Archive for the ‘education’ Category
On the eve of the Prime Minister sending the letter that invokes Article 50 to the Council of the European Union, I had the good fortune of spending time in the City of London with current students, alumni, and staff of the University of Nottingham for a networking event. Entitled ‘Nottingham in the City’ we welcomed over 100 guests to the magnificent offices of Berenberg for an evening of talks and mutually beneficial introductions.
My own role was to welcome our guests on behalf of the University and to deliver a short lecture on leadership and ‘knowing people’. I was delighted to revisit many of the themes that I have developed in the past on ‘crafting confidence’ in young people and using analytical frameworks developed at Glowinkowski International.
I talked primarily about how all organisations are characterised by the complex interactions between people’s underlying predispositions, behaviours, and styles of leadership and engagement, which in turn relate to the climate of the organisation and ultimately its performance. These insights were illustrated through my own version of ‘cerebral prestidigitation’ (or mind magic) working with members of the audience. I predicted a choice of one guest simply by knowing her name (Darinka), her place of birth (Macedonia) and what she had for breakfast (an omelette). I then asked four volunteers to imagine in their minds the four different types of leadership engagement that we had been discussing and I divined their thoughts with 100% accuracy.
But for me, the real exciting part of the evening was learning how these young people, full of enthusiasm, are embracing the change that they see all around them. I met graduates of law, economics, business, politics, psychology and sociology, all of whom valued not only the core content of what they studied, but the many soft skills that have made them adaptable to the challenging work environments in which they find themselves. Many had started out in one direction and then learned where their real interests were and changed course accordingly.
There evening also included an inspiring talk from business entrepreneur Claire Bicknell from Catena Business Networking, who presented a compelling vision of how company to company and person to person networking benefits all that engage in such interactions. She is growing her business from its base in Nottingham to the whole of the UK with an ever increasing network of companies, organisations, individuals and events.
The deep history of the City was with is last night (Berenberg dates from 1590), but it was combined with youthful and hopeful vigour, which I hope will carry us through the uncharted waters of BREXIT and that real opportunities will be seized in these turbulent times.
When Todd, a professor of political science, was recently invited to appear on the BBC Breakfast TV show, he didn’t expect to be asked to talk about mountaineering. He’d originally been invited on to the tightly scheduled and carefully planned programme to discuss Donald Trump.
But a series of simple mistakes led to an awkward on-air exchange as the presenters realised he wasn’t Leslie Binns, mountain climber and former British soldier from North Yorkshire, but an academic with an American accent – much to the delight of the rest of the press and social media.
These kind of mistakes aren’t rare. Many will remember a similar mixup when the BBC got the wrong guy when it infamously tried to interview Congalese IT worker Guy Goma instead of British journalist Guy Kewney about a court case between Apple and the Beatles.
No individual was to blame for Todd’s mixup. Due to a bizarre set of coincidences and misunderstandings, the BBC researchers and presenters genuinely thought Todd was Leslie Binns, despite the careful planning that had gone into the programme. So why do simple mistakes lead to major errors in such a complicated system with so many checks? Answering this question can provide vital insight into how to prevent much more serious problems occurring, for example in medical operations or air traffic control.
The discipline of human factors can help us here. Studying human factors helps us to understand how we can design products and systems to take into account human capabilities and limitations. People frequently make decisions based on incomplete information, and use rough rules known as “heuristics” to jump to the most likely decision or hypothesis. The problem with the decisions we make using these rules is that they can be susceptible to our personal biases.
In Todd’s case, both he and the BBC staff and presenters did not expect there to be a mix up. This led them to experience bias in the way that they interpreted each other during short conversations before the interview. Todd was greeted by a female staff member saying “Hello, Leslie, you’re wearing a suit”, referring to his lack of mountaineering equipment. Todd interpreted this as meaning “Hello, [my name is] Lesley”, and a conversational comment about his attire. Due to the biases in their perception and decision making, as well as the time pressure in the studio, neither realised a mistake had been made.
In systems where safety is critical, the consequences of such biases or behaviours can be much more serious than the mild embarrassment and amusement that resulted from the BBC Breakfast mix up. In 1989, the pilots of British Midland Flight 92 believed that they had received an alert of a fire in the right-hand engine after misinterpreting their displays. When they shut off this engine, the vibration that they had previously been experiencing stopped.
This led to a confirmation bias in their decision making – their action led to the result they expected so they thought they had solved the problem. Sadly they had misinterpreted the information they had received in the cockpit and shut off the wrong engine. The plane crashed on the approach to the airport and 47 passengers lost their lives.
Decision making does not happen in a social vacuum. We conform to social norms and behave in a way that fits in with others within our social or work setting. Just as Todd had to work out how to confront the misunderstanding as he realised it was happening, just before his interview was about to start, we can feel uncomfortable about challenging or discussing decisions in some settings where we feel intimidated, or where others are clearly in positions of authority.
For example, in hospitals, patients and junior staff can sometimes treat senior doctors as infallible. The case of Elaine Bromiley, who died after her airway became blocked during a routine operation, sadly demonstrated the impact that failure in communications in the operating theatre can have. Many factors contributed to this incident, but one that was highlighted was that the nurses in the operating theatre became aware of the problem before doctors had acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. Unfortunately, the nurses felt unable to broach the issue with the doctors.
In UK hospitals, effort is now made to ensure that medical decisions are discussed by staff and are more likely to be challenged if someone – even more junior colleagues – thinks those decisions are wrong.
In the Flight 92 accident, passengers heard the pilot announce that there was a problem with the right-hand engine, but could see through their windows that the problem was on the left. Survivors of the crash later said that they noticed this mismatch between what they could see and what the captain had said, but that it didn’t cross their mind that an error like this could happen, or that the action of the captain should be challenged.
