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Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics

by Harry on July 22, 2014

Earlier this year CB sent me an email alerting me to the fact that Richard Thompson was going to perform, soon, in Madison, and recommending him to me. In fact I already had tickets—I am a huge Richard Thompson fan, and have seen him live about as often as I have seen Belle’s relative Loudon Wainwright, over the past 35 years. I went with my wife (who doesn’t like him much), and two friends, one of whom is a fan but had never seen him before, and the other of whom had no idea who he was. I hadn’t really thought about the dangers of taking someone who doesn’t know him to see him: what the effect of seeing him live before having heard any of his music would be. His son was the support act—lovely voice, ok songs—so that, in a way, made it worse. Because Thompson was, in fact, the best I have ever seen him: haunting, crisp voice, one acoustic guitar sounding like an orchestra, a perfectly designed set (occasionally the sets are slightly off, when he plays all-request shows, or picks an album name out of a hat, to show that he’s ready with every song he’s ever written—though I suspect that he doesn’t include Henry the Human Fly in the mix, since I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play a song from that, my favourite, album live). Simon Mayo, interviewing him on yesterday’s show (around 1 hr 06 mins), recalled seeing him playing solo, and drinking half a glass of water during a song without any apparent effect on the sound coming from the guitar. Anyway, at a certain point, I saw tears running down our friend’s face, and, at the end, she said “Why didn’t you tell me it was going to be like this?”. Imagine that you’d never heard of Richard Thompson, and the first time you heard 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was live, when he is at the top of his game. You’d weep.

His new album, Acoustic Classics, so-named because, well, it consists of acoustic re-recordings of some of his classics, is out today. It doesn’t have every song you’d want (“Al Bowly” is a particular, post HtHF, favourite of mine that’s missing, and one that he seemed extremely reluctant to play when it was requested at the live show). I think it contains the best versions of “Bright Lights”,”Beeswing” and “Shoot Out the Lights” I’ve heard. Fans won’t want to miss it; and non-fans could do worse than to start with it. But it is no substitute for seeing him live.

And here he is talking to Aggers about playing cricket in LA —plus about his songwriting process, which is very interesting. He turns out to be a Geoffrey Boycott fan (would it surprise anyone to know that I am too?—the batting, not the commentating I hasten to add), so Aggers introduces them at the end of the interview, and Boycott manages to open with an insult.


Incongruous songs

by Harry on July 21, 2014

I guess that few of our readers have seen The Lego Movie. Luckily, I have, so was very surprised to hear my boy’s cohort singing “Everything is Awesome” at the camp’s late night show. The Lego Movie is about the evils of corporate power—a kind of kid’s version of They Live—and “Everything if Awesome” is the song which all the people are supposed to sing to keep them mindless and satisfied. Not something I’d have chosen for a 7-year-olds’ camp song.

Everyone knows that “Born in the USA” was used by the Reagan campaign; evidence either of Al Stewart’s thesis that nobody listens to lyrics, or that political operators believe that nobody listens to lyrics (My “Everything is Awesome” story is evidence that nobody even looks at song titles: how could a song with that title and refrain be anything other than satire?). Fair enough, given the similarly odd use of “Jerusalem” by English conservatives, and the fact that”This Land is Your Land” is an entirely kosher song for American public schoolkids. Slightly orthoganally, I just learned the heartwarming story that as soon as Benny and Bjorn learned that Danish People’s Party was using “Mama Mia” as a rally song they sued (and if you really want to feel good about your guilty pleasures, read down the page to see which party Benny made a 70k pound donation to).

Other, incongruous, uses of songs?


Why “Ann Coulter” would love cricket

by Harry on July 18, 2014

Somehow I saw this rather lame attempt to parody Ann Coulter yesterday. I don’t mind football, I’ve even come to enjoy watching it a bit as a result of my daughter’s enthusiasm, but I do enjoy the odd rant against it, and have always found it funny that Americans assume that because of my accent I have a favorite team and know the offside rule (I don’t have a favorite team, but I do know the offside rule, though my knowing it is rather like my ability to recall the entire cast of the Love Boat, the result of an unhealthy tendency to remember entirely unimportant things that I don’t care about).

