Clever Crow

I talked to my students about intelligent animals in the morning yesterday, and again in the afternoon.

I wasn’t planning to talk about intelligent animals in the afternoon, but I wanted to show my student one or two of the extraordinary crow-videos I had watched in the morning. Such as this one, where a crow navigates eight separate stages to secure a bit of food.

I’m not actually all that convinced that the multiplication of stages is a properly adequate test of intelligence, however. A human might look at the puzzle and reason backwards from the objective, but for the crow there is only ever one thing to be done next. The crow simply does the next thing it can do. A more remarkable index of crow-brains comes from Japan, where crows have learnt to use pedestrian crossings:

Again, it is hard to know how far this behaviour is an indication of reasoning (impressive though it is), and how far it is a gradual adaptation to environment. We also read in class about a crow called Betty who, when presented with some food at the bottom of a tube and a straight piece of wire, used her beak to fashion a hook on the end of the wire before hoiking out the food. Making a tool is in fact very impressive.

For all my scepticism, crows clearly are unnervingly smart, and will probably one day rule the earth. Inevitably there’s a TED talk about just that – Joshua Klein has built a vending machine for crows, and envisions a future where crows will be trained to clean up garbage after concerts, or do search and rescue.


Clay Pigeons

We have four Omani majors with us at OISE Cambridge at the moment, two of whom will be going on to study for fifteen months at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom at Shrivenham on the conclusion of their course (the Omani army has long historic associations with the British army).

This weekend they were all entertained at OISE Sherbourne Priors, home of the Executive Residential Programme. They had a bite to eat and a walk around the fields (it is a beautiful part of the country), and there was a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon on Sunday, but the highlight on Saturday afternoon was a couple of hours’ clay-pigeon shooting at the local gun club (live pigeon shooting was banned as a sport in the UK in 1921, although there are plenty of other birds you can shoot at in season if you sort out your licence).

One or two had handled shotguns before, and one or two hadn’t, but it wasn’t a competitive shoot. Muhammad Al-Farsi told me it got the blood flowing – he isn’t accustomed to sitting around a table for hours at a time, he said; he is not a businessman. Put a gun in his hands and he is happy. Yutaka (whom this blog featured yesterday) looked like he might like a gun put in his hand from time to time, businessman or no, but I take Muhammad’s point, it is an altogether different sort of work rhythm.

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One of our students, Yutaka, went to Greenwich this weekend, expressly to bestride the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory.

IMG_60572678588620He needn’t have bothered. If he really wanted to bestride meridians he could just as well have taken a bus to Bar Hill or Comberton and walked out into the fields to the east of Cambridge, across which the Meridian passes (the longitude of OISE, out of interest, is 0.132969, or 0 degrees, 7 minutes, 49 seconds).

The Meridian, which marks 0 degrees longitude and is the basis for universal time, was in the nineteenth century located in various parts of the world as convenience dictated, but was unified at Greenwich, site of the Royal Observatory, in a conference held in Washington DC in 1884, largely because of Britain’s dominance as a maritime nation at that time (a number of countries held out, including France, which continued to use the Paris Meridian until 1911).

The Meridian runs through various countries north to south (England, France, Spain, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ghana, and Queen Maud Land in the Antarctic). Another student in Yutaka’s class last week, Javier, says that just outside Pamplona where he lives there is a bridge bisected by the Meridian – driving over it is, conventionally and in imagination, swapping hemispheres.

Perhaps Yutaka was right to go to Greenwich and not to the fields near Bar Hill. I haven’t been for years, but I remember enjoying the sense of place (Greenwich has much to offer besides the Royal Observatory, in fact – not least the National Maritime Museum and the Cutty Sark). Apart from anything else, Greenwich makes for a better photo opportunity.


Everyone has an opinion about their phone.


photo: Irfan Nasir

That is not something I could have written twenty years ago, nor for that matter ten years ago, even though ten years ago everyone had a mobile phone. Before the iPhone, the landscape was both more fragmented, and less polarised. The iPhone, in that respect if no other, was a game changer. It made people properly angry.

I can write all this dispassionately because I am a Blackberry user. Blackberry users know they have lost. They are sitting on the sidelines of the game, looking glumly on. There is nothing be angry about; there is only an acceptance of the gentle mockery that comes their way.

However, I am now due an upgrade, and have started thinking about my first smartphone for a couple of years. Should I get an iPhone or one of the new Android models? I hadn’t realised this would be such a political, almost religious question. The reviews I read are more or less balanced (a good number even refuse to draw a conclusion, perhaps knowing that their role now is more akin to Red Cross mediator than tech journalist) but the comments that follow are jaundiced, unreasonable, and frequently abusive.

I have asked several groups what they think (partly because I am interested, partly to structure some language point or other) and they have been unfailingly courteous to me and to one another. But my goodness, do they have opinions. Most have been pro-iPhone, but Samsung has had a couple of very eloquent defenders, and someone got very exercised over her Nokia Lumia (good camera, evidently).

