Thursday 11 March, 2021

Thorny problems

Seen on our walk this afternoon.

Quote of the Day

”Organic life, we are told, has developed gradually from the protozoon to the philosopher, and this development, we are assured, is indubitably an advance. Unfortunately, it is the philosopher, not the protozoon, who gives us this assurance.”

  • Bertrand Russell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Peggy Seeger | The Invisible Woman


What a woman! Born in 1935 and still going strong. Thanks to Andrew Ingram for spotting it.

Long Read of the Day

In a recent Observer column I argued that now that universities have demonstrated that at least a part of their teaching can be done online, there will eventually have to be a post-pandemic reckoning: institutions will have to come up with good arguments for why it’s essential to gather students expensively in a single place for long periods. What exactly is special and essential for face-to-face teaching and learning? And does it have to be done in the same way that has been conventional since the 12th century?

I wasn’t saying that no such arguments exist. In some cases — laboratory teaching, for example, or medicine — the case for physical presence is obvious. It’s just that I wasn’t hearing any really good cases to justify the huge costs involved in higher education.

But a post today in Andrew Curry’s terrific Just Two Things blog suggested that convincing justifications may exist. He points to Christina Lupton’s thoughtful review of The Teaching Archive, a new book by Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan. The review is really interesting, and it suggests that the book is also important. So I guess it has to go on my reading list.

But for today, if you have time, Lupton’s review is enough to be going on with.

Do you really need to fly?

Interesting piece by Farhad Manjoo, who begins in confessional mood:

I once flew round-trip from San Francisco to London to participate in an hourlong discussion about a book. Another time it was San Francisco-Hong Kong, Hong Kong-Singapore and back again for two lunch meetings, each more lunch than meeting. I went to Atlanta once to interview an official who flaked out at the last minute. And there was that time in Miami: three days, 5,000 miles, hotel, rental car — and on the way back a sinking realization that the person I’d gone to profile was too dull for a profile.

His general point in the piece, though, seems unanswerable to me. Much of the obsession with the necessity of face-to-face contact was overblown, but it took the pandemic and the need to communicate electronically to blow the gaff on the myth. There will always be a case for travel and F2F needs to be more nuanced. Sometimes, it still is essential. But often it isn’t. And we’ll all be better for it.

(And — responding in the spirit of Manjoo’s confessional mode…the most enjoyable flight I ever took was probably also the most environmentally damaging: I flew the Atlantic on Concorde once. It took two and a half hours and included a very good lunch. And I arrived before I’d left, as it were. Unforgettable but also mad.)

My answer to Manjoo’s question: I don’t really need to fly any more, because I gave up long-haul flights decades ago. But in pre-pandemic times I found short-haul flights (an hour or so) pleasant and useful (especially for keeping in touch with family and friends). Most of those trips are still possible by car (now an EV) or rail, though they will take longer. But sometimes slow travel, like slow food, is more enjoyable. That’s a lesson we learned when we decided to drive, rather than fly, to Provence every summer.

Another, hopefully interesting, link

  • The Last Blockbuster Store. Trailer for a documentary about the last Blockbuster store in the world. Strange thing is that in 2000 Blockbuster turned down the chance to buy Netflix for $50m. By 2011, Blockbuster was bankrupt and down to 2400 stores while Netflix had gone public and today has a market cap of $223 billion. Link

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