Sunday, January 29, 2012

Let's replace all the teachers with iPads (and other great ideas)

A futuristic lesson once all the teachers and other impediments to a Brave New World have been done away with 

There's been quite a bit of talk on the peak oil blogosphere this week about machines and, more specifically, our addiction to them. Cars and TV have come in for quite a well deserved bashing, as have various other things such as gadgets and computers.

I think there's a growing awareness that the traditional master-slave relationship between human owner and machine is not quite what it seems. Take modern cars, for instance. Your average middle to top range new car comes packed with so much technological gadgetry – from GPS locators to onboard entertainment systems and engine management computers – that fixing it, should a problem arise, is beyond the ken of practically everyone. If a single element of a circuit board in the engine management module is damaged the entire vehicle is rendered useless until either the circuit board is repaired (unlikely) or the entire module is ripped out and replaced with a new one (the normal solution). This is not what you might call resilient, to say the least, and yet people, for all their grumbling, continue to buy these things.

It's all a far cry from the kind of good old clunky mechanics of yesteryear – and here I'm particularly thinking about a VW Kombi van I owned in my mid twenties. It was lime green and made a monstrous racket when you drove it. I rescued it from a scrap yard in London and did my best to restore it to functionality. Things quite often went wrong with it but when they did it normally required not much more than a Haynes manual, a set of wrenches and a hammer. I'm no mechanic, but I'd just read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, so was quite into fixing mechanical things as a way of expanding my knowledge of the universe (yes, I know ...).

Indeed, taking this one step further, I recall fondly travelling on buses in India, which seemed to break down on every journey, and the resigned-looking driver would inevitably climb underneath the vehicle with a hammer while the passengers stood around drinking chai and smoking bidis. After a few minutes of frightful whacking noises the driver, covered in oil and dust, would re-emerge and whatever mechanical ailment had occurred would inevitably have been cured.

You try fixing an iPad with a hammer. I mention iPads because I have a colleague with one and, like most people with these things, he seems to be constantly trying to justify owning it. Furthermore, as an Apple evangelist, he is always trying to get me to 'see the light' and buy one ('But wait until the iPad 3 comes out.'). Needless to say he may as well save his breath – I can't afford one even if I wanted one – but he thought he had delivered the killer justification last week when he demonstrated an electronic textbook he had downloaded, proclaiming it as a vision of the new future where students wouldn't need to buy books and, by extension, wouldn't have much need for lecturers or teachers either.

It goes without saying that this demonstration ticked all the techno religion boxes of being 'interactive', 'open source' and 'social media friendly' etc, etc. Instead of students needing to purchase piles of books all they had to have was a tablet and a subscription – and think of all the trees that would be saved!

Yes, but... What about the immense energy intensive infrastructure needed to create an iPad? The colossal government expenditures in the form of grants, university departments and Phd stipends needed to train and keep the highly specialised service personnel who work in these industries? The constantly changing models that render any piece of hardware older than a couple of years obsolete? Is that really such a great use of resources? I speak as someone who once wasted nine months of his life learning to program industrial robots as part of an Msc. in IT.

But these are the kind of questions that are not taken seriously and I just got 'that' look – the one that people use when assessing whether I might be crazy or not. I'm getting quite used to 'that' look and tend to avoid conversations with techno evangelists for that very reason – but in this instance I was cornered and other people in the office were listening in.

He went on to say that, being constantly connected to the publishing firm, the content could be updated ad infinitum – so if an error was noticed it could be silently corrected by the editors. This set alarm bells ringing in my journalistic ears. What if someone wanted to change things for less than honest reasons? Like a government changing lessons on history or evolution or whatever else might be deemed controversial. Or perhaps publishing firms would start slipping adverts for Disneyland into geography lessons.That won't be a problem, he said with a wave of his hand, there will be editing logs which independent people would scrutinise (more expense, more complexity).

I conceded that this might be a good idea for the kind of highly complex and constantly changing subject matter in the realm of things like computer sciences and engineering – but for more subjective subjects it would be a disaster.

And what of the teachers? You know, the flesh and blood beings with whom we entrust the important act of passing down useful information to our offspring? It's not hard to envisage cash-strapped schools and colleges cutting staff numbers and increasing iPad numbers. What would these redundant teachers then do?

Oh, I know, they could become freelance online eBook editors and get paid half the wages they had before and with the added benefit of no job security or pensions. Another great way to save resources.

But whatever concerns there may be about replacing paper books and teaching jobs with silicon books and Steve Jobs it doesn't seem to be stopping schools rushing headlong into this brave new world, with many across the UK adopting a strategy of buying iPads instead of books and subscribing to eBooks instead of, er, pBooks.

