Thursday, 27 February 2014

An authentic life: no TV

(Images reproduced from Daily Mail, Guardian and various websites under fair use - let me know if there's been an copyright infringements).



Authenticity is living the life of one's own choosing, of being aware that the choices made are truly self-motivated and directed and that the consequences are similarly our own to live by.

Inauthenticity, as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre capably explained in his philosophical writings, was making the assumption that one's life is somehow directed by other forces, that one's choices are not really personal choices but a matter of biological or theological fate. Sartre railed against the notion that our actions are predetermined. He believed that inauthenticity is a particularly vile mode of being: humans are free and to pretend otherwise is to cheat ourselves of our very nature.

Sartre wrote in a time when most contact was face-to-face; when conversations flourished in cafes and homes - before the television set invaded the home and effectively lobotomised the population. He was unaware of the psychological studies that showed how suggestible people can be, how individuals fall into collective beliefs or how our environments condition our actions and thinking. Marketing people know we can be manipulated - that's why they spend millions on attracting our money: and they particularly use the media and particularly the moving media of tv and online adverts because its effectiveness in getting a message across is that much stronger.

We become inauthentic when we lose the ability to control our lives, our thoughts, our critical capacities. And so losing we become slaves. Sartre demanded that we challenge our excuses - the excuses that we make when we blame others for our situation. He was assuming that people are fully capable of shrugging off mental lethargy and rising to his philosophical challenge.

What we have done in life cannot be changed (our facticity, Sartre calls it) and we are subject to prior decisions that may haunt or follow us still. Such events and prior actions we cannot change. But we are certainly free in the sense of choosing our next action, our next course or plan. We can choose to atone for our past mistakes and sins, we can choose to face courageously the professional or filial errors we have made, we can choose to alter our diet or place of abode. We can choose to smile.

As a philosopher, I agree with him: we can think differently about our lives and we can either make excuses or change. Nonetheless, I am interested in the extent to which people fall into a lethargy that conditions them not to raise their consciousness ... and I'm particularly concerned about the effects that are constantly conditioning people not to raise their consciousness but to remain on a dull level of awareness. Increasingly, evidence is forthcoming that television viewing and computer gaming reduce our ability to think. I see it in my practice and have been speaking to parents about it for years.  Seneca spoke of the ill-effects he felt attending the amphitheatre 'games' two millennia ago. (Letters)

The greatest threat to our civilisation comes from the products we create that reduce our humanity: weapons of mass destruction come to mind, but television or generally what we can call "screen time" (passively being entertained by electronic media) is another tool through which, as Neil Postman notes, we're amusing ourselves to death.

The spear can be used to kill or to feed. Television can likewise inform us or dumb our brains into moronity. Visual communication technology is an incredible tool - it can bring to life and provide a sense of reality to things that we could otherwise not grasp; yet more often than not it is demoted to pacifying ourselves and our children and so creating inauthenticity both within ourselves and within our culture.

For every hour of television a child watches per day, there is a nine percent increase in attentional damage. Sigman, p.15




When we plug our selves into the box (dvds, computer videos, etc) for passive entertainment, we are setting up an environment that debilitates our sense of self control.

Children now spend more time watching a television than they spend in school...most of our children now literally have more eye contract with television characters than with their own parents. Sigman, p.2

The electronic transmission hitting our eyes acts to dull our minds. Biochemically, the screen acts to dull our conscious, choice-making abilities. The screen effectively lulls us into a state just above a hypnotic or sleep mode. The effect has been compared to a lobotomy even.

Watch young children viewing a screen (and adults for that matter) - they become difficult to engage with, they become mesmerised by the images, we lose them. You can't have a conversation with anyone glued to the idiot box.
The mental dullness the screen creates creates a mind receptive to the images. Then bombarded by messages and images, our brains  become conditioned to believe what is seen through the medium rather than what we see around us in real life. The screen gradually dulls our sense of freedom and ability to choose. We do not separate the reality of life and the fantasy of tv - we live the tv: that's why marketing people use the medium so much - they know that they can get into our neurons and hardwire them for their products.

British and American couples are having less sex and less satisfying sex, while in the 1950s married women were having better sex and more of it. Sigman. p.3






A totalitarian government could not have brainwashed people any better than what people have freely chosen to do to themselves.

The Nazis - and then other governments after the war - chose to use fluoride to keep people stupid, but what a godsend the television has been to our post war governments whose aim has been to sell a new slavery to the people...they've enslaved themselves.

Television is a cultural force equalled in history only be religion...Television is The Establishment. Sigman, pp.9-10
Surely, not - surely, we've not created a world when the masses are manipulated by a few great corporations working in league with states?



Turn the TV off and have a look around at the world:

look at the youth and listen to the lyrics and games they're playing,
look at the toys being sold,
look at the rising levels of obesity, ADHD, kids on psychiatric drugs,
look at the huge debts our governments have run up,
look at the massive devaluation of currencies going on,
look at the increased taxes on people,
look at the wars for oil,
look at the environmental destruction,
look at the chem-trails, the GM foods that are destroying eco-niches,
look at the collapse the of honey-bee population,
look at the obfuscations and complete idiocy of politicians and bureaucrats,
look at the reduction in liberties,
look at the use of drones to kill without warrant or justice,
look at police brutality in western countries,

Or turn on the TV and think, ah, it's alright...there'll always be an Eastenders or football match or an inane film to watch. Send your brain to sleep and don't worry about the world around you...it'll be alright, we promise, we'll tell you what to think and what to do, just sit back and relax...there you go, no worries.



This is from The University of Michigan.

  • An average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18[15].
  • Two-thirds of all programming contains violence [16].
  • Programs designed for children more often contain violence than adult TV [17].
  • Most violent acts go unpunished on TV and are often accompanied by humor. The consequences of human suffering and loss are rarely depicted. 
  • Many shows glamorize violence.  TV often promotes violent acts as a fun and effective way to get what you want, without consequences [18]
  • Even in G-rated, animated movies and DVDs, violence is common—often as a way for the good characters to solve their problems.  Every single U.S. animated feature film produced between 1937 and 1999 contained violence, and the amount of violence with intent to injure has increased over the years [19]
  • Even "good guys" beating up "bad guys" gives a message that violence is normal and okay.  Many children will try to be like their "good guy" heroes in their play.
  • Children imitate the violence they see on TV.  Children under age eight cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy, making them more vulnerable to learning from and adopting as reality the violence they see on TV [20]
  • Repeated exposure to TV violence makes children less sensitive toward its effects on victims and the human suffering it causes.
  • A University of Michigan researcher demonstrated that watching violent media can affect willingness to help others in need [20a].  Read about the study here: Comfortably Numb: Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media on Helping Others.
  • Viewing TV violence reduces inhibitions and leads to more aggressive behavior.
  • Watching television violence can have long-term effects: 
    • A 15-year-long study by University of Michigan researchers found that the link between childhood TV-violence viewing and aggressive and violent behavior persists into adulthood[21]
    • A 17-year-long study found that teenaged boys who grew up watching more TV each day are more likely to commit acts of violence than those who watched less [22].
  • Even having the TV on in the home is linked to more aggressive behavior in 3-year-olds. This was regardless of the type of programming and regardless of whether the child was actually watching the TV [23].

Thousands of studies, the researchers at Michigan note, show that tv violence does increase children's violent behaviour, and only 18 did not. Guess which ones the tv people point to and say there's no cause and effect or that tv does not have such a detrimental effect on people's intelligence or behaviour...The media are quick to point out - just as cigarette manufacturers used to - that watching tv is harmless, that it's a cultural or lifestyle choice, that there's no harm being done...Try going without television for a few months, clear your head and then watch - you'll be amazed at the effect on your mind, on your dreams, and on your physiology.



In our house, we have no TV.

People ask us - "how do you live?"

"Quite simply really. What do you think we did before TV? Our kids play a multitude of games, I write thousands of words a week, we run a tutorial company, and we have great conversations."

If you've got a telly in the kids' bedrooms, take it out when they're at school. And better still, just chuck it away.

We are poisoning their brains and draining their minds. We're debilitating their behaviour. We are producing zombies.

They are our future. They are your future too.

To paraphrase Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

We have nothing to lose but the plug.

Remember, our grandparents were having more fun!



Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Oligopoly - what's there to fear?

Oligopolies - are they so troublesome?


Running through an overview of oligopoly with one of my students last night, several issues came up.

