Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The true size of Africa

This is mind boggling - Africa is actually bigger in area than China, USA, India, Mexico, Peru, France, Spain, PNG, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Norway, Italy, New Zealand, UK, Nepal, Bangladesh and Greece combined!
Also a great example of the power of visual/graphic data display.
More info and an enlarged version of the image above at:
Thanks to Izzy for this.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Scepticism: it's a tough job, but someone has to do it

'Scepticism does not suit everybody.  It supposes a profound and careful examination.  He who doubts because he is not acquainted with the grounds of credibility is no better than an ignoramus.  The true sceptic has counted and weighed his reasons.  But it is no easy matter to weigh arguments.  Which of us knows their value with any exactness?  Out of a hundred proofs of the same truth, each one will have its partisans.  Every mind has its own telescope.  An objection which is invisible to you is a colossus to my eyes, and you find an argument trivial that to me is crushing in its efficacy.  If we dispute about their intrinsic value, how shall we agree upon their relative?  Tell me how many moral proofs are needed to balance a metaphysical conclusion?  Are my spectacles at fault, or yours?  If, then, it is so difficult to weigh reasons, and if there are no questions which have not two sides, and nearly always in equal measure, how come we to cut knots with such rapidity?  How do we come by this convinced and dogmatic air?  Have we not a hundred times experienced how revolting is dogmatic presumption? "I have been brought to detest probabilities", says the author of the Essays [Montaigne], "when they are foisted on me as infallible; I love words which soften and moderate the temerity of our propositions - peradventure, in no wise, some people say, methinks, and the like; and if I had to teach children I should train them to answer in this hesitating and undecided manner: 'What does that mean? I do not understand; maybe; is it true?' that they would have the appearance of apprentices at sixty years of age, rather than of doctors at ten, as at present.'  Denis Diderot, Philosophic Thoughts XXIV, 1747, translated Jourdain.

Diderot was so modern.   Compare this with, for example, Nietzsche: 'All seeing is perspective, and so is all knowing', virtually identical with 'Every mind has its own telescope'.  Of course I am even more pleased to see him quote Montaigne, and I am resolved to use the words peradventure and methinks whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I am reading a collection of Denis's early works, and expect there may be more quotations from it here before long....

Friday, 31 August 2012

Amnesty for international students at London Met: Petition

Sign this e-petition to support an amnesty for international students enrolled at London Met, who unless they find another course within 60 days, face deportation.

Without warning these students have been told that they are unable to continue at London Metropolitan University, due to management failings in complying with the Government's 'Points Based Immigration System'.

The petition simply calls for an amnesty so that they may complete their studies. The reasoning is that the priorities of the government "taskforce" announced today should aim to put right the problems at LMU, not merely seek to move students around the UK as a consequence of the decision to withdraw the University's sponsorship status.

If there are management failings for which London Met is responsible, it seems wholly counter to elementary natural justice to deport some 2,700 international students - which is the inevitable result if they are unable to find (or accept) university places elsewhere in the UK.
Please sign the petition here, and forward to colleagues:

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Outernet

No comment needed:  I feel it could probably be extended with a bit of thought....

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Benjamin and Dali in Catalunya

One of the things I most wanted to do when I visited Catalunya for the first time in 1989, was to go to the town where Walter Benjamin died and is buried.  In the event on that occasion I wasn’t able to, but what did happen is that my personal interest in his life and work was put into strong relief by a visit to another Catalan shrine, a place I didn’t even know about before I went.  This was the Dali Theatre and Museum in Figueres.

At the prospect of visiting this item, one friend, who had OD’d on Dali while working in the Tate Gallery giftshop during the big Dali exhibition in 1980, was interested but critical: ‘All tits and bums’, was her succinct summing up.  I remembered weird landscapes and melting clocks.  I recollected his moustache, his reputation for publicity stunts, and that he had died about two years before.  I had the idea that he could still be seen embalmed and lying in state, and this added a frisson of ghoulishness to the attraction of going to Figueres.   I said to myself that I didn’t really like Dali, but we were only staying 30 kilometres away.   And, after all, he was a surrealist: hadn’t Benjamin written an important essay on Surrealism?   The visit to Dali’s museum would also be a kind of homage to Benjamin.  So we went….

The Museum building, though bizarrely decorated, merges structurally with the surrounding buildings right in the centre of Figueres.  The entrance is down a narrow street which opens into a tiled Plaça surrounded by the Museum, a Library of Surrealism, and the tables and chairs of a bar.  In front of the main entrance is a huge decorated tree stump, which with an egg shape for a head, looks like a seated person, head in hands.  Bit and pieces of plaster and sculpture are stuck into the niches of the stump, which is closely hugged by railings.  Also in the courtyard are two columns of tractor tyres, each with statues of enthroned kings on top, about thirty feet high or more.  There is also a totem pole of TV sets, covered in plaster that looks like petrified semolina.  The building itself is Theatre Del Arte-style, like a paper cut-out model, but full size.  Golden science-fiction figures with raised hands and no features are arranged around the parapet.  There are decorative eggs everywhere you look.  A huge bearded head in a glass case has a TV in its forehead and dolls eyes for eyeballs.  Its case is dotted with eggs stuck to the walls and floor.

