Dreams, Visions, and Plans

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Oct 072017

The English words “dream” and “vision” can have many meanings, but here I am using them to mean “thoughts or hopes about the future” (somewhat consonant with “plan”). They do have significantly different meanings from one another, and it’s those differences I want to explore in this post. Let me start with “plans” first, though, and work from there. In a previous post I mentioned my acronym GPA, which stands for Goal, Plan, Action. This is one of my many guiding mantras. Action of any significance is not much use without a plan, and to make a coherent plan you need a goal in mind first. So, my plans in life are always in pursuit of a goal. The thing is that I have not had an awful lot of luck with my plans in the past 5 years or so.

The long-term goal that I established for myself 7 years ago when I was living in Buenos Aires was to live on a different continent for 2 years at a stretch in a location that would provide me with a job, but would also be within easy reach of a lot of places I wanted to visit. It was a broad goal inspired by the fact that it is hard to get much of anywhere outside of South America without significant effort. Whilst living in Buenos Aires I had traveled a lot both within Argentina and to a variety of countries in South America. Those trips, even to Easter Island, were manageable. But Buenos Aires is not a hub for major airlines, and the most common routes were to North America and Western Europe. To get anywhere other than those destinations required trips to them first, which were lengthy, then one or two more changes before you got where you were going.  I looked into going to Hong Kong or Singapore and they were three-day trips each way. I had been in the habit of going on 7 to 10 day trips, and spending 6 days in transit was not going to cut it. I figured that if I lived in Hong Kong or Budapest or Nairobi or wherever for a couple of years I could use those cities as springboards to travel around in the region before moving on. So far so good – sort of.

The goal was a good one, I felt, but the plans went awry almost straight away. I landed in Hong Kong, couldn’t find a job that would get me a resident permit, so moved to Kunming, capital of Yunnan in SW China. I stayed there for 18 months working at various jobs that did not give me much chance to leave Kunming. Then I caught a lucky break – I thought. I got a job at a university that gave me 4 months’ paid vacation. Perfect. That way I could travel to Myanmar, Cambodia etc. But . . . the government had an issue with the fact that I entered on one passport but wanted my university work visa in another (because the university insisted and checked with immigration before acting). The fact that the university had got prior approval did not matter. I was given 10 days to leave.  My hopes of traveling in SE Asia, journeying the Silk Road through Central Asia etc, went up in smoke. In fact that was the start of 4 years of planning that kept going off the rails that I won’t bore you with. Right now I am in the middle of plan Z.2.6 – sitting in the airport in Bangkok en route from Mandalay to Phnom Penh.

My point is that my general goal is in place, but the execution is not all it might be. This leads me back to goals. We can use various words such as “dreams” or “visions” or “goals” and they all have rather different emphases. The thing is that I don’t have any dreams. I think of dreams that are BIG and very difficult (if not impossible) to accomplish. They are things young people have. I had dreams when I was younger. When I was in my 20s my main dream was to write books on anthropology and become a published author. I saw that as my path to immortality – of a sort. I might die, but my books would live on. Well, I’ve done that. I’ve accomplished all of my dreams; I don’t have dreams any more. I do still have goals, though. Goals are of a different order from dreams. They are manageable, obtainable – even if they take effort.

I see visions as a subset of goals: how I envisage my goals playing out over time in specific ways. For example, I worked in Italy for 2 years and in the summer I traveled to Slovenia and Austria as well as around Italy. That’s one set of plans that actually worked out. After 2 years I wanted to move to SE Asia and a job opportunity opened up in Mandalay in Myanmar, so I took it. It was a little impulsive. I had planned to spend my summer meandering along the Silk Road from west to east, ending up in Myanmar, but the job came up some I skipped the Silk Road – AGAIN !!! My job in Italy ended at the end of May and the job in Mandalay started in June. Not ideal, but I figured I could travel at the end of the school year in March.