Oligopolies are defined as markets in which only a few dominate. The structure contrasts with (a) monopoly in which only one firm exists and (b) competitive markets in which many firms compete with one another. Oligopoly sits in the middle. Not surprisingly, there are two ways of looking at oligopoly - either as monopolies or as competitive structures.

1) Oligopolies as monopolies


These few are said then to collude either formally or informally on setting prices and thereby act as monopolies. They may, for instance, ensure that profits are shared equally, or that new customers or markets are shared proportionally.

They may engage in predatory pricing in which they reduce prices below cost to scare away the competition.

Ultimately, they aim to screw the customer by exploiting markets and using the power gained from possessing a large market share.

The few companies that exist in the market aim to create a cartel - an explicit contract between the firms to regulate profits, quality, market share, etc. Thereby they can form a monopoly of sorts.

Accordingly, the government is required, so it assumed, to enter the market to monitor such collusive activity and penalise companies when they act uncompetitively.

This is from the greatest monopoly in the nation of course. Government. If you think that markets fail (which by definition they don't - markets are always right), you must also look into government failure.

Governments tend to like oligopolies (and monopolies). They like dealing with a few contenders in the market place rather than thousands of small companies. That's why western governments have been trying to remove competition from farming - they know that nationalisation and the formation of  a single government enterprise would prove a disaster (cf. USSR collectivisation of farming), so governments prefer to use the 'market' and then manipulate it by imposing subsidies and restrictions to cause smaller farms to drop out of production leaving a few big players to cajole and politicise.

In a sense, government policy towards the big oligopolies is reminiscent of Tudor policy regarding the creation of state licensed enterprises that were given a monopoly on trade in certain areas of the world ... in return for a big licence fee (tax).

2) Oligopolies constrained

On the other hand, oligopolies are also constrained - according to the wonderfully entitled kinky, I mean, kinked demand curve - on what they can actually do.

The theory here is that if an oligopolist decides to raise prices, then its competitors will not follow suit as they will experience rising turnover from disgruntled customers rushing over to buy the now relatively cheaper produce.

If the oligopolist then thinks, ah, I should have lowered my prices. So then he lowers them and finds that the competition this time does follow suit thereby undermining his ability to gain higher revenues.

In economics parlance, the demand curve above the status quo price is elastic and inelastic below.


In a sense, the oligopolist is damned if he increases prices and damned if he lowers them. Accordingly, this creates a stable price from which we are not likely to see much movement.

The level of profits depends on the average costs of production. The model suggests that firms will shuffle around until a stability emerges and for which long run average costs can't be pushed further without a technological change in production. LRAC curve is assumed to have more of a tea-cup shape rather than a quadratic curve:

Evaluation

The oligopoly model splits into two - either oligopolies are assumed to act as monopolies and so empower themselves at the cost of the customer or they are assumed to constrain themselves by virtue of the structure of the market. 

However, what is often missing in the textbooks is an analysis of the dynamics of markets and the formation of the barriers to entry that supposedly hold back competition. 

Firstly, barriers to entry only make sense when there are legal impediments to competing with the big companies. If they have managed, through lobbying, to secure a range of licences and other prerequisites required off the government to permit production, then the barriers to entry are legal. Such barriers are true impediments that restrict free competition and hence the smaller companies cannot gain a foothold in the market place without investing heavily in securing the legal right to compete. 

All such barriers are inimical to trade and freedom of course. They secure the oligopoly's ability to maintain a quasi-monopolistic structure over time and thereby encourage the earning of higher than otherwise profits. If such companies hold their market place by virtue of a government quota (only five companies may run mobile phone licences, for instance)

The only manner in which other firms may compete is through attracting enough capital from the large firms and banks. The budget airlines successfully did this (not without a fight from the state subsidised airlines though!) - they were able to surmount the barriers through their own market power gained either through raising capital or from the profits from other sectors. 

Secondly, other barriers to entry are market produced but are no active restraint on competition. The only true restraint is legal. The theory is that high research and development costs, or economies of scale gained by large corporations, or the high marketing budgets of the big companies, or brand loyalty all act to put off would-be competitors. Well, they might put off salaried academics in university departments but they do not put off business people. Where there is a profit to be sniffed out, entrepreneurs will find a way to compete and offer a better service or a niche service not offered by the large companies. 

The market place is dynamic - it is always changing. 

Each so-called barrier is in effect a psychological barrier putting off some people - but not all.

High marketing costs? Not heard of Twitter/facebook or word of mouth?
High research costs? Not met any sole producers of organic health supplies?
Economies of scale? Small companies can run on lower costs than large companies; they can club together to gain access to bulk ordering.

Business people are in business. They are not in government. That is a world of difference: the entrepreneur's goal is to serve as many people as possible, for then they attract more of what they want in life. Impediments are often merely psychological barriers and can easily be overcome. 

What stops many people from succeeding in the market place is not the presence of barriers to trade (unless they are legal) but the fear of doing things wrong and losing money. Such fears can be overcome - that's what entrepreneurs specialise in.

An alternative view: the Austrian theory of oligopoly. (From Salin)


In a nutshell, as long as there are no legal barriers to entry, informal or even formal agreements are not wrong in themselves.  

When they are legislated, the trip over into the realm of anti-competitive measures. 

The number of firms in an industry does not have meaning. The notion that markets should be perfectly competitive is a Platonic notion that has no real meaning in the market place - firms distinguish themselves through differentiation rather than through having a few or many competitors.

Where they do converge onto similar standards or homogeneous products, there are usually technical reasons for doing so (e.g., digital bandwidths or the size and shape of CDs) and while such moves generally encourage lower cost producers to enter the industry there is no a priori reason to condemn the existence of a few companies producing a similar product/service or a few producing differently branded products or services. 






Monday, 24 February 2014

ADHD, body and mind, and...sugar

What is ADHD? Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder - an amalgamation of attention deficit issues and hyperactivity.

Children - and adults - who are deemed ADD/ADHD are impulsive, hyperactive, and fail to pay attention for a long time. Its prevalence is growing affecting around 1.3% of children in the UK.

The condition causes its sufferers to become easily distracted often with a short attention span. Children with ADHD may also find it difficult to interact and play with other children as they don't exhibit safety awareness or courtesy when it comes to taking turns and often become aggressive. ADHD is directly associated with school failure, exclusion and poor future prospects. Counselling Directory UK

This commentary is not about the very small minority who present extreme symptoms and whose condition may be neurological (something chiropractors/osteopaths are often good at dealing with, especially when the child had a traumatic birth or who has suffered whiplash injuries affecting the spinal column, notably around the cervical vertebrae or to the cranium itself).

This commentary is about the 'normal' children who fall into being labelled as ADD/ADHD - children who have difficulty settling down 24/7, around the clock, not just sporadic bursts of hyperactivity which we all get at times.

Behavioural problems are certainly evident - they're not made up and can be stressful for parents and teachers. The cause - as with most illnesses and stresses - is not a single thing but there certainly are issues that cover the general problem that we as parents, tutors, teachers, coaches, etc. can deal with.

I asked a student once to define ADHD and explain it to me.
Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder...I have trouble concentrating. 
Okay...what about this text book? How long can you read this for?
Oh, about forty minutes, then I lose concentration.
I had to laugh. "My (academic, PhD level) colleagues can't take ten minutes of it, it's so dry!"

In the case of this student, it was her lack of study skills that let her down. Her note taking was unorganised, that's all. That meant that she could not grasp the major themes from the detail and was a bit lost. I taught her to sort out her notes and her marks went from a D to a B rapidly.

Yet someone had told her that she had a label. Ah, rip it off and start again!

Children are not designed to sit still

Some children I've met have a lot of energy. They're fit and healthy and bounce around and want to run all day and climb trees and play tag and chase each other. Quite normal. But then our schools expect them to conform and sit down behind a desk and concentrate on tasks non-physical. Is it surprising that the teachers' favourite kids tend to be the well behaved? I.e., those who have conformed and sat quietly for most of the term doing the work the teachers set. We expect that all the kids settle and conform, but we should be asking ourselves are we not asking the wrong thing of our children and thereby comparing the unsettled, energetic children on a false hypothesis?

Such children usually do not have a problem settling down to work on what they enjoy or do school work in a very quiet setting without distractions.