When something unexpected happens in a resilient system, we use our cognitive and social skills to respond in a way to try to ensure that no harm is done. This is known as thinking clearly under pressure or unconscious competence. The most resilient complex systems take both human and technological capabilities into account. They are designed to be efficient while anticipating the human behaviours that might occur and incorporating design features that try to prevent errors, such as formal checks and structured communication.
The challenge is to make sure those design features prevent errors without slowing people down or introducing social awkwardness. When we find ourselves confronted with a potential mistake, we need to feel comfortable enough to pluck up the courage to politely but firmly say, “I think you’ve got the wrong guest, sir”.
Sarah Sharples, Professor of Human Factors and Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange, Past President of Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, University of Nottingham and Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, Pro Vice Chancellor of the Social Sciences, University of Nottingham
The New Year ushers in a new era for global history and politics. The United Kingdom will officially invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union and will thus trigger the two-year process of exiting the European Union. The new Prime Minister will both trigger and oversee this process, while any legal challenges will focus on the degree to which Parliament and the courts have any formal oversight. She is also keen to revoke the Human Rights Act, which is a piece of domestic legislation that brought rights home; rights forged by Britain in the aftermath of World War II, and with the express purpose of constraining future leaders to prevent us from the worst forms of our own behaviour. On 20 January 2017 Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States; an event that is surrounded by controversy following an unorthodox electoral campaign and an unorthodox period of transition.
These developments, borne of a significant shift in popular attitudes, are likely to have profound implications for the world, and are likely to lead to similar developments in France, Germany and the Netherlands throughout 2017. Far beyond simple electoral outcomes and popular referenda, these developments for me represent a turn away from human dignity. They are centred on an inward view of self that is scared of the unknown and scared of ‘the other’. Diversity, identity, and difference have all been brought under question and positive trends in their formal and informal recognition are being cast aside with a worrying degree of casualness and without due care and attention to the full ramifications that such a course of action entails. The year will require vigilance, courage, tenacity, and hard work to limit the negative consequences that will result from these momentous changes, and it is great to see the green shoots of movement politics taking hold.
Brexit and Human Rights
The political and economic arguments over BREXIT will continue. Remainers worry about the profound disruption to the economy, polity, and culture in the UK and the wider Europe, as debates rage on over the status of EU citizens living and working in the UK, the mobility of people more generally, the status of UK financial institutions, and the net impact on trade, investment, and overall economic performance of the UK. Brexiters remain confident and buoyant about the future, ask for patience during an exceedingly complicated process of extraction from the EU, and promise a golden future of greater prosperity for a more assertive and independent United Kingdom.
Over the holidays I heard similar sets of competing views and arguments expressed at various events. I was struck by the observation from a colleague who said that her analysis suggested a large segment of the British public simply rejected the growth of the EU beyond the original promise made in 1975; the promise of greater economic integration, but not greater political integration. The enhanced political integration was not something many people wanted and the burden and constraints that come with ‘an ever closer union’ were simply too much for many to bear. The young people with whom I spoke are deeply worried as they had never known a world without the EU, and yet turnout within this demographic was remarkably low, and for many, explained why the vote on 23 June went the way it did.
Accepting that Brexit will happen, the task ahead for this year and beyond is to secure the very best outcome from the process and to have a future and outward oriented vision for this country. There are 194 countries in the world, 32 OECD countries, and emerging markets with dynamic economies in need of goods, services, and expertise that in my view are in abundance in this country. Students will continue to flock to our shores for high quality education and our UK students will continue to represent some of the best minds available for solving global problems. Industry, charity, innovation, culture, media, and many other sectors continue to produce world-leading products, ideas and solutions and are likely to do so for years to come.
The deep suspicion about human rights is nothing new. Many of my friends and colleagues raise doubts about the value and purpose of human rights, focus on the negative outcomes of rights challenges and their seemingly ‘over protective’ quality for those less desirable in society, such as criminals and terrorists. In 2000 I attended the launch ceremony for the 1998 Human Rights Act hosted by then Home Secretary Jack Straw along with senior colleagues from the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, including the late and great Professor Kevin Boyle. This event and the act that came with it domesticated international human rights, whose content, nature, and specification had been forged formally through iterative and inclusive processes since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This Declaration and the subsequent international law of human rights, as well as domestic declarations, constitutions, and protective instruments are grounded in a deep commitment to and articulation of human dignity; a dignity that recognizes the sacredness of the human being, whether derived from appeals to God, nature, or reason. From this basic underlying principle of human dignity comes a range of values and principles such as equality, respect, inclusion, participation, non-discrimination, responsibility, and accountability. Given the absence of a written constitution and a slow accretion of statute law and common understanding about rights and responsibilities, the Human Rights Act has served to cement centuries of rights commitments more forcefully into the legal, social and political fabric of British society.
Some argue that we have done very well without the act, but they miss the point that (1) Britain was one of the main architects of the 1951 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), (2) Britain remains part of the Council of Europe under whose auspices the ECHR is enforced, and (3) the Human Rights Act is merely an extension of commitments that we have already made, but which fortifies these commitments throughout our domestic legal system. To turn our back now on the ideals upheld in the act and the larger supranational commitments we have made seems folly indeed. These commitments are part of the post World War II settlement for peace and security in Europe, and the ECHR is upheld as the most successful and respected international system for the promotion and protection of human rights.
