Chris Worfolk's Blog


Political Islam

May 25th, 2016 | Humanism

political-islam

At West Yorkshire Humanists this month, Dr Afshin Shahi delivered us a talk on Political Islam. He discussed the origins of international jihadism, the structural and identity problems facing countries in the Middle East and the potential problems we will face in the future – especially as climate change increasingly causes draught in the region.

One of the key messages in the talk is that trying to combat radicalisation is only really treating the symptoms and not the cause. If we want to solve the problem in the long term we need to look at the problems of inequality and unfairness that allow these ideologies to take hold.

Should we start school later?

May 24th, 2016 | Thoughts

child-in-school

Compared to other European countries, especially the Nordics, we start school very early. In the UK, children start school the year they turn five, with many starting while they are still four. In Sweden, it’s seven. The Nordics also have much longer summer holidays: three months in Finland.

All of this does not make much difference to educational outcomes. The Pearson Education Index ranks Finland as the best education system in Europe (1st globally in 2012, 5th in 2014). The UK scores 6th overall, 2nd in Europe. You can compare this to the intense schooling that countries such as Singapore and South Korea and by the time everyone reaches undergraduate level, we see no significant differences between intensive schooling and Finland’s “turn up for a bit in the winter, when you’re older”.

Given that, it then seems sensible to reduce the amount of schooling and allow children more time “to be children” (rather than whatever it is they are being when they are in school). How we would implement this is not clear though.

Free, as in childcare

As a parent-to-be, I like the idea that by the time my child hits five, the state will provide me with free daycare for the next thirteen years of their life. It’s not that I don’t want to be a parent, but that I do have to have a job. And then spend most of my money on daycare. That is super-expensive for one child, let alone more. If you had to pay for child care until each of your kids was seven, well, you literally couldn’t. You can easily be looking at £600+ per month, per child. If you have two children, you are spending over 50% of your take-home pay on childcare even if you earn the average UK salary (and 50% of the population earns less!).

In Finland, this isn’t a problem. The state is mandated to provide childcare and it is on an means tested system. If you don’t earn enough you pay nothing, and the amount you might pay is capped, so even if you are a millionaire your childcare will be cheaper than the UK. It’s a great idea, and the UK has now followed suit, offering free childcare for three year olds.

However, note that Finland does not have a system where children stay at home and receive more parenting, they just go somewhere other than school.

Letting children be children

Given that most Finnish children go to daycare, the system is actually remarkably like the English one. You can argue that daycare is fundamentally different than school, because it is more relaxed and allows children to learn through play. However, I think this is being unfair to our schooling system.

While some structured learning does go on in reception, a large element of the learning takes place through learning through play as well. I don’t remember doing that much work in reception. I mostly did fun stuff.

There are advantages too

One possible advantage of having some structured learning in these years, is that it may help level the playing field across socioeconomic backgrounds. In the UK, everyone will go to reception the year they turn five and start doing some reading and writing.

This is not the case in the Nordics. If you are not attending school until you are six or seven, your learning will only start if it starts at home. For example, Elina could already read when she started attending school. This gave her an advantage over other children, who may not have even picked up a book before the age of seven.

Should we teach more foreign language?

May 23rd, 2016 | Essays, Thoughts

books

Learning foreign languages is a big thing these days. As we grow into a globalised society, children are being taught other languages from an earlier and earlier age. When I was at school I did French and German at high school. Now, you would typically start learning another language in primary school. This is in the UK, where we are far behind our European neighbours, who often speak several languages.

In Finland for example, you cannot earn a degree without speaking Swedish. So even when you go to university, you continue to take classes in Finnish, Swedish, and often English as well. In Luxembourg, you learn French, German and Luxembourgish (yes, they have their own language and it is taught in their schools).

However, all of this this focus on languages misses one quite important point: teaching children languages simply doesn’t work.

The failure of bilingualism

I remember very little of my French. In fact, the things I do know I probably re-learned last time I was there, rather than remembering. My German is poor too. Even my mum, who enjoys languages, speaks enough French to get by when they go there on holiday every year, would struggle to hold a conversation about anything meaningful.

It is not just us Brits however.