So here are “Coulter”’s objections to football (many of which, btw, suggest “she” has never seen a game), with responses providing evidence that the article is, in fact, an attempt by Geoffrey Boycott to popularize cricket among American conservatives:

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by Harry on July 16, 2014

Atrocities, uncensored, here. No need to listen beyond the first 50 seconds.

Unread Books?

by Harry on July 9, 2014

Jordan Ellenberg has devised an ingenious way of working out what books get bought but not read:

Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read.

Using this method, he finds that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has an HI of 98.5%, whereas Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has an HI of just 2.4%, worse even than Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, widely known as the ‘most unread book of all time’.

I find the Tartt result unsurprising because when, recently, I read her first book,The Secret History I spent the first 350 pages wondering why on earth I was reading it. Not only were all the characters repulsive, but, worse, I strongly suspected the author thought they were really cool. The picture of the author did not inspire confidence that I might be wrong. And, there really seemed to be no plot and I am someone who has no compunction putting down a bad book, so the fact that despite all that I remained hooked impressed me a lot (and it was completely worth it: from around p.350 it is riveting).

But (in Jordan’s spirit of this being entertainment, not science) several comments. First, in defense of Piketty, it is a great read, not at all what I had been led to expect, so if people are giving up they are missing out. Second, though, most copies of Hawking’s book were sold prior to Kindle, and I suspect that hard copies of books, which are sometimes bought for show, are more likely to go unread than kindle copies, which are often bought in order not to show (see 50 Shades). So, Hawking, I think, is still a winner. Next, though, the problem with the method is that I suspect that the kind of people who mark passages in their kindles are unrepresentative readers (not being rude, or anything, just seems quirky). But, finally. When I was a teenager, I saw Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago on the bookshelves of just about every house I ever went to, including the houses of people whom I never saw reading even a shopping list, let alone talking about a book. I do believe there are, or at least have been, people who have read it, but I’d be amazed if it would have gotten a HI of 0.5%.

Finally, finally, I wonder about academic books? I am pretty sure my first book has been cited much more often than it has read, and I have pretty compelling evidence that two of the reviewers didn’t read it (one reviewer based his entire review on the blurb for the book; and a second attributed to me, and criticized, exactly the opposite thesis from the one that I was defending).

Anyway, other nominees for unread, or ought-to-be-unread, books, with or without evidence?

Rik Mayall is Dead

by Harry on June 9, 2014

Telegraph obit here. Kevin Turvey was the first I ever heard of him, and still my favourite. A kind of punk rock Ronnie Corbett.

Becoming an American

by Harry on April 18, 2014

I became a US citizen earlier today.

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Sue Townsend is Dead

by Harry on April 11, 2014

Sue Townsend is also dead. Guardian obit here. I have a small supply of Adrian Mole books, which I give to students (even if, sometimes, I don’t know them well) who have prolonged illnesses—or sometimes just to cheer them up. I have no idea whether it works for them, but it pretty much always works for me.


Richard Hoggart is Dead

by Harry on April 11, 2014

Richard Hoggart is dead, at 95. BBC obit here; Guardian obit here. His first book, The Uses of Literacy is still in print after 58 years. I was struck by this para from the Guardian obit:

Late in life he wondered if his readiness to serve on committees was a byproduct of a childhood that had left him “unusually glad to find myself wanted”. Yet he was sceptical about the idea that these compulsions had stopped him from producing another Uses of Literacy. “Did you really expect that I would?” he asked an interviewer. “I didn’t. That’s the sort of book that – if you’re lucky – you can write once in a lifetime.”