Trump and America’s Tortured Soul
On 8 November 2016, Donald Trump lost the popular vote by over 2.5 million votes, but secured the Electoral College vote, which officially elected him President on 19 December. The campaign for the Presidency was more of a circus than ever before. Hillary Clinton spent over $1 billion, while Trump adopted a successful strategy of guaranteeing free media coverage through making a range of outrageous statements. Beyond seeing these utterances as pure electoral strategy, I am minded to heed the advice of the late Jean Beth Elshtain, who in writing about just war theory and the fight against terrorism, urges us to take what terrorists say at face value. I will thus take what Donald has said and done at face value.
He has asked us to turn away from human dignity. He has asked us to focus on making America Great Again, as if to suggest that somehow it was in serial and significant decline (the main socio-economic indicators suggested otherwise). He asked us to be suspicious of ‘the other’: to remove all illegal immigrants (many of whom are undocumented and not illegal), to ban all Muslims from entering the country, to form a Muslim registry, to refuse entry to Syrians fleeing brutal conflict, and to build physical and virtual walls around America in ways that will only lead to a decrease in opportunity and further division at home and abroad. He has asked us to congratulate African Americans for not voting, since their lower that expected turnout guaranteed his victory. He has asked to overlook his financial irregularities, multiple law suits, and overt misogyny.
During his transition he has assembled a confederacy of dunces in the true Swiftian sense of the term that is diametrically aligned against almost every policy development from the Obama Administration. Many of the proposed members of the cabinet appear to be the antithesis of the office for which they are being chosen. His casual use of social media and absence of diplomatic protocols would have made Hillary’s opponents howl with rage had she behaved in such a fashion. And yet, there continues to be a quiet acceptance and acquiescence across many quarters to the ‘new normal’ of Trump’s America.
Women’s March and the Work Ahead
Brexit and Trump have framed a new set of discourses that many thought were a thing of the past. Progress on law, culture and politics had begun to remove barriers, to liberate people from oppressive structures, to celebrate difference in all its forms, and to recognize that difference and diversity are healthy for modern societies the world over. Brexit and Trump have unleashed an unfortunate set of trends in hate crimes and racist attacks, the nature and extent of which we have not seen in some time. Brexiters have denied any direct causal connection between the EU Referendum and these new troubling trends, while supporters of Trump willingly embrace the discourse with an alarming degree of enthusiasm.
The first public event, despite its billing, that will challenge Trump (and in my view the larger turn away from dignity) is the Women’s March on Washington to be held on 21 January, a day after the Trump inauguration. In the spirit of Martin Luther King and the many other protest events on The Mall between the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial, this march is grounded in a celebration of dignity and diversity.
‘In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.’
Beyond articulating the event in women’s rights terms only, the march challenges the sentiment, discourse, and unease unleashed by the Presidential campaign:
‘The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us – immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault – and our communities are hurting and scared. We are confronted with the question of how to move forward in the face of national and international concern and fear.’
The march is also keen to promote and encourage ‘sister marches’ outside Washington and the United States, where there has been take up of the idea in other US states, Europe, and Oceania thus far.
This one event will not change what has happened, but it is the beginning of a movement that challenges the most negative consequences of Brexit and Trump and rearticulates a commitment to the values and principles that have underpinned so much global progress since the Second World War.
For me, the world has been here before, and the precarious triumph of democracy and human rights challenged oppression, repression, and intolerance. The gains of the post war period will be very hard to reverse entirely, and in my own work, I will remain dedicated to the kind of education and research that appreciates difference, opens minds to new ideas, challenges intolerance, amasses systematic evidence to reveal inconvenient truths, and upholds fundamental values and principles grounded in the idea of human dignity.
On 29 September, I delivered a public lecture to over 300 staff and students at the University of Nottingham, where I am a Professor of Political Science and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences.
I had delivered an earlier version of this lecture at our Ningbo campus in China on 1 June 2016.
My intent with this lecture is to move beyond name calling and popular discourse on the race for the Presidency thus far, and to focus on the data and evidence that sit behind the roller coaster that we appear to be on during this contested time in American and global politics.
My lecture was structured into several sections, including (1) an overview of the electoral landscape, (2) the early primaries, (3) Super Tuesday, (4) the narrowing race, (5) the party conventions, (6) the Great Debate, (7) the shifting demographic, (8) the current position of each candidate, and (9) challenges for the future.
Since the 1950s and the Eisenhower elections, the American presidential electoral map has seen a large number of years and states ‘red’ for the Republican support that they have expressed. The 1964 Johnson election saw a large swathe of blue states, but not until the 1990s with the election of Bill Clinton, did the country see strong patches of Democratic support, mostly concentrated in the East and West Coast, as well as around the Midwest and Great Lakes area. Through the Bush years, the red returned, and with eight years of Obama, we see the same pattern as with Clinton: East and West Coast blue, south and middle of the US is red.
I stressed in the lecture that these patterns are also based on the population size and an urban rural split. East and West Coast states are very populous and tend to vote Democrat, while county level data shows that cities vote Democrat and rural areas vote Republican. I also stressed the difference between the popular vote (in 2012 Obama won with 51% of the popular vote) and the Electoral College vote (Obama got 332 votes to Romney’s 206; a 61.7% to 38.3% difference). The difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote is crucial to understand the current race: Trump and Clinton have been neck and neck in the popular vote polls over the summer, but the Electoral College vote predictions still favour Clinton. The key to the outcome are key ‘swing’ states such as Ohio (Trump), Pennsylvania (Clinton), Michigan (Clinton), Colorado (Clinton), Wisconsin (Clinton), Virginia (Clinton), Minnesota (Clinton), Nevada (Trump), Iowa (Trump), New Hampshire (Clinton), Arizona (Trump), Georgia (Trump), North Carolina (Trump), and Florida (Trump).
