Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Cuttings: June 2016

Simon Cowell wants to write a children’s book? Here’s what will give it the X Factor - article by Michael Rosen in The Guardian. "Simon Cowell has announced a new venture: he is going to write a children’s book.... What tips can I offer...?... You need to translate your own personal experience into your chosen format. Maybe the animals in the wood are arguing about who can make the best noises – the mouse squeaks, the crow caws, the weasel squeals – they can’t decide who is the winner. Unbeknownst to them, while they were arguing, Simon the Fox was listening. Up he pops and says, 'Why don’t I be the judge, and whoever is the best will come to my palace for a meal?' 'Yes!' say the animals, and one by one they stand in front of Simon and make their noises. Simon chooses one of them and takes them off to his ... well, actually, he doesn’t have a palace, he has a den. And the meal? Oh yes, it’s Simon’s meal. He eats the winner. "

The Ancient Origins of Consciousness by Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallatt: how the brain created experience - review by Stephen Rose in The Guardian. "Feinberg and Mallatt argue that the seeds of consciousness lie in the very origins of life on Earth, more than 3bn years ago. Not of course the rich subjectivity with which the word is imbued today, but what they call sensory consciousness, the ability to respond to and act on the external environment, as when their present-day successors – single-celled animals such as amoeba – detect and navigate towards food sources and withdraw from noxious ones. Even such single-celled creatures behave as if they have a sense of bodily integrity, their membranes studded with molecular receptors which can recognise the difference between themselves and something that is not-self. This is where the authors’ neuroevolutionary path to human consciousness begins."

Dumbing up - letter by Paul Shepheard to The Guardian (print edition only, 11.6.16, p 19). "Richard Dawkins gets it wrong about fiction ('What's in a number?', 4 June). He asks, what's so special about things that never happened? But fiction is analogous. Whether War and Peace or Beowulf, fiction is, by analogy, about things that happen to everybody every day."

Vinegar Girl [reversion of 'The Taming of the Shrew'] by Anne Tyler: a sparky spin on Shakespeare - review by Elizabeth Lowry in The Guardian. "Tyler draws out the warning implicit in the play: that if men will persist in finding weakness and deviousness in women sexually attractive, they are going to get the half-formed partners they deserve. At her school Kate is often 'downright astonished by how much the women in the faculty lounge sounded like the little girls nattering away in Room 4'. Other men make Kate 'feel too big and too gruff and too shocking', but Pyotr is 'the kind of person who liked her true self, for better or for worse'. By taking him as her husband, the shrew doesn’t surrender her moxie, but rather finds a counterweight to her own strength. The balance of power the two Kates and their Petruchios achieve is the basis of a successful marriage. This sparky, intelligent spin on Shakespeare’s controversial classic demolishes the old saw that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar with a simple question posed by Pyotr. That may be true, he says – but why would you want to catch flies?"

Could Steiner schools have a point on children, tablets and tech? - article by Sarfraz Manzoor in The Guardian. "The methods at [the Iona school in Nottingham], which are based on the controversial teachings of Austrian 19th century philosopher Rudolf Steiner, may be different from those employed in mainstream state schools, but the Iona was recently declared outstanding by the School Inspection Service – the independent equivalent of Ofsted. The report noted that 'pupils do not use computers or the internet when in school but staff have ensured that they have learned about internet safety'. It went on: 'Teaching is inspirational and highly effective … teachers are very well trained and highly skilled.' Any school would be grateful to be described in such glowing terms but the staff here are particularly proud that they achieved their outstanding status without technology. In addition to the ban on computers in school, parents are discouraged from letting their children watch television, play computer games or use smartphones at home...."

The English language is under siege from tone-deaf activists - column by Clive James in The Guardian. "In Australia there is some outfit going by the name of the Productivity Commission that calls books 'cultural externalities'. Speaking as someone who, when well, writes cultural externalities for a living, I think it might be more efficient, from the productivity angle, if we could go on calling them books. But I admit that this is merely my opinion, not settled science. If I were advancing this opinion in the form of a tweet or comment, I could insert the acronym IMO, so proving that the standard dead white male language of Jane Austen is now being assailed not only by expansive phrases from institutions that wish to sound more important, but also by piddling abbreviations from individuals who wish to sound pressed for time. Admittedly, some of those individuals wish to sound humble, too, and might even be so; but saying IMO is a counterproductive way of conveying that impression, because we already assume that your opinion is only your opinion. And saying IMHO is an even more counterproductive way of conveying it, because nobody who says 'in my humble opinion' is any more humble than Saddam Hussein and Imelda Marcos dancing the tango."

‘Could he actually win?’ Dave Eggers at a Donald Trump rally - article by Dave Eggers in The Guardian. "Believing that Trump’s supporters are all fascists or racists is a grave mistake. This day in Sacramento presented a different picture, of a thousand or so regular people who thought it was pretty cool how Trump showed up in a plane with his name on it. How naughty it was when he called the president 'stupid'. How funny it was when he said the word 'huge' the peculiar way he does, without the “h” (the audience yelled back “uuuuge!”, laughing half with him, half at him). In the same way we rooted for Clay a few years ago when he showed up as an actual actor in a Woody Allen movie, the audience at a Trump rally is thinking, How funny would it be if this guy were across the table from Angela Merkel? That would be classic. Americans who have voted for Trump in the primaries have done so not because they agree with all, or any, of his statements or promises, but because he is an entertainment. He is a loud, captivating distraction and a very good comedian. His appeal is aided by these rallies, and by media coverage, and both are fuelled not by substance but by his willingness to say crazy shit. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, has insisted that they 'let Trump be Trump' and the wisdom of the strategy is undeniable. As long as he continues to say crazy shit, he will continue to dominate the news and will continue to attract crowds. The moment he ceases to entertain – to say crazy shit – he will evaporate."

