The Porsche and the skip

In the group project this week, students are preparing to excuse themselves for trashing their boss’s blue Porsche.

Years ago I had a friend who, eighteen-years old and having taken two driving lessons, decided to take his sister’s friend’s car for a spin to the end of the road and back, without her permission of course. Unfortunately the car was a Porsche, and before he knew it he was doing 40 on a double-parked road; he swung round a corner barely in control and found a skip blocking his way.



Needless to say, my friend totalled the car.  He was banned from driving for ten years, and his father had to re-mortgage the house in order to pay for a replacement. For all I know, my friend is still paying his father back.

Not a happy story then. Whatever lessons you learn from an experience like that are probably not worth the price. But the temptation is understandable. One of our students this week, Igor Tomadze, tells me he is very keen to visit the Porsche winter driving experience in Finland when he gets a chance, and looking at the picture gallery on the Porsche site (here) I think I might be interested too – the idea of going a bit crazy in a Porsche on an icy track for a few days could conceivably tempt even Igor’s classmate, Yuichiro Furuya, who does not drive a car on environmental principles (I notice, for Yuichiro’s information, that the Porsche 911 Carrera emits 212 g/km of carbon, although I cannot say if that is a lot or a little).


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Actioning the deliverables

In last Thursday’s Guardian Steven Poole produced a list of ten business expressions which he finds particularly annoying: actioning, blue-sky thinking, deliverables, drilling down, going forward, and so on. To date the article has attracted around 2000 comments, adding a great many more. For some reason, jargon gets on people’s nerves.

Every profession has its jargon, necessarily so, and in some cases there is even an appropriate formal register (legal English, for example). But business is not a profession – it is a system of interrelated professions concerning manufacturing, finance, R&D, sales, marketing, and so on. What links them as an argot is not ‘business’ but management. Management is a jittery science, always needing to justify its existence since an ‘unmanaged’ state of affairs – an anarchist business model, if you like – is a very thinkable one, and most management tools (tools of analysis, tools of control) are by common consent expendable.

Hence the jargon. Gross margin might mean something useful, actioning the deliverables clearly does not; but both in their own way protect someone’s turf.

75 years of computing at Cambridge

The Cambridge Computer Laboratory is 75 years old this year._67088064_cambridgelab _67088680_titan

The lab was established in 1938 – the first ‘computers’ were gifted young mathematicians who did numerical calculations longhand, on paper. The first programmable computer (EDSAC) was in operation as early as 1950 – it calculated a 79-digit prime number, the longest known at the time, in 1951, and in 1952 was programmed with what may have been the world’s first video game, called OXO (a version of noughts-and-crosses). Over the years the laboratory has been at the forefront of many developments in computing – an early example of a Local Area Network (LAN), for example, and the world’s first webcam (used to keep an eye on the laboratory’s coffee percolator).

However, at the 75th anniversary lecture, Mike Lynch, C.E.O of Autonomy (recently sold to Hewlett Packard) questioned why a laboratory, university and country so central to innovation in computing over the years have produced so few world-beating companies. His answer – that British companies had a tendency to sell out at the first opportunity to foreign buyers – if true suggests the rather trite conclusion that building a track record of success is key to more success.

There is a gallery of photographs of the laboratory on the BBC website, here. And you can read more about Mike Lynch’s speech, here.

Football comets

Pub evening was shifted forward this week, so that students could enjoy the spectacle of Bayern Munich thrashing Barcelona 4-0 on Tuesday night. Borussia Dortmund repeated the feat on Wednesday, drubbing Real Madrid 4-1. It was a little like seeing comets in the sky, exciting, but portentous.Lewandowski

My six-year-old son put it in a nutshell at breakfast this morning: German teams are having a fever of winning four-something against Spanish teams.

In the Guardian, Jonathon Wilson agrees that general conclusions can be drawn regarding the changing tides of football. He submits, broadly, that while tika-taka is not dead, its greatest exponents stumbling to catastrophe in Munich on Tuesday suggest a change is afoot not only in teams but in styles of play. (read the article here)

He also notes that German economic muscle is being thrown more these days behind its football teams. While we like to think that national virtue underlies the performance of our teams, the correlations between population size (or fanbase), investment, and diffusion of the game and its structures through a population are in fact extremely strong. In the long term, Brazil are always going to be better than Colombia; Manchester United always superior to Preston North End. Money, in the end, prevails.

However, while such a reductionist history of the game could be written, football is, in cultural terms, a complex system with its own patterns of emergence; the economic history of football could not have predicted, for example, the rise of Total Football in Ajax Amsterdam and Bayern Munich in the early 1970s; it could not have predicted the Cruyff turn.

