Sunday, November 29, 2009

The cult of failure in education

Writing in the Sunday Times today (Ofsted's hidden cult of failure) Harriet Sergeant describes contemporary ineffectual teaching practices and collusion in the shape of useless Ofsted inspections. The only thing that's changed since I was doing teacher-training back in 1973 is the discourse of political correctness that’s now used to justify such failures.

Back then as a student-teacher at college, one of my set books described secondary-modern teaching. An evocative picture was drawn of languorous days in the classroom. Flies buzz at the windows, the bored, indolent teacher at the front of the class chalks and talks into the air while the rejects of the 11+ do anything but learn: some read comics under the desk, others day-dream or look out of the windows, there’s a steady undercurrent of gossip and low-level rowdiness at the back of the class. This was school as dustbin or open prison - keep them off the streets.

In my time as a student teacher, secondary-modern failure was at least recognised as a problem. Bright, shiny comprehensives together with the abolition of the 11+ were going to make quality education available to everyone, even the ‘late developers’.

So began the long rise of political correctness with its denial of human nature, the dawn of the collective denial of the bell curve of children’s abilities and personality features. The ethos was one-size-fits-all education and even if this was never fully implemented, the ideology is not only still with us but is still being actively promulgated.

My teaching practices were eye-openers. First off was the inability of both myself and my fellow students to effectively control the classes in our working class comps. We wanted to teach but we were amazed to find that they didn’t want to learn: such a change from our cosseted grammar school experience.

Secondly, the teachers whose classes we sat-in on were pedagogically useless. They practised class control by diverse strategies: intimidation, mind-numbing rote-copying or the live-and-let-live mediocrity I had read about in that secondary-modern school book. All wasted time and opportunity from the child’s point of view.

I survived in teaching just a few years before escaping to the better-paid and infinitely more civilized life of a computer programmer. I believe the haemorrhage of intellectual talent from teaching has been a constant feature of ‘the profession’ for many years now. The stability of failure points to intractable causes which I put down to the refusal to engage with the intrinsic diversity in children’s aptitudes and attitudes.

It would surely be possible to create a palate of diverse approaches, but something which proved largely impossible even when it was an explicit public policy goal in the old tri-partite days is hardly possible in the current ideological climate.

But perhaps the elephant in the room is that we have too few niches in a modern economy anyway for people who are both stupid and unreliable ... if I'm allowed to say that?

Perhaps I could rephrase the point: what happens to people on the left-hand-side of the bell-curves for IQ and conscientiousness? (Answer: disproportionately unemployment, crime and/or benefits).

One last thing. In my first teaching practice after I had made a complete hash of class control and was at my wits’ end I had an interview with my supervisor, the deputy head. He sat me in his office and said gravely, “Nigel, you will never be able to intimidate classes by the force of your personality. You will succeed as a teacher only if they like you.”

At the time I thought this was both profoundly depressing and extraordinary insightful.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Farewell baseball hoop; hi WiFi dongle!

The clear-out of our house proceeds. On Wednesday two guys from the YMCA and their transit van arrived to remove surplus standalone shelves, computer seats and a clothes stacker. They wouldn't take our two tables (actually the main reason we had contacted them) on the grounds they were too old and decrepit (the tables).

In the afternoon we disassembled them and dropped the tables off at the dump.

Today a pleasant chap called Steve responded to our small-ad in The Andover Advertiser and brought his van around. By 9.30 a.m. we had seen the last of our American Basketball Hoop and Stand, which we had in fact never assembled. We have been lugging it around since we bought it in Vienna, Virginia in 2002.

The post brought an update from our solicitor. Negotiations have started to acquire our new property in the Cathedral city of Wells, but we have still not managed to exchange contracts on our current property: delays in the chain to be sorted hopefully any day now.

A small achievement: Clare has moved her laptop upstairs where she is working on her OU course - currently an essay on Cleopatra since you ask. I ordered a WiFi USB dongle from Amazon at the low price of £6.50. It arrived this morning and installation was just as trouble-free as the Amazon comments had suggested. Brilliant! Clare is now networked.

The said machine, a Toshiba laptop, was bought on a budget after we returned from the States in 2003: having left Cable & Wireless Global in its slide into bankrupcy, I need to restart my Interweave Consulting business. It still just about works six years later although it has a disk capacity of only 18 GB and its real memory can't cope with the latest XP load without spending half its life paging. The letter "L" on the keyboard is also broken.

