June 1967: Sergeant Pepper, Vietnam and the Six Day War; a personal reflection

Sergeant pepper1

On June 1st 1967 I was 14 years, 4 months and 17 days old. It was  the release date of  a record that changed popular music for everyone and became the album that I still regard as the best album I have ever heard.

The album was “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles.

My own personal story of when I first heard this story links with the ongoing Vietnam War which was raging at this time amidst huge protests at America’s involvement in a war that they eventually had to disentangle themselves from after the victory of North Vietnamese Communists over the western supported South Vietnamese regime.

I had developed a real interest at the time in military strategy. I cannot recall how, but although I lived in Hackney, I was able to become a lender from Theobald’s Road Library (in Camden). (This may have been caused by the proximity of the library to my school, I could walk there in about 30 minutes, or the fact that my father worked in the West End of London which was not a great distance away either).

At any rate, I used to enjoy taking two buses on a Saturday morning and going to the very modern (at that time) library and getting books to read. On Saturday 3rd June I was on my way to the library to get a book on the military history of the Vietnam War.

I remember getting off the bus just before the junction of Theobald’s Road and Gray’s Inn Road. I needed to cross at two sets of lights. At the opposite side of the second crossing was a pub. Above the pub was a flat (apartment). It was, I remember, a really hot and sunny day and the windows of the upstairs flat were open.

As I walked across at the lights I heard the opening bars of the new album played very, very, loud. I had never heard anything like it before and it was my introduction to the album of my life (so far!).

sergeant pepper2

I did a Google Maps Streetview search for the pub and much to my amazement it is still there (name much changed of course) 50 years after! (see above).

June of 1967 was about Vietnam, protest, race riots in the U.S.A. (the beginning of the long hot summer of riots) and on June 5th the start of the Arab-Israeli War that lasted six days and resulted in a huge change in the map and politics of that area the repercussions of which are still with us to this day.

sergeant pepper's4

I was 14, young, and idealistic, living in what was at that time the most exciting city to live in, in  the world, London.  I was, as the Google Map search above shows just 4.7 miles by road or two tube stations and a short walk  away from the  Abbey Road Studios where the album was recorded!

In just over two weeks time (as I write) on June 1st 2017, the great album will be 50 years old! One of the songs on the album is the wistful McCartney number “When I’m 64”. As I sit typing this blog post I have travelled, like the album through 50 years (which feels like fifty days!!) and am indeed 64!

For those interested there is to be a digitally remastered version of the album coming out to celebrate the 50th anniversary. I can’t wait to get my copy.



Powerful statements

I am a Facebook user because, from time to time, it gives me valuable information ( not just pretty pictures of cats and people saying which cafe they are in!).

This morning I read two interesting entries, both from the U.S.A., which I thought were both relevant and scary. I thought that they deserve reprinting without any further commentary by me.

1.  letter from America.

“I wish one thing for the British people in this upcoming election, I don’t care whether you consider yourself conservative, labour, yellow, blue, rich, poor, young, old, for or against the variety of political slogans thrown around. I wish every person eligible to vote, to vote for the NHS. Whatever that takes, whatever other policies you have to grey line on or even disagree with. Vote for the NHS. I tell you from experience that the negotiations that have already happened with United Health and other private bodies are against your best interests. Once the middle men of a fractured health, insurance driven system get in, you will never get them out. Few people are aware in England of how much it hurts to hear your child in pain and instead of whipping them up in your arms and taking them to the nearest hospital, you are on the phone asking a stranger if your policy will cover it. Being admitted to hospital and an over night stay with a single scan costing just over $4,000… and the quote for the treatment you need being 16,000 – that’s not including anesthesiologist fees or any complications arising. Who do you know right now has an extra $400 per person a month for insurance fees (that’s low, many pay much more) who then dictate what you can and can’t treat and the treatment for it. Who benefit if you die rather than fight, who call new treatments, for cancer especially, ‘experimental’ and refuse to pay. I have a friend who would not be here right now if it wasn’t for a go fund me page, because his insurance didn’t deem him fit for the heart surgery he needed, despite the surgeon saying he was. Please , everyone, fight for your NHS, because once it’s gone, no one will be fighting for you and you will no longer have a voice. Vote for the NHS, whatever it takes, fight for it!