I did have long weekends when I was able to travel around Myanmar a bit, but I couldn’t go very far. The time between terms was only one week also, so I’d have to work for 8 months straight before traveling (with no summer holiday before starting). This September I ended up with some unfortunate contract talks with my boss, so I quit, and worked out a way to live in Cambodia for some months. As I left Mandalay this morning I was rather melancholy. The reason is that I had had a vision of my life in Myanmar, but it did not turn out as I had envisaged. I was expecting to stay for 2 years, mooch around a lot in the cracks, then leave for some new 2-year destination. Instead I am moving on after 3 months. I’m fine with the decision. I could have stayed for 2 years. My boss did not want me to leave. It’s just that the reality did not match the vision. It was not a dream; it was a vision related to a larger goal. And . . . it failed. It’s not like finding a dream falling apart. It’s just a vision that did not pan out. My world’s not going to fall apart as it might if a life dream fell apart. When you DREAM BIG (as an old girlfriend put it to me – in caps), your life is completely guided by it. This was just a vision of a component of a goal this is still a work in progress. I’ll survive. But it is sad when visions fail.

 Posted by at 1:49 pm

Education (3) Testing

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Aug 312017

Last week I gave all my classes a test – 10 classes in all. They were all written tests which I had to mark by hand. That’s a lot of work, but it’s part of the job. I can actually get my assistants to do the marking, but I’m not going to do that. I take my teaching seriously, and testing is very important. I hate marking, and my students hate tests. So why do I do it? I’ve hated taking tests all my life. Couldn’t I just find an easier way out? Tempting – but no.

At the start of all my undergraduate classes I used to give my students a little pep talk about my methods, especially about testing. I used to tell them that I hate testing and marking, but I don’t do it because I am a mean, nasty, horrible person who enjoys inflicting pain. I do it because it is intrinsically worthwhile – but only if done right. Some ways of testing are worse than useless, they are counterproductive; some ways are invaluable to the learning process. The trick is knowing which is which.

Schools (final exams) at Oxford are probably the most brutal exams I have ever sat for. I had to do 13 exams, each 3 hours long, over the course of a week (with Sunday off) – one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. They tested everything I had studied for 3 years. Unlike the US system where you take a course and get tested at the end of it, at Oxford there are no tests per subject as you go along; just one set of final exams on everything at the very end of your undergraduate years. In your final term you have no tutorials or lectures. You simply look back over every essay you’ve written, and all of your notes, and cram as much in as possible, over a 5-week period, ready to regurgitate it all on paper over a grueling week, 3 hours at a pop. It didn’t help that we had to sit the exams dressed in black suit, white shirt with white bow tie, and academic gown (carrying a mortar board), but that was a minor inconvenience. The point was that for a brief moment in time you had the whole subject matter at your fingertips.

Having everything to hand is an important part of the intellectual process for me. By “to hand” and “at your fingertips” does not mean being able to look it up quickly via the internet or whatever. Everyone has that capacity. I mean having the information IN YOUR HEAD. That ability is vital to the thinking process. Testing in the right way encourages that style of thinking: get students to internalize as much as possible all at once, not so that they can simply regurgitate it, but so they can put it to practical use.

Some tests are the absolute opposite of this style, notably the standardized tests for entry to undergraduate and graduate programs of learning. The classic SAT and GRE exams used by the vast majority of universities in the US had 2 sections – verbal and mathematics – and now they have logical reasoning and essay sections. Supposedly the latter two make the tests more diagnostically useful. The fact is that repeated analysis of SAT scores has shown that the test cannot even accurately predict success or failure in the FIRST year of college, let alone after four years. They are worthless as predictors. Universities use them for only one reason: they are swamped with applications and so they need a simple measure to select among the applicants. They set parameters among the test scores and separate applicants into those they will accept and those they reject. Then they use other measures such as essays or interviews for the fine tuning. So, they start off with a worthless test that is not remotely related to the subject matter the student is applying to study, and which has no predictive power concerning success, and use that as their arbiter for who gets in and who doesn’t simply because it gives them a numerical score they can use to compare applicants. An actual test is too much work.