The primaries began with a slate of candidates for both parties, but arguably more for the Republicans than the Democrats, where Trump found himself most challenged by Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich and where Clinton had only really to contend with Bernie Sanders. The early primaries had a strong showing for Trump and throughout the process he gained momentum to win the nomination, despite increasingly deep reservations from members across the party. Clinton’s lead was not a given, as she fought hard through the process. She did benefit from the so-called ‘superdelegates’ and secured the nomination once Sanders conceded rather late in the race. As part of the race during the primaries, it became clear to me as early as Super Tuesday on 2 March that the final contest for the presidency would be between Trump and Clinton, and that the presidency was Clinton’s to lose.
With the primary race over, the two candidates focussed their attention on the party conventions. The Republicans stumbled at first over protest groups not yet ready to endorse Trump and a candidate acceptance speech that painted a gloomy and dire picture of the state of America. This picture was brought into stark contrast by the Democratic convention, which was decidedly more positive and inclusive, but which was not entirely free of controversy, since it was revealed through an email hack that the Democratic National Committee was seeking to engineer the primary process toward Clinton. Trump made a populist appeal to the people – ‘I am your voice’ – and pledged that only he could make America great again. Clinton sought to show how America can work together and that her partnership with America would deliver greater benefits for a middle class that has lost out.
Clinton enjoyed a post-convention bounce in the polls that was more sustainable than Trump’s slight rise in the polls, but the summer campaign saw her lead slip, and then almost collapse after her health issues were revealed at a 9/11 memorial ceremony in New York. By the time of the first debate on Monday of this week, her lead had all but evaporated and fell within the statistical margin of error. The debate itself was much anticipated and was reported to have had 84 million viewers. Trump came out strong and held his own for the first 20 minutes on issues concerning jobs and the effects of international trade, but stumbled through the second and third portions of the debate on matters concerning race relations, his tax returns, and securing America. Clinton delivered a measured and well-studied performance that saw her hit back with a number of barbed and incisive comments, and the general verdict was that she emerged the winner.
I have maintained throughout the campaign that Trump needs to reach out beyond his core supporters in order to win the presidency. He has been very effective as an outside candidate to work within the Republican Party to convert his populist message into the nomination. He has failed, however, to soften his tone or to garner support from groups outside his base. He repeated the same theme and message at the debate without capturing new support. Clinton is a centre-left candidate who enjoys a larger share of the changing demographic in the United States, with much more support among African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino Americans and equal support among white Americans (but those that are educated and female).
The underlying changes in the demographic patterns in the US have presented a real challenge to the Republicans, who have not developed a strategy to respond in 2008, 2012, and now it looks like 2016. The white population is decreasing in size in America, the non-white population is showing increase in voter turnout, as well voting for Democrats, while America is become more socially liberal, less religious and less Christian. And it is these changes that are currently benefitting the Clinton campaign.
Three days out from the first debate, Clinton’s probability of winning has risen from 57.9% to 63.7% according to Nate Silver on his site Five Thirty Eight. For his part, Trump is facing continued pressure to release his tax returns, explain how his economic plan will actually work, and to answer questions on his financial dealings in Cuba during the period of the US embargo.
The next weeks will see two more head to head debates, more campaigning, and more polls. To win, Clinton needs to mobilise her base, and encourage high turnout from ethnic minority communities, as well as young, educated, women. For his part, Trump needs to mobilise his base and if he continues to stick to that base, then mobilise the ‘silent’ Trump supporters to register and vote.
The race is still very much in the balance, but is now tipping back toward a Clinton victory.
Please CLICK HERE for a PDF of the slides for this lecture: trump-clinton-and-the-future-of-the-usa
British magician Paul Daniels, who died this week aged 77, is most famously known for his extraordinary cup and ball routine, where a simple ball appears, disappears, and reappears inside a small cup.
The magical effect one experiences in watching this routine is not possible without a person having a fully developed sense of what Jean Piaget calls “object permanence”. During their first years of life children develop an understanding that objects exist and events occur in the world that are independent of their actions. Close a door on a cat and you probably know that it’s still in the next room. For Daniels’ trick to work, a person needs to know that the ball itself ought to be in the cup even though it cannot be seen. The magic occurs when the cup is lifted and the ball is no longer there.
I know this all too well, because I am also a magician. Fortunately, like Daniels, I perform for audiences that are a touch older than two, the age after which most children have developed the sense of object permanence. Magic depends on understanding an audience’s psychology. I tend to limit my shows to people over the age of eight, since the kind of magic I really like is mentalism, or the art of using the tools of the conjurer combined with many other fields of knowledge to create the illusion of mind reading, telepathy, clairvoyance, uncanny synchronicity and other inexplicable phenomena.
Famous mentalists have included Maurice Fogel, Chan Canasta, David Berglas, Kreskin, Banachek, and Derren Brown – all of whom in one way or another create a wonderful sense of ambiguity about whether they posses true psychic ability or not.
Over the years this type of magic has attracted a lot of interest, tending to be couched in psychological terms. But I like to explore its possibilities in philosophical terms. Magic taps into the most fundamental questions of what it is to be human: questions philosophers have been asking for millenia.
Cogito ergo decipio
After a period of solitary rumination and extreme doubt, the French philosopher René Descartes famously declared “cogito ergo sum”; or “I think therefore I am”. The mere act of thinking, Descartes argued, establishes proof of our existence. This small utterance led to a revolution in our thinking about the separation between the mind and the body (known as dualism), the power of empirical observation and the notion that we have control over the material world in ways that are separate from our minds.
As an academic magician, such considerations naturally inform my performance. I like to use magic to explore and break down this Cartesian proposition and other philosophical notions, thereby disrupting my audience’s sense of reality.
For me, Descartes’s cogito ergo sum, becomes cogito ergo decipio, or “I think therefore I deceive”. I dedicate a large amount of thinking to how I might deceive my audiences into thinking I have a set of powers that lie outside the realm of scientific rational explanation, while at the same time addressing some of our more fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge, language, mathematics, politics and even human rights.
