Wednesday, 23 December 2009

T’was the night before Christmas…

T’was the night before Christmas…
Well, actually it was the night of the 21st, but it was close to Christmas and it was the Christmas rush of people that accentuated the problem. We flew from Porto to Bergamo (what Ryanair laughably calls ‘Milan’, despite being a fairly decent sized city in its own right) where we were due to change planes for Bari in the south of Italy. We had a few hours layover which was just as well as the plane was an hour and a half late (Ryanair state categorically that they are a point to point airline so that despite building a number of hubs in Stanstead, Hahn (only an hour away from, and given the official Ryanair moniker of Frankfurt) and Bergamo, where 90% of the flights are Mr O’Leary’s. They do this, I feel, to save money. They thus have no responsibility for through ticketing, no responsibility for baggage (you have to collect and recheck it in), no responsibility for checking in and you of course cannot wait on the comfortable airside of the airport but instead in spartan conditions in Departures, with a baby, and in a restaurant where you settle down to eat at half past two in the afternoon and are told you must leave because they are closing and there are snackbars with bar stools in the main concourse downstairs available. Which is freezing cold and full. What airport has time limits on its restaurants like this? Flight times and arrivals are outside their customers control and so they limit income. But this is Italy, and t’was ever thus. And I digress. They, Ryanair, know full well that people do use them as a hub and spoke airline because of the places they fly and their competitive prices, and for these things I thank them.
We arrived in Bergamo and rechecked in as soon as we could, three hours before our scheduled departure. Except there was a problem. The check-in now has to be done on-line beforehand and boarding passes printed out to save money for this execrable company. Nevermind that we had spent circa 600 euro. Nevermind that we had already flown there with them and hadn’t followed their rules from Portugal, and had we been warned there we could have fixed the problem with a quick visit to an internet cafĂ©. No, it was a bill of 40 euro a head, plus VAT. Merry Christmas. But my Mrs has learned a lesson too. With this company, read the small print VERY carefully. I wonder how much this wheeze has saved them/made them in ‘fees’ (read ‘fines’).
So we went through, and airside Bergamo is a good airport. It’s clearly under serious renovation and we sat comfortably in the lounge looking to charge our mobiles, laptops and mini DVD player. The ‘we’ here is for all the passengers. There was nowhere, but perhaps there will be in the future. I know it was a sizable ‘we’ because I found a sectioned off area that looked like it was to be turned into an internet area as there were LAN connections and power sockets I slipped in with my daughter and plugged in the mini DVD and watched ‘In the Night Garden’, an opiate for two year olds supplied by the BBC. But I was spotted. A group of Spanish students saw that we had POWER, and joined us, plugging in Ipods and laptops, and still they came, until the section was full and there were far too many of us to escape detection. And we had a grandstand view, for the otherside of the huge plate glass windows we saw the runway, the aircraft and the snow falling. And boy was it falling. It was settling too, the outside temperature probably around minus 5 and we watched the departures/gates information board as first DELAYED replaced ON TIME and I waited for the first of the inevitable calls that a flight would be cancelled.
It came, and then for another flight, and another. The Spanish students were cancelled before us (the Spanish swear ever so well don’t you think?) but I knew our doom as inevitable, and soon we would find ourselves with the options of a) sleeping in an airport, b) trying to catch a train south or c) looking for a hotel room. To be fair to Ryanair this was all outside their control.
They called out the cancelation of the flight, and looking at the snow and seeing its depth, seeing the number of stranded passengers my training kicked in. For I was schooled by the late, great John Hughes. I am, of course, referring to his masterwork for travel, ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ (his other education videos are also worth seeing. Home Security problem? ‘Home Alone. Need to skive off school for a day and have fun? ‘Ferris Bueller’ – we have lost a great teacher with the passing of Mr Hughes). We hustled down to the arrivals hall after picking up our bags and dived into the numerous car rental agencies. AVIS? No cars. Hertz? The same. Europcar fella was on the phone so I dived into Autoeurpoa and… YES! Result. They have loads of cars…. But we can have only one. I was confused at this, but it turned out that their cars were nearly all diesel, a problem when the mercury is in the blue and diesel takes the consistency, and viability of a fuel for internal combustion purposes, of a slush puppy (US English please read ‘Slurpy’). But… there was one car available…. One (Petrol) car that could face the journey of more than a thousand k in freezing conditions, one car that could carry the three of us from frozen northern lands to the south, (relative) warmth and great food, family and friends. This was the hardy FIAT Panda! I swallowed nervously.
I had had a FIAT in my youth. Well, sort of. I remembered a washing machine on wheels with a back seat of canvas stretched between two poles and electrical fittings that, were they made by a talentless, arthritic ape with no clue of electrical engineering, would have been rejected by him (or her, for we are an equal opportunity employer in our similes) as being substandard and not fit for purpose. And that’s not fair on the washing machine, whose metal was less likely to corrode. A few years later I was subjected to the Spanish version. This was called the ‘SEAT Marbella’, but was the exact same car. I had to drive it for work and took my life into my hands on my every day commute. I recalled its ineffective heater… just the thing, I thought, for subzero conditions of ice and snow.
But wait. FIAT has a new(ish) Panda. And I remembered some motoring types saying fairly nice things about it. Could we rent some snow chains? No problem. We were in business.
The shuttle bus dropped as at the car park and the first signs were not encouraging. The car itself was under 6 inches of snow (that’s 15 cm for people who think in metric, but snow, like beer and altitude should be recorded in arcane imperial measurements – that’s pints and feet for the uninitiated by the way), but it started on the first turn of the key and ‘Wow’, a real heater, a really good little heater on a really tidy little car. I installed the wife and child in the back, noisily complaining, though the baby was well behaved. I then set to fitting snow chains, something I have never done before. After twenty minutes we were away. Scandinavian readers will be laughing hard at this, but it was my first time, and like first times it was wet, messy and very disorganized.
There now followed the worst drive of my life. I have had some tough ones before, a blow out (and I mean a big, explosive puncture) on an Italian motorway at 80 miles per hour (tsk…ok, for Europhiles that’s about 130 kph) in the rain, to driving across the width of Iberia with only third gear (this can be done but is not recommended). Please consider that when starting the drive I was tired after a day’s driving, flying and waiting around an airport. And the snow still fell. The Italian motorways were swathes of snow, ice, slush and black ice. And they were empty, apart from trucks flying past, far, far too quickly. I settled into a steady 45 kph (read 22 mph) and started to understand that Italy was not really that small a country.
Many hours later they had closed the motorway south of Modena and we had to take to the side roads. It seems that two trucks had crashed. I was unsurprised. We saw five or six large vans and trucks in ditches, some low-speed fender benders and some lunatic driving, though the last really is a given. We were in Italy after all. I snack slept after every hour or two at the wheel in lay-bys and service areas and we subsisted on crisps and chocolate. It was ten am the next day and 400 k south east before we could get back on the motorway and resume normal driving, all the more tiring for its speed and normality. My eyes were hot and stinging. My fingers cramped from holding the wheel. The journey took twenty hours and we were all physically and mentally exhausted.
It didn’t feel like it had been worth it. It had been expensive, in terms of rental costs (when you rent a car book online if you can. It’s cheaper by a factor of five), tolls and fuel. Time and effort was in the balance too. And risk. It had not been that safe. But we got home, were fed some lovely food (I don’t care what anyone says, Italian cuisine is the best in the world), and turned on the TV, to hear the horror stories of thousands of people stranded, stuck in the airport for the foreseeable future. We were late, but now safe and happy. Thank you John Hughes. Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Christmas Break

I'm away for my holidays soon so the blog will be unattended. I hope that you all have a fantastic Christmas and a wonderful new year. You'll see me again in January.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Blood from a Stone

Students are less and less likely to write longhand in class for me these days. It's like trying to get blood out of a stone! When they do pick up a pen the scrawl is a tangled mess - texting and computers have done for hand writing (though in truth I can't talk as my own handwriting is dreadful. I could be a doctor it's so bad). But students need to do writing in class and not just for homework. They need to practice timings, they need to see how long a text is, how long it takes them and learn how to plan it in controlled conditions and they won't get that at home. And they will complain... so teachers, expect a cacophony of moaning. Also tell students to:
* Plan their answer before they write
* Address ALL the points in the task
* Use the widest range of vocab they can - encourage them to show off a bit.
* Write in a consistent register and style
* Finish with a strong final paragraph.

