We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Ethiopian unschooling

In primary school I very much enjoyed arithmetic. I distinctly remember rattling through activity books with names like “Starting Points” and “Fletcher”. One day, someone, possibly a teacher, alluded to a kind of mathematics that involved letters instead of numbers. It sounded very interesting, and I looked forward to “getting to” that. That was how it was, in school. You sort of learned what you were told to learn.

At the time it did not occur to me that I could just go and study algebra. In fairness I remember individual teachers in later years who gave me out-of-curriculum books to take home. But looking back on this I am left thinking that it is very easy for schools to hold children back, and even beat the enthusiasm out of them. I think the unschooling movement gets a lot of things right. Self-directed learning is more efficient because you are always studying what you are interested in.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, we find out what happens when you leave a big pile of tablet computers (loaded with Neal-Stephenson-Diamond-Age-esque software) in a village with no school.

We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.

Things that are good to know

beer2.jpg

In the alternate universe in which we lost World War 2, there is at least still beer. That is something, I suppose.

Samizdata quote of the day

You tax businesses, then give them the money back and call it a growth fund?

- Eamonn Butler is not impressed by Lord Heseltine’s plans to stimulate the British economy.

Inside the bubble

“Aside from his mom jeans, tiny feet, and short-stride shuffle, Romney is a dream candidate. On paper, at least. He’s a good family man, a pillar of his community, and he has a résumé thick with business and political accomplishments. In the flesh, though, he appears to be missing the gene that makes someone interesting. Or engaging. Obama, on the other hand, comes across as a brainy, slightly aloof groovester. Like Romney, he is a good family man. Plus, he has one hell of a life narrative and, to the objective observer, a solid track record over the past four years. But for a man who so inspired hope in 2008, Obama has fallen short on selling himself and his achievements. He’s failed to do what the marketers advise all successful people to do these days—brand himself.”

- Graydon Carter.

I love that line about “a solid track record”, which nicely overlooks the high unemployment (not fully reflected in the official data), Keystone, Solyndra, the healthcare “reforms”; Libya, the GM bailout, the mess of Dodd-Frank, “You didn’t build that”; Fast and Furious; the refusal to look seriously at the debt/deficit problem apart from talk about tax hikes….

Why do I bother looking at the thoughts of a person such as Carter? For a start, it is good to regularly check what such people think. Like it or not, these people reflect a powerful strand of opinion that exists in Big Media, in the academic world, among policymakers, and so forth. And he is sufficiently plausible to have a level of credibility: not all his views are daft. For instance, he is right, later in the article, to point out that the Obama administration has been pretty easy on the big banks.

A problem with publications such as VF and the people who read them is that they often get swept up in the whole “glamour” of power, just as they do with the glamour of actors, business tycoons, sportsfolk and so on. And for all that they claim to be cynical, cold-eyed observers of such people, frequently putting the boot in to certain targets, at core there is a remarkably starry-eyed belief that only if we are governed by very cool, supposedly clever, people such as us, that all will be well. It is a conceit that seems to take a long time to die.

Maybe Mr Carter should read Gene Healy’s book about the “Cult of the Presidency”.

And a question that such people should ask themselves is this: if Obama has such a “solid record”, how come there is a chance he is going to lose next week, and why is this supposed genius at connecting with the people not doing so today? Why has this combination of Cicero, Jesus and Jefferson failed to work the magic this time around? But to ask such a question, and deal with the answers, is probably a step too far for Graydon Carter.

Hurricane Sandy and its consequences

Here is Roger Kimball, ruefully reflecting on Hurricane Sandy. For Kimball, the meteorological just got very personal:

Well, it was grim, Hurricane Sandy.   We were prepared for something bad, but this storm, as we were warned, turned out to be like nothing I had ever seen.

Like nothing I’ve ever seen, that’s for sure. Little old England is a hurricane backwater, thank goodness.

We went back to our neighborhood this morning – it was a circuitous route, given all the downed trees and power lines. It was a devastating scene. Many houses were simply bashed in, crushed by the power of the waves. Even more (like ours, alas) were seriously flooded.