Have you ever spoken to a Canadian from the English-speaking regions? My money is on them having no French skills. They learn it in school: it’s an official language. In reality though, they forget it all as soon as they walk out the door.

Even Finland, greatest education system in the world, and with a dire need to learn another language because only 95% of their own population speak native Finnish (let alone other countries) has not been successful. English is strong in urban areas where they get to practice it, but my in-laws don’t speak English. Elina constantly bangs on about how poor her Swedish is. In Finnish Saturday school. I sit next to a Finland-Swedish woman, who’s Finnish is about as good as mine.

Of course many people are bilingual. However, this is primarly a result of them getting the opportunity to use and develop their skills in society: by living in a country and speaking the language. People who learn a language in an educational system do not develop those skills.

But what about the other benefits?

Learning a language does not provide the direct benefit of being able to speak that language, as discussed about. But what about the other benefits? Are there any? The answer is yes. Though what they are and how much benefit they provide is not always clear.

For example, being able to think in another language is highly beneficial because a language provides a construct for thinking. Therefore, by thinking in another language you are taking a different approach and that will improve your problem solving skills. However, this only works if you can think in that other language. As Elina found, you need to live in that language for years before you start thinking in it, rather than translating thoughts back to your native language.

Learning a language may also improve your cognitive skills, help keep your brain active through learning, help you understand your own language better and develop your multitasking abilities.

These are all genuine benefits and very worthwhile having.

However, if we accept that people don’t actually get the language skills out of the learning, they just get these benefits as a bi-product, we are essentially just using language classes as a proxy for these benefits.

Which is fine, they’re good benefits, but why not just teach a class in that? It might be that learning a language is the most effective way to do that. I doubt it though. Teaching a class specifically to develop these skills would intuitively seem the best way to develop these skills, rather than proxying it through another subject.

Summary

Teaching foreign languages develops important skills and those skills are certainly worthwhile having. However, given the lack of success in developing language skills, it may be that there is a more effective way to do this. Therefore, teaching languages may not be as important as is often claimed.

The Big Short (film)

May 22nd, 2016 | Distractions

the-big-short

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine is a 2011 book by Michael Lewis. It is one of his best, perhaps second only to Flash Boys. I reviewed it in 2014. I recently watched the film adaptation. Coupled with The Blind Side makes me look like I am on kind of Michael Lewis-film binge, which I only noticed afterward.

It is a reasonably good retelling of how it happened in the book. Not that you can do it justice in a two hour film, but it is a good summary. Occasionally one of the characters would break the forth wall and introduce celebrities offering sarcastic explanations of how the banks fucked us.

Speaking of fucking, the one thing that draw my attention was the phone call between Mark Baum and Greg Lippmann. I’m sure in the book Lippmann actually told Baum how he was going to fuck him, rather than the watered-down reconciliation in the film.

The film even had a moral point at the end, discussing how basically nothing has changed and we are just repeating the same old patterns. And that is why I am moving to Iceland in two weeks…

Leeds Half Marathon

May 21st, 2016 | Sport

leeds-half-marathon

I have considered doing a half marathon on and off for a couple of years. There are lots of good reasons not to do it though: for example it’s really hard, hurts a lot and requires a lot of training. And all you get out of it is the feeling that you have done, which isn’t that amazing, because it’s only half a full marathon.

However, with a less intense flag football season this year, being on a fitness drive, and this being my last chance before a tiny human started cutting into my free time, it seemed like a good year to go for it.

Half marathons are a whole new level from 10ks. 10k is pretty easy. If you run regularly, which I do, you don’t really need to do that much training. When I’m going through a good period, a 5k and a 10k is my weekly programme. Half marathons are a step up. After 10k my knees start to go. I get back pain. Things start to chafe and bladder control is put to the test.

