Florence on the Elbe

February 13th, 2015

February 13th, 2015, St Valentine’s eve, Japan. I stumble out of bed and flick the internet on. What has the world got to tell me today? Scientists at SETI think the time is right to go beyond listening for signs of intelligent alien life and start actively seeking it out. A new theory of the Universe maintains that there was no Big Bang and that the Universe has existed forever. President Obama is silent about the murder of three Muslims at Chapel Hill. US drones continue to kill children. Dresden was bombed 70 years ago to the day. The BBC said so.

I will admit to being surprised to see the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden mentioned on the BBC World News. Every year I watch out for what is said about Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dresden usually passes by without a murmur. This time they mentioned refugees fleeing the Russian advance,  slave workers and POWs . This time they had a graphic interview with a British prisoner of war. He saw people sucked into the air and burnt alive. People stuck in roads that were rivers of melting tar. Bodies that became so hot they exploded. The BBC then went on to assure me that there is no moral equivalence between the war records of the Allies and those of the Nazis. I wonder why. Noam Chomsky is under no illusions:

Moral equivalence is a term of propaganda that was invented to try to prevent us from looking at the acts for which we are responsible.

The BBC prove his point. The word firestorm is quickly linked to the Nazis’ deliberate murder of civilians. The term area bombing remains mute. No indication that the creation of the inferno was a deliberate plan and scientifically worked out in advance. Little to no historical context except to suggest that the bombing was done to aid the Soviet advance. No mention of the reasons given to the RAF crews at the time:

The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front… and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.

No mention either about the British obsession with bombing from the air. Almost from the beginning of air warfare the British were interested in heavy bombers. While the Germans were developing their theories of blitzkrieg with the air-force working to sustain the rapid advance of ground troops the British were developing ideas about strategic bombing and bombing at night. There is no co-incidence that the British were the dominant World empire at the time. Empires always look to technological means to control their subjugates. Back in 1932 three times Prime-Minister Stanly Baldwin could say “The Bomber will always get through”. Nowadays the USA military have their “Full Spectrum Superiority”. Dominance remains the goal. Death the result.

After the raid on Dresden Winston Churchill decided to distance himself from the policy of deliberately destroying cities. He rewrote a memo initially sent out on March 28th to remove the word terror and the suggestion that the attack was repugnant. His sanitized memo was sent out on April Fool’s Day:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of the so called ‘area-bombing’ of German cities should be reviewed from the point of view of our own interests. If we come into control of an entirely ruined land, there will be a great shortage of accommodation for ourselves and our allies. … We must see to it that our attacks do no more harm to ourselves in the long run than they do to the enemy’s war effort.

In other words bombing is OK until it starts to interfere with our own National Interests. And that is still the case today. The scientists at SETI are mad to think that now is the time to seek out intelligent life. To pinch from Gandhi who replied when asked what he thought about Western Civilization that it thought it would be a good idea before we start to seek out intelligence we better get some. According to a recent ZNet Commentary by Vincent Emanuele we will have created autonomous battlefield robot by the year 2025. That is robots that make the choice to kill themselves. This is far beyond the horrendous weaponisation of drones where pilots kill by remote control. The British bomber crews risked life and limb to kill. Flying at night they were far removed from the human beings below. Not like The Third Man’s Harry Lime and his moving dots below the Ferris Wheel in 1949 Vienna. They didn’t see their victims. This can’t be said for drone strikes where targeted individuals can be stalked for weeks. Children like 13 year old Pakistani boy Zubair ur Rehman nowadays prefer grey skies to blue ones:

I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are grey.

According to Michael Albert (Do Not Drone Me) drones are close to being able to stay in the air for weeks on end. They can fly 3.5 miles high and take photographs covering 15 square miles with pictures able to show detail down to around 6 inches. Of course the data recorded can be stored for ever. Forget Orwell’s Big Brother and those wall monitors spying on party members indoors. How about total surveillance by machines that can be programmed to kill according to specific criteria? Machines don’t suffer from PTSD.

We need real participatory democracy now. We need to reduce hierarchies of power and distance and wealth. We need democracy in schools and democracy in the work place. Otherwise it won’t matter whether the Universe is expanding, contracting, everlasting or flat. We are flying on the wings of bombers towards oblivion and we are close enough to hit the target.

Are We All Charlies?

