Exciting News.

One of my longer-term students (he shall remain nameless, in case the information is confidential; or in case it was a mistake) was promoted in class today. Promoted, that is, by his company, not by me. He noticed an email with the news when he picked up his phone to check a word in his dictionary.

Promoted – Assumption of the Virgin, Titian

Promoted – Assumption of the Virgin, Titian

I dare say he could not concentrate much on his lesson after he found out. A promotion is a big deal. By coincidence I had been chatting to one of his classmates, who is a primary school teacher, about move-up week, which started for my children yesterday. Move-up week is a week spent in the class they will be promoted to next September. For them, it marks a significant and clearly-marked step up the ladder of life. Such steps become less clear, the older you get. You start to pass whole clumps of years without much change.

Students at language schools sometimes get promoted, from one level to the next. But these things take time, and are subjective – like a promotion at work, I suppose. There is such a thing as a plateau of achievement, and the whole notion of ‘level’, while clearly appropriate in some ways, in other ways is simply too complex an object to classify simply.

But a level-change in a spoken foreign language is nevertheless one of those little markers in life. The French talk of a coup de vieille, I believe, or a ‘blow of age’, in an acknowledgement that life is not a linear descent into the grave, but proceeds by fits and starts, plateaus and scarp slopes; someone who has appeared largely unchanged for years will suddenly look older in a matter of months.

This is rather depressing for those of us not aged eight years – not eager to work our way up through school, rise through the ranks, and so on. But the flip side should be a sort of patience with the long projects of life. Because some things just take time – languages, careers, ageing. And once in a while you get a little indication of where you are, and that you’re doing OK. A promotion.

Golf at Brocket Hall

Last Monday, one of our teachers, Mike Humphreys-Davies, played in the annual golf tournament of the Japan Society, which helps promote contacts and exchanges between Japan and the UK.
Mike with Tadaharu Iizkua

Mike with Tadaharu Iizkua

This year, the competition was played at Brocket Hall, one of the most beautiful of estates in this part of England. It is particularly famous from the time that the former owner, Lord Brocket, buried several Ferraris on the estate and claimed they had been stolen and asked for insurance of £3 million pounds. Unfortunately for him, his ex-wife told the police and he went to prison for five years. The estate is now leased to a German consortium as a conference centre, golf course and Michelin Star restaurant, Auberge du Lac.
Mike played with Tadaharu Iizkua, a senior executive and Shunsuke Asakawa, a younger guy on secondment here with KPMG.  The picture is of Tada and Mike with the Hall in the background. Tada came second in the competition.
The competition was won by Eiji Wakiwaka.

Tipping Point

I went to the pub last night, or not so much to the pub as to a hole in the wall that used to be a pub called the Fort St. George. They seem to have closed the actual pub, perhaps because of the Midsummer Fair, which is admittedly on their doorstep.

I had a pint of Greene King IPA in a plastic glass, and paid four pounds for it. When I paid, by card, I was invited by the card-reader to offer a ‘gratuity’ – that’s tip to you and me – to the young man who poured my pint. I declined.

To tip or not to tip... Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

To tip or not to tip… Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

This was a mere formality. You do not tip in pubs. You might, at a push, offer the barman/woman a drink if you are on familiar terms, and you might well tip if you eat at a table. But a pint (no matter how delicious, nor how expertly-pulled, and this was neither) is not tipped.

In the USA, by contrast, you are expected (I think I am right in saying) to leave a dollar on the bar when you order a beer or, presumably, a round of beers, just as in Italy most people leave a small coin on the receipt on the bar when they order their coffee.

Whether or not and when and how much to tip is one of the admittedly minor stresses of travelling. Tipping when you travel is much more about sharing cultural norms – about fitting in – than it is about rewarding good service. In fact, tipping in general correlates very poorly with assessments of good service. We tip more if the waitress (not waiter, apparently) is attractive, on the whole; or if they strike up a conversation, or touch our arm, or draw a smiley face on the bill. We tip less – I speak from experience – if the waiter sits down at our table and asks our names.

In Cambridge I tip taxi drivers, waiters, and my barber (the latter a wise precaution, I always think). I don’t know how much I tip, exactly: in a taxi I usually round up to the nearest note, in a restaurant I tip between 10 and 15% (but 15% only if the waitress is attractive and she draws a smiley face on my receipt).

I have never known a student tip a teacher, although it seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do to me. Perhaps I should start drawing smiley faces on my students’ homework when I return it.

But then, there is no such thing as a free lunch, or indeed its opposite. Tipping is often used by employers to hold down rates of basic pay. And as teachers I don’t think we want to explore that particular possibility.

Hallucinogenic worms

The molecularly defined clade Ecdysozoa1 comprises the panarthropods (Euarthropoda, Onychophora and Tardigrada) and the cycloneuralian worms (Nematoda, Nematomorpha, Priapulida, Loricifera and Kinorhyncha).

I mentioned yesterday that one of my students, Akihiro, had been making a round of any Cambridge and London museums with any sort of scientific or technological bias, amongst them the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Science.

And by coincidence there was a story in yesterday’s national press regarding breakthroughs in the understanding of a primitive and bizarre worm-like creature of the mid-Cambrian, hallucinogenia sparsa, based on work undertaken at the Cambridge department of Earth Sciences.

Hallucinogenia sparsa has been known to science from the fossil record for over one hundred years, and was one of the most common creatures in the seas of the mid-Cambrian, over half a billion years ago (it is a commonplace fossil in the celebrated Burgess Shale). But it is of such strange design (if I can be permitted the word) that for most of that hundred-year period it has been variously read both as upside-down and back-to-front.

