Saturday, April 30, 2011

On the Birth of Obama

As there’s nothing much of interest happening today I thought I would reflect on Obama’s birth. I think we can all agree that he was in fact born, and that he managed to get the necessary number of his fellow-countrymen to vote for him, and that, whatever happens, he isn’t going anywhere, at least not until next year.

The exact circumstances of his birth have been placed in doubt, almost since he declared his candidacy. The reason for this is that his father was not a US citizen, and Obama was brought up partly abroad, an unusual situation for a US politician. This opened a line of criticism, for his opponents, because until yesterday he hadn’t provided documentary proof that he was born a citizen of the country he now rules, and it matters. In fact, apart from getting those votes, it is the only constitutional condition that a President has to satisfy. Hardly surprising that there are people who are interested in making an issue of it.

For those who think the world is run by fluffy bunnies with hearts of pink candyfloss, let me remind you of something important: politics is about power and money- enormous power and phenomenal quantities of money. It is, therefore, an extremely nasty business.

All presidents are attacked by their opponents with any weapon available and this is not going to change. A president whose legitimacy can be questioned is going to find his legitimacy questioned. George Bush’s legitimacy was mercilessly questioned throughout his term of office because of the closeness of the result in Florida. We can imagine that if McCain had beaten Obama: his birth in the canal zone, to a US serviceman, did not make him a citizen automatically. The anomaly was later rectified, but it could be argued that, although a posteriori he was declared a citizen from birth, he was not born a citizen. And it most certainly would have been so argued. It could well have gone to the Supreme Court, which would have decided in his favour, because let’s face it  they wouldn’t kick out a sitting President who’s been voted in and has been acting executively for a number of years. But the opposition would call him illegitimate for the rest of his term, because it would be useful for them to do so.

I am an English hedgehog (and an Algerian species). I don’t care much who is President of the USA or where he was born. Al Gore would have invaded Irak, John McCain would have bailed out the banks. Obama has had some very unpleasant friends in the past, but so did Bill Clinton, and John Kennedy, and doubtless Bush and Nixon and ... I don’t doubt that Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 when it was a state of the union. The document has been released now as part of a game. It’s a PDF of a scan of what purports to be, and presumably is, the original birth certificate of the President.

There are problems with it. Most of these seem to arise as artefacts of the way that the PDF software creates files from a scan, but there is just enough to make some people wonder. The absence of letters in some layers responds to different ink densities. It was written by typewriter, and some keys strike more firmly than others. A chap called Euripides (the greatest of the Greek dramatists, though the blogger does not justify his nick) says that he is not a birther, but is an expert in document creation software. I link to what he says because it might be of interest. A much more clearly partisan blogger gives his own analysis, which I think is not to be taken seriously.

What I notice about the document as released is this, and again I insist that I have no dog in this fight: the date of the copy at the bottom is also typed, rather than printed, which is very odd, and at an angle. It isn’t the same typewriter as used for the other dates. The date written by Mrs Obama is wrong, she gets the wrong number for the month, which is a very authentic looking slip.

The Constitution requires that the President be a native born citizen, but it does not say to whose satisfaction this must be proved. If the people knew that there was, at the very least, the shadow of a doubt, and they voted for him anyway, their satisfaction in the matter is proven. Perhaps nothing else should matter, but it is not up to me to decide. In the end, the importance, even the truth, of this business, will be determined by lawyers and politicians. Which doesn’t fill me with much hope.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Faith Schools

I know I shouldn’t do it. I know it’s bad for me, and I’ll end up with an aching head, pain behind the eyes, a heaving stomach and the desperate conviction that the sooner the world ends, the better. And yet, I can’t help myself. Yes, dear readers, your humble blogging hedgehog has been reading the Guardian again. On education. Yes, yes, I thank you for your concern and your forthright criticism of my weakness of character. I can only say that I know you are right, and have made a propositio emendati,** but it is hard, very hard.

I am preparing, have been for some time, a series of articles which will start off as blog posts and might even end up as material for a book about education. That's the idea, at least. In practice, whenever I start to write, I end up with a lot of thoughts and ideas and information that refuse to stick to the point. The result is paragraph after paragraph of disconnected ramblings that need a lot of editing and organisation just so they can make some kind of sense even here.