Todd Landman, Author provided
For example, Plato’s thought experiment The Ring of Gyges asks us to consider that if we were given the opportunity to wear a ring that makes us invisible, would we engage in “unjust acts”? With this premise in play, my participants join me on stage and are given a choice (unknown to me, as my back is turned) to either take a gold ring from a box, put it on their finger and hide it from view; or to leave the ring in the box. The taking of the ring is symbolic of Plato’s notion of an unjust act, where the moral choice of the participant is theirs and theirs alone. Turning to face the participant, I divine their choice and allow the experiment to be repeated. Regardless of their choice, it is always known to me (no, I’m not going to explain how).
This kind of effect demonstrates the essence of my approach to academic magic: there’s the demonstration of me inexplicably knowing their choice but it also raises a larger set of questions around our own temptations to commit “unjust acts”. Would you take the ring? It moves magic beyond a clever puzzle to a thought-provoking proposition that lasts beyond the moment of amazement.
How people attempt to explain magical feats also provides philosophical insight. In one revealing experiment with a selection of drama students at the University of Huddersfield, I gave a series of magical performances and then compared their reactions to what they experienced. Their explanations were highly varied, ranging from ideas around trust, subliminal suggestion and religious identification – all of which were incorrect technically, but fascinating from a larger philosophical point of view.
Plausible explanations for magic and mind-reading feats raise larger epistemological questions about the world (“how we know what we know”) – questions that philosophers of science have been asking for centuries. Do we know what we know through observation? Through intuition? Through reason and rational deduction? How do we know if we are wrong in making statements about the world we perceive?
While the history and philosophy of science have debated these kinds of questions for centuries, magicians continue to disrupt our sense of reality, question the certainty of our knowledge, and in my own case, let us ponder the very rules by which we may live what Aristotle referred to as the good life; understood not as material wealth or superficial happiness, but the holistic and fulsome happiness that derives from doing the right thing under the right circumstances.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the
Today is a remarkable day. I am 50 and very pleased with it as well. I have my health, three beautiful children and my lovely wife. I live in a civilised country with a deep history, a well-tended countryside, a great sense of humour, and a health system that works most of the time.
I was only supposed to come here for a year back in 1993 … oh well…
Turning 50 is a moment to pause and take stock. Five decades. Born into the Cold War at a time when an LED calculator created intense joy and curiosity, and now writing this short blog on a laptop connected to the Internet through eduroam wifi. And as I get older, the simpler my tastes become: a comfortable place to sit, really good coffee, and the fastest broadband in the world.
Despite my birth year, I was not a child of the 60s, but a child of the 70s. Long hair, bell-bottom jeans, blue suede Puma sneakers, a silk shirt with horses on it, a jean coat, and a beat up trombone. I loved our family home in Hemlock Hollow and when not outside running through the woods or swimming in the pond, I was in my room learning and practicing magic; a life-long pursuit that continues to fascinate and enchant me.
The Nixon resignation and our extraction from the Vietnam War were my earliest memories of a decade that saw some of the best rock music ever recorded (although I did not quite appreciate that at the time).
We huddled in my brother’s bedroom listening to Queen (an imported vinyl LP my dad brought back from Amsterdam), Bachman Turner Overdrive, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, the Doobie Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
All that changed in the late 1970s when I discovered punk and New Wave music from the UK. Gone were the self-indulgent dirges; replaced by quick tempo tunes with cockney accents, the ‘nutty’ sound, and political lyrics that spoke of a rebellious generation taking on the establishment.
My brother’s bedroom was replaced by my friend’s back room den with 100s of imported LPs from bands like the Angelic Upstarts, the Cure, U2, the Specials, Madness, the Selector, the Sex Pistols, Joe Jackson, and the Stranglers, which were complemented by surf punk from California like the Dead Kennedys, Agent Orange, and so many others. We learned to slam dance and survive the mosh pit. We wore vintage clothes, pointy shoes, and pork pie hats.
Throughout these years, I was also seduced by jazz, from traditional to hard bop, to jazz rock fusion. The house was full of great music from Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Blood Sweat and Tears, the Modern Jazz Quartet and countless others. I had a long battle learning to play the trombone and a continuing passion to learn how to play jazz, as well as many stints with many different bands: concert band, big band, pit orchestras, marching band, blues bands, and small jazz combos.
The 1980s were a time of deep learning and reacting against Reagan’s America. High School (studies, band, and swimming) in Central Pennsylvania gave way to University life at Penn in the middle of the end of the Cold War. I read the New York Times daily and followed all the foreign policy stories from the Iran-Contra scandal to democratic transitions in Latin America, to the Falklands/Malvinas, to anti-apartheid protests around the world. I wrote my final year dissertation on US Foreign Policy in Chile during the Allende period, abandoned my plans to go to law school, and followed my dream to study Latin America.
Three years in the late 80s in Georgetown included intense study of Latin America, exposure to liberation theology, time in Brazil to hone my Portuguese and follow the first democratic presidential election since 1961, and a short stint at the World Bank before setting off west to pursue a PhD in political science.
The 1990s saw me for a short spell in Boulder, Colorado, where the long hair made a brief return and where I met an English Professor, who, over a glass of single malt invited me to come to the UK. With visions of ivy-covered halls and greens full of students debating philosophy, I landed at the University of Essex (cough); itself an intellectually stimulating place with a radical past. One project turned into another until I found myself traveling the world to over 39 countries working on human rights projects, teaching students from places that were forbidden in my youth like Tajikistan to people who were part of Reagan’s Evil Empire. The Cold War was over, but new forms of tyranny, oppression and conflict were upon us.
