Dominic Cummings’ skunkworks

Dom-Cummings_outside-No-10Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

The Government is advertising for the head of a new “analytical unit” in Downing Street to be called 10ds.  “ds” stands for Data Science, but could, of course, mean Downing Street itself.  The role and person specification read as if written by Dominic Cummings:

   10ds is a pseudo start-up within Number 10 designed to drive forward the quantitative revolution. The current plan is to establish a data engineering team, data science team, a skunkworks and an analytical deep dive unit.  

A skunkworks, according to Everett Rogers, is an “enriched environment that is intended to help a small group of individuals design a new idea by escaping routine organizational procedures”.   The term originated during World War II when a small group of closely guarded Lockheed R&D workers working in Burbank, California had to endure the smell from a nearby plastics factory.  

The term typically refers to technology projects developed in semi-secrecy, and so it is surprising to be told that this unit will be at the heart of No 10.  It will bring together

a team which will focus on supporting number 10 to provide the best analysis and evidence; a data science team to help serve long time problems and empower its use across Whitehall; a data engineering team to provide high-quality timely data, creating more effective decision-making.  

Elsewhere in the document, the  term “skunkworks” appears to embrace the whole operation.  The vision of 10ds is “a skunkworks type organisation that builds innovative software to allow the PM to make data driven decisions and thereby transform government”.

It appears that the Head of the Unit will have privileged access to the Prime Minister “to advise on the PM’s priority decisions where analysis is critical, such as how to optimally achieve net-zero”.  He or she will also be expected to be creative, “to look through a different lens”.  A key part of this role is “working with multiple teams in coming up with modern innovative ways of solving the problem”.

Besides creativity, there must be scientific method.   “This role focuses on reaching the right answer based on the best available data. As such, this role prioritises data interpretation not data fitting.”   This sounds right, but data are never neutral.  The data available depend on who has provided them and for what purposes.  How will this new unit improve on existing procedures of data collection and analysis?

The document preserves an air of semi-secrecy by its vagueness.    What, for example, is the referent of “its” in “a data science team to help serve long time problems and empower its use across Whitehall” (the long quotation above)?   More importantly, what will be the relationship between the skunkworks and the existing Civil Service, which deals with public administration, and with the Office for National Statistics?  

Dominic Cummings clearly wants to reinforce his power base at the heart of government.  But it looks as if this new unit could be another distraction from the true business of government.

How my home movie became a MAGA hit

LA_Griffith-observatory_1964

In the mid 1970s, I worked as an exchange teacher in a Los Angeles high school.  It was an exciting and formative year for me and my family.   1976 was the bicentenary of American independence, and signs and flags everywhere announced “Spirit of ’76”.  There was a palpable feeling of optimism.  The Vietnam war was over, the Viking mission to Mars was a success, and the social and technological future looked bright.  Driving the open freeways (justifiably celebrated by the British architect Reyner Banham) to the beautiful beaches of southern California, we felt endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

LA-cleanair-roadsigns

But we knew we were fortunate. The difference between the standard of living in our Orange County suburb and that of neighbouring communities was obvious. School districts were still segregated, and minority rights remained a political issue.  Coming from the UK, we were also struck by the alien religiosity of American life: the city where we lived had far more churches than bars.  The land of the free seemed remarkably unequal, and the separation of church and state required by the Constitution seemed to have amplified rather than reduced the power of religion.

I had brought with me to California my vintage (made in 1939) clockwork powered Bolex 16mm movie camera, so I began to record my impressions.  As a visiting educator, I was encouraged to visit schools in other communities, and I took my camera with me.  In those pre-video days, movie cameras did not usually record sound, so I recorded on tape a good deal of music and talk radio.  When I returned to the UK, I put my visual and audio impressions together so as to try to convey my mixed feelings.  The result, The spirit of 77 in Los Angeles, has an upbeat drive culminating in an orgasmic Disneyland firework display, but the scenes of urban poverty and deprivation have a counterpoint of commercial and religious radio. 