January 21st, 2015

Stop the press! 7th January 1785: First Crossing of English Channel by hot air balloon. 7th January 1911: first experiments with dropping bombs from aircraft. 7th January 1953: President Truman announces the Hydrogen bomb. 7th January 2015…

Its now been two weeks since the terror attacks in France. Time enough, perhaps, to reflect upon events without  a knee-jerk or goose-step. Except that events never stop. As I write this Islamic State (IS) is demanding 200 million dollars from Japan for the release of two Japanese Nationals and Shia Houthi rebels are attacking the home of the President of Yemen. There is no vacuum to write in, no isolated ivory tower, no distant serene mountain top from which to shelter from events. Or as Howard Zinn observed, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.

This doesn’t mean accepting President Bushes dictum “you’re either with us or against us”, which sounds like it could equally come out of the mouth of any Isis fanatic.  Rather it means engaging in a consistent critical analysis of our history and our actions and our beliefs and desires.

Very soon there will be a General Election taking place in Britain. Prime Minister Cameron has already promised that if re-elected he will seek to ramp up the powers of the security services with new anti-terror laws. Cameron basically want to ban encryption. He also aims to allow police to seize passports at airports, claiming “a passport is not an automatic right”. So much for article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights. But more chillingly, Cameron also came up with this:

Adhering to British values is not an option or a choice. It is a duty for all those who live in these islands

How is this so very different from Isis demands regarding Sharia law? And just who does such polarizing remarks benefit? Hundreds of thousands of people marched in France following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, including David Cameron (march for free-speech one day, promise legislation against it the next). But as Paul Street wrote in his article Charlie I am Not where were the record breaking crowds when the Israeli’s killed 490 Palestinian children last July and August? Where were they when US airstrikes killed 93 children in Bola Boluk,  May 2009, or when US marines levelled Fallujah, November 2004? Or, if we are to crudely limit ourselves to the issue of free-speech, where the protests against the NATO bombing of Serbian state radio and television, killing 16 people, April 1999, or when America air-to-surface missiles hit the al-Jazeera’s satellite TV station in Kabul killing a reporter, November 2001? In fact, the Israeli blitz of Gaza last year killed 17 journalists. Where were the mass protests for them? See
Charlie Hebdo And The War For Civilisation.

The terror of the attacks in Paris is a reflection of the on-going terror inflicted by state military around the world, namely the United States and its allies and surrogates. As an ‘Islamic State senior commander’ held in Camp Bucca told Martin Churlov writing for The Guardian:

If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no IS now. Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology.

Churlov goes on to mention that according to the Iraqi government 17 of the 25 most important Islamic State leaders running the war in Iraq and Syria spent time in US prisons between 2004 and 2011. The war on Terror is terror. President Obama can mention god in his Oath of Allegiance but it’s as if Jesus never said that those who live by the sword die by it. Perhaps if Obama had disavowed the use of drones, apologised for US state violence and gone after Bush, Cheney and the rest for war crimes the world would be a more peaceful place. Of course that would have been very difficult, perhaps even suicidal, for a man in charge of a nation that accounted for 39% of the World’s total military expenditure in 2012 –  more than the China (9.5%), Russia (5.2), Britain (3.5%) and Japan (3.4%) combined.  The 200 million demanded by IS seems like chump change compared to the 48.6 billion 2013 Japanese spend. To be fair this is down from the 59.2 billion spend of 2012 but considering Prime Minister Abe wants to increase the capacity of the Japanese military to wage war by destroying Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution it is essentially irrelevant. But why are world leaders so intent on beating ploughshares into swords and bombs and rockets and drones? Is perpetual war what most people actually want or is it something that we are just being continually scared into? Or is it, perhaps,  just a natural result of the economic system we are unwilling to give up?

When Charlie Hebdo publishes images of Muhammad is that an issue of free speech or free commerce? With a five million print run they have certainly cashed in on crime. Wikepedia puts their regular circulation at 100,000 and suggests that they court controversy precisely to boost sales. All is forgiven all the way to the bank. I think a solid gesture of humanity would be to put the proceeds of their engorged print run towards helping refugees from countries scarred by war in the Middle East. And perhaps a little something for the ICC and any other institutions aiming at strengthening the role of law. Oh, incidentally, Charlie Hebdo follows on from the magazine Hari-Kiri which was banned for mocking the death of President Charles de Gaulle.

According to Oxfam the richest 1% of the World’s population will own more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016 unless something is done about it.  Perhaps we should all be marching in the street about that? Or even doing something more?