Inside the building is a small courtyard surrounded by four floors of enclosed galleries and show rooms.  These contain pieces of Dali’s collection, much by himself.  One floor contains dozens of paintings of human shapes discovered in piles of stones.  A life-size statue of a naked woman, painted to look real and with no pubic hair, is in a glass case brightly illuminated with neon lights.  A nude human shape is painted on polystyrene boards, with a shell placed at the crotch.  One doorway is a brightly-rouged mouth, festooned with corn-cobs.  In the courtyard is a black Cadillac our of a Bogart movie, with three figures inside and a lot of ivy growing around them.  There is also a column with a real fishing boat on the top, painted yellow and white, from which blue globules are suspended as if falling.  All around the fourth gallery level, visible from the courtyard, are yellow reliefs of washbasins.

At the back of the courtyard on a sort of enclosed stage, serenaded by a white plaster orchestra with real instruments, is an amazing 20 foot-high portrait of Abraham Lincoln.  From close up his face consists of a nude woman and a series of square blocks of colour.  From afar it’s an uncanny portrait of the man.  You can’t stand far enough back in the room to be able to appreciate this, and I can only tell you about it because I happened to catch sight of a postcard of the picture in the gift-shop window, from the other side of the Plaça.

There were hundreds of people, and the galleries narrow and no complete circles, so that you have to keep retracing your steps, squeezing past those behind you going forward.

 This building and its decorations and artefacts are Dali’s tombstone, and his 1000 decibel-epitaph.  He is buried beneath it.  (I was mistaken about him lying in state, though I feel it would be perfectly consistent with everything else here.)  It represents homage to Dali from himself.  The public are amused and bemused bystanders, in fact voyeurs, in the great show Dali is giving to himself.  His throwing together of images and textures is done with dazzling technique and pazazz.  He made a stupendous effort to achieve immortality, amazingly consistent throughout his career, by apotheosising the effort itself.  His life’s work has no purpose but itself, and its meaninglessness follows from this concentration on effort – meaning diverts attention from the star of the show.
What would Walter Benjamin have made of it?  His great essay on Surrealism, published in 1929, makes no mention of Dali.  Benjamin’s interest was in the extent to which Surrealism was revolutionary and subversive by making revelation which could be utilised in political ways.  To me Dali’s effort seems to have been to domesticate and channel the dangerous energies unleashed by Surrealism.  His Museum provokes at best a kind of urbane amusement: it does not shock or disturb, and few of the images and objects provoke thought, as opposed to bewilderment or sniggers.  There is nothing here remotely as shocking as Bunuel’s image of the razor slicing through an eye in Le Chien Andalou, and nothing half as powerful as an insight, or with as much metaphorical content.  Dali’s stuff is not particularly funny either.  One gazes, impressed by the undoubted energy and technique, but there is no answer to the question implied by this: what is it all for?  It is possible that people looking for significance and meaning will be assured that it is there, even if they cannot detect it, just because of the impenetrability of the images.  But this impenetrability is the adman’s illusion of a world of surfaces and appearance.  There is nothing to penetrate, no underlying significance or point to uncover, not even a joke to get.  Significance can be attached to meaninglessness in an alienated world, but Dali in no way represents pressure for change.  He was a public supporter of Franco, who won the Spanish Civil War with the support of the Nazis, and who suppressed Dali’s own Catalan language.

Walter Benjamin died and is buried at Port Bou, on the French Catalan border, about 35 kilometres from Figueres.  He was fleeing from the Nazis, and, held up by the Spanish authorities after an asthmatic climb to the border, he committed suicide, in September 1940.  His life’s work, a collection of essays and notes for unfinished projects on a huge range of cultural activity, have nonetheless a consistency, which is his struggle to articulate the real complexity of the relation between history, culture, politics and human experience.  His memorial is a gravestone overlooking the sea at Port Bou.  His legacy is a provisional whisper of wisdom, in contrast to the shouting fairground medicine show of Dali.

I didn’t get to visit Walter Benjamin’s grave on that trip.  My friends dropped me at Girona on their way to the beach, from where I planned to take the train the relatively short distance to Port Bou, but found after they had left that there was a train strike that day.  Somehow, after I got over my disappointment, it seemed appropriate.  Benjamin lives on in his ideas, not lying in state.  Nevertheless, I said to myself, I will go there one day.