Screenshot 2020-05-09 at 21.23.54

I entered the movie for a film festival in 1978, where it was judged to require an “English voice” to explain the content – an aesthetic choice I had specifically rejected.  I showed it to family and friends as often as I dared try their patience, but for many years the film remained in a can – until the advent of YouTube.  I uploaded a digitised version in 2012. 

To view Spirit of ’77 in Los Angeles, click here

In the last eight years, the film has been viewed 160,000 times.  Currently it is receiving about 800 views a day.   The 900 published comments suggest the reasons for this popularity.   One recent post has caught what I was trying to express:

What a powerful look back at a time when people actually had hope for a brighter future. The overexposed shots really add to that 70’s vibe. The juxtaposition between rich/poor and the middle class…brilliantly done! The pop culture references really were great! I really felt like I was experiencing life in ‘77.  Reality is that much uglier now.

Many responders compare life as depicted to the present:

Everyone is skinny or fit in this video. Processed food wasn’t as rampant as is today. Obesity wasn’t even a thing

No computers, no mobile phones — a lot of time to spend with family and friends and trying to find interesting things to do during the summer breaks. The 70’s and 80’s sure was different and i loved them decades for it.

Many blame technology for reducing social and family interaction:

How great our life was in the 70´s! we didn’t have all this technology and that gave us great opportunities to meet other people face to face, not like today. I simply loved this clip!

ahh… the good times, when people were outside and kids playing because there was no social media. everyone is stuck on electronic gadgets. shame

Nostalgia for a better past is frequent:

Beautiful. Wish I could step into the screen 🙂

A wonderful time capsule of an America long gone.

 don’t know why I am such a nostalgic person but I feel an extreme nostalgic and dreamy feeling towards this I guess I will just imagine and enjoy my time

However, many comments stress the negatives as well as the positives of the 1970s:

Society as a whole was not simpler in the 70’s. The Vietnam conflict defined the culture, and in the early 70’s we had airline hijackings every other week. Alcohol and tobacco advertisements were unfettered and everywhere. But if you were a kid growing up in the middle class, it was a good time.

All seems idyllic until you see the poverty-stricken areas of South Central L.A.   Meanwhile, the denizens of Beverly Hills, Bel Air, Malibu & other tony spots of SoCal were blissfully unaware of such poor areas in existence.

The 70’s were great, one minor glitch, segregation, school busing, racism, cop beatings, and just plain hatred.  And the pollution!

Some responders attempt to find political and economic reasons for  the difference between life today and in 1977:  

It was a time when we loved ourselves and every one around us, and people genuinely believed that the government’s main purpose was to govern ‘for the people.’ We watched as American citizens from all walks of life would openly, candidly, express their opinions, and make a difference that you could see in action.

Back then, people were happier and healthier…corporate greed has ruined this country.

I wasn’t even alive in 77 but I would love to go back to LA between 1950-1970s… any of those times would have been the best time to live in LA, cause I would have bought a house and held on to it.

More alarming are the frequent comments that draw on the narratives associated with Make America Great Again.   The many racist remarks are astonishingly ignorant of history, and I frequently have to delete offensive comments that have evaded the YouTube censor.

Before California became a part of Mexico 😃

back when whites ruled and wasn’t invaded to death

They didn’t start out ‘poverty stricken’. They moved poor blacks from Alabama & Mississippi to the area and made it that way.

But one recent commentator had a better grasp of history:

4:27 – “A resolution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.” Now 40+ years later, it’s worse than ever. TWO MILLION Palestinians locked up in the open air prison called Gaza.

Many blame liberal ideas for the decline:

The days before 9/11. The days before the satanic deep state takeover. The days before identity politics. The days before SJWs [social justice warriors].

The Left have destroyed yet another once beautiful place.

This is right before Southern California (including the suburbs) became a holding tank for illegals, gangs, drugs and liberal indoctrination.   

