Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Sara died. Sara was one of my favourite bloggers and a true friend. She had cancer for many years and as long as I have known her, I have known that it was on the cards. Then last year, she had a brain tumour and I thought we might lose her very quickly, much more quickly than we did. So this wasn't unexpected. And I honestly believe that Sara had a good life. Shorter than most and with an extremely unpleasant disease through much of it, but good. She kind of made that her project I think, to get the very most out of everything she had for as long as possible.

Sara taught me a very great deal. She also supported and encouraged me in all sorts of ways. I thought about writing a tribute to her, perhaps finding exampls of her great wisdom and kindness to quote to you, but what I feel now is a little personal, a little raw. Both Elizabeth and Kay have written about her death.

The most important thing to be said, I guess, is that I feel very very fortunate to have known Sara. She was one of those friends who altered the shape of my world. I am very sad just now, but she was more than worth it and I shall continue to benefit from the gifts she gave me. I really hoped to finish my book before Sara died. It was something that we talked about.

In other news, I have a new keyboard for my EEE PC and everything seems to be working. I would be ecstatic about this after the boredom of the last ten days without it, but ecstasy is slightly beyond me just now. At least I can now get on with my work.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Computer says "No."

I spilt coffee on my lovely computer and the keyboard doesn't work any more. I'm kind of hoping that I can replace the keyboard and have it working again, but it's going to take a while for the new keyboard to turn up and then, if that doesn't work, a while to buy a new computer. My EEE PC was only the second new computer I've ever had, and I've had it less than a year - I do feel very very stupid about it.

I have to remind myself that accidents happen to everyone, and sometimes far more disastrous ones. All my data is backed up, which was my greatest concern. And I can get on-line with this far inferior Apple machine but it is connected to the telly and is very difficult to do any writing on. I may find some means to blog if this goes on too long.

How frustrating! But all my silly fault. I did once spill a mug of herbal tea over a keyboard, but if anything its performance improved somewhat once it had dried out. It probably had magical healing properties.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reading vs. Listening

Ira Socol, who writes Special Education Change has become somewhat of a blog hero since he contributed to last year's BADD. Ira writes about accessible education, his Toolbelt Theory for Everyone should be required reading for everyone involved in academia. But from a personal point of view, I often read Ira's blog and think, if only I, or someone close to me, had read this stuff when I was still trying to finish my own education.

Nature made me a better than average reader. I could read very quickly and I could skim; I could look at a page and find an important word or the most relevant phrase or sentence. Give me five minutes with a novel and I could tell you who the main characters are and basically what happens. At school, usually loved the set texts we were given (unnatural child that I was), but I bluffed my way to top marks with any I couldn't be bothered with and frequently read ahead of the class in our history and science text books. I used reading to compensate for other weaknesses. As a chronic daydreamer, it was sometimes very hard to pay full attention in class – even in perfect health, I would fall asleep at my desk from time to time. But so long as I had read up on a topic beforehand, nobody ever noticed.

The Dreaded Lurgy then took this away. I pretty much lost the ability to read anything more complex than single words for the first or so year of my illness. There are lots of different sorts of dyslexia, there are several different mechanisms which enable us to read, so lots of different things that can go wrong. Abnormal brain symmetry, brain damage like Sara's tumour or my problem, even forms of malnutrition can be responsible for a person having difficulty reading. It also manifests itself differently. The problem I had was that I could no longer distinguish the symbols from one another; paragraphs became a grey smudge just as soon as I attempted to translate these symbols into language. Rather like trying to count the pebbles at the bottom of a running stream.

When that improved and I learnt a few tricks (chiefly involving coloured celophane), the words had and still do have a habit of rearranging their order within a sentence and the letters within the word. Meanwhile, I had and still have very poor stamina, as well as concentration and memory problems – all this becomes indistinguishable when you can't do the thing you're trying to do. I attempted to return to education when my reading was still extremely slow, tiring and unreliable.

My great fortune was with the timing. If someone sails through school up to the age of fifteen, acquires a physical illness and says, “I can't read very well.” they are taken very seriously. If someone struggles through school, especially when, in their frustration, they give up or get distracted very easily, and only then someone comes along with a label like dyslexia, there is more doubt. I have some sympathy with the suspicion of labeling very young children with impairments and nowhere do you have more trouble with what is normal and abnormal than when looking at child behaviour and aptitude. However, if we stopped regarding all such labels as some sort of charitable status, there'd be much less to worry about.