2. Going to share two recent personal experiences, at risk of being called out for complaining or whining. I do this because they are so indicative of how women are viewed in our society, even if those women are accomplished and reasonably powerful. If there is a “bright spot” in what is happening right now, it is how much I am seeing and learning how deep racism, misogyny, and homophobia (and all sorts of other phobias and repressive crap) are still.

I work very closely with my husband Peter, running a small (and quickly growing) software company in the renewable energy space. Although we are small, we are extremely international and well respected in our specialized niche. He is CEO, and I am COO, and we are very much co-executives, each bringing our own talents and perspectives. We were recently in a high-stakes meeting with 3 men from another company, who had traveled to town to meet with us. We talked all afternoon, then continued over dinner. If you know me, then you know that I was very much part of the conversation. And if you don’t know me, well, trust that I was! As we got up from the table, the lead guy from the other company said, “Thank you very much for all your time, and thank you for bringing your wife.” There were gasps all around, really. It was kind of a stunning moment.
Then last night I was at a social event, and I was talking to friends. Peter was on my left carrying on another conversation with a woman neither of us know, who was there with her family. We had been only briefly introduced earlier, and she had seemed like an interesting and intelligent person. Then I overheard part of their conversation, and it went like this. Peter said, “Well Marilyn is the Chief Operating Officer. We work together.” And I hear this woman say, “Oh, I see. You have someone to handle the day-to-day for you.” Right. Translation – she imagines that I manage the office, do the books, and keep Peter’s schedule. NOT! Not what I do. Not for me. And not to say that might have been the case, but you know, had the roles been reversed, she would never have assumed that the man in such a role took care of “day to day” things. I was so stunned that I turned around and said, “Not exactly right there.” And knowing she had put her foot in her mouth, said something like, “Well, you give him the space to be creative.” OMG this is going downhill fast. I withdrew and rolled my eyes. No point in getting in a fight during a party, with a stranger.

This was a fairly young (35-ish) probably quite liberal woman.  And look at the assumptions she made, and the things she said, in order to suck up to Peter, presumably. Or something. And I wonder if she realized, really, what she had done when she said that – the box she had placed me into – the role she felt so confident I played that she spoke it out loud – there to make Peter successful. Someone to be sure there is TP in the bathroom.

My life has not been impacted by these events. I am no worse off for them. My point is not to say “Woe is me.” My life is actually fantastic. I share them because they are examples of what happens day after day after day after day when we put people into boxes. And I think about women of color or men of color or trans people or anyone else who was not in that disgusting photo taken last night in the Rose Garden, of white men celebrating their “big win” on a bill that is as cruel, greedy, and meaningless as it gets. And then every one of us must think about things we say and do, every day, and really how we see those around us, and what assumptions we make.

The Undoing Project

I have just read an excellent book by Michael Lewis called “The Undoing Project”

the undoing project

The author had previously written a number of books about the follies of American life like the madness of Wall Street gambling which saw the great crash of 2008 and a fascinating book (later made into a film) called “Moneyball” about the success of a low level baseball team in beating the odds and winning the national league with players that were largely overlooked by the bigger teams (reminds me very much of Leicester City winning the Premier League in football).