Some posters merely recite anti-democratic slogans:

Cultural diversity ruined LA

Let’s Make America Great Again

Liberal progressive infestation

These respondents don’t understand that the agony of contemporary American life is not down to immigration or democratic ideas, which have both been fundamental to the US from the beginning.  Economic and political policy over the last 30 years in both the US and the UK – since Reagan and Thatcher – has enriched the corporate, financial and media oligarchies at the expense of the people.  To these centres of power, Trump is a useful tool to incite populism and direct the fury of the masses against minorities, “libtards” and “snowflakes”.

I’ll leave the last word to a recent commentator.

I see a video of white ppl enjoying LA’s fruit while living comfortably keeping minorities away from the same American dream. Even with all that said it look like great times no matter the economic and social climate.

“When will you come back?” – training teachers in Zambia

Lusaka traffic jam, detergent hoarding

Nearly five decades ago, when I left university, I wanted to teach in Zambia. The prospect offered adventure in an apparently stable African country, using my interests in language and education to do some good. But other interests and adventures intervened: I got married and began my career teaching in England. This year, I fulfilled my Zambian ambition.

Despite its long name, TTCSZ (Training Teachers for Community Schools in Zambia) is a small charity, set up in England on the initiative of Lyn Hall from Huddersfield University with her friends Dr. Christine Mushibwe and her husband Shadrick.  The charity has trustees in both the UK and Zambia. The purpose of the charity, as the name suggests, is to prepare local teachers for the challenging task of teaching large classes in primary schools which are not funded by the state. I understand that “community schools” provide more than 40% of primary education in Zambia; perhaps another 50% of schools are state funded, and there is a small elite private sector. My three-week tour entailed my working in Lusaka during the Easter holidays with Lyn and local teacher trainers; we trained 26 local community school teachers in a classroom in a private Catholic school.

Divine Providence Convent School sign

Despite my career as a teacher of English in both the UK and the US, during which I wrote a doctoral study of adolescent literacy practices and became the editor of an International journal, I was apprehensive at the prospect of volunteer work in Zambia. I had never worked in Africa, I had never taught children of primary school age, and I had never trained teachers of such children. I felt almost totally unprepared.

Like the callow trainee I had been 50 years earlier, I turned to the textbooks and other materials provided. TTCSZ has a good collection of books about teaching in Africa, and Lyn has worked with previous volunteers to flesh out the Zambian statutory syllabus with detailed schemes of work. Amongst the teaching approaches recommended, I recognised Pie Corbett’s ideas on teaching writing in the primary school, along with material from the UK national literacy strategy on the teaching of early reading through phonics. My work involved not only training teachers on methods of teaching English also on the theory and practice of learning. Here the TTCSZ resources were especially strong, providing clear and interesting ideas and activities to develop trainees’ understanding of the ways in which young people learn.

My daily schedule started at 8:45 in the morning, when we shared breakfast with the trainees. The first session, from 9:30 until 12:00, concerned the teaching of English. After lunch, the second session, from 12:30 until 14:30, focused on learning theory. Then, after a short tea break, I worked with Lyn and other volunteers to instruct the trainers in ICT skills. TTCSZ provided laptops for these sessions: there were no computers in the community schools, and few of the trainees had a laptop at home, although nearly all owned a simple mobile phone. The day finished between 16:30 and 17:00, but the teachers seemed reluctant to leave, and most arrived in the morning well in advance of the scheduled start.

Zambia ICT Students

The first session on the first day started with introductions and and an overview of the two weeks’ training. The teachers learned that they would be assessed at the end of the second week by giving a short lesson to the group on a teaching topic of their choice; they had to complete a detailed plan for this, with rationale for each activity and its sequencing. This initial session lasted for about an hour, and then Lyn introduced me as the volunteer English teacher from the UK.  I read Michael Rosen’s ‘We’re going on a Bear Hunt’ to them and spoke briefly about the unity of English: that speaking, listening, reading and writing were not discrete “skills” but different facets of meaning making.