That's if you can get them to pick a pen up in the first place!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Back from the Menders!

Gawd I hate Vista! I've got my computer back from the menders and they've deleted my Ubuntu and reinstalled Vista. I've put Ubuntu back on as a dual boot but wish I had just deleted the Vista because it's been constantly installing updates and been grindingly slow, so much so I've just chucked another Gig of RAM in the machine. Sorry to be a techie bore but ARGH! it's frustrating. I would put Windows 7 on, but resent paying for it, having given Mr Gates money for 3 versions of XP and 2 versions of Vista over the years (one was the wife's computer).
So... Ubuntu. Just do it!

Saturday, 5 December 2009

By the way...

By the way...

I have recently become a little more understanding of the problems that my students have with the language. Why is this I hear you cry? Because I have started to have classes in Portuguese. For years I have been fudging my way through, basically speaking Spanish with a Sean Connery/Ukrainian accent (Shurely Shome Mishtake?), but have been embarrassed by my clumsy lexis and bitten the bullet. I am uncovering fossilised errors by the truck load (and saying thins like 'really, but I always thought...) and a whole host of false friends. I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to all those I have spoken to with such terrible language.
Portuguese is an odd language. Any fool can read it, but speaking! The nasal twang! Greek was easier, and that's including the different alphabet.
Back to basics then.

Blog Update

My computer's still broken but I have borrowed one as I can't really leave this blog idle while Acer try to unmelt my old laptop (I really should buy a new one, but am certainly waiting until after Christmas because they'll be cheaper and the shops won't be full). Some of my students are doing the mocks for their Cambridge exams today, and on Wednesday I'm doing some invigilation for the real things.
Thoughts on the exam I've had recently? Well, I am getting to like the addition to the CAE Use of English paper of the part where you have three sentences with the same word missing. CPE has had this for a while and I always thought it a bit harsh to drop it on students out of the blue like that.
Also, the CAE Reading paper, specifically the part which concentrates on matching paragraphs to spaces; this has to be over-taught as students really, really find this hard.
I'm finding it quite hard to type right now on an unfamiliar keyboard and with my two year old daughter trying to press the keys at the same time. She's getting excited with Christmas coming up, or at least because of the flashing lights and colour everywhere.
We're all of to Italy for Crimbo to see the in-laws...
I do hope I get my beast (read 'laptop') back soon!

Monday, 23 November 2009

Technical failure

Sorry Guys, no posts for a while. My computer's in the shop as it's been overheating really badly (85 degrees at times). Please bear with me and I'll be back at it when I'm with machine once again.


Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Darwinism 'Why we are, as we are"

My Monday/Wednesday CAE guys wanted the rest of this article from the Economist magazine so here it is.

Why we are, as we are
Dec 18th 2008
From The Economist print edition
As the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On The Origin of Species” approaches, the moment has come to ask how Darwin’s insights can be used profitably by policymakers

WEALTH, according to H.L. Mencken, an American satirist of the last century, “is any income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one’s wife’s sister’s husband.” Adjusted for inflation since 1949, that is not a bad definition. But why do those who are already well-off feel the need to out-earn other people? And why, contrariwise, is it so hard to abolish poverty?
America, Mencken’s homeland, executes around 40 people a year for murder. Yet it still has a high murder rate. Why do people murder each other when they are almost always caught and may, in America at least, be killed themselves as a result?
Why, after 80 years of votes for women, and 40 years of the feminist revolution, do men still earn larger incomes? And why do so many people hate others merely for having different coloured skin?
Traditionally, the answers to such questions, and many others about modern life, have been sought in philosophy, sociology, even religion. But the answers that have come back are generally unsatisfying. They describe, rather than explain. They do not get to the nitty-gritty of what it truly is to be human. Policy based on them does not work. This is because they ignore the forces that made people what they are: the forces of evolution.
The reasons for that ignorance are complex. Philosophers have preached that there exists between man and beast an unbridgeable distinction. Sociologists have been seduced by Marxist ideas about the perfectibility of mankind. Theologians have feared that the very thought of evolution threatens divine explanations of the world. Even fully paid-up members of the Enlightenment, people who would not for a moment deny humanity’s simian ancestry, are often sceptical. They seem to believe, as Anne Campbell, a psychologist at Durham University, in England, elegantly puts it, that evolution stops at the neck: that human anatomy evolved, but human behaviour is culturally determined.

The corollary to this is the idea that with appropriate education, indoctrination, social conditioning or what have you, people can be made to behave in almost any way imaginable. The evidence, however, is that they cannot. The room for shaping their behaviour is actually quite limited. Unless that is realised, and the underlying biology of the behaviour to be shaped is properly understood, attempts to manipulate it are likely to fail. Unfortunately, even as the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s masterwork, “On The Origin of Species”, approaches (it was published in 1859) that fact has not been properly accepted. Time, then, to see what a Darwinian analysis has to offer the hard-pressed policymaker, and whether it can make a practical difference to outcomes.
Mencken’s observation neatly explains two aspects of modern life. One is the open-endedness of economic growth. The other is that no matter how rich your country becomes, the poor you will always have with you. But what explains Mencken’s observation?
For a Darwinian, life is about two things: survival and reproduction. Of the two, the second is the more significant. To put it crudely, the only Darwinian point of survival is reproduction. As a consequence, much of daily existence is about showing off, subtly or starkly, in ways that attract members of the opposite sex and intimidate those of the same sex. In humans—unlike, say, peafowl, where only the cocks have the flashy tails, or deer, where only the stags have the chunky antlers—both sexes engage in this. Men do it more than women, but you need look no further than Ascot race course on Gold Cup day to see that women do it too. Status and hierarchy matter. And in modern society, status is mediated by money.
Girls have always liked a rich man, of course. Darwinians used to think this was due to his ability to provide materially for their children. No doubt that is part of it. But the thinking among evolutionary biologists these days is that what is mainly going on is a competition for genes, not goods. High-status individuals are more likely to have genes that promote health and intelligence, and members of the opposite sex have been honed by evolution to respond accordingly. A high-status man will get more opportunities to mate. A high-status woman can be more choosy about whom she mates with.
Life is about survival and reproduction
For men, at least, this is demonstrably true. Evolutionary biologists are fond of quoting extreme examples to make the point, the most famous being Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty, a Moroccan ruler who fathered over 1,000 children. But kings have powers of coercion. Some better examples are provided by Joe Studwell, in his book “Asian Godfathers”, which dissects the lives of businessmen. Stanley Ho, a veteran operator in Hong Kong and Macau, has 17 children by several women. Oei Tiong Ham, a tycoon who died in 1924, had 18 concubines and 42 children. The relationship holds good further down the social ladder. Danile Nettle and Thomas Pollet, of Newcastle University, recently showed that in Britain the number of children a man has fathered is, on average, related to his income, the spread of modern contraception notwithstanding.
Status, though, is always relative: it is linked to money because it drives the desire to make more of the stuff in order to outdo the competition. This is the ultimate engine of economic growth. Since status is a moving target, there is no such thing as enough money.
The relative nature of status explains the paradox observed in 1974 by an economist called Richard Easterlin that, while rich people are happier than poor people within a country, average happiness does not increase as that country gets richer. This has been disputed recently. But if it withstands scrutiny it means the free-market argument—that because economic growth makes everybody better off, it does not matter that some are more better off than others—does not stand up, at least if “better off” is measured in terms of happiness. What actually matters, Darwinism suggests, is that a free society allows people to rise through the hierarchy by their own efforts: the American dream, if you like.
Conversely, the Darwinian explanation of continued support for socialism—in the teeth of evidence that it results in low economic growth—is that even though making the rich poorer would not make the poor richer in financial terms, it would change the hierarchy in ways that people at the bottom would like. When researchers ask people whether they would rather be relatively richer than their peers even if that means they are absolutely worse off, the answer is yes. (Would you rather earn $100,000 when all your friends earn $50,000, or $150,000 when everybody else earns $300,000?) The reason socialism does not work in practice is that this is not a question that most people ask themselves. What they ask is how to earn $300,000 when all around them people are earning $50,000.
A Darwinian analysis does, however, support one argument frequently made by the left and pooh-poohed by the right. This is that poverty is relative. The starkest demonstration of this, discovered by Richard Wilkinson of Nottingham University, in England, is that once economic growth has lifted a country out of penury, its inhabitants are likely to live longer, healthier lives if there are not huge differences between their incomes. This means that poorer countries with low income-variation can outscore richer ones with high variation. It is also true, as was first demonstrated by Michael Marmot, of University College, London, that those at the bottom of social hierarchies have worse health than those at the top—even when all other variables are statistically eliminated, including the fact that those who are healthier are more likely to rise to the top in the first place.
In the 1970s, when Dr Marmot made this observation, expert opinion predicted the opposite. Executives were expected to suffer worse stress than groundlings, and this was expected to show up as heart attacks, strokes and so forth. In fact, the opposite is true. It is the Darwinian failure of being at the bottom of the heap that is truly stressful and bad for the health. That, writ large, probably explains the mortality patterns of entire countries.
In this case, therefore, the Darwinian conclusion is that there is no right answer—or at least no Utopian one. Of course, it does not take a Darwinist to work out that any competition has losers. The illuminating point is that losing has a real cost, not just the absence of gain. With the stakes this high—early death for the failures and genetic continuity for the successes—it is hardly surprising that those at the bottom of the heap sometimes seek status, or at least “respect”, in other ways. This is a point that should be taken seriously by policymakers. For those “other ways” are also explicable by Darwinism.
That crime is selfish is hardly news. But the idea that criminal behaviour is an evolved response to circumstances sounds shocking. It calls into question the moral explanation that crime is done by “bad people”. Yet that explanation is itself susceptible to Darwinian analysis: evolution probably explains why certain behaviours are deemed worthy of punishment.
The study of the evolutionary roots of crime began with the work of Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, a married couple who work at McMaster University in Canada. They looked at what is usually regarded as the most serious crime of all, murder.

