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Monday, September 28, 2009

Old fogey status confirmed...

Today, I am forty... (pause for gnashing of teeth). A delightful vignette in the office this morning confirms just how out of touch I am. In a brief office conversation about YouTube, I mentioned the current Internet meme of mash-ups involving Kanye West.

I had read in the traditional print media about West interrupting the recent MTV event and then noticed references to it becoming a meme (like Star Wars Kid, Rick Astley and many others before) in some of my RSS feeds this morning.

Unfortunately, I pronounced his name as Kayne as is "Cane" not Kanye as in "Cahn-yay". This was enough to send one of my young colleagues into red faced paroxysms of delight at just how out of touch I am.

The thing is, I have never knowingly heard Mr. West's name spoken out loud. I have simply read it. My mind decided not to recognise the reversal of the "Y" and the "N" in his name in favour of a more plausible (in my head at least) mispelling of Abel's brother's name.

I could complain at this stage that life would be a whole lot easier if people learned to spell and stopped making up words. But it has been ever thus and it is one of the functions of language to separate the wheat from the chaffe, the "in" from the "out" and the young from the old. Many pronunciations of English names and places (Featherstonehaugh: pronounced Fanshaw; Cholmondeley: pronounced Chumly except where it is pronounced Cholmondeley; Loughborough pronounced Luffbra) are deliberate traps for the unwary to highlight the fact that you are either foreign, uneducated or worse "middle class"; depending on your prejudice.

Anyway Kanye's name did its job. It identified me as one of the uninitiated.

This made me think about my learning. Much of my receptive processes are written. I read more than I watch or listen. But when trying out new ideas I will discuss them or write about them as in this blog. This practice, to become useful, must feel safe and indeed the creation of a safe learning environment is one of the cornerstones of a good teacher's art.

Fortunately, I have developed a fairly thick skin in my four decades on this earth and I am happy to be laughed at occasionally. I will not forget Mr West's name in a hurry nor yet will the shame of my mistake prevent me from talking or wrtiting about things that I don't entirely understand.

But it does offer me an insight into why this might be difficult for other people. For people who are still sensitive to the opinions of others the internet and the world of informal learning might resemble less a quasi-infinite candy sore of ideas and opportunity and more a place of almost infinite opportunities for self-embarassment

Monday, September 14, 2009

The information foxtrot

On Saturday I managed to lose my blackberry. In the past this would have been cause for something akin to panic. OMG there goes my life.!! Not just the address book which I have built up over the years but also the photographs of my daughter I took whilst we were on holiday.

This time no such thing. Most of my contacts are in linkedin or Facebook, my photographs are mostly uploaded to Picasa, my emails are all still waiting for me at work and the phone itself is being replaced by the insurance I didn't know I had (nice to know you can insure yourself against stupidity...)

All of this is lovely and so far so web 2.0...

But the thing that struck me most was the joy of being inaccessible and the things I didn't do whilst deprived of my technological worry bead substitute.

Over the weekend and this morning I didn't read any news I wasn't interested in on the BBC website whilst I was ostensibly doing something else; I didn't absent mindedly check for emails or texts at least 30 times in the day; I didn't play WordMole or FreeRice whilst waiting for something else; I didn't zone out in the middle of a conversation to check a fact on Google; I didn't visit Facebook; I didn't send any text messages when I could have talked to someone.

What did I do?

I took my daughter out on her bicycle and then to the cinema. I watched the last night of the proms on TV when my daughter was in bed. I read a book. I talked to family and friends. I painted with my daughter (her grandmother has bought her oil paints so help me!). I cooked dinner for a neighbour. I thought about stuff.

Then I came to work this morning (reading a book on the way) and checked my RSS feeds and then my emails and the world hadn't ended. I didn't have the courage to leave my phone behind when I went on holiday and yet when it was removed from me I loved it.

I think there is something in this alternation of pace of information (a bit like the slow food movement). Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow (for those of you who wondered about the title)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Summer musings

The new term is upon us and over the next few days another generation of children will be asked to write about what they did on their summer holidays. I thought I'd reflect upon some of the things I thought about on my summer holidays.

I devoured Naseem Nicholas Taleb's book, "The Black Swan" which really made me think. He takes a prolonged pop at historians, much of which is justified, given that it is easy to find patterns retrospectively if you are looking for them. Indeed the subtitle of his book could be, "post hoc ergo propter hoc", which as well as being the title of an excellent episode of the West Wing highlights the popular misconception that when one event follows another the latter is caused by the former (a new CEO is hired and the company stock price goes up = excellent CEO). More often than not there is no link and the latter event is mere accident.

I don't share his contempt for history because I don't think the purpose of history is one of finding causation or explaining why something happened. Although students who had to explain the origins of the first world war in their exams this year may be surprised at this. I think the discipline of history is in weighing evidence, trying to understand humans and deciding how much credibility to give to any particular account. The value is in asking why someone took this or that particular view of any event and this sits quite well with the empirical skepticism that Taleb encourages.

History is in a constant state of refurbishment. Note the contrasting comments by the Polish President and Russian Prime Minister at the recent events to commemorate the outbreak of the second world war also the disclosure of documents pertaining to the release of the Lockerbie bomber by the British and Libyan governments both appear to be attempts to rewrite history on the fly and then ask yourself is it possible that they are all correct? Although the content of what is said is interesting, it is often more interesting to ask why they might be saying this or that.

I enjoyed Christopher Brookmyre's latest book Pandaemonium which manages to contain the best explanantion of string theory that my simple mind has ever managed to hold, an examination of the role of faith and an understanding of teenage angst all within a comic thriller (who would have thought that possible?)

Thank you to those who commented on my blog about the lessons I learned from my late wife, Jelena. As I continue to reflect upon the time we spent together, I am sure I will learn more. I am learning the hard way but talking about the pain and loss clearly leads, albeit slowly, to healing.

And once again I was staggered by the capacity to learn of the young as I watched my daughter learn to swim in two weeks.