Benjamin, W. (1929, 1979 edition) Surrealism.  In One Way Street and Other Writings. London: New Left Books

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Words in the design of images

I love this simple and expressive image, from one of David Pearson's designs for Penguin.  I have always liked graphic images which incorporate words, but many people feel precisely the opposite, as if the domain of images, posters and pictures should be kept separate and unpolluted by words.  But words have image content too: in fact visual memory is an indispensable element of reading: it is the shape and visual appearance of the word (provided this is familiar) which summons up meaning for the reader.  If this was not so, reading would be a much slower process than it mostly is, at least for efficient readers, and when the overall context and the words themselves, are reasonably familiar.

The images of this sort I like best are those in which the type is not used entirely for their visual content: the various possible meanings of the words involved are also part of the point.  That is perhaps why David Pearson's image works so well for me: there is a point, similar to the point of a joke, to get.  The process involved is also analogous to the point of puns, which of course can be visual as well as verbal.  Puns and punning, too, tend to divide people: you either like or hate them.

This last example is great but doesn't work unless you really look at it very carefully - which is to miss the point!  Well, perhaps not. 

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The scale of the universe 2

This is an updated and improved version of an app I posted a link to last September. It is awesome, and I mean that literally.  Click on the picture. 

Dickens was a blogger

This is another post in my 'Blogs in history' series, and the stimulus for it is another example of those coincidences of thought I'm experiencing a lot at the moment: moments when you read something in an unexpected place that echoes a resonant idea you had already come across in a different context.

The latest Spitalfields Life blog post is on David Pearson, the typographical designer, who has worked on the recently-published Spitalfields Life book, to be launched this Friday evening ( 

(Cover design by David Pearson, Staffordshire dogs by Rob Ryan)

David has designed much of the recent output from Penguin Books, which generally have a striking and highly effective emphasis on typographics.  Familiar examples include the covers of the 'Great Ideas' series of extracts from classic authors, and a subtle redesign of the iconic penguin itself, slightly more active than its ancestors. 

(It hardly needs to be mentioned to regular readers of Spitalfields Life that the 'gentle author' has written a beautifully-illustrated (with pictures of Penguin Books!) and poignant piece about his personal connections to the history of Penguin Books and the family of the company's founder, Allen Lane).

The 'gentle author' of the SL blog describes discussing the design of the book with David, and sending him the nearest thing he could think of as a model:

For interest’s sake I sent David a copy of a page of Dickens “Household Words” from 1851, as the closest precedent I knew for a collection of short literary pieces. Dickens published these weekly and for tuppence his forty thousand readers in London received a pamphlet of half a dozen stories every Saturday morning – a publication that today would almost certainly be a blog.

As soon as you come across the idea that Dickens might have been a blogger, it rings true.  Almost his entire output was originally published in serialised form in weekly newspapers and journals, such as 'Household Words', illustrated above.  Imagine a series of blog posts which tell a story over several, perhaps dozens, of posts; imagine the story is a mystery, about a murder perhaps, or a plot to steal an inheritance, and that it incorporates social caricatures, commentary, and a strong set of implicit and explicit moral messages reflecting the opinions of the author: here you have many of the basic ingredients of a Dickens novel.  Most of his earliest readers would have read his books in sections as they came out, having to wait for the next instalment.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Cultivating and developing intuitive decision-making in teaching

I have to admit that throughout most of my career my ideas about, and practice in, effective teaching have been relatively incoherent and intuitively arrived at, rather than the products of careful and analytical thought. According to Yvonne Hillier (1998) this is common even amongst the most experienced and well-trained of teachers.

At the same time, I don't subscribe to the view that deliberate reflective practice is at the opposite end of the spectrum from intuition: I firmly believe that valuable insights can be gained from both rational thinking and from inspiration, and that in principle it is valuable for professionals in any practice to be receptive to insights that come unexpectedly, unplanned, and from unlikely sources, as much as those that are the product of rational processes of deliberation and analysis. I posted a couple of months ago about the value of deliberately going off piste and 'seeing what happens', and this view connects closely with the idea that effective teaching is not necessarily a neat and tidy business (Derrick 2010).

The tension between these different modes of apprehension has often been polarised into antagonistic and supposedly irreconcilable approaches to the practice of teaching (and indeed practice in other domains): I believe rather that these modes of thought should be seen as complementary, and that teachers need to be able to negotiate a balanced track between the two to be really effective.

Highly relevant to this suggestion is Daniel Kahneman's brilliant survey (2011) of psychological research studies into the way we make decisions: It is as if, he argues, that there are two ways in which we make decisions, which he calls Systems 1 and 2.