So to publish anything at all I have to keep it very short and to the point (much as I am completely failing to do). Here goes.

The article linked to isn't worth reading; it's just Polly Toynbee telling her readers what they want to hear, and defending her own little patch of turf as president of the humanist society, and many of the comments are ignorant and prejudiced, but some are interesting and intelligent.

Aside from the purpose of education, which is mostly a separate matter, I don't object to the existence of state schools of different philosophies or religions. There is an awful lot of education, huge sums of money, millions of people involved, many of whom are the ones paying the money, and there is no obvious reason why the government should determine that everyone must be educated in exactly the same rigidly controlled atmosphere of official morality and thought. There is plenty of room for differences of opinion, outlook and belief between different groups of parents, even within the state system.

When children are grouped together and instructed/guided by people with authority for many hours a day for many years they are going to pick up a lot of the moral and personal habits and ideals of those people. This is inevitable, and so all schools need a clearly defined ethos so that parents can have some idea of where they are sending their children.* In that sense, all schools are faith schools.

There is a place for just about everybody who actually wants their children to learn something. The real problem is not the values the school provides as a model (though I don't think I'd want my children anywhere near progressive humanism, but that's just me), but how well it transmits those values, how well it prepares the young for future life. This means competent, motivated teachers working with children who actually want to be there. Those who don't should be sent somewhere else, or just home.

*One of the commenters says explicitly, and many others imply, that schools should be a lottery, with no provision for brighter children, parents with different ideas about education, and no chance to escape, even if you pay. "Every child gets sent to its local comprehensive, end of story, " said one charming individual. he didn't actually add "...and screw 'em,"but that was clearly what he meant.

**If anyone can correct my Latin, feel free. I can't remember or find the exact expression

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

On Storks

I think I do this post every year, but here we go again. There are a lot of storks around here, because it's conveniently close to Africa, where they spend the winter, and because there are a lot of the sort of places they like to build their nests- broadly speaking, high off the ground, flat and stable.

They like church steeples, belfries, industrial chimneys, the canopies of trees where falling branches have left a steady surface, isolated hilltops with plenty of shrubbery, and we have a lot of all of those things.

On Sunday I went to one of the best places for stork watching, a few miles out of town, and dragged the bike along half a mile of path that was so muddy the wheels clogged up the frame and couldn't turn. But it was worth it, of course, as you can see from the pictures.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Give Me a Ride to Heaven

Working on some stuff about education and migrating birds, but life is busy and time is short, so I offer you another in our series of Texan singer/songwriters enjoying themselves. You need to listen to the words on this one. And believe it or not, its not the only song about a hitchhiking Messiah. (The other one's a trucking song, wrong genre for this blog).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hunting Asparagus

One of the pleasures- the main pleasure- of the farm at this time of year is that we can finally go there again, after the end of winter. We went in December this year, when the ground was covered with 8 inches of snow and the pipes had frozen in the ground which meant hygiene was a bit basic, for a start. This time the sun shone (except for half an hour on Monday evening when a passing storm damped the earth to great aesthetic, but sadly little agricultural, effect). The land is sown partly with corn, and partly with lentils (horse fodder, and they also help to regenerate the soil). The result is a luxurious green, which won't last long. Soon it will all dry to yellow and brown.

The other pleasure specific to this time of year is that mentioned in the title of the post. We hunt asparagus. (Perhaps I should say we hunt for asparagus, as we don't actually stalk them through the undergrowth- except after an especially good lunch, when they learn the art of sliding behind trees at our approach.)

Asparagus grow almost exclusively in the shade of the holm oaks which dot the mountains, competing for that shade with a number of other small plants. They win some, they lose some. The ones we pick are the new shoots, which come up quickly to quite s height, and must be caught just right or they turn to wood, which from the plant's point of view is the purpose of the exercise.

These shoots are green, the best of them tending to purple, and can be boiled, or grilled with salt, or fried with scrambled eggs, and the result is rather good. All a matter of taste, of course.