So there again, we have something with a high level of resilience being replaced unthinkingly by something with a low level – at an increased cost – all because the dominant evil twin paradigms are high technology and increased efficiency. Ebook developers point out that with children's lower attention span they are unable to concentrate on long texts and need to have whizzy graphics to demonstrate, say, rainfall patterns and DNA structures. If that is true then eBooks will reinforce that trend and pretty soon we will have teachers Tweeting lessons to pupils who will then read them on their hand held devices as they chow down in McDonald's (if you have eBooks and eTeachers surely the next logical thing is the eClassroom). And, incidentally, the children these people are talking about are American children who have had their concentration levels zapped by exposure to too many cartoons and advertising – why should they be the exemplars for a system being imposed on our not-quite-so-short-attention-spanned kids?

So, I won't be buying my kids laptops, iPhones or iPads any time soon. Our eldest, at eight, is now the only child without a mobile phone in her class and the teachers have told us in no uncertain terms that we had better get her one sharpish if we don't want her to be bullied. I find this incredulous (gawd, don't get me started!).

As far as I am aware there was never any trustworthy conclusive proof that mobile phones didn't cause brain tumours – or that scientists couldn't pin firm proof on it, or something (but nevertheless the ones involved in the study stopped using mobiles soon afterwards). And isn't there a wave of cyber bullying going on with kids texting and FBing each other hateful messages causing some of them to commit suicide? And yet here are the teachers saying that we are being irresponsible parents by trying to protect them from such insidious influences.

Jeez – maybe they should be replaced with iPads after all.

Well, I was going to write about my new bicycle – truly the only machine that I'm addicted to - but I guess that will have to wait for another day as it's snowing outside right now and I want to go and slide down a nearby hill with the kids on a piece of plastic (a low tech way to spend a Sunday morning).

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Interlude in Andalucia

The cortijo is perched on a hill overlooking the broad valley of La Alpujarra

Last weekend we got back from a nine day visit to our small farm house in Spain. It was a relief to swap the cold grey skies of Copenhagen and replace them with the bright sunny ones of Andalucia, and a welcome tonic to see the almond blossom coming out again, even if it is two months ahead of normal.

Returning to our house always arouses mixed emotions. Like the deck of the Mary Celeste, the house always appears to have been abandoned in haste, with projects left unfinished and half read books on the shelves. In fact it is coming up to four years since we left – at the time I had been offered a job that started the following week and had had to pack whatever I could into our small car and drive non-stop 3000km to Copenhagen. We were only supposed to have been gone for a year to earn some cash...

But the good news this time was that Jose, our resident Mexican house-sitter, has been busily working with our neighbour Antonio to bring the land back under control. It being a hillside farm, with several terraces, there is always the danger of banks collapsing during the rainy season (i.e. winter) from the weight of the olive and almond trees, many of which grow out of the banks between terraces at 45 degree angles. In the past couple of years we have seen two trees come crashing down, bringing a few tons of earth with them. One of our neighbours, a hard-as-nails old Danish woman who lives alone raising horses, had an even worse experience when her entire house was destroyed in a landslip a few years ago. This being Spain, of course, everyone chipped in and helped her rebuild it free of charge.

Being a northern European and a preppy wannabe permaculturist, I have resisted ploughing the land. I thought that doing so would break up the structure, kill the life within it and generally render it less capable of supporting biotic matter. Antonio thought I was nuts. 'Hombre,' he said 'your land is like concrete. Every time it rains it just runs off and floods my land. You need to rotavate the lot.'

And so I agreed. I'm still unsure if it was the right thing to do but at least it looks a lot better. Some friends of mine, who used to live nearby, had been conducting a study into managing the soil in the Alpujarras. The region is threatened with desertification and they turned their farm Semilla Besada into a research station. When I ran my newspaper in the area they were the first people I ever interviewed. David and Aspen had studied the land management theories of Allan Savory, and had concluded that one of the best methods of restoring the severely degraded land of southern Spain was to reintroduce ruminant animals, whose droppings acted as fertilisers. Encouraging drought resistant grass species, some of which have roots going down meters, holds the topsoil in place and the animals prevent a buildup of dry dead material, which is a fire risk in the area. The experiment was producing great results and looking down on their hillside farm from above was like looking down onto a green oasis in the yellow and brown hillside. Tragically, Aspen died of cancer a couple of years ago and David sold the place to some younger people who are still carrying on with the experiments.

So anyhow, I was back to do a bit of work on the land. One thing I wanted to do was plant trees. There are already a couple of hundred trees on the one acre or so of land, and I had thought of getting rid of a few orange trees, which are very thirsty, and planting some others. On my shopping list were a pair of avocado trees, two walnuts, some pears and apples, a cherry tree or two, as well as a quince and another peach, and two chestnut trees. All of those grow extremely well on our hill, Cerro Negro. Indeed, just about everything seems to grow there and Antonio even has some banana trees, alongside his walnuts, in his front garden.

