February 2009

The reports on school mathematics drop bleakly one on top of the other. Each arrives at the same recommendation: a child needs a teacher to sit down with them and explain it in understandable terms; in other words, individualised learning. The drawback is the cost. Mathematics teachers are in demand elsewhere. The downsizing of the maths-savvy financial sector may have led to a temporary improvement in recruitment but a radical solution is required.

Many parents opt for private tuition, particularly for examination preparation. This is mainly provided by private tutors, often working within a franchise. Tuition centres, which, by aggregating students, could provide a more efficient service, are comparatively few. This is the direct result of government education policy which is biased against private education. Although about 7% of British children attend “private” schools, these are not actually private schools – they are charitable foundations. A private school seeks to make a profit which is frowned upon.

The financial obstacles to private educational providers are considerable. They have to charge parents VAT. They incur corporation tax as well as income tax. They do not qualify for relief on the local tax. By contrast, a charitable school avoids these fiscal burdens. Furthermore, a private tutor does not charge VAT, may not declare the income to the tax collector, and works without premises. Thus the UK has a fragmented private tuition sector. The outcome is confused and expensive access to individualised mathematics support.

The government has high expectations of the nation’s schools. Yet, it does not have the wherewithal to fund them to the extent required. It needs to encourage more investment in the education sector. There are numerous projects involving some sort of public-private partnership, but these have not transformed educational attainment. Dismantling the barriers to private schooling would unlock a swathe of private capital which would enhance the education sector.

There is a fear that private schooling may widen social divisions. However, society is not riven by mathematics nor, indeed, by differential knowledge of any particular subject. Improving the subject knowledge of children brings obvious personal and social benefits. We need to give children every opportunity to learn in the best way for themselves.

The ancients were not allowed to meet face-to-face with their ruler. They would stoop low to show obeisance. Bowing can be quite a sophisticated art when conducted properly. A vestige of this is to be found in the etiquette when encountering the Queen. The practice is being revived in an unexpected manner. Media types tell us that it is now illegal to take photographs of police constables. As the police symbolise State authority, it seems we can no longer look at photographs of our rulers.

The relevant statute is the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 which makes it an offence to elicit information about a constable which is likely to be useful to a terrorist. Since taking a photograph may be construed as eliciting information, then photographers could find themselves arrested.

Any citizen wary of oppressive government will wonder if this is another example of the State over-reacting to the “terrorist threat”. However, looking more closely at the law, a different story emerges. The latest Act amends an earlier one – the Terrorism Act 2000 – which had already prohibited photography useful for terrorism. The amendment makes it clear that the prohibition includes taking photos of police constables. The logic of the prohibition is as follows:

2000 Act: Do not take photos useful for terrorism.
2008 Act: Do not take photos useful for terrorism including photos of constables.

The scope of the 2008 Act was already included in the 2000 Act. It was already illegal to take photographs of constables if useful for terrorism. Yet the 2008 Act has generated much ire. People seem to ignore the logic of inclusion. Cognitive psychologist have a name for this – the Inclusion Fallacy.

There are two explanations for the Inclusion Fallacy in the political context: the trigger effect and the short-term memory effect. The first is based on the notion that an underlying grievance needs a trigger to bring it to public attention. Photo-journalists will naturally be keen to ensure that their freedom does not get usurped by the law-makers. They need the trigger to raise it up the political agenda and perhaps deter the government from pursuing even more restrictive policies. The short-term memory effect ignores the past. What counts is the here and now, the latest change. Given that the amendment specifies police constables then, under this view, the government must be tightening up on photographing constables.

Should we be worried? The latest amendment has arguably reduced the likelihood that a photographer would get arrested in normal circumstances. The courts will know that there is an emphasis on protecting members of the security forces and police constables who may be the target of terrorist activity. Crucially, police will need to be reasonable in enforcing the prohibition on photography. Nobody wants tourists outside Buckingham Palace to be arrested. Ironically, it is not prohibited to take a photograph of our Monarch when she fulfilling her public duties.

There are five pubs closing every day in England. This trend has been increasing over the last few years. The pubs are giving way to more modern pastimes such as coffee houses and fast food joints. Beer sales are at their lowest since the 1930s. Supermarkets offer discounted prices on alcohol enabling domestic alcoholism and youth binge drinking. It is rare to plan a night’s entertainment as an evening in the pub. The public house has served as one of the most distinguishable aspects of culture in the British Isles. The uniqueness of the pub experience, its cosy friendliness, is what visitors to these shores remember. Yet, as usual, the tradition is fading fast.

