Mull of the future?

(Also published on Arc of Prosperity.)

highland village photo
Photo by kingary
I woke up to the crowing of the rooster and the smell of freshly baked croissants.

My butler minion gently opened the door to my bedroom. “Would you like your breakfast in bed, master?” “That’d be great, Bob.”

Bob buzzed in on his wheels and served the croissants together with a gorgeous cup of cappuccino. I’ve spent years searching for the perfect recipe, and I finally found it on a website somewhere in Italy. It was worth the hassle, though. People keep asking me for it, but I’ll not share it for any less than 1kg of scrap copper.

“Master, what would you like for lunch?” asked Bob. “Perhaps a mushroom omelette? Tim found some lovely wild mushrooms in the forest this morning.” I grunted my approval. Tim is my foraging minion, and he always finds the best stuff. At least it sounded a bit more filling that the salads Bob has been feeding me for the past week – I guess my weight is back to where it should be. Not that Bob ever tells me.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” I asked. “You’ve got dairy farm duty from 10 to 12, you’ve got a work meeting at 14.30, and finally you’ve invited your girlfriend for dinner at 19.00.”

I spent the next hour inspecting my home farm. The minions were zooming around me at the same time, collecting eggs, weeding the lettuce and cleaning out the pigsty. I love my home farm.

At 9.50 a car stopped outside the gate, and I strolled out and got in. Yukiko and Pierre, two of my neighbours, were already sitting in it – we do farm duty together. They greeted me with a cheery “Madainn mhath! Ciamar a tha sibh?” and we started chatting in Gaelic. It’s not our native language, and to be honest it probably would be easier to speak English together, but when the founders of our village decided to resurrect the village of Crackaig on the Isle of Mull, they decided that it should be Gaelic-speaking, so it’s now a requirement for moving to the village that you learn the language and use it when interacting with people. Fortunately language-learning is so easy these days – the linguist minions are just sublime language teachers.

At 10 o’clock the car stopped at the dairy farm, and we got out. The car zoomed away, either to park or to drive somebody else somewhere. My grandparents keep telling me that they used to drive cars themselves when they were young. It sounds like a really dangerous and wasteful way of going about it. Computers are obviously much better at driving than humans, and in those days every household had one or more cars, which meant that they spent most of the time being parked. Crazy.

Dairy farm duty is generally pretty easy. The minions do practically all the work, and all we need to do is basically to walk around and talk to the cows – humans can sometimes use their intuition to spot a problem that the minions have overlooked.

This was not one of the easiest days, however. It was time to say goodbye to two of the bulls and hand them over to the butcher minions. I walked with them up the hill, and then the minions led them away into a shed and did their stuff. The minions have perfected bovine psychology, so the bulls didn’t seem to feel any anxiety.

I’ve read that lots of people were going vegetarian or even vegan towards the end of the capitalist era. It was mainly a reaction against factory farming, however, so once people started repopulating the villages and producing almost all their food locally, they started eating meat again. This was reinforced by the realisation that microplastics were destroying the environment, and this led to a complete ban on the use of synthetic materials in clothing and footwear, and having access to leather thus became more important again.

The late capitalist society must have been pretty mad. Instead of feeding your food waste to your animals and letting your cows graze on unproductive stretches of grass, they threw the food waste into landfills and then grew cereals for the sole purpose of feeding animals which they kept in huge factory-like farms. Apparently they even killed many male calves at birth because it would be too expensive to raise them.

In our village most of our clothes are made out of wool, hemp or flax, and we mainly use leather shoes. That’s fairly typical for Scotland, but of course different materials get used in other countries.

I walked home after farm duty and then sat down to enjoy Bob’s delicious mushroom omelette.

Afterwards I stepped into the VR room to commence the work meeting. I’m part of a small team working on carbon capture technology to roll back global warming. We have created a virtual Greek olive grove as our work environment, based on Plato’s Academy. Lots of other people keep telling us that you want walls, chairs and blackboards in order to work efficiently, but we disagree. Sitting on blocks of marble dressed in a toga while munching on olives is great. To make it even more realistic, we’ve decided to adopt Ancient Greek as our working language. Yes, it’s mad, but we need a lot of creativity to come up with better ways to capture carbon, and creativity and madness are of course closely related.

It’s strange to think that schools for so long were mainly places to learn facts and techniques, when today they’re places to bring out everybody’s innate creativity. Of course you need a certain amount of knowledge and skills for your creativity to kick in, but at the end of the day computers are much better at every known task than humans – however, they’re still pretty bad at coming up with the new and surprising answers, and at dealing with new situations. So of course that’s what we humans have to focus on now.

After work I started getting ready for dinner with my girlfriend, Salome. I was going to bring her some flowers from my greenhouse, but in the end I quickly 3D-printed a pair of golden earrings for her using a traditional pattern from Guatemala.

Salome and I were going for sushi in a neighbouring village modelled on a traditional one from Hokkaidō. A lot of people said at the time that a traditional Japanese village doesn’t really belong on the Isle of Mull, but I must admit that it’s really nice to see something completely different without travelling more than 10 km. In fact, the idea is spreading. More and more villages get the builder minions to rebuild everything in some exotic style – just on Mull we’ve now got places that look like they belong in Bavaria, Viking Scandinavia, Māori New Zealand, and the Shire (from The Lord of the Rings books).

Over dinner we discussed whether we should go on holiday to Paris at some point. The old centre is supposed to be stunning, but like all other former cities it’s surrounded by enormous areas of crumbling ruins that still haven’t been converted back to villages and farmland.

