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Category archive: Education

Saturday October 22 2016

Well, for some, maybe they are.  But not for many.  Like I said, they’re a business.

Further evidence: University of North Dakota Offers Class on Starting Your Own Drone Business.

Further confirmation.  My TV screen takes a while to warm up, so I often leave it on and just switch off the sound.  And a moment ago, while listening to the radio, I was also watching daytime TV silently selling quite complicated looking drones at giveaway prices.  A lot of money got poured into these things, to sell at around five hundred quid, in the highstreet, to people, to play around with.  But these drones were today on sale for less than fifty.  As individual things to have, they just haven’t caught on.

See also: 3D printers.  Also not toys.

Saturday October 15 2016

I’ve already given you Rod Green’s Dangereuse.  Here’s another, longer bit from his book about Magna Carta, a bit which he entitled “Boys and Men” (pp. 61-66) I was especially struck by the part near the end, about people who could pronounce Latin words but who didn’t know what they meant.  Sounds horribly familiar:

Not so long ago, it was widely assumed that the concept of “childhood” simply didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. The view was that the kind of life led by a modern child - where good health, play and education experienced as part of a loving family environment is seen as the norm - was in stark contrast to the lives of children 800 years ago, who were treated as a burden to be tolerated until they were old enough to be of some use.

Recent research, however, shows that this may not have been entirely the case. Studies of toys from the period have shown that children were encouraged to play. The toys may have been homemade in many cases, but models of mounted knights made out of metal would have been bought or specially commissioned, showing that some parents cared enough about their children’s play time to lavish gifts on them.

Children do not feature prominently in illustrated manuscripts, paintings or tapestries doing anything more than emulating their parents, but in some cases they can be seen playing games like tag or “king of the castle” and riding on hobby-horses. They were, it seems, encouraged to play and enjoy an active childhood, although their lives were set on a predetermined course at an early age.

In the early thirteenth century, a child surviving the first year of life had a reasonable chance of fighting off disease long enough to acquire the strength needed to survive in the harsh and unhygienic medieval world. In fact, 25 per cent of those born to wealthy parents and up to 50 per cent of those born to the poor did not. A whole host of infectious
diseases for which we now have myriad names would then simply have been classed as “fever” or “food poisoning”.  Life expectancy was only around 30 years, although anyone from the ruling classes who made it, strong and healthy, to the age of 21, might well have had another 40 years to look forward to.  In the fourteenth century, the Black Death was to reduce life expectancy dramatically.

In the days of King John, however, a fit young boy born into a noble family could expect to live in his parents’ grand house or castle until he was about seven years old.  He would then be sent off to live in another castle, most likely in the house of a nobleman a rung or two up the feudal ladder from his own parents, perhaps even in one of the king’s
own residences.

Here he would serve first as a page, running errands and generally waiting on the lords and ladies of the household.  However, he would also learn how a large house functioned and how people interacted with one another, as well as learning about customs and proper manners. He might also be taught how to read and understand Latin and, if it were not already his native tongue, the version of French spoken by the Norman nobility.

A young boy would also learn how to ride and, if he showed promise, he might, when he was around 14 years old, become apprenticed to a knight as a squire. They had to train hard to learn the art of combat, which included lifting heavy stones to build muscle, throwing the javelin, fighting with a quarterstaff, archery, wrestling, acrobatics and sword fighting.  Swordsmanship was taught using a blunted sword and a buckler, a small shield the size of a pot lid. This trained the would-be knight how to parry sword thrusts and how to use his shield as an offensive weapon without the novice having to start off with a full-sized, cumbersome shield. Similarly, the blunted sword was used against heavily padded protective layers, although the dull blade could still inflict painful wounds.

The squire would learn how to clean and prepare the knight’s armour and weapons, although major repairs had to be undertaken by a blacksmith or armourer.  He would also need to help his knight put on his armour, which meant more than simply helping him to dress - the various elements of the heavy steel all had to be strapped into place in the correct sequence to make sure that they overlapped and allowed for movement in the right way.

This, of course, meant that the squire went with his knight to compete in tournaments. He would eventually get the chance to compete in his own right, even before he became a knight, as there were special contests organized solely for squires.

Whether a squire lived in his knight’s house, or whether he lived in a baron’s castle where landless knights also lived as part of the baron’s permanent military force, he would have regular chores to perform, which would include acting as a servant when his masters sat down to eat.  Squires were expected, for example, to learn the correct way to carve meat at the table.

