Archive for the ‘Asides’ Category

Follow “The Sun”? – not on your life!!!

September 30, 2009

At last, after some weeks of searching for some good reasons for giving Gordon Brown and Labour my continued support, The Sun announces that Labour and Brown has lost its support and gives me the best possible reason I can think of for not changing my allegiances .

One has to own up and say that it’s almost a point of honour with me that I am  for anything that the Murdoch’s and his platoon of morally bankrupt mischief-makers are against – and there is very little doubt they are behind The Sun‘s decision – and vice versa. The moment they said, twelve years ago, that they were supporting Tony Blair was the moment Labour began to drop in my estimation.

The Sun's front pages 2009 & 1997

The Sun's front pages 2009 & 1997

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Strictly Come Dancing’s unlovely side.

September 28, 2009

I rather like –and agree with most of – what Germane Greer has to about Strictly Come Dancing in the G2 section of today’s edition of The Guardian

Competitive ballroom dancing was always famous for ridiculous clothes, most of them lovingly confected by the dancers themselves or their mothers. In that storm of surging tulle, fashion was no more an issue than taste. For the Latin routines, ballroom dancers wore rather less than the average lap-dancer. This isn’t, needless to say, what ballroom dancing is about. You don’t learn it at school because it’s fun, but because it will be expected of you on formal occasions. You should be able to do it with the bishop without embarrassing yourself or him.

There certainly in what she says by way of conclusion:

If there wasn’t an element of sadism in Strictly, the noble British public would not watch it. The humiliation of celebrities is part of its appeal. Strictly can transform a truly beautiful and graceful woman into a fairground puppet, lacquered bright orange, lips gaping in a perpetual grin, hips grinding, shoulders shimmying. All the lipstick in the world couldn’t conceal the fact that Lynda Bellingham’s fixed smile is a rictus of pure terror. Chris Hollins can puff out his chest and look stern, but nobody will let him forget that it was his mother at rehearsal who had to tell him how to dance sexy. …………….

The Return to Logos and Mythos.

July 13, 2009

In an article published in today’s edition of The Guardian,  the author of The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah, Karen Armstrong, distilling the arguments she makes in her recently published The Case for God, suggests that religious people,  rather than talking whether or not they believe in a set of doctrines “which cannot be proven rationally since they lie beyond the reach of empirical sense data” should learn – or, more precisely, relearn – that ” religion is something you do, and that you cannot understand the truths of faith unless you are committed to a transformative way of life that takes you beyond the prism of selfishness”

 Hers is in essence a clarion call to religious people to subsume the dichotomy of logos and mythos that existed in before Newton and Descartes and their successors subjected religion to scientific scrutiny  “and scientific rationalism became the only valid path to truth”

 In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were crucial and each had its particular sphere of competence. Logos (“reason; science”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos, an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience……

Above all, myth was a programme of action. When a mythical narrative was symbolically re-enacted, it brought to light within the practitioner something “true” about human life and the way our humanity worked, even if its insights, like those of art, could not be proven rationally. If you did not act upon it, it would remain as incomprehensible and abstract – like the rules of a board game, which seem impossibly convoluted, dull and meaningless until you start to play.

 The problem I have with this line of reasoning is that it’s very difficult to see why one mythos, in a world in which so many competing mythii in what is now close proximity, would be preferable to another.

Headteacher and his bonus 4.

July 7, 2009

The last time I mentioned this subject was  in middle of May when I noted that Sir Alan Davies, head of Copland Community College, north London, who was being asked by The Guardian why he had suspended three members of staff after they revealed his £80,000 bonus on top of a £100,000 salary was himself among a number of people suspended pending inquiries into the school’s financial management.

In today’s Education section of The Guardian there is a profile of Hank Roberts, the geography teacher and union activist who blew the whistle on Davies.

The part which deals with Roberts went about exposing Davies is instructive.  

The legislation encourages whistleblowers to go to the authorities, not to the press and the public. But his years of union activity, Roberts says, have taught him that “left to themselves, the authorities will cover these things up”. So he went to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) conference at Easter and announced Davies’s bonuses from the platform, which gave rise to stories in the national press.

“I knew Alan Davies would find it hard to face me at the first staff meeting of the following term,” he says. “But I had made it very hard for him to suspend me.”

Instead, Davies did the last thing Roberts expected. The Friday before the school term began, Davies suspended him for something else.