Indeed, there may be something to say for individual desks in rows and a commanding teacher who insists on quiet, focused attention. Some may struggle anyway, as being behind a desk is not natural to our evolved notions of motion and energy deployment, but in an environment that has an enforced quietude all pupils have a chance of getting on with concentration without their neighbour chatting away about what he or she did on the weekend: enough to drive any adult to distraction - and our kids are much less trained than we are in coping with external distraction and noise!

But there is also the issue of having children be quiet and still when it runs against our drive to act.
Again, we maybe labelling what is really natural as something unnatural or wrong merely from a desire to have children conform to the expectations of the classroom and school.

Wherein lies the value of conformity? There are many great values - leadership, innovation, creativity, energy, musicality, sporting...as well as the core values of honesty, integrity, sincerity, generosity, kindness, discipline, and so on. But with children who can't sit still, it's not these values that are respected.

A very temporary student, aged 8 or 9, of mine (whom parents and I agreed was not ready for tuition...) had a very low ability to sit and concentrate for a few minutes. We managed 8 minutes I think but what was the point? Watching him run around with such an excess of energy was a delight in itself - and his humour and infectious smile will take him further in life than being a conformist. His skills lay with his hands and I was pleased to hear that he worked with his father a lot (a landscaper). A lesser mind may have diagnosed 'ADHD' and 'your kid needs to be on ritalin...' Gee.

The adult who looks at an energetic child and feels tired needs to change their perspective. Energy and the inability to conform to a desk job is not a bad things. We all calm down eventually but there's no rush to calm down as it were: we should instead be viewing children's energy as a source of joy and pleasure!

When we expect them to "calm down" and "behave" and be more sedentary we're imposing false strictures that can eventually repress their natural inclination to run around and be a kid.

On the other hand, is the child a victim of biochemical or environmental issues that debilitate him or her from concentrating at any task?

I have a few books on ADHD which give tips on dealing with the symptoms of the disorder rather than with the causes. The causes are wafted away as if they were an irritant or irrelevant. Because if you are in business to deal with the symptoms (a) you will find may symptoms that fit your bill (b) if you've got the taxpayers' credit card, you can always get more money for your corner by pitching a clever marketing campaign (lobbying for funds) by finding more clients and (c) by dealing with the symptoms and the causes, your clients will never get better. More worringly:

ADHD diagnosis is often made on the subjective observations of teachers or guardians, based on signs that nearly every child will display at some point. Aggravating factors, such as diet or home environment, are oftentimes overlooked entirely. - Dr Mercola

It is more economical, ethical, and rewarding (all in one) to aim for the causes of a problem than the symptoms. Sure, some symptom based procedures are highly applicable such as adjusting the pace of teaching or the media used (which in a one-to-one setting happens naturally - we know, as tutors, when the child's attention drifts and we can either encourage the stretch - that extra minute of focused work to train them to concentrate further, or change to a different task to rest the fatigued part of their brain. We see great results working one to one, because we and they can adjust and grow.)

But let's review some of the causes that can be easily adjusted in people's lives by looking at the body and the mind.

Body and Mind

If your body's under serious attack from toxins, if your gut is struggling to work...you brain will suffer. The brain is the body is the brain - this is the view of integrative medicine which is finally catching up with what complementary therapists have been saying for centuries - what happens in and around your body will affect how you think ... and vice versa.

For most of the modern period, western medicine - fantastic at surgery - has tended to compartmentalise the body, so severing the brain from the physiology of the body. The blood-brain barrier has led many medical thinkers to decapitate the mind from the workings of the body and to dismiss the impact of diet on thinking or thinking on health. Yet when we think of pain, we can create pain; when we think of humorous things, we can laugh ... the placebo and nocebo effects baffle materialists who have forgotten that the mind is intricately embedded in the body, yet for those of us who take a more holistic or integrative approach, there is no mystery.

If you think you can't concentrate. Guess what, you're telling your body, "I'm the kind of person who cannot concentrate ... I just can't do it ... see what I mean?"

Think differently and you'll get a different result.

But now let's focus on the corporeal side of life and what bio-chemical factors may be hindering a person's ability to concentrate.

Sugar

Probably the number one cause of erratic thinking and physiology - something that can be changed in a minute. CUT THE SUGAR!



Sugar does not just mean white process stuff you put in your tea or the horrid fizzy drinks or so-called energy drinks (read the label!)...sugar also means carbohydrates - bread, pasta, cereals, rice are all carbohydrates which raise insulin levels which in turn can cause hypoglycaemia or low blood sugar (because you've spiked the sugar levels in your body for a few minutes, they're going to come plummeting down): this can cause irritability, anxiety, and ... a lack of concentration.




Many adults go to work on a bowl of cereal (maybe with toast, orange juice, jam... yep, sugars!). Think about the adverts of the ideal home with the cereal bowl out and milk ready to pour - then wonder why they are hungry by 11am and need to grab a muffin (more sugar!) with a coffee (to keep awake as the pancreas works overtime) with perhaps a dash of sugar (or worse, an artificial nerve agent called a sweetener....very Orwellian marketing). Lunch? A sandwich with a chocolate bar...more sugar. Then a pasta (sugar) dinner with sauce (spot the sugar in the sauce)...

While adults may store the sugar in a higher than needed fat deposit around the body, children may just need to run around to burn off the extra carbohydrates flooding their body. Not going to do that well by sitting down!

Review the Standard American Diet (which is the same as ours and Europeans to some extent or less, but the abbreviation for the American kind is more obvious: SAD).









SUGAR, SUGAR, SUGAR....as far as the eye can see.



The first thing to help perennially inattentive children is to look at their diet and to remove all sugars. Yep, they'll crave it...they'll demand it! They're addicted, you see.

John Yudkin was one of the first to outline the dangers of sugar in the 1970s. More recently, Candace Pert, a woman who just missed the nobel prize in chemistry, argues that sugar should be classified as a class-A drug, because it is so addictive.




Read labels - you'll be amazed what you'll find sugar in. It's in salad dressing for heaven's sake! Olive oil, bit of vinegar, herbs...and sugar.

So the first thing to tackle is high sugar level products and to change your thinking about what you're putting into your own and your children's bodies.

When I take my children around the supermarket I point out the names of the aisles: that's the diabetes alley (fizzy drinks), that's the dead food alley (crisps and sugary snacks), that's chemical alley...industrial cleaners for the home (which then bleed into the water table, rivers, and seas - ever want to see an effect of that? Look up 'the Mississippi dead zone').



Provocative thought - not of my making this time:

As explained by The Sons of Liberty host Bradlee Dean, who also writes for The D.C. Clothesline, ADHD was merely a theory developed by Eisenberg. It was never actually proven to exist as a verifiable disease, despite the fact that Eisenberg and many others profited handsomely from its widespread diagnosis. And modern psychiatry continues to profit as well, helping also to fill the coffers of the pharmaceutical industry by getting children addicted early to dangerous psychostimulant drugs like Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (amphetamine, dextroamphetamine mixed salts).

"ADHD is fraud intended to justify starting children on a life of drug addiction," said Dr. Edward C. Hamlyn, a founding member of the Royal College of General Practitioners, back in 1998 about the phony condition. Adding to this sentiment, psychiatrists Peter Breggin and Sami Timimi, both of whom oppose pathologizing the symptoms of ADHD, say that ADHD is more of a social construct than it is an objective "disorder."

Learn more: http://www.naturalnews.com/040938_ADHD_fictitious_disease_psychiatry.html#ixzz2uF3Qh4Mx
Certainly that puts us in a spin...yet we still have to deal with behaviour hyperactivity and inattentiveness. So rather than put our children on pills (many of my pupils have come to me on heavy duty drugs which then affect their sleeping habits, so they need another pill...the drugs begin to affect their liver and hormones) look first and foremost at their DIET. Then I'd look at cranial-cervical issues before moving onto other environmental factors. Do your research, avoid the drugs except in dire medical emergencies (all medical products have a role).

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Our beautiful future

Our beautiful future


Time was, ere yet in these degenerate days Ignoble themes obtain’d mistaken [ Lord Byron; “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.”]

There is a desperation afoot in the developed world. We are not living as we are supposed to be; we are not eating what we have evolved to eat; we raise our children in a manner that is inimical to their mental and physical health; we have stopped thinking critically and rationally about the world around is; war remains a vile prevalence and states are becoming increasingly powerful and dangerous to both civilians and foreigners. Immersed in more knowledge than ever before, we are blind to understanding the forces at work around the world. Values have been replaced by numbers, and numbers are what we are becoming - we have yet to shed the totalitarian dispositions that governments tilted towards in the twentieth century. We've merely computerised them.