Unfortunately though it hadn't rained for months and, as Antonio pointed out, the ground was like dry and rock hard. If recent weather patterns were anything to go by though, February and March were likely to be very wet, and would be the best time for putting in new trees. He insisted I hand over my shopping list to him and said he'd put the trees in for me before our next visit.

I should probably say a bit more about our neighbour Antonio. He was born and bred on Cerro Negro and even managed to find a wife, Paquita, on it – quite an achievement given that there are only twenty or so families in farms strung out across the hillside to choose from. They'd got married some time in the 1980s and built a house on an inherited piece of land next to the house that would one day be bought by us. The house, Antonio always says proudly, was built in three hard weeks, with every single male relative pitching in. He paid only for the materials, which means next to nothing in Spain, and then settled down into the life of an olive farmer, raising two daughters in the process.

In the late 1990s disaster struck. House prices rocketed in Spain and practically every single family on the hillside sold up to foreigners and moved into town, abandoning the land. Antonio couldn't stand the thought of living in a town and carried on living a life that most of us would view as extreme poverty. A small solar panel powers the single lightbulb in his TV-less house and practically all the food for the family was grown on his own land. Paquita has a cleaning job in Orgiva and together with the miserly sum he earns from selling olives (around 1,000 euros a year for the past several, for, as he puts it, three months of backbreaking work – or around 1.5 euros an hour) they manage to purchase a few of the things that make life more pleasant. He has a good flock of chickens to provide meat and eggs, several milking goats and a few million bees – all of which he can do great impersonations of. Occasionally he'll shoot a wild boar on his land and cure the meat for the tapas he likes to nibble while sipping a glass of (home made, of course) wine as he sets his white doves free every evening and watches the sun go down over the valley – something he's done every evening for decades.

The almond blossom was coming out and was being busily attended to by the bees
He's a friendly and amenable neighbour who speaks not a single word of English but nevertheless listens patiently to me as I mangle up Spanish. He's never been anywhere and doesn't plan to either - as far as he's concerned life outside the hillside may as well be on another planet.

And yet, Antionio, for all his financial hardships, seems far better off that a lot of my foreign friends who still live in nearby Orgiva and seems now to be existing by scratching around for odd job in the way that Antonio's chickens look for insects beneath the olive trees. The first great shakeout occurred in 2007 – 2008, when the housing market froze solid and then leaped off a cliff. In those heady days there were about 10 estate agents in Orgiva (now only two remain). It was easy enough to see how this would affect those foreigners who made their living from buying and selling houses, but what most people hadn't realised was really how much it would affect almost every other foreigner.

Before the great housing bubble which, at its most inflated was seeing 1-2 million uneccessary houses and apartments being built around the country's coasts, the only type of people who moved to Spain were retirees who could rely on a nice monthly pay cheque in the form of a pension. By the 1990's, however, Spain's housing bubble was dwarfed by the bubbles in northern Europe and, egged on by the earnest propaganda of property programmes on TV and lubricated by the sudden availability of cheap flights, millions reasoned that they could swap their humdrum lives in Birmingham or Glasgow for a sun-soaked one where everything from property and beer was dirt cheap. It was a heady time of optimism and I'd be a hypocrite if I claimed not to have joined in the stampede – even if my dream was to build up an organic small holding and protect my kids from the crass excesses of materialism that seemed not to have taken very deep roots in proud, tradition-rich Andalucia.

When the bubble popped practically everyone either found themselves without a job or economically inconvenienced to some extent. Businesses went broke or hit the skids – including my newspaper when advertisers suddenly stopped coughing up money - and it hit some harder than others, with people losing their life savings almost overnight. Many people ended up stranded, with literally nowhere to go and no funds to get back home. It suddenly became abundantly clear that the foreign economy – which was often loudly proclaimed to be 'propping up' the Spanish economy - was in actual fact just a tiny bubble within a bubble, equivalent in money terms to a mid sized English town.

Most middle class types with capital were able to make a sharpish exit, possessing the means to offload their Spanish houses before the crash really hit. Plenty more though – especially in La Alpujarra – were in it for the long term and had no plans to go back to where they had come from. My friends are among these and it was interesting to see how they were faring because they have basically learned how to be poor and still, in most cases, make the best of it.

Not many of them possess cars any longer, or if they do, they are not driven very much (one friend has bought a donkey which, as he optimistically points out, means he can now drink and drive without fear of crashing or being arrested). The Guardia Civil, also hit by money concerns, long ago learned that the quickest way to raise money is to target foreigners who don't know how to defend themselves. The region's multitude of hippies still manage to drive their battered trucks and camper vans without fear of harassment because the Guardia know they are stony broke, and also find it disagreeable to house them in the cells at their HQ in town.

And so people are driving less, meaning that the nearest supermarket, some distance away on the coast is off limits. In any case, people are learning to avoid supermarkets because of the temptation factor and now plan out their meals a week at time and shop at the local market which comes round every Thursday. Going too are the mobile phones. First the monthly contract turns into a pay-as-you-go one. Then everyone finds themselves with no credit to return calls or texts. When the battery finally dies, it seems, some people are not bothering to replace them. The local internet café is doing a roaring trade with its Skype booths, where you can make a cheap call to anywhere you want.

People, of course, complain and gripe about their situation. The biggest problem, it would seem, is that everyone seems to have some money-earning plan or other, but nobody can get anything off the ground because of the paralysing effect of having no access to funds. People are frozen like statues in a party game where the music stopped and nobody has turned it on again. Some of them are worried, very worried – especially those with young families who relied on the sole breadwinner, usually a builder, to bring in funds. No house sales and no credit means few building jobs in an area saturated with builders. What few jobs come up are fought over like scraps tossed to dogs and some builders will even take them on for next to nothing in the hope of more work being offered by the same customer in the future. The rosy new life most imagined it certainly isn't, and many people have effectively burned their bridges in moving down to Spain.

One puzzling aspect of this whole 'crisis' though is how invisible it is. Orgiva has never been cleaner and new shops have sprung up wherever you look. New roads have gone in and a swimming pool and football pitch have been built. The place, on appearance only, seems to be thriving. Crisis, what crisis? Even the legions of unemployed young people we are told about every day on the news would seem to be something out of an economist's bad dream. Spain, and other southern European countries, has a very efficient system for dealing with unemployment: it's called family. Indeed Antonio's daughter Rocio is one of those unemployed twenty-somethings. She's just finished a degree in pedagogy at Granada University and so far, hasn't been able to find a job.

Instead she's back at home, helping to raise her baby nephew and earning her keep harvesting olives, making soap with her mother and lazing around by their irrigation pond (read swimming pool) reading books. She doesn't seem to be all that distraught by the prospect of long term unemployment and just shrugged and said 'we'll see' when I asked her if she expected to find a job.
My neighbour Antonio showing his baby goats to my daughters

And so, after a week of being there, pruning the pomegranate trees and digging out rocks from the driveway, it was time to return to the alternative reality of Denmark where people go on shopping trips to New York for the weekend and imagine that Spain is a giant gold course with cheap sangria.

I can feel the sirens calling again for us to stay and take over the farm again. A man did come and view it while we were there and I could be forgiven if I seemed unenthusiastic to sell it. I have to be realistic however. If it sells it sells and we move on with the next stage of our lives, but if it doesn't, well, let's just say there are worse things than joining Antonio of an evening to watch his doves wheel and circle in the valley below while we discuss irrigation systems and the pros and cons of soil rotavation as the fiery Spanish sun sets over the distant mountains.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

For real?

Just watched the evening news here in Denmark and they were reporting on the latest in the US Republican presidential candidacy race in Iowa, the big story being that someone called Rick Santorum is the front runner. DR (the Danish public broadcaster) had even sent a man with a microphone there who poked it in Mr Santorum's face as he finished a talking event, managing to ask him what he would do if he were president.

The slightly annoyed looking politician sputtered "I would make America great again, free enterprise and free markets, and restore Christian values."

In the following to-camera segment there followed the kind of Danish exchange only discernible to those who have lived here long enough to recognise it - that is, a kind of Victor Borge ironically raised eyebrow - as the reporter explained Mr Santorum's platform to the anchor. "Ban gay marriage. Block all abortion. Restore Christian values," and finally "Rick Santorum doesn't believe in global warming."

I half expected the two men to break out into loud guwaffs - as if they were talking about not believing the tooth fairy or Father Christmas. Luckily they cut away to an audience member just in time, a women, who said: "I'd vote for him because, y'know, marriage is between a man and a women, like it says in the Bible."

It's good to see those Republicans are debating the important issues of the day!

Interestingly enough, the following item was about the storm (real, not political) which is currently battering Denmark. Dozens of summer houses - i.e. wooden houses that Danes own but are not allowed to live in other than for holidays - are, as I type, at threat of being washed into the North Sea by surging tides and violent winds. Some have already succumbed and will be driftwood in the morning. "When I bought a house on the beach, I never expected this," explained one owner as he stood next to the wreckage.


Finally, the last thing to report from this little corner of Europe is that money has apparently been pouring into the country over the last few days as scared investors look for a safe haven. The Danish treasury is not particularly in need of the cash (compared to others) and has started selling bonds with zero yields i.e. investors will just be happy to see their money back again.

They have been flooded with offers.