Thursday, May 14, 2015

Friends and Places

Old City from Café Rimon, Mamilla
The ancient stones of the Old City are worn smooth and shiny by the feet of countless residents, pilgrims, and visitors. They seem unchanged and unchanging in the soft opalescent light that bathes the city. People come and go, taxi drivers on Jaffa Gate still asking extortionately unmetered rates for a trip to Bethlehem, the old man with sad eyes, dirty feet and sandals sitting on the street corner, the old woman peddling red string for a shekel or two to ward off the evil eye on the steps down toward the Kotel, a segula whose Kabbalist origins can be traced back to Genesis 38 where a red string is customarily wound around Rachel's Tomb and resurrected in times when people feel in need of personal or national protection. Everything in the shifting political sand seems sometimes to lack agenda and purpose, yet, in this medieval cocoon, all seems as it should be, as it was meant to be.
Judean wilderness, Arad
Returning here is always something in the nature of pilgrimage, but, beyond the endless queues at the holy sites and huckster tourist flim-flam, as one burrows more deeply into the reasons and motivations for so much of the tensions, wire-wound like an overstrung instrument, there is a resonant aura of tranquillity, caustic in its irony.
And yet, this is not all there is. Many come to Jerusalem, and fail to explore further. This time, a long road trip took us down past Be'er Sheva through the mountainously inhospitable Judean wilderness, where the bedouin outnumber the rest, down past Masada, Herod's palace still majestically overlooking the Dead Sea, to Arad, a town without a traffic light where the hikers go, their litre of water per hour strapped to their backpacks, trails winding through perilously steep wadis.
Eilat, Marina
And then, there is Eilat, a sliver of a town, once near-lawless, now a neon-clad Las Vegas, with its own puddle-jump airport, where people come to party, to swim with the fishes around coral reefs so impossibly close to the shoreline and lie on the beaches within sight of Aqaba to the east and the desert of the Sinai to the west.
My own focus had shifted. I came not to see and gawk, but to spend time with friends, teachers and students, which was, surprisingly, so much more rewarding. I spent time with the young men and women who had to sit under my tutelage, some more mutinously than others, and rediscovered their warmth and exuberance, tempered by a year of growth, and how deeply satisfying it felt to be with them and briefly share our lives once more. Colleagues were glad to see my return, wishing me well.
What a difference a year makes...
If a lasting peace ever descends on this place, it will not be because of the intervention of foreign enforcers with muscle and money, it will be because people who know and have learned to trust each other will no longer allow their political masters to dictate terms based upon self-interest and hubris.
On the eve of Yom Yerushalayim, may we see it, in our day.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Tick Beautiful

Luddite I am not. If there's a man skipping and hopping, queuing up for the next all-dancing piece of gadgetry, he's behind me in the line. This said, there's no less flamboyant a way to say it. The Apple watch is released today. No, I have not ordered one online. Yes, I have been to the Apple store in Opéra and 'asked'. Am I going to wait for up to two months to get one? Um, on balance, no.
I like discreet, well-made objects. Not uncommon, which is why there are queues outside Louis Vuitton. I have expensively understated wee trinkets that I write with, amongst other things and every time I reach for one, I both hate myself for succumbing to high end advertisement and love the feel of a well-made artefact which actually does something useful. Ownership of such objects make us feel that we are important, more important than we actually are. Statesmen sign treaties with black and gold writing instruments - not ballpoint pens - I write shopping reminders, but the act of twisting that little cap a quarter turn reassures me that I too am about to perform an action which is affirmative and, for me, life changing, in the sense that whatever is listed determines what I eat, wear or even read.
How drearily trivial. So why am I so tediously old-school - I do rather like the phrase - why am I prepared to resist the blandishments of the advertising behemoth that is Apple and at which I have been remarkably unsuccessful in the past? Put another way, why do I prefer the quiet, efficient ticking of a beautifully made mechanical watch, a single, tiny precession every quarter of a second, when I could have something from Star Trek on my wrist? Because I don't think it would do me any good. I keep my iPhone in a small pouch, not necessarily to protect it from wear and tear in my pocket, but just to make it that little bit less easy to get out and do any one of a million somethings with, most of which are nothing more than random noise masquerading as entertainment. Watches are deeply personal pieces of functional jewellery and the fact that mine only performs one function very well is part of its attraction. Also, the Apple device is battery powered and vibrating quartz ain't so chic to folk of my generation. To save battery life, the watch goes dark when it 'thinks you’re not looking at it'. I find that quite scary. To turn it back on, you have to shake the device with enough momentum to, in Apple’s words, “Activate on Wrist Raise", put another way, a spastic jolting gets the thing going again which doesn't look good in meetings. In other words, develop a whole new, somewhat counterintuitive gesture to make the thing do what it was designed for when a real watch requires nothing more than a discreet downwards glance and a raised cuff. In any event, an iWatch can't 'beam me up' anywhere. Yet.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Blood Moon Rising

