Listening to each other

In the distant past people would sit around a fire and listen intently to the person telling a long story.

Writing hadn’t been invented yet but language had. People enjoyed listening to stories that could be fictitious or some recollection about a hunt or a journey to explore new worlds (probably just up the road by modern standards!).

People loved the mythologies that was a collective invention by the group or tribe and would embellish stories that could be passed on from one generation to the next. These stories fed the imaginations but also served as a kind of glue that allowed a group to create a common culture. They  defined morality and created the heroes that represented  the standards and ambitions of the group.

I remember my father once gave me a beautiful book about “cavemen” that had a superb illustration of a raging fire with men sitting around it with awed looks on their faces as the Shaman or Chief told his tale.

The thing that was also obvious from the picture was that everyone around the circle was listening intently. Every word would be heard and they would be able to later recall much of the story to their friends and family who were not present.

The ability to listen was a key skill in passing on stories and all the attendant social, political and moral attitudes that defined the group. Listening was not something that just developed. It would have been honed from childhood by parents and carers talking to children and “educating” them into the groups ways.

It seems to me that the key skill of listening carefully to others has declined appreciably in our modern society. This stems in so many ways from early childhood where parents seem less and less to read or tell stories to their offspring. Nowadays many children watch the television or play video games until they are told to switch off and go to bed.

As a teacher for many years I noticed how “listening skills” were often lacking. Children could not follow instructions, they missed key points of explanation and would even have problems in listening to each other in small groups or paired work.

In the wider society we seem to have the same problem. I often listen to “Question Time” on Radio 5 on a Thursday evening. The questions are asked and the panel seems to have their own opinions based on their political positions (right, left or centre) but very rarely do you have a panellist agreeing to something that someone has just said. It often turns into a collection of political statements reflecting personal prejudices.

I thought of this today when I read a Facebook entry by an American cousin who is a doctor. He was asked to attend a meeting in Washington D.C. of physicians from across the country to discuss the forthcoming Republican Bill to change/reform the Obama Healthcare Act.

My cousin is a registered Democrat who has no love of the current President. He stated though that he had read the bill carefully and that there were parts of it that actually corrected some of the parts of the Obama Act that made good sense to him.

He stated that it was important to read, to discuss and most importantly to listen to arguments from both the Republicans and the Democrats and to be prepared to compromise, change what needed to changed and leave what makes sense.

Unfortunately his words are likely to be drowned in the sound of biased political rhetoric that constitutes political discussion both sides of the Atlantic these days.

We desperately need to learn again the ancient skills of our forebears, to listen intently and discuss from what has been said rather than from our entrenched positions.

Haim Ginott, the Israeli Philosopher and Teacher once said that in a classroom discussion the person who speaks next should have to explain the last speaker’s points before they spoke. This is to prove one thing, that they were listening! I think maybe panellists on Question Time, Members of the U.S. Congress and indeed all of us, might have far better discussions and maybe meeting of minds if they did the same!

We desperately need to relearn how to really listen to each other.

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Hidden figures: The fight for race and gender equality

A couple of days ago, I gave my wife an idea for one of her entries for her Facebook Friendship Group. I suggested that she gave the members of the group the chance to suggest what film or films had really impressed them in the last year. I thought that recommendations would be useful to other members to look up or go and see these films.

I suggested “Lion”, the film about a young Indian boy who travelled over 1000 miles in a train and finished up in a Mumbai orphanage and was later adopted by a Tasmanian couple. Suggestions from the others were Viceroys House, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences and Hidden Figures.

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The last in the list sounded interesting to me so I looked it up. It was based on the true story of young black female human “computers” who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (N.A.C.A.). It was based upon the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly.

In the book Shetterly documents the lives of a little known but significant contribution that these women made to the American space project. One woman in particular played a significant part in working out the key mathematical information needed to get the first successful manned rocket flight up and back safely and contributed to  Apollo 11’s  first landing by man on the Moon and the successful rescue of the Apollo 13 flight. Her name is Katherine Johnson and her story in itself is inspiring.

