Project management – putting a man (or woman) on Mars

I was asked a few days ago by a colleague if I could think of a good unit from a coursebook on project management, and off the top of my head I couldn’t. So I have started to fetch around a little to frame some lessons on different aspects of the problem.

However, you’ll be pleased to know I’m easily distracted, and found myself wondering instead about manned missions to Mars._68907673_journey_overview_624

There has been a lot of talk about the feasibility of such a mission, and even some experimentation into the psychological effects of long-term isolation. Now a team at Imperial College London has helped the BBC produce a documentary in which they sketch out an entire project, including the development of a ship generating artificial gravity (you can see a short summary film here).

The problem remains of solar storms – great bursts of radiation thrown out by the sun to which any space ship would be vulnerable, and against which there is no protection – coupled to a very high general risk, akin to that of the moon missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but augmented by greatly increased distance and time.

The team at Imperial seem to have decided that the risk of solar storms (run also by the moon missions) is a second-level problem (“fingers crossed there is no solar storm”). This aside, the general feeling is that all the technology for such a mission already exists, bar some tweaking; it is just a question of will, resources, and in the end, organisation.

I’m tempted to leave my students locked in a classroom for a week with the task to work out the details for such a project. But I’d begin by asking them to have a look at the whole documentary, so you can get a head start and watch it here (if you are in the UK).

There is also an interactive site related to the project here, and an excellent NASA site on Mars exploration in general, here.


Systematic beds

I read that the compositae beds at the Botanic Garden are in full flower and worth a look.

The compositae – the daisy family to you and me – can be found in the systematic beds.

cache_YIsyjPK_3782The systematic beds, sometimes known as the order beds, are dispersed over three acres of the gardens, and were originally laid out by Andrew Murray, the first curator of the garden, in 1845, in accordance with the then preeminent published taxonomy of plants, that of Swiss botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle (1778-1841).

De Candolle, setting himself up in opposition to the artificial and linear taxonomical systems of Carl Linnaeus, divided all flowering plants into two broad groups – the monocotyledon (those with one seed leaf) making up around 20% of flowering plants and including the grasses and the lilies; and the dicotyledon, with two seed leaves, making up the rest. Murray grouped the monocotyledon into beds framed by the low oval hawthorn hedge (see photo, above); and the dicotyledon were then arranged in clockwise order around the oval, starting with page 1 of de Candolle’s book. This outer ring is further sub-divided by four sinuous hawthorn hedges in accordance with additional broad sub-classes proposed by de Candolle. (You can read a bit more detail about the system here).

While the underlying logic of the beds is clearly legible, the planting within each bed is governed by aesthetic and freewheeling principles – testament to the astonishing variety within orders of plants, if nothing else.

If you’d like to systemise your plant knowledge, or just enjoy the gardens, ask in the office for a free pass into the Botanic Garden – the entrance is just over the road from the school.


I am on holiday for a few days, so I am not busy.

But the school is. OISE, like every other language school in the UK, swells in the summer to bursting point.

It makes little difference to the students on the whole, or to the teachers. A class size is a class size. Teachers work longer hours (and it is hot), but once you are in a class everything looks more or less the same. There may be longer queues for the coffee machine, the photocopier may break down with greater regularity, and the administrative staff might be running around a bit more than usual (this could be an understatement); but the school is recognisably the school.

In subtler ways, however, the character of the place and the tenor of its life change considerably. Language learning is often characterised, at its best, by slowness, and non-direction. If you have the time or the appropriate mental state to dwell on detail for its own sake, or to play around with language, without the need constantly to orientate yourself to a goal – an exam, a levelling-up, a certificate – you are probably doing the right thing. For much of the year, if long-term slowness is your thing, OISE is an accommodating environment.

Not that there aren’t always a few business people whizzing through. Business, of course, makes other demands. Productivity in all things is paramount, and productivity is improved by efficiency and dereliction. You have to know what to ignore, what not to worry about; you have to see clearly which are secondary problems and allot resources accordingly. You have to be able to quantify something if you are to understand it.

Business works, in the end; and all that fretting about productivity probably pays off at some level. But in the pre-capitalist world, medieval philosophers identified as a sub-set of idleness a certain sort of relentless, purposeless busyness, and in the same way the business of business generates a lot of smoke and noise, evidence of the friction of activity rather than the engagement of action.

brue4We occasionally express our perception of this as the 80:20 rule. Perhaps for that reason it is interesting to see that, whether the school is ostensibly busy or not, many of its inhabitants are clearly, one way or another, having a holiday from themselves, and locating in the process that odd state of productivity without busyness.