Some pubs remain resolutely traditional. No recorded music, no Big Screen TV, no one-armed bandits. Many of these still have a loyal following. Yet vast numbers of this kind were disposed of during the property price boom. It was more profitable for landlords to sell the pub to develop some “luxury” or even “affordable” housing. The adverse impact on the community was not of their concern. Other pubs have become, in effect, restaurants. These “gastro-pubs” offer a sophisticated menu with the choice of fine wines. They are a few steps up from the traditional pub experience.
Another way forward is for pubs to adapt so that they retain a traditional feel whilst providing some of the experiences demanded by their younger clientele. Tradition requires some combination of a mixture of regular customers, traditional real ales, seats by the bar, a real fire, a snug, friendly bar staff, a pub landlord who had a career before, crisps and nuts and perhaps a sandwich as the only food available (because people would have a drink before eating at home). The next step up requires reasonably priced basic pub food such as fish and chips, a Sunday Roast and to be fully modern, a vegetarian option.

I was at a pub last night in Camden Town, the The Liberties Bar, which provides the next level of diversions. It has sophisticated recorded music- from jazz and reggae to rock and electronic chill- downstairs, but an acoustic set playing upstairs. The upstairs room also hosts comedy evenings and other events. It is an intimate atmosphere with lego sets and crayons and paper on the table to permit creativity.

The bar downstairs is in the centre with comfortable settees around solid wood tables. The lighting is as for a theatre with tiny hanging spotlights changing the mood periodically. The pool table attracts a group of young musicians and their entourage laughing and flirting as they played. A birthday party arrived comprising blue-painted smurfs with accompanying head gear. It was all very cool, very fashionable, very London. It is part of a trend. Pubs have a future.

Australians gave harrowing accounts of how they had survived the recent forest fires which had burned down their homes. They would have to rebuild their lives from scratch. In the emergency, their priorities were clear – to save family, neighbours, pets and animals. What struck me was that several spoke of their regret that they couldn’t save their photographs. Whereas a house could be rebuilt, and animals bred, photographs are irreplaceable. Photographs refresh cherished memories. Without the photographs, many memories would be lost. The memories of loved ones would be dimmed or lost forever.

Photos from the last century are generally on prints. I acquired my first digital camera in 2000. Not only did this make it easier to archive photos on digital storage, it also meant that I took many more photos. Rather than a photograph only being taken on special occasions it meant that all occasions became special. My parents used the famous Kodak Brownie to take pictures on film. We looked forward to when the developed prints would be returned from the chemist in a week or so. Each photo was pored over and discussed. It was the viewing as much as the taking which was special. The sentimental value built up.

Now I have thousands of digital and scanned photos and I struggle to keep them in order. I am therefore pleased with latest version of the Mac photo album software called iPhoto. It lets me classify photos by face in the easiest way imaginable: it suggests names for faces. After a few trials of yes and no, it gets the idea of who’s who and the tagging proceeds smoothly. The photos can also be linked to places. I can revisit a photo itinerary of my life. I enter geographical data manually but even this will be avoided with a GPS camera.

I would not want to lose my photos. I still get worried about whether I have a secure backup. No doubt remote sites like Flickr are of some help. Nor would I want to lose the albums I have created, the photo-histories, the itineraries and the presentations. They are irreplaceable.

When the phone rings at home on a weekday I am suspicious. The only calls at that time are from people or robots selling me something. But this call was different. First of all, it wasn’t a withheld number. Secondly, it was a mature woman’s voice with a lilting Welsh accent. She sounded genuine. She was trying to get in contact with a neighbour of mine. She had written to her friend but the letter had been returned. Could I pop round with a message for the new occupier asking to pass on a message to call Wendy. As the house was only a few doors from me I didn’t think that would be an imposition. But I was curious to know how Wendy had obtained my phone number. She explained that she was on the internet and typed in the local postcode and found my phone number.