That murderers are usually young men is well known, but Dr Daly and Dr Wilson dug a bit deeper. They discovered that although the murder rate varies from place to place, the pattern does not. Plot the rate against the age of the perpetrator and the peak is the same (see chart). Moreover, the pattern of the victims is similar. They, too, are mostly young men. In the original study, 86% of the victims of male killers aged between 15 and 19 were also male. This is the clue as to what is going on. Most violence (and thus most murder, which is simply violence’s most extreme expression) is a consequence of competition between young, unemployed, unmarried men. In the view of Darwinists, these men are either competing for women directly (“You looking at my girl, Jimmy?”) or competing for status (“You dissing me, man?”).
This is not to deny that crimes of violence are often crimes of poverty (for which read low status). But that is precisely what Darwinism would predict. There is no need to invoke the idea that people are “born criminal”. All that is required is the evolution of enough behavioural flexibility to respond appropriately when violence is (or would have been, in the evolutionary past) an appropriate response.
An evolutionary analysis explains many things about crime (and not just murder)—particularly why most criminals are males of low status. A woman will rarely have difficulty finding a mate, even if he does not measure up to all her lofty ideals. In the world of Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty, however, a low-status man may be cast on the reproductive scrap heap because there are no women available to him at all. Though the world in which humanity evolved was nowhere near as polygamous as Moulay Ismail’s, neither did it resemble the modern one of monogamous marriage, which distributes women widely. In those circumstances, if the alternative was reproductive failure, risking the consequences of violence may have been are worth the gamble—and instincts will have evolved accordingly.
For similar reasons, it is no surprise to Darwinists that those who rape strangers are also men of low status. Oddly, considering it is an act that might result in a child, the idea that rape is an evolved behaviour is even more controversial than the Darwinian explanation of murder. Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico, who proposed it on the basis of criminal data and by comparing people with other species, was excoriated by feminists who felt he was somehow excusing the crime. On the other hand, it has become a mantra among some feminists that all men are rapists, which sounds a lot like the opposite point of view: biological determinism. Insert the word “potential”, however, and this claim is probably true. To a Darwinist, the most common form of forced mating, so-called date rape, which occurs in an already charged sexual environment, looks a lot like an adaptive response. Men who engage in it are likely to have more offspring than those who do not. If a genetic disposition for men to force their attentions on women in this way does exist, it would inevitably spread.
Sexual success, by contrast, tends to dampen criminal behaviour down. Getting married and having children—in other words, achieving at least part of his Darwinian ambition—often terminates a criminal’s career. Again, that is a commonplace observation. However, it tends to be explained as “the calming influence of marriage”, which is not really an explanation at all. “Ambition fulfilled” is a better one.
Illustration by Noma Bar
The murder of children, too, can be explained evolutionarily. On the face of things it makes no sense to kill the vessels carrying your genes into the next generation. And, indeed, that is not what usually happens. But sociologists failed to notice this. It was not until Dr Daly and Dr Wilson began researching the field that it was discovered that a child under five is many times more likely to die an unnatural death in a household with a stepfather present (whether or not that relationship has been formalised by law) than if only biological parents are there.
In this, humans follow a pattern that is widespread in mammals: male hostility to a female’s offspring from previous matings. In some species, such as lions and langurs, this results in deliberate infanticide. In humans things not are always as brutal and explicit. But neglect and a low threshold of irritation at the demands of a dependent non-relative can have the same effect.
Intriguingly, though, if a genetic parent is the killer it is often the mother. Infanticidal mothers are usually young. A young mother has many years of potential reproduction ahead of her. If circumstances do not favour her at the time (perhaps the father has deserted her) the cost to her total reproductive output of bringing up a child may exceed the risk of killing it. Not surprisingly, maternal infanticide is mainly a crime of poor, single women.
Many people might sympathise with those driven to commit this particular form of homicide. But in general crimes such as murder and rape provoke a desire to punish the perpetrators, not to forgive them. That, too, is probably an evolved response—and it may well be a uniquely human one. No court sits in judgment over a drake who has raped a duck. A lioness may try to defend her cubs against infanticide, but if she fails she does not plan vengeance against the male who did it. Instead, she usually has sex with him. Yet ideas of revenge and punishment lie deep in the human psyche.
…and punishment
Economists were long puzzled, for example, by the routine outcome of a game in which one player divides a sum of money between himself and a competitor, who then decides whether the shares are fair. If the second player decides the shares are not fair, neither player gets anything.
What is curious about this game is that, in order to punish the first player for his selfishness, the second player has deliberately made himself worse off by not accepting the offer. Many evolutionary biologists feel that the sense of justice this illustrates, and the willingness of one player to punish the other, even at a cost to himself, are among the things that have allowed humans to become such a successful, collaborative species. In the small social world in which humans evolved, people dealt with the same neighbours over and over again. Punishing a cheat has desirable long-term consequences for the person doing the punishing, as well as for the wider group. In future, the cheat will either not deal with him or will do so more honestly. Evolution will favour the development of emotions that make such reactions automatic.
What goes for cheating goes for other bad behaviour, up to and including the murder of relatives and friends. Moreover, if publicly observed, punishment sends the same message to those who might be considering a similar course of action.
It is therefore one of the marvels of civilisation that punishment and revenge have, for the most part, been institutionalised. But to be successful, the institutionalised punishment has to be seen as a proper outcome by the individuals who were harmed. Otherwise, they might mete out their own revenge. That may worry those who believe that reforming the criminal should be the main goal of sentencing policy. If people no longer believe that the punishment fits the crime, a Darwinian would predict that they will stop supporting the criminal-justice system.
Even deterrence, however, does not always work. On the face of things, capital punishment ought to be the ultimate deterrent. But it does not seem to be. Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, suggests that this is further evidence of the reproduction-related nature of murder. Since failure to reproduce is a Darwinian dead-end anyway, risking death to avoid that fate—or, rather, being impelled to do so in the heat of the moment by an evolved instinct—is not as stupid as it looks. Some sorts of murder might be discouraged by the threat of the noose or the needle. But not the most common sort: young man on young man over status and sex.
A woman’s place
Crime, then, is one field in which women are unequal with men. That does not bother feminists, but perhaps it should. For it might reflect a wider truth which those who believe that the sexes should not merely have equal rights but enjoy equal outcomes will find uncomfortable.
When outcomes are unequal in socially acceptable areas of behaviour, such as employment, it is often interpreted as a sign of discrimination. But people who draw this conclusion rarely consider that the discrimination in question might actually be being exercised by the supposedly disadvantaged women themselves.
A classic example is income. Women earn less than men. Or do they? In fact, younger women do not, or not much. A recent report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a British think-tank, found that British women aged between 22 and 29 who were in full-time employment earned only 1% less than their male counterparts. This age group corresponds for many women to the period when they are single. Once they have found the best available mate, the calculation changes: a woman no longer needs to show off.
In that context, it is less of a surprise that older women are out-earned by their male contemporaries. One reason is that they now care less about the size of their earnings. Of the top 25 ideal employers, as chosen by women, the IEA found that 12 were in the public or voluntary sectors—areas where salaries for equivalent work tend to be lower than in the private sector, though job security is higher and job satisfaction is often believed to be greater. For men, only four employers were in this category. The other reason, of course, is that women usually look after the children. Indeed, the study by Dr Nettle and Dr Pollet which found that reproductive success correlates with men’s income, also points out that with women the correlation is inverted. But the IEA study also found that it is women themselves who are taking the decisions about child care. It reports that two-thirds of the women who had not already had a “career break”, as it is euphemistically known, planned to take one at some point in the future. Less than an eighth of men had similar aspirations. That, too, would be predicted by a Darwinist.