I am now considering running up a lesson of some sort on the Endowment Effect, a well-tested psychological phenomenon whereby we tend to assign vastly greater value to objects we own. I want to teach it as a public service, an essay in civility; but I realise I will have to do it pretty quick – I get my new phone next week, at which point I will be irrevocably in one camp rather than the other and will no longer have any interest in civil harmony. On the plus side, I suppose, I will finally know which phone is the best. It will be the one I own.


Industrial dispute

This week for their projects students are staging a wage negotiation – there is much talk of industrial action on the part of the unions and outsourcing to cheap labour markets on the part of the management – all pretty hardline stuff.

Last week, however, a real contractual dispute was taking place in rather less hospitable circumstances and at substantially greater elevations than the subterranean warmth of room 2, in which the Sherpas who provide a variety of essential services to climbing parties on Mount Everest abruptly withdrew their services for the season following the death of 16 of their number in an avalanche – the single greatest loss of life on the mountain (read about the avalanche and the dispute here).


Mount Everest photo: Rdevany

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the conquest of the mountain, by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary (although a previous assault in 1924 by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine is thought to have reached the summit before both climbers perished on the way down). In the years since that first successful climb the number of ascents has steadily increased, so that now, in the narrow window of climbing season, there is a steady stream of what are essentially tour groups queuing at the summit.

The problem for the Sherpas is not just one of danger: there have been ongoing disputes about pay and compensation, and perceived arrogance and disrespect on the part of climbers who pay to make the ascent. Last year some climbers were attacked by a large group of Sherpas following a dispute on the mountainside in which one of the climbers admitting having called a Sherpa something unrepeatable at sea level (read about the brawl here).

Resolving what is effectively an industrial dispute at the extreme of physical endurance is probably no easy matter. However, it could also be argued that most industrial disputes would be rapidly resolved if all parties were sufficiently motivated by extreme danger – if they were conducted, say, in a lion’s den or hanging by your ankles from a skyscraper. It would certainly give a new meaning to the word brinkmanship.


One of our regular students, Wang Shi, has twice made the ascent, as I note in a previous blog post

To don’t

Sometimes – and I may have mentioned this before – it is more important to learn skills of dereliction than skills of completion. Better, in other words, to learn to identify where not to expend energy, in order to expend it better elsewhere.

This is a simple truth which applies both to language learning and just about everything else in life. Asymmetry is the key. You could, for example, take Tom Peters’s advice, and develop the habit of producing a to-don’t list.

Peters says, reasonably enough, that achieving one major thing a year is pretty good going; having 26 priorities on a list will be self-defeating. On a day-to-day basis also, releasing yourself from the clutter of irrelevance would if nothing else make life a little airier, a little more roomy.

I mean to start decluttering my life by not writing a to-don’t list.

Tom Peters’s counter-intuitive approach, revealing your object archaeologically, so to speak, by removing layers of distraction, sits well with another important and yet somehow useless life lesson: doing the opposite. If what you have done thus far is not working, you need to do something different, as exemplified in an episode of Seinfeld called The Opposite.

Perhaps in the end it is life-training that we need to do the opposite of. The idea that productivity can be improved tactically is persuasive – as we grow older we learn to manage our affairs better – but it is typically a slow process, one which involves gradual alterations in character and a lot of fretful backsliding. What mostly happens, in my experience, is that on the one hand you slowly grasp the futility of unsustainable busyness, and on the other you come to acknowledge that life is supposed to be difficult. It isn’t the key to happiness or balance or fulfilment, it is just an accommodation. Tom Peters, I would venture, has not had an insight so much as grown a bit older.

Super Shrimp

I was talking to my class yesterday about the discomforts of travel, which are numerous and for the most part trivial. For obvious reasons we did not consider what it might be like to circumnavigate the globe for 8 years in an 18 foot (5.5 metre) boat, and in fact there is no need, for we have the first hand testimony of Shane Acton, a Cambridge native and ex-Marine, who in 1972 bought himself a second-hand bilge-keeled sailing boat called Super Shrimp for £400, and with almost no practical experience set off to sail around the world.

Acton set of on his epic journey from Cambridge, puttering down the Cam, on to the Ouse, and out to sea. By 1974 he had reached Panama (see a Google map charting his circumnavigation here), where he met Iris Derungs, a Swiss photographer, who became his girlfriend and accompanied him on the rest of his journey. Their progress was slow and peppered with tales of shipwreck and sharks, and, according to the Cambridge News, buried treasure. I cannot verify any of that, but one way or another the pair worked their way into the national consciousness throughout the 1970s (a good decade, on the whole, to spend on the sea); and in 1980 they returned to what the Cambridge News refer to as a heroes’ welcome, sailing up the Cam at the head of a flotilla of boats to a champagne reception at the Fort St. George where he had spent a good deal of time planning his voyage.

You can see a picture of Shane and Iris sailing into Cambridge here. And here is a short snippet of an identical boat in 2008 on the Solent, to give a snapshot of its size.