Sunday 9 April 2017

The mould unbroken

Now then, kids, pay attention Uncle Bob is going to explain some physics.
Noooo, they all cry - running from the room with the hands over their ears - he know nuttin'; he fail his kid physic exam.
Okay okay, you young shavers, then Steve Mould and his friends are going to explain self-siphoning beads. This is the super counter-intuitive observation that a string of beads appears to defy gravity as they are pulled from a bucket and allowed to fall. The further the fall the higher the string leaps from its container.

Here's a little piece of inspiration [spoiler alert: watch this if you have dyslexia in your family] about how Steve found out the peculiar way in which his mind wonked. A way that fitted him very poorly for school but rather well reading Physics at Oxford. It could all have gone down a different path in the yellow wood of the boy's life. Because he was crap at spelinge and couldn't learn his times-tables like the other kids. They called him RedCard (you have to see the film to find out why) but actually they meant 'retard'. And young Steve could have taken the label to be the identity and resigned himself to a life stacking shelves in Tesco. But the combination of fully supportive parents and a teacher who cared, allowed him to become his true self. What's particularly inspiring is the sense of differently-abled, which is a common euphemism for retarded or thick as pig-dribble, but in Steve's case is a manifestation of The Other. He has skills that I don't and he sees the world in a different way. Not a better way! Different, and the two of us: you and me; Steve and me, you and Steve could achieve some rare synergies if we respected and integrated and complemented our different ways of seeing [hats off and a moment's silence for John Berger, please]. We are much readier to recognise dyslexia now than when Steve was in school in Geordieland 30 years ago. We are getting a better feel for what simple interventions can stop that particular way of processing information being a full-on handicap. I still feel that the sense of the meeting is to level the playing field for dyslexics rather than really embracing their way of thinking as an alternative, valuable and Other way. Diversity rocks!

Steve tells us how he loves algorithms - the short cuts and ways of fashioning a solution to a problem; - because they are the product of a creative mind like his. What he has no time for is turning the handle turning the handle turning the handle turning the handle on the algorithm machine. Heck-n-jimminy we have smart-phones to do the grunt work. He worries that rote learning, mechanical tasks and questions with one right answer are too much the stuff of schooling. Where is the creativity? He cries.

I'll tell you a parable about that. Years ago, about when I was getting born, my gaffer PhD supervisor was teenager in Caribou, Maine. Not place sparkling with opportunity but a boy needs money and he got a job in a local feed-store. First day at work, he is given a shovel and let into an upstairs room in the complex which contains a little old chap, almost bent double and holding a similar shovel. The old man points to a trap-door in the floor and a chute coming out of the opposite wall. Every so often, he explains, there is a rumbling sound and an enormous pile of corn gushes from the chute. Their job (and thanks for the help, son) is to shovel the corn across the room and through the trap-door. The Gaffer is curious and helps to process the first heap of the day. But instead of waiting for the next cascade, he goes off round the plant, finds some old lumber, a saw and a hammer and nails and spends an hour building a chute extension that directs the corn across the room to the hole in the floor. The second day at work is spent in the room chatting about cats and horses with the old man. Third day, the supervisor comes round and throws a paddy about a) change of routine b) time-wasting and c) misuse of lumber: If you want a a job round here, you'd better clear away that raffle and do what you're told. And it was so. The Gaffer spent the rest of the Summer developing his upper body rather than exercising his mind and found that looking ripped made him a bit of a babe-magnet. That was okay, but his curiosity and problem-solving skills in due course got him into Harvard.

Mais revenons nous a nose Steves Science applied to a most unlikely question: do Canadian banknotes smell  of maple syrup?  Recent Blobosmells.

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