Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Your health

Another heartening report.
But a new paper in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggests that — for reasons that aren't entirely clear — abstaining from alcohol does tend to increase one's risk of dying, even when you exclude former problem drinkers. The most shocking part? Abstainers' mortality rates are higher than those of heavy drinkers. 
Moderate drinking, which is defined as one to three drinks per day, is associated with the lowest mortality rates in alcohol studies. Moderate alcohol use (especially when the beverage of choice is red wine) is thought to improve heart health, circulation and sociability
In other words, pleasure is good for you. Enjoy irresponsibly.


The first phase of the Egyptian revolution was against Mubarak, the second against Morsi. The demands were varied, amorphous and inconsistent, but they boiled down to an end to arbitrary power, state violence and corruption. The second phase added an anti-Islamist dimension. Both phases have relied on the army as arbiter of success or failure. This is always the case. A revolution is impossible if the army stays loyal.

Revolutions are messy events. They are rarely coherent, and the real question of success or failure lies in the post-revolutionary settlement. What started as a military coup in support of a mass popular uprising has now produced a massacre. I don't often turn to Edmund Burke, but this warning in his Reflections on the Revolution in France sprang to mind.
In the weakness of one kind of authority, and in the fluctuation of all, the officers of an army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things. But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master,—the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.
Is Sisi such a leader? This piece in Foreign Affairs is one of the most troubling articles I have read on the crisis. Drawing on what is known of Sisi's ideas, Robert Springborg suggests that,
Although he (Sisi) has vowed to lead Egypt through a democratic transition, there are plenty of indications that he is less than enthusiastic about democracy and that he intends to hold on to political power himself. But that’s not to say that he envisions a return to the secular authoritarianism of Egypt’s recent past. Given the details of Sisi’s biography and the content of his only published work, a thesis he wrote in 2006 while studying at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, it seems possible that he might have something altogether different in mind: a hybrid regime that would combine Islamism with militarism. To judge from the ideas about governance that he put forward in his thesis, Sisi might see himself less as a custodian of Egypt’s democratic future than as an Egyptian version of Muhammed Zia ul-Haq, the Pakistani general who seized power in 1977 and set about to “Islamicize” state and society in Pakistan.
In rising against arbitrary power and Islamism, the Egyptian people may be saddled with both. Such is the irony of the unintended consequences of revolutions. Or is there yet another phase to come?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Monday, July 22, 2013

A personal post

Amongst all the talk of ending age discrimination in the workplace, as you get older the job you have is the only job you can expect. I was lucky. I decided to take an early retirement from Hull and was able to pick up part-time teaching for the past four years at Manchester Metropolitan University. It looks like that is now coming to an end.

For thirty-five years my life has been ruled by an academic calendar. It is predictable. Years begin in September, not January; there is a process of developing conversations in the classroom; then the final purgatory of marking; followed by summer release. Now I am leaving that structure behind. It is a sadness and a liberation. I intend to devote more time to research and writing and am always open to offers, leaving still on the top of my game.

Would I have continued if circumstances had been different? Possibly. Though sometimes it is right to step down and start something anew. After all, age catches up with the best of us.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Taking the tablets

This is an interesting piece on the history of the craze for vitamin supplements and the nonsensical claims made for their benefits. As it points out, in some cases, they are not even harmless. It tells the story of Linus Pauling, a double Nobel winner, who ruined his reputation pursuing an obsession.

What struck me most though was the utter cynicism of the vitamin manufacturers.
Two days later, on October 12, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic published the results of a study of 36,000 men who took vitamin E, selenium, both, or neither. They found that those receiving vitamin E had a 17 percent greater risk of prostate cancer. In response to the study, Steven Nissen, chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, said, "The concept of multivitamins was sold to Americans by an eager nutraceutical industry to generate profits. There was never any scientific data supporting their usage." On October 25, a headline in the Wall Street Journal asked, "Is This the End of Popping Vitamins?" Studies haven't hurt sales. In 2010, the vitamin industry grossed $28 billion, up 4.4 percent from the year before. "The thing to do with [these reports] is just ride them out," said Joseph Fortunato, chief executive of General Nutrition Centers. "We see no impact on our business."
This is a multi-billion business that spreads mistrust in everything from artificial sweeteners to conventional medicine by posing as a popular champion. It ignores clear, clinical evidence of the dangers of its own products in order to keep making money. Pseudo-science is not harmless. In South Africa alone, Thabo Mbeki's policies, informed by HIV denial, are estimated to have led to 300,000 avoidable deaths. There is only one word for it - exploitation.