In any case you can buy them in the market easily and cheaply. The real fun is the thrill of the chase. When searching for asparagus you see the country much more close up than you normally would, and your attention is caught by details that you usually miss. The colour and size of spiders is more varied than you might think, and the number of things that can bite your arms and get caught in your hair is both surprising and fascinating.

I found a small owl in the garden on Sunday morning, the sort we call an 'autillo'. Small, big head, big eyes, no ears. We hear them a lot but it's the first time I've seen one close up. It took a look at me, didn't think much of what it saw and flew off.

I saw a couple of wild boar in a field behind the house, loping casually towards somewhere, their beds probably. They stopped and looked, then went on their way. That's the country.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Apes and Humans

Back in November I posted about the monumental stupidity a group of WPians seemed determined to display when arguing whether it should be clarified when the term 'ape' was being used to include humans and when not. Most were not only shocked at the very idea that the word ape could ever be used exclusively, they treated anyone who suggested otherwise as a dangerous, ignorant heretic unfit to be considered human or to grace the ideologically pure pages of the Wikipedia. Most of it was caused, I think, by a superstitious horror of creationism, and by being too much within their own bubble. The result was, and probably still is, an article that refuses to tell you what it's about. I was not foolish enough to get involved in that debate, I just commented on it in the spirit of an anthropologist who sees behaviour that excited his urge to understanding.

I pointed out then that many palaeoanthropologists and other specialists in the field of human origins are quite happy to use the word 'ape' in an exclusive or ambiguous fashion when speaking informally, even in academic papers, and clarify, 'apes and humans', etc, when there is a need for rigour. I have plenty of example among the papers I download and try to make sense of, and I was prepared to produce them if challenged, which I never was.

One of the people on my blogroll did get involved in that argument, attempted to inject some basic common sense and a regard for the truth and the principles of research, was insulted, declared anathema and banned. I don't suppose it bothered him very much, but it was odd to watch, strangely similar to what can happen on some left-wing sites, where a calm, measured, brief and truthful remark is denounced as hate speech by some spittle-filled, radish-eyed loon who announces his desire to rip out your innards unless you freely recognise his moral superiority.

Now another chap I read every day, John Hawks, who has taught me, or at least directed me to, most of the little I know about the subject, has casually stated 'humans are not apes'. The world continues to turn. The taxonomy of Homo sapiens continues to be a subject of considerable debate, but not because a word that has no technical sense in the field is sometimes used ambiguously. We may all breathe deeply, and consider more important matters, such as how Australopithecus sediba changes things.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Art and Truth- A Post in Progress

Easter holidays. Warm sun. The country calls, the lakes call, the owls call (all bloody night, in fact), and there will be no internet, no bloggimng, no wider world at all, for a few days. When I come back, regular readers know posts will be bucolic and whimsical in nature until the mind adjusts and normal ranting resumes. So I leave you some very incomplete thoughts on the nature of truth:

It’s easy to do art. A minimum of imagination, Something to express, anything, and a medium. There are plenty to choose from. It may not be good art, people might not like it, or understand what it’s for, or agree with what it says, but it’s art. Truth is hard. Science is hard, because it seeks truth. If it doesn’t seek truth it is not science. If it calls itself science, or research or some such thing, but doesn’t seek truth or has no means of evaluating what it finds, it is worthless. Vast sections of our universities, of those parts of them dedicated to the humanities, make no attempt to seek truth, to discover new things, but they claim to. If they presented themselves as giving opinions, as riffing on the texts and situations they look at, as merely using the text they are analysing as a starting point, as a way to set their minds working, as a medium to express their own opinions, moral judgements, intellectual conceits, prejudice, ignorance or whatever, they could be judged on how far they achieve the goal, and on how interesting or useful the results are. Or they could just have fun. They could do a form of art. Of course, they would be less obviously suited to tenured posts at universities if they were open about what they do, and their motives for doing it. And they wouldn’t get to take themselves so immensely seriously, which I suspect is part of why they do it.*

Art does not care about truth. It has no need of truth. Only of some form of perceived coherence. Its purpose is to communicate something. I don’t think it matters much whether the perceiver appreciates what the originator had in mind. The producer  is trying to do

The ways in which art is defined, or what we assume it to be, can have some awkward consequences. If Damian Hirst is simply a self-publicist playing the public through manipulation of the media, then he is not doing art all. And that is not a critical judgement of his work, it is the truth.