The greatest threat as evinced in the unemployment, remaining poverty, incredulous debt levels, and continual wars and terrorism lies not with people but with states. 

For a century and more, western governments have tried to manage their economies unilaterally and internationally through spurious economic ideas that, despite mathematical wizardry and emotive rhetoric, are as shallow as the latest hyped pop band; their policies have created chaos and misery for millions; and now the leviathans have the audacity to demand more and more from their weakened people. Government generated recession has impoverished millions and those who are sustaining the heavy burden of economies are increasingly being targeted by revenue officers. The freedom that many have aspired to over the past few centuries following the European Renaissance is in grave danger of being replaced by a slowly imposed enslavement to pay for astronomical government debt levels. Some people say we should not worry about government debt and that it is a vehicle for growth - apart from the obvious retort, “where is the growth and prosperity?” we can ask whether they have ever looked at the data.⁠1 Unemployment amongst the young and restless is historically high and represents both a dangerous level in terms of the desperation that can ferment but also a grave loss of direction and potential. To be without work when so young sets new precedents for enslavement as the youth will mature they will have become habituated to dependency and will demand it again and again until their lives are no longer free. So our states have encouraged the youth into universities to keep them off the dole for a few more years and then they come out as indebted slaves to the job system. In turn, as voters they will clamour for chains: regulations, legislation, welfare support with governments (other people) paying for their education, their health care, their insurances, and their pensions. They will want want want and not understand that in so doing they further their enslavement as the conditioning sides of the box become more restrictive and onerous. Already we hear the old saying, "well, I paid into the tax system, so I should get my return." Except that the NI and tax systems are not investments - they are taxes which are raised and then spent, which leaves the currently productive part of the population funding the pensioned. When social security was created, 15 to 20 workers were to support 1 on a pension or unemployment benefits; today that is 3:1 and soon will be 1:1. That is neither sustainable nor morally healthy. 

What is truly frightening is that few speak of their impending loss of wealth, freedom, and with it our health as a species; few dare think about what life may be like in a world governed by bureaucracies which subtly increase their jurisdiction over their lives and in which people become increasingly lazy and stupid.⁠2 

Yet history tells us what will happen. 

We will falter, we will stumble, we will lose the greatness and creativity that we innately possess and which is currently doing wonders in the technological industries. Slowly those areas that remain productive - and truly exciting - will be throttled by economic needs that cannot support them, but grasping governments, and by an increasingly thoughtless and vacant population. The great Atlases⁠3 who are currently working and improving the lives of millions through their commercial and technological endeavours may move to relatively freer nations to continue their labours as they have done through the ages, but when they retire or die, who will be there to replace them? Innovation and technological progress are not necessary conditions: many cultures have suffered Dark Ages - Europe following the decline of Rome, China, Islam… in each case following a decline in the Mind which ran currently with inflation, expansion of state activity and belligerence, rising taxes, and a shift towards prejudice and zealousness and the intense banal stupidity that characterises pogroms, genocides, expulsions, and witch hunts for anyone apparently different from the elites controlling the economic surpluses. 


Indeed, we are in danger of entering a new dark ages--or a grey age--in which we stumble forward without plan nor vision of human betterment and creativity. The great potential of our Mind, the Great Conversation which we have been cultivating since the ancients, the passions and drives of our very being qua humanity is threatened with paperwork, regulations, mediocrity, and insipid thinking. In a word - irrationalism - the doctrine of anti-reason, a bland acceptance of fallacies and thoughtless choices, and a diminution of consciousness.

Not all is gloom though. 

Hope lies forever in the human breast. 

The industrial revolution began a new era for humanity in which unprecedented wealth could be generated by unleashing the latent talent and passion in millions of people striving to better their lives and world around them. We are still enjoying the fruits of their ingenuity, experimentation, and sense of human worth and intelligence. For those who grumble that the industrial revolution was built on the backs of the poor, which has much truth in it, tend to ignore the intense improvement in the lives of the poor over the past two centuries and sometimes hold an idyllic view of the past that does not hold historically. The past was brutal and that brutality marched forth with the industrial revolution which slowly but inexorably improved the lives of later generations. The poor did not have cars a century ago. Never mind mobile phones. 

We should never underestimate human ingenuity but we need to be very mindful of the environments that we create which ultimately undermine that creativity. Environments are created by our ideas - by our Mind; our thinking can be twisted into evil purposes as when some arrogantly hold themselves superior to others or assume that other people’s income is theirs to claim or that governments can generate wealth from imposing duties upon future generations or that the effect of our industrial chemicals need not concern us. Our voices are legion and capable of rousing the fiercest passions as any war displays; far better they are aligned in support of human dignity, choice, and freedom. The computer and internet revolutions are unleashing so many voices, many of whom are keen on sustaining their freedoms to blog and discuss apparently radical ideas. 

However, the danger is that we are slowly poisoning the springs and the fertile ground necessary for human flourishing, and the fact that much of the poisoning is done is by men and women with confident PR teams and smooth vocabulary and expensive suits: that readers will not know how to discern clear thinking from poor thinking, a competent judgment from a sarcastic quip. 

As a civilised people, we will be facing challenges should we wish to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future. Every single one of us needs to question our values and to generate a vision of freedom and peace for our children and future generations. It's is normally the remit of environmentalists to provide visions of the future, and rush usually those visions are dour; so it' s about time a political philosopher offered a feasible picture of where we could be going and why. 

The work I’m involved in is not just a reminder to us all that we cannot trust people in power, it is a manifesto on how to empower yourself and the lives of those around you, so that you can become part of a movement to make the world and life around you better and in harmony with the principles of self-determination and human freedom. It’s about education and self-mastery, about realising the forces around us that act to constrain and control us, and how we can raise our thinking to challenge them or to work with the better forces to help us grow. It's about focusing on abundance and growth rather than scarcity and stagnation, about harmony and love rather than conflict and violence. 

The world has always been divided into masters and slaves … and no, I’m not becoming a Hegelian or a Marxist … but there are always people who have sought to manipulate others. The truth is that we do not need such a division - we are one people with one fantastic planet to live on: we can integrate and exchange and befriend whom we like…but governments often intend to stop our personal growth and development as well as cultural integration (unless it suits them). We don’t need to accept conditions as they are, whether its our financial indebtedness or assumption that we must destroy the planet to become wealthier (crazy logic, I know), or that we have to send our babies to nurseries and have our children reading by the age of 5 and our teenagers removed from the job market.  





anImage_2.tiff
1 As of July 2013, the national debt stood at $16.7 trillion. As a percentage of GDP that represents ****%. The UK debt level was ****%,
2 Harsh adjectives but appropriate.

3 A reference to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged which chronicles what happens to the USA when its great innovators go on strike.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Why do teenagers use fillers? Like, uh, dunno, like, uh...

Like ... uh...you know...they kind of do.

Where does such behaviour come from?

Many language experts - who follow the use of language - explain that fillers are used by people (of all ages) to provide a pause while they are collecting their next thought. Such experts tend to be quite tolerant and egalitarian of teenagers' deployment of fillers in their speech. For them, it's all part of life's wonderful tapestry, and, implicitly or explicitly, we should not judge people for their use of fillers.

Others find the fillers annoying. To add in words such as 'like' and 'innit' into sentences grates on their aesthetic nerves: the use of ums and ahs by adults similarly demotes the speaker in the ears of the listener (or rattling change in the pocket while lecturing or public speaking!).

The egalitarian view - tolerant though it may be of people struggling to put a sentence together - is more indicative of linguistic nihilism, the belief that no greater value can be put on sounding educated compared to sounding uneducated. A true nihilist denies that there can be value in anything, so I may be exaggerating the claim here, for a linguistic nihilist would logically not be able to reject an ungrammatical sentence such as 'the sat on the cat mat'?

I had an infuriating conversation with a supposed epistemic subjectivist/nihilist once who insisted that 2+2 = 4 because "that's how you see it, and my opinion that it may be 5 is just as valid." Crikey, where to start with such a muddlehead...(you often find them at philosophy conferences by the way, usually postgraduates who have read that nothing can have any meaning and then run with the theory)...so I offered to pour her milk into her coffee, which she gladly accepted. "So you agree that I've just poured milk into your coffee?" I asked her, swiftly refuting her attempt to annihilate everything into meaningless statements. She blushed. (I've a PhD in philosophy by the way - and I'm quite sure that there are values and meanings out there!)

