training or willingness, but in target-based systems enforced by what amounts to a secret police of overseers, managers and inspectors, all of whom are looking over their shoulders and have a different agenda when it comes down to turning the spreadsheet numbers green.

It seems that the more people try and play Mr Fixit either with education, politics or social change the more people have to resort to just muddling through, dodging the landmines and hoping for the best.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Going Viral

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A few years ago, nobody used the expression ‘going viral’. The snowball of tweets, hashtags and Facebook posts that accompanied a seemingly trivial, throwaway remark sends hundreds of thousands of people into a frenzy of posts and reposts, as if by identification, they have some claim of ownership over a blindingly original new idea. The very short half-life possessed by such events is testament to their overall value - on the very few occasions when something I have written has been picked up, the thousand or so 'shares' took less than an hour to generate, thereafter, the contents were as exciting as a dictionary. Advertisers and media people have made vast sums convincing us that the intrinsic value of a thing is determined by its popularity and hence desirability, not by any real worth it may have.
The trick to writing on the Internet in such a way as to generate profit is to be as extreme as possible; the Net consigns to an unread junk pile of massive proportions anything which has subtlety, nuance, or even careful thought. Laodicean greyness or admitting to ‘not quite knowing’ on the Internet is as suicidal as doing so in media politics. Certainty and bombast wins followers, votes and money. This is the age of  trending and ‘hot takes’, where people must, it would seem, have to have an opinion on every issue that trickles like untreated sewage down the media pipeline, fallacies are easy crevasses over whose edges we can slide: straw men make us sound innovative; ad hoc and ad hominem attacks make us sound as if we alone hold the moral high ground; quick bandwagon or slippery slope arguments make us appear prophetic when in fact we're just repeating the same things people have always been saying.
There’s a new movie hitting the screens shortly. It has a number and a colour in its title, and, no, I have no particular interest in seeing it. The book on which it was based was gaudily gauche and after a few pages I began to feel a darkly coloured Mills and Boon inversion about its contents.  It would seem to have little moral compass or cultural depth, so along with the billion other paragraphs consigned hourly to the trash can, this too will follow, at least for me. This isn’t to suggest that I am too intellectually haughty or disdainful of weak prose since most of what we all read, even this, falls into that category. I have simply made an existential choice that the literary equivalent of  YouTube’s cats on skateboards isn’t worth my time; Anastasia Steele is no Anna Karenina. Additionally, the ‘hot take’ of hastily threaded, poorly thought through opinion on it makes up enough Internet flotsam to tickle the most world-weary ears. But, only briefly. An opinion, if it's worth having, is often forged over time, crystallising with infinite slowness, forming its edges of perfection in the heat and pressure of challenge and disagreement and consequently sufficiently armoured to defend itself in whatever intellectual battle it might find itself drawn into.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Gambler

By the time you read this, Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of a free people, will be in DC, having responded to an invitation. The inviter omitted to give the nod to the other leader of a free people, who expressed slightly narcissistic disapproval. The conflation of his visit with an election on the one hand and last-ditch attempts to get Iran to ease off on the other was either fortuitous or disastrous, depending on your point of view. Everybody then weighed in with their ten cent's worth, accusation and counter-accusation flew, the air thick with outrage and rhetoric. It's probably nothing more than convenient that John Kerry and Joe Biden are out of town, but a lunch date with Barack and Michelle hasn't been forthcoming. People have just said they're not coming to the party. Why so very flippant? Doesn't the writer know that three billion dollars' worth of US aid is on the line?
Oh, yes. He does. Which is why it’s a very big deal indeed. But, hey… Why should I care? I'm a goy, a Christian (dreadful word) and after all, what do they know? They chased after a ragged first century rabbi who got himself killed and then...well, you know the rest. Being a rabbi, he was fond of a good story, so, here's one for you. A rich guy threw a party on his estate since his son was getting married. He sent out gilded invitations, hired a top chef, cracked open a lot of bottles, but response was a bit sluggish and people either threw the invite in the trash or mumbled some feeble excuse or other - mother-in-law's visit to the dentist - you get the idea. He could have given up at this point and just scaled everything down, but, no. He sent word that anybody and everybody was to be invited. He said to his people 'use a little persuasion, but pack 'em in. Doesn't matter whether it's the homeless guy with the penny whistle or that stinky old lady who sleeps in the doorway. My boy's gonna have a full house.'
Good story, but what's the point? A lot of people have been invited to hear the man on Tuesday. Some of them have mothers-in-law who need to see the dentist. Others feel that they have to make a choice between two Presidents and it might make them feel, well, a bit uncomfortable.
But, it's those who weren't invited, the great mass of 'we, the people', the politically unwashed, who get to hear and respond to what Bibi will have so say on their TV screens and on the Internet. It's here where the standing ovations matter, not in a few Brooks Brothered suits sitting in committee chambers in Washington and liberal, wishy-washy drawing rooms.
He's taken a huge gamble, just to be there, and he will spell out a danger, clear and present, about the threat to his country of a nuclear-armed, fanatically destructive and psychopathically malevolent Iran whose tentacles of destruction already extend to its proxies in Lebanon, Gaza and Syria, all of which just happen to be in Israel's back yard. Anything new to tickle American ears? Any magical rabbits to bound, full-fledged, out of the hat? No, probably not. Yet, America will listen, because this time the balance of power could shift dramatically and even perhaps permanently against US interests in the region if Iran is allowed to proceed, or even, pretend not to proceed.
All the time, people tell us not to trust politicians, and most of the time, they're quite right. But, on this occasion, in the words of the song, I think that it's probably wiser not to 'count your money when you're sitting at the table - there'll be time enough for counting when the dealing's done'. And, to Israelis, you might like to offer a prayer of thanks for a leader who isn't just a good poker player, but a statesman.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Fictional Reality

