final solution

During the Holocaust the Nazi regime killed somewhere between 250,000 and 1,000,000 gypsies1, a greater proportion of the gypsy population than of the Jews.

While the Jewish holocaust brought widespread sympathy (even if muted by Israeli actions now-a-days) and a recognition of the evil of anti-Semitism.   However, prejudice and persecution of gypsies has if anything hardened.   Since the Second World War, nomadic life styles in the UK have been made all but illegal by the banning of camping on common land that was accepted (albeit often reluctantly) in previous centuries.  Legitimate camping has been made ever more difficult as gypsies are usually refused planning permission to buy their own land, and in recent years UK local authorities’ duty to provide at least some official camping places has been relaxed, meaning that in most parts of the country there is no legal place to stop.

The front page of the Sunday Express reports the latest attempt to ‘crackdown’ on the ancient way of life of this people, turning what was until now civil prosecutions into criminal law.  I had thought the Cameron-Clegg coalition we had elected had been between Conservative and Liberal parties, but it seems more like the BNP.

Britain, and we are not alone, is still seeking to finish the work that Hitler started.

  1. Because gypsies were often off record, it is harder to obtain the exact number, hence the wide variation.  For more details, see  “Gypsies in the Holocaust” at the Jewish Virtual Library and Porajmos (the devouring) at Wikipedia[back]

just counting

I have been an academic for 25 years and I am an academic by vocation, because it seems right, because God has given gifts and I try to see how to use them for the best. Of course vocation is only part of life and for around the first half or so of that time family took precedence over vocation, as is right.  However, for the past 8–10 years, academic life has been dominated by  teaching and in particular by the training, nurture and encouragement of research students.

It has been a privilege to see the growth and flowering of so many individuals.  At times hard, speaking soothing words whilst quaking within, Christmases with a cracker in one hand and a draft thesis in the other.  But it is amazing to see the transformations, like chrysalis into butterfly.

Recently, however, I was reading our faculty guidelines for workload allocation.  Activities are allocated to teaching, administration and research.  It transpires that the supervision of research students is not 50:50 research:training, not even 75:25, but wholly, only, and solely research.  That is all the nurture and training are null and void; research students are but fodder for my personal research agenda and the word ‘student’ a misnomer.

My head says this is simply counting, a simplification to make things add up, and yet my heart is saddened, sickened, broken by the notion as if ten years of my life were eaten and then spewed out.

It does not lessen the wonder I have seen in so many people and yet saddens me profoundly .

and they said they would protect front line services

Just been at a public meeting about imminent cuts in the school here on Tiree. In a small school like this (120 pupils) losing several posts isn’t just a matter of shrinking slightly, but means that whole subjects, such as French, drop off the curriculum.

There are two issues here.  One is for the island and other small communities, as the funding formulae assume class sizes that are untenable in a small school; that is making sure the cuts that come, and we know they must, are applied fairly.

The second is  wider, remembering that all parties in the election promised to protect ‘front line services’; this is part of  a cut across all education provision in the region – everywhere there are less teachers … and this is before the harshest budget cuts begin.

update: (im)migration Holyrood vs Westminster

Since post last week on migration Holyrood vs Westminster, found link on the BBC website to the  the BBC News ‘Reality Check’ on immigration that showed net outflow of non-EU.  That is migration is out of the country not in!  Also Mark Easton’s blog @ the BBC, which gives more info.  Bottom line is that the outflow is even greater then the figure of 8000 given on BBC News.

language, dreams and the Jabberwocky circuit

If life is always a learning opportunity, then so are dreams.

Last night I both learnt something new about language and cognition, and also developed a new trick for creativity!

In the dream in question I was in a meeting. I know, a sad topic for a dream, and perhaps even sadder it had started with me filling in forms!  The meeting was clearly one after I’d given a talk somewhere as a person across the table said she’d been wanting to ask me (obviously as a sort of challenge) if there was a relation between … and here I’ll expand later … something like evolutionary and ecological something.  Ever one to think on my feet I said something like “that’s an interesting question”, but it was also clear that the question arose partly because the terms sounded somewhat similar, so had some of the sense of a rhyming riddle “what’s the difference between a jeweller and a jailor”.  So I went on to mention random metaphors as a general creativity technique and then, so as to give practical advice, suggested choosing two words next to each other in a dictionary and then trying to link them.

Starting with the last of these, the two words in a dictionary method is one I have never suggested to anyone before, not even thought about. It was clearly prompted by the specific example where the words had an alliterative nature, and so was a sensible generalisation, and after I woke realised was worth suggesting in future as an exercise.  But it was entirely novel to me, I had effectively done the exactly sort of thinking / problem solving that I would have done in the real life situation, but while dreaming.

One of the reasons I find dreams fascinating is that in some ways they are so normal — we clearly have no or little sensory input, and certain parts of our brain shut down (e.g. motor control to stop us thrashing about too much in our sleep) — but other parts seem to function perfectly as normal.  I have written before about the cognitive nature of dreams (including maybe how to model dreaming) and what we may be able to learn about cognitive function because not everything is working, rather like running an engine when it is out of the car.

In this dream clearly the ‘conscious’ (I know an oxymoron) problem-solving part of the mind was operating just the same as when awake.  Which is an interesting fact about dreaming, but  I was already aware of it from previous dreams.