Blood moon, Jerusalem 2008
There's going to be a blood moon this Passover. I'm not really a numbers junkie - contrary to popular belief and I'm amused therefore by the flood of conspiracy theorists, amateur prophets and other assorted apocalyptically inclined savants who claim to attach meaning to so-called "blood moons", in particular in groups of four, occurring on four High Holy Days or Jewish festivals.  These sporadic yet predictable sets of four closely timed eclipses, called tetrads, depend on a precise alignment of the sun, Earth, and moon. (To visualise an eclipse, imagine you're standing on the moon watching the earth pass in front of the sun). In case people haven't been paying attention, this Passover coincides with  the third of four of these "blood moons" - which NASA labels as the phenomenon of four full lunar eclipses in two years. The first was on Passover last year, the second on Succot last year and the final one is on Succot this September.

This particular tetrad is unusual, as all four of its eclipses are total, this one, unfortunately, only visible early Saturday morning from central Australia across the Pacific region perhaps as far as Hawaii.  During more common partial or penumbral eclipses, only the earlier, less-cool stages of the eclipse occur — there is no total blockage of the moon, and no eerie red glow, caused by Rayleigh or inelastic scattering which we can explain as follows. As white light passes through the atmosphere, shorter or bluish wavelengths are scattered from excited nitrogen and oxygen molecules and are lost in space. Longer wavelengths are more likely to make it through without being scattered and arrive at the moon. Since red light has the longest wavelength, so the moon ends up looking red - the same reason sunrises and sunsets look red - the more white light is filtered through our atmosphere, the redder it gets. When the sun, Earth, and moon are aligned perfectly, not all of the sun's light will be completely blocked out by Earth, some will pass through Earth's atmosphere and then hit the moon.

Of the eight blood moon tetrads since the time of Christ, Israel’s War of Independence and the Six Day War both occurred during these periods, which is why some people are casting around for meaning, particularly in light of the Jewish belief that blood moons are 'a sign to Israel'.  The Internet is littered with candidates, so if you're interested all kinds of possible historical attributions can be found, including juxtapositions of the 'sign to the nations' of a solar eclipse somewhere in the cycle.

Much as it may seem otherwise, I'm neither a scoffer nor a convert to any particular theory, so,  in conclusion, I'll leave you with this. “And God said 'let there be lights in the heaven’s firmament, to separate between day and night, and they will be for signs, and for festivals, and for days, and years.'”  (Genesis 1:14)

As it happens, the 21st century as a whole will see eight tetrads - an unusually high number, so perhaps the best plan is just to wait and see...

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Write for Prophet

I am a political disconnect. I watch, not even observing, mostly, since this would require the investment of too much emotional energy, focus and dedication. I wonder if politicians ever ask themselves fundamental questions like 'who is listening to me?' Perhaps they don't because if they did, there'd be a resoundingly empty chorus of 'nobody', thus damaging those frail, narcissistic egos beyond repair. When they don't write about politics; instead write about things they know about, sometimes the results are startlingly, refreshingly brightly coloured. Identifying the man with the portfolio is a common, understandable error, juxtaposing fatuous pronouncements he might make with a quite unjustified ad hominem mindset about him. If he delivers a lot of pompous drivel in his public persona, one might be forgiven for concluding the man's a total fathead and should be shunted offstage where he can do no harm. This, I confess, is how I felt about Michael Gove, who took the wooden spoon, preferably sideways up his sanctimonious bottom, for being the most arrogant little tick ever to hold a Government portfolio. He wrote a recent article in The Spectator which effected a paradigm shift of ecliptic proportions in the way that I viewed him. He can write. Extraordinarily well. And, with passion, persuasion and, dare it be said, transparency, so very different to how I had seen him previously. My thoughts returned to the perceived disconnect between the electorate and the politicians in the run up to a general election in the UK. I thought of my disgust at yet another expenses scandal and a government of carpetbaggers so arrogant they can’t be bothered to tell me how they’re going to strip the state down to gristle and bone if they win another term in office, or how they're going to stand up to ISIS without the Muslim community screaming Islamophobia at them, or any number of empty, vacuous and self-serving promises that they have no more intention of keeping than the Iranians have of keeping their word about nuclear proliferation.

Who do people listen to? Perhaps they listen to the writers, the prophets without portfolio. I read the other day that crime writers tend to be leftist and thriller writers are on the right. And, there's a grain of truth in that. Crime novel heroes are often societal sideliners, dipping their toes edgily into dark, socially murky waters, where the crackheads live, whereas the thriller heroes are on the side of right, might and the maintenance of the status quo. The writer's view is in part a mirror on the world as he sees it so his own perspective slips unbidden into the narrative. As long as he's not a politician as well, in which case, we have no choice but to enjoy what he writes and howl and jeer whenever he opens his mouth.

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.
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.

Labyrinth and Nave, Chartres Cathedral

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 land mines and hoping for the best.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Going Viral

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.