It would be really handy if such a lookup facility existed for the general public – but as far as I am aware it doesn’t – even 192.com is not that accommodating. I asked for the name of the website. Wendy told me it was called ASP. Since .asp is a webpage suffix it is possible that Wendy had got a bit mixed up. So this little old lady from Caerphilly had the nous to find out my home phone number but couldn’t remember the name of the website. I supposed that was possible but the incongruity was growing. I pressed further – could she not simply write again to the occupier. She could, but it would be quicker if I did it. Yes, quicker for her, but not for me. I felt I was being drawn unwittingly into somebody else’s world.
I didn’t want to pry, but what was the urgency, what was the letter about? It was marked private and confidential, you see. Finally, Wendy said that she did not know what was in the letter. She only dealt with returned mail. She worked for a company, she was in the post room. What sort of company is that? Well, it’s a “multi-service provider” she said. Suddenly I realised what was happening. The person at the other end of the phone portrayed herself as looking for a long lost friend and had randomly found my name on the internet which she barely understood. But then she used gobbledegook like “multi-service provider”. The game was up. I politely said that I was not able to assist and so the call ended.

There is a useful lookup site Who calls me which I checked to see who was calling me. It turns out they are a debt collection company. Its modus operandi includes calling neighbours. Previous visitors to the lookup site had conveniently posted the contact details of the organisation. I called up and registered a complaint. Of course, they don’t have a complaints register but I let it be known to the two people I spoke to that I felt their organisation was acting in an unethical way. I was told that their only obligation was to their clients. As a general member of the public I would have to make any complaint to the Financial Ombudsman. So fluent was the response that it is clear that they have this type of complaint fairly often.

I am aggrieved that my home phone number was accessed by a private company in the ruthless pursuit of a debtor. I was misled by the company as to the nature of its operation. The last time I had an unsolicited text message informing me I had won a dream holiday I reported it to the regulator. That company was fined.

Suppose you had to get some work done on your bathroom. You meet with the potential plumbers, discuss the job and get quotes. You have all the information you need, you just have to decide. Let’s say that you want to be able to explain the decision to someone else so you want to make it objective. You devise a neat table setting out the important criteria and then score the plumbers. You might have cost, track record, customer service and so on. Give them marks out of 10. You might place greater weight on cost. Whichever gets the highest overall score should get the job, right? Wrong.

The weakness of the scoring matrix approach is found in the weightings given to the criteria. These should depict the relative importance of the criteria. Unfortunately they rarely do so because they are set too early. Objectivity requires that we should not know in advance what the scores are going to be. For example, one could end up with quotations from the plumbers within a relatively narrow price range. Let’s say that the price difference is miniscule. It is a mistake to give more weight to the price than to the track record of the plumber. The risk associated with poor workmanship would outweigh the cost savings. Weightings should come after scoring. It is only then that we are in a position to judge the relative importance of the criteria – given the range under consideration.
Using a “scientific” method makes a favourable impression. It is one of the most widely used methods of decision making. It is prevalent in business and the public sector, in recruitment and supplier selection. Some organisations make it mandatory. Unfortunately, it is grossly misunderstood. As a result, faulty decisions are commonplace. The next time you wonder how an unsuitable somebody managed to get a position in your organisation do not be surprised to learn that they ticked all the right boxes. It is just that some boxes should have been more important than others.

Chess played over the board is dying in Britain. Whether it be in league games, weekend tournaments or junior competitions, there is a dearth of young players whilst there are plenty of older men playing each other. The prognosis is not good for the future of chess. It still seems popular at primary school, but by the time the children reach secondary school the enthusiasm wanes. No doubt there are plenty of other distractions, not least electronic or internet based games.
One loss is that chess is good for developing children’s minds and developing confidence. They get to concentrate for several minutes at a time and to think logically. I used to teach chess to children and I found something quite extraordinary: it wasn’t necessary to explain the rules to them – they all just picked it up. They would watch each other and correct each other. Hence the famous story about Capablanca who learned by watching his father at the age of four and pointed out an illegal move. I have always thought of chess as more of a language. Some people become very fluent at it.
Another loss is that chess is perfectly international. You can go anywhere in the world and find someone to play chess with. It brings people together. In the epic Fischer-Spassky World Championship in Reykjavik in 1972, during the height of the Cold War, chess was the common language of the United States of America and the Soviet Union. I suppose in the future, the game of choice will be something like Warcraft.
There are many Victorian parlour games that have disappeared. Even the board games I played as a child – Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly, Risk, Stratego, Othello, Go – are rarely played. I get the impression that word games such as Scrabble and Boggle remain reasonably popular. Meanwhile the rise of Crosswords and Sudoku in the press gives adults, especially commuters, another avenue for intellectual challenge.
Chess will never completely disappear because of the supreme beauty of the game and the fanaticism of its adherents. It has recently become very popular in India (its birthplace) due to the success of Anand, and China is also promoting the game so at least the developing world will keep it going. It is a cheap game to play and doesn’t require any batteries, unless for an electronic clock.

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