I’m sure there’s a moral here somewhere, probably having to do with hubris, nemesis, or some other unpleasant Greek offering. Or maybe it has to do with that old quip, Do you want to make the gods laugh? Tell them your plans.

Now for the Big Cleanup!

I’ll say.

A few thoughts.

Casualties seem, given the scale of the storm, to have been mercifully light. If so, that proves that the best defence against this kind of thing is to be as rich as you can before disaster strikes. Rich people are able to see what’s coming, to duck and weave, to tell each other what to do, and then to look after each other. Natural disaster is not followed by epidemic disease, the way it is liable to be among very poor people.

Samizdata has lots of American readers, including, presumably quite a few who have suffered directly from this storm. Commiserations from all of us, and here’s hoping you pull through in decent shape. If you have been seriously mucked about by this storm, you might want to ignore the rest of this and if you did I would entirely understand.

But I have to ask. What effect might all this have on the election? → Continue reading: Hurricane Sandy and its consequences

Samizdata quote of the day

The deeper truth masked by all the ranting – and, it should be added, by the blinkers of many Western secularists – is that Christians are targeted in greater numbers than any other faith group on earth. About 200 million church members (10 per cent of the global total) face discrimination or persecution: it just isn’t fashionable to say so.

- Rupert Shortt

Sudden Onset Regional Accent Syndrome

A recent blog post by Tim Worstall describes the lack of understanding that surrounds this embarrassing condition. He recalls his experiences as a chronic sufferer since childhood:

When at primary in Bath, good strong Bathonian. And the standard Eng middle class at home, like what I speak now. Of[f] we move to Italy to the Forces school when I’m 8. My mother still remarks on the near cockney (probably closer to what we would call estuarine now) that my brother and I both picked up in weeks. And started speaking as we walked through the doors of the school and dropped the moment we left them.

A SORAS survivor among his commenters, ‘Chris’, had an even more overwhelming attack,

“When I came back to England from British Guiana at 11, to attend an almost all-white boarding school, I had a strong Guianese accent – for about 10 minutes”

Another commenter, ‘Richard’ was a witness as the syndrome struck down a friend.

“… [he] said he could hear his accent change, in 2 or 3 stages, over the train journey home at the end of term.

Be aware that initial symptoms can seem trivial – hearing a person who has lived in England for half his life say, “put it down by there” within seconds of setting foot of the platform at Swansea station may not, at first, seem cause for concern. However without treatment “by there” can become interjections of “mun” or even “Ych y fi” with terrifying speed.

Although the disease is most common in its homolocutic form, in which people suddenly revert to an accent they thought they had abandoned years ago but did actually have at one time, it also has a heterolocutic variant.

At the London SORAS support group, I recently met Berenice (28) who blames the loss of her job at an advertising agency specialising in political campaigns on the heterolocutic form of the disease. At a creative meeting, she prefaced her query as to whether an advert suggesting that first time female voters might like to grant Ed Miliband the traditional jus primae noctis would really resonate with the youth demographic with the words “Not being funny or nuffink”, and was fired on the spot. Berenice was infected after discussing the weather with a work experience girl.

Some sufferers choose to carry an information card or medical alert bracelet in order to assist first responders when the victim himself can no longer communicate verbally in a way normal people can understand. ‘Quentin’ (not his real name), a plumber’s mate struck down with the disease after installing a combi boiler in this right posh house up on Primrose Hill, is very grateful he did. While just about still able to speak comprehensibly he called an ambulance to say he had “the most frightful case of SORAS” before lapsing into a kind of idiodialect in which the only words medical staff could understand were “yah” and “darling.” It was only his desperate gesticulation towards the bracelet while strapped to a medical trolley that stopped him being wheeled into the genito-urinary ward.

Related conditions such as TIGFAF – Talking In a Generic Foreign Accent to Foreigners – can be even more distressing.

First sale

The US Supreme Court is going to be discussing the legal doctrine of first sale today, in a case that has something to do with school textbooks but will ultimately have further repercussions. Your right to first sale means that you are allowed to sell on books and DVDs that you bought. However publishers are attempting to license, rather than sell, such materials, and these end user license agreements seek to prevent such selling on.