Although there is a strong argument for making working conditions more sympathetic to the needs of parents of both sexes, the underlying point is that many women—and certainly many women with children—do not care as much about striving ahead in their careers as men do. Men, the report found, are more motivated by pay and less by job satisfaction than women are. If managers, they are more likely to work long hours. They also take more risks—or, at least, are more frequently injured at work.
The consequence, as Len Shackleton, the IEA report’s main author, puts it, is that: “The widespread belief that the gender pay gap is a reflection of deep-rooted discrimination by employers is ill-informed and an unhelpful contribution to the debate. The pay gap is falling but is also a reflection of individuals’ lifestyle preferences. Government can’t regulate or legislate these away, and shouldn’t try to.” He failed to add, however, that these preferences are often the result of biological differences between the sexes.
What goes for pay probably goes for career choice as well. At one extreme, it is foolish, as Kingsley Browne of Wayne State University, in Michigan, suggests, to expect equal outcomes in organisations like the armed forces. Not only are men stronger and more aggressive but, Mr Browne suggests, the psychology of both sexes has evolved to trust men (and not trust women) in combat, precisely because of this aggression and strength. At the other end of the scale, it is probably an opposite mixture of evolved aptitudes and attitudes that causes the domination by females of professions such as nursing.
This is not to say there can be no good female soldiers or male nurses. Patently, there can. But it is not clear evidence of discrimination that they are rarer than their counterparts of the opposite sex. A Darwinian analysis of the matter cannot say where the equilibrium would lie in a world free from discrimination. But it can say with reasonable confidence that this equilibrium will often not be 50/50.
Many may harrumph at such a Darwinian interpretation of feminism, and say that it is a circuitous route to a traditional destination. It isn’t: not expecting an equal distribution of the sexes within every profession is not the same as saying that a woman’s place is in the home. And having dared to question the assumptions of both feminists and their opponents, some evolutionary biologists are now hoping to turn conventional wisdom upside down in another area where civil rights meet long-standing prejudice. This is the vexed question of race.
Race to the finish
Racial difference is an area where modern Darwinists have feared, until recently, to tread. This is hardly surprising, given the topic’s history. Many early evolutionary biologists (though not Darwin himself) thought that just as man was a risen ape, so white, European man was the zenith of humanity, and that people from other parts of the world were necessarily inferior.
The consequences of that have been terrible. It gave a veneer of intellectual respectability to the eugenic horrors which culminated in the Nazi death camps. Indeed, it is probably one of the roots of the “evolution stops at the neck” point of view. But evolutionary biology is now making amends. By overturning understanding of what race actually is, it may yet provide the tools that allow people of different backgrounds to live in reasonable harmony.
Revenge and punishment lie deep in the human psyche
Its first observation is a bleak one. This is that racism, or at least xenophobia, is a deeply ingrained human characteristic. But its second observation is that, so far as can be determined, the traditional definition of race—the tendency of people living in different parts of the world to have different skin colour, hair colour and physiognomy—has no wider ramifications in areas such as intelligence. Racial prejudice, then, is just that: prejudice.
What is being proposed instead, by another husband and wife team of Darwinists, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby of the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a theory of ethnicity that explains the mishmash of categories anthropologists have tried to shoehorn into the general class of “race”. Are Jews and Sikhs, who are defined by religious exclusivity, races? Are Serbs and Croats, who share their religions with others, but not with each other, and whom no geneticist could tell apart? These examples, and similar ones, argue that race has no biological meaning. But it does. It is just not the traditional meaning.
Social psychologists have long observed that, on first meeting, people automatically classify each other in three ways: by sex, by age and by race. But Dr Cosmides and Dr Tooby pointed out that before long-distance transport existed, only two of those would have been relevant. People of different ages and sexes would meet; people of different races would not.
The two researchers argue that modern racial discrimination is an overstimulated response to what might be called an “alliance” detector in the human brain. In a world where the largest social unit is the tribe, clan or what-you-will of a few hundred people, your neighbours and your other allies will normally look a lot like you, and act similarly. However, it is known from the study of modern hunter-gatherers, and inferred from archaeological evidence about ancient ones, that neighbouring tribes are often hostile.
Though an individual might reasonably be expected to know many members of his tribe personally, he would probably not know them all. There would thus be a biological advantage in tribal branding, as it were. Potential allies would quickly identify what marked them out from others, and what marked others out from them—and, because those differences would probably be small, the detector would need to be very sensitive.
In the past, such markers would often have been cultural, since local physical differences would have been minimal. A telling instance is recorded in the Bible:
Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew him.
The questioners were the Gileadites. The slain, an Ephraimite. But no physical difference could distinguish the tribes, so the Gileadite ethnic-cleansers had to rely on linguistic tics.
In a world where a syllable can get you killed, having differently coloured skin is a pretty strong brand of identity. However, it is not a unique signal. Experiments that Dr Cosmides, Dr Tooby and their students have conducted in both America and Brazil (another racially mixed country) suggest it is surprisingly easy to rebrand even people of different skin colour by making other badges of allegiance more significant—as happens when sportsmen clothe themselves in coloured team shirts. Moreover, Andrew Penner of the University of California, Irvine, and Aliya Saperstein of the University of Oregon have shown that perception of a person’s race can actually change in the real world. Many people shift from being “white” to “black”, in both their own eyes and the eyes of others, in response to unemployment, impoverishment or imprisonment.
That is an uncomfortable reminder of the way group solidarity works in America. The hope this analysis brings, though, is that there is nothing particularly special about biologically based brands such as skin colour. If other brands of group membership can be strengthened, the traditional ones may diminish, even if they do not disappear completely. If this theory of race is correct (and more research is certainly needed), it indicates a strong prescription: policies that encourage groups to retain their identity within a society will cause trouble, but those that encourage cultural integration will smooth things over.
In practice, the history of that most racially mixed country of all, the United States, supports this idea. When integration has been encouraged, as with the descendants of the great flood of European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ethnic distinctions have vanished. When integration has been discouraged, as with the descendants of slaves liberated shortly before those European immigrants arrived, differences have been sharpened. Even in Britain, official policy seems to be shifting from “multiculturalism”, which celebrated diversity and thus encouraged distinction, to a deliberate attempt to forge a cultural consensus.
What the brand theory of ethnicity does not require, however, is that minorities submit to the majority’s definition of what the brands should be. All that is needed is for each generation to be encouraged to form its own identity from the widest range of materials possible.
Illustration by Noma Bar
A Darwinian analysis thus sheds light on a number of pressing questions. There are others. The rise of metabolic syndrome (obesity plus high blood-pressure equals diabetes plus heart disease) seems to Darwinists the consequence of people trying to sate appetites for sugar and fat that evolution put no brakes on because they were so rare in the natural world.
Pretending young adults are children so that they can be educated en masse in schools is another area ripe for investigation. And the refusal of people to adhere to the patterns of behaviour prescribed for them by classical economics has already spun off a field called behavioural economics that often has Darwinian thinking at its roots.
No one is suggesting Darwinism has all the answers to social questions. Indeed, with some, such as the role of hierarchies, it suggests there is no definitive answer at all—itself an important conclusion. What is extraordinary, though, is how rarely an evolutionary analysis is part of the process of policymaking. To draw an analogy, it is like trying to fix a car without properly understanding how it works: not impossible, but as likely as not to result in a breakdown or a crash. Perhaps, after a century and a half, it is time not just to recognise but also to understand that human beings are evolved creatures. To know thyself is, after all, the beginning of wisdom.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Sunday, Blustery Sunday!

