Instead of TED

I quite often post talks from TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, I discover), since I use them quite often in class. They are interesting (usually) and brisk; they are accompanied by transcripts and can be associated with subtitles.

... more like Malcolm Gladwell (photo by Kris Krüg)

… more like Malcolm Gladwell (photo by Kris Krüg)

But taken together, the TED phenomenon has come in for some criticism, not least because they have become a paradigm for a certain sort of presentation – optimistic, broad-brush, plenty of wow! – which is, naturally enough, inappropriate in many non-TED contexts, such as scientists seeking investment funding for their research, but which has nevertheless bled into those contexts.

Benjamin Bratton, in an article in the Guardian  relates a story of one astrophysicist who gave a talk to a potential donor and was told that is was not compelling enough and that he should be more like Malcolm Gladwell. In Bratton’s words, it is a wonderfully stupid expectation that “an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights!”.

I suspect the problem has something to do with the inertia in institutions. There is no question that any number of TED talks are interesting; there is also no expectation that they are supposed to represent a window into actual research, which is often dry and detailed rather than sensational (see here for a look at how too much TED talks is a bad thing).

But TED talks have been successful for a number of years now, and have come to be a platform for a certain sort of academic (or journalistic) notoriety. You could build a successful career of a sort on a handful of TED talks. And that means there is a norm to revert to. The successful TED talk is a paradigm for other successful TED talks. They should all, in essence, be more like Malcolm Gladwell. Pithy, insightful. And that, perhaps, is the problem. Insight should be hard won and provisional, not confectioned and feelgood.

I recently read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in behavioural economics, one of the best books I have come across in some time (and a lucid correction to the inept superficiality of Gladwell’s Blink! among other things); and I watched his TED talk (see below), and, interestingly, it is a little bit dull. I will continue to use TED in my lessons, and to watch the odd talk myself with interest. But I will also remember to tell my students to read the odd book.

Here anyway is the Kahneman – perhaps not so dull on a second glance after all.

Voicing the Garden

The Cambridge Botanic Garden has inaugurated its Voicing the Garden website, which archives interviews with generations of people associated in one way or another with the garden, and other archive material, including photographs.

Particularly interesting is Mike Pollock, a horticultural student at the Botanic Garden from 1959, who recalls the postwar development of the Garden, much of which had been given over to allotments, and his own work on the limestone rock garden under a man called Sid Boggis.

And then there is Allen Paterson, who joined the garden in 1949 at the age of 16, who describes horticulture as the last refuge of dim sons of the well-born and unmarriageable daughters, but who went on to attend lectures at the school of Botany and become qualified at Kew, and finished as Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Canada.

Frontloading Christmas

We have now entered the twelve days of Christmas, the run-up to the feast of Epiphany (6th January) which in many cultures is the focus of the main celebration.

Hugo_van_der_Goes_004In Britain also it used to be climax of the Christmas period. In common with many non-Christian cultures, the midwinter and new year celebrations peaked in the early days of January, with Saturnalian and carnivalesque celebrations. Advent, by contrast, was a time of quiet reflection and meditative abstinence, in preparation for the Christmas festivities.

We now prefer to frontload Christmas, with the weeks before the 25th being the period of drunkenness (office parties) and celebration. The 25th is the culmination, and the days following are the hangover. In January it is now ‘traditional’ for people to enjoy a period of ascesis and abstinence – or detox – a dry month without alcohol, in part because they have no money, and in part because they have temporarily exhausted their appetite for excess.

I do not think I am alone in looking forward to a return to work, and a bit of focus, supported, perhaps, by a month without alcohol.

The Boxing Day Test

Today is Boxing Day, so-called for the alms boxes which were distributed to the poor of the parish after Christmas, or to servants in large houses.


As with Christmas Day, not much happens on Boxing Day, with two important exceptions: there is a full day of football around the country, and there is the Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG) in Australia – one of the world’s great sporting arenas.