Another great fortune was that until I joined the Open University, I wasn't part of any institution (I would never be well enough to physically attend any classes). By the time anyone wanted to assess my special needs, they did this by handing me a list of adjustments I might need and asked me to tick the appropriate boxes and fill in any gaps. I think my GP needed to sign something to prove I had the sort of problems I descried, but my account of my own limitations was trusted absolutely. I have written briefly about my ridiculous crisis of conscience over exam conditions somewhere in this rambling post.

Anyway despite my trouble reading, I took on an English Literature A-Level*. This wasn't as foolish as it sounds. The sciences, arts and modern languages were impractical to do at home without a science lab, a stage, a studio or other people to practice talking to. And, believe me, there is much more reading in a humanities subject, at least at that level, then there actually is in English Lit.. History, for example, involved several text books of doorstep proportions - plus any extra reading you could fit in. For English Lit., I only needed to read four texts, two of which were plays – and one of the plays had to be Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is a gift for my sort of problem. Much less to read in a play than in a book, and dialogue is always the easiest bit to read anyway. Most of the important stuff is in poetry rather than prose (prose being reserved for low-status or comic characters), thus you have just one phrase or sentence per line, and you have all the clues that rhythm and rhyme provide. Added to this, you've usually got a wide choice of radio, television and film productions of the play you can track down, listen to or watch to support your reading. After all, the guy did not write plays to be read.

The novels were trickier. The obvious aid was audiobooks, but as well as the fact that it was massively expensive to obtain unabridged recordings, I felt like this was cheating.

We have this dichotomy in our culture, where one lots of media is for work and one lot for fun. One big factor in the reason that we read relatively few books as opposed to watching films and television programmes is that a lot of us are programmed with the idea that books are hard work. At [...]'s boys' comprehensive school, the teacher explicitly stated that he didn't expect that any of his charges would read another book in their lives, before he subjected them to Far From the Madding Crowd (the lower-ability kids read The Day of the Triffids and probably learnt to love reading).

At the same time, of course, a degree in English Literature is ten times more respectable than a degree in Film Studies. There's no fundamental reason why this should be the case. Personally, I think the world would benefit from reading more books; books do offer things that films do not and vice versa, but you get my point.

And so I imagined that audiobooks were cheating. Books were meant to be read; you made your own voices just as you made up your own pictures. You did all the work yourself, work I imagined to be crucial. I naïvely imagined that all people with visual impairments could all read braille and that every book ever written would be available in braille at a special braille shop that undoubtedly existed somewhere. I also had idea that dyslexia was a problem that only young children experienced whn learning to read and could all be effectively “cured” by teaching them to read in a different way (which can help, but not always). Audiobooks were a form of entertainment, not an educational tool.

Only of course, apart from anything else, listening is often harder than reading. Personally I had (and still have) to listen to an audiobook two or three times to take in the same information I could have read the once; my mind wanders. Then you have to get over the voices; an actors' accent or cadence can be completely distracting and even some authors are ill-equipped to read their own books. It is trickier to control pace, and you can't scribble wildly in the margins of a book on CD. But there are ways of getting round these things.

Fancying myself as a writer, I don't for a minute think that you have to see the shape of my words in order to understand what is being said. So what if you were listening to this? If I'm writing sentences which would be difficult to read out loud, then I'm writing sentences that are going to be hard work to read at all.

Whilst we should attempt to teach children to read and write, the ability to read something off a page is not absolutely fundamental to understanding our language, or the ideas explored in journalism and literature. In the same way, learning to walk was a fundamental for most of us, but some people manage pretty well without. Far better that everyone is given the tools that work for them for learning and in life.

* An A-Level, my non-English and Welsh friends, is the qualification you'd usually take between 16 and 18. Generally you'd take at least three or four and upon your marks, university entrance is determined. I didn't actually finish my A-Level, but that is beside the point.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

On Torture

I don't like writing about this stuff, but I need to get it out of my system. I shall sneak it out on a weekend while nobody's about. I was midway through writing a post on a not unconnected subject when Binyam Mohamed accused UK secret services with participation in his alleged torture. Ugh.