Back to language.

The acceptance of fillers encourages a demeaning of education and of the greater conversation that the mind is capable. It is analogous to accepting scribbles for finished artwork or belches for humour.

We all struggle to find the most appropriate word for our ideas, but that struggle should be taking place in the higher reaches of our cultural-linguistic ability, not in the realm of the most basic.

"You know, I kinda like, um, this sort of music, y'know, like, uh, duh, like ..."

Please!

Hesitation, mental preparation, forestalling, nervousness - there's a few excuses for um-ing and ah-ing and like-ing and y'know-ing, but they all come down to a mental laziness, a low vocabulary, and an acceptance of low values. Or with an older person, a refusal to think before speaking.

I've had pupils who used fillers. They have tended to be the ones who watch a lot of tv. So I keep a tally of their use and show them how many times they use the word like while speaking. They are often shocked! We then proceed - always with their permission - to see if they can reduce the number that they use. (I do point out that if they are in a job interview and their response is replete with fillers, they are not likely to get the position over someone who can speak fluently).

It has nothing to do with intelligence or academic ability either. It's all about whether the speaker accepts poor communication as being acceptable or not. Accepting poor communication is essentially saying that the speaker does not care about what he or she says.

Now the reasons as to why that may be the case could be many and deeply embedded, but the speaker  is in control of what he or she says. She can decided that the next utterance will not have any fillers. She can work on avoiding the fillers by just focusing a little on what she is saying and how she is saying it. I've turned pupils around very quickly with minor interventions. Adults who um and ah, can also change how they speak with a little training.

Training, as the Romans knew, can improve anything.

If we are truly stumbling for the words to express our thoughts, some suggest remaining silent until the word comes. Well, that doesn't help if you have an idea but no word for it in your vocabulary - far better to ask for help! Otherwise, try an alternative path of words to help communicate the idea. Pen and paper are often fantastic media for communicating ideas - draw. Or dance, as one of my pupils may note.

Egalitarianism - the idea that one person should count for one person and no more than one person - constitutes the political and legal underpinning of civilisation. However, that does not imply that all words are equal, that all deeds are equal, that all speeches are equal.

Would Lincoln have been remembered for this speech:

"Right, you know, um, it was sort of a long time ago, like, that our umm, fathers helped build, you know, this nation like. It was um made in liberty, like, y'know, and ah, dedicated, sort of, like, to the idea that, y'know, all men, like, are like created like equal like."

Or Winston Churchill:

"We will like you know um fight them on the beaches sort of..."

If you use fillers. Stop yourself. Just slap your hand or put a 5p in a pot every time you utter one. Think before you speak and remain silent if you've nothing to say. Then go and read some books and find something to say. Expand your vocabulary.

As Funk and Lewis say in 30 Days to a a New Powerful Vocabulary, "your boss has a bigger vocabulary than you." There's a lot in that. Lazy thinking doesn't lend itself to getting on in life. The philosopher Wittgenstein reminded us that our world is constrained by our vocabulary - so, the smaller our vocabulary, the smaller our world. Imagine that.

I love civilisation and as a philosopher, political thinker, writer, and educationalist, I'm sensitive to the intellectual trends that demean civilisation: when our minds cannot grasp higher thought, when we tolerate inconsistent thinking and blurred communication, we are looking at our demise: so stand up for the civil order, improve your mind and your child's - accept not lazy speech.

Our children and our children's children will be proud that we stood up for values rather than let them slide into a linguistic cesspit.

Recommended texts - if you want to think better and wider, Nagel's succinct introduction to philosophy is hard to beat. 




Monday, 17 February 2014

Does GDP make sense?

Economists are keen to study data about countries - data and economists often go hand in hand that it's difficult to separate them at parties.

The fundamental data that we introduce to students involve looking at gross statistics (in the sense of 'big' rather than 'ugh') such as Gross Domestic Product, Inflation Rate, Unemployment Rate, Interest Rate, etc.

We present these as having some meaning.

And therein lies the problem that has beset economic thinking for the past century.

Data are representations of what we think is going on. Take that in a second time - a representation of a mental representation. Like Plato's artists whose pictures are representations of the phenomena we perceive which in turn are representations of the true Forms (which we cannot see), economic data are very removed from what actually may be the case. Notwithstanding this tertiary representation, the data are then used by governments to set policy targets or compare their performance with other countries - are our hand shadows doing better than theirs?

How can a nation's wealth or the value of its production be assessed?

Try doing this with your own time during the day. I'm currently writing an article - it will never appear in the GDP statistics of course, and if it happened incidentally through any advertising revenue the click through ads might add to my declarable income, it would not reflect in any way the time or value of that time I'm currently using to write it. What if the advertising revenues came a year later? How would we then assess the value of this article? Or what about the twenty minutes I spent ironing clothes for the family, or the half an hour's dinner and table conversation we all enjoyed earlier, or my wife's preparations and coordination in our business office for which she goes unpaid?

The idea that someone could create a figure representing the value of my productive day (only part of which involved monetary remuneration) suddenly becomes ludicrous.

The idea that someone - or a department of statisticians - could create a figure representing the value of a country's productive output is beyond ridiculous.

Yet politicians and economists (who should know better) and think thanks (or unthink tanks) throw such figures around as if they were entities.

It's like the word "economy." There is no such thing as "the economy." There are millions of people interacting and producing and consuming and not producing and not consuming and biding their time and holding on to things or throwing them away...billions of decisions committed daily which make up the millions of markets that generate price activity in their respective markets. There is no entity called "the economy" standing like some medieval troublesome beast casting spells and curses upon people's lives. (Nah, governments do that).

So to say "the economy's GDP grew by 5% last year" is basically a completely meaningless statement.

We can, nonetheless, generate some meaning from it, as we can from any metaphor.

Given that measuring GDP is an inaccurate science, we can admit that changes to the inaccurate measurements over time are comparable, so long as the same techniques are used by the statisticians of course. "Our estimates of what we think may have happened last year seem to show, as best as we can tell from our inaccurate assessments, that there seemingly was an addition to the resources of the fictitious entity called the economy..."

Would we give the politicians or central bankers any credence should they admit how inaccurate their techniques and concepts are?

Statistics developed from William Petty's seventeenth century analysis of exports and imports of England (his book was called Political Arithmetick). As a member of the Royal Society, we could imagine that he was curious about the wealth of England, but, like William the Conqueror's Domesday survey, the implication of Petty's attempt to record national data was gathered to assess what taxes could be garnered from foreign trade. Statistics is indeed derived from state. 

More importunely, Petty's philosophical zeal for data collection (much of which was useless) was part of the zeitgeist - an echo of Pythagorean philosophy that the entire universe was knowable through number. The latter day Pythagoreans of the Royal Society proceeded to mathematicize every aspect of the physical and human world producing the rationalist Eighteenth Century and the notion that the universe was like one giant clock - the clockwork universe presented measurability and predictability and underscored Newton's breakthroughs in physics. However, when applying numbers to human action, to psychology or to innate attributes or aesthetic sentiments, the entire endeavour collapses.

As Murray Rothbard notes:

The 17th-century enthusiasm for the sciences, building upon the quasiunderground age-old numerological mysticism of the hermetic and Kabbalah tradition, led to an arrogant frenzy of enthusiasm for quantitative and mathematical study of social life as well among the scientists and especially their cheering sections. (Austrian Perspective of Economic Thought)
 The passion for numbers clashed with other epistemic traditions that value is innately subjective or that a number cannot be put on many human transactions and assessments. "I love that view!" "That painting is priceless..." It reminds one of Oscar Wilde's quip that "he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Wilde was, perhaps unintentionally, echoing Jonathan Swift's satirical attack on the numerologists and statisticians in his famous A Modest Proposal, which Rothbard believes suitably demolished the fallacies of the statisticians.

Yet the love of number and the attempt to reduce human phenomena to quantities did not ebb. It indeed gained momentum. Today we witness text books presenting complex priest-like mathematical incantations about the state of the economy and (of course) government policy.

I mention priest-like because the ancient Egyptian priests were deemed to have kept knowledge of the seasons, the flooding of the Nile, the movement of the stars, etc, to themselves in order to empower their class over the rest of the people.

Economists do the same thing today.

