Mandalay 6

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Jul 022017

I’ve been making a point over the past week of walking around the city a lot when I have the time so that, as quickly as possible, I can get to know my way around and locate places that are useful, such as convenience stores. On work days I have not been able to do much, but yesterday and today I was able to put in 7 hours, yesterday in two stints and today in one go.

Today I set out after breakfast at 7 am to take advantage of the relatively low temperature – “low” meaning 32C/90F !!! It’s always hot here. I headed back in the same direction as yesterday, but when I reached the palace I turned left rather than right – heading towards the Irrawaddy river. The street leading to the river was the usual mixture of modern shops selling electronic equipment and other consumer goods, and broken down buildings. I was surprised by the number of people out and about so early on a Sunday.

Close to the river there was a large and thriving street market selling fruits, vegetables, and flowers. It was teeming with people coming and going. The area in town by the river was a swarm of activity with vendors of all sorts set up right on the river bank, and with boats jamming the shore as well. I had decided before I set out to go north along the river bank for several kilometers and then go east towards the palace. Very quickly the market activity on the river bank thinned out to be replaced by men, women, and children working with bamboo in various ways. It took me a few minutes to figure out the process, and the album link I give below should explain. Bamboo is harvested upstream, cut into long pieces, and floated downstream where it collects in large rafts. People haul the bamboo out of the river, saw it into suitable lengths and then split it either into long, thin lathes, or flat pieces, which they then weave into various shapes for different purposes.  There are even whole shacks along the river made from woven bamboo.

I was accosted pretty regularly by young men asking me where I was from and where I was going. By now I’ve developed a standard answer. “I’m from Argentina, home of Messi and Maradona, and I am just out walking; I am not going anywhere. I am not a tourist; I live here. I am a teacher.” The last bit impresses them, but the idea of not being on the way somewhere inevitably bothers them. I have to be on my way somewhere. I cannot possibly be walking for pleasure alone. Actually, back at the market one guy who stopped me said, “I saw you walking yesterday” and I thought, “It starts.” Pretty soon I’ll be known on the streets. It happened in China; it will happen here soon enough. I don’t mind chatting for a minute or two with people who are just curious, but the endless stream of men on motorbikes offering to take me somewhere is starting to annoy me, especially the Indians who pull out a fat notebook and show me the names of people from Argentina they have given rides to in the past. This is a very Indian thing. They are hung up on “credentials” of any sort which they pull out at the drop of a hat. In this case, “See I have taken people for rides who come from all over the world, including people from your home country.”  Yes, yes, very nice – now go away.

Eventually I got to the NW corner of the palace and walked along it with a view to finding a cluster of pagodas at the NE corner.  By this time I’d been walking for over 4 hours and was getting pretty tired. For many years I’ve indulged in this kind of daily jaunt to new or unfamiliar places. The pattern of the day tends to be the same. I start out feeling a bit heavy hearted, a sort of here-we-go-again feeling. Once I see things I want to photograph, my mood shifts and I get in the swing of things. After 3 or 4 hours of walking I find a place to sit and rest for a while and regather my strength. Then, despite the promise of new sites, I go into sensory overload mode and just want to go home and sleep. I was very nearly at this phase when I turned left from the palace smack into Sandamuni pagoda. It’s actually a sprawling collection of sacred buildings all heavily decorated. Opposite is Kuthodaw pagoda, a world renowned Buddhist stupa, and above it all towers Mandalay hill topped by a pavilion.

I could have spent hours wandering around the various parts, but I’m going to be in Mandalay for up to a year, so I took a raft of photos and headed down the east side of the palace for home. Photos of my whole day are here:

The thing is that when I am getting to know a new city I lug my camera around and shoot off hundreds of photos. But once I have my bearings and know the feel of the place, I leave the camera at home and just drift around. Without my camera I also look less like a tourist and tend to be left alone more, which suits me fine.  As it happens, apart from the hopeful motorbike riders and the occasional interest youths, I usually get left alone. There are very few Westerners in Mandalay apart from in heavy tourist spots, but, even so, I barely get a second look from the locals, if I even get a first one to begin with. It’s quite unlike Yunnan in that regard.

And so to bed. . .


 Posted by at 10:09 pm

Mandalay 5

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Jul 012017

One week ago today I went from Mantua to Venice in preparation for flying to Mandalay via Helsinki and Bangkok. Since then it’s all been pretty hectic. I got to my new home on Monday, then on Tuesday visited my new school to get my schedule, and started teaching on Wednesday. Then I had to battle the school to get my needs met, and finally got everything sorted yesterday along with 7 hours of teaching. Phew. Today I could finally settle down and settle in. I’ve done a bit of walking around for the past 4 days in the late afternoons, but after today I really feel oriented. When you land in a new city on a new continent it can be daunting at first, but I’m so used to moving continents by now that I know how to get my feet under me in short order. This morning I walked up north of my hotel for 5 hours with a view to ending up at the royal palace. I had little idea of what I was doing, but that’s the general point; just mooch around long enough to get my bearings properly.