System 1 is very quick, in fact more or less involuntary. It utilises what might be called ‘intuition’:

We have all heard….stories of expert intuition: the chess master who walks past a street game and announces “White mates in three” without stopping, or the physician who makes a complex diagnosis after a single glance at a patient. Expert intuition strikes us as magical, but it is not. Indeed, each of us performs feats of intuitive expertise many times each day.... Our everyday intuitive abilities are no less marvellous that the striking insights of an experienced firefighter or physician – only more common. The psychology of accurate intuition involves no magic….Valid intuitions develop when experts have learned to recognise familiar elements in a new situation and to act in a manner that is appropriate to it. (Kahneman p11)

System 2 thinking, on the other hand is slow, requires motivation and effort, and uses what we might call ‘rationality’. We use these different systems in different circumstances, confronted with different types of problem. We prefer to use System 1, which evolved as a survival mechanism, and with which we make very quick decisions based on the continually developing capacity for correct intuitive judgements which we have developed throughout the whole of our past lives. Of course these decisions may sometimes be wrong, but in familiar situations System 1 decision-making has evolved to be accurate most of the time, and as a result it takes a great deal of conscious effort to go against what it tells us.

System 2 is used for problems that clearly do not require an immediate solution, and/or which demand that we follow a procedural algorithm in order to solve them, such as a complicated long-multiplication sum. Kahneman argues that we only use System 2 reluctantly, when we have to, because it takes effort and energy, whereas System 1 thinking is effortless and easy. System 1 decision-making is more likely to be accurate the more familiar we are with the situation we are in; it can work astonishingly well in such familiar situations, even if the problems involved are very complex, indeed too complex to be easily solved by the use of System 2 heuristics and algorithms.

This research-based psychological typology of our decision-making capacity is strikingly reminiscent of Donald Schön’s well-known theoretical distinction between reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action (1983). The key issue for practitioner learning, therefore, given the need for expertise in tackling both well-defined ‘high ground’ problems and complex, ill-defined, ‘swampy’ problems, is how best to develop and improve ‘reflection-in-action’ or System 1. For a new idea to contribute to changed System 1 decision-making, according to Kahneman, and in different terminology, to Schön, the practitioner has to 'practice' using it, reflect on this practice consciously and probably collaboratively (System 2 activity), and repeat this many times over a long period. 'The accurate intuitions of experts are better explained by the effects of prolonged practice than by heuristics' (Kahneman 2011, p 11): there are no short cuts, no quick intellectual fixes or magic bullets, in shaping our intuitive capacities.

This System 2 work of developing System 1, essential to practitioner learning, is difficult, both to carry out and to reflect on: it takes a great deal of conscious effort because it involves a decision to engage in practice in a different way from that informed by our System 1 thinking. This demanding process is one way to imagine that practitioners might strive to enhance their intuitive capacity for ‘divergent thinking’, cited by Schön as an essential capacity for tackling ‘swampy’ problems. Such careful, effortful, disciplined and probably repetitive practice over time does lead to changes in patterning and routines in relation to our work, which gradually influence changes in our intuitive responses to it, and so to our intuitive judgements and actions. What is needed as part of practitioner learning, therefore, is to support a deliberate process of learning that mimics the way our intuitive decision-making capacities have unconsciously and continuously developed and evolved, since we used them to save ourselves from being eaten by lions on the plains of Africa millennia ago.

Derrick J (2010): ‘The messiness of real teaching and learning’, in J. Derrick, U. Howard, J. Field, P. Lavender, S. Meyer, E.N. von Rein, and T. Schuller (Eds), Remaking Adult Learning: Essays on adult education in honour of Alan Tuckett. London: Institute of Education.
Hillier Y (1998): Informal practitioner theory: eliciting the implicit.  Studies in the Education of Adults, 30 (1) 35-52
Kahneman D (2011): Thinking, fast and slow. London: Allen Lane
Schon D (1983): The reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action.  Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

'Thinking cities'

I came across this thought-provoking video, called 'Thinking Cities', on ReadWriteWeb - it provides a completely different but connected take on the last post about life in the East End of London in the first decades of the National Health Service.  It is the second in a series funded by Ericsson.  Here is the first:

The point made about City Mayors being the most important politicians, for better or worse, in terms of addressing most of the world's problems, echoes similar arguments made, from quite different perspectives, by commentators such as Ken Worpole and Umberto Eco: cities are likely to be the most important political entities of the future;  it seems clear that the 20th century trend towards ever-larger trans-national governmental entities, such as the UN or the EU, is slowing or even halting, not least as a result of the global banking crisis.  This situation creates both dangers and opportunities

The Stockholm 'connected' and energy-efficient housing project is interesting to me not because it embodies a particularly advanced set of technical specifications but because it is a project clearly led by the city council.  It's hard to see how a wholly or very largely privatised system of local governance would be likely to lead such a project, certainly not if it was aimed at anybody except the very rich.  You can't imagine Bovis making such a development in Mexico City or Nairobi, for example - it would be too risky for a company which after all, has no essential commitment to any particular local area.  Or am I being too cynical?

