Friday, 31 August 2007

Up for a debate

I enjoy reading discussions on the internet, political, philosophical, abstract, whatever. The presence of a ubiquitous, anonymous, hugely varied community makes for interesting (if not always erudite, coherent or intelligent) debate. The BBC have a couple of good discussion boards that I read from time to time, and over the last week or so, during my few brief free moments at work, I've been glancing through this particular debate on anti-social behaviour, and how to fix Britain's youth.

Reading through the (incorrectly apostrophised) Readers Recommended listing, which sorts the posts by the number of users who have registered their 'agreement' with the contents of the post, a couple of things become clear. Firstly, that the vast majority of highly rated posts have not only a distinctive right-wing slant to them, but also a distinctive anti-liberal slant. I don't want to get too much into my personal politics and any left vs. right business, but I felt that it was an interesting distinction to make. Secondly, the majority of people who top the readers' recommended list are ones proposing simple solutions. Among the most often suggested solutions are:

  • Punish the parents.
  • Punish the kids properly (inc. bring back capital punishment)
  • Zero Tolerance
  • Make prisons more undesirable places to live
I think a full discussion of my views and opinions on these suggestions and the underlying problems would be something that would be long, waffley and ultimately pretty uninteresting to read, so in the spirit of Bambi's last post (and as a consequence of my own tiredness), I shall attempt to condense my views:

You can't treat people like animals and expect them to then behave like humans. To train animals, certainly in the traditional sense, you reward them for doing the right thing and punish them for doing the wrong thing. While this method is in general the basis of teaching anything to behave in any particular way, it is too simplistic to really be applied in the same way to humans. The complexity of human interaction and human society along with heightened feedback (you can ask a child what they are thinking, but you can't ask a dog) mean that simply providing rules and then enforcing them with a carrot-and-stick mentality can easily fail.

If a child talks out of turn in class and is caned as punishment, the child will probably not talk out of turn in class again, certainly in the short term. However, the child will also pick up the message that to stop someone doing something you need to cause them pain.

If a teenager steals a car and gets sent to a prison for 6 months, where he is treated like an animal by the other prisoners (and possibly the prison authorities), all he learns is that he really doesn't want to get caught again. The only thing that has changed when he emerges from prison is that he has more fear and hatred for authority. He has the same life situation that drove him to steal a car, the same group of friends and family that failed to prevent him stealing a car and the only difference will be that next time he gets caught with a stolen car, he'll be driving twice as fast to get away. I'm sure that's something we all want to see.

If the child's parents have their benefits cut (assuming we bend, for the moment, to the stereotype that his parents are on benefits), they will be less able to provide for themselves and for the child. This change will not make the parents more likely to teach the child good life lessons, it will not make them spend more productive time with the child. It will almost certainly lead to a decrease in the child's quality of life, in the same way that any legal punishment would, but with the disadvantage that the 'punishment' goes on behind closed doors and without any regulation.

More importantly, by the time the child has turned 11 or 12, if they are already causing trouble and behaving anti-socially, it is very difficult for their parents to actually have any effect on them. By the time a child becomes a teenager, it is almost certain that their friends will have more of an influence on their actions than their parents will. Punishing the parents in this situation is unjust and detrimental to both them and the child.

I'm already starting to waffle, so I'll try and wind it up now.

'Zero-tolerance' is a term that sounds comforting: we've seen what'll happen if we give these kids leniency, so let's get tough on them now. If we're talking about teenagers (or even younger children), however, then we are talking about people who are still changing and learning as they grow. To teach them at this stage that they are so different from the rest of society that they need to be seperated from it; that there are no scales of grey surrounding acceptable behaviour, only legal and illegal; that the way to deal with a problem is to punish the person creating the problem; that there are easy answers to any social problem; even that the idea of 'tolerance', in whatever context, is an undesirable idea, is to push them even further away from what we want them to become. Assuming, of course, that we want them to become contributing members of society, and we don't just want them to go away.

That last paragraph was quite long and poorly constructed. In which senses it mirrored the whole of this post. I blame the late hour.

As a final point, I'd like to confirm that I'm not offering any easy solutions of my own (or indeed, in this post, any solutions at all). I believe there are things we can do to help reduce anti-social behaviour, but I don't think any of them are quick or easy. Maybe I'll even write some of them on here at some point.

I want to try and write more about this kind of issue (and other issues), and any future posts will probably overlap with this one and with each other. For the record, my views are complex and changeable. They will not be encompassed by any one thing I write on here, and they may change in the futue. Whatever I currently think, however, I'm always up for a debate.

Six little words

I've returned this evening from a five-day "knowledge booster course" intended to prepare me for the year-long Secondary English PGCE I will start in just over a week. My head is swimming with grammar, creative writing and children's literature, and no doubt I will share much of that in the next few days (maybe even here). But for now there's one thing I got from the course that I wanted to share as soon as I received it.

One exercise on the course involved us writing a narrative of a hundred words on anything in twenty minutes. We later returned to the narrative to edit and refine it, and one thing that was emphasised was the removal of unnecessary words to add impact to our writing. The course leader then posed these questions: could we reduce our story down to one sentence, losing as little of the meaning as possible? Could we reduce it to six words?