The squire’s apprenticeship would last until he was around 21 years of age, at which point he might expect to be knighted himself. However, he might want to avoid that happening - a squire could be made a knight either by his local lord or by the king, but it wasn’t an honour that everyone could afford. The squire’s family, whom he may have visited only a couple of times a year since he was sent away as a seven-year-old, would have to pay for the costly armour, weapons and warhorse that a knight required, as well as funding any forays he might make to tournaments far and wide. Being a knight could be prohibitively expensive, especially if a second, third or fourth son, who might not inherit any part of his father’s estate when he died (the bulk of property often being bequeathed to the first-born).

Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, there was a growing “middle class” of merchants, tradesmen and professionals, particularly in the new cities and busy ports.  Trade with continental Europe had expanded enormously since the Norman Conquest, although Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurs are known to have traded extensively with partners as far away as Russia. Clauses 41 and 42 of Magna Carta make special mention of such merchants.

The son of a merchant would live an entirely different life from that of a boy born into the nobility. From a very young age, he would learn about the family business, in order to play a full part as soon as he was old enough. A boy might also become apprenticed to another merchant or tradesman, a privilege for which his family would have to pay, and be sent away from home to live with his new master.

Merchants, especially those dealing in foreign trade, had to be able to speak and read Latin, which was the international language of commerce, the legal profession and the Church. The sons of the middle classes learned Latin either through private tuition or at one of the new schools that were beginning to appear.

Merchants donated money to set up schools in the most important trading towns and boys would be sent to school to learn arithmetic and Latin grammar, the institutions becoming known as grammar schools. The schools were allied to a particular trade, making them private schools, although fee-paying schools would later be established that were open to anyone who could pay, such establishments being termed “public” schools.

There would have been few if any books in schools.  These were hugely expensive, hand-written items - the first printed books didn’t begin appearing until the mid-fifteenth century. Boys learned their lessons verbally, repeating their Latin phrases time and time again, and earning themselves a beating if they got anything wrong.

Some might learn mathematics or become proficient in the use of an abacus, but few would continue their formal education beyond a basic level or contemplate attending one of the new universities.

As the oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford University had been growing in stature since the latter part of the eleventh century and the colleges of Cambridge University can trace their history back to around the same time.

Peasants, still by far and away the largest portion of the population, could not afford to send their sons to school.  A peasant boy was expected to do chores as soon as he was old enough to learn how to feed chickens or help to herd livestock. When he was strong enough, he would help with the back-breaking work in the fields and perhaps spend some time working in the local landowner’s house or castle, if such was required by the terms of his family’s tenure.

The Church played a major role in everyone’s lives and even the most lowly peasants attended church on a regular basis.  However, all services were conducted in Latin, so most people couldn’t understand what was being said - sometimes not even the priest.  Despite being the most educated man in the village, while the priest might be able to pronounce written Latin, the chances are he did not understand it.  For a lucky few, a well-educated priest might teach boys how to read, but even as late as the fourteenth century it has been estimated that 8 out of 10 adults in England were unable even to spell their own names.

Saturday October 01 2016

The Evolution of Everything, pp. 181-184:

Evolutionary reform of education is happening. James Tooley, Professor of Education at Newcastle University, has catalogued - ‘discovered’ might be a better word - the fact that the poorest slums of cities, and the remotest villages, in countries such as India, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and even China abound in low-cost private schools. He first began studying this phenomenon for the World Bank in 2000 in Hyderabad in India, and has more recently followed it through Africa. In the cramped and sewage-infested slums of the old city of Hyderabad he stumbled upon an association of five hundred private schools catering to the poor. In one of them, the Peace High School, he found doorless classrooms with unglazed windows and stained walls, where children of rickshaw-pullers and day labourers paid sixty to a hundred rupees a month (about 90p-£1.50), depending on age, for their education. Yet the quality of the education was impressive. In another, St Maaz High School, he found a charismatic head teacher with mathematical flair who in twenty years had built up a school with nearly a thousand students, taught by a group of largely unqualified (but often graduate) teachers, on three rented sites, from which he made a reasonable profit. State schools existed, with state-certificated teachers in them, but many of Hyderabad’s parents were exasperated by the poor quality of the education they provided, and many of the private-school teachers were exasperated by the poor quality of the teacher training. ‘Government teacher training,’ one told Tooley, ‘is like learning to swim without ever going near a swimming pool.’