Interesting too that the 'thinking' projects that have produced these videos are sponsored by Ericsson.  Or perhaps not....

The East End of London in the post-war period

Flower-seller, E1, 1959 (John Claridge)

From another wonderful post by the 'Gentle Author' of the Spitalfields Life blog, here are some of the photographs of John Claridge, whose work obviously deserves to be better known.  There are more pictures on Spitalfields Life at

Crane and seagull, E16, 1960 (John Claridge)

Mass X Ray, E14, 1966 (John Claridge)

At the window, E1, 1963 (John Claridge)

The great danger with photographs is that they have a tendency to romanticize the past (though strictly speaking this tendency is in our reading of them rather than inherent in the photographs themselves).  Claridge's pictures, especially those of East End people, of which he was one, resist this danger. 

Because of a coincidence of timing, it is interesting to compare them to the visual values of the recent television series about midwives working in Poplar just after the war, which I very much enjoyed and was at times moved by.  The series was set in 1957, and was based on Call the Midwife (London: Merton Books 2002), the diaries of Jennifer Worth.  The TV series, written by Heidi Thomas, probably does romanticize the East End in visual terms: the main characters in it are the nurses themselves, the nuns they live with, and the local doctor and policeman.  Other local people only really appear as extras, or as those whose experiences of childbirth provide the focus, usually just for one episode, of the midwives' work.  Poplar looks a little too neat and tidy, there is no fog, and buildings are only falling down as a  result of bomb damage.  This isn't to criticize the series too much: some of these incidental characters' stories were very harrowing.  But its overall mood, as I read it at least, was one of hope and positive social change: one of the most important jobs for midwives and other care-sector workers (they would never have referred to themselves in this way!) at this time was to convince many people that the National Health Service really was for them.  One of the most touching stories was about a woman who had a slight deformity in her hips and had had 3 stillborn children as a result: with the help of a relatively straightforward procedure for the first time available to her at the London Hospital she was finally able to have a healthy child.

Claridge's wonderful pictures are different: they appear, they do not speak.  If they have a message, it is anything but clear.  The past is just the past, it is indeed 'another country': we have both gained and lost in leaving it behind.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Time for Outrage! and Stephane Hessel

Stephane Hessel is 94.  He has recently published a short pamphlet supporting the Occupy movement, linking its energy and values to those of the Free French resistance movement towards the end of World War 2.  He argues that those French people who refused to join with the Vichy France government in collaborating with the Nazis after the occupation of France, had to create a new set of values to inspire and energise the rebuilding of French civil society after the war.  He argues that these values are still relevant today, and are similar to those espoused by the Occupy movement.  This pamphlet has sold over 3.5 million copies worldwide since it was published last year.  It is called in English Time for Outrage, in French Indignez-vous! and in Spanish Indignaos!

The story of Stephane Hessel's life is so extraordinary that there is a danger that it may detract from the importance of his message in this pamphlet, so I won't say any more about this right now.  On the other hand, his story provides this message with unusual moral authority.  His integrity, authenticity and personal modesty are evident in a recent interview with Democracy Now! which can be viewed in full at:

Hessel S (2010): Time for Outrage! London: Quartet books

To create is to resist
To resist is to create

Sunday, 12 February 2012

How many Nuclear Explosions have their been since 1945?

The answer is 2053, or possibly 2055.  The league table of countries responsible is as follows:

USA 1032
USSR 715
France 210
UK 45
China 45
India 4
Pakistan 2
North Korea 2 (unconfirmed)

A much more powerful way to understand these data has been created by Isao Hashimoto, which consists of a time-lapse map of the world recording the time and location of each individual explosion and tallying the totals for each country cumulatively as the months pass, accompanied by oddly sad and emotive bleeps for each one, in different tones for each country.   Did you know that the last British nuclear test took place as recently as 1991?  Or that the only continents not to have experienced nuclear explosions are Greenland, Antarctica, and South America?

I came across this in an article by Dan Rowinski on the ReadWriteWeb site, 10th February 2011, at

Rowinski wites:

Hashimoto is a curator at the Lalique Museum in Hakone, Japan. The video was created in 2003 as a series expressing Hashimoto's view of, "the fear and the folly of nuclear weapons." The video represents nuclear tests with a colored dot and a beep on a map. It starts slow in 1945, showing a world view of a couple flashes in the southwestern United States before zooming in on the two bombs dropped in Japan. The video then pans out and continues for the duration from a birds-eye view of the world. The climax comes between 1955 and 1970 as the Soviet Union joined the U.S. as a nuclear power and England, France, India and Pakistan eventually joined the arms race. The U.S. had the most nuclear tests, by a large margin, with most occurring in the southwest. The Soviet Union performed most of its tests in and around what is now Kazakhstan and the Lake Balkhash region with many also coming in northern Siberia and Nordic border with Finland. When the British entered the nuclear race, their first tests were in the desolate regions of west Australia. The French were several years behind but made up for coming late by being very active with nuclear tests in the South Pacific, the most vast and uninhabited region on Earth. India and Pakistan tested nuclear bombs mostly in the northern section of the Indian subcontinent. China tested many of its nuclear weapons at Lop Nur in the northwestern part of the country. Hashimoto's data is based on research from the Swedish Defense Research Establishment and Stockholm International Peace Institute. It does not include two supposed nuclear tests by North Korea in 1998 that may or may not have actually happened. Pakistan was the last to test nuclear bombs in 1998.