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Now the fact that Johnson was born in the American South in 1918 meant a number of things. Her early precocity in being able to read and showing signs of brilliance in mathematics was not going to get her the chance to get any form of education beyond 8th grade. College for a black woman was almost unknown.

Her father took the unusual step of backing his children (she had 3 siblings) and drove 120 miles to find a black college that his daughter could continue her education in. Even after she graduated there were few opportunities for gifted female mathematicians in the segregated and racist American South.

She was fortunate in getting a position at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton Virginia. She was one of a large number of female “computers”, who in the days before electronic computers, would spend all day and every day number crunching huge amounts of data. The black “computers” were housed in what was called the “West Building” which had inferior facilities (including toilets) and they were not allowed to go into the main (whites only) building where the main research was going on in support of missile and space technology.

Katherine proved herself to be more than just a number cruncher. She had a superb mathematical mind and was able to assist NACA and later N.A.S.A. (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration) as it became, to do significant calculations about flightpaths and re-entry points that made potentially disastrous flights into the space triumphs that we witnessed in the 1960’s.

In the film, which, like all Hollywood versions of true stories, tends to put glamour and gloss over everyday struggles, the problems that Katherine and her colleagues faced in overcoming prejudice because they were black and female is well depicted. They were often excluded from attending meetings, they were not allowed to see so-called “confidential” information and they had to face the day-to-day problems of acceptance by their colleagues.

My interest in this story is based upon my amazement that in the face of prejudice on two fronts (gender and race) these women managed to continue their studies and prove to succeeding generations that women can be good mathematicians and that black people are no different from any other race in their ability to make a major contribution to this world.

The sadness of it all is that there are still so many young black and Latino children in deprived areas of America who face problems in getting a proper education and whose ability to make the contribution that their talents fit them for is cut off. What other contributions would we have seen in our world if the barriers and walls of prejudice were not erected? Katherine is not a one-off she is an example of what could be.

Slaves to technology

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My wife recently posted a video on her Facebook group that was entitled “Have we become slaves to technology?”.

The picture above is one of a number of chilling cartoons depicted in the video. One of the  biggest changes of our “always online” society is that people actually go to bed with their mobile phone on and waiting next to them, because you never know how important that email or text can be that arrives at 3 O’ Clock in the morning!

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Old and young are now living their lives around the technology. In the pictures above we see why there is so much concern about the lack of physical exercise that can have real implications to our health. I loved the depiction of the man become rooted to his armchair as he uses his remote to flick through the numerous channels transmitting 24 hour mediocrity.

The other photo of the child in the park alone with his football whilst all around him are children sitting on benches texting or using Twitter or Facebook, is particularly worrying. We live in times where childhood obesity has become a national concern and yet we seem powerless to prevent the decline in children’s active participation in physical activities, particularly after the age of 10.

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The daily commute in the bus or train has given us scenes such as the cartoon above. Everyone is on their tablet or phone and is immersed in their silo of continuous communication. They seem unaware of who is sitting next to them, they are switched off from their own immediate reality and are only aware of their virtual existence. This is exemplified brilliantly in the cartoon below where we live inside the prisons of our own mobile phones!

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Even eating our meals has become a process of having to have the phone, laptop or tablet open whilst we eat whatever is on our plate ignoring our own partner who is similarly immersed in the net and both are totally unconcerned about the food they are actually eating.

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Perhaps the most worrying thing to me is exemplified in this next cartoon. It shows the death of literature, killed by the tweets, the texts, the Facebook entries and the Instagram’s (each nail in the coffin bears the ubiquitous symbols of the new media titans).

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The question that the video asked was “Are we becoming slaves to technology?” This last cartoon I think answers that question.

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The key importance of women’s rights 2017

On November 6th 2012, I wrote a blog post entitled “The Key Importance of Women’s Rights”.

In the post I stated the following:

“Throughout the world, women are treated unequally in respect of men. There are horrible examples of where they are forced into early marriage, have children too young and eventually have to sell their bodies in order to survive. Many of them get Aids and untold numbers suffer from physical problems relating to childbirth or rape.”

