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Tidying Up

It occurred to me over the half-term break that I will need to be particularly organised with these blogs in the coming months to ensure I tell you everything I want to share with you before the time comes to move on – though I already know that this is a target I will miss.  I suppose I could offer to continue waffling on even when someone else is sitting in my chair, but I think it is a fair bet that such as idea would not go down too well. 

Another option might be to write a more public blog, but this would probably involve having to pay more attention to feedback from a wider audience, which does not really appeal to me.  I would also need to be much more rigorous in acknowledging the extent to which much of what I write is essentially the compilation of other people’s wisdom, which can easily spill over into plagiarism if due care is not taken with the attribution. 

In the short-term, I am determined to tie up as many loose ends as possible and to ensure I am not left with any regrets about what might have been, which is very much the message I try to share with the pupils here, particularly those who are moving on from the school.  A regular go-to quotation in such circumstances are the words of Mark Twain: ‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbour.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.’

We do not necessarily need to be quite so grandiose just yet, so today’s task is to offer the wisdom of five authors who have featured in previous blogs this term, but for whom I could not find room at the time to finish off their thoughts.  We will start with what I thought was an interesting reflection from Malcolm Gladwell in ‘The Bomber Mafia’, not least with AI so much in the news.  He wrote that something has always puzzled him about technological revolutions, as some new idea or innovation comes along, and it is obvious that it will upend our world, for example the internet and social media. 

He says that in previous generations it was the telephone and the automobile and there is an expectation that, because of a new invention, things will get better, more efficient, safer, richer, faster – which they do, in some respects.  But then, he points out, things inevitably go sideways.  At one moment, social media is being hailed as something that will allow ordinary citizens to upend tyranny, and in the next it is feared as the platform that will allow citizens to tyrannise one another.  The automobile was supposed to bring freedom and mobility, which it did for a while.  But then millions of people found themselves living miles from their workplaces, trapped in endless traffic jams on epic commutes.  How is it, he asks, that for any number of unexpected and random reasons technology slips from its intended path?

Steven Pinker, in ‘Rationality’, tells us that for most of human history around ninety per cent of humanity lived in what we today call extreme poverty.  In 2020, less than nine per cent did – still too high but targeted for elimination in the next decade.  The great material enrichment of humanity began with the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, powered by the capture of energy from coal, oil, wind and falling water, and later from the sun, the earth and nuclear fusion. 

This energy was fed into machines that turned heat into work, factories with mass production and conveyances like railroads, canals, highways and container ships.  Material technologies depended on financial ones, particularly banking and insurance.  And neither of these could have been parlayed into widespread prosperity without governments to enforce contracts, minimise force and fraud, smooth out financial lurches with central banks and reliable money, and invest in wealth-generating public goods such as infrastructure, basic research and universal education.  The challenge now, of course, is to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels while trying to maintain the economic growth that has benefited so many.

I enjoyed a couple of cartoons that Pinker included in his book to illustrate his points.  The first was set in a psychology clinic, with two doctors pointing at a patient leaving the building.  One says, ‘That statistician was making progress, but now he has started being unkind to everybody again.’  The other replies, ‘Ah, regression towards the mean.’  The second was a Dilbert cartoon, where one character says, ‘I can’t tell the difference between good ideas and bad ones.  There are smart people on both sides of every idea.  What rational process do you use to determine who is right?’  And the other replies, ‘I label people who disagree with me “idiots” and call it a day.’

If you want further evidence of the natural self-absorption of human beings, Leonard Mlodinow in ‘Emotional’ makes the point that not only are humans blessed with the ability to read other humans, we also want others to know us.  Studies reveal that 30 to 40 per cent of people's conversation concerns their private lives and personal relationships.  On social media, 80 per cent of posts are about people's immediate experiences.  In a 2012 study at Harvard, researchers had participants talk to them, either about themselves or about others, while their brains were being imaged in an fMRI machine.  The scientists found that engaging in self-disclosure activated brain regions associated with reward and pleasure significantly more than talking about others.

As our government grinds slowly to the point of exhaustion, Gavin Esler in ‘How Britain Ends’ references the historian David Cannadine, who argues that when Britain lost power and influence in the world, we actually became very good at celebrations.  Once the British Empire had gone, British public rituals and ceremonies – royal weddings, jubilees and the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony, for example – all suggested that our staging skills were not just improving but world-beating.

Cannadine noted that our appetite for royal celebrations and pomp increased as the United Kingdom's hard power diminished.  Such occasions became what he called the ‘premiere of the cavalcade of impotence’.  By the 21st century, Britain was very different from the height of empire and the Victorian age with its certainty of power and the assured confidence of success, which meant there was no need to show off.  We showed off because we had much less to boast about, and the ‘cavalcade of impotence’ became also a ‘cavalcade of nostalgia’, and nostalgia is always comforting, even when it is dangerous and pointless.

Finally, for no reason other than that I thought it was an interesting reflection on people and their passions, in Ed Yong’s ‘An Immense World’ he describes how he asked someone who works with mantis shrimps whether she loved or hated working with them.  ‘It’s mixed,’ she said resignedly.  ‘At first, it’s super-cool.  I’m working with mantis shrimps!  Everyone who likes this sort of thing has heard of them.  But then you start working with them, and you just sit there and wonder why you’re doing this.’  Another researcher said, ‘I am often asked if crabs and lobsters feel pain.  After fifteen years of research, the answer is maybe.’  But another recalled the first time he stood above a river full of electric fish.  ‘It was a moment I can still close my eyes and go back to.  It was the most amazing experience I have ever had and I am so sad I am not there right now.’ 

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