"This piece of work is a bird's eye view of the history by scaling down a month length of time into one second. No letter is used for equal messaging to all viewers without language barrier. The blinking light, sound and the numbers on the world map show when, where and how many experiments each country have conducted. I created this work for the means of an interface to the people who are yet to know of the extremely grave, but present problem of the world" Isao Hashimoto, quoted by Rowinski.

The video is hypnotic, chilling, and thought-provoking.  You can see it here:

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Found object (on the web that is)

I suspect that the ordinariness of the elements that make up this beautiful construction, and their obvious association with childhood, as well as the complete absence of any utilitarian content, might appeal to Grayson Perry.  Not sure what Clarkson would make of it.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Nothing is original

I'll let this speak for itself.  It means a little more to me because someone in a shop in Hackney once asked me if I was Jim Jarmusch! 

Thanks to Catherine Mary Hayes for this!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

What's your philosophy type?

Found this on the Big Ideas site (

Do a simple test and find out which of the six major schools of Greek philosophy which emerged in the 4th century BCE you would belong to.  The result is presented as the name of the leader of your school, who is described as your 'ancient Athenian guru'!  Watch a short video about your 'guru'!  They should make it a TV programme.....

My guru, according to Mark Vernon's site, is Zeno of Citium, usually accredited as the founder of Stoicism. 

I think I'm happy with this: I think Montaigne would have described himself as a Stoic.  I'm certainly glad to find that my guru isn't Plato.  I was observing a trainee teacher this afternoon, teaching the ideas of conservatism as part of an Access Course, and as one of the students pointed out, Plato was certainly some sort of conservative!  I found out from Mark Vernon's video that the name Stoicism comes from the ancient Greek word for 'shop'.  This is either because Zeno's gang met in a shop, and/or because they were a down-to-earth bunch and thought that philosophers should discuss down to earth subjects.  This relates well to the Big Ideas site's commitment to 'pub philosophy': see
Here, according to wikipaedia, is something of Zeno's epistemology.  He suggests that there are four stages of the apprehension of knowledge: perception (symbolised by an open hand), assent (an open hand with the fingers closed a little), comprehension (the hand closed like a fist) and finally knowledge, possessed only by wise people (the second hand closed tightly round the fist of the first hand).  This sounds suspiciously similar to the image of knowledge as birds in a cage that need to be caught, and wisdom consisting of having caught many of them, demolished comprehensively by Socrates in one of Plato's dialogues.  Presumably Zeno's ethics are more sophisticated, as Stoicism was among the most important Greek influences on the Romans and through them, on Western European culture after the Renaissance.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Two interesting and neglected writers on education

Karl Popper 1902-94
Who were the mystery philosophers whose quotations I listed in two recent posts?  The first was Karl Popper, known mostly as a philosopher of science, who died in 1994, and the second was Tyrrell Burgess, a teacher, activist, and writer on the British education system, who died in 2009.  Until recently I had no idea that Popper had written about education - indeed, that he formulated a distinct and very interesting 'Evolutionary' theory of learning, some idea of which can be seen from the quotations I used.  Burgess was influenced powerfully by Popper while teaching at the London School of Economics, and he tried to put Popper's theories into practice when developing a teacher training programme based on Popper's ideas, at North East London Polytechnic (NELP), in the 1970s and 80s.  Burgess, of whom I have been unable to find a picture, became Professor of the Philosophy of Social Institutions at the University of East London, which NELP was transformd into in 1987.  He was a strong advocate of comprehensive schools, and a lifelong opponent of selection.

I came across them both recently in a terrific new book aiming to spread their ideas about the organisation of education, and in particulr about approaches to curriculum.  This is Learning, Teaching and Education Research in the 21st Century: an evolutionary analysis of the role of teachers, by Joanna Swann (Continuum 2012).  It is a very clearly-written account of Popper's evolutionary theory of knowledge and education, and of its implications for practice.  Popper argues that although the objective world exists, we can only ever have imperfect knowledge of it, and learning (indeed the practice of living) consists of a continuous process of identifying problems, creating hypotheses for addressing or solving these problems, and then testing the hypotheses to find out whether or not they are correct.  Our hypotheses can be found to be false (if our results contradict them), but they can never be proved to be true, as it is always possible that contradictory evidence will be found in the future.  Learning is therefore a process of identifying as many false theories as possible, and coming up with as many hypotheses that have not yet been proved false, as possible.