First I struck west, then cut north along a main road. Right off the bat I stumbled across a newly planted garden that was attractive and secluded, yet right on a major intersection. It wasn’t quite finished and there was no one in it. Good start though. The main road was mostly new stores punctuated with squalid tenements. That’s par for the course for Mandalay. There are some very rich sections, some very poor ones, and a lot that are a mixture. There was a modern mall, slick hotels, the main railway station, and a variety of specialty stores giving a clear suggestion of what’s to come. Mandalay is the commercial hub of northern Myanmar, but also the focal point of traditional Myanmar culture centered on a very old Buddhist tradition.

What’s odd about Mandalay is that the culture and some of the religious sites are ancient, but the buildings are not. Mandalay was founded as the last royal capital of Myanmar by king Mindon in 1857. Soon thereafter Myanmar was taken over as an extension of the British raj, and went through many changes up to and after World War II. New buildings were gutted by fires in the late 19th century, and important sites, including the royal palace were bombed mercilessly by both Japanese and British forces in the world war. So, what you see around you that has an antique feeling is mostly brand new or reconstructions of formerly destroyed edifices.

There’s no missing the palace when you reach it. It’s an exact square about 1 km on each side, surrounded by a wide moat with a brick defensive wall dotted with turrets. Each wall has an entrance gate in the center.  I came on the palace at the SW corner and struck for the south gate. By now I’m used to being pestered by taxis and motorbikes asking where I am going and offering me their services. I usually just wave them away without speaking, but at the palace there were many more and they were much more persistent. After a few brief chats I learnt that business is very slack right now, hence their persistence. I gather it won’t pick up until September.

At the south gate a taxi driver asked me if I wanted a ride, but I declined and asked if I could get in at this gate. Nope. Only gate with access to the palace was the east gate, so I trudged around for 1 km. It was a pleasant walk but a bit wearing because by this point I’d been walking about 2 hours. In fact I stopped and sat down a couple of times because it was feeling like a slog with no end in sight.

The east gate lets you know that the military still has a stern presence in Myanmar. You don’t see soldiers and police on the streets much, but they were thick on the ground at the gate, and there were personnel carriers filled with troops coming and going, and guards with whistles directing traffic. One soldier pointed me in the direction of a ticket booth with no one waiting. I bought a ticket from the kiosk for 10,000 kyat (, then a soldier at a desk asked for various bits of information which he entered by hand in a ledger, and then asked for my passport. As it happens I didn’t have it with me so he settled for my hotel room key, and gave me a laminated visitor pass to hang around my neck. Then I entered the palace complex. The palace (which is reconstructed because it was firebombed flat by the RAF when the Japanese were using it as a munitions dump) is in the center, and all around it are army barracks and whatnot that are marked RESTRICTED AREA and are off limits – even for photography. I walked the half kilometer to the palace and mooched around. An album is here:

After the palace I walked straight back to my hotel – taking photos along the way – had a quick lunch and crashed.

Later in the day I took advantage of the cool of the evening to look around the district to the south and west of me called Chanmyathazi ချမ်းမြသာစည်; album here:

After all of that slogging around today, and on previous days (noted in other earlier posts) I feel that I am well settled and have a good sense of the city in general. Tomorrow I’ll walk some more and muse here about the dilemmas I feel about teaching Western science (in English) to Burmese kids.

And so to bed . . .


 Posted by at 6:26 pm

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

Mandalay 3

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Jun 282017



Started work today. I’m teaching science in English to the lower elementary grades. Bit of a switch from the advanced information technology I was teaching a few weeks ago in Italy, and tonight I had a discussion with my son (doing anthropological fieldwork on martial arts in Korea) on the vagaries of 3000 year old fighting manuals in classical Chinese. Scrambled egg looks organized compared to my brain right now.

I was a little nervous going to school but had my best foot forward. I showered, shaved, and dressed in neat cotton shirt and trousers. People in Myanmar – especially middle class – take great pride in looking magazine fresh. Teachers at my school all wear a teacher uniform, and the students wear uniforms too. Foreign teachers are exempt but must be neat and clean. Casual is OK – up to a point. I sent my work clothes out to be laundered today and they came back immaculate. Even the socks were ironed.

I am the only foreign teacher at my school which is OK. I’ve yet to see a Westerner in Mandalay except the foreign teachers I have met. Yet . . . unlike in China, no one gives me a second look, with the exception of the occasional passerby when I am out walking who wants to chat. But that’s it; they either engage me or ignore me.

My nervousness stemmed from the fact that I’ve never taught really young kids before. It went fine, of course. Little kids like showmanship and I like it too. It’s just like acting. I gave them my rules for the classroom – no talking when I am talking, put your hand up if you want to speak etc etc. I brought in a heart-shaped bottle of sand from Bermuda and asked them to write down a description and draw a picture. They were fascinated by it and wanted to look and look, and ask questions. I went round the class checking their work. I also have two Myanmar assistants in each class who go round to make sure each student is doing what I ask. All efficient.