The origins of how a man who had previously written books on big money finance and sport came to write a book about two Israeli psychologists is that he read a review of his “Moneyball” book by two academics Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

The opening paragraph reads:

“Michael Lewis’s new book is a sensation. It treats a topic that would seem to interest only sports fans: how Billy Beane, the charismatic general manager of the Oakland Athletics, turned his baseball team around using, of all things, statistics. What next–an inspirational tale about superior database management? But there are some broader lessons in Lewis’s book that make it worth the attention also of people who do not know the difference between a slider and a screwball. Those lessons have to do, above all, with the limits of human rationality and the efficiency of labor markets. If Lewis is right about the blunders and the confusions of those who run baseball teams, then his tale has a lot to tell us about blunders and confusions in many other domains.”

I have outlined the key term in this paragraph, “The limits of human rationality”.

This is seen in the following paragraph from the review:

“Why do professional baseball executives, many of whom have spent their lives in the game, make so many colossal mistakes? They are paid well, and they are specialists. They have every incentive to evaluate talent correctly. So why do they blunder? In an intriguing passage, Lewis offers three clues. First, those who played the game seem to overgeneralize from personal experience: “People always thought their own experience was typical when it wasn’t.” Second, the professionals were unduly affected by how a player had performed most recently, even though recent performance is not always a good guide. Third, people were biased by what they saw or thought they saw, with their own eyes. This is a real problem because the human mind plays tricks, and because there is “a lot you couldn’t see when you watched a baseball game.”

The authors then go on to explain that these mistakes are caused by the mind playing tricks or the mental equivalent of an optical illusion that was investigated and made famous by two young Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.

Lewis was fascinated by this and decided to investigate a subject that he admits he knew little about. He was fortunate in that he lived in Berkeley California and had a personal friend Dacher Keltner who worked at UC Berkeley with Kahneman who happened to live only a few blocks away from Lewis! Keltner made an introduction for Lewis and his investigation into the incredibly important work and remarkable friendship of two brilliant minds in war-torn Israel over a period from the 1960’s to the 80’s began. It took five years to complete but was well worth the effort.

This is a book that explains how these brilliant minds used their talents in mathematical psychology (Tversky) and mental processes (Kahneman) to fashion a whole range of theories based on the idea that the mind has biases and works in patterns that are formed by what they call “heuristics” which are essentially set ideas. This allows us to not engage our deep, rational abilities and make quick decisions.

In his seminal book “Thinking Fast and Slow” Kahneman shows how evolution favoured quick decision-making to slow pondering of all possibilities (it meant that we avoided being some animal’s prey!). The Prefrontal Cortex, where we are able to rationalise and think deeply, uses up a lot of our energy, thus we are inherently shallow thinkers and indeed we have developed quick approaches to guide our actions, which has led to biases and mistakes of judgement. In short, we are very often irrational in our thinking and this plays out in so many aspects of our lives.

This is a key finding of cognitive psychology. It has influenced so many areas of our lives that are so well covered in the book by Lewis. A really good example is the work of Donald Redelmeier. a good example would be his paper written with Tversky “On the Belief That Arthritis Pain Is Related to the Weather”. Redelmeier was also one of the first people to point out the dangers of driving whilst engaged in a mobile phone conversation (which seems obvious to us now but wasn’t just a few years ago when drivers were killing themselves and others!).

Irrational thinking has shown itself in so many aspects of our life recently. Lewis was interviewed recently about his book by the Financial Times. The article is well worth reading in that he explains how Donald Trump fools himself all the time and is able to fool so many others and how dangerous this is for us all.

Apart from the importance of the psychology (which is huge), the book is about a great friendship in a place (Israel) that is in an almost constant state of war and imminent destruction. I found the personal stories and the history of the small embattled nation fascinating.

This is one of the best books I have read in a very long time and is well worth a read if you get the chance.



Learning quantum physics

I have to be honest physics was never my favourite subject at school. I remember thinking that it was just a load of formulas that meant nothing to me. My total failure at O Level was because I went into the examination with not a clue as to how to work out the speed of a toy car given a certain level of friction.

I was given a book of logarithms which was very useful in that it gave me something other than the exam paper to look at.