Most human rights have slight conditions attached. For example, we have a right to free movement, but there are conditions under which the state or our fellow citizens are allowed to imprison us. The right to life is fundamental but the forces of the state or our fellow citizens are allowed to kill us if we pose a direct threat to the life, liberty or physical integrity of another person.

There are a handful of things that nobody is ever allowed to do to us. Things which can never ever be justified under any circumstance. These are all to do with our physical integrity. Like rape. There is never any circumstance where it makes moral sense to rape a person, whoever they are, whatever they've done. A rapist overrides the absolute minimum amount of respect which it is necessary to have for one another in order to co-exist. I don't have to argue this.

Performing medical experiments or unnecessary surgical procedures on people without their consent – this, again, can never be justified. Whatever good might come from medical developments, even if we performed these experiments on the worst sort of criminals, that kind of cruelty is simply unacceptable.

And then there's torture. Despite what some very powerful people have said in recent years, torture is really easy to define. To put someone in extreme discomfort, through physical or sensory assault in or to make their existence completely unbearable. Since unbearable suffering is the objective, it doesn't really matter how this is achieved, whether it leaves a mark or not.

The argument made in favour of torture has been the same forever; the lesser of two evils. A while back, it was about saving souls - torture a confession out of the heretic before killing her and she could go straight to heaven. These days it is all about terrorism and saving hypothetical lives.
“Torture is a bad thing but if it prevents lots of innocent people being killed, then it is justified.”
There are a couple of problems with what is sometimes described as the ticking time-bomb scenario. The idea is that there is a ticking time-bomb, the bomber has the power to halt detonation and you have that bomber in your custody. You need him to give you the information which will stop the bomb going off, so what do you do?

The first problem is a small empirical point. Lots of people argue against torture on the grounds that it doesn't work at all, but this is a little naive - if torture was completely ineffective, no authority would waste their time with it. Torture and the ongoing threat of torture does help to intimidate people – totalitarian states use it for this purpose. And people do frequently crack under great physical and psychological strain. Unfortunately, a person desperate to relieve their own suffering will say anything, give whatever information they think their tormentors want to hear, regardless of its truth. Under torture, innocent people confess, implicate other innocent people and make stuff up. Guilty people – or knowledgeable people – frequently elaborate their knowledge in order to make it more convincing or satisfactory to their tormentors. Others just won't crack, particularly those who consider their cause worth dying for.

So it is incredibly hit and miss. In the very unlikely event of having the one person upon which everything hinged in custody and knowing exactly what their role was, the ticking time-bomb scenario could still end in a bang. And then what? A consequentialist argument whereby torture is justified as a means to an end falls down when that end is totally uncertain.

And anyway, this never happens and as far as any of us know this has never happened. Whatever Binyam Mohamed was up to when he was arrested, there was no ticking timebomb. If there had been, it would have taken less than seven years to find some crime with which to charge him.

By far the biggest problem is this ridiculous idea of torture as the lesser of two evils. Sometimes this argument is presented in the very emotive way;
“If someone had your child held prisoner, then you would be prepared to do whatever it takes to get them to tell you where you child was.”
Whatever it takes is a real problem. If we go down that path, then we have to go far beyond simulated drowning or anything else that didn't leave a mark. We have to mess them up pretty badly. And then here's a problem; say they don't care for their own suffering, but they have their own kid. So how about torturing their child in front of them? This is your kid's life we're talking about, so why not? It's not like we're going to kill the child – wheres your child may die if we don't do this.

This is not a slippery slope argument – if it genuinely is a matter of the lesser of two evils then chances are that torturing the families of terrorist suspects would be far more effective than torturing them and therefore the lesser of two evils. And you'd probably only have to electrocute a handful of small children in order to perhaps save thousands of lives. Perhaps, of course – all these arguments are based on a perhaps because never in the history of mankind can it be demonstrated than any life has been saved by torturers.

Probably the most depressing aspect of Binyam Mohammed's story is the kind of comment made by ordinary folk who believe that the guy deserved what happened to him. Paul Canning wrote about this, and there's a BBC Have Your Say forum filled with comments along the lines of
"The guy was traveling on a false passport so what did he expect? He has probably made all this up in order to claim compensation. He wasn't born here so send him back to where he came from."
As with rape, a common response to torture, particularly by our side, is to pretend it hasn't happened or that if it did, it was somehow deserved. It isn't clear what happened to Binyam Mohammed – maybe he really wasn't tortured. But we know that he was held prisoner, illegally, for seven years. So what, if he was up to no good? That only means that he ought to have been arrested, charged and tried for his offenses. As it is, he has lost seven years of his life without having been convicted of any crime. Nobody deserves that.

I think it is absolutely vital to maintain this minimum respect for every other human being. That whatever happens, you are not prepared to degrade them in this way. Lock 'em up. Kill them when you're completely out of options. But never to do that. Jesus is supposed to have said “That you do unto the least of men, you do unto me.” (or words to that effect). I would broaden that out; the way we treat the very worst kinds of people reflects on our attitude towards all of humankind, including ourselves, our nearest and dearest. The torture of just one of us makes all of us less precious.

This is how the world felt in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest spells in our history, the Second World War when they first drew up Human Rights legislation. At that time people knew all about what was at stake, perhaps far better than we do, and yet they still believed in drawing that line.

Edit: I edited this the next day, took out some of the more stomach-turning language. Upsetting subject.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Between a rock and a hard place

On Saturday, we went on a cultural excursion to Norwich. No really! Funnily enough, this is only the third time I can remember ever going to Norwich and the last two occasions were to see productions of Shakespeare – extremely good ones at that.

This time was to see a sculpture exhibition featuring the work of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson at Norwich Castle, which our friend Vic had told us about. Moore and Hepworth in particular are probably the most significant sculptors of the first half of the twentieth century. Lots of public art in the UK is either by them or produced under their influence.

I've realised in recent months that if I don't ask, I would never ever leave the house, and the more extravagant and specific the request, the more likely it is to be granted. Subtle hints are useless. It also helps if, like the snowdrops and this exhibition, the trip has to be made within a given time-frame. Any further obstacles like distance or access only work in my favour. When something requires planning, I can force my minions to commit to the trip in advance, and then tell them exactly what to do, where and when.

So although nobody else had the slightest interest in twentieth century sculpture, I managed to drag both my parents and [...] all the way to Norwich. And it was good, really good. I can't find pictures I can reproduce here - since most of their famous stuff is big public works, I'm struggling to find pictures to even point you to. There were lots of abstract figures in different sorts of stone, very beautiful organic shapes. Several variations on the mother-and-child theme, plus some purely geometric stuff, which didn't work so well for me - except possibly this, which is an absolutely gorgeous object in real life.

My Mum loved it too and now wants to try her hand at sculpture. Dad was ambivalent, prompting an in-depth discussion on the definition of art. He also recounted the tale of the public sculpture he created, which stood outside Suffolk College for six years before being removed because of Health & Safety concerns on account of its moving-parts.

Norwich Castle is a bit of a Museum of Everything. There's the castle keep, with battlements and dungeons and exhibits on the castle's nine hundred years history. Then there's the broader local history and artifacts back to Boudica and the Iceni (including a kind of chariot-ride simulator). But then there's a great collection of mostly Victorian paintings – including a few famous names. There's also a modern art gallery, which includes a collection of chewing gum in a glass case but also some truly great art. Then there's an Egypt bit with some poor dead mummy on display, a room all about the history of textiles, another room full of stuffed animals and the Twinings Teapot Gallery (a room full of teapots, in case you couldn't guess).

And I don't think we saw nearly all of it. Which is probably a good thing as I'm sure I learnt a very great deal about all manner of things but can't remember any of it.

Norwich Castle is extremely accessible given it's a castle. You can't go up on the battlements and funnily enough, the Normans didn't think to build an elevator down to the dungeons, but otherwise it is all great and I didn't feel slightly nervous of knocking anything over.

Oh and on the way there, we passed a protest against the closing of a local school. There was quite a crowd, but two placards in particular caught my eye. The first stated that "Weight-Watchers meets here!" which I thought perhaps was a fairly feeble argument. But my favourite was, and I don't tell a lie,

"Down with this sort of thing!"

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The perils of polarity

The Internet is the best thing ever, but there is at least one way in which it is bad for politics – alongside the squillion ways in which it is good. This is the way that we mishandle on-line debate.

To start with an apolitical example; DVD reviews. When I rent DVDs, I use other users reviews to give me an idea of whether or not I shall like a movie. There are no incentives for posting reviews except the satisfaction of passing helpful information on to other users. I am very grateful to those who make the effort to write a helpful review, without spoilers, whether they liked a movie or not - I don't often have the energy to do this.