A letter had been sent opposing trust school status from the three union representatives at the school. Roberts’s wife, Jean, dispatched the letter without knowing that it had not yet been seen by one of the three, the ATL representative. This, says Roberts, was a genuine error, and made little difference because the ATL representative agreed with the letter, which was in line with her union’s policy. But Davies suspended Roberts, and two other union reps.

Roberts’s main worry was that the authorities might not act fast enough. So he sent off a second dossier containing more allegations, which are now being investigated, together with a letter explaining his fears:

“You may already know that I have … been suspended on a trumped-up charge. I know that long-term this simple act of retribution and victimisation will be exposed. However, in the meantime, the very governors who authorised, and the headteacher who accepted, these unlawful bonuses may dismiss me. Protection of whistleblowers should be such that they are protected against trumped-up charges and disciplinary action taken on that basis.”

Suspensions

Very soon, Davies was suspended, along with his deputy, Richard Evans, and the school bursar, Columbus Udokoro.

Philip O’Hear, principal of Capital City academy, has now become acting head, spending four days a week at Copland.

The day after Davies was suspended, Roberts was given permission by O’Hear to go into the school for a union meeting. Roberts can still feel the glow of the reception he got that day. He is emotional as he tells me: “It was astounding, teachers and pupils standing and cheering. That was a good moment.” The next day, at a meeting with O’Hear, all charges against Roberts were dropped.

Roberts has long been a union activist and has never been afraid to stand up to authority. A fierce opponent of academies, last year he was among protesters who camped out on the site of a proposed academy in Brent to stop the construction work. But he accepts that not everyone is a born activist or whistleblower. To any teacher faced with a decision about challenging the powers that be, his advice is: “If they have evidence, they should blow the whistle, that’s the right and proper thing to do. Under the legislation, if they do it in good faith, they are protected. There is also extra protection for union representatives, and they should keep their union informed.”

Right now, Roberts is pleased with himself. He hopes the investigation will lead to real questions being asked about what he calls the “bonus culture” in schools. Also, he believes good will come of it at Copland. “One year’s bonus for Sir Alan is equivalent to the textbook budget, and the school is very dilapidated.”

He hopes he has made school privatisation harder to justify, for in a trust school or an academy it would have been almost impossible to stop the Copland bonuses.

Perhaps, says Roberts, we will start to focus on classroom teachers. “No one ever said: I did well in life because the head managed the school well. They talk of inspirational teachers. These are the people who change lives.”

This reader cannot help but feel that Roberts was probably lucky to be vindicated in the long run, but can’t help but wonder just how many in similar situations as he found himself – or, more accurately, put himself – are quite so lucky.

A defence of blogging.

July 4, 2009

John Naughton uses Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in today’s Guardian to mount a defence of blogging against “print-based critics of online news, who are forever asking rhetorical questions about how much fact-checking is done by pyjama-clad bloggers”

I’m quoting John’s whole posting here because it should be read through without interruption caused by the reader having to find bits through links.

Lest we get too carried away by admiration of the Daily Telegraph’s role in exposing the hypocrisy and corruption of MPs, it’s worth consulting Ben Goldacre’s column in today’s Guardian.

He focussed on a report in the Torygraph which appeared under the headline “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists”. The report begins:

Psychologists found that all three factors had a bearing on how far men were likely to go to take advantage of the opposite sex.

They found that the skimpier the dress and the more flirtatious the woman, the less likely a suitor was to take no for an answer.

But, contrary to popular opinion, alcohol consumption did dampen their ardour with many men claiming that they were put off by a woman who was drunk.

Sophia Shaw at the University of Leicester said that men showed a “surprising” propensity to coerce women into sex, especially those that were considered promiscuous.

Ben phoned Sophia Shaw to see if the story was an accurate account of her research. She told him that

every single one of the first four statements made by the Telegraph was an unambiguous, incorrect, misrepresentation of her findings.

Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped? “This is completely inaccurate,” Shaw said. “We found no difference whatsoever. The alcohol thing is also completely wrong: if anything, we found that men reported they were willing to go further with women who are completely sober.”

And what about the Telegraph’s next claim, or rather, the paper’s reassuringly objective assertion, that it is scientists who claim that women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped?

“We have found that people will go slightly further with women who are provocatively dressed, but this result is not statistically significant. Basically you can’t say that’s an effect, it could easily be the play of chance. I told the journalist it isn’t one of our main findings, you can’t say that. It’s not significant, which is why we’re not reporting it in our main analysis.”