Here we are over 4 years later, on International Women’s Day, 2017 and the same words largely apply. In the last four years there have been examples of a horrible gang rape of a young student in India, of women’s continued exploitation in third world sweat factories and the fact that women’s pay still does not come near to equality with men’s pay. In Ireland, as I write there is a huge debate about abortion rights for women that is an ongoing one that has left many young, pregnant Irish women to flee to the U.K. in order to get a chance to have a say on their own future.

Today’s Google has a banner link to a search for the International “”Women’s Day. Here is a photo of the top part of the search:

 

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At the top of the page was a long line of women’s photos. These are all women who have done remarkable things in their lifetime. I looked a cross the list and, with the exception of Miriam Makeba, Ada Lovelace and Sally Ride, I had not heard of any of them.

Women, despite the obvious problems of lack of opportunity for education and overcoming the indifference or downright hostility of men, have been able make huge contributions to our world.

One woman who was known for her looks and her notoriety as a film actress was actually a brilliant inventor, who was able to influence the world of electronic communication and indeed set up the basis of the wireless world that we all inhabit today. She was Hedy Lemarr.

Looking at the Wikipedia link above you will see that the article spends a lot of time telling about the fact that she was a beautiful “pin up girl” who made some  Hollywood films and lived a life that we would nowadays call a “celebrity”. There is one paragraph about her invention, along with George Antheil of a device for changing electronic signals that was originally developed for finding torpedoes but would eventually form the basis of satellite and bluetooth technology.

Lemarr is now lauded as one of the inventors of our modern world but in her own lifetime she was seen by many as just an object, a pin-up, someone to be looked at and dreamed about but not as a brilliant inventor who had a major contribution to make to our world.

It seems so sad to me that we still spend so much time treating women as objects. We want them to fit some ideal of size and looks and are somehow frightened by their abilities. It has never been easy to be a highly intelligent woman in a man’s world, look at the examples of Georges Sand and George Eliot, who along with the Bronte sisters, had to give themselves a male name in order to have any chance to get a readership in a male dominated world.

But Lemarr, Sand and Eliot were successes. They were at least able to develop their potential and make a contribution to the world. What I always wonder about is the women who have lived and died as mothers, factory hands, child-producing machines who had within them so much that they could have given to the world if they would only have been given the chance.

On this International Women’s Day, I feel that the best thing that we can hope for is that I can be able to repeat this post in a few years time and say, there have been developments and 50 percent of the world’s population are now able to develop their potential without fear of exploitation, degradation, mutilation. That they are able to have body shapes that reflect their wants and not other people’s desires and that they are given equal opportunity to men in every walk of life.

Between La La Land and reality

 

The embarrassing mix-up for the award of Best Film at the Oscars last week in some ways represents the current situation of the United States itself.

The award was initially given to “La La Land” which is a completely escapist film that harks back to the escapist films of Busby Berkeley in the 1930’s. Then, as now, Hollywood deemed that the unemployed, the dispossessed, the angry masses needed to escape into a world of music, glamour, dance and catchy music. Give them a romance and a struggle by a pretty girl to get to the top in some Broadway show, sing and dance with a handsome leading man and let the camera play around with as many different ways as possible of getting sequined ladies opening umbrellas or kicking their legs.

It was geometric in result and even now fascinating to look at, but a million miles away from the lives that the film-watchers would walk back out into after they left the cinema.

The world they walked into had been pitched into near total collapse and mass unemployment by the gambling of the New York Stock Exchange (Wall Street) in 1929. In 2007 the World saw the beginning of what has become known as the “Global Financial Crisis”. Again, the gambling of stockbrokers and financiers caused a near melt-down of the world’s largest economy (U.S.A.) and subsequent problems for most of the countries in the world.

