Sunday, July 23, 2006

Who's a proud daddy then?

Over the last couple of days I have noticed my daughter do a couple of things that I am very impressed by but which probably don’t mean anything to anyone else. The first is that she did today a 24 piece jig-saw puzzle with only a little prompting from her mum – 6 piece jig-saws are now a doodle that she can do very rapidly, almost without having to turn the pieces in different directions to try them out. The second is far more important, being the basis for the human ability to communicate rich thoughts and ideas – my little pumpkin is making sentences. Thus far, they are of the subject-verb variety, but there is a definite improvement since when I last mentioned it just a few days ago. I believe from what I have been told by people who look into this stuff, that this kind of jump in development is fairly normal as the child catches onto some vital idea and begins to quickly explore its possibilities – kind of like scientific development or, for that matter, any kind of basically evolutionary process. Theory be what theory may, this is one happy Dada.

Why would you want to do that?

I love my job. It lets me ask questions about the world around me and allows me to go out and try and satisfy my curiosity. One of the best thing s about my job is when I get together with other people who are interested in much the same things and we begin to try and nut out some of the things that either I or the others working on. Thus, there is little that I enjoy more than the opportunity to present my work to a small audience of professionals who are competent to ask me insightful questions and willing to engage in discussion. Not surprisingly, then, I try and present my work as often as possible – over the last five years or so I have done something like twenty presentations at conferences and at various universities and institutes around Europe. The best feeling is when everyone understands the problem at hand, adds something different based upon what they already know, and the result is that something begins to glimmer and become clear where previously there were only questions.

With the very best students, teaching is much the same – a case of sharing the knowledge and ideas, and seeing what comes out of it all. The very best students are constantly challenging the teacher – not through some pointless mule-headedness but because they think to ask questions that the teacher has not thought about or because they suddenly see something from a different point of view, forcing the teacher to do some mental athletics to also see what they mean.

I say all this because I have just read what I think is a great article about what doing science is like. It was written by Richard Hollingham, who is a BBC correspondent. He concludes the article thus:

When I chose to spend a month "doing" science, rather than just reporting it, I had hoped to get a sense of what the scientific process was all about.

There is no denying science is hard and experiments can be, yes, boring and repetitive. But the excitement of discovering new things, that passion of intellectual debate, is anything but dull and made me wonder why more of us don't do it.

I find myself wondering much the same thing when I look at what people do with their lives.

Sometimes I get people who don’t know me very well and find out that I am an academic come up to me and ask, “Why would you want to do that?” The obvious implication being that it is no way to make cold hard cash. If they are particularly obnoxious about it and I am feeling particularly mischievous, I lean in close and whisper conspiratorially into their ear, “For the money!” And then I leave.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Who's listening now?

I checked where the visitors to my blog come from and found, once again, that the great majority – over 75% in fact – come from the US. One reason for this must be that there is just so many people in the US who have access to the internet. But that can’t be the whole story. There are also a lot of people in the UK who have internet access and I hardly ever see their visits account for a tenth of those from the US. I guess that part of the story must be that, in so far as I normally write about politics, it is significant for many people living in the US. But then it is also significant here in the EU, else I would not be writing about it. The social crisis that the US is going through is being mirrored in various ways around the world, with a variety of lap dog poodles running USA’s various client states; be it Little Johnny Howard in Australia, the ‘buy one get one free’ Kaczynski brothers in Poland or the original poodle in the UK. And I didn’t even mention countries where the US is overtly interfering with or plain controlling the government. Not that most of those countries have good broadband, mind you.