When I applied to Oxford I had to first sit five exams, three hours each, on the subject I was applying to study, and was marked by the relevant tutors at the college I was applying to. When I cleared that hurdle, I went to the college for an hour-long interview by the tutors. That is a reasonable test. When I applied to the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of North Carolina I was accepted on my written work – very commendable – but scholarships were assigned solely on GRE results. My scores were respectable, but not great, because I sat them without knowing what they were for. I was told to take them, and I did. I had never taken a multiple-choice test before in my life, and just did the best I could. I did not get a scholarship and spent 5 years studying at my own expense. Two of my classmates did get full scholarships, however, because they scored very well on the GRE. (They also got major funding from the National Science Foundation for their fieldwork. I had to take out a bank loan for mine.) The upshot? Neither of them finished the Ph.D. – one of them because he couldn’t string together a coherent sentence in writing !!! So much for standardized testing. Standardized testing tests only the ability to take standardized tests.

Standardized tests are popular because they can be machine graded and because they provide a simple numerical score that can be used to compare one student (or candidate) with another. The degree to which standardized tests provide meaningful results depends on the skill of the tester in many ways. First, there is the nature of the questions themselves. On the GRE I had to answer such questions as “ball is to bat as (something) is to (something)” with 5 choices of answers. How exactly will that question tell you whether I will be a good anthropologist or not? Second, if you look at the array of answers on a particular question you can decide whether your questions are too hard or too easy. If 100% of people being tested get the right answer the question is too easy; if the answers are spread more or less evenly over all the possible answers the people being tested are guessing, therefore the question is too hard. Professional test-writing companies spend a lot of time and money researching their testing methods. Your average university professor generally has no clue about this stuff when making up a multiple-choice test.

I used to use multiple-choice tests in very large lecture classes to test certain base level knowledge. I think this is fair as long as it’s not the only method of testing students. When I first trained as an emergency paramedic I had to take a grueling standardized test to certify. It tested basic knowledge in a host of medical areas. But it was only ONE part of a series of tests. I also had to show live examiners that I knew how to do a variety of things such as insert an IV line, intubate a patient, identify a fibrillating heart from an EKG and defibrillate, and splint a broken bone. You were allowed several attempts at each but if you failed any station you had to redo the test at a later date after more training. Furthermore, I had to work as a trainee under a supervisor on ambulances and take several 12-hour rotations in an emergency room, all of which were assessed and graded. So, the standardized test was part of a mix of tests. One hopes that the result is competent paramedics.

Bottom line: testing is an essential component of teaching/learning, but to be useful you have to know what you are doing, and too few teachers do.

Mandalay 4

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Jun 302017

Not much to report today.  I’ll do better tomorrow for reasons that will be clear.  On Fridays I have 7 classes stretching from 9 am to 5 pm with 1 hour for lunch. In the morning this morning I had given the school some choices.  They were:


  1. I teach only at the primary school with no preschool. That means not teaching on Mondays. In turn I would forego 1/5th of the negotiated salary.
  2. No preschool, but added hours at the primary school on Mondays. Originally negotiated salary.
  3. I take the next available flight out of Myanmar.


They had little choice. Option c was hardly in their best interests. They’d just fired one teacher and replaced him with me. I can’t see how firing me would have done them any good (except, perhaps saved some money). They don’t have anyone who can teach science in English – native speaker or otherwise. I was hoping for option a which is what they went with. I stayed completely out of it. I told my recruiter what I wanted and left it in his hands to negotiate (with the added point that if nothing were resolved over the weekend I would be out of Myanmar first flight on Monday).  Of course they caved instantly. By lunch time they had met and picked option a with only minor details to iron out. Meanwhile I had my first lunch at the school. Normally I am finished by lunch time, but today was my first Friday when I teach all day.  The chef is supposed to cook something special for me. It was indeed “special” – a revolting hamburger-type thing on a horrible white bread bun filled with a hard-cooked fried egg with lettuce and some sort of pink mayonnaise substitute. I ate it only out of politeness but told the lunch lady that in future I wanted only Myanmar food. Duly noted.

Today, classes got into the swing of actual content. For the past 2 days I’ve been introducing myself, giving class rules, and easing into things. Today we did actual work: magnets, flowers, respiration etc etc. All quite fun. My standard routine is (and will be) 5 minutes of talking about the topic of the day, experiment of the day, then workbook exercises. Falling off a log. How the teacher before me could screw that up is beyond me. Of course the class periods can vary, but the basic idea is in place. I also have to prepare a science fair for September for the parents to enjoy. Easy-peasy. Each class will have a showy experiment set up in a booth with class photos all around. I’ll make sure each booth looks impressive. Parents should eat it with a spoon.