A Mini Primer On Democratic Education

February 2nd, 2008

No Homework And Recess All Day

Jerry Mintz

Bravura Books

ISBN: 9780974525204

Year: 2003

Pages: 139

This slim book serves as a great introduction to the Democratic School Movement, and it is a movement. There are democratic schools of various kinds all over the world. There is no simple definition but all schools that claim to be democratic have meetings. Depending upon the school members may, or may not be required to attend. Likewise, what the meeting has power over varies from school to school. At Sudbury Valley the community has control over every aspect of school life. On the other hand, at Summerhill, the oldest democratic school in the world, the children have no control over the appointment of staff or whether a child should be kicked out. The school belongs to Zoe Neill Readhead, the daughter of the founder A. S. Neill. She controls the purse strings which is not democratic, but Zoe maintains that if the school had been run by a board of governors it would have caved in and collapsed when the British Government threatened it with closure in 1999.

From the histories of other schools described by Jerry, it does seem that to be successful schools need strong, charismatic leaders. But this is probably true of any kind of organisation that operates outside conventional norms. One essential point is that whatever kind of choices are given to children, they must be real. Children are not fools and won’t lend their energies to being conned. So, when setting something up it is important to be clear what power is available and then do nothing to undermine or circumvent it.

For Jerry, the heart of any democratic school is the school meeting. He is distrustful of meetings that rely on consensus and favours a method used by the Iroquois Confederacy. A whole chapter of the book is devoted to Iroquois Democracy. The Iroquois used a system of majority voting, but after a vote those in the minority would be invited to talk about why they had made their choice. Anyone would then be able to make another proposal and the process would continue until no-one had anything more to say. In this way a minority would not be sidelined or excluded by a vote going against them. The process is more communal and not adversarial. As Jerry says in the penultimate chapter :

The meeting process, and democracy itself, is not a science it’s an art.

Happy New Year!

January 1st, 2008

2008 is the Year Of The Rat . Notable Rats include Prince Charles and the Rapper Eminem. Princess Diana was a cow, or perhaps I should say an Ox, since I’m one as well. Curiously, rats and oxen are supposed to get on well. The Rat is the first sign in the Chinese Zodiac and the Ox is the second. There’s an old story about a race being organised to decide which animals would appear in the Zodiac. The rat got a lift on the Ox’s head and dashed across the finishing line to win first place. How an Ox came to be in the lead compared to other creatures like the tiger and the dragon is something I’ve not heard explained.

Anyway, here’s a did you know to finish my first entry of the year. Did you know that the British planned to use exploding rats in World War Two as weapons of mass destruction? Neither did I until to day, but it’s true!

Halloween Horror – Four Parties In One day

November 1st, 2007

Trick or Treat, trick or treat Halloween’s here, move those feet! Run Away!

When I was a child Halloween was little more than bobbing an apple or two in a bowl of water or dangling one from a piece of string. At that time in England Plot Night on November 5th was much bigger than All Hallow’s Eve. Now, I hear my nephew and niece go out Trick-Or-Treating and Halloween is all the rage. I guess with all its sights and smells there is something to be said for what could well be the oldest European festival though personally I still feel trick or treat is a form of extortion. But beyond that, it is just bloody, hard work! Preparing and running Halloween parties is tough! Here’s what we did at Wise Hat English this year. I write we, though Hideko, my wife, did the lion’s share of the work, as well as the witches’ and the elves’. I just got the bloody knees.

Read the rest of this entry »

Life is No Way To Treat An Animal

April 13th, 2007

Today is Friday the 13th. This morning I learnt that Kurt Vonnegut, who came up with the title above, is dead. There is an obituary of sorts in the New York Times. It mentions his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, but glosses over the fact the book is about killing – British and American killing – of human beings, men, women, children, babies. So it goes.

We are probably in for a lot more killing in the near future. It seems only a trickle away before the United States orchestrates an attack on Iran. Will you look from the side?. It seems almost impossible not to, which is, of course, the kind of impotence Blair and Bush and Co are happy with. Surely, if we believe in the notion of war crimes then we should all be making citizen’s arrests now!

Anyway, here is a quote to leave you with:

‘What are you?’ Trout asked the boy scornfully. ‘Some kind of gutless wonder?’This, too was the title of a book by Trout, The Gutless Wonder. It was about a robot who had bad breath, who became popular after his halitosis was cured. But what made the story remarkable, since it was written in 1932, was that it predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings.It was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground.

Trout’s leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race.

From Dictators To Democracy

January 2nd, 2007

As the man who ran the man who organised the destruction of cities across Europe during World War II put it, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Considering that he also said that “the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” one can do more than wonder what he really thought of it.