I have come across esoteric subjects such as “relativity theory” and “quantum mechanics” and can say that I really didn’t have a clue as to what they were about.

I have recently been doing a lot of research into how we learn best. I came across something that the great physicist Richard Feynman who was a great teacher/lecturer, as well as a theoretical scientist, said was key to learning any subject and this was to explain a subject to another person in terms that are simple so that even a child could understand it.

I therefore decided that I would test this theory by looking at a number of TEDx  YouTube videos which had scientists explaining Quantum Theory. This would certainly prove Feynman’s idea on the basis that if I understood any of it, then the speakers had obeyed his dictum to make it simple and straightforward.

The best video I saw was the following:

I learnt from this talk that quantum mechanics is strange, that it is about the very basics of all things, atoms and sub-atomic particles. I found that at their smallest these sub-atomic particles can do strange things like travel through barriers and join up with other connected particles wherever they are in the universe.

The key to the crossing of barriers is that it explains how two atoms of similar type which should repel each other can actually clash and interact, which is the basis of nuclear fusion and ultimately of the heat and energy from the massive reactions of our Sun which are the basis of our life here on Earth.

I was also fascinated to find out the massive contribution to physics and astronomy of this lady:

celia p-g

I have to say that she was someone who I knew absolutely nothing about until I heard this talk but who I am pleased has now come into my brain’s memory bank.

For a talk lasting just 15 minutes, I learnt a lot about the wonders of quantum mechanics and found that Feynman was so right that any subject can be explained to anyone as long as we strip it down to basic ideas that even a child (or a 64 year old scientific illiterate) can understand!



Cognitive distortions

I am progressing in my Coursera MOOC “Mindshift”. I did wonder how it would differ from the highly successful “Learning How To Learn”.

The answer is that this course is very much about human potential as against specific techniques to make you a better learner.

Barbara Oakley travelled around the world doing interviews with people who had made great transformations in their life. This was not only for the course but was also for the book that she has written with the same name as the course which came out today (April 18th).

mindshift book


One area that I covered today in the week 2 materials was “Cognitive Distortions”. These are the ways that we manage to defeat ourselves, to listen to others who give us no hope of ever changing.

Here was my contribution to the MOOC forum on the subject:

I found the section on cognitive distortions so revealing about my own past. I remember that when I made a hash of my (British) Advanced Level exams, I said, on receiving the letter informing me of my bad grades, “I’ve failed”. I started to blame myself for lack of understanding and started to believe that I maybe wasn’t as bright as I thought I was.

I was awash with negative emotions. I wish then (this happened over forty years ago now) that I had the advantages of seeing Barb’s video. I can now see everything in perspective but it is so difficult when you are in the middle of a darkness of your own creation.

As an ex-teacher I feel that we need to be telling our students many of the things that Barb covered in her video. There are even the extreme examples of students who commit suicide due to bad grades. This is surely something that should bring schools and colleges round to the idea that we need to talk about how to learn well and how to cope with setbacks in a constructive way.

The point I make about the tyranny of grades is one that comes from my own experience and one that I saw so often throughout my teaching career. In the course we learn to welcome failure as a learning experience, to understand that we become the stories that we tell ourselves, that others will take opportunities to put you down and tell you what you can’t do but you have a plastic brain that has great and as yet largely uncharted potential.

I have said so often that we humans are  our own worst enemy. We divide, we belittle and we compartmentalise when we should be aiming to develop  every person to the best that they can become.

It is so good to see that people like Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski have similar beliefs and it is to be hoped that their new course will have as much influence on its students as their wonderful first course had.

I recommend you watch the short lecture that Barbara gives in the course at the link below:



The power of books to transform a life

For quite a few years I have been following some of the excellent stories that are a part of the oral history project called “Storycorps” in the United States. This brilliant project has involved literally thousands of Americans telling their stories about love, hate, death, war, indeed the full human experience.