Behind the diaphanous GDP fairy though sits a true beast: GDP measures the final output of the economy, which means it focuses on the final stage of economic processes, or what we normally call consumption. That seventy more apples were consumed this year compared to last suggests economic growth ... even though the seventy apples may have been taken from a tree destroyed in the wind or cut down for firewood. (So the following year would create a recession in our apple tree economy...ignoring the planting of five new trees to compensate for the recent loss).

The assumption made is that consumption drives changes in GDP, so it's not surprising that statist economists focus on the need for governments to spend more money to get the economy out of a recession. Spending increases G and C in the Keynesian paradigm of Y = C+I+G+(X-M) and so causes GDP to rise - sometimes through a magical multiplier, another alchemist assumption cast into the modern economist's brew!

Yet economic action is not at all about consumption (no wonder economists gain the ire of the rest of the academy from sociologists to theologians): action is about supplying services to oneself and more importantly to others, and many of those services are not part of the final consumption stage - they dissolve into the many stages of production, often with barely an accountable ripple.

E.g., if I teach someone to work more productively over a cup of coffee and they proceed to increase their output, it will neither enter the GDP statistics nor into the theorising of statist economists, who only see people consuming.

And we've not touched on the notion of what economic entity is supposedly being measured here. The modern world divides into nation states - so we measure the GDP of nation states: we are not interested in the GDP of London versus Paris, but the UK versus France. But what are these entities except transient political constructions?

Fairy tales are fun...except when they are used for policy!


Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The economics of flooding - why governments create tragedies.

If you're doing A-level economics, this article reviews how government failure can be said to be behind the current flooding in the UK. The opinion covers one side of the argument and it's up to you as a student to work out the other side - which you normally get in the text books and classroom: 'government should do this, government should do that, it's the government who should save us.' Here's a different view.

The Economics of Flooding: England, 2014.


Despite our technological arrogance, natural disasters do occur. Nature, as the Romanticists reminded us, is awesome and we are mere specks in both history and space.

We humans are not immune to the great powers of nature of spewing volcanoes, tempestuous hurricanes, torrential floods, and destructive movements of the earth's plates. When a disaster unfolds, we face the fear that humanity has always known - that we are vulnerable and always will be.

But a disaster becomes a tragedy when it could have been ameliorated or prevented by people: and this typically means government.

When we take a look at the current storms that have battered the southern coasts of Wales and England and the vast flooding in many areas of the south of England, several key issues arise that show how governments fail magnificently to provide for protection or the avoidance of harm.

A violent sea storm is not something people can do much about when it hits, except batten the hatches as they say and evacuate those homes more vulnerable. But preparation is the key to reducing the damage that can be done. When an event is incredibly rare, there is no incentive for people to prepare beyond the basics required by insurance and common sense. But when storms are more frequent, it certainly makes more sense to design and protect houses appropriately. Since it is in the interests of the house owner and stakeholders (bank, insurance company, neighbours) to ensure that the house is physically viable and able to withstand storms, the owners have a great incentive to protect their home from damage. However, local authority planning may reject designs to improve houses' ability to withstand storms or to install double-glazing (which happens in the UK because of 'grade-listing' - a regulation designed to maintain a random character of a house). Planners may reject alternative designs because they do not fit the current architectural styles of the town. One by one, such renovations or building that could have occurred are rejected according to political or whimsical fiats - and when the storms hit, the damage is greater than it need ever be.

The job of government is to protect people from aggression and it's excusable to encourage government to protect sea walls through collective funding (taxes) and other defences. But there the government's job should end. It should have no role in telling home owners and developers what their buildings should look like - any disagreements with neighbours can be worked out, if necessary, through civil courts. (There is a good argument that government should not be shoring up our sea defences either - let communities raise their own funds should they feel the need: the coastline will change and often the building of massive bulwarks and groynes only redistributes the power to other communities who are then hit).

It would not be surprising to find out that coastal towns are subject to the vagaries of the planning departments, whose remit should be to focus on communal defences rather than private construction and renovation. Planners do not like innovation.

Then we turn inland; the month of January, 2014, has seen an enormous rainfall across England causing dire flooding in many places. Again, government action and inaction can be seen to play a role here.

Historically, people have found villages and hamlets on dry land across the United Kingdom. The wisdom of the ages going back into pre-Roman times was not lost on where our ancestors sought to settle and build. It's instructive to see the aerial photographs of the ancient towns and villages, which stand like islands in the sea. As the population of the country increased, it's not surprising that more and more people moved beyond the safety of high ground to more marginal and hence risky ground.




People are free to take risks - some prefer to live far from the beautiful flowing rivers of this emerald isle, while others prefer to have the freedom to walk down to the water near their house. Naturally, those who live nearer to water would, in a truly free market system that has not been distorted by legal impediments and subsidies, pay less for the houses and more for the insurance and have a greater incentive to protect their homes.

Central planning however, has encouraged the building of estates and towns on ancient flood plains and they have suffered greatly. (Planners are finally rejecting developments on flood plains - for now). And governments have leaned on insurance companies to provide coverage where no coverage would otherwise be had or such that would be at a high premium.

But planners rarely plan properly. They can't. They are no part of the market process which assesses each action according to its costs and benefits as measured by prices. Planners disregard prices, which means in turn that they are subject to diverting fashions such as 'don't dredge the rivers' or permitting the building of 'new homes for the new century' so a government can look good either to environmentalists or to people struggling to get onto the housing ladder. Most of the folk who work for the Environment Agency no doubt are sincere in their belief and intention that they seek to minimise harm to people's lives and livelihoods - but they are often subject to being ignored by planners who are closer to political pressures.

Accordingly, economics elucidates that those would choose to live elsewhere than pay a higher insurance premium are subtly encouraged by false (distorted) price signals to live in areas of higher risk. When we look at Happisburgh on the north Norfolk coast, its houses are falling into the sea - they are the extreme illustration of risky living.

The price for such houses would be very cheap - cash buyers, no insurance coverage. But imagine if the government encouraged people to remain living there, despite the obvious erosion taking place?

The flooding of many parts of England reflects the less extreme: houses built where houses should not have been planned (government, not private parties plan house construction in the UK), and insurances distorted by government fiat rather than market assessment.



Nature has an indelible memory when it comes to old water ways - water will flow the quickest route to the seas or underground reservoirs and, like a badger on an old track, nothing will stop its flow. The flows can be diverted of course - but then someone else gets the water.

The flow of water across Britain is not subject to the natural flows that our ancient ancestors knew. They knew that the Somerset plains flooded - we recall stories of King Alfred in the marshes around the Glastobury region, and they did not build there except on the islands. Famed Mulcheney in Somerset means the increasing great isle - ie., the floods were receding during the Anglo-Saxon period of English history. Then there's Ely - called The Isle of Ely. The flows are now diverted and twisted - farming, a hugely subsidised industry, has diverted much of the flow and often into smaller streams or rivers. But the farmers do not own the rivers...the government does. And governments have shown no incentive to dredge the rivers properly in recent decades, an omission which has angered local people affected by the floods who have expected the government to keep up its end of the bargain.

The failure to dredge the rivers is now palpable to those suffering. Villagers in Somerset have demanded that the government dredge the rivers for many years, but each year a Minister enters the fray and talks about exceptional weather and how isolated such events are. Except they seem awfully frequent these days. Whether that's due to 'climate change' (which is always changing), government seeding the air (chemtrails in the US and UK: watch the video to blow your mind), or just freaky weather patterns, the lack of preparation and the costs of the unfolding disaster can be put fairly upon government shoulders.




Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Why do teenagers use fillers? Like, uh, dunno, like, y'know..

Like ... uh...you know...they kind of do.

Where does such behaviour come from?

Many language experts - who follow the use of language - explain that fillers are used by people (of all ages) to provide a pause while they are collecting their next thought. Such experts tend to be quite tolerant and egalitarian of teenagers' deployment of fillers in their speech. For them, it's all part of life's wonderful tapestry, and, implicitly or explicitly, we should not judge people for their use of fillers.

Others find the fillers annoying. To add in words such as 'like' and 'innit' into sentences grates on their aesthetic nerves: the use of ums and ahs by adults similarly demotes the speaker in the ears of the listener.

The egalitarian view - tolerant though it may be of people struggling to put a sentence together - is more indicative of linguistic nihilism, the belief that there no greater value can be put on sounding educated and sounding uneducated. A true nihilist denies that there can be value in anything, so I may be exaggerating the claim here, for a linguistic nihilist would surely reject an ungrammatical sentence such as 'the sat on the cat mat'?

Perhaps not.

