Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
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Category archive: Education
That’s Bryan Caplan, complaining about something called the Human Development Index, in a piece entitled Against the Human Development Index.
Another Bit from a Book, and once again I accompany it with a warning that this Bit could vanish at any moment, for the reasons described in this earlier posting.
This particular Bit is from The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley (pp. 255-258):
Much as I love science for its own sake, I find it hard to argue that discovery necessarily precedes invention and that most new practical applications flow from the minting of esoteric insights by natural philosophers. Francis Bacon was the first to make the case that inventors are applying the work of discoverers, and that science is the father of invention. As the scientist Terence Kealey has observed, modern politicians are in thrall to Bacon. They believe that the recipe for making new ideas is easy: pour public money into science, which is a public good, because nobody will pay for the generation of ideas if the taxpayer does not, and watch new technologies emerge from the downstream end of the pipe. Trouble is, there are two false premises here: first, science is much more like the daughter than the mother of technology; and second, it does not follow that only the taxpayer will pay for ideas in science.
It used to be popular to argue that the European scientific revolution of the seventeenth century unleashed the rational curiosity of the educated classes, whose theories were then applied in the form of new technologies, which in turn allowed standards of living to rise. China, on this theory, somehow lacked this leap to scientific curiosity and philosophical discipline, so it failed to build on its technological lead. But history shows that this is back-to-front. Few of the inventions that made the industrial revolution owed anything to scientific theory.
It is, of course, true that England had a scientific revolution in the late 1600s, personified in people like Harvey, Hooke and Halley, not to mention Boyle, Petty and Newton, but their influence on what happened in England’s manufacturing industry in the following century was negligible. Newton had more influence on Voltaire than he did on James Hargreaves. The industry that was transformed first and most, cotton spinning and weaving, was of little interest to scientists and vice versa. The jennies, gins, frames, mules and looms that revolutionised the working of cotton were invented by tinkering businessmen, not thinking boffins: by ‘hard heads and clever fingers’. It has been said that nothing in their designs would have puzzled Archimedes.
Likewise, of the four men who made the biggest advances in the steam engine - Thomas Newcomen, James Watt, Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson - three were utterly ignorant of scientific theories, and historians disagree about whether the fourth, Watt, derived any influence from theory at all. It was they who made possible the theories of the vacuum and the laws of thermodynamics, not vice versa. Denis Papin, their French-born forerunner, was a scientist, but he got his insights from building an engine rather than the other way round. Heroic efforts by eighteenth-century scientists to prove that Newcomen got his chief insights from Papin’s theories proved wholly unsuccessful.
Throughout the industrial revolution, scientists were the beneficiaries of new technology, much more than they were the benefactors. Even at the famous Lunar Society, where the industrial entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood liked to rub shoulders with natural philosophers like Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley, he got his best idea - the ‘rose-turning’ lathe - from a fellow factory owner, Matthew Boulton. And although Benjamin Franklin’s fertile mind generated many inventions based on principles, from lightning rods to bifocal spectacles, none led to the founding of industries.
So top-down science played little part in the early years of the industrial revolution. In any case, English scientific virtuosity dries up at the key moment. Can you name a single great English scientific discovery of the first half of the eighteenth century? It was an especially barren time for natural philosophers, even in Britain. No, the industrial revolution was not sparked by some deus ex machina of scientific inspiration. Later science did contribute to the gathering pace of invention and the line between discovery and invention became increasingly blurred as the nineteenth century wore on. Thus only when the principles of electrical transmission were understood could the telegraph be perfected; once coal miners understood the succession of geological strata, they knew better where to sink new mines; once benzene’s ring structure was known, manufacturers could design dyes rather than serendipitously stumble on them. And so on. But even most of this was, in Joel Mokyr’s words, ‘a semi-directed, groping, bumbling process of trial and error by clever, dexterous professionals with a vague but gradually clearer notion of the processes at work’. It is a stretch to call most of this science, however. It is what happens today in the garages and cafes of Silicon Valley, but not in the labs of Stanford University.
The twentieth century, too, is replete with technologies that owe just as little to philosophy and to universities as the cotton industry did: flight, solid-state electronics, software. To which scientist would you give credit for the mobile telephone or the search engine or the blog? In a lecture on serendipity in 2007, the Cambridge physicist Sir Richard Friend, citing the example of high-temperature superconductivity - which was stumbled upon in the 1980s and explained afterwards - admitted that even today scientists’ job is really to come along and explain the empirical findings of technological tinkerers after they have discovered something.