Being on the 8th of May, this meant I was doing most of my training in March and April. If you will remember, April was really cold. I did most of my training in the early morning or evening, in not much above freezing.

april-weather

Roll on May, and a week before the marathon it suddenly becomes incredibly hot (for Britain) and everyone is scrabbling around for barbecues. Including me. On the day in question, it was 23 degrees. I had done all my training with my leggings on, to help support my knees, so I didn’t want to change it for the day. Which made for a warm experience.

marathon-weather

I had put my target time down as 2:15:00, but quickly had to re-evaluate this when I realised I had not factor in all the hills (I run up the canal in training, which is relatively flat). Then again when it suddenly hit 23 degrees. In the end I ran a 2:28:00. I think I would have been disappointed to slip over 2:30:00, so this was fine. And sure, there were people who ran it in less than half of that time. But how many children did they high-five? I mean, anyone can win the slalom if they don’t go round the flags.

I was so tired by the time I finished. I found a patch of ground in the shade and sat down to take a drink. After a few minutes I got up to go find Elina, only to realise I was going to have to sit down again and eat some snacks from the goodie bag before I was going to be in a position to walk anywhere.

chris-dying

Luckily, once I had regained the use of my legs, my beautiful support crew was there to greet me with more drinks and snacks. We took 17 photos, the one below was the best we could get.

chris-at-end

The advantage of living in town is that I could go home, have a quick shower, and then go back out for lunch. As we walked out again I passed a number of other runners who were very confused by my combination of jeans and finisher’s t-shirt. We ended up at Blackhouse, where I highly recommend the t-bone as recovery steak, and the rib eye if your pregnant wife needs a well-done piece of beef.

One thing I like about the Run For All series is how well organised they are. I’ve only run the Leeds 10 and Abbey Dash, so I don’t have a huge range of comparisons, but Run For All seem to do a good job: clearly-marked pacers, easy to access water stations, starts on time and you get your result within seconds of crossing the line.

Has this experience inspired me to run a full-length marathon? Dear god no.

The Time Machine

May 20th, 2016 | Books

The Time Machine is a science fiction novel written by H. G. Wells. It was published in 1895 and tells the story of a man who travels into the distance future to find that humanity has split into two separate species.

It feels more modern than it should. The ideas are rich and relevant. I had to keep reminding myself that it was not merely a piece that attempted to invoke Victorian society as a backdrop: it was genuinely written in these times.

It was quite a short read; about half the length of a typical novel. Very much enjoyable.

the-time-machine

The Expectant Dad’s Survival Guide

May 19th, 2016 | Books

The Expectant Dad’s Survival Guide is a pregnancy book by Rom Kemp.

It cuts a nice channel between the super-factual but not very engaging What To Expect, and the highly engaging but far less informative Fatherhood: The Truth.

It covers the practical stuff that you need, what to expect during labour and the first few months after the birth. As with other books, he has surveyed his friends to back each point up with a range of anecdotes. More interestingly, there is also advice from a midwife (who is also a father himself), The book does a far-better-than-average job of not patronising (no “oh wow, you want to be involved with your baby – but you’re a man!” that is common with pregnancy books).

expectant-dads-survival-guide

Who are the best national ice hockey teams?

May 18th, 2016 | Sport

ice-hockey

The ice hockey world championships are currently taking place in Moscow. No prizes for guessing who the Worfolk household is supporting. Finland won gold in 2011, and took a silver in 2014, but failed to score any medal last year.

To predict our chances, I took the medal data from the past ten years and graphed it.

ice-hockey-national-teams

The competition has been going for almost a hundred years now. In comparison to the early days, it is a pretty open contest. In the first 26 years, Canada took gold in 18 of them. Great Britain also took a gold in 1936! From 1963 onwards, the Soviets were unbeatable. Until 1987, when Sweden took gold, the only other team to beat the Russians were Czechoslovakia: the Soviet Union took the other 18 golds.

Today, Russia remain the dominant force in ice hockey. In the past decade they have taken as many golds as their nearest rivals, Sweden and Canada, put together. They are far from unbeatable though. In three of those years, they failed to bring home a medal. Sad as I am to admit it, Sweden has the edge over Finland at the moment. Though a gold at this year’s event would put them clear ahead.

The “big five”: Russia, Sweden, Canada, Finland and Czech Republic win basically everything. This is a suprise to many people, who assume that because the United States’s NHL is the biggest ice hockey league in the world, their national team must be really good. But they’re not. Two bronzes, and a silver each for Slovakia and Switzerland are the only medals to go elsewhere.

