Archive for February, 2011


February 27, 2011 4 comments

On a slightly lighter note than my previous post, if I hadn’t been reading Arabic news websites I’d probably never have come across the game of Buzkashi. Strange, perhaps – though an ancient game that, though a number of cultural borrowings and influences, arguably emerged in the form of rugby as a more ‘civilised’ variant?

Definitely not a game I’d want to play, and certainly one I have some moral concerns about in relation to animal welfare – though being targeted by the Taliban for being a spectator is clearly far more cruel and heartless.

But since I do now know about it, and I write horror and SF, I think it might offer some material for a story… a case of cultural relativity and truth being stranger than fiction, I think.


On watching TV

February 27, 2011 2 comments

Mostly, this last week I’ve been perfecting the fine art of coughing. My doctor diagnosed a touch of asthma following a chest infection in January. Fair enough, but the timing of it and the way it developed didn’t seem to fit properly. In the last few days, though, I’ve had a remarkable turnaround in health having worked out that the asthma was caused by an allergy of which I was previously unaware. House free of allergy-causing items: no asthma. Items reintroduced: instant return of asthma. And so forth. So having worked out what was going on, I’m now pretty much returned to full health, feeling better and stronger and with a sense of humour returned.

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching TV and surfing the internet looking at stuff on Tunisia, then Egypt, then in correspondence with someone who’s just returned from Yemen, and then watching developments in Libya.

I’ve been to various Middle Eastern countries for varying amounts of time and at various times, and noted that pretty much all of them have had some level of political repression for decades. And it extended beyond their boundaries. When I was a student, which was back in the 1970s, I can remember knowing both Iranian and Libyan students in the UK who were very closely monitored by their countries’ respective secret services, just in case they engaged in anything subversive or unpatriotic. Indeed once we knew what was happening it was fairly obvious that there were guys around who were (a) not students and (b) following our friends. (It also wouldn’t surprise me if they’d recruited informants, etc., but I can’t vouch for that.)

Anyway, in pursuit of information I’ve been looking not just at the BBC but also Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya English language news feeds. I don’t know why they should have surprised me – they’re regionally based so don’t have the full span of international coverage you find on the BBC, but what they do, they appear to do extremely well and professionally. In terms of political commentary they look to be moderate/liberal. However, while many Western commentators note that Western countries have facilitated various dictatorships and accepted that hypocrisy has some place in realpolitik, the Arabic news sources rather refreshingly recognise hypocrisy for what it is.

If you haven’t yet looked at these Arabic stations’ coverage of events, I’d recommend it. An hour checking over those sites is an instructive and educational experience.


Not letting meaning get in the way…

February 19, 2011 6 comments

According to this story on the BBC, ‘A number of made-up words such as “koob” or “zort” are to be included in the government’s planned new reading test for six-year-olds in England. The idea has drawn criticism from literary experts who say the approach will confuse those beginning to read. The UK Literacy Association said the plan was “bonkers” as the purpose of reading was to understand meaning. The government said non-words were being included to check pupils’ ability to decode words using phonics.’

Apparently “The test is trying to control all the different variables so that things like meaning don’t get in the way.”

Now Urban Dictionary may not be the most authoritative source, since it includes many slang words that are coined and used by small coteries of American teenagers. But that said:

Koob (verb): Happens whilst you are consuming something, when you get an overwhelming feeling that you don’t want to finish what you started, but you do anyway for some reason.

Alternatively, as a noun: ‘A person who is often intelligent but showing a level of intelligence severley [sic] below an average level.’

Zort: four meanings of which one is an acronym (Zombie Outbreak Resistance Tactician); one is ‘Chicago American-Italian slang for money’; one relates to a character in the World of Warcraft game, and one… let’s just say it would appear out of place in a test for six year-olds.

Alternatively, if the real intention is to test whether kids can read without things like meaning getting in the way – is this really a skill we want to encourage? Don’t we already have enough people who can write and talk without meaning getting in the way? What do we call those people? Oh, I remember – koobs. Or politicians.

Maybe the entire plan was thought up by a vindictive civil servant who wanted to find new and interesting ways to embarrass ministers? In many ways that would be the most charitable explanation.

[Edited to add] – koob is also a spelling variant of kubb, a lawn game that originated in Sweden. The rules are here.

The thing is, almost any collection of consonants and vowels that’s vaguely capable of being pronounced will either be a word in some slang or dialect, or will become so as soon as it’s created. Language is dynamic like that. I’d think since ‘koob’ and ‘zort’ have been proposed for a reading test, either can now be defined – indeed in future may be defined in dictionaries – as ‘(noun) a word coined by a government minister, official or advisor that is deliberately intended to be vague or meaningless’. They might then go on to cite the term ‘Big Society’ as an example of a koob.