The acceptance of fillers encourages a demeaning of education and of the greater conversation that the mind is capable. It is analogous to accepting scribbles for finished artwork or belches for humour.

We all struggle to find the most appropriate word for our ideas, but that struggle should be taking place in the higher reaches of our cultural-linguistic ability, not in the realm of the most basic.

"You know, I kinda like, um, this sort of music, y'know, like, uh, duh, like ..." Please!

Hesitation, mental preparation, forestalling, nervousness - there's a few excuses for um-ing and ah-ing and like-ing and y'know-ing, but they all come down to a mental laziness, a low vocabulary, and an acceptance of low values.

I've had pupils who used fillers. They have tended to be the ones who watch a lot of tv. So I keep a tally of their use and show them how many times they use the word like while speaking. They are often shocked! We then proceed - always with their permission - to see if they can reduce the number that they use. (I do point out that if they are in a job interview and their response is replete with fillers, they are not likely to get the position over someone who can speak fluently).

It has nothing to do with intelligence or academic ability either. It's all about whether the speaker accepts poor communication as being acceptable or not. Accepting poor communication is essentially saying that the speaker does not care about what he or she says.

Now the reasons as to why that may be the case could be many and deeply embedded, but the speaker  is in control of what he or she says. She can decided that the next utterance will not have any fillers. She can work on avoiding the fillers by just focusing a little on what she is saying and how she is saying it. I've turned pupils around very quickly with minor interventions. Adults who um and ah, can also change how they speak with a little training.

If we are truly stumbling for the words to express our thoughts, some suggest remaining silent until the word comes. Well, that doesn't help if you have an idea but no word for it in your vocabulary - far better to ask for help! Otherwise, try an alternative path of words to help communicate the idea. Pen and paper are often fantastic media for communicating ideas!

Egalitarianism - the idea that one person should count for one person and no more than one person - constitutes the political and legal underpinning of civilisation. However, that does not imply that all words are equal, that all deeds are equal, that all speeches are equal.

Would Lincoln have been remembered for this speech:

"Right, you know, um, it was sort of a long time ago, like, that our umm, fathers helped build, you know, this nation like. It was um made in liberty, like, y'know, and ah, dedicated, sort of, like, to the idea that, y'know, all men, like, are created like equal."

Or Winston Churchill:

"We will like you know um fight them on the beaches sort of..."

If you use fillers. Stop yourself. Just slap your hand or put a 5p in a pot every time you utter one. Think before you speak and remain silent if you've nothing to say. Then go and read some books and find something to say.

As Funk and Lewis say in 30 Days to a a New Powerful Vocabulary, "your boss has a bigger vocabulary than you." There's a lot in that. Lazy thinking doesn't lend itself to getting on in life. The philosopher Wittgenstein reminded us that our world is constrained by our vocabulary - so, the smaller our vocabulary, the smaller our world. Imagine that.

I love civilisation and as a philosopher, political thinker, writer, and educationalist, I'm sensitive to the intellectual trends that demean civilisation: when our minds cannot grasp higher thought, when we tolerate inconsistent thinking and blurred communication, we are looking at our demise: so stand up for the civil order, improve your mind and your child's - accept not lazy speech.

Our children and our children's children will be proud that we stood up for values rather than let them slide into a linguistic cesspit.

Recommended texts - if you want to think better and wider, Nagel's succinct introduction to philosophy is hard to beat. 




Sunday, 9 February 2014

Dyslexia...stress and labelling

Some academics dismiss dyslexia.

That seems silly.

Of course some people struggle to read and to learn.

But then some people struggle to sing a note, throw a ball, lift a weight properly, run a mile, draw a tree, drive a car, do mental maths ...We all have weaknesses and strengths.

However, when the skill is a vital one for engaging in commercial and social intercourse, the weakness requires attention and support. What that support constitutes can only be individually oriented - what one person learns from, another may not. But that is true of all of us at different times of our life, or even at different times of day.

I've garnered some feedback from parents and clients on what dyslexia means to them and it is interesting to review some of the key features identified. Most focus on the decoding of text but others also focus on decoding the world around them.

As a label, the term dyslexia means a disorder involving a difficulty in reading or interpreting words or other symbols. That's all. A difficulty in reading and interpreting. How we view the world or how we learn about something (dates, people's names, theories, plots in stories) is not the subject of dyslexia, which just describes an inability to read. If a person learns or describes a situation differently from another, that is what we call a cognitive issue. Philosophers have been dealing with such issues for centuries and have generally recognised that how you see an event can differ from how I see it: although the event objectively happened - our interpretation or recollection of it can differ.

Accordingly, how we learn things may have a unique twist. Within the remit of attempting to learn is the attempt to decode words and symbols - the struggle that dyslexics face. For some this creates a lack of confidence in learning anything or a series of coping strategies to learn about other aspects of life, and so the dyslexia becomes holistically impeding. Others claim that the 'handicap' in decoding words encourages other skills and intelligences to come to the fore (recall Gardner's multiple intelligence theory) which then compensate for the relative weakness in reading and spelling.

The symptoms of poor reading or cognition can be broad from mild to strong. But as a tutor working on a one-to-one basis, I am keen to get to the root causes of people's weaknesses and to encourage an improvement in their reading/writing/spelling/comprehension skills. I do not believe that any symptom cannot be improved upon.

One person reads capably when a coloured film is placed over the text, another when the line they are reading is singled out, another when they use their finger or pen to follow the words. There are similarities in the struggle, but are they sufficiently different because they demand different interventions? Some with dyslexic symptoms see their abilities improve when they engage in robust physical activity or actions requiring the use of increasingly fine motor skills, which then help train the eye muscles to work better. Others learn how to circumnavigate the difficulty with personally evolved coping strategies. Others fare better when they read out loud and then engage aural as well as visual skills... Many strategies may evolve to cope and to improve.

But then again, that's what 'normal readers' do when reading.

'Normal' readers (i.e., those showing no apparent difficulty in reading - and I would emphasise the word apparent there) have to train their eyes to follow the text, have to decipher the codes - the words and their associated meanings, and train themselves to focus on what is front of them. Some are better than others: I can read most passages swiftly and pull out the salient points and associations...until I read Kant, then I struggle, and Hegel, well, I weep. For others, their limit may be literarily lower of course. Our inability to decode may be relative across literature: one person struggles with Dickens while another struggles with a children's book. And again, such weaknesses are relative across subjects: someone else who struggles to read a literary passage and retain its meaning may easily understand and replicate a passage of music better than I, or to recall a speech better than I ever could without copious note taking.

As a relative or absolute weakness in the ability to proceed confidently, we should be keen to help.  Most difficulties can be surmounted to some extent or less - I can learn to swim faster, but I may not make the British team. We all have limits and some people's limits are different from others; what I am also concerned about is when the term is used a label that implicitly means not just a relative weakness but an inability to improve. 

As a label  dyslexia can be very powerful psychologically if it implies an absolute inability.

We all have limits and some people's limits are different from others. But when a label is cast into the learning pot, troublesome consequences may ensure, most notably the belief that there can be no improvement, that the label implies a comparison with others and thereby creates stress. All may result in a lack of motivation to improve.

The Brain is Plastic

Firstly, the brain is plastic. Neuroscientists are realising that our understanding of the brain as a fixed hardware is outdated - the brain shows immense plasticity and when exercised in tasks it 'grows' in the appropriate areas. That means that someone who is cognitively weak in an area can improve. They are not condemned to a life of relative or absolute inability. Cerebral nerves do regenerate and new indirect pathways can be formed where there has been damage even.

This implies that a relative weakness can be improved upon and not be allowed to remain at a low level. The overriding condition, I would add, is that there needs to be a motivation to improve. Now that is an awkward one: if there's no motivation to improve on reading and writing skills, why should the child exercise that area of his or her cognition? If I see no reason to play golf, I have no incentive to pop outside to hit a few balls. Some may see the analogy as frivolous but it's not: a child may see reading as frivolous and a chore or something they "just don't get." Their dyslexia reflects not a cognitive issue dependent on the right neurone firing as it were but a complete lack of a desire to improve or exercise their mind in that direction.

In my practice, I have often found this to be the major cause in students' relative inability in this area: they tell me - 'oh, I can just write it on the computer and it'll correct it for me' (i.e., no desire to improve as the machine will do it); 'I'm just not interested in why which is spelled w-h-i-c-h and witch is spelled w-i-t-c-h. How does it relate to my goals and life?' Or 'I find this completely boring. Why do I need to read a book when I can watch the DVD.'