The inescapable fact is that most technological change comes from attempts to improve existing technology. It happens on the shop floor among apprentices and mechanicals, or in the workplace among the users of computer programs, and only rarely as a result of the application and transfer of knowledge from the ivory towers of the intelligentsia. This is not to condemn science as useless. The seventeenth-century discoveries of gravity and the circulation of the blood were splendid additions to the sum of human knowledge. But they did less to raise standards of living than the cotton gin and the steam engine. And even the later stages of the industrial revolution are replete with examples of technologies that were developed in remarkable ignorance of why they worked. This was especially true in the biological world. Aspirin was curing headaches for more than a century before anybody had the faintest idea of how. Penicillin’s ability to kill bacteria was finally understood around the time bacteria learnt to defeat it. Lime juice was preventing scurvy centuries before the discovery of vitamin C. Food was being preserved by canning long before anybody had any germ theory to explain why it helped.
Being the Godfather of Goddaughter 2, who has just started out as a student at the Royal College of Music, is a bit costly, but it most definitely also has its privileges. Yesterday I was kindly allowed to sit in on one of GD2’s one-on-one lessons, and today I got to see (at no further cost) the first dress rehearsal for the College’s production of The Magic Flute. GD2 was not performing in The Magic Flute. She merely arranged for me and various others of her acquaintance to be there, and she watched it along with us. As did many other RCM students by the look and sound of things. GD2’s singing lesson was most encouraging, and the Magic Flute was terrific, truly terrific, reflecting huge credit on all the professionals named at the other end of the above link, who between them set the tone of it.
Michael Rosewell conducted stirringly, emphasising the menace as well as the grandeur and beauty of the music. Jean-Claude Auvray directed wonderfully, with lots of pertinent comic business. Ruari Murchison’s set was dominated by a big, black, modernistic wooden box, with big sliding hinged doors at the front, with little doors in them, and with more doors at the sides and the back. This moved the action along with minimal fuss. They could shut the big doors at the front and do a scene in front of them, while inside the closed box other cast members could then set up the next scene. Since so many of the scenes in this opera are contrivances by some of the characters within the drama, them opening the doors to reveal the next scene made perfect sense. The production reminded me, in its clarity and austerity, of the best sort of Shakespeare productions that I have seen.
The costumes were modern, in a way that illuminated the characters and the various stages their lives were going through, rather than in a way that stuffed Mozart’s story into a specifically different era and made an anachronistic nonsense of it. Mark Doubleday’s lighting emphasised the brightness and lightness of the final scenes, but in the meantime it emphasised what a dark and morally ambiguous story this is, ending up as it does with the hero and heroine joining a religious cult. Tamino and Pamina started out in jeans, then found themselves clad in pantomime hero and heroine costumes, and they ended up power-dressed, City-of-London Moonie/Mormon style, in matching grey suits with, in Pamina’s case, shoulder pads.
Mozart loved being a Freemason, but a modern audience can’t be so unreservedly happy about this particular happy ending. In many ways, this is a story about the triumph of religious fundamentalism over the forces of modernity and of female emancipation. There are numerous references to how women must subordinate themselves to men, with the only Queen involved being the Queen of the Night, the leader of the eventually defeated forces of modernity, individuality, and darkness. These anti-modern references became particularly chilling when spelt out in plain English, in the illuminated surtitles at the top of the stage.
The Three Ladies were dressed to kill at a Premier or a Charity Fundraiser, but not in uniforms, rather as three individuals. The Three Boys, on the opposite side of the conflict from the Three Ladies, were all dressed identically, like Mrs Krankie, being also ladies underneath their boy costumes. All six acted and sang splendidly, individually and as teams.
As for the singing generally, only Sarastro, the leader of the ultimately triumphant cult, needed to be granted a little slack. It was absolutely not his fault that although most of his singing was fine, his voice lacked that final ounce of basso profundity required for those fearsome low notes. This was the one time when you wanted to be hearing one of the half dozen, or however many it is, aging-giant Sarastro super-specialists who roam the earth, bestowing their show-stealing low notes upon rich opera audiences everywhere. But this Sarastro acted very convincingly, especially given that he had less help from his grey suit of a costume than I presume most other Sarastros tend to get, and not much help either from his relatively short stature. Being the one black man on view, on the other hand, meant that he was instantly recognisable. (I want to hear this guy singing other things.) As for everyone else, terrific. This was the first time I have actually seen The Magic Flute on a stage, and I can’t imagine a better introduction. GD2’s mother, who has seen other non-student productions, reckoned this one to be the best. Yes, really.
