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Death of a Naturalist

Death of a Naturalist

Seamus Heaney


I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Heaney's first volume of poems all relate to his growing-up in the country. Lots of the allusions are to an Ireland that still exists, untouched by the progress, boom, and bust of recent years, recognisably "country".

The most famous poem in this volume is "Mid-term break", describing Heaney's returning home to the funeral of his younger brother, once again perfectly recognisable as an Irish country removal and wake in a way that wouldn't be familiar elsewhere. Although I must say that my own favourite is "Storm on the Island" that describes how a storms comes over an empty West-of-Ireland landscape:

We just sit tight while wind dives
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,
We are bombarded by the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

Sentiments I recognise in myself at every storm I sit out.

5/5. Finished 16 November 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Too many numbers

I've never really noticed before how over-indexed even common documents are.

Maybe it's just that we've become more sensitive to these things recently, but when I recently renewed my car's tax disc (for non-UK readers: the document that shows your car is legally on the road) that I realised exactly how much numeric information appears on the document:


There's some "expected" information that really has to appear: names, addresses, car registration numbers, fee, and the like (which I've blurred). But the real action is on the counterfoil -- a document you don't have to keep, are never asked to produce, and will basically never be seen by anyone again.

Let's start with the long sequence of numbers (1)  at the top left. Two groups of these numbers are repeated bottom right as (3) and (4); three groups are distinct and don't appear anywhere else. There's a long issue number for this document bottom-left (2). At the bottom right, (6) also appears on the disc itself as (8) -- in fact the only number  that makes it onto the tax disc itself, although there's also a barcode in the centre.

As if this wasn't enough, and despite all the numbers being printed in what is clearly a machine-readable font, there are two QR code. In the interests of science I scanned them both. (6) repeats (5) (and therefore (8)), but (7) was too small to scan with a cellphone QR code reader: it's visibly different to (6), though.

So this is eight distinct pieces of information, in the main all dutifully recorded only to be discarded when one detaches the tax disc from the counterfoil to fit it. What is it all? Since we don't have ID numbers in the UK, none of the numbers relate to me directly. I can understand a single registration number for the tax disc -- although even that's a bit redundant when you can query the tax status of a vehicle online to check whether the disc is genuine or not -- but the rest mystifies me, as does the use of three machine-readable formats on one document.

I'm not worried about the volume of information per se, as it's being discarded and -- more especially -- it doesn't seem to relate to me or my identity in any way, but I am curious as to why it all appears in the first place and what purpose any of it serves.

Strange Landscape: Journey Through the Middle Ages

Strange Landscape: Journey Through the Middle Ages

Christopher Frayling


A fascinating dive into the structure of the Middle Ages, a period often regarded as a uniformly dark cipher. Fraying focuses on four topics: the origins of Gothic architecture; the evolution of the idea of heresy; the conflict between church and reason; and the cosmology of Dante's The Divine Comedy. If these choices seem eclectic, they're both carefully chosen and intricately related to the complete story of the period.

Most fascinating for me was the description of the arguments between Peter Abelard, the man who almost singlehandedly put the University of Paris on the map, and St Bernard of Clairvaux, about the place of reason and inspiration in religion. They were both what we would now regard as religious men, but their radically different views on religion's place and relationship to thought cut the the heart of many modern debates as well. Similarly, the chapter on Dante simplifies and structures what can otherwise be a difficult book to access.

The theme that runs through the book is the similarities that appear between the Middle Ages and the modern world, best captured by Umberto Eco in saying that we have never really left Middle Ages behind. Certainly a book like this makes much more clear the intellectual debt we still owe to the period, as well as how many of the questions raised then remain live even now.

4/5. Finished 01 November 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War

Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War

Thomas Weber


This is a great addition to the biographical literature on Adolf Hitler that attempts to shed light on one of the least understood periods of his life, the First World War. While this is commonly felt to have been one of the most formative periods of Hitler's life, the author makes a reasonably convincing case that most of what is claimed about the period is actually an invention of Nazi or anti-Nazi propaganda. I say "reasonably convincing" in that the record is so incomplete as to make any conclusive determinations problematic, but the author had integrated the writings, diaries, and histories of Hitler's brothers in arms -- some previously unexplored -- to make a very useful contribution to our understanding.

The book is a repetitive at a small scale and could have benefited from better copy-editing.

3/5. Finished 29 October 2013.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The closed cycle of MOOCs

Are the international rankings indirectly fuelling the rise of MOOCs? And is there a positive feedback cycle at work?

