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The Ballad of the Woggler’s Moulie

by Harry on September 2, 2013

I really have no excuse for posting this. This year is the 25th anniversary of Kenneth Williams’s death, maybe? Its just that my 6 year-old-son came downstairs the other day talking about Chiswick flow, and moulies, and then, today, sang the whole song, pretty much word perfect, and I am very happy about it. So is my daughter. My wife? Maybe not.

J K Rowling for grown ups

by Harry on August 27, 2013

It wasn’t snobbery that kept me from reading Harry Potter, just a calculation that at some point I’d have to read them all to one of the kids, and didn’t want to have read them already. But my wife read the first 4 to the eldest and then the first three to the middle one, and by the time my youngest wanted them J.K. Rowling had already published a book for grown ups and I realized that I could be one of the first people alive to read her adult novels without reading having read her children’s books. (In fact, I was about 3/4ths through the first Harry Potter when I finished The Casual Vacancy – and still am, because the boy got scared at that point, and I couldn’t be bothered to find out how it ended). I was drawn to The Casual Vacancy by the couple of slightly sneering and tepid reviews I read, which said it was rambling, misanthropic and full of children’s cruelty, making it sound like I’d love it, and a recommendation from a reliable friend. And, I did.

But not as much as The Cuckoo’s Calling. How long she thought she would remain anonymous I can’t imagine. It is so obviously the work of an experienced, accomplished, writer, and is slyly witty in the same way that The Casual Vacancy is. She does indulge in one moment of male fantasy fulfillment that, perhaps, was designed to make herself seem like a male author; but just the pseudonym, itself, is a dead giveaway (did no-one really guess?). I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so request that commenters also refrain from discussing the plot (but no guarantees). Suffice to say it is thoroughly entertaining, brilliantly plotted, and tautly written. When you read it you’ll see that Rowling must be incredibly pissed off that her secret came out prematurely. Clearly the book was going to become a major success even under the pseudonym and, equally clearly, she was looking forward to having it properly evaluated in its own right which, I think, The Casual Vacancy wasn’t.

I’ve been suffering withdrawal since Reginald Hill died, and about 5 months ago I realized that the possible posthumous Dalziel/Pascoe that amazon uk mentioned at the time of his death is unlikely to see the light of day. So having a brilliant mystery writer appear, fully fledged (which is rare – the only other I can think of is Benjamin Black), and clearly intending a long series, is a specially delightful surprise. Thoroughly recommended.

(Oh, and, if you haven’t been following the story, apparently all her royalties for the first three years, starting July 15th when she was unmasked, are going to the Soldier’s Charity).

Discussion of the books is very welcome below but if you haven’t read them, BE WARNED there MAY be SPOILERS

Tom Stoppard and Pink Floyd

by Harry on August 26, 2013

I haven’t listened to this yet, but fans of Tom Stoppard, Pink Floyd, or of both [1], might be interested in listening to Stoppard’s latest play, Darkside, written in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the release of Dark Side of the Moon. Its here until Monday Sept 2nd.

[1] I’m neither really, but suspect that reveals a character flaw.

What Can’t Moocs Teach?

by Harry on July 30, 2013

How optimistic faculty members are about the educational value of MOOCs seems to turn largely on what they think of as the status quo classroom experience. Colleagues at elite institutions, especially small liberal arts colleges, are generally skeptical, because they think of what they do in their classrooms as being very intellectually alive, and cannot see how that could be replicated online. But most of the credit hours at my institution are not taught in small, intellectually lively, classes. My own department keeps our classes small for majors, and offers very few classes larger than 100 students—still, I am pretty sure that in any given semester most of our credit hours are taken in rooms with 50 or more students. I know of one social science department which offers no classes with fewer than 70 students, even for majors, and many departments in which lectures with 300 or more students are commonplace. It is easy to see how MOOCs could replace such classes.