Normally I would put it out of its misery, but this WiFi dongle has given the Toshiba a new untethered mode and as it continues to do the job - just! - it will be permitted to live a while longer yet.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The nuclear arms race as a thriller

This is an Amazon Vine review of: “Atomic” by Jim Baggott.

Most people have opinions about the world’s first atomic war. Was it really necessary to atom-bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Did the Nazis really have a credible A-bomb programme? Could the Soviets really have built their A- and H-bombs without spying on the Americans?

Relying on newly opened archives, recently declassified material and compendious research, science-writer Jim Baggott addresses all these questions and more. Covering the ten year period from 1939 to 1949, Baggott introduces us to a cast of more than 300 characters: Americans, Canadians, British, Germans, Russians; scientists, politicians, spies, military men and assassins.

In lesser hands this could have ended up as 492 pages of hyper-detailed indigestible stodge: instead Baggott has made it into a thriller. He deftly cuts between the opposing camps as the race to achieve detonation moves from crisis to crisis. The result is a real page turner.

Here’s another thing I liked about this book. It’s conventional to portray the Los Alamos scientists under Oppenheimer as saintly, far-sighted humanists fighting an unwinnable war against the evil representatives of the US military-industrial complex. Baggott carries a refreshingly small amount of such ‘bleeding-heart liberal baggage’, pointing out the naivety of such positions and the disasters which would have occurred had the US administration actually bought into the scientists’ proposals. There is an extended epilogue which brings the story right up to 2008.

Readable it may be but the level of detail makes this book of interest chiefly to those with a special interest in the political struggles and organisational challenges attendant upon the transition to the atomic age. Such readers will be richly rewarded.

Storm cat vole

Apologies to those of you who visit this blog for the latest thinking on string theory, tensor calculus, evolutionary psychology or agent theory. I fear we must return again to the cat.

Last night I decided that Shadow must once again be put out for the night. I want you to picture the situation: the front door with its cat flap, the three-foot vestibule with its harsh lined carpet, then the inner glass door opening out to our hall. The cat is in the vestibule, tucked away in its basket abutting the glass door which is firmly closed. There is a plate of cat food next to the front door to the left of the cat flap for his midnight snack.

We retire to bed.

At 1.30 a.m. last night I am awakened by a violent storm. Rain is lashing the windows, the wind is buffeting the house and making that low moaning sound which betokens serious weather. My drowsy thoughts naturally turned to the sleepy moppet so harshly condemned to these atrocious conditions. I made my way downstairs in the dark and turned on the hall light. There he was, curled up in his basket (aaah!) as the wind swirled through the cat flap. I opened the glass door and retired to bed: shortly afterwards the cat scampered upstairs and settled on our bed.

Cue forwards to 4.30 a.m. and we are woken by the whooping sounds of cat triumph. The repetitive cries start quiet then get steadily louder as the cat climbs the stairs. I poke Clare "Get up, he's got a vole!". Barely alive, she replies "And what am I going to do about it?"

Events overtake us as he dances into the bedroom. We both leap from the bed - our apparel will be lightly passed over - and one of us turns the light on. Yes, the cat is back to vole-juggling!

Swift as a vole herself, Clare grabs the cat and glares at me: "Sort it!".

I chase the vole, trying to prevent it escaping under the bed. I corner it and it runs up the wall - astonishing! It makes two feet, three feet, four feet without falling off. I make a cage of my hands and scoop it off, its tail flicking my wrist.

I make my way downstairs holding the wriggling rodent in front of me like a water diviner as Clare turns on lights and opens the front door. The vole is cast into the outer darkness in the general direction of the bushes. They can fly, can't they?

Now wash your hands! We retire to bed and the glass door is closed again: this time with the cat on the inside. "He won't want to go to the toilet now," Clare says confidently.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Juggling Cat

Yesterday evening after nine the cat brought a vole into the hallway. We've been here so many times before and Clare had intentionally left the hall light on. The cat was swiftly ushered into the house while the vole was shooed outside. Another life saved.

As a consequence, we decided Shadow would be put out that night despite the forecast of Monsoon weather. Who says we're all heart here? When I got up this morning - it was lashing down - I could faintly hear his little cries outside. He flipped through the catflap as I entered the hall and I let the sodden creature in, dripping a trail of water behind him.

I rubbed him down with kitchen roll - no sense in him soaking the furniture - and he scampered off for his breakfast. That reminded me that I wanted to tell you about his recent vole-juggling.