Y2K never happened, but 9/11 did, which like the Kennedy Assassination for the generation before me, has been etched on my mind since that fateful day. En route to an appointment in town, I heard an early news report about the attack, while later in the day I found myself standing very still in front of a TV in a clothing store In Colchester UK watching the towers come down; towers I visited as kid on a special trip to New York with my father to pick up my Dutch grandfather who had arrived at JFK airport.
The ‘noughties’ were spent teaching, writing, traveling, playing jazz and performing magic. My three real passions in life remain politics, magic and jazz. In their own way, these passions all share a subversive streak, where big disruptions come from those who foment new ideas (we can change history), question orthodoxy (why not flatten the fifth note in a diatonic scale?), and unsettle our sense of reality (is it deduction, deception, or something more?).
50 seemed a long way away as a kid, where I often yearned to be older, but as Ferris says, life moves pretty fast. I agree, but it also moves slow enough to savour the journey, and this journey thus far has been fantastic.
So, as I savour this particular day, happy birthday to me, and many thanks to all my friends and family who have made the journey thus far unforgettable.
In honour of this day, I share with you a new poem that I call The Pond. I hope you like it.
I am absolutely delighted to have crafted a new show entitled An Evening of Mindful Magic.
As an Academic Magician, I see magic as useful medium and means of communication for us to contemplate life’s bigger questions.
I have spent my entire life studying people and books, and have had the opportunity to travel around the world to discover new insights, lesser-known subjects, and in some cases, arcane secrets about the world.
I think of mindfulness in three ways.
First, I am keen that we all remain mindful of what we say and how that might affect those with whom we interact. It is often quite extraordinary how we remain unaware of the impact of what we say to people. Remaining mindful and developing empathy for those with whom we interact is a great first step to wisdom. I hope through the show that this notion is evident.
Second, my own demonstrations on display during the show are ‘of the mind’, which is to say that which you will perceive I am doing is a function of all five of your senses, but some of what you experience may actually feel like a sixth sense. Everything we experience is processed in our minds, and if we imagine we are all part of the ‘shared community of human minds’ as renowned neuroscientist Raymond Tallis believes we are, then perhaps we can enter that community together at least for the passing moments of the show.
Third, there is much in the press and public domain these days about ‘mindfulness’ or that state of the mind that allows us to live in the ‘present moment’; to not stand in the middle of the ‘rush hour’ of life, but rather to take a position on the pavement, detach ourselves from the distraction of the traffic in our lives, and find that inner calm. Being ‘ever present’ is something that holds great surprise across many moments in the show.
We will explore many themes together that touch on many topics currently at the forefront of the public’s mind. I rather like to see these topics as questions rather than anything approaching solid answers.
- How much do we know, and how confident are we in knowing it?
- What is hidden in plain sight?
- Why do we use the words we use and how do we know what they mean?
- Is there a mathematical world ‘out there’ waiting o be discovered?
- How do we make deductions and why does that process matter?
- How do we know what is right and what is wrong?
- What memories from your life are important and do your remember them accurately?
These and other questions are explored in a highly interactive, dynamic and energetic show with many surprises and many inexplicable demonstrations that will certainly leave you agog!
The show has its debut at the Djanogly Theatre, Lakeside Arts at the University of Nottingham on 20 and 21 January 2016. For this show, all the proceeds will be donated to alzheimer’s research; an issue area that is very close to my heart.
So, prepare to be mesmerised, mindfully, of course!
Full details can be found here:
‘Podcasts embody what is arguably the essential promise of the Internet: a means for surprising, revealing, and above all ennobling encounters with people, things, and ideas we didn’t know.’
Jonah Weiner, blog for Slate ‘Toward a critical theory of podcasting’.
For the last 25 years I have been working on human rights problems. I have applied theories and methods from the discipline of political science to empirical analyses that have involved single countries, small groups of countries, and all the countries in the world. This work has been underpinned by a commitment to making the best inferences possible with the evidence that has been collected.
I have published widely on how and why comparative methods can and should be applied to the study of human rights. I have examined empirical relationships between the struggle for citizenship rights in authoritarian Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Spain; between the international law of human rights and the protection of human rights; and between different forms of inequality and the violation of certain sets of human rights. My work is now focussed on the ways in which human rights are framed and how that framing affects our readiness to find culpability of alleged perpetrators.
Throughout my pursuit of this research I have had the opportunity to travel to 38 different countries to participate in conferences, workshops, seminars, and training activities where I have worked with a wide range of local, national, and international stakeholders from governments, international non-governmental organisations, inter-governmental organisations, academic institutions, and private sector companies. This work has led to my involvement in a wide network of individuals who are dedicated to producing sound evidence on human rights.
They apply empirical theories and methods to well crafted research questions at different levels of analysis with the intent of making the world a better place. They measure and compare human rights practice; they interview individuals and groups about human rights experiences; they test hypotheses about important relationships between human rights and other explanatory factors; and they try to make their findings relevant and salient to policy makers and practitioners working in the human rights and broader international community.
The research and policy outputs of this work often comes in the form of the written word: articles, books, and reports that set out the aims and objectives of the research, the specification of the research questions, the review and articulation of the relevant theories and literature, the specification of hypotheses, the presentation of data, methods and analysis, and a discussion of the implications of these findings for the advance of human rights. These outputs are a vital part of the pool of knowledge that is being created by human rights scholars and practitioners; however, as a means of communication, they can still remain quite limited in their ability to reach key audiences.