The Atlantic wind is battering us today from the west, sending my daughter slightly loopy. I've discussed a phenomena with my friends and colleagues and was wondering if anyone out there had had similar experiences. It's about wind. Kids, younger kids especially, seem to go absolutely bananas when it's windy. Full of energy, slightly aggressive and manic. I've not only seen this in my 2 year old, but also in kids up to their mid-teens. Is it an inner-ear thing? Is their balance shot by changes in the ambient pressure? What's going on?

Changing the subject.... I was thinking yesterday of the FCE exam in particular, and the exams in general, and wondering why the paragraph matching exercise is so badly done by students. Then understanding came to me. It's done so badly because it's bloody hard! Teachers often avoid it as it's not easy to teach and students avoid it as it's easier to avoid something that's hard than confront it... but confront it you will in the exam, and it may become the section that lets you down, causing you to slip up and fail the exam.
The solution? As ever, PRACTICE! There are some good links on the side of my homepage to places where you can do these exercises, or get hold of the exam books Cambridge sells. Pay attention to the cohesive linking devices (words like additionally, on the other hand etc) and those phrases that seem incomplete and perhaps need more information.
And remember... this is a Cambridge exam and that means that there will always be one extra paragraph so that you always have to make a choice. You can't just think...'oh, there's one left, that must go in the last space'.
Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist who writes fairly good pop-science books, reckons it takes 10,000 hours to become truly expert in something. I think that might be an over-estimation regarding these exams but does underline the point that 'practice makes perfect'!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

If.... my thoughts on Conditional Sentences

Lots of students at all three exam levels are still making very sill mistakes with the conditional tenses. They are very straight forward but are generally badly taught, so I thought I'd run through them here briefly, but advise students that if they have any grammar worries to acquire a text such as English Grammar in Use (Murphy, Cambridge University Press) and run through the assessment test at the back.
So, in a nutshell (an idiom that means a brief summary):

0 (zero) conditional.

We use this for talking about states, laws and constants and so it's very useful even if it it's not strictly a conditional.


If I heat water to 100 degrees Celsius it boils.

You can of course reverse the sentence.

Water boils if you heat it to 100 degrees Celsius.

Please note that the verb tenses are present simple and present simple.

1st Conditional

We use this to give warnings, make predictions etc.

eg. If you swing on your chair you will fall

We use the present simple in the half of the sentence with 'if' and the future in the other half.

we can also of course use a negative.

If Ronaldo doesn't play Portugal won't win.

2nd Conditional

We use this to talk about an event with a very small/impossible chance of outcome in the real world.

eg. If I won the lotto I would buy a Ferrari.

Note that we use the PAST simple in the half with 'if' and would + infinitive of the verb (without 'to') in the other.

3rd Conditional

We use this for hypotheticals in the past. Think about alternative outcomes/opportunity cost etc

eg. Consider that the lotto was played on Saturday and I didn't win, of course.

If I had won the lotto, I would have bought a Ferrari.

There is such a thing as mixed conditionals, but unless you are very confident in your English don't worry about them too much as regards the Cambridge exams.

Here's an unrealted poem that I like, called 'If', by Rudyard Kipling.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!

Hope this was helpful.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Lest we Forget

Today was Remembrance Day, 91 years ago today the great war ended. A pointless war, the wrong war for Britain, the sacrifice and loss immense. The world should thank the alliance of English-speaking nations, for without it consider the alternative. And they should also consider the cost.

Does It Matter?

Does it matter?-losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter?-losing you sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?
You can drink and forget and be gald,
And people won't say that you’re mad;
For they know that you've fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

Siegfried Sassoon

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Whole Bunch of Installing

I seem to have spent the last week installing software on 99 computers. The programs in question are the Operating Systems Ubuntu and Windows 7. I was very impressed with Ubuntu, having installed both the 9.04 and the all new, all singing and dancing 9.10, Karmic Koala, which actually seems a bit buggy still. But for free it's amazing. Faster and better than both Windows XP and Vista, which I run on my laptop. Or should I say ran... as I have a dual boot with Ubuntu now.
The great thing about Ubuntu is that it just works. Great bit of software, easy to configure and easy to make look nice too.
windows 7 on the other hand is... well... fine. Not great, just everything that Vista ahould have been two years ago. The cheeky thing is Bill and his buddies at Microsoft are charging 200 dollars a go for it. Very steep if you ask me, especially when Ubuntu is just as good and FREE!

Bugbear, Common Mistakes and Persons

I've been telling my students for, it seems like, ever that 'that' and 'which' are not synonymous. Also, please use 'who' if you're discussing people, rather than 'which' as it's rude otherwise. Such basic grammar seems to have passed many students by, which is really rather depressing!
Other bugbears which have again reared their ugly head this week are 'persons' rather than 'people' ('persons' is very occasionally correct but usually only in legal documents, notices and similar), and the Portuguese pronunciation of the /ch/ sound (hint - it's a much harder sound than in Portuguese, which in English is closer to /sh/).
Rant over... just get it right persons!

ps. - like the pic? It's another very common spelling mistake (witch/which!)

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Remember, remember

Remember, remember the fifth of November. Gunpowder treason and plot. Bonfire night in the UK has been overshadowed by Halloween, that American import and it's strange, semi-religious overtones. But we're celebrating at home today. It's my daughter's birthday today!

Monday, 2 November 2009

Lucky Article

My Monday/Wednesday CAE guys were asking about this article. Here it is. Originally printed in the Daily Telegraph newspaper (UK). 9 Jan 2003

Be lucky - it's an easy skill to learn
Those who think they're unlucky should change their outlook and discover how to generate good fortune, says Richard Wiseman

A decade ago, I set out to investigate luck. I wanted to examine the impact on people's lives of chance opportunities, lucky breaks and being in the right place at the right time. After many experiments, I believe that I now understand why some people are luckier than others and that it is possible to become luckier.

To launch my study, I placed advertisements in national newspapers and magazines, asking for people who felt consistently lucky or unlucky to contact me. Over the years, 400 extraordinary men and women volunteered for my research from all walks of life: the youngest is an 18-year-old student, the oldest an 84-year-old retired accountant.

Jessica, a 42-year-old forensic scientist, is typical of the lucky group. As she explained: "I have my dream job, two wonderful children and a great guy whom I love very much. It's amazing; when I look back at my life, I realise I have been lucky in just about every area."

In contrast, Carolyn, a 34-year-old care assistant, is typical of the unlucky group. She is accident-prone. In one week, she twisted her ankle in a pothole, injured her back in another fall and reversed her car into a tree during a driving lesson. She was also unlucky in love and felt she was always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Over the years, I interviewed these volunteers, asked them to complete diaries, questionnaires and intelligence tests, and invited them to participate in experiments. The findings have revealed that although unlucky people have almost no insight into the real causes of their good and bad luck, their thoughts and behaviour are responsible for much of their fortune.