The line between fiction and non- fiction is less finely drawn than we sometimes choose to imagine or care to admit. Fictional characters uniquely clothed in our own numinous imagination take on substance and humanness which we ourselves weave around them. Fictional ideas, attractive and morally consonant, take root as an alternative but believable reality. Sometimes, political writing that claims to be non-fiction is just 'made up stuff', a morality tale, a fable,  yet its political clout is undeniable: “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” an antisemitic hoax which purported to reveal a plan for world domination by the Jews stoked the fires of European anti-Semitism in the decades before the Holocaust. Indeed, it was studied as factual in German classrooms in the 1930's. The power of the novel, unvarnished by political corruption, pales in comparison. There are exceptions, of course. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is said to have hardened opposition to slavery; Eva's long, innocent ringlets and Uncle Tom's patient Christianity , steadfast in the face of Simon Legree's bestiality set in motion the war that led to slavery’s abolition. Most novels can't be directly attributed to starting wars but fiction as life imitation is capable of instigating change, since good fiction is a mirror, sometimes deliberately blurred, holding a warped culture up to a more pitiless light than political correctness allows. Fiction can speak out, where bare-faced fact dare not, giving voice to the coerced silence that is a favoured weapon of the powerful.
Last year, while looking after a class for an absent English teacher, I picked up “Things Fall Apart”, Chinua Achebe's response to "Heart of Darkness" where African culture's advanced social institutions and artistic traditions prior to exposure to the juggernaut of white colonialism are contrasted with their subsequent culturally impoverished fate. How infantilising the experience of  such colonialism must have been, how it must have choked off  the adulthood of generations of parents, made children of them, made the coloniser into the adult, the colonised into the children of children. The fact that he chose to write in English was a political statement, an internalised form of resistance.
The current Palestinian narrative has to some extent been shaped by fiction and parallels between, for example, African colonialism and the status of the West Bank can conveniently and totally fictitiously be drawn for political advantage, which the world under the leadership of the UN has so very successfully done. Fictitiously, because there is very little by way of  historical, generational culture to overthrow. Amongst others, Ghassan Kanafani's short stories with their far-left, revolutionary themes shaped a largely fictitious Palestinian story of victimhood whose very simplicity gained it wide acceptance, portraying Israel as a colonising and consequently hateful power, seeking to extirpate all traces of Palestinian identity. Those without the pen resort to the sword, but their infantilisation is no less complete because unless the Palestinians take responsibility for solving their own political problems, made all the more severe by a blockade of religious intransigence, blaming the Jews serves only to perpetuate their own sense of powerlessness.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Truth to Power

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Recently, the ubiquitous Stephen Fry was asked on Irish TV what he would say to God if he met him face to face
So very, frightfully clever.
Fry’s eyes narrow. Clearly angry, he rages like a Hebrew prophet about bone cancer and insects that burrow into children’s eyes. He pulls out an arsenal of blame, dumping it unceremoniously at the doors of Heaven because if God is the creator of everything, he’s therefore all-powerful and consequently jolly well ought to have known better. He could have done something but chose not to. 
I found myself thinking that Stephen holds life to be worthy and precious. Why then did he get so very cross with a creature in whom he does not believe? It's like getting angry with a garden gnome.
If Fry is right about God being an omnipotent and capricious despot, then in spite of his courage in speaking truth to power, he can hardly expect a reward for his honesty. He apparently tells the truth then burns in hell.
In churches, lots of songs are sung about the greatness of God. This is why the Jesus story is revolutionary because it imagines God and power separated. As a deliberate act, God laid aside his majesty. God as a baby. 
Detail: Titian - Madonna of the Rabbit, 1525 (Louvre)