Oh, and how many mothers would be happy to explain the fourth meaning of ‘zort’ to their six year-old?

Learning and knowledge, a never-ending challenge

February 17, 2011 4 comments

I’ve been thinking about ‘knowledge’ a bit recently. My interest in this topic was piqued by someone posing the question ‘how do students decide what is and isn’t relevant for them to know?’

For example, in the social sciences and humanities, while there will be a ‘core’ of material that we expect students to have some mastery of, there’s also a mass of material that might be more or less interesting or relevant, depending on students’ own interests, backgrounds, self-identities, ambitions, aspirations, and so on. In a lecture or seminar situation, incidental stuff may also affect learning – the personality of the lecturer, the use of particular diagrams, Powerpoint vs whiteboard, other students, etc. In a distance learning situation incidental stuff will also be important and probably less controllable – the demands of family, work, everyday routines such as commuting and supermarket shopping and cooking, and so forth.

And for me, there are the more philosophical questions to address here as well – what is ‘knowledge’? can we distinguish ‘knowledge’ from ‘opinion’ or ‘judgement’? how is it possible to make choices about what might or might not be ‘relevant’ knowledge (and to what) in advance of actually knowing the stuff?

I can’t offer good, definitive answers in a short(ish) blog. But here are some thoughts.

Two kinds of knowledge?

First, there’s a very interesting piece in the Huffington Post, by Stephen Downes: ‘Two Kinds of Knowledge‘ (Nov 18, 2010). Headline details: if you want people to follow rules, focus on ‘repetition of the symbols and codes that constitute explicit knowledge’; but if you want people to learn, it’s necessary to have them understand a wider range of concepts, skills, procedures, and things that underlie, generate, or enable people to use the knowledge they acquire. Think of it in the context of, say, learning another language. It’s not just a case of getting students to learn phrases by rote, it’s a case of getting them to a point where they can hold a conversation.

In doing this, teachers basically produce artefacts. Exhibits. They might be tables, diagrams, charts, bullet point lists, photos. In medical school, maybe things like bodies for dissection. In architecture or surveying or building, bits of buildings. I used to know someone who taught surveying: in one of his classes he brought in a load of bricks of different styles and periods to pass around and explain their different properties.

The world, however, is more full of artefacts than any classroom can be. And people will respond to artefacts, in or out of the classroom or lecture theatre, with differing levels of interest depending on a huge range of factors. Downes argues that as teachers we need to be aware of this and be aware that students are learning from everything around them, not just the things we exhibit. How we do that, exactly, remains an open question.

More kinds of knowledge?

You’ll note that Downes relies on a simple distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge. This can be a useful distinction but it’s hardly an absolute one.

‘Explicit’ means shareable in some form – words, equations, formulae, manuals, recipes or whatever. It also tends to mean that things ‘mean what they say’ and ‘what you see is what you get’. You may need some prior specialist knowledge to decode the information (being able to read French to read a manual in French, for example, or understanding that an arrangement of black and white squares is a QR code and having the means to read it). ‘Tacit’ knowledge is not so easiy visible or capable of being articulated. It may be a personal insight, the intuitive ‘how to’ knowledge of a musician or a craftsman, the ‘coding’ of a particular world-view in a painting, or even how one can walk into a bar and read the mood of the people there.

We all rely on some level of tacit knowledge, in pretty much any situation. Often the business of learning a skill set, as in an apprenticeship or an internship, involves not just learning the explicit material but being exposed to situations where one can ‘absorb’ relevant tacit knowledge in a relatively unstructured way through a series of informal social interactions.

By way of an example, many years ago I was interviewing some police officers in a police station canteen when news came over the TV in the corner of the room about a police operation that had resulted in an apparently innocent man being shot. The details were sketchy, but their reactions to this headline and their speedy construction of a scenario of what ‘must have happened’, relying on their own tacit knowledge of police procedures and ‘working culture’, revealed more relevant material about the (very different) topic I was actually researching than any of my interview questions did.

Is there knowledge that is neither explicit nor tacit? There’s certainly plenty of knowledge that’s only ‘explicit’ if you’ve had several years of the relevant training. There’s some permeability of the boundary – a lot of psychology and some sociology is about exploring how people construct, negotiate, interpret and use tacit knowledge, and those explorations are about creating an explicit, formal or formulaic knowledge of ‘tacit knowledge’ in particular situations.