What seems irreplaceable is the small, discussion-heavy, course.[1] What do students learn in those courses? Not information, but skills—especially skills like being able to articulate ideas, and reason, in public. This excellent piece by Jennifer Morton at the Chronicle notes how much more valuable small classes can be for lower-income, or first generation, students:

For students from low-income families who manage to overcome the tough odds, college is the first place where they will be asked to defend a position and to engage in vigorous intellectual debate. It is also likely to be the first place where they have to consistently engage with middle-class students and professors and navigate middle-class social norms.


The differences in these social skills can be quite subtle, such as variations in when and how to make eye contact, or how deferential to be when speaking to authority figures. But their impact can be significant. And because children growing up in poverty in the United States are more likely to grow up around and go to school with other poor children, they have fewer opportunities to interact with the middle class and “pick up” the social skills valued by the middle class—and middle-class employers.

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Mastertapes: Down by the Jetty

by Harry on May 30, 2013

Wilco Johnson discusses the making of Down by the Jetty in the first of the new series of Mastertapes. I’m not a special fan of Johnson, or of Dr. Feelgood, but listened to it the other day while making a birthday cake for my wife, and really enjoyed it. Johnson is dying of cancer, and has chosen to let it run its course; listening to him talking about that, about life, and about music, is really, really, fun. Apparently there is more than a year left to listen—so you can wait till he dies to listen to it if you like! Series one, with Susanne Vega, Ray Davies, Paul Weller, the Zombies, and Brinsley Ford, is archived here—also with more than a year left to listen!

Whenever I describe the following experience to colleagues they tell me I should write it up. So. Here it is:

In Fall 2007 I taught a freshman seminar for the first time. The topic was Children, Marriage, and the Family, and students also took two, thematically-linked, classes in other departments together. The design is there are 20 students (in fact I’ve had 21 each time); it might be worth knowing in what follows that nearly all of those students have been women which, I am told, is a result of the subject matter. I had, up till then, very little contact with first or second year undergraduates. My regular large service class, although perfectly suitable for freshmen and sophomores, is under-supplied, so upper-class students nearly fill it up before the others get to register. And I usually teach upper level courses for majors otherwise, which, again, mostly contain juniors and seniors.

So teaching first years was a big challenge. Lecturing them is absurd. But I had no discussion-prompting skills, and no knowledge of what the students would know. I was uneasy all semester long for lots of reasons, and never felt entirely on top of things. And I felt particularly inadequate because I had just read Our Underachieving Colleges. It certainly got better, and I had a (then) graduate student who is a much more skilled teacher than I am visit a few times, partly for recommendation-writing purposes, but mainly to get her help.

I taught the same seminar again in Fall 2010. That summer I had one of my semi-regular meetings over tea/coffee with Emma, a 2007 student, who by then was a Nursing major, and with whom I had talked a lot about the classes she was taking during the intervening time. She, knowing I was going to teach the class again in the Fall, asked whether there was anything she could do to help.

I knew immediately what I wanted her to do.

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That light went out.

by Harry on May 28, 2013

Bill Pertwee is dead. Guardian obit here, BBC account here. In recent years Radio 4 Extra has taken to playing his reminiscences from time to time, in which he sounds like the antithesis of the character he is best known for and also reveals an amazing talent for mimicry (he could do Mainwaring so well you wouldn’t know it wasn’t Arthur Lowe). When I heard, my first thought was that it is going to be hard to tell my 12-year old, who loves Dad’s Army, but also Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne. I think Pertwee was the last living cast member of Round the Horne—but I notice that one of the original castmembers of Beyond Our Ken is still living (the prize for guessing who without resort to the internet is that you can feel smug all day—I guessed instantly).