The implications of this are radical, as quotations like these demonstrate:

The process of learning, of the growth of subjective knowledge, is always fundamentally the same. It is imaginative criticism.

There are no subject matters, no branches of learning - or rather, of inquiry: there are only problems, and the urge to solve them.

Education should be organised wholly around, not the notional 'transmission' of a fixed and agreed body of knowledge (which Popper argues hardly exists anyway), but around the skills of perceiving the world as a series of problems, creating sensible theories and hypotheses for solving these problems, and then testing these theories and hypotheses.  In a word, there should be no pre-conceived curricula, and education should be organised around collaborative research projects, on subjects and topics chosen by students.  The teachers' role is to facilitate the selection of suitable projects and problems, and to guide students in their researches.

I really like these ideas, which align nicely with my thoughts about craft and professional learning, and also with the best research findings on effective learning, which emphasise the importance of students' motivation and engagement with the content of learning, and of being active rather than passive in the learning process.  In particular, Joanna Swann has a chapter using this theoretical framework to argue against prescribed curricula in schools and colleges, the paradigm of this being the English National Curriculum for schools.  It so happens that I am  in the middle of teaching a module on curriculum theory and design at this very moment, and I am going to give this chapter to my students: it is directly relevant to their assignment.

I am embarrassed that I didn't know about this significant body of theory before, though I have an idea that Popper, judging by his style of writing, may have made himself pretty unpopular with his academic colleagues - he seems in the couple of chapters I have recently read to be trying to pick fights with people perceived as critics rather than colleagues, in almost every line!

I want to think some more about Joanna Swann's book before posting some more on it.  In particular I want to compare the ideas in it with those of Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, fast and slow (Allen Lane 2011), which I have read about half of so far.  This is a book about the psychology of decision-making, how we learn to make better decisions, and it also takes an evolutionary perspective.  So I mean to write some more about this sometime soon.

One of those strange coincidences, when something strikes you, and then more or less at the same time gets echoed from a completely different angle, making you think that maybe it wasn't a coincidence (thought this is very likely indeed to be a false conclusion).  I was checking out books written by Tyrrell Burgess, and found that, inspired like me by Ambrose Bierce, he published a book called The Devil's Dictionary of Education!  (See my post of 21st October last year, not that I've done much about it since!)  Though this is only a coincidence, it suggests to me that Tyrrell Burgess was my kind of person!  Here is a brilliant joke from it:

Art History: n. numbing by painters (credited to M.Burgess)

It would be tempting but lazy to give up the idea of collecting my own collection of 'Devil's definitions' about education and just cite examples from Burgess's book.  What I will do is think about my own and then see if (a) he has included the same word or phrase at all and (b) whether his take on it is different in ny way.  It occurs to me that some such words might also appear in Keywords by Raymond Williams (OUP 1985), and if they do I will compare Williams's definition also.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Public Art in Hackney: some examples

Another mystery philosopher of education

Here are some more provocative quotations from yet another mystery thinker about education, another whose work should be better known in my view:

All knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is provisional, and always will be. We cannot prove that what we know is true, and it may turn out to be false.  The best we can do is justify our preference for one theory rather than another.....of course, we assume the 'truth' of our existing knowledge for practical purposes and are quite ready to do so; but we must be ready for it to be superseded....we cannot be sure that we have the truth: we can, however, systematically eliminate error.  the way we eliminate error is by testing.

Of course there have been many people with a sense of unease about the practice of education.  most important, there have been many teachers who have either instinctively or after worrying thought tried to organise learning rather than teaching.  They have encouraged 'discovery methods', project work and independent learning.  But they have been under attack, partly because these methods still sit uneasily in the rest of the system (how, for example, does one examine such work?) and partly because they have been unable to give as coherent an intellectual account of themselves as is claimed by traditional academics. This insecurity is no longer justified.  It is the traditional academic practice which needs to be defended.

What we have, in fact, is a continuum of learning, whose logic is the same, from the new-born babe (indeed, from the amoeba) to the research worker on the frontiers of knowledge.  Each is engaged in the formulation of problems, in solving them and in testing the solutions.  Most people will formulate problems that have been formulated many times before.  Their proposed solutions will be familiar; their tests commonplace.  But they will learn by this activity.  They will not learn better or faster if we parcel up received solutions to problems formulated by others: indeed this is an anti-learning process.  Moreover it inhibits the possibility of progress, because it is always possible that someone will formulate a common problem differently, will propose a different solution or a more effective test.

What is important is not a particular fact or even a particular ordered collection of facts, but method.  It is method rather than information which gives mastery, and it is method which must be the chief business of education.