Now to wax philosophical for a little. How does a distinguished university professor with a long research career and publications wind up teaching science to little children? Isn’t it a come down? No. It’s a lot of fun (although for how long is another story). Myanmar kids are great to teach. They are well behaved, eager, and curious. It’s easy to make them laugh too. For example, when I was talking about how ALL living things respond to stimuli I did things like suddenly growl like a tiger right up in a kid’s face or make a loud noise out of the blue. The kid I growled at backed off startled and the others howled with laughter. What’s not to enjoy? It’s just like being a parent, and I’ve got those credentials in spades.

I will admit that 7 hours in a day is rather longer than I want, but it’s only one day a week. The other days are 3 hours. I’m going to have to get more creative with experiments in the future to keep my own interest up. That means looking over the textbooks on the weekend so that I can be armed with bells and whistles on Tuesday. Should be fun.

More pagodas and the like over the weekend.The head picture is actually my school. It’s a lot nicer than it looks on the outside.

For now . . . to bed.


 Posted by at 3:27 pm

Donald Trump

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Oct 112016


In case it is not clear, I am completely apolitical and have been almost all of my adult life. I voted once when I was 19 and giddy with the idea that I could vote AT ALL, and that my vote made a difference. At Oxford I ran for college office and won, but I quickly saw all that was wrong with politics even at that meager level, and have since never been interested in any kind of political activity although I always watch from the sidelines. In Argentina where it is mandatory to go to the polls on election day or face a stiff fine, I go and spoil my ballot. I have no interest in participating in politics – whatsoever. This year is different.

In the U.S. Donald Trump was at one time favored to win the presidency. Now it’s not so clear. Nonetheless, I have one clear message — he simply must be defeated at all costs. For me this is not a political issue but a moral one. I rarely use the term “evil” but I will use it in this essay. Trump is evil and the sentiments he has aroused in the nation are evil. That evil was there in the nation all along, but it was at least minimally chained. Now it is unchained and running rampant. Stopping Trump will not rid the nation of that evil, by any means, but it is a start. Not stopping it is a sin – on your head if you do nothing.

Many self-interested, narcissistic, power-hungry, greedy dictators have risen throughout history through various means. In some cases, such as Mao Zedong and Napoleon, they rose through revolutions of the people and they took advantage of the situation. In other cases, such as Hitler and Mussolini, they were elected to public office and emerged as dictators through seemingly “democratic” means which they manipulated for their own ends.

Donald Trump is as much of a threat to the social fabric as Hitler and Mussolini were. When they rose to power in the 1930s there were severe economic crises in Germany and Italy and – maybe – they could not have been stopped. You can’t really go back in time and try a different approach. But we can learn from history. Trump’s rise is quite different from Hitler’s and Mussolini’s in many ways. The economic situation is not anywhere near as bad in the U.S. today as it was in 1930s Germany for example. Also, the U.S. is already a monumental military force, whereas 1930s Germany was impotent militarily until Hitler took power. These, and other factors, are important differences. The rhetoric is the same, however, and could have the same consequences for the future if not stopped – NOW.

I am profoundly apolitical because I do not believe in political solutions to social problems. If you think ANY politician is your savior, you are deluded. I understand that in the modern world government is necessary so that we can have roads, hospitals, social services and whatnot. So far so good. Nation states, armies, and all the paraphernalia that go with them are another. I decry them with all my breath. I want to see all of humanity living as one in love and fellowship. That is the vision Jesus gave us – as did Buddha and many other religious revolutionaries. Any use of religion (in general) other than universal love is a perversion. God is love, so if you want to follow God you must follow the path of love. End of story. Naturally that vision is not going to materialize in my lifetime – if ever. That does not concern me. What concerns me is living the Christian life according to the precepts laid out in the Sermon on the Mount to the best of my ability – even though my ability is seriously limited. I see the wisdom even though my capacities to follow that path are minimal at times.