The heat is on

Although it deprives me of my favourite summer smugness, it is rather nice that people back in the UK are having a real summer. But as soon as the temperature rises, out come the articles moaning about it. Now I do know that there are people who are uncomfortable in heat, even if in Greece the temperatures would be seen as pleasant rather than extreme, however the press seem to have an agenda of complaint whatever the weather. And, of course, it would not be complete without alarmist death rates. The Independent led with a figure of 760 deaths and the possibility of the figure doubling. So how do they know? If this article is to be believed, they don't. The figure is extrapolated from expected statistics. There is nothing wrong with this, but should a 0.7% increase in the predicted death rate be a cause for such hyperbolic headlines?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Rigorous ruminations

It's that time of year again, the time when I am in Greece and contemplating if I will continue teaching (if it is offered, that is) or retire properly. If there was one thing that could sway my decision to step away, it is marking. Now, what I don't want to engage in is the usual teacher's moan. Instead, I want to think about how the inherently unpleasant activity of marking is partly the result of our educational philosophy and argue for a rethink of how we assess student achievement and make the exercise more meaningful for tutors and students.

At the moment, rigour is all the rage. It is Gove's big idea. The trouble is, it doesn't mean anything. Rigour is a posture rather than a policy. Given the reforms of GCSEs, it appears that at the moment it means basing assessment on traditional exams. For me, exam marking this year wasn't difficult, but it was boring. So many of the answers were the same; competent but formulaic. This is hardly surprising when we spend a lot of time teaching students how to pass exams by producing what is required.

As for coursework, often the same applied. Sometimes there was a spark of originality, but I was also running into a fair amount plagiarism. You see less of it in the first year, so that I have the impression that whilst we are busy teaching students the formula of how to pass, they are learning how to plagiarise from their peers.

And this is one reason why marking is such a disagreeable activity. Assessment becomes about gaming the system, rather than expressing the excitement of learning.

Let's start with exams. One of the most interesting thinkers on education was Patrick Geddes. There is a good chapter on him in this (sorry). He saw exams as the antithesis of rigour. Despite becoming a professor of botany, he only ever took one exam and that was to demonstrate how ridiculous they were. He wanted to show that it was possible to pass a qualifying exam with only one evening's study beforehand. He did it and became a qualified inspector of mines without knowing anything at all about mining. Rigorous?

The pest of plagiarism is too easily palmed off on student dishonesty, though that is still at the heart of it. But it isn't helped by the way we make it too easy. The internet is full of stock answers to stock questions, so perhaps one of the solutions is to stop asking them. I also think that it is intrinsically linked to the development of skills, including self-expression - finding a voice - and critical thinking. We do not put enough effort into teaching students how NOT to plagiarise, relying only on the implementation of stringent sanctions as a deterrent.

This is partly what we end up with in universities; students doing something manifestly unfulfilling accompanied by tutors doing something that they hate. It is time for change. But what?

I am not one of those techno-enthusiasts who think that the Internet has changed everything. However, it has altered one thing irrevocably; the relationship between students and resources. Where once resources were scarce, putting a premium on knowledge and recall, now we are carrying around vast libraries in our pockets. Part of modern education is learning how to use the Internet properly and not as a convient crib for cheating the system. So I was intrigued by two, if overly evangelical, pieces from a few weeks back.

It is obvious that MOOCs (massive open on-line courses) will have to rethink assessment to deal with both the volume of students and the way that they learn. I liked Anant Agarwal's call for blended learning, augmenting traditional delivery as part of the college experience. But it was Sugata Mitra's article that struck me most. Even if it was directed at schools, you can see the universal application and I liked this about exams.
In school examinations, learners must reproduce facts from memory, solve problems using their minds and paper alone. They must not talk to anyone or look at anyone else's work. They must not use any educational resources, certainly not the internet. When they complete their schooling and start a job, they are told to solve problems in groups, through meetings, using every resource they can think of. They are rewarded for solving problems this way – for not using the methods they were taught in school... 
If examinations challenge learners to solve problems the way they are solved in real life today, the educational system will change for ever. It is a small policy change that is required. Allow the use of the internet and collaboration during an examination... 
I am a solitary person, not fond of group work, but there is still no reason why his approach would not be adaptable to the likes of me. I really like the way he sees this process opening up interesting and difficult questions; ones that can never be plagiarised or produce stock answers. And as I read on I thought, 'that sounds familiar.' If you omit the Internet, it is very similar to ideas published at the end of the First World War - by Patrick Geddes. He wished to replace assessment with something he called "estimation," using the sort of practical work that Mitra is arguing for today. The Internet is not changing everything, but it is making old ideas cease to appear outlandish and instead seem modern and necessary.

The idea of rigour is locked into nineteenth century methods of assessment, which, in turn, produce unimaginative work, plagiarism and the hell of marking. And as for me, if I was still running programmes in adult education I would be experimenting with all these new/old ideas. Instead, as a humble part-timer, I have to do what I am given. Maybe this will sway my decision as much as anything.

Monday, July 08, 2013


Populist political posturing, bureaucracy and reality don't sit easily together. Of the many disasters arising out of the reform of welfare this one is a gem. The 'Bedroom Tax' - a reduction in housing benefit for those deemed to be under-occupying a property by having one or more extra bedrooms - requires you to move to somewhere smaller. However, in the meantime, for those in social housing, if they are in rent arrears, they are not allowed to move. Ah, but how did they get in arrears? Because they couldn't pay the rent because of the 'Bedroom Tax'.

