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2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 870 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Season’s Greetings

I wish you happiness, warmth, hope and light in the darkness no matter which midwinter festival you celebrate. 

And hope you have an inspiring and successful 2013!





Polyglots For Ever?

Life piled on life were all too much… (Tennyson)

Language learner's MRI scan (Tan et al 2011)


There has been a continuing series of reports in the various news media about the link between reduced risk of developing dementia and the benefits of learning a second or further language, whether in childhood or later life.

For example, Richard Alleyne, reporting from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph about the work of Ellen Bialystok, from York University in Canada. She and her colleagues looked at the medical records of 228 patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s and compared them to their language abilities, noting an apparent delay of onset of up to 5 years among those who had  learned foreign languages.

But, delightful though that may be for those of us who promote foreign language learning (see HELLO English), a moment’s thought would cause one to ask questions.

For example, we know that the people who learn second and further languages are relatively better educated and more affluent than society as a whole. This group is also generally more healthy, better fed and exercised than the mainstream. It might be reasonable to assume, therefore, that while there is a correlation between language learning and degenerative delay, there is also likely to be a similar connection with affluence and a generally healthy lifestyle.

While this is hardly a randomised controlled trial, it is a substantial piece of work and it has been widely reported following its presentation in the 2011 Washington conference. So, although the text is not yet available online, we must assume that such simplistic concerns have been addressed. However, they are nowhere reported, even in the supposedly informed professional press.

Whilst we are on the subject, shouldn’t we also look for a gender element here too? There is a body of evidence that girls are better language learners than boys in the UK. I do not have figures for the Canadian school system – from which Dr Bialystok drew her sample – but I would guess that this is a pretty stable relationship: across countries and over time. And, as reports indicate that extra language learning and reduced dementia appear to be linked to an increased capacity to multi-task – an attribute most often associated with women – we would have to question why issues of gender have not been discussed.

But, wait a moment, aren’t we misunderstanding this somewhat? Surely, at present, the trend noted by Bialystok and her colleagues may be no more an apparent population characteristic which disguises quite complex social features among those of us who suffer with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. But complex social and medical issues are not good copy, although they are what the experts in the field identify as important.

The Alzheimer’s Society, for example, calls for research into possible causal links between dementia and medical conditions (such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity) or lifestyle factors (including exercise, diet, toxic metals and stress). They are also particularly interested in the possible genetic origins of the condition and its relationship with vascular disease. Nowhere among all these important areas for further research is there any mention of language learning or, indeed, the many and various patent quackeries for brain training sold to stave-off old age.

So, in spite of all the research and reporting, learning another language will not definitively prevent you as an individual from getting dementia, but, as work by Tan (Tan et al 2011) has shown, it can strengthen alternative neural pathways in the fusiform and caudate regions of the brain which, should the need arise, will give your brain more options to cope with degenerative impairments.

Tan’s work appears to show that learning a second language requires an alternate path through the brain, correlating only with that second language, not with the primary language, and this is what may be giving some language learners an advantage. It would be interesting to see how brain activation changed as people become fluent in their second language. Does it always take this different processing path through the brain? Or as you become fluent, do the two paths begin to appear more similar?

For a slightly different take on this subject, an excellent paper by Daniel George calls for a re-framing to learn new languages for dementia. In an elegantly argued monograph, he asks whether we might not be able to postpone and ameliorate the impact of aging by revising the language we have learned to use to describe Alzheimer’s and those with dementia? “Choosing new language patterns can reshape our thoughts, attitudes, and actions towards our ageing neighbours and our own ageing brains, giving rise to a slightly different and more life-affirming reality that connects us to those who are ageing instead of hastening their social death.”

So, although learning a foreign language isn’t the silver bullet after all, sadly. It can’t definitively prevent you from getting Alzheimer’s, but it can be part of a healthy lifestyle, which might. It is hard to learn a foreign language, if you are not that way inclined. Perhaps it is easier and better for all of us if we could learn a new language to describe those around us who are getting older and who may have dementia.

And, for those who hate learning languages, this may be one case at least where what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.


Alleyne R (2011); Learn a second language to delay dementia by five years; The Daily Telegraph; p.13; 19.02.11

Bialystok E (2011); Protective Effects of Bilingualism for Cognitive Aging and Dementia; 2011 Meeting of the AAAS; Washington; Friday, February 18, 2011: 1:30 PM-4:30 PM

Bialystok, E., et al. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia 45: 459-464.

Bialystok, E. & Shapero, D. (2005). Ambiguous benefits: the effect of bilingualism on reversing ambiguous figures. Developmental Science 8: 595-604.

George DR (2010); Overcoming the social death of dementia through language; The Lancet, Volume 376, Issue 9741, pp.586 – 587, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(10)61286-X

Tan LH, Chen L, Yip V, Chan AH, Yang J, Gao JH, & Siok WT (2011). Activity levels in the left hemisphere caudate-fusiform circuit predict how well a second language will be learned. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108 (6), 2540-4 PMID: 21262807

Why Heavyweight Boxers are more logical than Rabbis and Priests

After a weekend of FA Cup fifth round matches, which saw lowly Crawley Town put-up heroic resistance before losing 1-0 to Manchester United and, last night, Leyton Orient draw 1-1 with Arsenal, I am left wondering why we are all so fascinated by these unequal struggles. Could it be that, as neutral fans we enjoy seeing the over-paid elite – the Andrex Athletes* – having one put over on them?

We all like the idea of ‘Sport for All’ but – in these days of uber-commercialism, increasing obesity and declining physical activity – it is pretty clear that sport just ain’t. So, it is good to think that those whose sporting prowess has more in common with our amateur kickabout can beat the galacticos.

Getting the rules right. With common rules you are stronger and more inclusive.

In 1922, in God’s chosen sport (cricket), for reasons known only to themselves, the eternal enemy (the Australians) decided to count eight balls to an over (balls bowled from one end) even though there had been universal agreement since 1900 that there would only be six. Clearly, it would have created problems if each cricket-playing country had adopted its own system of counting, and numerous attempts were made to agree on this rule. With cricket world cup currently underway on the sub-continent, it is obvious to anyone watching that only six balls are bowled in cricket – a rule that has been fully adopted worldwide since 1979.

In order for sport to make sense, you need to operate under the same rules worldwide: it is as simple as that.

This was nowhere more clear than in last year’s autumn rugby internationals. The different interpretations put on the rules by Southern Hemisphere referees made a mockery of one of the defining characteristics of the game of rugby union football. Only five scrummages were given in the course of England’s match against Australia and none of them was allowed to run its course, thus depriving players and spectators of an important part of the rugby contest. It may be true that Australia and New Zealand want to play running rugby, but if that is all you want to do,  you should take-up basketball.

Different Rules: Failure to referee the scrum deprived England of an advantage

The issue of a historical mismatch between two or more parts of the same sport need not be a cause for misery, though. There are several instances of re-unification title fights in the history of boxing – especially in the heavyweight division. These come about because of the existence of several different international boxing associations – most notably the WBA (World Boxing Association) and the WBC (World Boxing Council). Each have their version of world championship and so you risk having three different boxers all claiming to be heavyweight champion of the world at the same time.

The problem is that each sporting committee has its own vested interests in remaining separate. Empire-building is alive and kicking in the land of the stuffed shirt and, although rugby is no longer administered by Will Carling‘s ’57 old farts’, it is still run very slowly by the elite for the elite.

So what have the rabbonim and priesthood got to do with the sweaty world of professional sport? Well, perhaps more than you might think.

The social elites of organised religion operate to exclude just as do the committees at Twickenham or Lords.

There is still a premier league of Christian churches that leave their Christian poorer relations excluded from the fold. In Islam and Judaism, likewise, there are orthodox elites holding-on to power, privilege and prestige while smaller, more moderate and inclusive progressive co-religionists are kept outside. No-one wants to be the one remembered for letting the true faith be diluted by making peace with dissenters. Each, of course, believes that they have sole patent on the right way of doing things.

Isn’t it time that they took a leaf out of the book of the cricketers and heavyweight boxers and looked to create a common set of rules? Wouldn’t a re-unified broad church of tolerant believers working to enhance society be better for for everyone?

*Andrex Athletes – Former England Rugby captain Laurence Dallaglio alluded to this popular brand of toilet tissue when describing Premier League footballers as ‘Andrex Athletes – very soft and incredibly expensive’.

Education, Education, Education

Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the United Kingd...

So important that he had to say it three times. Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, made education the key focus for his premiership. He asked the voters to judge his government by the success of his education policies.

There were lots of them. One thing you can always be sure of and that is that governments, especially new ones, will want to bugger about with the education. And didn’t they just? Re-branded ministries, new targets, revolutionary initiatives on literacy and numeracy, new exams and exam boards, changes to university funding, changes to admission processes both to schools and unis… the whole nine yards.

So, after 13 years, what has been the nett benefit?

It seems to me that you measure the success of any social policy by the degree to which it has helped the most vulnerable. In education terms, that means the ill-educated, especially those who cannot read or count. On this measure, Blair & Co failed, failed, failed.

OECD figures released last week (see Shepherd 2010) show that the UK ranks ranked 25th for reading and 28th for maths out of a study of 15 year olds in 65 developed countries. This continues a slide in our relative performance and was in spite of the fact that only 7 of our competitors spend more per capita than the UK on their children’s education.

The frankly dismal levels of illiteracy in this country have failed to respond to more than a decade of dedicated primary teaching, while employers and universities continue to complain that we may have produced the least numerate generation of school-leavers in history.

Clearly something isn’t working.

There seem to be two explanations. One that these special interventions were wrong-headed from the start. Or, more probably, that there is a dynamic which discourages the universal acquisition of basic skills at a faster rate than they can be learned.

The problem with ‘education, education, education’ is that education has never been only about school. It has always been about respecting and valuing learning.

If, as a society, we have lost all respect for learning, discovery, creativity and wisdom, then, no matter how many squeaky new initiatives are introduced, there is not a snowflake in hell’s chance that good, ordinary kids will get the education they deserve. The extra-systemic, anti-educational forces of instantaneous celebrity culture are simply too powerful to resist.

Do we need to radically re-structure education, again? Probably not. Do we need to re-prioritise the value of learning and education in and of themselves. Yes.

Time for a rethink, methinks.


Shepherd J; UK Slips Down World Rankings; The Guardian; 07.112.10;

Social Unity

Faiths Working Together.

Invited by Qamar Bhatti of the MRB Foundation to speak on Jewish approaches to community cohesion at the launch of their Societal Unity initiative on Saturday, so braved (!) the slight scattering of snow and went off to schmooze over coffee with the great and the good at the impressively new and environmentally friendly headquarters of the West Midlands Fire Service.

Talking about community cohesion and social unity to an audience of faith leaders and community development activists is a bit like promoting capitalism at a meeting of the World Bank – you are unlikely to meet with much resistance and the audience is likely to know more about your subject than you do. So my job was not as easy as it might have appeared, especially given that my slot was sandwiched between a former cabinet minister and a Methodist minister, both of whom are gifted public speakers of a quality I could only dream of reaching.

It was fascinating listening to Clare Short, for example, talking about her time as International Development secretary, or Bill Ozonne reminiscing about his work with the Vatican on various papal and interfaith initiatives. But, amid the talk of the military industrial complex, counter-terrorism and inter-faith dialogue, a string of research related issues came to mind.

A point which I took up in my talk – related to the eternal human need to find scapegoats among the out-groups of society. Previous blogs on this site (The Stranger in your Camp) have discussed this phenomenon, which persists across ethnic and cultural boundaries, irrespective of faith or affluence. We are excluders rather than includers by nature, it would appear.

This ‘them and us’ dynamic is related to our psychological predisposition towards binary opposites. We tend to see issues in terms of on or off, orthodox or progressive, nature versus nurture, and so on, even though reality is far more subtle and complex. Thus, even though we are more likely to be injured by an accident in the home than outside it and to be murdered by a friend or family-member, the familiar is perceived to be safe while the stranger is not.

Our thin veneer of civilisation, which appears to coincide with the better aspects of faith, encourages us to be inclusive. At the heart of most, if not all, religions is the injunction to look after the weak and the vulnerable – the widow and the orphan – and to be kind to strangers. Sadly, we don’t always manage it, especially if – like a refugee or a homeless person – they belong to an excluded group.

Whether you ascribe our better behaviour to human nature or faith in the Almighty, it often falls apart when religion meets politics. If there is one thing we can learn from history it is that when money and power meet faith, conflict and persecution are not far behind. Too often, this is justified and exacerbated by the manipulation of scripture. This appears both in the narrative and interpretive writing of the text and in its subsequent exploitation for political ends.

Perhaps, how politics and religion can work together to improve the community is a proper subject for the Societal Unity initiative to explore. Clearly, the religious label attached to a terrorist in a conflict such as persisted in Northern Ireland, for example,  can really only be understood in terms of politics, particularly of post-colonialism, not in the spirituality of religious faith.

The sacred texts that record the core narratives of the world’s religions are all human artifacts. Made by human hands, they are subject to the usual errors of translation and transcription that occur when any book is published and printed, let alone those that have been transcribed by hand for a hundred generations.

Yet, within every religion, there are more or less orthodox groups, who believe in the literal truth of a sacred text, and  progressive believers, who believe in the centrality of the message within that text but accept that some of it was written in the context of the time – with the limited world knowledge available and to appease the powerful.

Within orthodoxy, of course, there are kind, fair-minded, hospitable, gentle and generous free-thinkers just as there are illiberal, dogmatic and inflexible adherents among the progressives. Neither has a monopoly on  virtue. They are merely different in how they practise their faith. However, within each group there are extremes.

What should interest us here is to find out why people are drawn to the immutability of extreme orthodoxy. Surely, in some senses, the appeal of an absolute book of answers is similar to the attraction of  extreme political ideologies? It requires you to do, not think. It is the illusory silver bullet to rid you of the cause of all your woes.

Previously (In the Belly of the Beast), I identified the four ingredients that are needed, at a critical mass, to ensure that extremist conflict ensues: population density, a lack of education, poverty and political ambition. To this we ought to add, a cultural or religious environment which encourages belief in the black and white of simple solutions.

If the MRB Foundation can help us to understand and overcome the psychological, social and spiritual barriers to religious co-operation, their Societal Unity campaign will have been a significant force for good.

In the Belly of the Beast

an aquarelle by Amedeo Preziosi

Think Dervish: Beat the Beast.

There is no Hindu. There is no Muslim. There is only God‘ (Guru Nanak; 15th Century Sikh)

I am no scholar of comparative religion. Heaven knows, I am a poor enough student of my own. However, I find Guru Nanak’s words remarkably familiar. You will find similar sentiments expressed at the heart of Judaism (Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One) and, if memory serves, in most of the central texts of the world’s religions. In so much, the similarities between our principal faiths outweigh their differences.

If we want to dismantle the beast of racism, anti-semitism and extremist violence we must first understand that it has very little to do with the core beliefs of world religions.

Unfortunately, it has all to do with the political history of religion and the texts they follow. These books, written to favour one or other dynasty or political elite, are social artifacts and include large tracts of interpretation which allocate authority to priests (because they wrote the things) and power to patriarchs.

So, while the hearts of world religion have more to unite than to divide them, the superstructure of observance, community history and social order makes potential enemies of us all.

This was wonderfully explained in a paper given at the British Educational Research Association conference in 1997. Its author was the principal of a girls college in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan She  described how she, as the head of the school and a scholar of national standing, had to wait for the gardener, the only man allowed on the school site, to go to the bank for her as she, being a woman, was not allowed to draw money from the bank – a place staffed by men. She explained that, in her very traditional part of Pakistan, strict interpretations of propriety governed everyday life. However, she made it clear that she saw the Koran, in its original form, as an empowering and liberating text for both men and women, but how, over the centuries, scholars and politicians had construed it in such a way as to develop a social structure which was rigidly patriarchal and oppressive.

Clearly, the importance of these social and political discourses cannot be over-stressed, as Berger & Luckmann (1966) so eloquently describe:

For example, two coteries of eremitical dervishes may go on disputing about the ultimate nature of the universe in the midst of the desert, with nobody on the outside being in the least interested. Once one or the other of these viewpoints gets a hearing in the surrounding society, it will be largely extratheoretical interests that will decide the outcome of the rivalry. Different social groups will have different affinities with the competing theories and will, subsequently, become “carriers” of the latter. Thus dervish theory A may appeal to the upper stratum and dervish theory B to the middle stratum of the society in question, for reasons far removed from the passions that animated the original inventors of these theories. The competing coteries of experts will then come to attach themselves to the “carrier” groups, and their subsequent fate will depend on the outcome of whatever conflict led these groups to adopt the respective theories. Rival definitions of reality are thus decided upon in the sphere of rival social interests whose rivalry is in turn “translated” into theoretical terms.”

But, the sociology of religion and studies of its use to manipulate and subjugate have been around for a long time. We should be able to separate the essential beauty and humanity of these core texts by now and reject the rest, shouldn’t we? Why do people still buy the theological justifications for iniquity?

Why do we still allow our world to be disrupted by those who use religion to justify oppression and persecution? After all, most religions have strongly codified rules for helping the poor, the weak and the dispossessed, ones which contemporary adherents frequently find too demanding to follow.

Any attempt to understand scapegoat or religious groups without exploring their class relations is bound to fail. This is the more essential as we can notice recurrent patterns of poverty, oppression, ambition and extremism – the signals of a predictable social mechanism which can be controlled and countered if there is the political will to do so.

It doesn’t matter whether the ‘feared other’ are Irish hooligans in the 1870s, Jewish tearaways in the East End in the 1920s, Rastas and Rude-boys in Handsworth in the 1970s, or today’s Bangladeshi and Somali drug dealers, if – when the music stops – they are the principal out-group, living in poverty with few options other than crime and extremism, then they will be the ones to be demonised and come into the greatest conflict with the forces of mainstream society.

To create the beast of social unrest, extremism and violence, you only need four things. Once there is a critical mass in all four there will inevitably be an explosion of conflict, whether religious or ethnic:

  1. Population Density: An out-group needs to be present in large enough numbers within a population to be noticeable and perceived to be threatening.
  2. Education: Standards of general education among the poorest parts of the indigenous community should be patchy, engendering an absence of critical reflection. By contrast, cultural strength within the out-group community is bolstered by education, cultural institutions or religious indoctrination.
  3. Money: For conflict to occur, one or more groups need to be struggling financially. And there will need to be substantial sources of funding to pay for the mobilisation of young men to ‘defend’ ‘their’ ‘communities’.
  4. Political Ambition: There need to be those among the elites of the indigenous population and the out-group who have the will and the finances to exploit the situation for their own ends.

This is how we build the beast.

Isn’t it time we stopped?



Berger, P. L. and T. Luckmann (1966), The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books

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