To address this limitation, I am joined by a great team to bring you an exciting new venture we call The Rights Track. With generous funding from the Nuffield Foundation, The Rights Track will provide a free web resource with podcasts from leading empirical human rights researchers drawn from my own networks and those of others with a view to sharing motivations, findings, and implications of this research for a wider community of interested people. Podcasts are an excellent medium of communication, which capture the human element of knowledge creation, since we can hear scholars and practitioners in their own words talk about why they do what they do, what they do, and why what they do really matters for the world. I enjoyed making my own podcast series and this project is a natural extension of that work.
Podcasts can be downloaded, saved for later, and revisited while you are at home, on the move, and traveling abroad. And as a form of communication, podcasts are now more popular than ever. Last year, Apple said subscriptions of podcasts through iTunes reached 1 billion. RawVoice, which tracks 20,000 shows, said the number of unique monthly podcast listeners has tripled to 75 million from 25 million five years ago so, in that respect it’s clearly a fantastic platform for reaching a wide and diverse audience. I am thus really pleased to post this blog on international podcast day!
I will host the podcasts and engage with this group of human rights analysts in ways that tease out answers to these key questions on motivation, analysis, and impact of their work. My efforts are joined by former BBC journalist and founder of Research Podcasts Christine Garrington who will produce the podcasts, and web designer Paul Groves who will build the platform for the project and support the hosting of all the content in the most accessible formats possible. The podcasts will start being made available to the public on International Human Rights Day on 10 December 2015.
The project is currently working on developing the web resource (CLICK HERE) and inviting leading analysts to participate. It has its first guests lined up who I will interview this autumn in preparation for our launch in December. I am really excited to bring this new and important resource to the public domain! I hope you join me and tune in!
For my transition from my 22 years at the University of Essex to my new role at the University of Nottingham, I spent a much-needed week in Wales with family. I have been coming to Wales since the mid-1990s and it never fails to impress me; however, this visit to mid-Wales, where I have been many times before, gripped me in ways I had not experienced hitherto.
We started our week with a home cooked dinner on the deck prepared by our dear family friend with a stunning view of the surrounding trees and mountain. The buddleia were in full bloom, the pine air was fresh, and the mountain had its typical immovable permanence coupled with the changeable contours, grazing sheep, and mesmerizing colours.
We had few plans for the week and allowed the weather to be our guide. As it happened, there was little rain and mild, partly sunny days that afforded us ample time for long walks with the dogs, an afternoon on the beach, a great ride on a restored steam train, a long walk inside a disused mine, and yes a Mexican breakfast in a small mining village just off the A487 called Corris.
We began our week with a mooch about Machynlleth, which is a gateway to the delights of mid Wales with Aberystwyth to the South, Aberdyfi (Aberdovey) to the South West and Dogellau to the North. The serpentine roads take you through the valleys and bring surprises at every turn. Our foray into Mach included a great visit to Ian Snow, a wonderful shop with a mélange of worldly goods ranging from beautiful quilts and throws to incense and small wooden boxes (my magical mind races every time I see all the boxes).
We visited the antique shops, charity shops, and a great bookshop with a careful selection of volumes on politics, poetry, literary fiction, art, photography and philosophy. I picked up a copy of Adam Ford’s The Art of Mindful Walking, which seemed hugely apt given our daily walks in the valley near our cottage. I also acquired a copy of Philip Ball’s The Devil’s Doctor, which is a great biography of Paracelsus and most suitable for my interest in scholar magicians.
Our days in the cottage involved gentle mornings of coffee, games and reading (I started the amazing Luminaries by Eleanor Catton). We struck out every morning with our dogs Phoebe and Derek, our beloved rescue dogs from Romania using the back road between Ceinws and Corris with gentle slopes, a canopy of pine trees, and the sound of the rushing river. Ford’s essays about mindful walking remind us to ‘be’ present and to be ‘in’ the present, fully aware of all that we are experiencing in the here and now. The view across the Corris valley is spectacular, with sheep dotting the pastures below, the mountains ever watchful, and the village with its slate dwelling tendrils reaching into the foothills; providing a warm invitation for weary walkers and thirsty dogs.
Corris is a fascinating place. It is nestled in the valley and site of the 19th century slate trade. The houses are a mix of small slate cottages to more grand affairs, situated along the mountain stream. The Institute is a social meeting place with a post office, second hand bookrack, wainscoted walls, a good sized hall, and photos from the history of Corris. For us, the real gem was Andy and Adam’s Café and Shop. Smallholders and proprietors, Andy and Adam offer a superb café with strong coffee, home made food, and a wide range of foods. The café has transformed Corris and has become the main feature of the village. All the residents and visitors were so friendly and laid back. We enjoyed several mornings there and on our day of departure, we savoured the Mexican breakfast, complete with a dish of baked eggs, mixed vegetables, potatoes, Chorizo, jalapeños, and sour crème and coriander.
Corris also has a full working steam train, restored through the dedicated efforts of a network of volunteers. We took it a few years ago and it was delight to ride the rails again. The volunteers were excellent, and the dogs had a blast. The short seven-minute journey takes you through the valley and then to a new car barn and old engine shed. The team has aspirations to reinstall the track all the way to Machynlleth and operate a new passenger service. We learned about gravity trains and horse drawn trains, as well as the new diesel engine shipped from Germany that is now being made ready for travel.
The Dyfi Valley is extraordinarily beautiful and we made our way to Aberdyfi beach one afternoon. The built up area is great for supplies (and fish and chips), but further along the estuary, you can park, cross the tracks and golf course, and then get to a wonderful wide expanse of sparsely populated beach. It allows dogs and it stretches on for miles. The sea is blue green, and the sand dunes mark out an undulating coastline with the mountains in the distance. The wind blows quite forcefully, but we enjoyed lounging in the sun, making a sand castle and collecting stones and shells. There is a great virtue in slowing down, resting, and contemplating the natural beauty that surrounds us, and this beach did not disappoint. It brought back fond memories of lazy summers at Broadkill Beach Delaware as a child, with its rustic setting, natural surroundings, and hours of fun. We came back to the beach the next day with our dogs and those of our friend, for a brisk walk late in the day, which was magnificent. The contrast between our afternoon of sun and sea, and this rather colder affair was quite marked.