Take the case of chance opportunities. Lucky people consistently encounter such opportunities, whereas unlucky people do not. I carried out a simple experiment to discover whether this was due to differences in their ability to spot such opportunities.

I gave both lucky and unlucky people a newspaper, and asked them to look through it and tell me how many photographs were inside. On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs, whereas the lucky people took just seconds. Why? Because the second page of the newspaper contained the message: "Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper." This message took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than 2in high. It was staring everyone straight in the face, but the unlucky people tended to miss it and the lucky people tended to spot it.

For fun, I placed a second large message halfway through the newspaper: "Stop counting. Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250." Again, the unlucky people missed the opportunity because they were still too busy looking for photographs.

Personality tests revealed that unlucky people are generally much more tense than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people's ability to notice the unexpected. In one experiment, people were asked to watch a moving dot in the centre of a computer screen. Without warning, large dots would occasionally be flashed at the edges of the screen. Nearly all participants noticed these large dots.

The experiment was then repeated with a second group of people, who were offered a large financial reward for accurately watching the centre dot, creating more anxiety. They became focused on the centre dot and more than a third of them missed the large dots when they appeared on the screen. The harder they looked, the less they saw.

And so it is with luck - unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.

My research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

I wondered whether these four principles could be used to increase the amount of good luck that people encounter in their lives. To find out, I created a "luck school" - a simple experiment that examined whether people's luck can be enhanced by getting them to think and behave like a lucky person.

I asked a group of lucky and unlucky volunteers to spend a month carrying out exercises designed to help them think and behave like a lucky person. These exercises helped them spot chance opportunities, listen to their intuition, expect to be lucky, and be more resilient to bad luck.

One month later, the volunteers returned and described what had happened. The results were dramatic: 80 per cent of people were now happier, more satisfied with their lives and, perhaps most important of all, luckier. While lucky people became luckier, the unlucky had become lucky. Take Carolyn, whom I introduced at the start of this article. After graduating from "luck school", she has passed her driving test after three years of trying, was no longer accident-prone and became more confident.

In the wake of these studies, I think there are three easy techniques that can help to maximise good fortune:

* Unlucky people often fail to follow their intuition when making a choice, whereas lucky people tend to respect hunches. Lucky people are interested in how they both think and feel about the various options, rather than simply looking at the rational side of the situation. I think this helps them because gut feelings act as an alarm bell - a reason to consider a decision carefully.

* Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties. In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives. For example, one person described how he thought of a colour before arriving at a party and then introduced himself to people wearing that colour. This kind of behaviour boosts the likelihood of chance opportunities by introducing variety.

* Lucky people tend to see the positive side of their ill fortune. They imagine how things could have been worse. In one interview, a lucky volunteer arrived with his leg in a plaster cast and described how he had fallen down a flight of stairs. I asked him whether he still felt lucky and he cheerfully explained that he felt luckier than before. As he pointed out, he could have broken his neck.

Richard Wiseman is a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Books in the Gym

I get bored very easily when I exercise. I find exercise boring. I have some very good friends who seem to love lifting those weights at the gym, doing those martial arts or pounding the pavements and get the rush off the second wind as the blood pumps etc etc.
Not me. But I have to work out otherwise I would turn into a big ball of lard. Not surprising considering my love for cheese, beer and pizza. Hmmmmmm, perhaps my diet doesn't help. Anyway, I DO go to the gym, a lot. How do I stave off the boredom?
Audiobooks. Talking Books. Books on Tape. Three of the most common names for those story tapes/CDs what have you that you can get for all the best novels written. And not only novels. There's nonfiction too. And podcasts. You name it and you can get it.
All of which are a marvelous resource for listening practice! They are all out there. Some available as torrents, often legally, so be good and watch people's copyrights etc. But remember to choose something you are interested in rather than something worthy, as you're more likely to listen to it all, and enjoy it more too.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

a note about light pollution

I wanted to remind people that we have an amazing sky. I know, I know, a strange thing to say, but it's true. I was reminded of this in a recent late-night drive across Spain. I was at a rest-stop, miles from anywhere in central Spain, and could see not one light from a house or road on the horizon. There was not a cloud in the sky and what a view! I could see galaxies, shooting stars, satellites and the nebula of the milky way and was in awe.
I have seen this before of course but not for many years. The last time I think was in Australia, camping in the desert. When you are away from it all, from the cities, the crowds and the spill of sodium light just look. You will never be disappointed.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Bobby Mc Ferrin and the Observation Test

Discussing expectation and prediction in my class the other day I came across this video link of Bobby McFerrin and music. It's a lovely video and says something about the universality of music, although what that actually is I have no idea.

I also can't recommend highly enough this observation test. I couldn't embed it so you need to follow the link.

Can you count how many times the guys in white t-shirts throw the ball to each other?


Watch the video again and this time ask yourself if you fancy a banana?

Did you see it?

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Spanish Motorway!

I am currently in Spain, having crossed the Iberian peninsular by car and am enjoying the sun and the drive. The drive, long, long drive was fun and I'm overjoyed to tell you, though you probably don't care to know it, that there is a great new motorway between Salamanca and Avila! It saved me probably an hour, is straight as an arrow and empty. It makes me wonder though how Spain can afford to build and maintain its excellent road network when we seem to struggle to do so in the UK. We do ok in Portugal, but if you want a half decent road you have to pay the toll. There are tolls here in Spain too of course but I don't think they've thought them through. Almost all of the motorways I know in Spain that are tolled have a fine 'A' road next to them, often practically parallel. So the though is... pay and drive 15 % faster, or not.
I guess I'm just tight. Heading back soon. Vrrrrrroooooooooooooom!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


I must apologise for less activity on the blog recently of late. I am slowing down in part due to a course of study I am doing at the moment, meaning I am writing a lot and have little mental energy left for the blog. So just a short post right now, though a recommendation for students of economics and life in general. The economist Steven Levitt has written another book which came out yesterday (Superfreakonomics). I have yet to read it of course, but can't wait. I will take this opportunity to remind readers of his older work, Freakonomics. It's an excellent book discussing why we humans act the way we do. Each of us rational actors seemingly behave in irrational ways. Brilliant. Easy to read too, so students of all three exams would find it accessible.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Top Gear Answers

Sorry! I forgot to include the Top Gear crossword answers on the blog... I've just been told off by my CAE Monday, Wednesday class. Here they are.


2. QUEERS—slang word for homosexual
6. SLOGAN—a word or phrase to gain interest, often political in nature
8. OUNCE—an old measurement of weight (1/16 of a pound)
9. CHIMEIN—(5,2) expression meaning to add to an arguement in agreement
10. LAYBY—a parking place next to a road
13. HAIL—frozen ice falling from the sky
15. HORDE—a very large army
16. JUMPSTART—(4,5) to boost a (failing) car battery with another car
17. GARGANTUAN—huge, massive


1. REDNECK—perhaps this person should use more suncream in rural areas?
3. FORECOURT—a paved area in front of a shop for example
4. SPRINGFROM—phrasal verb (6,4) - to appear suddenly
5. BONNET—the engine cover in a car
7. NOZZLE—the part of a bottle or liquid dispenser where the liquid comes out
11. YARD—90 cm or an American back garden?
12. RAGTAG—an odd mix, a strange collection or group
14. HOIST—verb - to lift up, usually with a rope

Steven Pinker MP3 for listening practice. Brilliant

Here's a brilliant speech, excellent listening practice for CPE and good CAE students. I can't attach an mp3 but you can download it from the link below. Here's the blurb from the site and the link:

Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.

(Jun 5, 2008 at the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA))

Chair: Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA

For Steven Pinker, the brilliance of the mind lies in the way it uses just two processes to turn the finite building blocks of our language into infinite meanings. The first is metaphor: we take a concrete idea and use it as a stand-in for abstract thoughts. The second is combination: we combine ideas according to rules, like the syntactic rules of language, to create new thoughts out of old ones.