The biggest round of applause came at the end for the entire cast, and quite right too. But the Queen of the Night got the second biggest ovation for her famously spectacular and difficult aria, and thoroughly earned it. Sensational. Watch out for her. Papagena also stole every scene she was in, although I didn’t get her name. (Maybe I can later add a link for her too.) Papageno handled his various musical instruments with particular aplomb.
But better than any individual excellence on show was the general air of sincerity, enthusiasm and esprit de corps. As the lady teacher said at the end of GD2’s lesson yesterday, opera has changed from the days when all you had to do was stand there and sing. You have to be able to sing and act, and often to sing in very demanding circumstances. You may have to “sing with your legs in the air” was how GD2’s teacher put it yesterday. There was nothing like that on the stage today, but the director did demand lots of acting of a less undignified sort, and got it in abundance. The show came alive from the first minute, and stayed alive throughout. These young singers are being very well prepared for the sort of careers that most of them will surely have.
I’m looking forward to more RCM dress rehearsals, and hope one day soon to be seeing GD2 in one of them. I am reluctant to enthuse too much about her prospects. Just to say that her voice sounds like a pretty fine one to me, that her teachers and fellow students seem to agree about that, and that she seems to be working hard at learning how to make the best use of it. But, as yesterday’s teacher said, there are a lot of circumstances - some of which you can surely imagine and many of which you can hardly begin to imagine unless you also know one of these singers yourself - that can derail a classical singing career. So, fingers crossed.
A new student accommodation building is currently being erected on the far side of Westminster Bridge from me, i.e. next to the equally rotund hotel in the middle of the roundabout there.
There is a rule in architecture (which I just made up), which says that if you build a very big and very boring lump, but put another very big and very boring lump of the same shape next to it, the result can be quite pleasing. Think Twin Towers. They seem to be following this rule here.
I have been photoing the erection of this erection ever since erection began. Here are two of my latest snaps of it, taken last Friday. The picture on the right was taken from right next to the little roadside sign that you see on the bottom right of the picture on the left.
It’s hard not to interpret that two dimensional picture as three dimensional, I think you will agree. After all, the real building above the sign is also only a picture, in my pictures, and that looks suitably three dimensional, even though, in my pictures, it is actually every bit as flat as that sign is.
Subtitle for the photo above left: This is not a building. Subtitle for the photo above right: These are not buildings.
During a discussion on Radio 3’s Music Matters at lunchtime today, about whether knowledge of classical music is necessary for the enjoyment of classical music, noted baritone singer Sir Thomas Allen mentioned that Luciano Pavarotti could not read music. During recordings, said Allen, someone used to stand behind Pavarotti and quietly hum his notes for him, to make sure he got them right.
However, when Pavarotti himself was challenged about this, he denied it:
In an interview in 2005 with Jeremy Paxman on the BBC, Pavarotti rejected the allegation that he could not read music, although acknowledging he sometimes had difficulty following orchestral parts.
I’m guessing that what is at stake here is the difference between being able to read music after a fashion, and being able to read it fluently and with utter confidence that one is getting it absolutely right every time. Sort of like the difference between having to spell out lots of the rather harder words, and just reading.
When I played the flute at school (until I gave it up and just became a classical fan) I had, by the sound of it, even greater difficulty reading music than Pavarotti did. But even so, this makes me feel much better.
Allen also said that Mirella Freni (a soprano about as noted as Allen himself) was the same.
Earlier this evening I attended a talk given by Michael Jennings at the Rose and Crown in Southwark. Read Michael’s background briefing about the things he talked about further this evening, either here, or here.