I’m sure though, that Churchill was under no illusions what would have happened to him if Britain had lost the war while he was prime-minister. There would have been a vapid hide trial and an execution.

A hide trial? Well let’s face it. A show trial has more to do with hiding the truth than establishing it. As with watching a master magician, what you don’t see is far more important than what you do.

Take the trial of Saddam Houssein. What a soulless piece of flimflam. And what contempt to finally have him hanged on a holy day associated with sacrifice. I think the Iraq Freedom Congress has a concise summary, though I think the opening sentence reads a little strangely.

I got the link to the Iraq Freedom Congress from a post to the IATEFL Global Issue’s Special Interest Group. I find the Congress interesting because of its organisational structure. This has what it calls People’s Houses “where local people gather, organise, decide and exercise their sovereignty”. This sounds good to me though I am less certain about the following:

IFC offices are all elected except for the initial start up period or where elections can not be held due to security considerations. In such circumstances, the upper tier offices will appoint relevant officers.

One can understand the caution about holding elections in areas where death squads are operating. But I wonder why upper tier offices are required at all. If an organisation has a clear philosophy and a clear manifesto what need for top tier decisions? Why have such a hierarchy?

Without hierarchy, there would be no dictators. How much hierarchy does democracy really need?

Do it the DJ way

January 11th, 2006

Last night I found myself on Hiroshima FM radio with my wife, Hideko. We had been invited to be on Vibe On Music. They have an interview slot which features local people. Initially the focus was to be on Hideko and what she did. Before the program they telephone interviewed her for around 50 minutes and from that created a very tight plan. I was just there as a piece of spare lead in a mechanical pencil.

The DJ, Michita Kimura, changed this. He departed from the prepared script. He actually listened to what was said. He threw some questions to me and even got me juggling. I’d taken three balls with me – I always like to juggle before doing a presentation as I find it calming. I’ve no idea what juggling sounds like on the radio but getting me to juggle was a great idea.

Better than playing Sting(!)

The program has a musical interlude in the middle and originally the idea was to play a Sting song. Hideko had said she liked Sting. When I was asked the answer that popped into my head was The Doors. However, we had brought a selection of Wise Hat Songs with us and after listening to them before the show the director decided to go with The Weather Song – better than playing Sting he commented.

While the song was the DJ chatted to us and found out that we made our own games and then got us talking about that in the second half. I mentioned Fugitive Games, a business I’d started with some friends long, long ago. Actually, Fugitive Games was one reason I first got to Japan, but that’s another story.

I think language teachers would do well to emulate DJ Kimura. It’s fine to have a plan but in many senses a plan is only as useful as you are able to depart from it. Teachers who manage to stick to their plan for the whole lesson probably aren’t being aware enough. The more teachers can be aware of what is actually happening and interact with awareness the more students will respond and become involved. Put down those plans and fly!

A Discussion on Competition

December 31st, 2005

Chris, You wrote:

“Personally, I don’t think competition is fun.”

I use a fair number of competitive games in my kids’ classes and have also incorporated some of the principles of cooperation and non- competition you have been talking about on this list and on your website. As others have mentioned, adding an element of competition can spice things up and generate a high level of anticipation and emotional involvement that may or may not improve actual learning. Recently, however, the behavior of several of my students has been prompting me to question the wisdom of using competitive games at all. Read the rest of this entry »

Games & More Games (Almost)

August 8th, 2005

A Workshop with Children, Kagoshima, July 23rd 2005

Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.
Jawaharlal Nehru

Doing a demonstration workshop with children you never know what to expect. The number, ages and experience of the children are generally unknowable. Even the room can be an unknown. How big is it, how much furniture does it have, is there a whiteboard or blackboard, is the board magnetic?

The last point is crucial. Furniture and chairs can usually be moved, as part of a game if necessary, activities can be altered to take into account a slippery floor but if one is expecting a magnetic board and does get one – it can throw a wobbly difficult to recover from. It’s so easy to forget to check but so crucial to do so.

The space was fine, a large central area surrounded by a perimeter of tables. An audience could sit and rest and take notes. The blackboard was large and as magnetic as a skunk’s behind. A small magnetic whiteboard had been placed on an easel and was certainly usable in a crisis though not with the games that I had in mind. No room for football. No place for Super Snail to try his paces. Fortunately I had remembered to ask about the board and had blue-tack to hand (at least I did once I had recovered it from the bottom of the bag it somehow fell into). Read the rest of this entry »