How can a choice of metaphors start a war, impeach a president, or win an election? How does a mind that evolved to think about rocks and plants and enemies think about love and physics and democracy? How do we control the amount of information that we absorb? And what good does this actually do us?

Join Steven Pinker as he tries to answer these questions and many more, unlocking the hidden workings of our thoughts, our emotions and our social relationships and showing us that language really can tell us unexpected and fascinating things about ourselves.

Please be advised that this audio MP3 file contains very strong language.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Climate Change Link

Some of my students asked me about Climate change the other day, specifically why I didn't believe that it was caused by man(kind). I tried to summarise the whys of it briefly but decided that it was, after all an English lesson and could we get back to the grammar exercise now please. So guys, here's a link to one of the websites that contains a nice summary of my view of things:
Have a look through and see what you think. I'd be interested in your thoughts!

Terrible News!

Terrible news. The Economist, the weekly news magazine that I have linked below, has again started to charge for its web content (of the Print edition). It's a real shame, as it is a real quality news provider. I just don't believe that this old-fashioned business model will work though guys. I love the magazine but I will just go elsewhere to free providers until you revert.

By the way, I recommend Nelson Mandela's biography, 'The Long Walk to Freedom'. In it he talks about the Economist magazine in a section that made me giggle. The prisoners on Robben Island were not allowed news media but were allowed 'educational materials', and to try for degrees and qualifications. One of the prisoners duly signed up for a distance degree in Economics and got the prison authorities to subscribe to 'The Economist' for him. For years the guards could not work out how the prisoners were better informed on world affairs than themselves when they enforced a news blackout. Brilliant!

ps. I've changed the link - there's still lots of stuff there, but not as much and their link 'The Print Edition' will take you to a subscription page. It's a great magazine so if you still like your news media on paper I recommend it - but as you are likely a student you can probably get it cheaper and they often have offers for teachers and students in the magazine itself in little red, cardboard inserts

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Watch that Tense!

One problem that my students in all three exams keep having is losing points in the Use of English sentence transformations part of the paper. These questions are worth two points each but one small slip and you'll only get one. The most common mistake is that of changing the tense. If the first sentence is present simple then your sentence should be present simple. If it's past then keep it past. For example from the CAE:

You led me to believe the job was mine if I wanted it.
I ........................................ that the job was mine if I wanted it.

Some students put 'have the impression' here when 'led' in the first sentence is in the past tense (of 'lead'). It's a good guess (as better answers are 'was under the impression', an idiomatic phrase meaning 'I thought (perhaps because I inferred)'.
But a passing answer is 'I had the impression'

So, check your tenses carefully (especially the Presnt Perfect!)

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Top Gear grid

Here's the grid

Top Gear in Alabama... Text

Top Gear in America's redneck country
Of all the hair-raising escapades in the show, being chased by murderous Alabamans was the scariest says presenter in new book

Traditionally, the question asked of me when I meet anyone for the first time has been: “So what’s the best car you’ve ever driven?” Recently there’s been a change, the new question running thus: “Did you really [insert ridiculous moment from Top Gear] or was it made up for the telly?”
And for roughly a quarter of a year, maybe more, the new question was: “Were you really chased out of town by those American rednecks, or was it made up for the telly?” In the programme in question, we wanted to know if it was possible to buy a car and drive across a chunk of the USA for less money than the cost of traditional “fly-drive” schemes offered by holiday companies.
It’s a pretty lengthy story, but in the course of our trip, by way of an entertaining diversion to keep up our spirits during an especially lengthy drive, we had devised a plan whereby we would each try to get the others killed.
We would each decorate the others’ vehicles with slogans we felt might stir up the feelings of the locals, cause maximum discomfort to each driver and raise a laugh for the viewer at home. And so, in a broad, dusty lay-by at the side of a road leading to Alabama, we parked up and set to with the paintbrushes, spray cans and stencils.
On the side of Jeremy’s ageing, beaten-up Trans Am I painted the legend, “Country music is rubbish”. Jeremy had adorned the flanks of James’s 1970s Cadillac with “Hillary for president” and “Nascar sucks”.
I laughed at the slogans with Jeremy as we stood under the tall, smooth-barked trees and sheltered from the southern sun. James was still finishing the lettering on the side of my white pick-up truck and I didn’t want to spoil the moment by peeking before his work was done. Eventually, with a confident flourish of the brush, and a grin, James indicated that he had completed his masterpiece. We stepped up and surveyed. Along the side of my truck James had painted just four short words: “Man love rules OK”.
Well, fair enough: it was perhaps the strongest of our three examples of automotive artwork, but nevertheless, we all felt that we would cause, at worst, a ripple of offence no deeper than that which might be generated among the residents of Cornwall by three visitors driving their cars through Truro with “Cream teas are rubbish” painted down the sides.
We covered three miles before being placed in genuine fear for our lives.
Things started well enough. Our convoy included the three cars being filmed, and, naturally, the cars and jeeps carrying the film crew and their equipment. It was a very hot day and every vehicle travelled with windows down and its occupants’ elbows out — not least James’s, since Jeremy and I had disabled his air-conditioning system with a crowbar at a campsite the previous evening.
After just a mile or two, we spotted a road sign telling us we were in Alabama, and we pulled over to film it. The sign was riddled with bullet holes. And not the pathetic little air-rifle pellet holes you might occasionally see in the UK; this thing was peppered with shotgun blasts and a few larger, gaping wounds inflicted, I could only imagine, by slugs from high-powered hunting rifles. We were definitely not in Cornwall.
A mile or so later, we pulled into what Jeremy seemed keen to call a “gas station”. The crew cars pulled up in a line to one side of us. As I rested a hand on the hot metal of the petrol pump nozzle and readied myself to heave it up and slot it into the car, a movement across the forecourt made me stop. A woman — presumably a local — was walking towards us.
She had a long, rangy frame and looked to be made of wire and gristle underneath the plaid shirt and jeans. Maybe 50 years old with yellowing hair and brown teeth.
“Y’all queers trying to see how long you can last in a hick town?”
“Ah, er . . .” I looked across at Jeremy, who was staring at her. James was frowning. There was more movement around us on the forecourt now. Trucks were arriving and in the back of them I saw the broad backs and cowboy hats of what I could only imagine were more locals. Where they had sprung from, I had no idea. But I saw they were all carrying guns, propped up against their feet.
“No, look, we’re both mar¬ried. Got kids. Just travelling through.”
I pointed at Jeremy on the other side of a fuel pump. “Yup,” he chimed in. “Got kids, and just travelling through.”
An enormous man had come out of the station building now, to stand in the middle of the forecourt. He wore the regulation blue denim overalls, plaid shirt and work boots of a cartoon character and looked like you couldn’t stop him with a train. In an unexpectedly high voice, he started to count.
“Ten. Nine . . . ”
The crew cars were actually coming under attack now. A group of locals had assembled in a ragtag line and were throwing rocks at them. I heard them land loudly against the sides of the kit van, and watched as those members of the crew who had decided to brave the heat for the promise of a cool drink in the petrol station ran back to their cars.
“Er, Hammond . . . ” James had come into view, and just as he stepped up, I could see over his shoulder Jeremy’s blue Trans Am fire up and head for the road with a screech of tyres. “I need a jump-start again, I’m afraid.”
The battery on James’s gargantuan Caddy had faded over the previous two days and it had become a matter of routine to pull up alongside him in
my pick-up, hoist the bonnet, hook up the jump leads and give his car a boost to get the creaky old engine turning.
“Seven . . . ”
“Shit! Not now.” But there was no choice, so I said, “Right, you get ready. I’m coming over.”
The Caddy was about 20 yards away across the forecourt and James ran back to it. By the time he had reached it, got in and pulled the bonnet release, I was parked alongside.
“Five . . . ”
I leapt out of the truck, pulling the bonnet release on the way, and grabbed the jump leads as James thrust them towards me.
“Three . . . ”
The hail of rocks onto the crew vehicles was intensifying as the drivers came to their senses, started up and retreated. “Get in, James. Turn it over.”
The old Caddy gave a heave and the engine made a couple of wheezing turns before it caught and fired up.
“Two . . . ”
“Go, go, go!” More rocks landed around us as we pulled away. Grabbing third gear and keeping my boot nailed to the floor to squeeze every last ounce of go from the truck as our retreat gained pace, I saw the trucks from the garage pulling away.
In the back of each, sitting square against the sides of the pick-up bed in sombre lines, the rednecks toted their shotguns, thin black barrels bristling straight up at the sky. Amid the tense squabble of English voices from our team, crackling across the CB, I also heard the slow drawl of a local.
“They’re comin’ up past here. We’re at the crossroads.” And: “I can see them here, too.” They were using their CB radios to track us. And I was suddenly very aware that television cameras and business cards would not protect us from guns.
I didn’t want to wake up tied to a tree, being invited to squeal like a little piggy for the entertainment of a 20-year-old psychopath in giant dun¬ga¬rees, with three teeth in his head and a bitter hatred of anyone who wasn’t also a 30-stone homophobic racist who shot at things he didn’t understand.
A few miles down the road, conscious that we were easily identifiable to the hordes of rednecks being warned of our approach over the CB, we pulled over. We had seen them waiting at crossroads as we passed, and heard them telling people further ahead that we were coming. We had to try to remove the slogans that had caused offence of an intensity way beyond what we had anticipated.
Our wheels had barely stopped turning before key members of the crew threw themselves out of their vehicles and ran over to the three presenters’ cars, tore off their T-shirts, soaked them in water and began wiping frantically at the painted words. I joined them, and when we ran out of bottled water we used soft drinks instead, ripping the tabs off the cans and pouring the contents onto T-shirts before continuing to scrub at the stubborn paint.
The fear slowly subsided as we drove out of Alabama. But we kept going. And months later, the new question is still asked of me: “Did that really happen in America at the petrol station, or did you make it up for the telly?”
Well, yes, it really happened. You didn’t even see the half of it.
Oh, and if you were wondering about the answer to the question that preceded the new question, the best car I’ve driven is my worthless old Land Rover, across a field, with two dogs, my daughters and my wife in it, all heading for a picnic and a lazy afternoon.
© Richard Hammond 2009