Perhaps we were not witnessing a structural change on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, so much as one more pleasing ornamental arabesque on the history of the game. Perhaps, in the end, a match is just a match. Either way, we have a couple of very happy Germans at the school this week. Their only regret, I imagine, is that they have no Spanish classmates.

Do you know who I am?

This week Students at OISE Cambridge are preparing a dialogue at an airport check-in for their project.

Do you know who I am?

How can you best hope to get through a closed airport check-in gate – persuasion, threats, pleading, bribery? Or perhaps just fame. ‘Do you know who I am?’ is believed by many to be the open-sesame of our day.

It doesn’t always work, however. Reese Witherspoon was arrested this week for disorderly conduct, despite clarifying with the officer that he knew who she was. And then there is the case of A.J. ‘Freddie’ Ayer, one of the great British philosophers of the twentieth century, who (extraordinarily) was once at a party with Mike Tyson. The New York Review of Books takes up the story:

‘Ayer — small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old — was entertaining a group of models at a New York Ayerparty when a girl ran in screaming that her friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. The parties involved turned out to be Tyson and Naomi Campbell. ”Do you know who the &@*k I am?” Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ”I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” ”And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,” Ayer answered politely. ”We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.”’


the-fuji-from-the-mountains-of-totomi-600I remember a friend of mine, an American who lived in Rome, starting to study German. His Italian was impeccable, but for some reason he wanted to go to Berlin to study Russian. So first he needed German. He found an old novel without a cover in a second-hand bookshop and started to work his way through it with an Italian-German dictionary a page at a time, listing words and their translations and committing the lists to memory.

I looked at one list and it contained a variety of improbable items – lens, coal, enticing, spuriously, bobbin.



I said to my friend, why would you need to know a word like ‘bobbin’? And he replied with a shrug, languages are pretty big. It doesn’t really matter where you start. You just have to pick a corner and go.

I’m not sure it is a technique I would recommend to my students (although one moral of the story is, when it comes to learning, anything goes – and my friend was an exceptional language-learner: he has lived and worked in Germany ever since, and is married to a Russian, and has three tri-lingual children). But it remains sadly (gloriously?) true that a language is a vast pile of detail organised by imperfect generalisations whose utility is rapidly exhausted. There comes a point for every language learner where progress becomes imperceptible. It really is just one word after another.

It might seem futile, therefore, to dwell for any length of time over any single item, the sort of counter-intuitive Zen exercise for which none of us really have time. But there is, conversely, little point being in too much of a hurry to move on. It is on the whole better to learn one word, or one combinations of words, one phase, one example sentence, well, very well, rather than any number of words haphazardly.

And this is especially true, paradoxically, in an intensive course. It might almost be a useful exercise for many language learners to make a project-type study of a single word over the course of a week: its collocations, its variant forms and spellings, its pronunciation in various parts of the English-speaking world, something of the history of the word, its etymology; to rehearse its synonyms, its antonyms, to know the contexts in which it is appropriate, inappropriate; to write essays about that single word, to give presentations on it. Properly, in other words, to locate it. And to come away from a week of learning not only with a single word, like a pearl-diver emerging from the deep, but with a thoroughly  misdirected experience of using the language.

A bit too Zen, perhaps; but then I am writing this during my lunch hour sitting near the foot of the Yoshino cherry tree I mentioned on this blog yesterday, thinking of the famous words of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who in his old age and already a justly celebrated painter, wrote, in the afterword to his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (an obsessive project in its own way), as follows:

“From the age of six I have had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.”

I do not seriously suggest that students start their study of English with bobbin.  Nor that they spend a week turning it in their minds like a poet. But if the idea, at least, slowed them down somewhat, forced them to focus on words in the same way that Hokusai focussed on a single mountain, that might not be the end of the world.





Yoshino Cherry in Cambridge

According to a recently departed student, Daisuke Narita, the cherry blossom has been and gone in Japan. He told me this rather mournfully before he left, having been in England for several months.Yoshino cherryHowever, anyone sorry to miss the Japanese cherry blossom season will be pleased to know that the Yoshino cherry tree (Prunus x yedoensis) in the Botanic Garden is in full flower on the main lawn, where it will shortly be joined by the Prunus cyclaminea in a binary system of bloom.

Yoshino cherries are stable hybrids with rather tasteless fruit (to humans: squirrels and birds seem to enjoy them). They are famous outside Japan as the principle flowering tree in Central Park, New York — A number of examples were presented to New York City by the government of Japan in 1912; most of the trees are their descendants, but a few are reputedly originals. 903214_10151432552569482_688504427_oRead about them here, or better still, pay them a visit (passes to the Botanic Garden are available on request in the OISE Cambridge office).