Ms Shaw went on to say:

“When I saw the article my heart sank, and it made me really angry, given how sensitive this subject is. To be making claims like the Telegraph did, in my name, places all the blame on women, which is not what we were doing at all. I just felt really angry about how wrong they’d got this study.”

Ben reports that since he started sniffing around, and Shaw complained, the Telegraph has changed the online copy of the article. But “there has been no formal correction, and in any case, it remains inaccurate”.

Now… Of course this is the kind of thing that happens every day in much of the mainstream media, so we’re rather resigned to it — especially in reporting any aspect of scientific or scholarly work. But it’s conveniently overlooked by many of the most vociferous print-based critics of online news, who are forever asking rhetorical questions about how much fact-checking is done by pyjama-clad bloggers. Actually, in this particular case, a blogged account as factually inaccurate as this Torygraph story would have been picked up and demolished within minutes in the blogosphere. So let’s have less cant from the processed-woodpulp brigade about the intrinsic superiority of their trade.

Michael Jackson (1958- 2009)

June 29, 2009

Over the last four days, there has been a lot media time given over to discussing the life and death of Michael Jackson. So much in fact that one cannot help feeling that there is something in what this reader of The Guardian reader says

Shame on the Guardian for downgrading its online coverage of the Iranian election crisis in favour of a disproportionate amount of comment on the death of Michael Jackson. It would appear that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men are distracted by the death of a once-great entertainer.
Richard Baker
London

Ethics for all?

June 23, 2009

In a recent posting to his blog, John Naughton writes of his long-held conviction that engineering courses ought to include courses in ethics.

Nothing I’ve seen in the last forty years as an academic in a technology faculty has changed that view. But ethics remains a taboo subject in most engineering curricula. Here’s a contemporary illustration of why we educators need to take the subject seriously.

Two European companies — a major contractor to the U.S. government and a top cell-phone equipment maker — last year installed an electronic surveillance system for Iran that human rights advocates and intelligence experts say can help Iran target dissidents.

Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN), a joint venture between the Finnish cell-phone giant Nokia and German powerhouse Siemens, delivered what is known as a monitoring center to Irantelecom, Iran’s state-owned telephone company.

A spokesman for NSN said the servers were sold for “lawful intercept functionality,” a technical term used by the cell-phone industry to refer to law enforcement’s ability to tap phones, read e-mails and surveil electronic data on communications networks.

In Iran, a country that frequently jails dissidents and where regime opponents rely heavily on Web-based communication with the outside world, a monitoring center that can archive these intercepts could provide a valuable tool to intensify repression.

And of course this applies even more to the technology Cisco & Co are supplying to enable the Chinese regime to operate their Great Firewall.

Sigh.

UPDATE: Rory Cellan-Jones just tweeted “Nokia Siemens just told me the software they supplied to Iran is the same “lawful intercept” system used by loads of western governments.” That’s what they all say. What it boils down to is this: “If it’s ‘lawful’ within the jurisdiction we’re exporting to, then we will supply it”. Which gives them carte-blanche to supply anyone, no matter how barbaric, so long as the client is a sovereign state. I wonder, for example, who supplies IT surveillance kit to the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe?

I’d go even further and suggest that every educated person should have been exposed to at least one course in ethics. I do realise that this suggestion is hardly likely to endear me to those who think that ethics and religion are two sides of the same unacceptable coin.

The Anonymous blogger 2

June 22, 2009

Emily Bell, the Guardian‘s very wise director of digital content, considers the implications of last weeks decision by Justice Eady to overturn the injunction obtained by Richard Horton against the Times revealing him as the author of the NightJack blog

It was ironic that the ruling came in a week when Iranian protesters harnessed the power of the web and social media to spread their message and organise their demonstrations. How would the Times view anonymised Iranian bloggers? The unintended consequence of its action will be to restrict the free flow of information rather than to encourage it. A cynic might suggest that this is no surprise given that old publishing models benefit from restriction rather than spread of information.

If a citizen journalist, or a blogger, or a witness is only allowed to remain anonymous if published under the protection of an established news organisation, it suggests yet again that courts have some way to go before understanding the full impact of democratised media.

Why should the judiciary recognise this when one of our most august news organisations doesn’t seem able to either? The curious business of NightJack gives the strong impression that the Times views such publishing efforts as essentially competitive, when they have to be viewed as complementary. A further unintended consequence would be that if, as an anonymous police source, you felt the need to unburden yourself about some aspect of the force, turn into a whistleblower even, then where would you turn? How safe would you feel about your identity being protected if it were put in the hands of a publisher which apparently thinks it is in the public interest for anonymous writers, sources and citizens to be exposed?