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“La La Land”, when it opened, received almost unanimous praise from the film critics. It seemed that they were carried away with the film’s obvious homage to the past, the Busby Berkeley type dancing and singing on a Los Angeles highway, using car roofs as a stage, the “Singing In The Rain” type scenes as the two forlorn lovers walked the streets of an almost deserted city and sang to each other in a similarly deserted park. The use of Jazz (the popular musical form of the 1930’s and 40’s) as the male hero’s obsession.

Like the Berkeley musicals of the 1930’s the cinema-goers would be walking out to a very different world when they left their “Movie House” in some “Rust Belt” town that had seen its factories closed and fall into ruins and where many of the young people survived without a job or from their basic pay job at some restaurant or in a supermarket.

“La La Land” was a very different film to “Moonlight” which was the film that actually won the Best Picture Oscar after the initial chaos of getting the wrong cast and filmmakers to go up on stage and even start to make their acceptance speeches!

In “Moonlight” we are into the life of Chiron, the small, sensitive bullied son of a single crack-cocaine addict mother living in a tough Latino-Black area of Miami Florida. It traces Chiron’s life from a young bullied boy, through to his teenage years and finally his drift into being a drug dealer as a young, confused and mentally bruised adult.

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We see the realities of life as one of the underclass in modern U.S.A. It does not hide us from the anger, the degradation, the poverty, the crime, the addiction to drugs as a way out of a living hell. It is what I have always called a “hedge backwards” film in that it has the effect on your mind of having had a harsh physical work out, such as being dragged through a hedge backwards.

Going into a cinema to see this film would be like taking the harsh world outside in with you to our Rust Belt film-goer. It is not an easy watch, it makes you uncomfortable as it lays down a harsh slice of real life for you to see and think about. But, to my mind, it is all the better for acknowledging the realities of life in the U.S. (and many other countries) today.

It was a trailblazing film in that it was written by, directed and starred predominantly black actors (or Latino ones). Following the last two years where no black actor, writer or film had been nominated for any sort of Oscar, it could be seen as Hollywood’s attempt to even-up things from a publicity point-of-view.

I think that, if it were only seen in that light, then it would be a real shame. Is it the best film ever made? No. Is it the best acted? No. But, in my opinion, it is light years better than “La La Land”.

On a personal note, I would have given the best Film Oscar to “Lion”.

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This was a real life story about a young Indian boy who finishes up on a train that takes him nearly 1000 miles across India to the teeming city of Mumbai where he mixes in to the street urchin life until he is rescued by an orphanage that eventually gets him adopted by a childless couple in Tasmania, Australia.

The boy grows up to be a very sensible and accomplished man who has an obsession with finding his real mother in India. Through the help of “Google Earth” and much painstaking research, he eventually manages to track the village where he was born.

The cinematography was brilliant, the acting was superb and it had a feel-good ending, that was not made up but really happened! Something for the rust-belt cinema-goer to feel pleased about when they emerge into their reality.

Proud to be a remoaner

I have a friend who is an obsessional Brexiteer. He has spent the last few months since the infamous referendum celebrating the good sense of the British people in cutting (or eventually cutting) the ties to what he sees as the iniquitous organisation that is the European Economic Community.

He has jumped on the word “Remoaner” for people, such as myself, who he feels are unable to accept the will of the people and wish to squirm and writhe and let out our doom laden prophesies about the dire consequences for our country’s future.

Today I put a post on Facebook that was about a report from by that well known left-wing pro-Europe organisation Sky T.V. about a report from the British Chambers of Commerce (another firebrand organisation of the left!) that stated that a number of industrial and commercial companies have made plans to relocate to Ireland and the continent after Theresa May’s Government starts the exit process.

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To quote the report:

British businesses have already started setting up shadow units on the continent and shifting investment to the other side of the UK border in Ireland, according to a new report on Brexit from Britain’s leading business lobby group.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) found that companies are growing increasingly concerned about the impact on their business from Brexit, and are already taking action to guard against it.

In a report based on a survey of its members, the BCC found that in the face of Brexit uncertainty, “a minority of companies have even taken mitigation strategies, such as setting up new receiving companies or their own logistics infrastructure on the continent, in order to ensure the same level of service to their customers and suppliers.”