Yes, Shadow has taken to juggling the voles he catches. He sits in the hall, usually at the bottom of the stairs and flips the vole from paw to paw, cocking his head alertly as he strives to keep it aloft. Meanwhile the vole adds to the circus atmosphere by squeaking at the top of its little voice.

Normally I would go for a video of this performance, but with Clare shrieking "Save the vole!" I am normally too busy trying to catch the little rodent pursuant to releasing it safely outside. So no video, but I have put together the little simulation pictured below.

In deference to vole protection laws and to preserve its privacy and anonymity, the vole has been whitened out.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Once upon a time there was an elderly woman (who we shall pretend was not my mother) who answered the phone to a plausible caller claiming to be conducting a security audit. Believing him to be from the local police and anxious to improve her home arrangements, this woman answered the caller's detailed questions and found herself agreeing to a home visit from a representative. To further sugar the arrangement, the visitor would bring the gift of a free shredder (!).

The appointment was fixed for yesterday afternoon at 4 p.m.

Naturally once the phone had been put down, the lady smelled a rat. She dialled 1471 to get the caller's number but BT's talking robot informed her that the number had been withheld. So she called the local police.

They were helpful and reassuring. Yes it was almost certainly a scam and no, he probably wouldn't come. Lock the door, put the chains on and don't answer.

As it happened, I was in Bristol yesterday to visit this lady and I was sure he would come around. If your business is conning your way into old people's homes to steal stuff, the business model does depend on making the home visits.

I arrived shortly after 2 p.m. and hatched a plan. When the 4 p.m. caller arrived I would ask for his business card (DNA evidence!) while filming him on my camera phone. If he made an excuse about not having a card on him ('They're at the printers, I ran out. Sorry mate!') I would hand him a pen and notepad and ask him to write the details so we could check (DNA again!).

I would then say we weren't interested and close the door. If he resisted - how could he get past the chains? - we would call the police and nab him red-handed.

As a plan, it seemed not only foolproof but also one with a high probability of obtaining a conviction. Our nervousness increased as we sat chatting in a desultory fashion, watching the clock approach 4 ... and pass it.

He never showed up.

Previously around 3 p.m. there had been a knock on the front door. I pulled it a scant three inches open on its chains to see a freckled youth in an Oxfam bomber jacket waving a collecting tin. Seeing the chains he did a big double take and said

"It's only Oxfam, mister. Not the gas or electricity!".

No doubt he regularly sees people in mortal fear of the debt collectors.

"Not today, thank you," I said and sent him on his way.

Friday, November 20, 2009

This and That

1. We were in Wells yesterday viewing a house and this morning we made an offer. We're waiting to see if it is accepted.

2. Cheque for £40.25 sent to our solicitors for a duplicate copy of the NHBC booklet which we cannot find in our files.

3. Clare's first TMA came back (AA-100) and she was thrilled to get 72%.

4. Our move-date is still scheduled for December 4th, which is two weeks away. This is now beginning to affect daily life. We're running down food (leading to some curious meals) and debating how much of our furniture and other household baggage should be taken to the dump.

5. My story "Entanglement" was rejected by Interzone. I'm disappointed but not surprised as rejection comes to everyone. Clare loyally reckons it's because the story is not sufficiently SF: I rather believe it's because it's not sufficiently well-written. So, all failure is a growth experience, right?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"If God is dead ..."

Prior to the Neolithic revolution, it is believed that traditional hunter-gatherer societies had proto-religions whereby animals, plants, rocks, the wind, the moon, the sun were all seen as having a spirit-aspect. It was in the nature of such societies that they were small kinship groups managed by a charismatic leader: the social function of such religions was really ‘magical environmental management'.

The advent of the Neolithic revolution in both its farming and herding aspects introduced the problems of scale. Populations rapidly grew beyond the scope of traditional, organic leadership where the leader was able to know everyone. This required the codification of law, ritual and morality. But how to make such impersonal social rules stick?

Make them the dictate of a supernatural super-chieftain, with an earthly bureaucracy-priesthood as enforcers. Thus the pastoral civilizations of the Middle-East created the Abrahamic religions (‘The Lord is my shepherd') while the more settled farming communities of South and East Asia produced the rigidities of Hinduism and Confucianism. Even Asian egalitarian reactions such as philosophical Taoism and Buddhism soon became encrusted with the priesthood-bureaucracy and attendant rituals.

This says something important about the role of religion as a necessary and effective social glue. In the unequal societies of feudalism (and Asian variants) such glue was all-important and came with real and bloody social sanctions. Latterly with capitalism, with its dissolution of traditional social relationships and increasing living standards, the social glue aspect has come to seem less important (the United States with its ethnic diversity and individualistic ethos as usual being the exception).