God poor. God helpless on a cross. God with an ironic crown of thorns. Furthermore, it is this very powerlessness that subverts Fry’s accusation of God’s iniquity. For if we imagine a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – meaning we’re forced to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant and uninvolved observer but suffers with us all. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he and he alone has the authority to whisper in our ear that all will be well.
Actions speak louder than words
The other problem with Fry’s argument is philosophical because there is no such thing as the God he imagines. His is the flying teapot orbiting a distant planet and such a nonsensical, flying-spaghetti-monster God doesn’t exist and Fry is right to insist that it does not. Thomas Aquinas observed that existence itself is a questionable predicate to use about God. C S Lewis argues similarly – “…as if God had nothing better to do than simply ‘exist’.” For God having metaphysical shape and form is a narrative woven from human dreams and fears. God is the shape of reality we try, sometimes fearfully, to make of our lives. God is the poetry and the music, not a command and control player responsible for some wicked hunger game.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Heavens Revealed

A long time ago, I used to take people on school trips. The comfortable chairs in the Greenwich Planetarium, elevated for skyward viewing, plus Heather Couper's delectably seductive voice gently steering everyone through a year of constellations, is a fond, if hazy memory. Planetarium in the morning, plus waxy Astronomers Royal in fusty eighteenth century clothing peering into telescopes, followed by the National Maritime Museum or the Cutty Sark after lunch in the Park. 
Hamlet's 'brave, o'erhanging firmament' has always held a certain wide-eyed fascination. As a jobbing physicist who has taught astrophysics as examination fodder, I know what a Cepheid variable is. I know about apparent and absolute magnitude. The fate of the Sun as it expands into a Red Giant - not a problem. As to being asked, off the cuff, where Betelgeuse is tonight, no clue. Not one.
Celestron Skymaster 25x70 binoculars
I had made up my mind that when I retired, I'd learn a bit more, principally because in the South light pollution is at a minimum and on clear nights the frosty ripple of the Milky Way is clearly visible and thousands of bright objects, some bluish, some red, keep watch during the night hours. Further north in Paris, the atmosphere is less forgiving but there's still plenty to capture the imagination.
Turns out, astronomers were Internet junkies almost from its inception. There's quite a body of astronomical knowledge out there and a very long observational history since people have been gazing heavenward in awe and wonder pretty much since we left off fraternising with the Neanderthals and struck out on our ownPtolemy of Alexandria lived 1900 years ago and his geocentric model of the Universe remained virtually unchallenged until Copernicus. My hero, for quite a number of reasons was the guy we always address by his first name, Galileo. Apart from standing up to the Pope - stout fellow for that - he was an observer of the heavens, which I am trying in some small way to become. Heeding the advice of seasoned astronomers, therefore, I have equipped myself with a decent pair of bins rather than a full-fledged Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, since I'd like to get a bit of practice finding stuff before I waste a ton of money on the optics. A camera tripod completes the setup, for now, since holding a pair of 25x70's still is a near-impossibility.
Tonight, I'm hoping the clouds roll away to reveal Jupiter who will  be in “full moon” phase when it ( or is it 'he')reaches closest opposition tonight, a mere eight hundred and fifty million kilometres away, rising east-north-east and remaining visible all night until setting around sunrise, exactly like a full moon. As I write, he's there, peeping shyly out from behind the neighbours' winter trees with moons trailing behind in a line, like the tail of a kite.
Just at sunset, facing the other way, Venus is bright in the southwestern sky, fading Mars a little higher and more to the west. Perhaps I'll catch a glimpse as she settles down behind the tree-line.
Winter moon with Jupiter, 2008 (naked eye)
The Universe is a panorama in space and time. The brightest star in the sky is Sirius, barely visible amid atmospheric pollution at this early hour tonight on the southeastern horizon and just over eight light years away. We see her as she was, eight years ago. Most of what we see and beyond vision is aeons older; of the three brightly diagonal stars in Orion's Belt, the middle one is twice as far away than either of its neighbours, the light from it left it a few years after the Resurrection. I found it interesting that in M42 - the nebula in Orions' Sword, just visible with the naked eye - still has unnamed stars in it. Fascinating.
The ancients believed that the firmament was a blanket covering the Earth at night. Imperfections in the blanket produced starlight, where the light of Heaven shone through.
Stargazing has a habit of bringing one down to size - the vastness of space, extending almost fourteen billion light years is, in some small way, comprehensible by a life form made of twisted nucleic acid and protein with the capacity to wonder at it.