It also said that some businesses “reported instances of scaling back investment in Northern Ireland and shifting investment to the Republic of Ireland.” It added: “Some companies are already exploring setting up production in the Republic of Ireland and other EU countries.”

My friend decided to comment on my post in the following way:

They may be shifting because of all the negativity from the Remoaners.
Also look at how many countries want to leave the EU.
Also look at the immigration figures that show how many people have come from the countries that recently joined the EU.

Now,as a “Remoaner” I amazed at the power that my friend thinks we have. Does he really think that the negativity of the “Remoaners” has forced company directors to rush off and make plans to leave the country?

I would have thought that hard headed business folk have one idea in  mind, which is the pursuit of profit. Maybe they feel that Britain outside of the European Customs and free trade area is likely to affect their profits in a big way and potentially, in the uncertain future that an off-shore tax haven has to offer there are too many possible problems that have caused them to make plans for their future outside of the U.K.

For myself, I am a remoaner because I believe in an internationalism that I saw celebrated by so many of the young, pro-Europe Yes voters in the referendum. I have never felt happy with the narrow confines of nationalism and I feel that it has led to so many needless wars and human suffering over the years.

I believe in internationalism as a necessity to try and tackle the key issues of Climate Change, mass extinction of flora and fauna and the need to have an international approach to medical and scientific  research.

My friend is right, I am a “Remoaner” and I am proud to be. I try to do whatever I can to argue against the so-called “Hard Brexit” that I believe will be such a disaster for my country. Occasionally I get support for my views from Sky News and The British Chambers of Commerce!

Online petitions

I am a great signer of online petitions. In the past few weeks I have supported calls for proportional representation, the need to have a deposit return system for plastic drinks bottles and the need to stop president Donald Trump from being given the honour of having a state visit.

I sometimes wonder about the true worth of on-line petitions. The results can be very significant in that there have been some really important developments in environmental and social issues.

Yesterday, the giant drinks company Coke did a U-Turn on the deposit return system. I had signed a petition from an organisation called 38 Degrees, one of many petitions that I have signed from that organisation. As can be seen below in a photograph taken from their Home Page on their website, they run a great many campaigns, are open to people starting their own campaigns and have had quite a lot of successes.

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The following photos  will give you some idea about the sort of campaigns that they run:

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Looking at these campaigns you can see where they are most likely to have some success. The plastic bottles has already caused Coke and other large companies to react and the Scottish Government is in the process of introducing the first deposit return scheme that has existed in the U.K. since I was a child and used to return glass Lemonade bottles in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

There is every hope that there will be enough public support to protect the world famous Sherwood Forest (Robin Hood’s stomping ground).

But if you look at the campaigns in the second photograph you can see where the problems with online petitions lies. Do I really feel that mass protest about NHS funding is going to have any impact on the present Government and their obsession with “balancing the books”? No!

I would love to have my say on the US-UK Trade Deal but realise that whatever we may say, in terms of the number of online signatures, it is unlikely to have any impact on Theresa May and especially Donald Trump.

Our efforts, through the Government’s own online petitions system to get the state visit of President Trump cancelled was met with a short Parliamentary debate where the item was discussed by our MP’s. The debate was triggered by the petition passing a point where it has to be discussed.

There was a fiery debate in the House but at the end, to quote a recent report:

“There was no vote at the end of the debate, and ultimately it is up to the British Government whether to withdraw the invitation, or downgrade the visit. It seems highly unlikely that, now extended, the government would retract the invitation.”

In conclusion, I enjoy the fact that the ubiquity of the net has given us the chance to have a say on a number of important issues. In terms of educating the public about issues  organisations such as 38 Degrees do a fantastic job. But this needs to be seen in the light of what impact these campaigns can ever have. In terms of bad publicity for large multinationals it can have some effects, in local environmental issues it can get real things done but at a Government level I do not see how an “elected dictatorship” would really quake in their boots at people like me hitting a key on my keyboard to protest at their actions.