It is relatively easy, Dawkins-style, to prove the absurdity of a supernatural agency, given the lack of any direct evidence and the inconsistencies of the revealed sources. The decline of a religiously-based code of acceptable conduct is harder to manage. At the bottom of an atomised, depersonalised civil society tribal 'gangs' spring up, defining everyone else as 'other'. Who wants to live where 'everything is permitted'*?

Life under the yoke of a ‘monopolistic’ authoritarian religion can be pretty benighted and oppressive. Life in the absence of common standards of decency is pretty nasty. Perhaps we need diversity, competition, a market in religions?

Er, isn’t this pretty much what we have in the US today?

Well, maybe with more regulation then!

And did you mean just for the underclass?

* cf. "The Brothers Karamazov" by Dostoevsky.

Off to Vancouver

Adrian (in the hat) and his friend Graham left for the winter skiing and snowboarding season at Sun Peaks in Canada this morning. The Vancouver flight takes off at 1.25 pm from Gatwick and it's then ten long hours before arrival at 3 pm local.

The winter season ends next April.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bath and Wells

Yesterday as projected we did Bath (184 mile round trip).

My never-very-high hopes for Bath subsided further as we navigated the dense traffic to a very expensive car park at The Podium next to Waitrose (it passes that test of course!). A traul through the estate agents confirmed we are officially too poor for Bath. To live in the city would cost £millions, while a home in the surrounding villages carries all the commuting freight of the traffic congestion and parking difficulties.

OK. So we went to Wells. And what a difference!

Wells Cathedral

Wells is small - human-scaled, quiet and utterly beautiful. The Cathedral, shown above in bright sunlight, abuts to the market square below.

The Market Square at Wells

Then there's the old palace with its moat which we barely had time to register. We looked at one property three minutes from the Cathedral which would have been wonderful except for the constraining interior layout: a near miss. We're back later this week to view another property so at least we have the location we wanted.

And if we lived there such delights as pictured below would be just a few minutes walk away.

Mass in B-minor

Friday, November 13, 2009

Disappointing Dorset

Yesterday saw us in Dorset in the latest round of our search for a new home. This now has added urgency as our moving date looks to be somewhere around December 4th.

We started in Crewkerne, a pleasant Georgian market town with a Waitrose at its heart. A Waitrose! Surely the mark of where we would like to live. We decided to adopt the Waitrose house-search strategy - check locations in the South-West where Waitrose has stores and search around there.

Sadly, Crewkerne came to naught. The problem is the usual one we have seen elsewhere – location. Out-of-town properties sometimes look OK in the brochure, but inevitably they are placed in a broader landscape of strip-development along too-busy roads. Or they’re a claustrophobic inset in a new estate-development incongruously abutting something much more ramshackle and agribusiness-oriented. Or else there's an auto-racing stadium half a mile away, mostly used for banger racing which the estate agent unaccountably failed to mention.

As the weather turned and the rain lashed in we drove on to Lyme Regis. One of the estate agents there told me that in the Lyme area there were few properties corresponding to our requirements (three bedroom detached with garden and somewhat secluded location). “Most of the housing stock is either small terraces in the town, one or two bedroomed,” he said, “or much larger estates in the country. Out of your price bracket I'm afraid." Yes, they had some good stuff for £1.5 million but nothing at all for us.

On the way back, driving the A35 in the hills towards Dorchester we saw the oddest weather phenomenon. A ferocious wind from the south was battering the car while overhead the clouds scudded like smoky locomotives. We were on the southerly side of a deep valley: high overhead a black, jet-stream-like cloud-tube assembled and stretched the miles over the valley to our left before seeming to touch-down on the far-off hillside. It was very spooky.

After more than 200 miles of fruitless driving, we finally got home exhausted at 4.30 p.m. to prepare for a pre-booked evening play at the Andover Lights. "Under the Greenwood Tree" by Thomas Hardy is a slight work and Dorset Corset were playing it for laughs. The rustic characters were complete imbeciles – not wholly plausible - while the romance between one of them and the comely and educated school mistress Fancy Day seemed especially unlikely. We didn't stay for the second half.

Clare's new plan is to look for a property in the delightful Georgian town of Bath. Something will have to give, I wonder if it will be the garden?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


An early departure tomorrow morning to Crewkerne (mentioned in Jane Austen's Persuasion I think) as a base for Dorset house-hunting. Clare has finally seen some properties we like enough so tomorrow will also be our first viewing ... we have hopes.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Early December move date

Down to Stockbridge again this afternoon to see the solicitor. We expect to exchange contracts on our house perhaps ten days time with the move tentatively estimated for the first week in December.