The presentation of knowledge as bodies of organised facts is a way of ensuring its unhelpfulness to most people.

Since criticism is of the essence of the method, education must offer opportunities for students to be critical and to use criticism. 

Clue: All these quotations come from the same book, published in 1977.  They still appear to me to represent a radical critique of the basic assumptions of our entire education system, perhaps even more so now than when they were written.  Any ideas?  Answers in a day or two.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Mystery educational philosopher

All these quotes are from the same thinker, someone I didn't realise had written about education.  I will shortly be posting a review of the book I discovered them in.  Can you recognise the author?

I may be wrong, and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.

We do not discover new facts or new effects by copying them, or by inferring them inductively from observation, or by any other method of instruction by the environment.

(Picture by Chris Bradey)

We learn only through trial and error.  Our trials....are always our hypotheses.  They stem from us, not from the external world.  All we learn from the external world is that some of our efforts are mistaken.

The process of learning, of the growth of subjective knowledge, is always fundamentally the same.  It is imaginative criticism.

Institutions for the selection of the outstanding can hardly be devised.  Institutional selection may work quite well for such purposes as Plato had in mind, namely for arresting change.  But it will never work well if we demand more than that, for it will always tend to eliminate initiative and originality, and, more generally, qualities which are unusual and unexpected.  It has been said, only too truly, that Plato was the inventor of both our secondary schools and our universities.  I do not know a better argument for an optimistic view of mankind, no better proof of their indestructible love for truth and decency, of their originality and stubbornness and health, than the fact that this devastating system of education has not utterly ruined them.

There are no subject matters, no branches of learning - or rather, of inquiry: there are only problems, and the urge to solve them.

If I thought of a future, I dreamt of one day founding a school in which young people could learn without boredom, and would be stimulated to pose problems and discuss them; a school in which no unwanted answers to unasked questions would have to be listened to; in which one did not study for the sake of passing examinations.

[If] we produce many competing ideas, and criticise them severely, we may, if we are lucky, get nearer to the truth.  This method is the method of conjectures and refutations: it is the method of taking many risks, by producing many (competing) hypotheses; of making many mistakes; and of trying to correct or eliminate some of these mistakes by a critical discussion of the competing hypotheses.

Does this last one give it away?

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman 2

I was with two friends from outside London, who were looking for an interesting exhibition to go to, so I ended up going to see the Grayson Perry again!  This was a great thing to do - it's the sort of show where you notice different things if you go more than once.  Once again I took rather random notes about anything that struck me, and here they are (quotes from GP in italics):

Do not look too hard for meaning here, I am not a historian, I am an artist, that's all you need to know.

Deep in the mountains of my mind there is a sacred place where there is a monument to skill

Journeys as pilgrimages

Early English motorcycle helmet: title of a GP piece that looks like something vaguely Viking from 1200 years ago that's just been excavated, displayed next to the helmet GP made for his trip round Europe with Alan Measles.

If Alan measles had been around in ancient Egypt he would have hung out with Bes.

A walk in Bloomsbury, an encounter with the world: 'the journey has become a tired metaphor of reality television, describing a transformative experience.'

Ritual can become stultified if not kept relevant to its time and context

Shrines - in your pocket, in a corner of your house, or by a roadside, portable.

I can make art with hardly any money and on the kitchen table
A forge for turning old people into young, Russian print 1800

Fallen giant - cf Jerusalem, I wanted to make something that was about England

The Rosetta vase, yellow, covered with incantations (see picture in my earlier post)

Boli or power figure, from Mali, raw potency, pared down, apparently modern

Everything in the BM was contemporary once. The frivolous now, companion to Rosetta. I wanted it to have the look of a mystical diagram whilst the content consisted of banalities and buzzwords of Feb 2011.

Hello kitty hand towel pilgrimage souvenir

We trust maps. I like maps of feelings, beliefs and the irrational, they use our trust of maps to persuade us that there might be some truth in their beauty.

The wheel of life Tibet 1900. A map and self-help chart combined

Map of truths and beliefs. The entire landscape is a graveyard

Pilgrims travel light so the souvenir may be only a badge, a photo or a signature.

pilgrim's progress: 1844 color map

Map based on Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress. 1800.


Votive stupas

Our father and mother - pilgrims made of iron

Tate Modern is the cathedral of the cult of modern art.


The chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont, 1728 - 1810.  French diplomat, spy, soldier and Freemason whose first 49 years were spent as a man, and whose last 33 years were spent as a woman. Died in England, buried in St Pancras churchyard.

Journeyman cabinet maker carrying the tools of his trade

Sheela-na-gig. PJ Harvey album of the same name

Do go and see this exhibition, whatever your craft, it's been extended for another month until February 26th.

This is the link to the British Museum teaser about the show:

Here's a link to the notes I took on my first visit to the exhibition: