The quest for knowledge

First up, I am going to recommend a book which I am in the process of reading called The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan and it is the history of civilisation and trade geographically from the Middle East rather than from Western Europe. It is absolutely fascinating. I bought the paperback the other day because to be frank, it is one of the rare text dense books which is worth having a hard copy of rather than loading up to your kindle. By the way I need new bookshelves.

With that said, one of my guilty pleasures lately has been reading below the line on Guardian articles regarding the impact of the UK vote to leave the European Union – I will not call this Brexit – I did not much like the term Brangelina either. The Guardian was broadly in favour of rejecting the referendum to leave and it has a bunch of columnists who are ready to write reams on the impact. So far, they have not yet found any benefits although below the line, there are plenty to say “we got more sovereignty”.

Before the vote, I questioned an online interlocutor based in the UK how he was able to convince himself that voting to leave the EU would gain him in democracy since the Head of State was a hereditary monarch and their second chamber was also unelected and part hereditary. Plus, they have that awful first past the post system which is designed for “stability” but means that they get sea changes rather than stable incremental changes. It was a start, he advised me, pitifully.

I’ve tried to understand his argument, particularly in the context of him favouring the so called Norway Solution where you have to comply with a bunch of EU legal instruments, pay into the EU and allow all four pillars of the single market, specifically freedom of movement of labour being the contentious one in the UK at the moment.

You could write reams on the unintended consequences of the UK referendum result – for me one of the fascinating one is that it has pre-empted a change in views across Europe with EU membership currently gaining in favour in countries like Finland where the True Finns party is now desperately trying to shore up support for a referendum in the face of a population which has looked at the UK, looked at their borders and gone, you know what…things could be a whole pile worse.

Within the UK, though, the comments pages of newspapers are a fascinating reflection of the different facets of British society. Even if you choose not do discuss the geographical differences, there are clear differences in understanding the issues. Because I have friends who work in the academic research sector, I happen to have somewhat more of an interest in the impact on research budgets so I tend to read pieces on that. There have been a few lately because grant proposals are being prepared for Horizon 2020 – a huge European research funding program – and uncertainty about the UK’s position in Europe over the next five years – is causing grant applicants grief. Do we apply with UK based researchers even though they might be out before we draw down funding or start the project? The answer is increasingly “wait and see”.

This was forecast pre vote. Like a lot of forecasts, it was written off as fear mongering.

I do not especially want to talk in detail about the impact on science funding, or the impact on jobs or what will or will not happen with immigration and points systems. These are all details. What has struck me most about reading below the line is the absolute certainty of people who cannot accept that voting in favour to leave the European Union has huge costs associated with it. From the ones who point out that the UK pays more into the EU than it gets back but who still can’t work out that if their economy takes a hit, the money won’t be there to finance the science that historically got money from European budgets – and getting funding from UK research budgets has become increasingly difficult.

This kind of certainty worries me sometimes. It is indicative of people who are far too willing to reject other people’s experience in favour of what they know to be true. Very often it is indicative of a closed mind. One of the biggest problems the Remain campaign had was that explaining reality was generally rejected. Even now, as things are starting to rise to the surface in an none too positive way, there is still a strong desire to reject reality in favour of what people know to be true when in fact, what they know to be true is a) untrue and b) based on some misinterpretation and or misunderstanding.

There is some evidence to suggest that there is a correlation between those who left school early and those who voted in favour of exit. One of the things which interested me – and stunned me – about the UK as I was growing up was that it was more or less common and socially acceptable to leave school at what was then O-level stage, or 16 for the most part. People doing A-levels seemed to be sort of special butterflies.

The UK has recently updated its legislation to make sure that young people stay in full time education or some sort of training until 18 now.

Online discussions become heated because a lot of people – particularly and often on the wrong side of a debate – refuse to take a step backwards and ask “could I possibly have gotten this wrong” whereas people on the right side of the debate frequently do, and frequently own their lack of knowledge, and they also demonstrate that they are willing to add to their knowledge.

I suppose this is where I am getting down to the crux of the matter. Where do people learn to step back and question their own knowledge, and where do people engage in certainty so certain that demonstrating to them that they are wrong has no impact?

It seems to me that people who have a greater knowledge are more open to a) adding to that knowledge and b) updating that knowledge than people who have a lesser knowledge. You see this in any debate online although a few generate a lot more heat than others.

If I had one question for the world today, it would be: how do we get people interested in learning more and recognising the limits of their knowledge (and then pushing them back) rather than hiding in their comfort zone of certainty.

It’s not a question of making information and sources available there – this is already done although sorting valid sources from invalid sources is increasingly hard – but it’s something in education and something in media. What is fascinating is that…it works for some people. And it doesn’t work for some people.

How do we get people on a quest for knowledge that changes attitudes and dogma in this way? In my opinion, if the UK is to respond effectively to its decision to leave the European Union, it needs to do this for its population as a whole because it otherwise will not develop the agility to respond to its new place in the world order.

In the meantime, The Silk Roads was number 2 in the UK non-fiction chart last week. That desire for knowledge does already exist. Harnessing it now…that’s the next question.

Hyperrealistic drawing

Or, photorealistic drawing.

I am not saying I fully aspire to it (currently I aspire to “vaguely accurate”) but I came across a discussion online (where all the best/worst discussions take place) in which the skill required to do a hyperrealistic pencil drawing in graphite or charcoal (I’m equally bad at both) was basically denigrated as not being art.

I love drawing. I love painting. While I was in London lately I bought more pencils to draw more dragons with, and more paints because they were good paints with a near 80% discount (always welcome). I remain completely impressed at people who can do the whole hyperrealistic thing because they clearly have very strong drawing and value skills.

I sometimes wonder if denigrating people who apply their skills in that way is based on envy more than anything else.

Nice is news

Late last night before I went to bed I saw a worrying headline in my social media feeds to suggest some sort of tragedy had happened in Nice. I like Nice. I’ve been there on holidays a couple of times. Some gorgeous buildings. The city is colourful. Not a big fan of the somewhat stony beach mind, but the prom is lovely.

And today it is in mourning because someone decided to drive a truck through a crowd. There is no valid justification for doing any such thing deliberately, no matter what your political stance is, no matter what your purported religious faith is. It’s a stupid, ungodly, evil thing to do.

I cannot watch the news and I don’t want to see the papers. Far too often I’m waking up of a morning and the world is a little bit stranger than it used to be the night before when I went to bed.

Funding for science

One of the core concerns raised prior to the referendum in the UK on 23 June related to funding for scientific research. In a way, it was one of many aspects of exit which was either ignored by the greater part of the population, or simply did not exist for them. Since the referendum, anecdotally, researchers are finding that they are less likely to be included in new applications for EU grant funding for large scale research projects. Projects which may have budgets of over a million euro. We are not talking about fiddly little projects.

The response in the UK to this has been sadly rather illuminating. There are some people who just see the EU as an amorphous blob and assume that reports of funding opportunities at EU level dropping off is the fault of the EU (rather than the fault of the UK for voting a desire to be out). There are some people who saw this coming and are irate that they were ignored in the run up. What is said is that there are people who just don’t want to hear when they are wrong.

What the EU are doing, they declare, is illegal. This is evidence that they do not know what the EU are doing anyway, which, in this case, is nothing. People putting projects together are less likely to include British based researchers because Britain’s position in the EU over a time frame of 5 years is now extremely unclear. This is hardly the EU’s fault, nor is it the fault of the researchers putting projects together. They are dealing with reality here.

I find it extraordinary that people who want to be out of the European Union are complaining bitterly about things happening that are on their road to being out of the European Union.  What did they think was going to happen? That nothing much would change, that they would retain every facet of their lives currently only that the gold starred blue flag would go away and that they’d get all the benefits of being part of the European Union without actually having to contribute to it?

There is a view about in the UK that this will lead to the loss of a lot of researchers who will choose to move where things interest them rather than remain in the UK where there has been a lot of messing with local funding for academic research. Equally, there are views around that researchers are bleeding the country dry and not doing real work (not like those private sector employees). In all of this, I wonder where we lost the ability to recognise that sometimes, we don’t know (when you have people who do no scientific research at all screaming that senior scientists do not know what they are talking about when it comes to scientific funding, there’s a serious problem with the inability to recognise the limits of your own knowledge).

Even if the UK are to make a reasonable success of having to create links with all those countries they already had links with, I do not know how we fix society such that people listen and learn rather than listen and scream back.

As it happens, I spent a year at university in the UK. I am reasonably sure that people will adapt and cope. But you know, adapting and coping with a self inflicted injury is somehow harder than avoiding the injury in the first place. The UK is on a journey, now very much without a map I suspect.

How to draw dragons

I drew a dragon yesterday evening and you can see her here:

 

#dragon #coloredpencils #dailysketch #carandache #pablopencils #craftpaper.

A photo posted by Me (@wnbpaints) on

It has shown me two things 1) I have gotten better at drawing in the last 2 years or so, and 2) I’ve a bit to learn about coloured pencils. Either way, I am not here to talk about how to draw dragons directly, but more…metaphorically.

Most days when I am talking to people, we talk about stuff with a small s and Stuff with a big S. Rarely, however, do I get a 10 minute speech from any friend along the lines of “You have to listen to this for 10 minutes because It Will Change Your Life”. But lots of my friends post such screeds to me. Yesterday, I had some time tossing up between doing housework and drawing dragons. I find drawing challenging. I wasn’t really taught how to do it properly as a child and we tend to assume the ability to draw is innate rather than a teachable skill. I can only hope this is changing. Anyway, the net result is that I’m often wanting to draw something but too terrified to start. Every time I lift a pencil or pen, it takes an enormous amount of motivation. I liken it to the motivation required to starting to get exercise.

Since I started doing this, and since I started summoning up the courage required to try and, probably fail at something, I have seriously started to question the reasons why certain things go viral, why many of the advice pieces on making your living blogging and related items seem to focus not on creating something, or even teaching someone to create, but on telling someone how to live their lives, and to explain to them, they’re really not happy.

I’m really not happy about a lot of things but a ten minute video exhorting me to think about someone else isn’t the solution. This morning’s one – before I bailed on it (it helpfully had subtitles so I did not have to listen to it) went on about being caught by your dreams and risking all for it. Like many of these things, it ignores circumstance and has an unspoken message of if you’re unhappy, it’s your fault.

In a way, it’s part of the trend we have of over simplifying life. This guy was prancing around some nice landscapy place and the overwhelming message I was getting was that we were sheeple who hadn’t seen truth the way he had, and frankly, we should all be living our dreams. It is the sort of message that I look at and think, you know, this guy has no idea how privileged he is. I used to use the word “lucky” there but I’m not sure how much luck has to do with it in the end.

The thing is, the dragon turned out (in my opinion) quite a lot better than I expected. It’s not getting loads of social media love but I’m coming to the conclusion that’s not why I do this anyway. The key point is that while it is far from perfect, it is far less of a failure than it might have been 12 or 18 months ago. I’m not in favour of the try/fail paradigm of making progress particularly as it frequently doesn’t include the bit that goes try/fail/learn. In the tech work, the whole try/failure thing is often presented as a success in itself. It becomes party of the myth and narrative of successful founders.

I find that just a little bit toxic. The whole try/fail thing really doesn’t work unless it’s try/fail/learn and I suspect any founder who eventually makes it would probably agree.

Anyway, back with the dragon. I spend a lot of time looking at other people’s art, and especially, decomposing what they do into lines because I can draw lines and the whole problem for me is drawing lines together successfully. Sometimes, I wonder, if we do take enough time to decompose what other people are doing, when they are doing something we want to do. The whole

  1. idea
  2. ??
  3. profit thing

really does not work with drawing dragons. But I will say this. It’s a metric tonne easier if you have a battery operated eraser for dealing with those little slip ups.

I suppose the lesson I’m hoping to give away for free here is “use the best tools you can get, and use them properly”.

For my next trick, there will be more lighthouses.