I have friends who seem to revel in having their photos taken, but Michael is not one of them. He entirely lacks vanity, and tends, when being photoed, to have the look of a man worrying about how bad he fears he will look in the photo. So it was that, having earlier been asked for a photo of Michael by Simon Gibbs, the organiser of the meeting, I was only able quickly to find one that was remotely good enough. (You can see it at the other end of the second of the above links.) This evening I made a particular effort to correct this, and here is one of the better shots that I took of Michael this evening:
The most dramatic moment in the evening came when the Putin-echoing stooge Russian lady in the audience (there always seem to be one such stooge at any public event mentioning Russia and its current policies) tangled with Michael on the subject of Poland. Why were the Poles so paranoid about Russia and so keen to join NATO?
Michael replied with a short history lesson that was brief, and crushing. Nazi-Soviet Pact. (The stooge later denied that this had even happened, so Michael later told me.) Katyn Massacre. Warsaw Uprising. (Stalin parked the Red Army outside Warsaw and let the Nazis crush it.) An imposed Communist government, that the Poles would never have chosen for themselves, for the next half century. Final sentence, something like: “If fearing Russia after all that means you are paranoid, then yes, I guess the Poles are paranoid.” Applause. With any luck, this little interchange will be viewable on video, along with the talk itself of course.
Earlier, the lady stooge had waxed eloquent to me, in the socialising period before the talk, about the superiority of Russian education over English education. She had a point. Russian children are indeed made to work far harder at their lessons than English children are these days. But what if the lessons they learn are a pack of lies?
See also this, recently at Samizdata.
On a happier note, I harvested several names and emails of various young, clever libertarians to add to my Brian’s Last Fridays list. A couple of them being, so it seemed to me, of exceptional promise. (I hope that doesn’t sound patronising.) I was particularly impressed by this guy.
Taking the first question first: is it practise or practice?
This is the kind of question that, in the days before the www, used to rattle about inside several million heads for decades on end. As it so happens, it did so rattle in mine. But for a decade and more now, such questions could and can be answered, and today I answered this question for myself, by finding my way, very quickly, pretty much as soon as I started trying, to this site. I’d been meaning to do this for a long time. Today, I did. What it says at the other end of that link, assuming I read it right, is that practice is the noun and practise is the verb, as with advice and advise. I know, you knew that. I must be an uneducated pillock not to know it. But, although in many ways not an uneducated pillock, I was for many decades just that, in this particular way. Besides which, the essence of educatedness is not mere knowledge, it is knowing that one needs to acquire this or that further item of further knowledge, and if far later than is dignified, well so be it.
I’m not saying that this answer is correct. I’m just saying that from now on, this is the answer I will try to apply whenever the practice/practise dilemma presents itself to me.
Moving on to the question in the brackets above. Answer: no. The site where I found this answer (right or wrong) is called “Future Perfect”, and its subtitle is “Improving Written Communications”. Like, that’s all it would take to make the future perfect. I do not believe this. I get it. Future perfect is also a piece of grammar, and grammar is (along with spelling) one of the things this place is about. Ho ho. But, future perfect?
Perfect communication could just mean perfectly expressed abuse. Remember that fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide, which enabled everyone to communicate perfectly with everyone else, and which started terrible wars, because now everyone could understood everyone else’s insults. Perfect communication is indeed, maybe, part of the perfect future, but saying perfectly nice things is also an important part of perfection, I would say. And that’s quite aside from the fact that actual perfection would also be terrible, for other reasons.
Just about to go to bed following a very satisfactory Last Friday meeting, addressed by Priya Dutta, on the subject of education and libertarianism. Priya, many thanks for an excellent talk, and for attracting such a large and intelligent throng to listen to it. Although I don’t want to definitely promise anything, I will try to say something more about what you said than that, Real Soon Now. But right now, I am too tired to attempt anything.
Something I often forget to do at these things is take photos, probably because the photos I take are usually not very good. Tonight, Rob Fisher took photos, and I of course photoed him doing this ...:
... and then I took other photos. But the really good news is that Rob’s camera is much better than mine, especially in bad light. He has promised to send me his best, and I look forward to seeing what he got.
For something rather more substantial from me, about libertarianism if not about education, try this recent Samizdata posting.
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
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
Thin picture redirection
“At that moment I suddenly started to view Nagi as an enemy …”
“How much better …?”
Breaking the Left’s stranglehold on the moving image
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
BrianMicklethwait.com 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
Never so much fun again
The Million Dollar Homepage
I don’t know the score
Organised games as a way to control boys
A little education blogging
Dennis O’Keeffe on truancy