The Ethicist has a problem that will interest Henry:

I am a graduate student at a state university. One of four required texts for a course was written by the professor, and the subject matter of the text is also the content of his lectures. A significant portion of my grade is based on a ‘‘review’’ I write of his text. Is it ethical to require students to buy a book that you wrote? Aren’t I already paying tuition for this professor’s expertise and knowledge?

The ethicist makes some sensible comments (scroll down a bit). I have a further comment and a question. The comment: it is relatively easy to avoid making money on a textbook that you assign to students. If you REALLY think it is the best one, figure out what your royalties will be, and make a deal with the local bookstore that they will sell it at regular price minus your royalty, and just pay the bookstore the difference for each copy they sell. I don’t think that Greg Mankiw has responded to Henry’s occasional jabs about him using his monopoly power to assign his textbook, but that’s probably because he does what I have described, but doesn’t want to undermine his credibility by telling anyone.(One alternative: an undergraduate professor of mine who wrote a rather good textbook which he wanted to use, just xeroxed the final draft and kept giving it to his own students; another alternative, calculate the royalties, and either give them to a scholarship fund for low-income students, or use them to invite struggling students out to lunch in small groups to build up their confidence – that might be the best strategy for Mankiw, given where he works).

The question, about non-textbooks. I have never assigned one of my books to a class, though I have co-taught a class in which my co-teacher assigned one of my books. It’s not that I am inhibited about making money of the students (I am but, above, propose a solution, but that when I assign texts, my aim is to have the students both understand and criticize them. Its not that I am uncritical of my own work, far from it, but I want to treat a text as something I am exploring critically along with the students, and that just seems a bit odd when I wrote it. Once in a while, in an upper division (or graduate) class I assign a paper or two that I have written, and with graduate classes I have assigned works in progress. But even then, with the undergraduate classes, I only assign papers that I know will invite very strong criticism from the students, and I make them do the presenting (this resulted, last semester, in one of the best presentations I have witnessed, in which a student ripped into this paper with such vehemence that her co-presenter—and I think most of the other students—were horrified). Anyway. In fact students regularly criticize me for my policy of non-assignment, arguing that they want, and want other students, to see their professors as producers of intellectual work, and want to see that intellectual work and have it discussed in class; both because it makes them see their professors differently, and because it is a rare chance for an undergraduate to discuss serious intellectual work with its producer. What do you think?


by Harry on March 29, 2014

In one of the TV discussions of Tony Benn’s death, Diane Abbott pointed out that much of what Benn had fought for, and been ridiculed and despised for, had simply become mainstream. I’d never thought of it that way, because I had focused on those things he fought for that parted even farther from the mainstream. But she was right. For example, 30 years ago, nobody would have taken you seriously if you’d said that, in 30 years time, gay and lesbian Britons would be able to marry the person they loved, let alone under a law passed by a Conservative government. Not that anybody would have said that, because it was such a manifestly ridiculous thing to say. Congratulations to all those who fought for this, apparently absurd, goal. Today, just celebrate.
(posted 3/28 in the US, but 29/3 in the UK)

Paying for the Party

by Harry on March 23, 2014

I’m currently running a reading group with a group of 7 seniors, all women, whom I’ve known, and have known each other, since the beginning of their freshman year. They have diverse majors (only one is a philosophy major—others include elementary education, human development and family studies, psychology…) and pretty diverse experiences, and my idea was to read a bunch of books about undergraduate life on the pretty much entirely selfish grounds that they might be able to interpret the books better than I can alone (I went to a college in London, never lived in a dorm, and had, generally, a very different experience). We’ve read Michael Moffatt’s classic Coming of Age in New Jersey, and Rebekkah Nathan’s My Freshman Year so far, and are now on to Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, recommended to me by a sociologist who is, I think, friends with the authors. Paying for the Party is just fantastic.