That said, there may be some advantages in recognising the broad distinction and also the complexity of real life  – where one might have layers of knowledge, such as explicit sociological knowledge of the tacit knowledge that actors in a particular situation use in order to manipulate what is conventionally described as the explicit knowledge applied in that situation. This might be true when looking at psychological/sociological analyses of scientific research, medical decision-making, or the strategies of prosecution and defence in a court case. I’m thinking here – certainly in sociology – of the kinds of areas investigated in symbolic interaction and ethnomethdology.

So in summary, the idea of explicit vs tacit knowledge itself requires some tacit knowledge for one to be able to use it properly… but then recursive and self-referential properties do tend to be normal and natural when we start looking at this stuff seriously. Conclusion, for teachers and learners? Just be aware that whatever you’re teaching or learning will have this recursive element to it. You can never say everything you want to say in so many words. It’s the stuff that’s left unsaid that may be the most interesting, and/or the most problematic.

I could go on and describe three or four other categorisations of knowledge, but there’s not a lot of point because they have the same rather ambivalent and vague characteristics.

Three types of knowledge?

There’s another categorisation of knowledge that I’ve found useful, and maybe it’s a good one to end with. It’s simple, slightly humorous, but with a very real and important point to it.

The three fundamental catagories of information are: (1) the shit you know, (2) the shit you know you don’t know, and (3) the shit you don’t know you don’t know. In any given situation you can assume you know about 5% of what’s potentially relevant. The stuff you know you don’t know, and think it would be a good idea to get a handle on, is probably 10% of what’s relevant. And that means about 85% of what’s potentially relevant to a situation is stuff you don’t even know exists. (Are those percentages accurate? I don’t know. Do they look about right to you? Treat them as symbolic rather than real!)

The only way to handle this situation is to (1) be open about the fact that you’re never going to know as much as you should (2) work diligently to get a handle on the stuff you know you don’t yet know, and (3) remain open, all eyes and ears, all communication channels open, to see if you can detect the stuff you never even dreamed could be important – then at least you’re going to have a list of more stuff you’ll need to find out about. It will be an ever growing list. A life’s work, or more. But maybe that’s what learning is.

Online banking and conjuring tricks

February 14, 2011 1 comment

Last week I moved some money from one bank account to another. If I do this between accounts at the same bank it’s instant. These accounts are with different banks, so the warning comes up that it may take 3-5 working days for the transfer even though the money’s gone from one account straight away.

Now we were used to this in the days of manual banking as bits of paper got pushed from desk to desk, but how come it’s still like that in the internet age? My assumption is that they could move the money instantly, because, for example, local authorities and large businesses can have an arrangement in which their current account at close of trading is automatically deposited in an overnight account that enables them to make a penny or a buck, and then the money’s re-deposited in the current account the following morning.

For private customers, however, transferring money is subject to what is essentially a conjuring trick in which your money disappears for several days, during which time the bank is using it to make money on its own behalf. It’s routine, but the more I think about it the more I think it’s still my money and I should be getting that interest or a good proportion of it.

We’re not talking about a lot. Even at LIBOR rates we’re talking about somewhere less than £1 on the amount I transferred. I know the theory of banking is that they make money by taking deposits and lending, and the margin between the interest rate they get and the rate they pay. If they didn’t do that they couldn’t cover costs. But this ‘disappearing’ money seems to me to be a hangover from older practices (it always used to take 3 days so why tell the customers we can do it instantly now?). And because there’s not even much public knowledge that for banks it’s a money-making opportunity, and private customers can’t share in it, it seems to have a whiff of chicanery about it.

I’m open to refutations, observations, comments from people with actual banking knowledge…

I saw two murders today

February 13, 2011 2 comments

Or maybe it was the same murder, twice. About a hundred crows swooping across the road when we were driving somewhere. The same again on the way back by a different route. Any offers on the mythology concerning omens and crows? I could go and look it up in my copy of the Golden Bough, but right now it would be more sensible to go to bed.

I’ve discovered a new form of strenuous exercise. It’s called ‘coughing’. I’ve been enjoying it so much, my ribs hurt… This evening I was going to hone a bit of flash fiction I’ve had going around in my head but hopefully instead I’ll shake off this bug with a long night’s sleep.


On being creative and discovering resources

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

If you’ve seen some of my older posts about finance and creative work, you’ll be interested in this: Art of Hustle’s post ‘Baller on a Budget: Turning Resources into Riches’, which expands on and exemplifies themes similar to the ones I’ve been preoccupied with for some time.

Headline details: as a creative person you sit on a number of resources – ones that are yours (skill, networks, imagination etc.) and ones that are part of your network (places you go, things you do, people you know). You may not even recognise those things as ‘resources’, but that’s what they are. Equally, ‘folks aiming to equally give and receive can build lasting partnerships, expanded patronage, and repeat business’. So there’s a creative business model there, and the post is a detailed working through and example of how to put it in motion.


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