At the moment the English cricket team is touring Australia in a re-run of this summer’s Ashes (a cricket contest between England and Australia, run every couple of years on average), and it is going disastrously – two key players have walked off the tour, Australia have won easily already (it is best of 5, and Australia have won the first three games) and there is talk of the end of what has been a successful era for England.

Oh well. There is still the Boxing Day test to look forward to, as an institution if not as a sporting event. Play starts at 1030 local time, which, since Cambridge is 11 hours behind, means that at half an hour before midnight on Christmas Day you can partake, for as long as you are able, in one of the great sporting events. There will be a full-house of 90,000, and it is midsummer. Just for an hour or so whoever tunes in in England will be in a different world.

Here then is a long except from the last time England were there, in 2010 – one of the great days for English cricket.

Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s

Nothing happens on Christmas Day, 25th December, in Britain, nor for that matter in much of the world. From the afternoon of Christmas Eve onward, the country starts to batten down hatches and pull up drawbridges. One of the most recognizable signs that this moment has come is the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, broadcast every year at around six o’clock. Here is the 2011 service (they don’t vary all that much – especially with regard to the first carol).

Oh, and Merry Christmas.


Stonehenge, one of the oddest World Heritage Sites, has finally opened its new visitor centre, a mere 30 years after the inception of the project.


Stonehenge render

Now, when students tell me they are going to visit the site, I will be able to greet the news with something other than misgiving. A visit to the Stonehenge site was for a long time a dispiriting experience. Two roads bisected the site, one of them a major artery, and coaches and cars parked a short distance away. The new centre has been discussed for many years; many plans have been drawn up and rejected, many deadlines missed.

In the same way that any public work in Rome is hampered by the need to respect the extraordinary archaeological heritage, so at Stonehenge building a visitor centre is no easy matter. Because Stonehenge is not merely a group of stones; it is a group of stones set in an extensive and still not yet fully excavated ritual landscape.

Part of that landscape, for example, is a vast processional cursus nearly 3 km long and 100-150 m wide which predates the earliest work on Stonehenge (c.3000 BC) by several hundred years, and may have marked a boundary between areas of settlement and ceremonial activity. There are, additionally, numerous burials surrounding the Stonehenge site, many containing bodies displaying trauma deformity.

The overall function of the site will perhaps forever remain uncertain – suggestions include ancestor worship, a solar temple (the site aligns the stones with the setting of the midwinter sun and the rising of the midsummer sun) and a place of healing. There have also been speculative links with Woodhenge, a series of wooden posts surrounding apparently sacrificial inhumations located a few kilometres from Stonehenge, which may have been the start point for funerary processions along the nearby River Avon to Stonehenge. The ritual journey from wood (associated with the living) to stone (associated with the ancestral dead) by way of water is common to other cultures.




For the first time, visitors will now be able to inspect artefacts discovered at the various sites, placed in explanatory context.

The centre with its car parks and exhibition space, its cafe and shop, is located 1.5 kilometres from the standing stones. Visitors can then walk the remaining distance or hop on a shuttle bus.


One of our students, Shinjiro Inomata, has been on a trip to Sizewell B nuclear power station on the Suffolk coast, in the company of Richard.


If you ask me, Richard’s looking a bit nervy, perhaps because they have given him a radioactive hat to wear (he also appears at first glance to be holding a bottle of irradiated Lucozade with a half-life of about six seconds, but that is an optical illusion).

However, he’s in safe hands with Shin. Shin has been with us for ten weeks. In his penultimate week, he gave us a great presentation on pressurised water reactors (PWRs), the sort they have at Sizewell B, and showed us something of their internal structure. Shin himself works for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, as a design engineer working on components in the interior of the reactor.

Anyway, they made it back. Here is a picture of Shin. And not to worry: he only appears to be caught in the blast radius of a hydrogen bomb – it was just a sunny day.