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Top Gear in Alabama

My students in my FCE class have recently done an exercise from Richard Hammond's book. They were asking to see it too (as it was filmed for Top Gear, the TV car programme). Here's the link:


Friday, 9 October 2009

The Top Ten Test Mistakes!

Students tend to make the same mistakes year in, year out. They are silly, but easily done. Here's a list of my top ten so you know what to NOT do when you're in the Cambridge exam.

1. Leaving an answer blank.

There is nothing wrong with skipping over a tough question to give yourself think about it as long as you remember to go back to it later. The danger with this is forgetting to go back to every question you’ve skipped. A blank answer is always a wrong answer!

Solution: Each time you skip a question, put a tick beside it.

2. Answering a question twice.

You’d be surprised how many times students choose two answers in multiple choice. This makes both answers wrong!
Solution: Review your work and make sure each true/false and multiple choice question only has one answer circled!

3. Transferring answers incorrectly from work paper to answer sheet.

The most frustrating mistake for math students is having an answer correct on the scratch paper, but transferring it wrong to the test!

Solution: Double check any work you transfer from a work sheet.

4. Circling the wrong multiple choice answer.

This is a costly mistake, but one that is very easy to make. You look over all the multiple choice answers and pick the one that is correct, but you circle the letter next to the correct answer—the one that doesn’t match your answer!

Solution: Make sure the letter/answer you indicate is the one you really mean to select.

5. Studying the wrong thing.

Whenever you have a test coming up, make sure that you understand which areas the test will cover. There are times when a teacher will test you on a specific chapter that is never discussed in class. On the other hand, the teacher’s lectures may cover three chapters, and the test may cover only one of those chapters. When that happens, you can end up studying material that won’t appear on your exam.

Solution: Always ask the teacher what chapters and lectures will be covered on a test.

6. Ignoring the clock.

One of the most common errors students commit when taking an essay test is failing to manage time. This is how you end up in a panic with 5 minutes to go and 5 unanswered questions staring back at you.

Solution: Always take the first few moments of an exam to assess the situation when it comes to essay questions and answers. Give yourself a time schedule and stick to it. Give yourself a set amount of time to outline and answer each essay question and stick to your plan!

7. Not following directions (or perhaps better put as NOT ANSWERING THE QUESTION!)

If the teacher says “compare” and you “define,” you are going to lose points on your answer. There are certain directional words that you should understand and follow when you take a test.

Solution: Know the following directional words:

* Define: Provide a definition.
* Explain: Provide an answer that gives a complete overview or clear description of the problem and solution for a particular question.
* Analyze: Take apart a concept or a process, and explain it step by step.
* Contrast: Show differences.
* Compare: Show likenesses and differences.
* Diagram: Explain and draw a chart or other visual to illustrate your points.
* Outline: Provide an explanation with headings and subheadings.

8. Thinking too much.

It’s easy to over-think a question and begin to doubt yourself. If you tend to second-guess yourself, you will inevitably change a right answer to a wrong answer.

Solution: If you are a thinker who tends to over-think, and you get a strong hunch when you first read an answer, go with it. Limit your thinking time if you know you tend to doubt your first instincts.

9. Technological breakdown.

If your pen runs out of ink and you can’t complete an exam, your blank answers are just as wrong as they would have been for any other reason. Running out of ink or breaking your pencil lead halfway through a test sometimes means leaving half your exam blank. And that leads to an F.

Solution: Always bring extra supplies to an exam.

10. Not putting name on test. This sounds stupid BUT IT HAPPENS EVERY YEAR!

There are times when failing to put your name on a test will result in a failing grade. This can happen when the test administrator doesn’t know the students, or when the teacher/administrator won’t see students again after the test is over (like at the end of a school year). In these special situations (or even if you have a very stern teacher) a test that doesn’t have a name attached to it will be tossed out.

Solution: Always write your name on a test before you get started!

Good luck in those exams guys!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Answers to Omar Bongo Crossword

I promised my Wednesday students that I would post the answers to the Omar Bongo Crossword so here they are. I do hope that you had a go at it. It was quite tricky.

1. RIGHTHANDMAN—(5,4,3) Second in Command?
5. BACKBREAKING—(4,8) Very difficult, Hard work
9. NANNY—A minder for the baby
10. RESERVES—The amount of oil held in potentia by a company or country in the ground
11. NIFTY—practical, fast or handy
15. BRASH—Adj - loud, audacious, uncivilised?
17. GRASP—Verb - understand or grab?
18. CUTTING—adjective - terse and satorial. Sarcastic?
19. SWAN—Verb- to move around in an untroubled air like royalty


2. HOBNOB—Verb - to meet and associate with rich and powerful people
3. INDIGNANT—Adj - Annoyed and surprised by an accusation
4. FIDDLE—Verb in the infinitive - to corrupt, cheat or steal
6. CASSAVA—An African cereal crop
7. FIRSTDIBS—A two word phrase (5,4) that means priority
8. FRANCOPHILE—A lover of France
12. FLUMMOX—to confuse and baffle
13. CLADDING—Surface paneling, often made of stone
14. OZIGO—An African hardwood
16. NEPOTISM—Overly favouring one's family, usually by giving jobs to them
18. COT—A Baby's bed

How did you do?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Nicer Links for Lazy Students

Knowing how lazy I can be with looking through links I have decided to spoonfeed you dear readers. I'll give you here the direct links to the teachers handbooks of the three exams that this blog is concerned about.

'Why would I, a student, want the teacher's handbooks?' I hear you ask.
Well, it's simple. They explain the marking and assessment criteria and have good example answers and sample papers with answers so that you may print out an exam, do it, mark it and know your approximate mark. Remember, 60 percent - 75 percent a C, 75 to 80 a B and 80 plus we are in A territory.
These exams are not that hard... just do it.