*The more direly dreary and politically charged areas of the humanities attract people who are not intelligent enough for real academic work, but who want to feel part of the game. They’re like the boy you allow to play on the team sometimes because his father has an off-licence, but only when it’s cold and wet, and only at left back.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Blogging by Kindle

This post is an experiment. If it works I'll get rid of it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


The river heads west across the land just north of the town, and sometimes we go with it. Today was warm and sunny again, spring is here. The bicycles were ready, so I persuaded Mrs Hickory to join me for a ride along the bank. Both banks, as it turned out. There were small herons on the water, storks, large seagulls and hawks circling. A surprising number of tortoises were sunning themselves on the banks, and slid into the water as they heard us approach, not quite with the same speed and grace with which frogs react, but the spirit of the thing was broadly similar. The water is high still, an enduring effect of last years rains- because of the way the river is fed- and the surrounding land is quite bright green at this time of year. If the camera hadn't turned out to have a flat battery I could have shown you what it looks like, but decription and imagination will have to serve.

The real pleasure is just in passing through the country, beside the water, under the hills, and into the valley, such as it is. There is an old hydroelectric plant, crumbling like all abandoned buildings here (the only stone available locally is limestone, which takes a lot of looking after), and a couple of sprawling old mills, also crumbling and half-reclaimed by the river in intersting ways. A bridge which, supposedly, once existed, doesn't any more, and we had to ford the river at a suitable point. Mrs Hickory takes these things in her stride now. All the way back our feet squelched on the pedals and shed algae at irregular intervals.

Life is a journey, but a journey is not necessarily life, in that it doesn't have to mean anything. it can just be itself, a chance to do nothing but enjoy the act of living. That was what today was.

The map at the top left is today's ride. The one on the right is from a few weeks ago when we went to the same area. And the photo is of one of the mills.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Regular Guy

I don't know if I'm one- sometimes I hope so, sometimes I hope not- but Steve Earle claims to be one, something I doubt is true, by the way. Anyhow, for those of you who were missing the upbeat Texan music, here is the man explaining how 'regular' he is.

On Intelligence

Reading over at David Thompson’s place I find another article by someone who believes that everyone is equally intelligent. This is an idea I come across quite often, and it is worth addressing.

There are many things wrong with the idea, the first being that no one involved in the discussion, and certainly not Nina Power*, the woman who seems to have started David off, takes the trouble to explain what they mean by intelligence. It seems to mean whatever she wants it to mean. Joseph Kugelmass talks about how people (what people?) “reify” IQ tests, which is not even a straw man, but he doesn’t offer a definition himself. He offers instead a blustering, don’t worry your inferior little heads about it, line: “We’ll have to start out by getting a bit technical. The adjectival form, “intelligent” (or “brilliant” or “smart” or etc.), has its uses. Intelligence, as we use the word, refers to the ability to do a good job at complex tasks that require a high degree of abstraction. Thus, a given piece of work can be intelligent if it successfully addresses a complex problem.”

Defensive and confused, and intended to be shot down. He does at least mention abstraction, which is more than the others do. Intelligence, to me, is the ability to reason in the abstract.

I’ve known a few socialists who genuinely believe that the young mind is a tabula rasa waiting for the state’s education agents to write on it, and that it’s somehow the fault of capitalists/private schools/the Conservative party that some children turn out better than others. But the people in question were not academics pretending to be experts, and they were prepared to listen when I explained that it was rather more complex (nuanced?) than that.

The remarks and opinions of Nina Power, Lana Guinier and Joseph Kugelmass are politically derived, they are not part of a search for truth, and in the case of the first two particularly, they are culpably, deliberately ignorant. Things are not so simply because one wants them to be, and saying something doesn’t make it true. It is almost unbelievable that there are people in academic positions at prestigious institutions who need to have this explained to them.