Today I watched the above video about a young native American migrant worker, Storm Reyes. It shows how the chance of following her curiosity and getting into a travelling Library (called a “Bokbus” in the U.S.A.) would introduce her to the world that exists in books and how that managed to transform her life.

Here is her story: (I have made bold what I consider to be key points in her story)

In the late 1950s, when she was just 8 years old, Storm Reyes began picking fruit as a full-time farm labourer for less than $1 per hour. Storm and her family moved often, living in Native American migrant worker camps without electricity or running water.

With all that moving around, she wasn’t allowed to have books growing up.

“Books are heavy, and when you’re moving a lot you have to keep things just as minimal as possible,” she said.

She remembers a tough childhood in the migrant camps.

“The conditions were pretty terrible. I once told someone that I learned to fight with a knife long before I learned how to ride a bicycle and when you are grinding day after day after day, there is no room in you for hope. There just isn’t. You don’t even know it exists. There’s nothing to aspire to except filling your hungry belly. That’s how I was raised.”

But when she was 12, a bookmobile came to the fields where she and her family worked.

“So when I saw this big vehicle on the side of the road, and it was filled with books, I immediately stepped back,” she said. “Fortunately the staff member saw me, kind of waved me in, and said, ‘These are books, and you can take one home. You have to bring it back in two weeks, but you can take them home and read them.’ ”

The bookmobile librarian asked Storm what she was interested in and sent her home with a couple of books. One was on Volcanoes because one of the tribal elders had told her a scary story about the local volcano blowing up. He said “learn about volcanoes. You don’t fear things that you know about!”.

She said, “I took them home and I devoured them. I didn’t just read them, I devoured them and I came back in two weeks and had more questions. And he gave me more books, and that started it.”

The experience, she said, was life-changing.

That taught me that hope was not just a word. And it gave me the courage to leave the camps. That’s where the books made the difference.

Storm left the camps when she was a teenager and attended night school. She ended up working in the Pierce County Library System as a librarian for more than 30 years.

“By the time I was 15, I knew there was a world outside of the camps,” she said. “I believed I could find a place in it. And I did.”

I found this story inspiring and moving. I have for many years been interested in human potential. I have always had a belief that we are not bound by our genes or by our environment and that there is something or someone that can transform the way we think about ourselves and our own potential.

Storycorps has covered so many stories like Storm’s where people living and working in difficult circumstances have been able to overcome them and achieve great things. If you have the chance I would recommend looking up their excellent site and reading/listening/watching some of the wonderfully inspiring stories that ordinary people tell.


The Mindshift MOOC

I have just finished week 1 of the Coursera Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “Mindshift”. This is a follow-up course done by the same lecturers (Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski ) of the world’s most popular MOOC “Learning How To Learn”.

I have taken “LHTL” twice and it is quite simply the best MOOC that I have ever taken. I think that it had the advantage of the presenter/lecturers Barbara and Terry who come across as friendly, informative and humorous and it has an excellent set of videos that were designed to be informative as well as entertaining. There are the usual Coursera tests and the assignments are peer reviewed. There is also an excellent online discussion forum where other students often make useful suggestions for videos and links to books and articles.

Week 1 of Mindshift has proven to be an improvement on the high standards of LHTL. Barbara has created some excellent videos that have moved on from her initial attempts in the first MOOC. I particularly like the way she visually represents metaphors and concepts. She takes the lion’s share of presenting the videos although the one video input from Terry about environments for learning is excellent.

Barbara has written a book called “Mindshift” to accompany the MOOC. This follows her earlier book  “A Mind For Numbers” which accompanied LHTL. In the present MOOC she has managed to put into some of the videos interviews that she did with students of LHTL from all over the world where they talk about how they have changed their approaches to learning after taking the course.

Overall the original MOOC and the present one are well worth taking if you want to transform your approach to learning. It is also one of the best introductions to cognitive neuroscience that I have come across. I would recommend the courses and the books. Happy learning!