But it is easy to sound like a Zen master when you are on holiday and others are not, so I’d better shut up.

Cambridge Folk Festival

The Cambridge Folk Festival started yesterday, and continues through the weekend.

Inspired by the Newport Jazz Festival, the festival has been running annually over a long weekend in the summer since 1964 (when a young Paul Simon was on the bill), and has developed a reputation for showcasing an eclectic mix of music from the broadest of folk backgrounds.

You will be devastated to know that it’s a bit late to be getting tickets – the festival sells out quickly – but some are available for Sunday if you absolutely must get along. If not, here is a taste of the sort of thing you are missing – The Proclaimers, playing last year, and something called Bellowhead, playing in 2011 (imperative listening if the folk sousaphone is your bag).

Pushing the fat guy

Yesterday morning my class had a think (under duress, of course) about the trolley problem, described graphically in the following short film.

It seems (from research in which people were asked to ponder the trolley problem during an MRI scan) that in the cranial war raging in us between emotional and rational centres, the emotional response gathers strength more quickly – those who pushed the man took longer to decide to do so, the neural pathways were slower to assert themselves.

I would agree that pushing the man from the bridge is more problematic than pulling the lever, not for reasons of responsibility or visceral abhorrence but simply because the mechanisms are not commensurate. We are being asked to compare unlikes. In my imagination, pulling the lever is clean and certain; pushing the fat guy is a bit of a gamble: he might struggle; he might twist in the air and land askew; he might bounce; he might not stop the trolley at all. I cannot calculate the efficacy of the splat with the same degree of certainty as I can the click of the point switch.

The probability of success, however, is factored into the MRI research carried out by Joshua Greene. You can read a fuller account of that research in the Harvard Magazine, here. And then you can decide whom to save and whom to spare.

How long does it take to learn a language?

I had a Swedish neighbour once, and the first time I met her I had no idea she was not English. There was not a trace of an accent, not a word misplaced or unidiomatic. I spoke to her for about twenty minutes before she said she was having a problem with her visa (Sweden was not then in the EU), and I realised she was not mother-tongue.


…no idea

At that point she had been in the country for about six months, and had previously only learnt English, she said, at school.

Needless to say, her case was exceptional. Swedish is a closely related language to English, and there is a strong culture of speaking the language well. Her boyfriend was English, and she seemed content to spend her days watching daytime TV. Still, the rapidity with which she absorbed the language was remarkable.

I wrote a little bit yesterday about home; Pico Iyer in his talk discussed the hybrid nature of the concept, and the advantages in perspective that mixed backgrounds can bring. He somewhat skirted, however, the central issue of mass immigration and the tension and resentment it seems to generate. Governments have known for years that a high net immigration is necessary for most developed countries if they are to offset low birth-rates and ageing populations. Immigrants to the UK, for instance, are for the most part already at an age and of an educational attainment where they can immediately begin making tax contributions, not to mention contributions to the cultural wealth of the nation.

But for many, language remains a barrier. The government now requires new immigrants to attain a certain level of competence, as defined by the Council of Europe (B1). An article on the BBC website discusses the contentious question of how long, on average, it will take a new learner to attain that level – anything between 360 and 1765 hours, evidently. Either way, it is no surprise that language learning is a time-consuming business. You are, after all, colonising part of your brain with new pathways, and, in the case of more distant language families especially, mapping a new and subtly different understanding of the world on to an existing one.


I have an old friend staying with me for a couple of days at the moment, visiting from France, where she lives. Her name is Anna. Anna was born in England, on the Isle of Wight, but when she was seven or so she moved to an island in the west of Scotland – Arran – where she stayed until she was eighteen.

From Arran she moved to Paris to study. She stayed in Paris for seven years, then moved to Rome (where I met her). She was in Rome also for seven years, and after that spent time in Venice, London, and Amsterdam.

After two or three years in Amsterdam, she lost all of her possessions in a fire at her studio (she is a painter).

Anna in the wreckage

Anna in the wreckage

So, with her toothbrush and pyjamas and, after a few months, a new baby, she moved back to France – to Nice, where she now lives.

Where is she from? Anna would say Scotland, I think (although she has not a drop of Scottish blood, whatever that might be). More pertinently, where does she call home?

 In a talk on TED, Pico Iyer (a travel writer whose house and possessions, coincidentally, also burnt down a few years ago) notes that the number of people now living in countries not their own is an estimated 220,000 million, a Diaspora equivalent to what would be the fifth largest nation on earth. This vast movement of peoples has led over time (and it is not, in truth, a new phenomenon) to a mixing of origin and identity, such that many of us do not have a single or simple home – home is not a place but a complex thought.