Scientists at Cambridge have now righted the hallucinogenic ship, so to speak, identifying eyes and mouth parts in what had previously been regarded as its rear. In this short film, Dr Martin Smith of the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge explains how the discovery was made and something of the history of the creature, speaking from the Sedgwick Museum itself.

Read more about the hallucinogenic worm here.

Problem Solving

...join the dots

…join the dots

I did a little problem-solving in my tutorial yesterday. Or rather, I got my student, Akihiro, to do a little problem-solving. I asked him to join nine circles in the form of a square with as few straight lines as possible (five is easy, four is excellent, three is cheating but resourceful), and to find a way to work out which of three identical light switches controls a bulb in the attic of a house, when you cannot see the bulb in question and when you can only look once to see if it is on or off (problem in full here).

It was all in the interests of lateral-thinking, of course. Akihiro had been at the weekend to the Science Museum in London, the Whipple Museum of Science in Cambridge, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Science, and the Museum of Technology. Quite a haul. He saw functioning models of steam engines, actual steam engines, an experimental apparatus which belonged to the eminent James Clark Maxwell, bits and pieces of Darwin paraphernalia, and much besides. I am surprised he can remember any of it.

At some point in the he plans to go the Wren Library and examine Newton’s own copy of the Principia. And then he will be done.

For the record, however, he was baffled by both puzzles. Perhaps there’s too much raw information going around in his head just at the moment – not just museum data, either: language learning so often presents itself as a problem-solving exercise. And Akihiro is an engineer by trade, so perhaps he is taking a bit of a holiday from brain-teasers.


It took, I suppose, a similar sequence of problem-solving to get from the first powered flight, say, to the International Space Station. It is an invisible and forgotten constant in our skies at the moment, so here is a reminder of its extraordinary presence.

Sick Day

Yesterday, I was off sick. Or rather, I was off sick on behalf of my son, who couldn’t go to school. As is the way with extreme youth, all it took to steady his ship was to bring up his breakfast and doze for an hour.

Day Off – Fra Angelico

Day Off – Fra Angelico

And then, by force of circumstances, we both had a day off. There is a rather banal thought experiment where you are invited to imagine that you had an extra hour each week, and then to imagine what you would do with that hour (it must be something for yourself only, no administration, no chores, no real work); and finally you are expected to examine your actual week and figure out where you could insert that ‘magic hour’. Because, the logic goes, we all have enough slack in an average week to find an hour or two to do something for ourselves alone.

All very lovely. But there are complications. I’m not sure an hour a week is enough to do anything worthwhile on a regular basis. I suppose you could go for a run (once a week? doesn’t seem like enough); or you could bake yourself a cake; or have a long bath (I get bored after five minutes). But an hour is such a short slice of time you would spend the entire week worrying that you weren’t going to maximise your time, and then you would go at whatever it was you had in mind like a panicky steam-hammer.

You really need an hour a day. But the average brain takes half an hour to work up to speed at any given thing, it seems to me. And if you only have half an hour to, for example, write your symphony, or learn Esperanto, or restore your antique desk, then you are not really going to bother.

You need two hours a day. Two hours a day might do it. So now you need a magic fourteen hours a week, not a magic hour, and I challenge anyone to find fourteen hours a week down the back of the sofa.

A serendipitous day, however, a day when you are not sick but cannot by force of circumstance go anywhere or do anything, when you are forced to confront a small but substantial vacuum of time, that is different. Things can get done. My son chose to spend his day playing Fifa ’15 and reading in bed; I also taught him how to play poker; what I chose to do (apart from the poker) is neither here nor there. But while the world ground round on its usual axis, we were off at a tangent for a little while.

And since that is the experience, come to think of it, of many of my students, perhaps I should get back to work and see how they are doing.

Paragraph and Pilcrow

We are accustomed as teachers to insist that our students (those doing exams, anyway) paragraph properly. It is, we tell them, the natural unit of thought. Paragraphs have repeatable structure: topic and exemplification, for instance,

Rubrication - Malmsbury Bible, 1407

Rubrication – Malmsbury Bible, 1407

where the exemplification is a form of embedded list; or topic and detailed elucidation. And so on.

But the paragraph is perhaps not such a clearly rooted structure as it seems to us, certainly for inheritors of intellectual traditions other than the Greek. The paragraph was originally not a discrete block of text marked out from other blocks of text; text in manuscript were through composed, with various marks or signs introduced here and there to indicated breaks of thought or new ideas – a process known as rubrication, from the red-letter manuscript insertions.


Paragraphs marked with pilcrows in the Villanova Rudimenta Grammaticae (Valencia 1500)

One slightly later form of rubrication was the introduction of the pilcrow – ¶ – a sign still in use today among proof-readers (and word-processors, if you switch on your mark-up).

Some time after the introduction of print, the paragraph became detached as a period of thought, roughly contemporaneously with the appearance of other purely textual phenomena such as the title page, the index, and the list. Texts started to take on the characteristic of a thing rather than an utterance, with physical spatial relations, a sort of visualisation of the forces of thought.

But not all thought runs in these, for us, deeply grooved channels. The somewhat legalistic (actually, rhetorical) forms of thought, where arguments are presented and then defended or supported, is derived from Greek practice and its subsequently codification by the Romans. Other intellectual traditions, (Indian, Chinese) tended to avoid, smooth, or reconcile conflict in ideas.

So when we ask our Chinese or Japanese students, for example, to paragraph an IELTS part 2 essay, we are asking a lot more than we sometimes realise.