Towards the end of the week, we ventured to Llanidloes, which is a fascinating town 19 miles inland from Machynlleth. The journey is steep, treacherous, but simply beautiful. The weather afforded us great views as we traversed the heights of the local landscape. The town itself is buried deep in a valley, as it suddenly springs upon you after what seems quite a long time climbing up steep inclines and then hurtling down through bendy valleys. I felt like this is town that time forgot. The storefronts, facades, and architecture are largely untouched from the middle of the 19th Century. There are great shops, cafes, antique collections, and a wonderful bookshop with whole barn full of second hand books.
We topped off the week with home made lasagna in the conservatory with tea lights, beer and wine, and of course, a little mindful magic. For the more pensive and contemplative of us, Wales offers such a magical escape from the bustle of daily working life. The run from January to August had been a brisk one with many challenges and successes at Essex; however, the promise of this magical place kept me focused on completing my tasks and then letting go. The sights and sounds of this little corner of planet earth are simply fantastic. It draws us back each year and always serves up something new. This week was very special as it is a transitional period full of hopes, dreams and new (and as yet unknown) opportunities. It is also a period for reflection on that has been, taking stock of achievements and wonderful experiences. I remain ever so grateful for all the life offers and hugely optimistic for the future.
After 22 years at the University of Essex, I have decided to move on to pastures anew. I am excited to have been appointed the new Pro Vice Chancellor for Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham from 1 September 2015.
This opportunity would not have been possible without the many and incredible opportunities that I have had at the University of Essex. I came to Essex to work as a senior research officer on a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on the comparative analysis of social movements and citizenship rights in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Spain.
Armed with a large duffle bag, a trombone, and a few magic tricks, I arrived at Heathrow in September 1993 and began a journey that I never dreamed would have been possible. I was originally invited to stay in the UK for one year and what transpired was a full academic and professional career, family life, and an adventure that has seen me travel to over 35 countries around the world working on development, democracy and human rights.
The original project yielded a book with Oxford University Press and a journal article in the British Journal of Political Science, a comparative textbook with Routledge (three editions, a Spanish edition, and a 4th edition on the way), and a career path that has focused on the measurement and analysis of human rights. Since these early years at Essex I have continued to publish books, articles, and reports, as well as engage in a wide range of international consultancy projects and commissioned research.
The intellectual environment at Essex combines attention to the rigorous analysis of the social and political world with larger normative concerns over the good life and human well being. Before becoming the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Essex in August 2013, I worked for years in the internationally renowned Human Rights Centre, directed the Centre for Democratic Governance, and directed the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution.
I had incredible mentors and colleagues who helped me develop my thinking and writing in ways that allowed me to produce scholarly and practical work that addresses real world problems that continue to confront the world today. From advanced statistical analysis to the finer points of international law, colleagues at Essex have been generous with their time and sharing of their spirit for advancing cutting edge research that really matters.
In addition to the fantastic research pursuits at Essex, I have also had the opportunity and privilege to teach and work with so many students who have gone on to successful careers in academia, government, IGOs, NGOs and private corporations. The alumni community is huge and globally dispersed in ways that never cease to amaze me. I arrive in a country and there always seems to be an Essex graduate there doing something amazing. I have taught ex Soviet military officers, activists from Chiapas, government officials from Thailand, and NGO staff from Mongolia, among many others too numerous to count.
Since August 2013 when I took up my role as the Executive Dean, I have witnessed and taken part in an extraordinary transformation of Essex. Embracing the vision and values set out by our founding Vice Chancellor Albert Sloman, our new Strategic Plan crafts a new direction for the University that combines growth with excellence in research and education. Our colleagues are working at a level that it is hugely impressive with superb REF 2014 results that have placed us in the top 20 in the UK for research intensity (4th in the UK for the social sciences), a growing number of Fellows of the Higher Education Academy, great student satisfaction and the construction of fabulous new buildings for our staff and students. Essex is really going places, and I have been proud to have contributed to its recent success and renewed vigour.
Without this latter experience of working with academic and professional services in the Faculty and the wider university community, I could not have developed the knowledge and skills to take on the role at Nottingham. Partnership working and drawing down expertise from the academic staff and professional services lets us plan and grow for the future in ways that should be a model for other universities in these challenging times of change.
Essex also gave me the space to be The Academic Magician with many opportunities to share my approach to magic, which sees it as an apt performance medium to engage our minds in life’s fundamental questions. The pinnacle of my magic at Essex came in this academic year, our 50th year, with my celebratory show Then and Now, which I performed for over 450 people in the wonderful Lakeside Theatre in the autumn term of 2014. From its radical past to its amazing future, the University and its departments provided the perfect substance for an engaging evening of coincidence, synchronicity, mind reading and inexplicable predictions, all couched in my own transatlantic mirthful sense of irreverence.
I now join a university that has a remarkable number of fundamentals in place, campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia, and an array of intellectual capacities that are aligned with my own interests. The schools in the faculty include politics and international relations, sociology and social policy, geography, law (with a human rights law centre), economics, Chinese studies, education, and business. I have made the UK my home and I am excited to move to the heart of England to work at a truly global university, whose aspirations are exciting and motivating.
I would like to extend a very warm and heartfelt THANK YOU to all at Essex and to all who have passed through Essex with whom I have engaged in some way. It has been truly life changing.
Keep on challenging convention…