I guess the reason must be that I write a lot about not just politics but religion – a topic which for most of the developed world is becoming something of a curiosity, like folk dancing. Only in a few unfortunate developed countries is religion something to still worry seriously about, USA being one and my country being another. Which is why I can not help but find it funny when I see American journalists writing, in often positive terms, about the resurgence of religion on the world stage when what they mean is that the Christian Right is running the US. In so far as any religion has been resurgent it has been Islam within Muslim countries, much of the reason for that lying within the corridors of the White House that had for so long been willing to support Islamist movements against nationalist movements that were often supported by the old USSR. As the modern democracies have basically shown, create a situation where people can live in a stable, safe society and they will first turn away from fundamentalism and then from religion in general – and that would be as true in Karbala or Riyadh as in Atlanta or Kansas City. And, if that meant more boring posts from me about how my daughter is truly wonderful, that would still be a good thing.

Then again, maybe all those hits from the US are from NSA facilities.

Moon? Day?

At the same time, my little one has been growing up fast. Earlier on, if I went away for a couple of days, she would look different when I returned. Now, she is learning more and more words so that whenever I get back from a trip I notice that she is saying things she didn’t use to. Unfortunately, due to my various absences her English is not getting as much work as it ought to so that she says most things in the other language, even when talking to me or to people who only know English. Still, she knows the words in English, too, as is evident when you speak to her. And she does a great job of explaining that there is no moon in the sky but there is the sun so that it must be day, i.e. she says things like “Moon? No, no moon. Sun. Now. Day. Yes. Day. No moon.” In fact, she has reached the stage where she talks all the time, mostly to herself. No wonder there is a line of thinking which says that thought is just fully internalised speech. The other day she even sat down and started telling herself the story of Snow White while looking at the book. Didn’t hear exactly what she said, unfortunately. One thing I have been doing is getting her to talk into my mobile every few weeks and saving the sound files with her age on them. Some of them are very cool and will certainly annoy the hell out of her when she is older. But she will get to love them when she is much older, I am sure.

I have been on the watch for sentence structure in what she is saying and she does appear to be making inroads. She clearly has negation down pat. And sometimes she even seems to have the subject-verb pair going, i.e. Dada run. The best was what she said after we didn’t let her do something – Mama no good! I got off scot free.

Ever been to Mozart World?

It is hard to believe how little time I have had in the last while. I thought that the end of the university year would lead to some respite but have been very wrong. Just a few days ago I returned from one trip and am about to leave on another a few days from now.

I spent a few days in Salzburg. The place has turned Mozart into a local industry, with Mozartkugeln, Mozartalar and other tacky Mozart kitsch available on almost every corner. Walking around the place it was hard to believe at times that real people live there. At least I didn’t see any Mozart impersonators there, unlike Copenhagen which seems to be full of guys dressed up as Andersen. What I found quite fascinating was that all the places I am aware of that are making a living from their long dead famous sons were detested by those men and, more often than not, rejected them. Thus, Mozart was thrown out of Salzburg, which was a theocratic state. Indeed, it still feels that way - the place where I stayed had been a monastery and had the oppressive atmosphere of somewhere where you are being watched and where you will only cope by very much fitting in with everyone else. The third city with a famous son who had to leave that I have been to recently is Granada, its advantage being that it has the Alhambra, which tops pretty much everything else as an attraction – especially a brilliant, but not very well known outside of Hispanic countries, writer. In fact, in terms of rejecting their famous sons, Granada was perhaps the most extreme; not only did Lorca detest the place but he ended up being killed not far from it during the Spanish civil war. Now, there is actually relatively little in Granada to tell you that he lived there. There is a park and an out of the way museum as well as a fair number of postcards with pictures of him. Not like the omniscient image of Mozart in Salzburg.

There is a peaceful cemetery in the centre of town where the Mozart family has their grave. People come there to look at the gravestone. I do not think that Mozart himself is buried there but just some members of his family. Even if he is, though, stopping there makes as much sense as buying the chocolates. That’s not where Mozart is really present in any meaningful way. And the same is true of Copenhagen and all the other places. Still, like Granada, Salzburg is worth seeing in its own right – it is a beautiful town with many interesting nooks and crannies; as well as being a good example of the oppressiveness and hypocrisy of theocratic states.