When Tooley told these stories to his colleagues at the World Bank, he was told that he had uncovered examples of businessmen ripping off the poor, or that most of the private schools were creaming off the wealthier parents in a district, which was bad for those left behind. But this proved demonstrably untrue: the Peace High School in Hyderabad gave concessions, or even free tuition, to the children of extremely poor and illiterate people: one parent was a cleaner in a mosque earning less than £10 a month. Why would such people send their children to private schools rather than to the free state schools, which provided uniforms, books and even some free food? Because, Tooley was told by parents, in the state schools teachers did not show up, or taught badly when they did. He visited some state schools and confirmed the truth of these allegations.

Tooley soon realised that the existence of these low-cost private schools in poor neighbourhoods was not unknown, but that it was largely ignored by the establishment, which continued to argue that only an expansion of state education could help the poor. The inadequate state of public education in low-income countries is well recognised; but the answer that everybody agrees on is more money, rather than a different approach. Amartya Sen, for instance, called for more government spending and dismissed private education as the preserve of the elite, while elsewhere in the same paper admitting that the poor were increasingly sending their children to private schools, ‘especially in areas where public schools are in bad shape’. This bad shape, he thought, was due to the siphoning off of the vocal middle classes by private schools - rather than the fact that teachers were accountable to bureaucrats, and not to parents. Yet the poor were deserting the state sector at least as much as the middle class. The lesson that schooling can be encouraged to emerge from below was ignored in favour of the theory that it must be imposed from above.

India was just the start for Tooley. He visited country after country, always being assured that there were no low-cost private schools there, always finding the opposite. In Ghana he found a teacher who had built up a school with four branches teaching 3,400 children, charging $50 a term, with scholarships for those who could not afford it. In Somaliland he found a city with no water supply, paved roads or street lights, but two private schools for every state one. In Lagos, where government officials and the representatives of Western aid agencies all but denied the existence of low-cost private schools, he found that 75 per cent of all schoolchildren in the poor areas of Lagos state were in private schools, many not registered with the government. In all the areas he visited, both urban and rural, in India and Africa, Tooley found that low-cost private schools enrolled more students than state schools, and that people were spending 5-10 per cent of their earnings on educating their children. When he asked a British government aid agency official why his agency could not consider supporting these schools with loans instead of pouring money into the official educational bureaucracy in Ghana, he was told that money could not go to for-profit institutions.

Suppose you are the parent of a child in a Lagos slum. The teacher at the school she attends is often absent, frequently asleep during lessons, and provides a poor standard when awake. This being a public-sector school, however, withdrawing your child goes unnoticed. Your only other redress is to complain to the teacher’s boss, who is a distant official in a part of the city you do not often visit; or you can wait for the next election and vote for a politician who will appoint officials who will do a better job of sending inspectors to check on the attendance and quality of teachers, and then do something about it. Good luck with that. A World Bank report cited by Tooley states despairingly that pay-for-performance cannot work in public-sector schools, and ‘dysfunctional bureaucracies cascade into a morass of corruption, as upward payments from those at lower levels buy good assignments or ratings from superiors’.

If your teacher is in a private, for-profit school, however, and you withdraw your child, then the owner of the school will quickly feel the effect in his pocket, and the bad teacher will be fired. In a free system the parent, the consumer, is the boss. Tooley found that private-school proprietors constantly monitor their teachers and follow up parents’ complaints. His team visited classrooms in various parts of India and Africa, and found teachers actually teaching in fewer of the government classrooms they visited than in private classrooms – sometimes little more than half as many.  Despite having no public funds or aid money, the unrecognised private schools had better facilities such as toilets, electricity and blackboards.  Their pupils also get better results, especially in English and mathematics.

Wednesday June 01 2016

Libertarian Home needs an intro for Mark Littlewood, for a publication they’re doing.  Here is a quick profile of Littlewood by me, which I hope may be of some use to LH.

imageMark Littlewood is the Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs.  There was a time, not so long ago, when the IEA seemed doomed to obscurity or worse.  But Littlewood has put in place and now leads a strong team of free market activists, strong on both the academic and media fronts, thus raising the profile of free market ideas both now and in the longer term future.

That may suffice, but here is more, if needed, of a slightly more personal sort.

Of particular note is Littlewood’s appointment of Stephen Davies and Christiana Hambro, in the area of student and young academic outreach. (Stephen Davies addressed Libertarian Home not long after his IEA appointment.)

When Littlewood was first appointed, I was not optimistic about the IEA, but then I heard him speak about his new job, and I became much more hopeful about the IEA’s future.  That optimism has not abated.

Hope that helps and is not too late.

Friday March 25 2016

Guido links to a piece in GQ about Seumas Milne, and Guido picks out this bit:

Former colleagues reveal how, despite his slight figure, Milne had a remarkable habit of refusing to give way in corridors. Over several years, his fellow journalists grew tired of his insistence that oncoming co-workers make way for him. Eventually, one snapped, telling his desk, “I’m not going to do it again. Next time he plays chicken with me, I’m not going to get out of the way.” The whole office waited for the inevitable confrontation. Soon enough, it happened. As Milne walked down a corridor, the six-foot colleague approached from the other direction. They smashed into each other, sending Milne flying, along with the papers he was carrying. “Seumas was in shock,” recalls an onlooker. “No one had ever done that to him before. He expected people to show deference to him.

I still remember a collision of this sort, half a century ago now, that I once inflicted upon an equally impolite person, when we were both at Marlborough.  The IP was in the habit of pulling rank on me when we were walking in opposite directions along a certain very narrow footpath, the IP making no effort whatsoever to in any way get out of my way, me having to do all the avoiding.  So, one day, I didn’t do any avoiding, and me being shorter than him, I walked my head straight into his chin.  I knew the collision was coming but he didn’t, so he got the worst of it.  Nothing he could say or do, no matter how vehement, was going to change the fact that he got what he deserved and that we both knew it.

It’s amazing how much of the trouble in the world is caused by male human animals disagreeing with one another about their relative importance in the world.

Monday March 07 2016

Yes, I’ve been continuing to photo taxis with adverts.  Here are half a dozen of the most recent such snaps.

First up, further proof, if you need it, that the internet has not abolished television.  People still like to be passively entertained, surprise surprise.  But the internet is in the process of swallowing television, so that they end up being the same thing:


Next, become an accountant!  Note how they include the word “taxi” in the advertised website, presumably to see whether advertising on taxis is worth it.  Note to LSBF: I have no plans to become an accountant.

Note also the Big Things picture of London, something I always like to show pictures of here, and note also how out of date this picture is.  No Cheesegrater, for a start:


Next up, a taxi advertising a book. I do not remember seeing this before, although I’m sure it has happened before:


Next, Discover America.  I thought it already had been:


Visit a beach.  I didn’t crop this photo at all, because I like how I tracked the taxi and its advert, and got the background all blurry, and I want you to see all that blurriness.  Nice contrast between that and the bright colours of the advert.  A little bit of summer in the grey old February of London:


Finally, a snap I took last night, in the Earls Court area.  And now we’re back in the exciting world of accountancy, this time in the form of its Beautiful accounting software:


As you can see, it was pitch dark by the time I took this.  But give my Lumix FZ200 even a sliver of artificial light and something solid to focus on, and it does okay, I think.  A decade ago, that photo would have been an unusable mess.

I am finding that taxi advertising changes very fast these days.  All of the above photos, apart from the one with the beaches, was of an advert I had not noticed before.

Which means that in future years, these taxi photos will have period value, because the adverts will have changed over and over again with the passing of only a handful of years.

Saturday February 27 2016


Six years ago I submitted a paper for a panel, “On the Absence of Absences” that was to be part of an academic conference later that year - in August 2010. Then, and now, I had no idea what the phrase “absence of absences” meant. The description provided by the panel organizers, printed below, did not help. The summary, or abstract of the proposed paper - was pure gibberish, as you can see below. I tried, as best I could within the limits of my own vocabulary, to write something that had many big words but which made no sense whatsoever. I not only wanted to see if I could fool the panel organizers and get my paper accepted, I also wanted to pull the curtain on the absurd pretentions of some segments of academic life. To my astonishment, the two panel organizers - both American sociologists - accepted my proposal and invited me to join them at the annual international conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science to be held that year in Tokyo.

I wonder what Hemingway would have made of “On the Absence of Absences”.  (Hemingway, for those not inclined to follow links, is a programme to make your writing clearer.)

Presumably someone has also written a program which churns out this kind of drivel automatically.  Google google.


The creators of the automatic nonsense generator, Jeremy Stribling, Dan Aguayo and Maxwell Krohn, have made the SCIgen program free to download. And scientists have been using it in their droves.

At the moment, this sort of drivel just marches on.  This is because people who oppose the drivel have to convince the drivellers to stop, which is hard.  And, being opposed to drivel, they usually have better things to do with their time.  The trick is somehow to reverse the burden of proof, to put the drivellers in the position, en masse, of having to convince the rest of us that their drivel is not drivel.  At that point, they find that they have no friends, only public contempt.  Everybody, including them, thinks that it is drivel.  And nobody thinks it worth bothering to even try to prove otherwise.

Thursday January 28 2016

This is weird.  When I did a posting at Samizdata called My 2015 in pictures, I intended to include a picture I took of one of my meetings last year, the one at which Aiden Gregg spoke.  But, although I talked about it, I didn’t actually include the picture.  Rather humiliatingly, nobody noticed, or if they did notice, they didn’t care, or if they did care, not enough to complain.

So here is that picture:


I have also added it to that Samizdata posting, which absolutely nobody at all will notice.  But, get it right, eh?

I think I got this picture by standing on a chair.

I mention all this now because I have another of these meetings, the first of this year, tomorrow evening.  Speaker: Professor Tim Evans (also mentioned in that Samizdata posting), talking about Jeremy Corbyn and all that.  Turnout looks like being just right, with the room comfortably as opposed to uncomfortably full.  Luckily the seating arrangements have been improving.

Here, for good measure, is the photo I took of Tim when he gave his Inaugural Professional Lecture at Middlesex University, last summer, and which was also included in that Samizdata posting:


Not being accustomed to the ways of Academe, that get-up makes Tim look, to me, like he is in a very trad production of Wagner’s Mastersingers.

The first Brian’s Friday of the year tomorrow evening
How things like 3D printed blood vessels may be improving education in rich countries
Simon Gibbs on computer programming - me on how Alex Singleton has not written himself out of a job
Matt Ridley on Epicurus and Lucretius
Peter Foster on Robert Owen
If you take a walk naked you need to know your way back
A day in BMdotcom heaven (2): Surrey v Notts was played in front of a live studio audience
Scandinavia comes out on top according to the HDI …
Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science
The Magic Flute at the RCM
Photographed flatness that doesn’t look flat
Pavarotti could not read music (very well)
Michael Jennings at the Rose and Crown
Is it practise or practice?  (And: would perfect communication actually be perfect?)
Rob took photos
Happy Friday (eventually)
London Postcode Puzzle
Australian cricket is doomed! - or maybe not
Pictures of LLFF2013
Better a year late than never
University of California chickens coming home to roost?
James Tooley discovers private schools for the poor in the slums of Hyderabad
Liberty League Conference speakers
More pictures from the James Tooley lecture yesterday
Knowing it but not knowing it
Mozart might have become a criminal
Richard Dawkins on university debating games
James Waterton on a very smart very dumb Russian
Greenies make a video saying: “We’re a bunch of vile greenie-nazis!”
“Is this a case of us operant-conditioning them or them operant-conditioning us?”
Talking with Toby Baxendale
How technology has improved detention
MBA - necessary but insufficient
Brian Micklethwait’s Education Blog is now on indefinite hold
A question at Samizdata
The prevention threat
Some family education blogging
Party pieces
A poetic Hornby
Today I have been blogging elsewhere and also doing other things
A blogger mutates towards being a journalist
Educating Small Boy and Smart Boy
Busy elsewhere again
Education education education education
Flat horse pictures
Otherwise engaged
Thin picture redirection
“At that moment I suddenly started to view Nagi as an enemy …”
Finally …
“How much better …?”
Breaking the Left’s stranglehold on the moving image
More roboteaching
An education link
Struggling Actress quote of the day
Robots will transform education
Lib Dems edge towards school choice
“It’s going to be very exciting to see what young people come up with when they reject college”
Back from the dead and soon to be duplicated
Adriana and Ivan in Addis
Antoine Clarke on the French National Assembly elections
Lots of links
Don’t be a physics teacher
Is the internet replacing higher education?
How compulsion deranges the spreading of ideas
Cats can be taught!
He likes it - but does he understand it?
“I already knew most of what they were to try and teach me …”
Does the internet change education?
Indexed - blogrolled
Big ships quote of the day
How I became a One Minute Crap Manager
Home education is cheating!
Thoughts on the Age of Google
What to do about intrusive mobile phones
Roll playing
Never so much fun again
Ace Academician
The Million Dollar Homepage
I don’t know the score
Organised games as a way to control boys
Phonic Googling
Good news
A little education blogging
Dennis O’Keeffe on truancy