When is copying not plagiarism?

by Harry on May 8, 2013

Sometime ago (just after the 2001 general election), I was listening to a senior adviser to Tony Blair at a non-academic public policy conference. He started saying some things that were quite critical of the promises New Labour had made, and implemented, in education, and I found myself, at first, thinking how sensible and well-thought out the criticisms were. Then, I started thinking that I recognized the language in which they were couched, and, eventually, realised that the reason it all sounded so good was that it had been taken, more or less verbatim, from something I had written. My first, momentary, response was to be irritated by this—but, once I remembered where I had written it (the cover story of a magazine that was distributed widely at the previous Labour Party conference) I was, simply, pleased. Of course, he is not going to cite me in a speech, and if you write in that sort of venue you should be hoping that somebody like him will take your words and ideas and make them their own.

If an academic had done that, I would have remained irritated (for about 20 minutes, I imagine, I really don’t care that much), and I think that it would have counted as plagiarism. If a student did the same thing I would regard it as serious academic misconduct. But in the context it seemed just fine.

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Children, and Chances

by Harry on April 18, 2013

The Boston Review symposium I pointed to last year on James Heckman’s “Promoting Social Mobility” is now out in book form as Giving Kids a Fair Chance. Its all still on the web, at least right now, but the book is cute and inexpensive. I’m curious what other people’s experience is, but I find that when I assign a book in class it gets read by more students, and more carefully, than if I assign something from the web; so I am planning to use it alongside Unequal Childhoods with my freshman class in the fall.

Schools, and Children

by Harry on April 18, 2013

There’s a very good piece by Jal Mehta in the Times last Sunday, reflecting on A Nation at Risk. He criticizes not teachers, but the profession of teaching:

Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.

By these criteria, American education is a failed profession. There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance. It is not surprising, then, that researchers find wide variation in teaching skills across classrooms; in the absence of a system devoted to developing consistent expertise, we have teachers essentially winging it as they go along, with predictably uneven results.

I’m very uneasy with his subsequent comparisons with countries that do better, though—Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada—which lack large swathes of relative poverty and, in a couple of cases authoritarian cultures. Its not as though these countries have developed technologies for teaching the kinds of student that American schools educate. But he makes an interesting point about why we know so little, and so little of what we do know is usable:

Anthony S. Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has estimated that other fields spend 5 percent to 15 percent of their budgets on research and development, while in education, it is around 0.25 percent. Education-school researchers publish for fellow academics; teachers develop practical knowledge but do not evaluate or share it; commercial curriculum designers make what districts and states will buy, with little regard for quality.

Anyway, there’s lots of good stuff, so read the whole thing.

Baroness Thatcher is dead.

by Harry on April 8, 2013

I presume it is a bit silly to point to any obituaries. So, instead, a heartwarming story. A few weeks before he died Eric Heffer, in one of his last interviews, Eric Heffer told a story against Neil Kinnock. (If you are too young to remember Heffer, well, here’s wikipedia). He, Heffer, was dying, and one evening, walking down a corridor in the Commons, he got to the point that he couldn’t walk any further. He thought he was alone but Mrs Thatcher was several feet behind him. Seeing his distress she made him put his arm round her, and walked him to a nearby office, made him a cup of tea, and sat with him while they waited for a nurse. His observation, about Neil Kinnock, was that he would have walked straight by.

It turns out that Heffer and Thatcher were friends of sorts; similarly Thatcher and Allan Adams. (See Frank Field on Thatcher’s liking for socialist company). The first 6 years of my political life was devoted to opposing nearly everything Thatcher did (including the Falklands War, about which I have changed my mind; the exception: sale of council houses), and that only ended because I moved somewhere that I could oppose what Reagan was doing instead. But there’s plenty of space on the internet for people who want to speak ill of the dead—I just thought I would tell a story I heard about 22 years ago and is not, as far as I can find, recorded elsewhere.

Some objective moral truths?

by Harry on April 3, 2013

Matthew Hutson’s interesting article in yesterday’s Times has, in the print edition, the unfortunate tag “How much does psychology determine moral principles?: a lot”, which led me to think it was going to be about whether ought implies can. In fact it is about research showing what anyone who teaches moral philosophy already knows, which is that people get confused the first time they encounter trolley-type problems:

For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses…..

Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.

Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know. In one study, subjects read a number of variations of the classic trolley dilemma: should you turn a runaway trolley away from five people and onto a track with only one? When flipping the switch was described as saving the people on the first track, subjects tended to support it. When it was described as killing someone on the second, they did not. Same situation, different answers.

I haven’t read the papers he refers to, but I’d be impressed if it established either of the claims he asserts toward the end of the article:

Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.

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Merry Christmas, Everybody.

by Harry on December 25, 2012

Its easy.
Just take 5 minutes to give what you can:
Oxfam USA

Then enjoy yourselves:

Dr Who Monopoly

by Harry on December 13, 2012

Everyone knows that next year is the 50th anniversary. In fact it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out the day after the far less significant 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination: a special is promised, though no details yet. The doctor is even, right now, on the cover of TV guide magazine though not, contra the inside story, for the first time: somewhere in a depths of my 16 year old’s bedroom is the TV guide from just before she was born with Paul McGann on the cover promoting the 1996 TV movie. (And the adorable Larry Hagman is relegated to the back cover—who, when JR was shot, would have imagined that when the real JR died he’d be upstaged by John Smith?) So I thought I’d poke around for a good present for the 16 year-old from her loving siblings and found….Monopoly: Dr. Who Edition 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition. Fantastic! (PS, don’t tell her, please).

Maternal Deprivation Studies at UW Madison

by Harry on December 13, 2012

Lori Gruen has had a post up for a while at New APPS, on the renewal of maternal deprivation research at UW Madison. Here is her description of what the researchers plan to do:

A psychiatry professor who has a distinguished record of research on anxiety disorders plans to separate more monkey babies from their mothers, leave them with wire “surrogates” covered in cloth (a practice developed by Harlow) to emulate “adverse early rearing conditions,” then pair them with another maternally deprived infant after 3-6 weeks of being alone. The infants will then be exposed to fearful conditions. The monkeys in this group and another group of young monkeys who will be reared with their mothers, will then be killed and their brains examined.

Here is the experimental protocol and here is a history of maternal deprivation studies at UW Madison, from a site established by critics of the research.

The protocol describes the value of the research as follows:

While numerous studies have been performed examining the effects of surrogate/peer in nonhuman primates, no studies have been performed examining the effects of this rearing modification on brain development using state of the art imaging and molecular methods. These efforts will allow us to identify the exact brain regions affected, the changes in gene function in these regions, and the specific genes that are involved increasing the early risk to develop anxiety and depression. Such information has the potential to identify new targets in specific brain regions that can lead to new ideas about treatment and even prevention of the long-term suffering associated with early adversity. For example, understanding the involvement of brain chemicals that have never before been implicated in anxiety, will allow the field to begin to search for medications that affect these newly identified systems. In addition, the molecular information, combined with the imaging data, may allow for interventions that target novel brain regions that are critically involved in anxiety and depression.

Part of me is very resistant to forgoing human benefits for the sake of non-human animals. The other part of me thinks that the more like a human being an animal is (and thus the more likely research on it is to be useful for the treatment of humans) the more likely it is that the animal has a high degree of moral status. And there can be no question that the monkeys will be caused psychological harm by this study, since the monkeys’ susceptibility to anxiety and distress is an integral part of the research. And while studies of this kind do differ from Harlow’s experiments involving total social isolation, they still seem spectacularly cruel.

The university seems to have been pretty unforthcoming about the research. A quick Google Search for “maternal deprivation UW Madison” shows the top hits as a page against the research by Alliance for Animals, a Madison-based animal rights group, a petition by Gruen to the UW Provost to stop the research, and another website hosted by Alliance for Animals that has a pledge for alumni to refrain from donating to UW until the maternal deprivation experiments are stopped. But I don’t see anything by UW. I’d be interested to know if anyone has seen more information. Or could offer a convincing defense.