I am speaking out against Trump now, not because I have suddenly become political but because I see it as my Christian duty. I cannot sit quietly and just hope for the best. Bertrand Russell was an avowed pacifist who went to jail rather than fight in World War I, but when Hitler arose he lamented that he was too old to pick up a rifle and fight because Hitler should be defeated at all costs. Trump must be defeated at all costs. After he is defeated there is still a lot of work to do, but defeating him is the highest priority now. It is not a political duty for me to speak out; it is my moral duty.


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May 282016


My family did not own a television until I was 9 years old because there was no television available in South Australia until that time. Before that I had seen it once in England at my grandparents’ house in England, and watched for about 2 minutes. In Australia I got hooked on children’s shows, stuff from the U.S., and, especially, Dr Who. When the family moved to England a television was essential and turned on all the time that we were at home. I had to be selective because I had a lot of schoolwork and other things to do; but I had my favorite shows. Then when I went off to university I had no interest in television. My college at Oxford had a television in a special room and that was it. We all crammed in for Monty Python and Match of the Day (Saturday evening football), and that was it.

After university I did not have a television, and didn’t get one when I moved to the U.S. Not interested. I managed to live in the U.S. from 1975 to 1999 without a television. I would have continued were it not for my son. He came home from school one day when he was 8 years old and pleaded for us to buy a television. Without one he felt isolated from his classmates whose conversations were dominated by the latest shows. Well, I’m a good dad. I caved. I was not a helicopter parent either. He could watch whatever he wanted as long as it did not interfere with other things. I didn’t have to control his television habits anyway. I’m not a dictatorial parent. I discuss issues with my son rather than making blanket demands. He was always smart and selective in what he watched. I turned him on to Dr Who and that was the one show we watched together.

When my son left for university and I moved to Buenos Aires television went out the window. I had a television with over 100 cable channels but rarely turned on the set. I got involved in the Rugby World Cup at one point because Argentina has a great rugby team, and I occasionally watched the news or cooking shows. Both were informative in different ways. Living in China and then Italy, I have had televisions in my apartments, but I never watch anything. Never.

It’s not just that vast tracts of television shows are mind-numbingly stupid, that’s bad enough. One of the great current hits, The Big Bang Theory, supposedly gives us a view of super-smart people, yet panders to ridiculous stereotypes, and, more problematically, is riddled with factual errors which, I imagine, few people catch or care about. What is more problematic to me is that shows, whether they are supposed to be serious or comedic, give a hopelessly inaccurate picture of life as it is actually lived. With comedy this situation is excusable to a degree, but why does drama have to be fake too? In that case I can suspend belief, also to a degree.

Where I am really troubled is when it comes to shows that purport to be about real life. Recently I posted this on Facebook about Anthony Bourdain:

This guy is a poster child for all that is wrong with media images, celebrity, and hype in general. I used to be a fan until I saw what he did with a tour of Argentina. Then I thought more deeply about his shows and their ilk. He missed out on the home cooking which is fundamental to Argentine culture, insisted that they were cooking the beef all wrong in Patagonia, and produced a segment on empanadas in Buenos Aires that was a travesty (among a host of other gaffes). Yet he is lauded as a great savant of world cuisine. Let’s face it. He travels with a large crew, has his local arrangements done for him, has researchers do advanced study of the places he visits, knows nothing about anthropology, and yet comes across, via skillfully edited shows, as a mighty traveler. Nonsense. He’s a self-aggrandizing charlatan and hypocrite. His “documentaries,” and numerous shows like them, are no more “real life” than sitcoms and the like — monumentally scripted and set up to appear real to the unsuspecting. All television, including the “news” is fiction.

That’s the heart of the matter. I dislike Bourdain in particular only because I’ve seen some of his shows. But now others in the same vein I treat with equal disdain. They don’t have anything to do with life as it is lived. With drama you can suspend disbelief, but travel shows etc. give the illusion of reality – which is simply not the case. In fact, the idea of “reality TV” is just plain laughable. What is remotely real about it?

The sad part is that so many people measure their lives by the images they see on television, and find their own lives wanting. I do like the movie Pleasantville for this very reason. The television world is fake. Get used to it. Even what purports to be real is fake. Watch at your peril.