I find it hard to agree with either side in the debate. On the one hand, if you want to sell on a book that you bought in a book shop, this should not be answered with violence. On the other hand, if you write a book and want to sell it on the condition that the buyer does not then sell it on to someone else, this should not be answered with violence. What if you attempt to make this agreement and the buyer then breaks it? Refuse to deal with that buyer again and tell all your friends. Not practical? Consider alternative business models. The state should neither uphold nor prohibit specific business models, and I suspect it should not be involved in contract enforcement either.

For a publisher there are plenty of non-violent solutions, such as encryption, digital rights management, watermarking, subscription services or being so awesome that everyone wants to throw money at you.

Samizdata quote of the day

The Americans will always do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted

- attributed to Winston Churchill

The use of the word “rape” in the term “statutory rape” has bad effects.

Should the word “rape” in the American term “statutory rape” be replaced with some other word?

I would argue in favour of replacement that it diminishes the perceived magnitude of the crime of rape in the ordinary sense (“rape rape” to use Whoopi Goldberg’s term, or “legitimate rape” to use Todd Akin’s) to use the same word for those cases of statutory rape where consent was present, or arguably present. It also makes calm discussion and clear thinking about the complex issue of consent much harder.

Incidentally, I think that most of the criticism that both Goldberg and Akin got for using the terms they did was unjust. They both deserved criticism for making public pronouncements about subjects of which they knew next to nothing. Goldberg apparently did not know that Polanski’s crime was indeed a particularly vile coercive rape of a minor. I suspect that she assumed that talented people from her own social milieu did not do that sort of thing. Akin had the silly belief that women’s bodies have the power to prevent conception by an act of will. However I do not think for a moment that when he said “legitimate” rape he meant that there were circumstances where rape should be permitted, and I do not think that those howling for his head really believe he meant that either. He just used the wrong word. He should have said “coercive rape” – but the very fact that people need to hunt around for a term that gets that across, and get into trouble when they get it wrong, is why I think the term of law should be renamed.

I am not arguing against the existence of such laws, although no doubt many of them could do with adjustment. I am told the term does not exist in English or Scottish law but it has certainly soaked into British public discourse, muddying the waters.

A night at the movies

“The only intellectual satisfaction I took from the Dark Knight Rises was when I fell asleep and had a dream about socking Sigmund Freud in the mouth. Analyse that.”

Tim Stanley, in the course of writing a fairly scornful view of the new Bond film, which he hasn’t seen and doesn’t want to see.

I must say that I kind of get his point. Whenever I see a film described as “dark”, “gritty” or, even worse, a potential Oscar-winner, my BS detector comes on. But I generally like what Daniel Craig has done with the 007 role, despite the fact that he goes too far in looking like an army squaddie in a tux. He’s not Ian Fleming’s Bond, but solidly entertaining nonetheless. I am off to the movies on Saturday.

Anyway, this from Stanley is a corker, however unfair:

Craig is an excellent actor, but Bond is a part better played by a knitting catalogue model or a 60-year-old Lothario who charmed the producer’s wife. Craig gives the character emotional depth that it doesn’t deserve, while his physique turns Bond from a dandy super agent in a common-or-garden thug. Wit is impossible; charm has been replaced by threat. His body looks like it’s been put into one of those crushers at a car graveyard then forced into a pair of swimming trunks. And while Sean Connery and Roger Moore had laser pens and magnetic watches, Craig’s secret weapon is probably a snooker ball in a sock. Can you imagine this ape winning at Baccarat? Knowing the recipe for the perfect White Russian? He looks like his idea of class is not dropping your fish and chips in the middle of a fist fight.

All in all, I’m predicting Skyfall will have the charm and good humour of a night spent manning the phones at the Samaritans. Its miserabilism reflects a culture that thinks suffering automatically creates credibility – a world where X Factor contestants weep for our votes because last week their gran sustained a paper cut while opening a gas bill.

Jacques Barzun, RIP

Here is a fine study in the New York Times of the writer and intellectual figure, Jacques Barzun. His views on art, culture and the state of our civilisation are all worth reading. He made it to almost 105 years of age.

Here is a Wikipedia page about him, which contains a full bibliography. Here is one of his better known books, From Dawn To Decadence.