The authors lived for a year in a “party” dorm in a large midwestern flagship public university (not mine) and kept up with the women in the dorm till after they had graduated college. The thesis of the book is that the university essentially facilitates (seemingly knowingly, and in some aspects strategically) a party pathway through college, which works reasonably well for students who come from very privileged backgrounds. The facilitatory methods include: reasonably scrupulous enforcement of alcohol bans in the dorms (thus enhancing the capacity of the fraternities to monopolize control of illegal drinking and, incidentally, forcing women to drink in environments where they are more vulnerable to sexual assault); providing easy majors which affluent students can take which won’t interfere with their partying, and which will lead to jobs for them, because they have connections in the media or the leisure industries that will enable them to get jobs without good credentials; and assigning students to dorms based on choice (my students confirm that dorms have reputations as party, or nerdy, or whatever, dorms that ensure that they retain their character over time, despite 100% turnover in residents every year).

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Tony Benn is Dead

by Harry on March 14, 2014

Guardian obit here. I once had a whole obituary comment worked out in my head, but right now I don’t feel like saying anything at all, beyond just wanting us to mark his death.

My colleagues Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy will publish a book later this year called The Political Classroom, containing a study of high school teachers who teach controversial issues. Their presentation at a recent conference for philosophers made me think it might be a good idea to articulate my answer to one of the questions the book raises: whether teachers of controversial issues should disclose their views about the issues they teach about (their earlier discussion of disclosure is included in Hess’s book, Controversy in the Classroom). I’m articulating it not to try and persuade anyone, but to broaden the discussion – I’ve only ever discussed these issues with my students themselves, and with close colleagues.
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Stereotype threat and Philosophy’s problem

by Harry on December 3, 2013

On the topic of Philosophy’s uneven sex ratios: Gina Schouten has a really interesting paper about stereotype threat as a possible explanation of those ratios (PDF). Her paper is, as she says, an armchair reflection on the hypothesis, but I think it would be useful to anyone wanting to study the causes of the sex ratios empirically.

The reason she has to do an armchair reflection is that Philosophy is a small discipline, and one the composition of which does not have huge social consequences, so the incentives for empirical researchers to give it the kind of attention they give the STEM subjects, the subjects for which the stereotype threat hypothesis was formed, and has been tested, and for which treatments have been devised, are small (Kieran seems to do it as a strange sort of hobby – but I don’t think his discipline promises great rewards for this part of his work).

Her reflections, though, are interesting and useful. She points out that the main leak in the pipeline is between the first philosophy course and the major. It would be really handy if it turned out that stereotype threat explained the exit of students at this point in the pipeline, because psychologists have devised interventions to counter stereotype threat that are extremely cheap and easy to implement, and seem to be highly effective (see footnote [1]). We could adapt some of those interventions relatively easily to Philosophy courses. (Then we could continue to be completely insensitive and rude in the way we teach, without suffering the consequence of depriving our discipline of talent!)

Problem is that we don’t have a lot of evidence, and some of the features of stereotype threat seem to be absent. For example, the fact that girls get lower average grades in any given STEM course is prima facie evidence that they are underperforming (one indicator of stereotype threat). I don’t have data on how well girls and boys do in intro level courses, but anecdote suggests that girls do not get worse grades than boys (Ok, ok, I’m writing this, and realize I should just get someone to check for my dept, and I’ll report back if it’s legal to). Of course, “underperformance” means something like “lower performance than the student should perform given his or her prior achievement”, and given that girls at most institutions have significantly higher prior achievement on most measures, they could be getting higher grades than boys and still be underperforming.

Another problem with the idea that stereotype threat explains why girls leave after the first one or two courses is that they just lack the stereotype. After all, philosophy is a found major, and because they have no experience of it, our students lack the relevant stereotypes: girls don’t think that philosophy is the kind of thing that girls do badly, or that others think that, because they don’t know what it is. In so far as they do have beliefs about what philosophy is [1], those beliefs are usually quite wrong, and we disabuse them pretty quickly.

However, as she points out, their first encounter with the subject might easily introduce a stereotype to them:

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