Brexit is a fake revolt: working-class culture is being hijacked to help the elite - column by Paul Mason in The Guardian. "I ... know what a real revolt looks like. The miners strike; the Arab spring; the barricade fighting around Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013. So, to people getting ready for the mother of all revolts on Thursday, I want to point out the crucial difference between a real revolt and a fake one. The elite does not usually lead the real ones. In a real revolt, the rich and powerful usually head for the hills, terrified. Nor are the Sun and the Daily Mail usually to be found egging on a real insurrection. But, all over Britain, people have fallen for the scam. In the Brexit referendum, we’ve seen what happens when working-class culture gets hijacked – and when the party that is supposed to be defending working people just cannot find the language or the offer to separate a fake revolt from a real one."

Reading from the screen: Good for education? - post by Mark Nichols, in his blog 'TEL-ling it like it is'. "A conference paper by Geoff Kaufman ... and Mary Flanagan ... called “High-low split: Divergent cognitive construal levels triggered by digital and non-digital platforms” has had some coverage.... The studies published in the paper compared levels of construal (perception and comprehension, or ‘gist’) of subjects reading the same matter from print, and a screen in an RCT (Randomised Control Trial).... In a recently accepted article entitled “Reading and studying on the screen: An overview of literature toward good learning design practice” (I’ll provide a link once it’s published), I overview much of the recent literature on reading from the screen vs reading print. My conclusions are, as relevant to Kaufman and Flanagan, as follows: (1) Reading from the screen is perceived by readers as being a different genre to reading from print. Various studies show that readers approach reading from the screen differently than they do reading from print. Surface reading (or overconfidence) is common for on-screen reading. The issue is not so much the fact that text is on screen, rather the approach of the reader is not self-critical enough. (2) Education design techniques geared to raise the readers’ construal with on screen text can be applied to reduce cognitive load, overconfidence, and the natural tendency toward lower construal. The final study clearly demonstrates that readers can improve their construal level if they are properly calibrated or oriented to the task at hand. While 48% is still short of the 66% correct attained by print readers, the significant gain is evidence that intervention can make a positive difference. (3) Comparing text from the screen and in print is not a fair appraisal of the former’s utility in education. If all the on screen student is exposed to is the same text they could otherwise have printed, the educational opportunities of on screen have not been applied. Educational designers can – and ought to – apply on screen reading in ways that encourage effective engagement with the ideas in the text."

Death by GPS: are satnavs changing our brains? - article by Greg Milner in The Guardian, extracted from his book Pinpoint: How GPS is Changing Our World. "So what happens to our brains as we transition into a world where GPS does it all for us? Some cognitive experts believe we may be undergoing fundamental changes. 'Physical maps help us build cognitive maps,' Julia Frankenstein of the Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Freiburg in Germany has argued. Spending our days moving through various environments, we fill in the details of our cognitive map based on our egocentric experiences. Can the granular detail of that map fade through misuse? 'The problem with GPS systems is, in my eyes, that we are not forced to remember or process the information. As it is permanently "at hand", we need not think or decide ourselves,' Frankenstein says. 'The more we rely on technology to find our way, the less we build up our cognitive maps.' Life becomes a series of strip maps: 'We see the way from A to Z, but we don’t see the landmarks along the way… developing a cognitive map from this reduced information is a bit like trying to get an entire musical piece from a few notes.'"

As an English European, this is the biggest defeat of my political life - article by Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian. "As an English European I see two tasks before us, which stand in a certain tension with each other. On the one hand, now the people’s decision has been made, we must do everything we can to limit the damage to this country. And if it turns out that 'this country' is to be without Scotland, then let England be the one of Charles Dickens and George Orwell, not that of Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin. Since we have predicted, in entirely good faith, that the consequences of Brexit will be disastrous, this means we have to work to prove ourselves wrong. I would be so happy if we were proved wrong. As Europeans, on the other hand, we must do everything we can to ensure the European Union learns the lessons of this stinging reverse, which has its origins as much in recent European as in earlier British history. For if the EU and the eurozone do not change, they will be engulfed too, by a thousand continental versions of Farage. And with all its faults, the union is still worth saving. I stand by my adaptation of that great English European Winston Churchill’s famous remark on democracy: this is the worst possible Europe, apart from all the other Europes that have been tried from time to time."

How painter Winifred Knights became Britain’s ‘unknown genius’ - article by Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. "This summer [until 18 September] the Dulwich Picture Gallery is mounting a retrospective of [Knights'] work, the first ever. On display are all her significant pieces, including The Marriage at Cana (1923), shipped from New Zealand, and Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours (1928‑33), a stunning triptych that will be unhooked from the wall of Canterbury Cathedral and trundled up the A2 to south London. Most thrilling of all, The Santissima Trinita (1924-30), generally considered Knights’ masterpiece, has been lent by its private owners. These works appear alongside The Deluge, together with scores of preparatory sketches. In a Knights painting, a group of monumental figures typically pauses at a moment of revelation or transcendence. Although individual shapes have been simplified and stylised, the figures are still emphatically human, much in the manner of an early Renaissance church fresco. Indeed, Knights’ painstakingly drawn and luminously coloured work is a reminder that pre-Raphaelite art – with its love of detail, decorative colour, interest of line and the conveyance of nature – had a long and distinguished influence in British painting right up to the second world war. Yet here, in fact, may lie the reason for Knights’ fall from critical favour following her early death in 1947. When art historians in the postwar period came to describe what they believed had happened during the first part of the 20th century, they inevitably privileged modernism, with its international language of abstraction, over the kind of figurative work that seemed tied to a regressively local way of seeing the world. According to this paradigm, Knights’ work wasn’t just old-fashioned, it was wrong.

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