The emergence of Massively Open On-line Courseware or MOOCs is being hailed as a disruptive moment in education, similar to the revolution that overtook the music industry. By unbundling modules from degree programmes and the universities who deliver them, the promise is to allow more personalised, varied, accessible, and (most importantly) cheaper education.

It's easy to see how MOOCs benefit some students in some disciplines. Students living in remote places, from the developing world to the rural US (or rural Ireland, for that matter) can access courses from leading universities they would otherwise not be able to, or want to, attend physically. Students with disabilities, or those with significant work, family, or care commitments can more easily stitch education into their lives, freed from the constraints of structured and time-bounded degree programme. Modules available either free or at massively reduced cost will certainly broaden access and reduce the real or perceived elitism of the top institutions.

I think there are some serious caveats with the techno-utopian vision that's being propagated, not least the suitability of MOOCs for many subjects and the way that much of the innovation is more about control than about openness -- and these are topics I intend to return to. But for this post I want to focus on a narrower hypothesis: is there a positive feedback cycle in the economics of students and rankings driving at least some of the push towards MOOCs from some institutions?

What got me thinking about this is the release of the latest QS World Ranking of Universities. These are influential sources that (I can say from personal experience) influence students' (and their parents') choices about which university to attend. This is simply a fact: one can argue that position in a research-based league table will have only a moderate influence on an undergraduate's university experience and later employability, but that's doesn't stop people considering the them important. Indeed, it is such an important factor that many universities publicly make being in the top 200, top 100, or even top 5 an institutional strategic goal that influences all their decisions. (For full disclosure, St Andrews comes comfortably in the top 100 universities in the world in this ranking, and doesn't use ranking position as an element of its strategy. It's nice for us to be highly ranked, but this is a consequence of our activities not a determiner of them.)

Rising up to the top of the tables is expensive, and I suspect that it gets exponentially more expensive to climb higher the higher up one is. The top-ranked institutions are amongst the richest in the world: Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and the like all have enormous economic power alongside their obvious and uncontested academic excellence. They are also major players in the MOOC space.

At first blush, this seems counter-intuitive. MOOCs are about cost reduction and breaking the power of traditional providers: why would the top universities be involved in this, when it seems at least possible that such a move will cannibalise their bricks-and-mortar students? It's likely they don't see this as a real threat, since they're over-subscribed by several orders of magnitude more students than they can possibly accommodate. It's also possible that they see MOOCs as a branding exercise rather than one of education, raising their profile at essentially no significant cost.

However, a more economic driver also occurs to me, at least when one moves down out of the elite stratosphere. Many institutions want to move up the league tables, which often involves going shopping for star academics: people whose research excellence enhances the reputation of their employers. As an institution gets more highly ranked, the quality of academic they need to have any impact on their position also increases, and as star academics are generally more expensive, improving ranking involves increased expenditure at each step. Increasing staff cost is therefore a consequence of a strategic decision to climb the rankings.

These stars and their research infrastructure have to be paid for, and in many systems these costs more or less trickle-down to student fees. Education inflation is running well ahead of general price inflation in the US (see for example this article from 2012), and a large chunk of this comes from academic salaries. (Admittedly an even larger chunk comes from increased administration.)  The problem is that this inflation sets up a countervailing pressure, as students look at the costs of their education in terms of accrued student debt and contrast it against expected lifetime earnings -- and in some cases decide it's not a sufficiently valuable proposition. Physical institutions can't simply grow their numbers, since students attending a university have overhead costs: they have to be accommodated nearby at a price they can afford to pay, if nothing else. The pressure therefore builds up to reduce student costs while keeping the size of the student body roughly constant.

This is where MOOCs might come in. Star academics have celebrity that can be leveraged by getting them to develop MOOC courses that can be sold worldwide. Even a trickle of income (from up-front registration or charges for certification) provides a revenue stream that can be used to reduce the costs for traditional students. MOOC development is sometimes seen as cost-free (since the staff are in place already), and so the revenue feels like money for nothing. But as MOOCs become more popular, institutions require more MOOCs, and more star academics to make them, and hence more revenue to pay for these individuals and their research, and so more MOOCs: a feedback loop that might actually become self-sustaining, a bubble in MOOC provision driven by a desire for increased international rank with a stable bricks-and-mortar student body.

Any such bubble will be an issue for universities of less exalted status, since the provision of free courses from elite institutions looks set to change how students seek out knowledge, despite the fact that not everyone is an autodidact who can learn by themselves. It's still not clear what impact MOOCs will have on education in its broadest sense, and there are certainly many positive aspects that we're interested in exploring ourselves. A self-fulfilling bubble is however not something we should be indifferent to.