Three classes went by in a flash.

Then the headmistress wanted to see me to explain the curriculum for the pre-school where I will teach on Mondays. Five classes at different stages depending on their intake month. Mostly they are learning vocabulary. I’ll follow her directives but it was heavy weather. I’ll learn by doing and I’m sure we’ll get along. How long I’ll stay at the school is another matter.

After my siesta I took a walk north to get the feel for the city a little better. It’s two worlds. One is the old Myanmar – poor and broken down. The other is all new construction, reminiscent of the MacMansions of the US. Worlds in collision. I’m glad to be here before it all changes.  Apparently Yangon is already much more modernized, but Mandalay is still on the cusp. New construction everywhere, all done by hand. Cement is taken to building sites by women carrying it in baskets on their heads.  There men mix it and lay it all by hand. Not a cement mixer or cement truck in sight. Scaffolding is hand built out of bamboo and workers climb it hand over hand, carrying building materials.

I walked for about 2 hours in sweltering heat (40C/100F) with my shirt wringing wet after 10 minutes. First mistake – forgot my umbrella.  Won’t do that again even though very few people carried them – and only women. No worries. I’m not proud. Besides I’m a foreigner, so a foreign man with a purple umbrella will be no stranger than a foreign man without one. A couple of people stopped me on the street to ask me if I were lost (sub-text, “are you a blithering idiot walking in this heat?”) I smiled and said I lived in Mandalay and was just walking around to take photos. Didn’t satisfy them, but they nodded and walked off.

Home for a siesta at about 5:30. Then dinner of Myanmar green curry. So far I have not found what you might call “authentic” Myanmar cuisine. It’s Thai or Chinese or Indian or a blend. The curry was basically Thai but with a local twist. All rice I have eaten so far has been basmati.

And so to bed. . .




 Posted by at 7:11 pm

Mandalay 2

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Jun 282017

Woke up refreshed at 4:30 – normal for me.  Trotted down to breakfast at 6:30. Didn’t expect much. Surprise !!! Four hot dishes – rice seasoned with smoked green tea, noodles, stir fried vegetable, and pakora – papaya, bananas, and watermelon, plus eggs to order and all the usual – toast, tea and coffee etc. It kept me going all day. When I’m working I get lunch at school, and the headmistress says I can give the chef special orders. In a month I’ll look like a whale.

The bathroom is a trip. As in Argentina, the shower just empties on to the floor and there is a drain by the toilet – so put toilet paper etc up on a shelf before taking a shower. The sink drains into a pipe in the wall which empties out over the drain by the toilet also. For a bidet there is a hose.

Had no luck on my first day contacting my liaison at the school, so I called Aaron and he said he’d pick me up at noon. After brekker I went out on the street to look around. Wandered for about an hour and accidentally stumbled on my school. A woman was standing at the gate so I went up and introduced myself. It was Mya, my liaison. Is she psychic? No explanation as to why she did not answer my calls yesterday. She took me in and introduced me to my teacher assistants. Gave me my timetable also. Surprise. Mondays I teach pre-school science at a different school across town. All the same age, but 5 different classes. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays I have 3 classes in the morning and can have lunch or go home. I’ll have lunch first day, then decide.  Fridays I teach 7 classes, that is, all day. So . . . we’ll see. I asked to be shown around. It’s an old mansion converted to a school.  There are 3 floors plus spacious play areas.

Then Mya gave me a helmet and told me we’d visit the pre-school. So hopped on the back of a motorbike and weaved through traffic for 20 minutes. No idea where I was going. Got there and met the headmistress, Su, my boss. Very sweet woman, but apparently has a no-nonsense side. She fired the guy I am replacing after 2 days. We had an exceptionally pleasant chat. It was evident she knew I was experienced and would be fine. We talked a little about the school, teaching methods etc. and said I would have a driver to take me home (car not motorbike).  She said I can also use the driver on weekends if I want to see around.

We also talked about my contract and visa. My contract goes until October. Then we’ll take stock. If Su is unhappy with me (fat chance) I’ll be let go. If she’s happy she’ll extend my contract to February. June to October is one term, November to February is the second – then summer vacation. Also . . . I can quit in October if I am not happy. We’ll see. If the job is interesting I will stay. If not, I will leave and go to Korea to see my son and daughter-in-law. No idea at this moment.

The driver took me home, but had to ask directions when we were close. Very reassuring. We made it, though, and I went to my room for a siesta. Slept about 2 hours. When I woke it was 40C (100F) outside. Decided it would be a good idea to make sure I knew the way to school. I had stumbled on it by accident in the morning, and was driven home from the other school, so I needed to get my bearings. Could I find the school? Not a chance. Walked for over an hour.  Nothing. I did find a convenience store, though, and stocked up on water, after shave, glass cleaner (for my computers), and some snacks. By now my shirt was wringing wet and I was slightly worried that I had stumbled, like Alice, through the looking glass – looking for the school only made it recede farther away. So I went back to the hotel by a side road and tried again. Aaron had said, “from the hotel it’s right, right, left, left.” By trial and error I translated as, “turn right out the front door of the hotel, take a right on a back alley, then left at the end, and the school is on your left.” Piece of cake. 3 minute walk from the hotel.

Went back to the hotel via the main road to take photos of the public buses – trucks with men hanging off the sides. One guy yelled at me asking if I wanted a ride. Waved him off. Maybe later. Went back to the hotel, did some online stuff and had dinner – Myanmar version of tom yum with fish and rice. Deeeeeeeeeeeeelicious.

Planned my lessons for the morning over the soup. Nothing special – classroom rules plus how to observe (REALLY OBSERVE) plus how to keep a book on experiments plus question time. The latter is the key. Are the kids curious? If so, it’ll be plain sailing. If not, I’ll quit in October. I expect they will be.

Back in the room my girlfriend from Mantova, Emanuela, texted me to see if I wanted to Skype. So, we chatted for about an hour. What a surprise – she misses me. Gave me the Italian version of “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” She was always too busy to see me in Mantova (which to be fair is true – she’s overworked at school). But she could have made time. Didn’t. Now regrets it.­­ I told her that there is a possibility I could be back in Italy at Christmas – ONLY a possibility. Smiles.

And so to bed.




 Posted by at 1:29 am

Mandalay 1

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Jun 272017

For the next little while I am going to use this blog as a journal to record my impressions of Mandalay (Myanmar). I’ve always wanted to visit here and never had the opportunity until now.  Being a tourist does not interest me. I like to stay in a place for enough time to get more than a little taste. I want much more than that. So, I took a job in Mandalay that is theoretically for 8 months.

I arrived yesterday from Italy. I worked in Mantua for 2 years and needed a change of scene. The job in Mandalay was dumped in my lap and I took it, left my school in Mantua, packed my bags, and here I am. On Saturday I took a train to Venice and spent overnight there so I could fly out from Marco Polo airport the next morning. The trip was long and arduous, and I won’t bore you with the details.  Let’s start at Mandalay airport.

My flight got in a little earlier than expected. I had to go to a small office marked VOA (Visa on Arrival) first. As I was about to enter the lights flickered out and, because it was windowless, I was in utter darkness. A few minutes later they came back on; first clue I was in the Third World. I expected the visa process to be long and officious because getting more than a short-stay visa to Myanmar is difficult. I had with me 4 documents from the school including a letter of invitation, government certification of the school as an official business, and a job description. I also had 2 passport photos, and a brand new, crisp, clean $50 note (found in Mantua with some effort). My documents had already been thoroughly checked when I boarded in Venice and again when I changed in Bangkok.

I was prepared for a grilling in Mandalay, and surprised that the main official, a woman, was smiling and friendly and did all the paperwork with ease and good humor – including when the lights flickered out again. I had the visa and was on my way in about 10 minutes. When I went to the baggage carousel there were no bags. I was not surprised. I had changed planes twice and airlines once, so I did not expect them to show up (they were lost under similar circumstances when I flew from China to Italy).  When I asked I was told I was at the wrong carousel. When I went to the right carousel (with all other passengers long gone), my main suitcase was approaching, and a porter on the other side signaled that my second bag was coming around. I loaded up, got my bags X-rayed at customs and headed into the arrivals hall.

Mandalay airport is tiny and there were only about half a dozen people milling about, none of whom was the guy I was expecting to meet me: Aaron, my recruiter. Undaunted I headed to currency exchange and changed 350 euros. I had 2000 euros with me but figured that 350 was good for a start. I got tens of thousands of Myanmar kyat and headed over to the mobile phone shop for a SIM card. It cost 6500 kyat which is about 4 euros. They installed it in a flash, gave me my new phone number and I was good to go. I was looking around for a bottle of water when Aaron showed up with his wife. We greeted and headed to her car for the drive into town. First thing to notice: cars in Myanmar are right-hand drive, courtesy of the British, but they drive on the right. Weird.

The drive to town is uninteresting except for the odd pagoda in the distance. Meanwhile we talked about the order of business for the day. They didn’t want to go directly to the hotel because the guy I am replacing would be there. He got fired 3 days after school started for complete incompetence and Aaron turned to me to replace him because he had my CV on file from when I applied for the job, but withdrew my application because I had not been able to make a June 1 start date. His loss, my gain; Aaron was embarrassed to run into him. Instead we went to Aaron’s school (also his wife’s and run by her mother), and sat around in air conditioning. He also added 10,000 kyat to my phone (about 8 euros) for 2 months’ service. I will save a lot of money. I am staying at a hotel at the school’s expense. That means no rent, no utilities (including WiFi), maid service, and free breakfast. I get lunch at the school every day so I will have almost no expenses. Without breaking a sweat I can save $1,000 per month – probably more.

Aaron’s wife had to teach and Aaron had some things to do, so I sat around for a couple of hours twiddling my thumbs. Only thing I learned was that indoors Burmese people go barefoot. Put sandals on the shopping list.

At 5 o’clock, Frasier, a Scots foreign teacher showed up, and Aaron, he and I headed out to a tea shop. Typical SE Asian joint, stools and chairs with men sitting around and smoking. Guy in the back making endless milky teas from a big metal teapot, pouring in thin streams of condensed milk from a great height. We chatted for an hour about this and that before heading back to the school where Aaron’s wife was finishing up. Got in her car and drove over to my hotel. Got there at 7 pm, over 5 hours after I landed in Mandalay. Definite sign of things to come.

At the hotel I was shown my room, with young porters carrying my bags. Room is on the top floor with a roof terrace that is supposed to be for all guests but no one appears to use it. Ditto a lounge on the same floor. One floor down is the breakfast room.  All very convenient but . . . absolutely nowhere to store or hang my clothes. Shades of living out of a suitcase for 8 months. Not good.

After Aaron and his wife left I was a bit forlorn. I was not culture shocked at all, much to my surprise. I guess I’ve lived in too many places to be taken aback. But I felt a bit at loose ends given that I could not unpack and settle in.  I went down to the dining area for a quick bowl of rice and some vegetables, then headed to bed. Day 1 done and dusted.


 Posted by at 7:07 pm

Natural Science versus Social Science

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Jun 152017

My title is slightly misleading because I am deliberately setting up another bogus dichotomy to use to explore the nature of academic inquiry in general. Starting mostly in the mid- to late 19th century, universities began splitting into departments whereas before that time academic disciplines were only very loosely defined and scholars quite often meandered over what are now considered separate disciplines. In the 17th century, general secular inquiry was usually called “philosophy” and what we now call physical science was termed “natural philosophy.” Two disciplines from that era that could not, and cannot, keep to their own corners were what we now call mathematics and physics. Isaac Newton studied the physics of motion, for example, but the mathematics at his disposal to do what he needed to do was inadequate so he developed differential calculus. Pure mathematics is not a science, physics is. It’s a bit of a muddle isn’t it? Was Newton a physicist or a mathematician? He was both and neither. He also messed around with Biblical studies and alchemy. True genius cannot be confined in a single box.

My university used to have three Liberal Arts divisions – Natural Science, Social Science, and Humanities – plus conservatories of the Fine Arts. The divisions are fairly standard ones, but dividing up human inquiry and knowledge in that way has all kinds of nasty consequences. They were divided up that way as much for budgetary reasons as for intellectual ones, and there were always problems. Psychology was adamant about being under the umbrella of Natural Science because the faculty mostly worked in experimental, rather than clinical, psychology and fought endless battles with other faculty and the administration about that status for reasons of turf, funding, and prestige rather than intellectual ones.

Turf is the key problem with academia these days. When you stake out your territory and give it a name you, more often than not, erect barriers to knowledge in other fields. My field of anthropology once shared a tent with sociology and geography, but those days are long gone. American anthropology as defined by Franz Boas (a geographer by training) merged 4 fields – human evolution, archeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology – because Boas felt that to understand humans you needed to come at the study from a number of angles that sprawled over the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities. Over time these 4 fields staked out their own turf and no one these days covers all 4 (and many stick to one). My work overlaps the 4 fields a little, but not in a deep way.

The broad division that underpins a lot of thinking about academic disciplines these days is between quantitative and qualitative investigation. Broadly speaking this division separates the physical sciences (quantitative) from the humanities (qualitative). But this division is simplistic and misleading. There’s also a large number of disciplines, especially the social sciences, that don’t fit squarely in either camp. The common (mis)perception is that the physical sciences are quantitative studies that embrace THE TRUTH and use iron-clad proof to blaze the trail from victory to victory, whereas the humanities are qualitative studies that wallow around hopelessly in opinions that get us nowhere. People who control the money tend to go along with this notion. Similarly the popular conception is that physical scientists are all very smart people who study things that no one can understand, whereas humanist scholars are piddling around with stuff that anyone can understand (and also do — with a little training). I’m sorry to disabuse you but there are a great many very stupid natural scientists and some exceptionally smart humanists. Furthermore, humanistic studies, if done well, are no less arduous than scientific ones, and scientific theories can be understood quite well (not necessarily deeply) if you set your mind to it.

The great (uneven) divide that matters, in my oh-so-humble opinion, is between people who know how to think, and people who don’t. Academic discipline is irrelevant. All fields in a university – all – are populated with large numbers of faculty who don’t really know how to think. They can usually master an impressive array of information within their fields, which they can regurgitate at will, but that’s not the same thing as thinking. Good thinking, whether it is quantitative or qualitative, is very difficult but can lead to valuable insights.  Quantitative and qualitative methods really are fundamentally different ways of looking at the world, however.

In an (oversimplified) nutshell, physical science concerns itself with reducing myriad phenomena in the world to simple principles, whereas the humanities do the opposite. A poet or a novelist can take an event that looks simple and tease it out in a thousand directions until it is very complex. Newton took countless motions in the universe from the revolutions of the planets to a rock thrown into a pond and reduced them all to a few simple rules. Shakespeare and Keats took seemingly simple and basic human emotions such as love and anger, and explored their kaleidoscopic ramifications in the world. Both enterprises are equally worthy and equally rewarding.

Leaving the oversimplification aside for the moment, where do the social sciences fit? Rather awkwardly in the middle I’m afraid. They call themselves sciences because they’d like to think that they are reducing the complexity of human behavior to simple rules, but they’re not very good at it, and have not come very far in the past 150 years or so. Some of them, such as economics, have managed to use mathematics to come up with some semi-stable theories but there’s no real agreement within those fields as to how solid those theories really are. Otherwise, the enterprise of social science is not really in the business of reduction. It’s more of an exploration. Many people think that such exploration is pointless, but I beg to differ.

Let me ask a simple question. Where do new ideas come from? You might think that in the sciences they came from painstaking pursuit of certain experimental paths until the idea pops out. You would be wrong. Truly new ideas come out of nowhere. They are flashes of insight – aha! moments that get hit upon accidentally. Einstein claims to have come across the basics of Special Relativity when he was late for work one day and looking up at a clock wondered what would happen if he traveled towards the clock at the speed of light. Bingo – a new idea. If he traveled at the speed of light time would stop (for him).

Why can’t a chemist or physicist alight on a new idea whilst reading a novel or watching a movie? I’ve long felt that the climate was right for the development of theories of relativity in physics because relativistic notions were kicking around in painting and other arts, and some physicists were caught up in this milieu.

In my opinion, social science is in the muddle it’s in because it keeps being pulled in two directions: the quantitative and the qualitative. Some sociologists, for example, are extremely proud of their mathematical models and equations and sneer at those who engage in qualitative community studies, while the latter think the quantifiers are being mechanical and simplistic. What would please me would be if both sides were to see that they are two sides of the same coin. Social science is in the unique position of being able to embrace all ways of looking at the coin (as a whole, not as sides), but it doesn’t.

To be continued . . .


 Posted by at 8:16 pm

Religion versus Science — Yet Again

 Philosophy, Religion  Comments Off on Religion versus Science — Yet Again
Jun 132017

Today is the birthday of the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and I celebrated this fact on my other blog:  Maxwell was a towering giant alongside Newton and Einstein, even though his name is less well known among the general public. Physicists look up to him as much as to the other two. The thing is that he was a lifelong Presbyterian and an ardent believer in the main tenets of Christianity. How can this be? Don’t the pundits all tell us that we have to choose between religion and science? Maxwell shows us – profoundly – that natural science and religion, as commonly defined, are about fundamentally different things at most levels. It’s not a question of either/or; you can have both. An analogy from physics is germane.

As physicists probed deeper and deeper into the nature of light (largely because of Maxwell’s advancements as it happens) they came up with a disturbing paradox. Under certain experimental conditions light acts as a particle, but under other experimental conditions it acts as a wave. Which is it: wave or particle? The answer, which is not entirely satisfying yet, is that it is both; it depends how you observe it. The field of quantum mechanics, which in some ways solves the paradox, also opened up a can of worms that still leaves many physicists arguing about interpretations and precise definitions. But for the moment physicists in general are saying that the seeming paradox is not a real paradox. You have to jump to a higher level of analysis to escape the dichotomy. Those of you aware of Bertrand Russel’s paradoxes will know that he does a similar thing in logic. He jumps to a higher level. If you are completely lost in a maze after wandering around for hours, get someone in a helicopter to lead you out by viewing the problem from a higher level.

I am deeply heartened by people like Maxwell (and Newton and Einstein were not very different) who are able to have profound faith in science as well as profound faith in religion, and see no inherent conflict.

We have to be clear about what I mean by religion before I move on. I am not saying that all the claims that organized religions make via their scriptures are the essence of religion itself. Certain claims made in the Bible are patently absurd, and in many of these cases the application of science is quite legitimate. My common example is the claim in Genesis 1 that the sky is a transparent dome with water trapped above it that can be released by God through windows to make it rain. This is complete nonsense. To my mind, a greater challenge has continued to break as archeology shows repeatedly that the historical narratives in the Hebrew Bible, including the Israelite slavery in Egypt, the conquest of the Holy Land, and the existence of king David and king Solomon cannot be true as they are recorded. People have been troubled by the Genesis story of creation for centuries, but the histories, until recently, have seemed fairly reliable. My point is that the essence of religion lies not in cosmology nor history, but somewhere else. We can leave cosmology to astrophysicists and history to archeologists and historians and still have what is at the core of religion: spirituality.

When Jesus answered the question of whether to pay taxes by making the famous pronouncement: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), he was making much the same point that I am making. Taxes, war, pestilence, and what not are matters of the physical human realm that will be sorted out, one way or another, by humans in a physical way. God’s realm, the spiritual realm, cannot be approached in a physical way. It is qualitatively different. Therefore, if you are seeking answers to physical issues, use science; the Bible is no help. But if you are seeking answers to spiritual questions, science is no help. Let me clear, though. I am not proposing some kind of radical dualism – body versus spirit – even though my general advice is that if your body is sick go to a doctor, and if your spirit is sick seek a spiritual expert. Bear in mind, however, that there are good and bad healers whether their domain is the body or the spirit, and some ailments are incurable. No, I am saying that what we need is some kind of helicopter to fly above this maze so that we can see the dilemma more clearly. I’ll let you know when I find one.

To be continued . . .

Day of Rest

 Bible  Comments Off on Day of Rest
Jun 122017

It’s Sunday which gives me the opportunity to talk about the general idea of a day of rest, even though “day of rest” is an old fashioned term which is barely used any more and is scarcely applicable to what happens in the West nowadays. When I was growing up in Gawler in South Australia in the 1950s and 1960s Sunday was quite tangibly different from other days. Murray Street, the main shopping street and commercial hub teeming with people 6 days a week, looked like a ghost town on Sundays with all the shops shuttered and all the businesses closed, and only the occasional churchgoer seen walking. As a boy I was a bit ambivalent about having Sunday be so quiet. My family went to church in the morning and then had Sunday dinner – usually roast lamb – before a placid afternoon (typically the time when I did my school homework), a simple tea time, and then bed. I liked to read, so I could occupy myself well enough, but the general air of calm bored me. These days, as an older man with a lifetime of work under my belt, I relish the peace and serenity of Sundays.

Since I retired as an active Presbyterian pastor (when, of course, Sundays were my principal work days), I have adopted a very severe set of rules about Sundays. They are now officially my day of rest. I do no secular work, especially financial dealings of any sort, on Sundays and I take great pleasure in the things that make me happy without any sense that I am slacking. No one in their right mind could accuse me of being anything other than driven 6 days of the week; Sundays I am the complete opposite. I consider this attitude to be inherent in the original intent of the Jewish  Sabbath.

It is not entirely clear whether the 7-day week is a Jewish invention, probably not. But the idea of having a Sabbath as a day of rest from work is. The week is the only significant span of time that is not set by astronomical phenomena. The day, month, and year can all be set by the sun and moon, but the week has no equivalent and so, in principal, can be just about any length you want. Stretching into antiquity, both inside and outside the West, weeks from as short as 5 to as many as 10 days are well documented. The 7-day week is remarkably widespread, however, probably because it has proven to be enormously convenient in many spheres. The week as a general concept derives from the needs of cities, and of their agricultural base. General foragers, who subsist entirely on hunting, fishing, and gathering, have no need to mark the passage of time beyond the seasons which indicate times to migrate to different regions to take advantage of seasonally available food and water resources. The tasks of animal husbandry, likewise, happen every day of the year, so the passage of weeks is scarcely relevant. Whatever day of the year it is you have to milk the cows and feed the chickens. Urban and agrarian tasks, on the other hand, need to mark cycles that are much more frequent than months. Most importantly there is a need for markets where farmers can sell their produce. It seems that once every 7 days is pretty well ideal, and weekly markets are still in operation worldwide even though people rely on them much less these days.

The distinctive thing about the Jewish week, not found in other calendars, is the existence of a day devoted specifically to rest every seventh day, and not simply to some special weekly activity such as a market. This idea is enshrined in the creation narrative at the beginning of Genesis. For 6 days God performed acts of creation, but on the seventh day he rested. This is not meant to imply that God was tired from all the creating and needed a nap; in this context “rest” means “stop.” But the twin ideas can be conflated. When God stops working he is not tired; when humans stop working they may well be. Either way, stopping work every seventh day is part of the cosmic order of things.

Things begin to get messy when you start rigidly and narrowly defining what work is. By Jesus’ time things had been fairly well codified in Jewish law and continue so down to the present. Here Jesus got in trouble with the legal scholars by asserting that the sabbath was made for human benefit, not the other way around. Humans are not commanded by God to serve the sabbath.  When tasks on the sabbath are more onerous that those on other days, the idea of a “day of rest” has been completely distorted. Hence he healed the sick, picked wheat, and other things that the legalists had defined as “work,” on the sabbath to make his point. That is, on the sabbath you should cease from activities that you find burdensome, not those activities that have arbitrarily been defined as work. Otherwise the Sabbath becomes burdensome, which is the opposite of its intent.

I’ll leave aside the logical problems I have with defining turning on an electric light, using the telephone, or driving a car as work. Let’s talk instead about cooking. I can see why rabbis in antiquity defined cooking as work. It was a constant daily chore, performed usually by women, that took up much of the day and required considerable effort. Having one day off from the chore was a release. But, unless you are a chef, cooking is not the same activity these days. I get immense satisfaction out of cooking, including cooking for large dinner parties. It is the opposite of work for me. It’s what I do to unwind after work. Telling me that I can’t cook one day per week is the equivalent of telling me that I can’t have fun once a week. That’s not rest, that’s an onerous imposition.

You can well argue that I am talking strictly in secular terms; but I am not. When I am liberated from the everyday things I have to do 6 days a week to keep body and soul together, my mind is freed for other things. For me, doing the taxes, paying the bills, shopping for groceries, marking essays, and the like are distractions. They don’t necessarily weigh me down but they keep me from spiritual things. I need a day when I can simply stop and meditate in whatever fashion I deem necessary without the day-to-day stuff burdening me. Therefore, I made the effort some years ago to define what work is for me, not what wok is in general terms. Financial dealings are a big one. So I don’t ever do them on Sundays.

Put simply, I define “work” as those things I have to do but don’t want to do. For 6 days of the week I’ll plug away at them, but on the seventh I won’t. I find the practice enormously liberating.

David and Goliath

 Bible  Comments Off on David and Goliath
Jun 022017

Most people know the gist of the story of David and Goliath even though they may not know the particulars. Go to 1 Samuel 17 if you need to brush up. The story has a vital message at heart whether you believe it is part of actual history or not. I don’t, nor do most historians.  That’s not the point. Neither do you have to accept the core of the narrative that the little shepherd boy defeated the giant warrior because God was on his side. The message is a lot simpler than that and more generalizable: Big and powerful is scary, but small, nimble, and intelligent wins every time. Mighty empires never seem to learn this lesson, and one by one they have been toppled. The US is failing to learn that lesson right now, and will lose in the end unless it learns — quickly.

Since the Second World War the US has built increasingly bigger armies and more powerful weapons, thinking that bigger and stronger is better. Well . . . where has that strategy got them? 1. A bloody draw in Korea. 2. A longer and more bloody defeat in Vietnam . . . and on and on – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, ISIL . . . there is no end. The US will never win playing Goliath. The lesson is 3000 years old and still has not sunk in.

Nowadays ISIL and other similar groups are the new Davids and the US is the big lumbering Goliath. The rhetoric coming out of the US would be laughable if it were not deadly serious – literally. Currently the US spends over $600 billion on the military which is about triple what China, the next biggest spender, lays out, and more than the combined total of the next 15 in the list – COMBINED !!!! Yet Trump and his cronies think this is not enough. Spend more more more more. Sheer madness.

Terrorist groups like the Taliban (remember them?), Al Qaeda, and ISIL succeed because they are small, nimble, and smart, and because they are ideologues fighting for their homelands. I’m not concerned with who is right or who is wrong at this point, I am simply talking about tactics.

I have the image in my head of a man trying to sleep but is being disturbed by a mosquito. He tries to slap and kill it, but it is too quick for him. So he gets a hammer, and still can’t kill it – then a sledgehammer, then a bomb. All he succeeds in doing is blowing up his house, and the mosquito is still alive and ready to sting him again.

Modern terrorist tactics are intelligent and low tech. A few Saudis hijacked 4 planes on 9/11 and 2 of them not only brought down the Twin Towers but created an atmosphere of total fear and panic throughout the US that has lasted to this day. Defense spending skyrocketed, government spending on security and spying spiraled out of control, yet no one feels any safer. Hundreds of billions of dollars were no match for 19 dedicated guys with pilot licenses and box cutters. Furthermore, that was just one tactic. It won’t be repeated. Airport security is tighter than ever, so David tries new tactics. If the Philistines had had a second Goliath he might wear protection for his forehead against slung stones, and David would trip him up, or blindside him in a hundred other ways – jab him in the foot with a sharp stick, maybe. GOLIATH CANNOT WIN.

Remember, I am not talking about who is right or wrong here. I detest killing in all forms. I am talking purely about strategy. The US is careening out of control because it keeps electing one Goliath after another in the hopes that a bigger and stronger one will finish the job. Let me repeat: GOLIATH CANNOT WIN. Not only will Goliath always lose, but his fall will bring the nation down with him.

The strategy that will never be successful is accumulating more and more and more walls, bombs, and STUFF. You have to take the David strategy — or, at least, a variant of it. Ask the simple, but penetrating question, WHY are the terrorists doing this? Sure — people mimic answering the question but they are clueless: “They are evil people.” “They hate freedom.” “They are jealous.” etc etc etc. They assume they know the answers, but they don’t. What is the real answer? Don’t they want what most Westerners want? — food, homes, hospitals, clean water? Give it to them. Take the military budget and use it to build roads and farms and hospitals.  Flood them with kindness. I know it’s not as simple as that.  I’m not naive. You can’t just give different cultures what you think is the good stuff and expect them to be happy. I’m also not suggesting that you send in anthropologists first to figure out what people actually need. It might help (a little), but most anthropologists I know are pretty clueless too.

Jesus was dead serious when he said: “Love your enemy.” It seems like such a simple message, but no one seems to want to learn it — ever — throughout history. Hate begets hate. Love begets love.