We're somewhat resigned to a stay of some duration in Reading as little of interest turned up in our house hunt trips to Wales and south Somerset. Meanwhile Clare continues to search online.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Holland & Barrett (Omega-3)

After days spent either cowering indoors against the rain or driving fruitlessly around the west-country in search of our new home, today we ventured out on foot. The unusual sight of calm blue skies tempted us to exercise so we walked the four miles to town and back, ostensibly to buy Clare some vitamin-A tablets and pop into the library.

We should buy shares in Holland & Barrett. I think we all know H&B sell nothing but new-age self-indulgence, yet somehow it is irresistible. Clare got her vitamins and I bought bottles of "triple strength omega-3 fish oil, 950 mg of active EPA/DHA per capsule". This on the strength of The Economist recommendation here.

At the library I took out a Paul Auster book (Travels in the Scriptorium) as well as something by A. S. Byatt. I saw the review of Auster's Invisible on Newsnight Review yesterday evening and decided to order a copy from Amazon: as I've read no Auster before I thought I'd do a little preliminary reading although I now see that the Amazon reviews of my new library book only amount to an overall two-and-a-half stars.

[Postscript at 8.30 pm: it took only a couple of hours to finish the 129 or so pages of Travels in the Scriptorium. It's a curious piece of metafiction, supremely referential to the author's prior work so impossible for me to adequately assess.]

We finished up in the BlueOnion, a local and superior version of Starbucks which served an excellent hot chocolate for Clare and green tea for me. Nice to be in a place where the staff enthuse about their work and the tables and floor are spotless. Another business to invest in if only they were publicly quoted.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

So much for South Somerset

A tiring day.

Making an early start we drove down to Yeovil: a charming town although clogged with traffic. This resulted in eight candidate houses from the town's collection of estate agents. We dutifully drove through miles of single-tracked country roads in order to eliminate the lot of them.

What was wrong?

- Appearance: the bungalows in our brochure collection reminded me of WW2 nissen huts and actually looking at them redeems them not at all.

- Location: this is the real killer. Many of the houses were OK in themselves, but the estate agent had carefully cut out of shot the derelict house/garage/high-density estate abutting the property. It takes a trip to discover the truth.

- General environment. One or two properties might have been OK if they had not been surrounded by the monotonous sodden fields of the Somerset levels. I know some people like this: we're more hills kind of people.

We did find one picture-postcard village, revealingly called Montacute but the house in question was some way away next to the main road.

Then it was off to Taunton where we arrived into dense traffic at 2 p.m. almost fainting from starvation. Nothing for it but to embrace a Burger King. The things one does!

Then we did the rounds of the local estate agents again - our spiel is now practised and terse - but only two properties survived a brochure review back in the car and they didn't survive the drive-by. Home by 6 p.m. and 210 miles covered.

Lesson learned - properties in a ten miles radius of major regional conurbations are not what we really want. Clare now has a mission to look more in the depths of the country in Dorset and Devon and we shall be off again pretty soon.

Exhausting though.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

VAT cancelled

My VAT registration has been cancelled from close of business October 27th 2009. This is due to the decrease in Interweave Consulting revenues resulting from the recession.

Story sent off to "Interzone"

Entanglement, a story of high-tech espionage set in the Middle-East was sent off to Interzone today. We shall see.

Getting this into shape has somewhat derailed my systematic study of "A First Course in String Theory" by Barton Zwiebach. His first chapter is a general - and excellent - overview of string theory: where it came from, its intellectual history and what problems it's trying to solve. The second chapter gets down to it, straight into tensor notation.

I know that's vital for GR, which is the real driver for string theory anyway so I'm detouring to work on tensors. The notation is very compact but to really unpick it in your head you do need to have done the homework and worked through lots of examples. Unfortunately, it's not that intrinsically interesting...

We had a couple of removal people come by yesterday to assess our house-moving-and-storage task and quote for the job: the third candidate is due with us in about half an hour. Meanwhile our search for a new abode continues tomorrow when we'll be checking out the estate agents in Yeovil, Dorchester and Chard (time permitting).

Clare's desire for a large garden she can work on seems to have trumped all her other requirements. Yesterday she said to me demurely,

"How would you feel about a Victorian semi? They have particularly large gardens."

"I'd rather die."