A comment from here:
“Unable to pay your Bedroom Tax? Move! But you’re in arrears because of the Bedroom Tax, so we’re not going to let you move.” The government are idiots.

Another unforeseen consequence here.

Saturday, July 06, 2013


I can see the Guardian leader now. We are in some fictitious past. The German army, alarmed at the threat to its power and the direction being taken by the new, constitutionally legitimate Nazi government, takes action and removes it from power. The Guardian pronounces sternly,
It is clear that Herr Hitler has made some mistakes and some of his actions smack of illiberality, but one fears for the future of German democracy if ... etc, etc, interminably for the next god knows how many months.
We now know that the action that never was would have saved fifty million lives.

This is not an analogy. I hate analogies. Most of all I hate inappropriate analogies with the Nazis. What this illustrates is a point that Paulie makes here about undemocratic outcomes of democratic processes, something not lost on the protestors, together with the awful convolutions of people who saw the Muslim Brotherhood as progressive liberals.

If there is a comparative point that can be made it is about tactics. Morsi appeared to be practising the well-established method of eliminating opponents and removing their power bases one-by-one, something, following the Hungarian Communist Rákosi's description, known as salami tactics. If, and I mean if, Morsi intended to neuter Egypt's nascent democracy, the opposition set about destroying his legitimacy in response.

There is a lot to be concerned about. Military coups do not have a happy history, regardless of their initial popular support. In their decision to resist, rather than stand in new elections that they would lose, the MB could be opening up a long-running conflict. We don't know, but the least we can do is to acknowledge the general point that at times we cannot escape making judgements about the nature of regimes based on their ideologies and actions, rather than justify them solely in terms of how they came to power.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013


It has been a bad time for the pin-up boys of the left who still swoon at the 'progressive' anti-imperialism of Islamism. Their two model 'moderate Islamist' governments have been hit by massive uprisings. The consequences of the events in Turkey and Egypt are far from clear and their aims are anything but coherent. But what seems to unite them is a common desire not to be ruled by the dictates of a bonkers ideology. It is a struggle for normality.

And to confound even more those who rapidly invoke the curse of islamophobia, this is a conflict being fought by Muslims against political Islamism. I linked to this piece by Paul Berman from February before; it is well worth reading again in the light of the extraordinary events in Egypt.

So how do western nations respond? Well, they decide that this is the time, at the strongest sign yet of the demise of this far right ideology, to give it credibility. Syria is difficult as the civil war descends into sectarianism, but the fear of an Islamist takeover, which Assad has so assiduously promoted as justification for his brutality, has taken root and is restraining action by the democracies. This is despite the fact that the regime is now beholden to the Islamist ultras of Hezbollah. The most breathtaking, however, is the promotion of peace talks with the Taliban. Western leaders need force feeding with the scorn of Lauryn Oates.
That depraved ragtag militia, the same Taliban who slaughtered thousands of Shias in an unacknowledged genocide in Balkh and the Central Highlands, who hang children accused of spying, who trick boys into blowing themselves up, who stone women to death, who locked girls out of their classrooms, who maim and murder in the name of reinstating their own uniquely despotic caliphate. Yes, it's these same Taliban who were invited to stake their ground in Qatar, endowed with an extravagant office they didn't pay for and a legitimacy they never earned. They plunked down their flag, and declared themselves anew, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, in effect, the real Afghan Government. 
It led to a diplomatic uproar, a rebuff by the actual Afghan Government, and even some bristling among those watching from the comfort and safety of the West. It seemed a lot of license granted to a group that espouses what is perhaps today the world's most uncompromisingly violent, fascist ideology. But for the people of Afghanistan, who endured the brutish hell of life under a Taliban government, it was a bewildering insult in the extreme.
What we see here is another reiteration of a constant struggle between realpolitik and principle. It is funny how the practical, pragmatic choices of reasonable people usually end up being seen as a foolish failure. And if there is a time to stand for principle, shoulder-to-shoulder with those Lauryn Oates calls, "The greatest democrats, the greatest liberals, the greatest feminists I have ever encountered," maybe it is at the moment when it becomes clear that they can win.

Monday, July 01, 2013

A new month

And last night I discovered two pieces of music new to me. Both are wonderful, as was the night. It started with an evening of classical music at the folk museum as part of the annual summer festival at Horto, performed with enjoyment and enthusiasm by young musicians. After it was over and most of the audience had left, it turned into an impromptu recital and then those who remained went to a local taverna with the musicians, equipped with three guitars, for tsipouro meze, beer, wine and to play and sing popular Greek music, reading the lyrics off their smartphones and fending off fighting dogs. The night became cool, but the music continued. I left around 3.30 in the morning after being charmed by a beautiful Greek lullaby sung by the mezzo-soprano Leda Filippopoulou, sitting opposite me, fag and beer in hand. Magic.

And the two pieces? A Jazz concerto by Claude Bolling (they played the two movements for classical guitar and jazz piano).

And this gorgeous guitar piece, Domeniconi's Koyunbaba Suite