Where there is no will to learn, there cannot be any improvement. We may cajole and insist on how important the skill is for their future development, job prospects and being a member of an advanced civilisation, but until the need hits home why exercise the faculty? One of my old pupils expressed his frustration in a recent employment test that left him feeling a 'prat': it was the first time his dyslexia had hit him. He's at university so he's no academic right off but it was an interesting comment - until that day (last week), he'd not really been bothered by it. So why work on it...is the implied thought.

The lack of motivation is not to be underestimated.

As adults, we don't rush into things we're not interested in. Why would we? The key for our younger members of society is to dig deeper and find out why they may not be interested.

While the reasons can be legion, think of the distractions that young people grow up with today.

How does reading relate to the child? It's a chore, it's boring. I hear that a lot. I translate the word boring to difficult and try to find out why it is difficult.

Oh, I'm dyslexic. How often do you practice? Not often. Well, there you go. If you practised more, do you think you'd improve. I guess so.

Now how we should practise is another issue.

But again, I've been to many people's houses when I used to do home visits to help young people struggling to read/write/spell and the environment is instructive. You walk in and are confronted with a wide screen tv, a games console next to it...no books, a tv in the kid's bedroom you hear, no books...mum and dad come home from work and invest several hours an evening in passive screen time. And little Rob's 'dyslexic' and gets extra help at school... Not surprised. Is he really suffering from a cognitive distortion here, or merely has not environmental support at home? Think about it - what's the first thing your kids see when they come home and then consider that people generally are keen on the path of least resistance. Reading is a skill that requires effort, patience, perseverance, and continued effort. If we remove the environmental impediments of easy tv, Sky subscription, a DVD collection at hand, games consoles and electronic doodads all around, and then replace them with books of all levels and subjects, we may create a more fertile environment for our children's reading abilities to thrive.

If you poison the spring, you'll poison the body.

The Role of Stress

Secondly, comparing children's performance is greatly injurious to their confidence, and if self-confidence collapses or is harmed, the resulting stress impairs cognitive function. Psychologists have known this for decades and continue to find the same results when they test people under stressful conditions.

A serious source of comparing is school targets and parental comparisons. Which came first does not matter. Both are destructive.

School can be emotionally painful on many levels for pupils and then they are expected to be performing in tasks not of their choosing or liking - a stressful environment at school is not conducive to learning at all. It need not be like that but for many it is - a subtle comparison with other pupils is made or, usually, an explicit comparison that 'you child is not doing as well as he/she should...'

Schools often insist on meeting certain targets...why? Because they are funded and must be accountable to either the government or to parents. Targets are not inevitable and do keep our schools somewhat accountable, but they are rarely related to the individual. I've met many students who 'don't like reading or writing,' who, when asked a series of questions, refer back to the pain of early years education - of having to read or having to write. The early pain holds them back later: too much, too soon has long lasting consequences for many who are turned off literacy. If they come to reading of their own accord, much of the stress can be avoided. If no comparisons are made, then the stress can be avoided too - does it matter that Johnny read quicker than Lizzie? Do we make such comparison when a pupil learns musical scales or draws a portrait? No. Imagine if we did. 'Now, Mrs Jones, you're William is not keeping up in portrait class. He's scoring a D and this will seriously impede his academic future...' If we wait for William's enthusiasm to spark, there may be no stopping the lad when he starts, but if we try to force it, we are creating problems.

But, you say, they need to be able to read and write, and as a champion of the civilised peaceful order of modern society I wholeheartedly agree. But when do they need to gain this skill? Does it matter if Sarah reads at six while David becomes fluent at ten? (Or that Eliza passes grade five piano at fourteen, but Edward passed it when he was eight?) What's the rush?

When a child is motivated, he or she will improve. Their brain is exercised just as a muscle is exercised. (We know that London taxi drivers learning The Knowledge experience an increase in the size of their hippocampus.) When motivation is lacking, we have a problem deeper than the shallowness of dyslexic symptoms.

Comparing creates stress: it makes us feel that we're not up to it. And children naturally magnify their emotions ... they may repress them creating other cognitive distortions. Becoming fearful, the very act of exercising their mind is stressful and under stress it becomes harder to think.

STRESS CAUSES THE CEREBRAL PARTS OF THE BRAIN TO SHUT DOWN.

Loud enough?

When we're stressed (and not trained to deal with it), our cognitive functions are impaired. This is, in my opinion, another great part of the issue surrounding dyslexic symptoms: a fear of not attaining some reading level according to some scheme...a pressure to get things right...a pressure of peers or siblings or parental desires...I see much damage done by 'times table' knock outs that primary school children do - they have to stand up in front of their peers, and if they get one wrong, they sit back down, humiliated. Guess what? Most of these kids suffer from maths stress later on that some call dyscalculia.

Stress in turn demotivates. We then take the path of least resistance and avoid the pain involved. Not surprising really. Listen to any adult as to why they don't exercise, improve language or art skills, business acumen, and you get an insight into why many children don't see a need to learn X or to practise it regularly. We then force them for their own good...we tell them...yet we avoid doing the things that we find a chore. Kids smell hypocrisy quite quickly.

Many parents with dyslexic symptoms I have spoken to express their sheer fear of reading and cast in the term dyslexia to explain their inability, an inability that often went unnoticed and therefore caused more pain and stress in their youth.

Fear creates stress.

Take the stress away and funnily enough, we think better. We calm our cerebral cortex down so it stops listening to the primordial response of flight/fight/freeze ... and allows us to learn. When we are relaxed or having fun, we learn quicker.

When we are trying to perform against others - unless we are trained to do so like a performer or athlete - stress is inevitable and a decline in mental functioning is thus inevitable. Then out comes the label and the poor child or adult is saddled with the assumption that they can never improve.

An adult teacher or parent complains that a child is poor at mental math - I quickly throw in: ok, ten seconds, what is six times seven, divide your answer by two and take three and a quarter. It's instructive to see the reaction. Their brain goes into panic mode. Panic closes the free learning required to solve the problem. Panic is primordial and does not need the luxury of higher level of thinking.

Is all dyslexia related to stress? After removing the distractions of the paths of least resistance and the lack of motivation to improve (an ideal situation perhaps), personally, I think much of it is. We can never know how someone else's mind actually works internally - what pathways they create to read or calculate or remember facts or learn new ideas. But we can certainly see the effects of stress on children's performance:  Moira and I see it when children are playing the piano and have 'to perform' for mum/dad/sibling...if they're not ready and not trained in performing, the stress is palpable. The performance is stiff and they often give up piano.

No big deal, you may say...piano's a luxury. Hmm, but children will similarly give up reading, numeracy, history, art...if there's stress involved.

The pain for people showing dyslexic symptoms is certainly real and not to be dismissed. When we are stressed, we do not perform well until our actions have been internalised and we can perform under any conditions. That's what basic drill in the army is all about - drill until you can do the task without thought; that's what happens when we learn to drive - we internalise the skill. That's what we want when it comes to reading ... but if a child is caught up in stress and cannot think, a vicious cycle is created that requires a lot of patience and love and care to help them through it. Stress kills motivation and creates mental blocks. Mental blocks create frustration and stress and so it goes on until the cycle is broken.

Where there is a struggle, there is a struggle: and that, when appropriate and harnessed to a motivation to succeed or to improve, needs our attention (and relevant professional intervention) whatever the subject or skill.

If your child isn't reading as much - ask, according to what scale, or what social comparisons are being made...but also look carefully at what is attracting your child's attention: tv, games console, iPhone, iPad...

Read to them instead of worrying that they're not doing their three pages a night. (A bit like asking us to fill in a tax return nightly...stressful! Unless you're an accountant trained and motivated and passionate about it...)

Don't compare. Don't let others compare. Don't use any labels. See a relative weakness as an opportunity to work harder and learn more. Every weakness is an opportunity.

It can take several years to master a skill. Does it matter if some children take longer? If you think so, why do you think so? On what grounds and standards are we measuring performance?

There are some excellent resources for helping dyslexic symptoms which I have used in my practice, but really the best we can do is be patientencourage a reading culture around us by pulling the plug on all screen time stuff, leave books about, be patient even more, don't compare, and oh, and keep the kids off sugar!

Let's finish with Einstein: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

Resources I use that have been incredibly helpful with pupils of all ages: