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Physics Limericks: Some Classics

The following two are, I believe, by famed textbook writer A. P. French

There was a young fellow named Cole
Who ventured too near a black hole
    His dv by dt
    Was quite wondrous to see
Now all that’s left is his soul!

Ms. Farad was pretty and sensual
And charged to a reckless potential
     But a rascal named Ohm
     Conducted her home.
Her decline was, alas, exponential!

I came across this one recently, and I like its subtle cleverness.

Relatively Good Advice
by Edward H. Green

Dear S’: I note with distress
The length of your yardstick is less
     And please wind your clock
     To make it tick-tock
More briskly. Your faithful friend, S.


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A Classicist Writes

My lovely wife Laurie has started her own blog called A Classicist Writes.

She writes on Ancient Greece and Rome (she has an M.A. in Classical Studies), cats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, more cats, more Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other topics.

Hope you enjoy!


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Knowledge vs. Skills: Big-endians vs. Little-endians?

My take on the knowledge vs. skills debate…


Gulliver’s Travels contains the memorable episode where two peoples are engaged in a long war over which end of a boiled egg to break first, the war of the Big-endians vs. the Little-endians:

[T]wo mighty powers have … been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion….the emperor … commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. … It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole…

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Samuel Johnson vs. Michael Gove

Michael Gove suggests that schools who enter GCSE students early in order to “bank” a C grade are, essentially, cheating. Some school leaders have criticised the tone of his announcement. Keven Bartle says they have a point: “The one element of twitter and blogging reportage critical of the announcement by our less-than-beloved Secretary of State for Education with which I wholeheartedly agree is the dismay that met the tone of the piece, particularly with the repeated use of the word ‘cheating’.”

I think I agree. As Samuel Johnson said (and I am not quoting him as an authority here, rather I simply adore his turn of phrase):

Sir. It must be considered, that a man who only does what every one of the society to which he belongs would do, is not a dishonest man. In the republick of Sparta, it was agreed, that stealing was not dishonourable, if not discovered. . . . I maintain, that an individual of any society, who practises what is allowed, is not a dishonest man.

And it must be conceded that any school that entered students early — either in the hope of banking the magic C grade, or starting a borderline C/D student on the treadmill of resit after resit in pursuit of the same goal — was not, in the technical sense, dishonest in terms of breaking rules: they were simply practicing “what is allowed”.

And what about their motives? That’s a more difficult question. Some schools, no doubt, did the deed out of a genuine desire for the best results for their students. Others, perhaps, could be likened to the “lions-led-by-donkeys” generals of World War One, heedlessly throwing underprepared cannon-fodder into the bloody fray in order to “move their drinks cabinet five yards closer to Berlin” (as Blackadder might put it), or improve their league table score by two tenths of a percentage point.

And therein lies the rub. Although early entry (or repeated entry ad nauseam) might be in the interest of a small minority of students, an over-reliance on them smacks of gaming the system

Sir, I do not call a gamester a dishonest man; but I call him an unsocial man, an unprofitable man. Gaming is a mode of transferring property without producing any intermediate good. Trade … produces intermediate good

And there (although he was speaking of gambling rather than GCSEs) I think Sam Johnson nails it once more. The frantic pursuit of exam grades for their own sake is an empty pursuit, and all too often the chancers, gamers and gamblers of the whole byzantine examination system have done their students a disservice, and been (in my opinion) unfairly lauded and feted. The “intermediate good” that their students were deprived of is hard to identify precisely but could include: the luxury of time to prepare (and be taught properly) for their exams, understanding that the exam is part of the process and not the point of the process, and that panicked random cramming (either on their own or as part of teacher-led “intervention” cram-fests) is not the way to understand complex and subtle ideas.

Gove’s latest animadversion apparently signals an end to “unsocial” and “unprofitable” gaming of the exam system.

I hope. As with many of Gove’s more sensible announcements (and there have been one or two), it’s not the animating spirit of the idea, but the inflexible, procrustean, peremptory finality of the rule change that could make it a change for the worse, rather than for the better.

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Not The-Perfect-Sphere-Assumption-Chicken-Joke

Farmer Jenkins was justly proud of his free-range chicken farm, and particularily of Griselda, his prize layer. So, it came as no surprise (at least to him) when he placed highly in the All-England Free Range Egg Taste Challenge. “Don’t you worry, lass,” he cooed to Griselda as his Range Rover purred through the warm summer night, “next year we’ll come first, I promise.”

Griselda continued sleeping in her carry case, seemingly comforted by the presence of the garish gold-painted plastic statue by her side, which featured a chicken contorted to form an approximation of the numeral 2.

On a whim, Farmer Jenkins locked the award in his office safe when he got home, and returned Griselda to her roost with reverential gratitude.

The next day he unlocked the safe to retreive the award. He had a fair bit of trouble opening the door. “That’s strange,” he murmured, bending down to examine the obstruction. It appeared that the award had somehow moved in the night and jammed part of the door mechanism. “H’mmm, how did that happen?” Farmer Jenkins shook his head. The award appeared . . . bigger, somehow. But surely that was impossible. However, what troubled Farmer Jenkins most of all was the fact that the plastic chicken, what he could see of it, at least, now appeared contorted into the shape of the numeral 3.

As he telephoned his friend Brian to share his puzzlement, he heard a metallic tearing. He stared dumbfounded at an apparition of a plastic chicken rearing above the torn remnants of his safe. And now the wings and body of the plastic fowl appeared to form the numeral 4.

“Did anyone touch it?” asked Brian urgently over the crackly landline connection

“No, no-one,” said Jenkins with certainty.

“Ah, that explains it,” said Brian.

“It does?”

“Oh yes,” concluded Brian. “You see, in an isolated system, hen trophy will always increase.”

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Blogs for the Week Ending 12th July 2013

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Du Code Goveon

“Professor Moriarty: the Napoleon of Crime!” – Sherlock Holmes.

In the whole of France, apparently, there is not a single cultivated hedgerow which is over six foot in height. Any hedge which serves as the boundary between properties can attain a maximum height of two metres, and no more.

And the reason for this is Napoleon. Or, more precisely, it is the Code Napoleon, the body of laws put in place by Napoleon. You see he was more than Austerlitz, Josephine, and Waterloo (somehow the thought that he also made the stagecoaches run on time surfaces from somewhere, but we’ll skip that for now).

The fact is that Napoleon couldn’t imagine a reason for any person in the entirety of the French Empire to want or need a hedgerow that was more than six foot tall. So he passed a law about it. That’s the amazing thing about the Code Napoleon: it is a body of law which is coherent, complex and flexible enough to run a modern state that essentially emerged from the brain of a single individual.

Perhaps I overstate my case. But it is a fact that Napoleon insisted that every law should be seen and approved by him, that it should pass through the prism of his mind.

And much of it is good. Much of it survives to this day as the foundational law of the modern French state as the Gallic leviathan woke from the near-anarchy of its feudal, monarchic slumbers. (Hums: #Red, the blood of angry men…#)

But there are oddities which stem from the predjudices, habits of thought and visceral likes and dislikes of a single, flawed individual. The hedgerow is one example of that.

And the point of this discussion? Well, it struck me the other day that Michael Gove is attempting to do the same thing. He’s doing a Napoleon. He is midway through what can only be described as an attempt to make himself the Napoleon of Education. He is instituting a Code Goveon whereby he sets up a body of educational law and a framework of assessment where every element of which has passed through (and been approved by) the ideological prism of his mind.

It is a significant ambition. Will he succeed? The truth is, he just might. Gove’s equivalent of the Napoleonic Hedgerow Decree is, I think, the insistence on assessment by terminal exam. At first sight, it is vaguely sensible. But the truth is, there are times when a modular exam structure (like a seven foot hedge) might be a good idea. Maybe not for everybody. And maybe not all the time. There is a grain of truth to the fact that examinations and resit culture were consuming too great a proportion of school resources.

However, a man’s still a man for a’that, and my fear is that the Code Goveon will emerge with the indelible stamp of one person’s vagaries and peccadilloes running through it like cracks in a plate glass window. Undoubtedly, like the curate’s egg, it will be “good in parts”, but there are some tasks that it is quite simply hubristical for a single human being to attempt. Even a literate and well-educated human being who (possibly) means well and who has a panel of carefully chosen experts (perhaps too carefully chosen a panel in Gove’s case) to advise him.

I shall follow events as they unfold with interest, but – alas! – not with much optimism. And I would be willing to bet that at the end of it all the trains still won’t be running on time.


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