Software Musings

Botanical Bliss

Posted on: 13/01/2007

I know that I am entering what someone (Kenneth Scott Latourette?) would call my anecdotage but today’s blog has been inspired by a shampoo bottle. To date I have not seen these as inspirational but, in the shower this morning, I was idly reading the back of the bottle and came across this poem:

Enter a world of botanical bliss and unleash the power of your beautifully uplifted hair.

The poet is, unfortunately, not credited and I was speculating about whether the poem was perhaps written by a team, as envisaged in Stephen Fry’s famous Telegraph article on Carefree Panty-Shields and Intimate Wipes when that train of thought led to the talks that Fry’s friend Professor Donald Trefusis, professor of Philology at the University of Cambridge, used to give on the BBC’s Radio 4 back in the 1980s or early 1990s.

There is one of these talks, entitled Trefusis on Education that should be compulsory annual reading for anyone charged with an education policy anywhere in the world. I can do no more here than quote a short segment:

This new England we have invented for ourselves is not at all interested in education. It is only interested in training, both material and spiritual. Education means freedom, it means ideas, it means truth. Training is what you do to a pear tree when you pleach it and prune it to grow against a wall. Training is what you give an airline pilot or computer operator or a barrister or a radio producer. Education is what you give children to enable them to be free from the prejudices and moral bankruptcies of their elders….How can we dare to presume to teach our children the same half-baked, bigoted trash that litters our own imperfect minds?

What a wonderful invocation of a time past! Computer operators indeed!

It is, I understand from my reading, conventional for all people entering on the second 50% of their lives to bemoan the moral and physical decay of the institutions that they hold dear. It is also apparently conventional to pass such bemoaning through a political acceptance filter: there are things on which one does not comment. But if Aristotle could, so can I.

This week I read the blog of someone whom I admire. I can’t link to it because it is an internal Nortel blog but please believe that this person is a very far-sighted engineer with energy, insight, enthusiasm and vision—attributes not universal within some companies. On his blog he confessed to his inability to use Microsoft’s Powerpoint presentation tool well; indeed declared a New Year’s Resolution to improve this state of affairs. And the comments that ensued were not (until I arrived) reams of congratulations but helpful hints on where to find tutorials.

Am I alone in genuinely thinking that Powerpoint and its OpenOffice cousin have done more to ruin good companies than any number of corrupt executives fiddling their bonuses? I get “documents” sent to me written in Powerpoint! There is no pagination and no cross references but, more importantly, no coherence of thought. Breaking a flow into page-size chunks with LARGE text and lots of meaningless pictures is not only a peculiar activity, it actively interrupts coherent trains of thought.

If it is anything, Powerpoint is a tool for convincing. It cannot be a tool for explaining and it’s certainly inappropriate for recording. I’m not even sure of the convincing part—a decade ago people were impressed by pictures shooting onto the screen and fading in and out. Now that everyone can do it, it no longer impresses.

In his blog a while back, Alexandre Borovik spoke of the fight in his university department to keep blackboards. He says that

It is relatively easy to explain why a projector-only lecturing is unsuitable for mathematics. A mathematics teacher is not just conveying information, he or she teaches to think mathematically, and teaches by example, in real time. It is crucially important to be in full control of timing and tempo of the narrative. If a lecture involves calculations (and they are inevitable in most mathematical disciplines), it is crucially important to let students feel the subtle play of rhythms, emphasize switches and branch points in the procedure, highlight recursion and reduction to simpler cases.

The important point is that it is not only mathematics where knowledge transfer is a performance art. A large part of my job involves standing at a whiteboard (I do draw the line at, rather than on, blackboards although I take the point about scale) and drawing pictures. The difference between allowing the learner to see a system constructed in a logical manner rather than being presented immediately with a completed picture is overwhelming. “But,” say the Powerpointers, “you can always do a ‘build’ on Powerpoint charts”. The riposte, of course, is simple: “Until I see the reactions of the people to whom I’m talking, I don’t know the order in which I’m going to build the picture!” And stopping in the middle of the presentation to play with Powerpoint is not good teaching practice. Why can people not see this?

I will end this diatribe with some comments on television. My wife and I have never owned a television and our children didn’t seem to miss it but, last weekend, my wife being away in the UK performing the role of a diligent grandmother, I was invited to the house of a good friend for a meal. While the meal was being prepared I watched television. I understand that the programme I saw was available, without any form a censorship, to children of any age. The concept, of building a house for a couple that couldn’t afford to live together, was good but the accompanying sentimental slush was overwhelmingly depressing: the language puerile, the concepts facile. And the fact that children were permitted to watch it should have the producers of the show in gaol.


1 Response to "Botanical Bliss"

What a long blog today!

Am looking forward to seeing you with your beautifully uplifted hair when I come home.

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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.
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