Archive for the ‘society’ category

A tale of two cities on bicycles

October 1, 2018

Recently while driving in Aberdeen I stopped at a red traffic light. A cyclist came up to my car and knocked on my window, and when I opened it he pointed out I had moved just a little on to the space just in front of the lights reserved for cyclists. I apologised. He smiled, and we all moved on when the light turned green.

Two days later I was driving in Dublin on a visit there, and again stopped at a red light at a busy intersection in the city. As I waited for the lights to turn green I observed no fewer than seven cyclists merrily cycling across the red light on to the intersection, in one case narrowly missing both a bus and a pedestrian (who was in his case also jaywalking). It occurred to me that none of these Dublin cyclists would have accosted me in Aberdeen because they would have been too busy cycling across the red lights.

I raised this issue on this blog some years ago, and when I did so received a significant amount of hate mail in response, asserting that cyclists were put-upon and victimised road-users. One suggested to me in a somewhat tortuous argument that the only way he could protect himself from vicious motorists like me was to ignore traffic laws. I imagine he also felt that cycling at night without lights gave him better protection. Of course some motorists behave irresponsibly, but that doesn’t mean cyclists should in much greater numbers do the same.

I enjoy cycling myself, so this isn’t a biased attack on the pedalling community; though mind you, I wouldn’t be seen dead in some of the velcro outfits. But it is time for cyclists to be responsible road users, and to show consideration for others, and indeed for themselves and their own safety. This seems to be better understood in Aberdeen than in Dublin, and I hope it stays that way. In Dublin the Gardai (police) made a short-lived effort to enforce the rules of the road against cyclists and then gave up when there was an outcry. I think the outcry should go the other way.

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The academic life – student emails

August 27, 2018

When I began any lecturing career in 1980, in the days before the internet or even mobile phones, it would have been totally impossible for a student to reach me outside of normal working hours. By the time my active teaching came to an end (in 2000), I was beginning to get both emails and phone calls into the night; though this was still a relatively rare thing, and almost always the students were polite when they reached me.

It became clear to me how much had changed when a colleague from another institution contacted me recently to ask me for advice, as he was seriously stressed with the number of student emails he was receiving; in particular because many of these were, he claimed, insistent in nature. He showed me some of the offending messages, and indeed it might almost be said that a small number of them adopted a bullying tone.

It’s not a unique problem, and some academics – such as here – have suggested guidelines for responding to student emails. One has to strike the right balance of course. Higher education teaching and learning is an interactive process, and we should not be discouraging students from using contemporary methods of communication. Universities should be student-centred institutions.

Equally learning how to use emails or other online tools appropriately should be part of the student experience, and academics should not be hesitant to point out where it is not being done to good effect or in an offensive manner. Students, like everyone else, may not always realise how their online communications come across to the reader.

But those academics who become stressed by their experience should do what my friend did: contact someone who can advise and perhaps offer practical help. Responding irritably or even aggressively is almost certainly never a good idea. Get help.

Oh very young

August 22, 2018

At a recent meeting with some students I was admiring the close coordination between two of them as they explained an issue to me, and complimented them by saying they were the Simon and Garfunkel of the gathering. They, and indeed everyone else, looked blank, and I suddenly realised that no one there knew what I was talking about.

I was reminded of this when I read the latest ‘mindset list‘ of things that today’s young people do not know or have not experienced, or in some matters take for granted. I rather think that my generation in particular always thought that our experiences and cultural preferences defined the age, not just for us but for younger generations sharing the planet with us. But we kid ourselves, and those of us who still manage to stay with the times do so because we have become followers rather than leaders in these matters. What was modern in the 1970s definitely no longer is.

But I will say this. I was surprised, and still am, that no one at my gathering admitted to knowing Simon and Garfunkel. If they had claimed the same ignorance of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, or Elton John, or Rod Stewart, or even Cat Stevens, I might not have believed them. Our music at least is still out there somewhere in 2018, as the music of 1918 most definitely was not in 1968. We win on that one.

But overall, our influence is here today and gone tomorrow. And that goes for today’s youth too.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time
You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while-
Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

Transport and social mobility

August 6, 2018

As we head into the next wave of technology-driven social and economic change, it is worth asking whether we always focus on the most important elements of such change. Looking at at the impact of previous and current industrial revolutions, it seems to me that the key drivers of change have always been information and mobility. The printing press opened the previously closed world of scholarship and learning to a much wider social group – potentially to everyone – while the railways introduced physical mobility, thereby effectively ending the feudal system. In particular, mass transport introduced the growth of urbanisation.

As we survey the momentum of change associated with big data, robotics and automation, we sometimes forget that transport and mobility will also be key drivers of social and economic change in this next industrial revolution. But government planners are remarkably unimaginative about this: generally it is planning around faster trains, bigger airport runways – essentially improvements in existing frameworks of transport infrastructure. Other preoccupations are, understandably, focused on technology to reduce or remove polluting emissions.