This led from something Ernest Hemingway was challenged to do - write a six word story. Many other writers have also attempted it. I'll tell you Hemingway's at the end, as I believe it's by far the most powerful, but first, here are all the other six word stories I was given this week:

"Forgive me!" "What for?" "Never mind." - John Updike

Eyeballed me, killed him. Slight exaggeration. - Irvine Welsh

Satan, Jehovah, fifteen rounds. A draw. - Norman Mailer

"Welcome to Moeshe Christiansen's Bar Mitzvah." - Andrea Seigel

Grass, cow, calf, milk, cheese, France. - Rick Moody

He remembered something that never happened. - A. M. Holmes

Saigon hotel. Decades later. He weeps. - Robert Olen Butler

"I love you..." "Love ya back" - Courtney Eldridge

She gave. He took. He forgot. - Tobias Woolf

You are not shit. You are! - 'Memoir', Jerry Stahl

All her life: half a house. - Jamie O'Neill

Poison; meditation; skiing; ants -- nothing worked. - Edward Albee

My nemesis is dead. Now what? - Michael Cunningham

I saw. I conquered. Couldn't come. - David Lodge

"Cyanide? Bitter almonds." He knew. How? - Brian Bouldrey

Father died. Mother triumphed. I left. - Mary Gaitskill

"You? Her? No dice, fat boy." - Pinckney Benedict

Oh, that? It's nothing. Not contagious. - Augusten Burroughs

Mother's Day came, doubling Oedipus' pleasure. - Bruce Benderson

Tossed remorselessly, whiffle balls sure hurt. - J. T. LeRoy

As she fell, her mind wandered. - Rebecca Miller

It's negative. Say hi to Mom. - Ben Greenman

Horny professor. Failing coed. No tenure. - 'A short history of academia' by Sue Grafton

Shiva destroys Earth. "Well, that's that." - A. G. Pasquella

Havana's no place for hockey, coach. - Nicholas Weinstock

As you can probably see, the point of the exercise is not necessarily what is said, but what is left out and inferred by the reader. On the whole, incredibly clever. Here's Hemingways:

For sale: baby shoes, never used.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

I wish I could blog like a pro

I link to my cousin's blog too much to really be healthy, but, well, she's just so damn good at blogging.

It's too late to actually comment intelligently on these, but great articles on facebook:

and TV-watching-schedules:

I may have used the term 'blog' too much in this post.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Ho hum.

It always irritates me when people describe themselves as bored. No, wait... not always, but sometimes. Let me try and elaborate.

Being bored is essentially being in a state where you cannot do anything of interest to you. As such, I have no problem with people who claim they are bored at work. I am sometimes bored at work (though not often, given a liberal workplace and a connection to the internet).

However, it seems like people (including my friends) describe themselves as having been bored during a weekend, or a holiday from uni, or even during a party or evening out. This seems pretty bizarre to me, given that since I got an internet connection in my room, I have had more things I want to do than I will ever have time for. Even without the internet, there are a huge number of books and films that I want to consume and will never have a chance to.

I accept that there are some times when you may not feel like doing a particular thing, but there is surely never a time that you feel so unenthusiastic about reading a book, watching a movie, browsing the internet, writing, drawing, learning a new skill, going for a walk, calling a friend or just sitting in silence and letting your thoughts wander that you are reduced to sitting sullenly in front of MTV, complaining about how dull your life is.

Don't even get me started on people who complain of being bored while at a party.

Ultimately, someone with free time and freedom of movement in the developed world who considers themselves bored, is just not trying hard enough.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

I hate compensation culture

From yesterday's Metro:

The organiser of the world's only plank walking competition was baffled after insurers ordered him to warn entrants they 'might get wet'. John Nurden, chairman of the annual World Walking The Plank Championship in the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, was told he would have to cancel Sunday's contest if he did not ask contestants to sign a form accepting the risk of a soaking. 'It's unbelievable really but it's a sign of the times - the compensation culture', Mr. Kent said.

This story, and others that crop up fairly regularly, really help to demonstrate my loathing for compensation culture. When a walking the plank competition is ordered - not even advised, but told in no uncertain terms - to get its entrants to sign a disclaimer about getting wet, isn't it time to see that there's something very wrong somewhere? In a way I don't blame the insurance company. You'd think it would go without saying that in a competition where you jump off a plank of wood into water, you are almost certainly going to get fairly wet. But if someone decided to make a case that this wasn't made clear, and wanted compensation for their wetness, without the disclaimer I wouldn't be surprised if they won.

Compensation culture is one of my most hated things about the world today. Maybe it's because I'm planning to have a career as a teacher, and compensation culture dictates so much of what you can and can't do as a teacher to the point that you aren't allowed to comfort a child who has hurt themself or has received some upsetting news, in case you cause emotional damage or were seen to be acting inappropriately towards the child. Or maybe it's just because it's become elevated to ludicrous levels and is really, really annoying.

Friday, 10 August 2007

pwnt pt. 2

Incredible video of a battle between a pride of lions and a herd of buffalo in South Africa, and, as if that wasn't enough, a couple of crocodiles get involved. This'll teach the lions to try and mess with the baby buffalos next time:

Monday, 6 August 2007

Ship of Fools

Found this article via Enter the Jabberwock. The former is a very scary article about American neo-cons. The latter is a great site.

Edit: Also via Jabberwock, a while back, is this real/photoshopped comparison. Watch her left arm particularly.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

thetelf 2.0

This post is partially intended to get that last post off the front page. Ich... cringworthy. It is also partially to announce that the new version of is now available:

It's not entirely finished (no comments, no profile editing, no IE support), but I figured that since no one was really using the old version, it would be worth moving the new version in earlier than I might. There's lots of cool stuff in it, assuming that you're using my computer. No guarentees on other people's systems, though.

Having said that, I forgot it was not IE compliant. Gah! Gonna have to get that sorted if it's going to be in general circulation...

Either way, yay for new web 2.0