There is a continuum of intellectual ability. Having spent 20 years teaching children, teenagers and young adults of all ages and abilities I can state this categorically, as can many others who have done the same. And 20 years of daily experience are more than anecdote, but see below.

There are not two groups, the normal who are all the same, and the subnormal who have degrees of not being like the rest of us. The Powers of this world would, I imagine, recognise that some people are so limited in their intellectual ability that they cannot understand the simplest ideas and cannot function in the world without a great deal of help. Do they think that the subnormal are damaged in some way that the normal are not, and that’s why they show variation in intelligence? Possibly they do. I will say it again: there is a continuum of intellectual ability, as there is in just about every quality associated with man. And you don’t have to take my word for it.

It will come as a surprise to the levellers but there are scientists whose research consists of more than just spouting dogma; they actually study the development of the brain in the foetus and the very young child, observing how the formation of connections among the neural pathways and synapses is related to genetic and environment factors, the nutritional and cultural context of early life, and, of course, the later ability to perform a range of mental tasks. Guess what they have found. Go on, guess. Very good, well done. The people who spend their lives studying these matters know more about them than Power and co, and Power and co are demonstrably wrong. Stimulus may well be important in the early development of the child’s brain, just as good diet can increase height, and training makes you a better footballer, but we do not all start from the same place.

This may be unfair, for some sense of fair; it may well bring about problems for the less able which others should, from common humanity, help to solve, but it’s still true.

Dr. Konczak, could, for all I know, be a socialist, desperate to  believe the same as Nina Power; he could be a racist or a crashing snob who in private life believes in the innate superiority of whites, men, or ‘people like him’ in general; he could have a child who is not up to his own intellectual level and would lie to be sure that it isn’t his fault, but none of this has influenced his work or his conclusions. It’s quite simple once you understand the principle of it.

The original thrust of David Thompson’s post was directed at the particularly ludicrous remark that Nina Power borrowed approvingly from Peter Hallward- “Everyone has the same intelligence, and differences in knowledge are simply a matter of opportunity and motivation. On the basis of this assumption, superior knowledge ceases to be a necessary qualification of the teacher, just as the process of explanation… ceases to be an integral part of teaching.”

Superior knowledge is an essential quality in a teacher, as is the ability to share that knowledge. Teaching is not some arcane art, open only to the enlightened and omniscient- I have often argued that it is a very practical business, all too easily ruined by an excess of theory- but you do have to know how to do it, and you have to possess the knowledge you are trying to impart. I imagine she is thinking of a very particular kind of ‘teaching’, which is not teaching at all, but more a kind of brainstorming. Useful at times in certain circumstances, but not to be confused with the real thing.

Intelligence is useful to a teacher, though it depends very much on the level. Training and experience are more important to a primary school teacher than intelligence, for example. At higher levels intelligence is necessary. Superior intelligence, fortunately, is not. There is no need for the teacher to be the most intelligent person in the class. If this were so, not only would I, and probably Nina Power, be out of a job, but it would be impossible for anyone to learn anything new.

 And a final note to Joseph Kugelmass and Nina Power: the Greeks did not quote Homer by heart, and Plato did not demonstrate that the uneducated could learn understand anything at all. (He found a clever slave who grasped the concept he explained. It’s called learning. We all started knowing nothing, and learnt what we were interested in or needed to know and were capable of understanding.) Educated Greeks did, at times, quote Homerjust as educated people today quote the writers they consider great, or apposite, but the mass of classical Athenians did not sit around a table of an evening with a cold beer in its hand reeling off great chunks of the Iliad. It’s dropping in stupid remarks like that without bothering about the truth, and expecting the reader to swallow them whole, as though they backed up the argument, which characterises the type of thinking criticised here. It is based on ignorance and falsehood. It is not a search for truth, it’s more a desire to convince oneself of something.

*She also believes in smashing up other people's property when she disagrees with them. You would never have imagined that, would you?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

"I Feel Fine Today"

So, you will be pleased to hear, does Kevin Welch. And so, if you click the link, will you.