But it was not my English teaching that got me into the swing of teaching in Zambia and reassured me that I would succeed in what I had undertaken. Early in the first week, while teaching the second daily session, on learning theory, I suddenly felt inspired. I had already noticed the strong oral disposition of the trainees. Some of the initial sessions were taken by local teachers who have completed the TTCSZ training in previous years; the trainees responded to these almost as if they were in church, repeating the tutors’ more portentous statements and participating in enthusiastic performance of sound-letter correspondences, poems and songs. So, when I approached the theory of learning, including its humanistic, behaviourist, constructivist, visual, audio, and kinaesthetic facets (the last three collectively known as V.A.K), it suddenly occurred to me to summarise these in song:

Humanism … (two beats)
Behaviourism … (two beats)
Constructivism … (two beats)
V.A.K! V.A.K! V.A.K !

Very simple, but it provided an aide-memoire to the class, who enjoyed repeating it. I forgot about this ‘song’ in succeeding sessions, but was gratified to find the trainees repeating it as part of a tribute on their last day.

The reason for the teachers’ strong oral disposition became clear to me as the week went on. As I suggested above, it was evident that practices of church attendance influenced their teaching styles. I was aware that some of the trainees were also church ministers; indeed, one drew out in conversation the verbal similarity between “preacher” and ”teacher”. These would have gained an income from the church that would offset the little or no payment they received from their school. I was struck also by the enthusiasm with which the trainees from earlier years (who were working as tutors alongside us) had adopted the UK national literacy strategy recommendations that pupils should use sound and gesture to reinforce their learning of letter-sound correspondences. They would exclaim <a> as in <ant>, running their fingers up and down their arms to simulate a pincer movement of ants; or wave their arm in the shape of an <s>, while making the hissing sound of a snake. But this came from more than a liking of performance. I realised, after speaking to teachers during the first few days, that their schools had few if any books. To motivate and involve the students, sometimes in book-less classes of 50 or more, oral and gestural rituals were invaluable.

Teacher holding books

I slowly came to realise that the teachers’ enthusiasm for the work, and their obvious liking of their visiting tutors from England, derived from our offering them a vision of a world where books and facilities were plentiful and teaching approaches correspondingly sophisticated. Every day, we took into the classroom several large boxes of picture books and other resources; they were delighted to receive sacks of books and learning resources prepared by Education students at Huddersfield. We involved them in group discussion, making presentations and other activities that are, let us hope, still common in English primary schools despite the attempts of government to reintroduce a Victorian regime of drills and skills. One headteacher in particular, who I learned later ran possibly the most deprived school in Lusaka, with neither electricity nor water, was passionately committed to her pupils and hungry to learn progressive ways of working.

Jack with book bag

This realisation, towards the end of my first week, gave me the spur and knowledge I needed to complete my work in a way I knew would be valuable. I would indeed be able to teach English as a unified subject, and encourage the teachers to be proactive in their extraordinary difficult situations. If the schools lacked books, we would make them. The teachers would engage in meaningful writing and produce resources for their pupils and themselves. We would draw on both personal experience and cultural tradition, and the intersections between these. English lessons became occasions when the teachers told each other and then the whole class significant moments from their lives, and then wrote them in whatever narrative or poetic forms they chose. They also used me and each other as their audience for traditional stories that often featured mythological human/animal characters.

young man writing

class focused on writing

By the beginning of the second week, we were nearly ready to make books. At Lyn’s suggestion, we bought several roles of plain anaglypta and cut them to make multiple-paged “big books”. The two and a half hour session when the teachers worked on these had an atmosphere of collaborative concentration that any hard-pressed UK teacher would die for. Because we had spent several hours in preparation before the teachers finally wrote up their stories, many of the books were very well-designed, interweaving text and image appropriately. However, most of the stories were very unlike stories written for children in the west. Poverty, illness and death (sometimes associated with HIV) were not unusual themes; in some stories, but by no means all, God or a sprit was invoked as a support. It was clear that, in Zambia, stories do not necessarily end happily.