However, there are lots of people who couldn't be bothered with the whole helpful information thing but wanted to say something anyway. There are always a load of reviews along the lines of
“I turned this off/ fell asleep after the first ten minutes.”

“All [insert movie genre] is awful and this was no exception.”

“I can't stand the sight of [insert starring actor].”
which is irritating because they are so pointless. But far worse are those where people express their own opinion (an opinion about a movie) through a loathing for everyone who disagrees with them. Sentiments such as
“If you're a big wet girl or a gay, then this movie is probably for you.”

“The people who wrote reviews that said this was a good film must be blind and deaf as well as stupid.”

“If you are clinically brain-dead and need a car-cashes or explosions every five minutes then you won't like this.”

“Some people consider this movie pretentious. Au contraire, if I may paraphrase W. B. Yeats, I can barely contain my schadenfreude at their stupidité.”
And this is frustrating. It's not that our tastes say nothing about ourselves, but even where a film has upset and offended me, I cannot say that everyone who liked it has something wrong with them or is necessarily very different from myself. I don't think anybody can seriously think that (even about Sleepless in Seattle).

You'd only ever get away with making such comments on-line, where you don't have to see the resultant expressions on the faces of your audience. You'd never talk like that with your friends in the pub, let alone strangers. But physical absence can give us a little too much confidence. I know I have said things on-line which I wouldn't have said - or would at the very least, phrased better - in real life. Some people get far more carried away and it only takes a few of them to do a lot of damage.

This ad hominem culture bleeds into political discussion. Politics – and especially party politics – has always involved some name-calling and nonsense, but if you look at any comments section on a newspaper website or the BBC Have Your Say pages (see Speak Your Branes for highlights and commentary), they are dominated by posts which mirror the poor reviews on my DVD rental site. Lots of people have no point of view at all, but want to air their general dislike for the government or some specific group or figure. And very many appear to believe that people who are have different political views to themselves are stupid, ignorant, treacherous or even treasonous.

This culture alienates everyone – the people who keep posting this stuff clearly feel alienated (except possibly the ones who insist on representing the silent majority). And so we get what Jack touched on a few weeks back when he wrote about two rival Facebook groups – one having been set up to campaign for a ban on the other. On-line, we get to join very specific clubs. Facebook groups may be the epitome but this happens all over, on blogs and in forums.

Groupthink is a dangerous thing. The more we are surrounded by people with similar views, the more extreme our views become and the more hostile we become to dissenters. But also, the more polarised arguments become, the less thinking we all get to do. When you come across political discussions by accident, you often find a very aggressive environment but since nobody who disagrees is tolerated, they're all shouting (and swearing) at thin air. And it gets worse as the discussion goes on. Something like;
“All my other socks are in the wash today and I have to wear red socks. I hate red socks!”

“Yeah, red socks are crap!”

“I agree. Red socks are the socks of idiots!”

“More than that; red socks are the socks of criminals!”

“Wearing red socks is like denying the Holocaust!”

“I wouldn't let my children near anyone who was wearing red socks!”

“They should bring back hanging for people who wear red socks!”
and so on. I once did a search for information about a particular political figure and tripped over a discussion which started out as a beef about this lady getting an award, but descended like this, moving quickly away from her politics and onto more personal attributes, right through to the point where they were proposing that she ought to be raped and murdered. Seriously. Of course not seriously – they weren't laying down plans or anything, it was all a horrible joke, but there wasn't even enough dissent for someone to stand up and object to that, let alone disagree about ideas.

Another of Jack's posts was about how the political parties are failing to embrace the interactive nature of online media. They're publishing their stuff but not allowing Joe Public to communicate with them. This is probably because of this culture, but it also helps to contributes to it. If only members of the Labour Party can comment on the blog of an MP, then they are only going to get a very limited range of feedback and both they and their supporters will only be made more confidence of their righteousness. As working politics is all about compromise, decision-makers need to know and properly understand perspectives very different from their own.

“Extreme” views aren't inherently dangerous. An opinion or perspective is only dangerous when opposition cannot be borne. Whenever we find ourselves holding the people who disagree with us in contempt, then our views have become dangerous.