Eurovision 2016 wrap-up

May 17th, 2016 | Distractions

eurovision-2016

So, Eurovision 2016 is over and Ukraine have won the day. Now that Russia haven’t won, I can start enjoying Sergey Lazarev’s “You Are The Only One” for the quite good song that it really is. There were no obviously rubbish songs this year. I think that is the problem with the semi-final system: it filters out all of the really crazy stuff.

Sweden rocked our world

I thought Sweden did a brilliant job of hosting. It was a little different, and definitely for the better. I am pleased Justin Timberlake performed. Not because I am a big Timberlake fan, but I hope that it will lend a note of legitimacy to the contest that will encourage bigger names to take part, which can only benefit the UK (with our massive stock of big artists).

They also stole the show with the best song of the night…

The UK did not do very well

Alas. It was looking quite good for Joe & Jake when the judges’ votes came in, but the public did not feel the same way. It’s a shame because I think it is one of the better songs we have put up recently.

The new voting system is odd

I think I prefer the old system. The new system does keep the surprise until right at the very end, but then it also makes the rest feel a bit pointless. They have to rush round the other countries, with only one score announcement each and the tedious reminder to get on wit hit. Do they not brief the people giving the scores beforehand so they know to just get on with it?

I was hoping we could make some FiveThirtyEight-style paths to victory which showed how a country was doing compared to how it should have been doing. For example, if Belarus gives us two points and Russia eight points, on the face of it, that would seem to put Russia ahead. But it doesn’t of course, because they would normally give Russia 12 points and us nothing. It would be interesting to model, but the new system makes it impossible (it would have been difficult before anyway).

The public have very different opinions

Poland, who you will remember entered a rubbish song, were rightly at the bottom when the judges’ scores had been set up. Yet when the public vote came in, they were third from top. This happened to them a few years ago when their churning milkmaids were shunned by the British jury but very popular with the British public. This time, on a European-wide scale.

I’ve come round to songs

I initially shunned Laura Tesoro’s “What’s The Pressure” when listening beforehand. However, seeing it in the contest brought it to life.

It’s a fun, upbeat song and I like the retro disco theme. Even more impressive, that girl has moves! Have you tried doing a dance that choreographed while belting out a song like that? It is damn hard to sing and play an instrument at the same time, and I imagine singing and dancing is harder.

Also, Jamie-Lee’s “Ghost” was so bizarre that I can’t get it out of my head.

As Graham Norton pointed out, they clearly had a lot of costume ideas: and liked them all.

Nordic Cookbook

May 16th, 2016 | Books, Food

the-nordic-cookbook

The Nordic Cookbook is a book on Nordic cooking by Magnus Nilsson. The first thing you notice about it, is it’s size. It’s not quite A4, but it’s not far off. The depth of it is even more impressive. It weights in at over 750 pages. It’s so heavy: a real struggle to lift with one hand.

It covers Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

It is well presented. Being so big, it does not have great structural integrity. The spine moves around a lot. It stays open really well though. It also comes with two ribbons for saving your place.

The chapters, organised by food type, are broken up with full-page photographs from across the Nordics. Many of which are very beautiful. It’s printed in quite a dull matte.

The recipes themselves are poor. Nilsson starts the book by explaining that you won’t be able to make a lot of the recipes because you will not be able to get the ingredients or do the cooking methods. He’s right. There are maybe five recipes to a spread, so there are probably somewhere in the region of 800 recipes in this book. How many did I manage to make? 19.

This is in-part by design. He explains that is a guide to Nordic food, rather than a recipe book. Some of the stuff is just boring. Everything is served with boiled potatoes. Some stuff you have to cook for six hours.

You also need some local knowledge. There is typically a paragraph or two for each recipe, one explaining where the dish comes from and a brief one explaining what to do. Other than that though, you are pretty much on your own. Photos are few and far between. Occasionally you get a full-page photo with six dishes on it, each one labelled. So there is sometimes a pictorial guide, sometimes not.

If you are after a book that captures the essence of Nordic cuisine, tells you how to make authentic recipes and contains some beautiful photography, this is a good book to get. As a straight-up cookbook, it’s less useful.