But if the 18th and 19th century railways enabled people to make more autonomous choices about where they would live and work, and if that was a key to economic re-positioning at the time, what will be the equivalent in the next phase of human development? To get to the right destination, we need to do more than just tweak or slightly modernise the systems we have now. We need to ask questions of social policy, about what kind of mobility will enhance the quality of life and the generation of fairly distributed wealth, and how that can be delivered. More importantly, we need to decide what social and technological research should start now to make that possible in the near future.

The era of aggressive obsessions

July 31, 2018

Those of us – and I know this includes me – who spend too much time on certain social media platforms come to witness one thing very quickly: that we live in an age of irate obsession. This hit me very starkly on my most recent holiday, which was in South Carolina. The state is historical and very beautiful, and Charleston in particular is one of my very favourite cities in all the world; I may publish some photos from there presently.

But South Carolina is also the reddest of red states in the US. ‘Red’ in America does not have the same connotation that it has in Europe. It refers to the colour of the Republican Party. The Democrats are blue, and so, to take an example, Massachusetts is a ‘blue state’.

Back to the red South Carolina. The state has voted Republican in 13 of the last 14 national elections. In 2016 Donald Trump got 1,155,389 votes here, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 855,373. But while that was a solid majority for the current US President, Clinton’s share still came to over 40 per cent of the vote.

But within these camps, the tone is becoming more and more divisive. Like elsewhere in the US, success within a political division now increasingly depends on aspiring politicians moving as far away from the centre as possible. Just before I arrived there, a long-standing South Carolina Republican Congressman, Mark Sanford, lost the local primary election to an enthusiastic Trump supporter; he had not been wholly obsequious to his President, and so he found that political moderation did not pay. In neighbouring Georgia there is a Republican candidate for Governor who boasts that he owns a truck so he can personally round up illegal immigrants, and he has been running a television advertisement ‘in which he points a double-barreled shotgun at a teenage boy asking to go on a date with one of his daughters.’

It’s not all on one side: in New York the long term Congressman Joe Crowley has just been ousted by the self-proclaimed socialist,¬†Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is young, inspiring, charismatic – but certainly not seeking out the political centre.

Of course this centrifugal political tendency is not just in evidence in America, though the rhetoric there is particularly stark. It’s all over us everywhere, including the UK (where it’s all mostly about people aiming abuse at those who disagree with them about Brexit) and much of Europe. In fact, just not being on the high-volume off-centre edge of the spectrum itself qualifies you for abuse right now, as the ‘centrist dad’ epithet illustrates.

Is this all a product of the social media era? Have we all become locked into our echo chambers in which we can only compete with others by out-shouting their tirades of anger? Is this the inevitable grade inflation of indignation and outrage in which there are only totally right and abominably wrong opinions, with nothing in between? Is this the era in which obsession has moved from stamp collecting into politics (and everything else) while also acquiring the garments of visceral anger, often over nothing much in particular? And has this been transferred into our lives more generally, so that we can only ever either adore or despise people?

In America I watched some of the news networks, and watched how everyone was really only articulate when expressing hatred of someone or something. Surely, surely there must be some way of extracting ourselves from this madness.

Linguistic pedantry

July 17, 2018

Every so often when I feel moved to correct someone’s English (and I’m not really proud that I do this at all), I usually apologise quickly and point out that English is my second language. I learnt it at school, and with it the relatively few rules of grammar that come with the language but which almost none of its native speakers seem to know these days.

So, when I encourage people to use the subjunctive in appropriate settings I only get blanks looks. I recently also drew a blank when I suggested that, in a particular sentence, the indefinite article would be better than the definite article. You get the idea. But then I remember that English evolved by use and custom and that, until recently, rules of spelling and grammar were not really common or accepted. Really, I should just shut up.

But occasionally there are things that just annoy me, not always for easily understandable reasons. For example, I despair at the increasingly common mistake of saying ‘with regards to’ when the speaker is not referring to presenting his or her best wishes to someone. It should of course always be ‘with regard to’, without the trailing ‘s’. And of course there is everyone’s bugbear, the inability of far too many people to distinguish between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.

But as I said, the English language is constantly evolving. Does it therefore need grammar at all? Or does grammar still serve a purpose, that of facilitating accurate communication?

The skills debate – an intervention from South-East Asia

June 26, 2018

In a recent post on this blog I looked at the developing discussion around skills, and how universities should respond. In the meantime, Singapore’s Education Minister,¬†Ong Ye Kung, has suggested that the city state should have a multi-pathway model of post-secondary education and training. Part of this will be run through a new state agency called SkillsFuture, which is offering high-potential qualifications not involving a university degree.

There is an additional point to be observed in Singapore’s approach. The Minister wants schools to stream pupils ‘according to their inclinations’ regarding science, creative arts or IT. The idea behind the Minister’s approach is to stabilise careers. The general assumption is most developed countries is that those entering the labour force in future will not remain with one employer but will have a ‘portfolio’ of careers. The Minister does not want this for Singapore’s workforce.

All of this indicates again that the debate about skills, education and training has really only just begun, and governments, their agencies and educational institutions may not all be making the same assumptions and pursuing the same pedagogical goals. Indeed whether this matters is not yet clear either.