One of the best points she makes is that the courts have “some way to go before understanding the full impact of democratised media”. I cannot for the life of me believe that there is any serious newspaper reader in this country who expects The Times to do anything other than protect its own narrow interests, and there is certainly nothing very surprising about its seeing independent bloggers as competition, or about its attempting to render them ineffective as information gatherers and discriminators. The fact that Justice Eady chose to take the argument that The Times was acting in the public interest by exposing NightJack on its fact value does show that courts not only do not understand what Bell calls “democratised media”  but are  still grappling with anonymous publishing and whistleblowing as concepts.

Reading for pleasure.

June 19, 2009

According to Polly Curtis, education editor of The Guardian, it’s taken Ofsted three years to find  that 30% of English lessons are not good enough and that little attempt is made to encourage teenagers to read for pleasure. I’m sure that if you two had been paid what it cost for Ofsted to come up with that information, you would now be considering early retirement

Too many teachers appear to give up on pupils once they fall behind, the report suggests, with white working-class boys most likely to suffer. In some lessons writing tasks had “no purpose other than to keep pupils quiet”, inspectors found.

The report was based on inspectors’ visits to English lessons in 122 primary and 120 secondary schools across England between April 2005 and March 2008. It praises recent developments, including better use of roleplay and drama, and reading in primaries. But test results have hardly improved since 2004.

Inspectors found that “at best” in secondary schools, only year 7s were encouraged to read for their own enjoyment.

Anthony Browne, the new children’s laureate, said: “If children are not encouraged to read for pure pleasure, if they are dragged away from reading books they enjoy – including picture books – and pushed into reading educationally worthy books, then we are in danger of creating a generation of non-readers.”

What I wonder is who has been ultimately responsible for children’s not reading for pure pleasure and being “pushed into reading educationally worthy books”. Nothing to do with Ofsted, I’ll warrant.

Michelle Obama and all that jazz.

June 17, 2009

This report by Mike Maddenof salon.com provides with further evidence – if further evidence were needed – that the current White House occupants are about as cultured as any who have taken up residency in place. The Kennedys made a great show of being cultured, but, to my mind, the Obamas are cultured, and they do it with real style.

File this remark by Michelle Obama today as yet another in a series of lines you hadn’t heard from the First Lady before Barack Obama became president: “I brought my own family with me today because I want to keep them alive and aware of all kinds of music other than hip hop.” If Laura Bush (or Hillary Clinton) was concerned that her daughters were letting hip hop crowd out other genres in their personal music libraries, she certainly didn’t say so at the time……….

Of course, this, as you’d expect, was to be no ordinary lesson. It was a lesson organised by the First Lady, and it showed. Who else – without a small fortune to spend – could have the America’s first family of jazz, the Marsalises, to pop around for an afternoon’s jamming with each other and with a group of young students?

The highlight was in the East Room, where a band of Marsalises — trumpeter Wynton, saxophonist Branford, trombonist Delfeayo, drummer Jason and their dad, pianist Ellis — was teaching a lesson for high school-aged musicians from New Orleans. Fourteen students from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz had come to Washington for the event. Paquito D’Rivera sat in on clarinet and saxophone with the Marsalis family. Leading the session, Wynton Marsalis had the students come up on stage and play a chorus each with the band. Some of the kids had dejected looks on their faces after they finished playing, possibly because they missed notes. But Marsalis told them afterwards they had to keep a positive attitude. “You played good,” he said. “Sometimes the people who played the best had the worst attitude.”

Then Marsalis started playing riffs on his trumpet, which he had Branford Marsalis repeat on his sax; Delfeayo Marsalis and D’Rivera did the same thing, with Branford Marsalis copying them note for note each time. The students then came up and tried the same thing, with the sax players following Branford Marsalis and D’Rivera, the trumpet players following Wynton Marsalis and the trombonists following Delfeayo Marsalis. If any of them were intimidated, they didn’t show it — instead, they ripped through the jam session with confidence, smiling more than they had the first time they played……

If  Sasha and Malia Obama, who were the main targets of this afternoon’s lessons,  think that jazz not worth checking out, they will get a chance to check out something else later in the year.

The next music lesson, sometime in July or August, will focus on country music.