In this dream it was the language that was interesting, the original conundrum I was given.  The problem came as I woke up and tried to reconstruct exactly what my interlocutor had asked me.  The words clearly *meant* evolutionary and ecological, but in the dream had ‘sounded’ even closer aurally, more like evolution and elocution (interesting to consider, images of God speaking forth creation).

So how had the two words sound more similar in my dream than in real speech?

For this we need the Jabberwocky circuit.

There is a certain neurological condition that arises, I think due to tumours or damage in particular areas of the grain, which disrupts particular functions of language.   The person speaks interminably; the words make sense and the grammar is flawless, but there is no overall sense.  Each small snippet of speech is fine, just there is no larger scale linkage.

When explaining this phenomenon to people I often evoke the Jabberwocky circuit.  Now I should note that this is not a word used by linguists, neurolinguists, or cognitive scientists, and is a gross simplification, but I think captures the essence of what is happening.  Basically there is a part of your mind (the conscious, thinking bit) that knows what to say and it asks another bit, the Jabberwocky circuit, to actually articulate the words.  The Jabberwocky circuit knows about the sound form of words and how to string them together grammatically, but basically does what it is told.  The thinking bit needs to know enough about what can be said, but doesn’t have time to deal with precisely how they are strung together and leaves that to Jabberwocky.

Even without brain damage we can see occasional slips in this process.  For example, if you are talking to someone (and even more if typing) and there is some other speech audible (maybe radio in the background), occasionally a word intrudes into your own speech that isn’t part of what you meant to say, but is linked to the background intruding sound.

Occasionally too, you find yourself stopping in mid sentence when the words don’t quite make sense, for example, when what would be reasonable grammar overlaps with a colloquialism, so that it no longer makes sense.  Or you may simply not be able to say a word that you ‘know’ is there and insert “thingy” or “what’s it called” where you should say “spanner”.

The relationship between the two is rather like a manager and someone doing the job: the manager knows pretty much what is possible and can give general directions, but the person doing the job knows the details.  Occasionally, the instructions get confused (when there is intruding background speech) or the manager thinks something is possible which turns out not to be.

Going back to the dream I thought I ‘heard’ the words, but examining more closely after I woke I realised that no word would actually fit.  I think what is happening is that during dreaming (and maybe during imagined dialogue while awake), the Jabberwocky circuit is not active, or not being attended to.  It is like I am hearing the intentions to speak of the other person, not articulated words.  The pre-Jabberwocky bit of the mind does know that there are two words, and knows what they *mean*.  It also knows that they sound rather similar at the beginning (“eco”, “evo”), but not exactly what they sound like throughout.

I have noticed a similar thing with the written word.  Often in dreams I am reading a book, sheet of paper or poster, and the words make sense, but if I try to look more closely at the precise written form of the text, I cannot focus, and indeed often wake at that point1.  That is the dream is creating the interpretation of the text, but not the actual sensory form, although if asked I would normally say that I had ‘seen’ the words on the page in the dream, it is more that I ‘see’ that there are words.

Fiona does claim to be able to see actual letters in dreams, so maybe it is possible to recreate more precise sensory images, or maybe this is just the difference between simply writing and reading, and more conscious spelling-out or attending to words, as in the well known:

Paris in the
the spring

Anyway, I am awake now and the wiser.  I know a little more about dreaming, which cognitive functions are working and which are not;  I know a little more about the brain and language; and I know a new creativity technique.

Not bad for a night in bed.

What do you learn from your dreams?

  1. The waking is interesting, I have often noticed that if the ‘logic’ of the dream becomes irreconcilable I wake.  This is a long story in itself, but I think similar to the way you get a ‘breakdown’ situation when things don’t work as expected and are forced to think about what you are doing.  It seems like the ‘kick’ that changes your mode of thinking often wakes you up![back]

migration Holyrood vs Westminster

So refreshing watching the Scottish election debate last night.  The audience there saw immigration as  a positive thing, bringing fresh skills and wage earners (and tax payers) to the country.

This is in such sharp contrast to the UK general election leaders debates, where questions about immigration were  all of the “what are you going to do about …” kind and prompted the prospective prime ministers of all parties into a competition as to who could put the boot in most vigorously.  To be fair, the least anti-migrant was Nick Clegg including his memorable attempt to get David Cameron to admit that most migration was from EU countries and so not going to be affected by any of their policies.

After that UK debate the Telegraph challenged Nick Clegg’s claim that 80% of migration was non-EU.  However, BBC News 24 had a sort of ‘facts behind the claims’ slot and in their figures the net non-EU migration was actually negative; that is in the last year there were more non-EU people leaving the country than entering.  Unfortunately BBC News don’t have this information on their web site to link to 🙁  My guess is the difference in the figures depends on whether you take into account student visas where there will be a very large influx and outflux each year, and whether you simply look at  total immigration in a year or net migration.  Certainly the BBC News figures suggested that all the major parties were overestimating the ‘problem’.

The great thing in the Scottish debate was that this was not viewed as a ‘problem’ at all.

warming to Gordon

Yesterday, my postal vote went off and lacking a Plaid Cymru candidate far from my homeland I made do with the best of the rest. This is perhaps the most exciting election in the UK for many years as it seems likely that one result will be a change in the voting system, so that in future elections I will not feel I need to vote ‘tactically’, but more for the people, parties and policies that I most deeply support.

While this did not take me to the Labour fold at this election, one of the most surprising things about the general election campaign has been that throughout it, not withstanding gaffs along the way, I have found myself warming to Gordon Brown

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