Zilole title page

I photocopied every story and hope to publish some of them to raise money for the community schools. The teachers gave me and Lyn a wonderful send-off, with singing, dancing and presents: I have never felt so appreciated as a teacher. They asked us: “When will you come back?” – and I hope to return next year. Given the degree of poverty amongst these schools and these people, it is very encouraging, especially in these times in the west, to see the spirit of hope and productiveness that sustains teachers and pupils in conditions that we would find less than intolerable. But it is also an indictment of the state of the world that these appalling disparities are allowed to continue.

Us

 

Jordan Peele’s Us opens for the Easter holidays on numerous screens, as suits a film that is at the same time a genre horror with nods to Don Siegel, Steven King and Wes Craven and a powerful metaphor of the age of Trump and Brexit.  In 1986, young Adelaide King (Lupita Nyong’o) watches a TV commercial for the charity event ‘Hands Across America’, which enlisted 6.5 million people to form a coast-to-coast human chain to oppose poverty.  She visits a boardwalk funfair with her parents and is traumatised by meeting a mirror-image self in a deserted fun house.  Returning thirty years later to the area with her husband Gabe and children Zora and Jason, she and her family are attacked in their guesthouse by four uncanny doppelgängers in red jumpsuits, armed with giant scissors. These are ‘the Tethered’, an underclass condemned, like the Morlocks in H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine (filmed in 1960 by George Pal), to live underground deprived of the life chances of their surface-world contemporaries. These, however, are not so much ‘other’ as the same.  During a night of threat and violent conflict, a terrified Adelaide asks her alter-ego Red who the Tethered are. Red answers, ‘We’re Americans.’ And, in a poignant twist, it is finally revealed that Adelaide is in fact Red, who took her place that night in the funhouse. As the family drive away, the Tethered spread across the country in an an echo of ‘Hands Across America’.

The film has moments of unexpected humour.  During the fight, someone screams at Ophelia, an artificial intelligence like Apple’s Alexa, to call the police: she responds by playing the track  ‘Fuck the Police’.  In a brief break from conflict, Gabe references Home Alone; the children have never heard of the film, and Adelaide tells her husband that conveniently placed electronic toys won’t stop the doppelgängers.  More portentous is a resonant reference to Jeremiah 11:11 (‘I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them’).  As no-one has hearkened to them, the Tethered have risen against structural deprivation.

Doing a Turing test

Turing-HarrisonFord

Recently I initiated an online chat with Apple support because I had a problem with my iPhone. The agent, Jayson, told me to turn the device off and on, but this didn’t fix the issue. Jayson then suggested I have the phone serviced by Apple, and arranged an appointment with the ‘technicians and geniuses’ in a local store. I thanked him and this exchange ensued:

Jayson
You’re most welcome! Thank you for your kindness, understanding & patience. Much appreciated John! Was I able to help you today?

Jayson
By the way ~ May you have a prosperous 2019!

John
Thanks for your help.  Bye now.

Jayson
I really appreciate you John, Don’t forget to eat your breakfast, lunch & dinner okay,? Its been my pleasure assisting you today, again my name is Jayson. Have a great day and take care always~

Jayson
All is well! You deserve the best in life and Cheers for a great 2019!

TuringTestRunning a very elementary Turing test on this dialogue reveals that Jayson is an artificial rather than human intelligence.  He (it) says things that no adult human agent would say in this situation. Yet Jayson’s mistakes are almost human, like those of a toddler learning to use language. He writes his own name phonically rather than conventionally. He can’t deal with my question – beyond the standard remedy of turning the device off and on – and so passes me on to the adult Apple technicians and geniuses. Unlike a traditional machine, he expresses affection and care: he wishes me a prosperous 2019 (in March) and reminds me to eat regularly, as his parents might have told him. No human programmer would make these mistakes; Jayson’s algorithm needs the capacity to adjust its warm, supportive language according to the season and the relationship.

Within a few years, it will become much more difficult to know whether one is ‘chatting’ to a human or machine agent (although we shall probably assume the latter). And this of course raises the question of the nature of knowledge: given appropriate technology, could a machine learn so adequately that the distinction between human learning – a activity of the embodied mind – and machine learning is elided? In Bladerunner 2049, there is no evident difference between the humans and the replicants. In Cultural Literacy (1988), E D Hirsch states that researchers in artificial intelligence have concluded that knowledge is the key component of all cognitive skills: ‘Once the relevant knowledge has been acquired, the skill follows’. Machine learning, according to this view, is not a mere simulacrum of human learning, but its paradigm.

This view clearly has very profound implications for educational policy, and aligns with current influential views on the teaching of language.

To be continued …

The medium and the (overheard) message

medium_message

I’m sitting in a waiting room on a modern British railway station on a November evening.   The station has been assembled from pre-fabricated units, and the waiting room is a large metal shell with perfect acoustics for articulating the voices of the occupants.  About twenty people, in coats and scarves, are waiting for their train, most peering silently at their digital devices.  In a corner there is a young woman of about 20 wearing blue headphones connected to her large screen phone, which she twists in her hands as she speaks.   She can hear the voice of her friend, but we can only hear her side of the conversation.  We hear it perfectly. She is talking to her friend in a slightly plangent, self-justifying manner, in a mild Welsh accent.  She uses the syntactic filler ‘like’ frequently.    She seems unaware that her private conversation has become a public event, overheard by everyone else in the room despite our hunched performance of private preoccupation.

“Well she’s complaining, like, she’s complaining that people keep letting her down, like, but that’s because we’ve got work to do and she hasn’t, you see … she wants to go out every night and we can’t do it …. she must be doing the easiest course in the world, like one lecture a week and writing one essay between three people … the easiest course ever …”

As an occasional lecturer at the local university, I wonder what course she is describing with its exaggerated lack of requirements.  It sounds like a drama module where some of the assessment will be by performance rather than by written examination.  However that may be, the conversation moves from university life to going home for Christmas:

“I’ve got all this to do, like I’ve got to walk the dog and buy presents … and I’ve got to go to the gym because I’m putting on so much weight.   I saw my grandmother, she said ‘You’re looking fuller!’  That’s the way my grandmother speaks, she doesn’t want to say I’m putting on weight, like, but I don’t want to be called ‘fuller’ …”

At this, the young man opposite me in the waiting room begins to squirm with suppressed laughter.  I catch his eye and we both convulse silently.  Others in the waiting room shift imperceptibly.  The young woman carries on with her apparent monologue about family life in the approach to Christmas.  It’s not Dylan Thomas, but the artless articulation of a private conversation to a captive audience of railway travellers has a certain fascination.

So far as I know, Marshall McLuhan didn’t predict this specific effect of new communications media – but this unwitting publication of the private is certainly a product of mobile phone technology.

Google glass

There’s been a lot of worried comment about Google glass(es), such as the creative good blog http://creativegood.com/blog/the-google-glass-feature-no-one-is-talking-about/, and some good video parodies http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KmFSmkDyr8.  I think that what we are witnessing is the beginning of a change in consciousness that will transform human life. A thousand years ago, people knew only their immediate surroundings. Very few travelled, and those who did lost daily contact with home. Now we have the potential that everyone can be constantly in touch with other people and places anywhere in the world. What will life be like in another thousand or even 100 years’ time? The glasses are a clumsy prosthesis, but we can already imagine ways in which future consciousness will be transformed. And hopefully communication and mutual understanding will help put an end to tribal divisions.

Anyway, Google’s own demo of young men and one young woman parachuting on to the  Google building, all keeping in touch with each other and with the audience in the auditorium, is impressive in a geeky-athletic way.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MP1gvGcXcLk&feature=youtube_gdata_player