At least the former cities aren’t dangerous in Europe. However, in many other parts of the world they never nationalised the land like they did here, so people who didn’t own any land were left practically destitute when the value of labour dropped to nearly zero after capitalism collapsed. They’re now typically living in the skyscraper ruins and trying to make a living selling personal services (mainly sex) to everybody else. It’s horrible, and we’re so lucky in Europe where we introduced a universal basic income early on and then nationalised the land and gave everybody the right to borrow a plot for the rest of their lives.

Of course it would take a while to get to Paris – flying is completely prohibited for holiday purposes – but we could sail there or take a sleeper car, and that’s good fun in its own right.

We took a boat back to Salome’s village. Life on Mull is pretty good.

Scots-medium schools

Bokmål and NynorskIf Scots is a language – and it’s almost universally accepted today that this is the case – why is it treated as a regional accent by schools?

The typical approach is to learn a few songs in Scots, and perhaps even to read a short story or a play in high school, but not much else. There’s also now an awareness that kids shouldn’t get told off for talking Scots or using Scots words when speaking English. Surely this approach only makes sense if Scots is some variety of English.

If Scots is a language then it should be taught in separate classes, not as part of English lessons. And using Scots words when speaking English should be regarded as a case of code-switching – something which is common in all bilingual areas, but hardly a thing to be encouraged.

And last but not least, we should have Scots-medium schools. It’s absolutely wonderful that we have so many Gaelic-medium schools in Scotland now, but surely we should have Scots-medium ones, too. Schools where Scots is the language of tuition, apart perhaps from the English lessons.

It could be similar to the situation in Norway, where all pupils have to learn both Bokmål (similar to Danish) and Nynorsk (based on the dialects). However, some schools are Bokmål-medium and teach Nynorsk as a separate subject, and others are Nynorsk-medium and teach Bokmål as a subject.

Surely we could do the same here? Of course it will take a while to get there – the teachers will need training (even if they’re native speakers of Scots), and a lots of text books would need to get translated – but it would be do wonders for the Scots language.

Hårdtarbejdende studerende?

Aarhus University Aula
Aarhus University Aula, a photo by Gammelmark on Flickr.
Der er flere artikler i de danske dagblade, der påpeger, at danske studerende i realiteten studerer på deltid:

På sundhedsvidenskab svarer de studerende, at de bruger i alt godt 34 timer om ugen på undervisning og forberedelse, hvilket dækker over 19 times undervisning og 15 timers forberedelse. […] På humaniora bruger de studerende i alt godt 22 timer om ugen på at være studerende, og den tid går med knap 8 timers undervisning og godt 14 timers forberedelse.


Lykke Friis, der er prorektor for uddannelse på Københavns Universitet, siger, at hun havde forventet, at arbejdsugen var længere:

»Der er brug for en kulturændring blandt de studerende, for det skal være et fuldtidsstudium at læse her. Jeg ved godt, at de også har erhvervsarbejde osv., men det at læse skal være hovedbeskæftigelsen,« siger hun.


I 2011 viste en tilsvarende undersøgelse af studieaktiviteten blandt studerende på Aarhus Universitet, at de brugte 28,5 timer om ugen på deres studium.

Man skal her være opmærksom på, at et fuldtidsstudium kræver ca. 45 timer pr. uge, når man tæller timer pr. år og tager de lange ferier i betragtning. Det burde derfor ikke være realistisk for de fleste studerende at passe et arbejde ved siden af studiet — lønarbejde burde være en ferieaktivitet.

Men jeg må så sige, at jeg ikke har meget tilovers for Lykke Friis’ ønske om en “kulturændring”. Studerende er — som mennesker flest — dovne af natur, og de vil arbejde så hårdt, som det er nødvendigt for at bestå deres eksaminer med et tilstrækkeligt højt gennemsnit, men ikke hårdere.

Men andre ord er det nødvendigt at dumpe de studerende, der ikke arbejder hårdt nok. Man kan ikke på den ene side kræve af universiteterne, at de studerende skal færdiggøre deres studier på normeret tid og at frafaldet minimeres, og på den anden sige, at de studerende skal arbejde hårdt.

Hvis det for en studerende med en for en studerende normal intelligens var umuligt at bestå deres eksaminer, hvis de brugte væsentligt mindre end 45 timer pr. uge, ville de da også bruge den fornødne tid på det. Men i en overgangsfase må man nok forvente, at det store flertal ville dumpe en eller flere eksaminer.

Hvis man vil have en kulturændring, må man gøre det meget sværere at bestå. Så simpelt er det.

The GCSE results and the need for uncertainty

Most people in the UK will be aware of the recent GCSE results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not in Scotland, where there is no such thing as the GCSE):

Results fell by a modest 0.4 percentage points across the board but there was intense consternation about a deeper drop in English results focused in particular schools. The share of entries graded at C or above fell by 1.5 percentage points in English year-on-year, from 65.4% to 63.9%. Results in maths and science have also fallen, against a backdrop of an explicit order from the exams regulator to curb grade inflation – and promises from politicians to increase rigour.

But the focus of teachers’ anger is on the shifting of the grade boundary for English, between candidates who took exams in winter and those who took papers in summer.

Robert Robson, principal of the Samuel Whitbread academy in Shefford, Bedfordshire, said: “According to our calculations if you did the foundation paper in English in January and got 43 marks you would have received a C grade, while this summer you would have to get 53 marks to get a C grade. The most significant effect is on the C/D borderline. We have 50 students who would usually have got a C that have got a D.”

Although it’s of course terribly unfair and upsetting to the students who feel they’ve been deprived of the results they thought were rightfully theirs, and although I do have some sympathy for the view that Gove should create a new exam (with a new name) rather than making the exams harder every year, I must say I can see the need for some uncertainty in the system.

The thing is that if the schools know exactly how many marks you need to get a C grade, and if the papers don’t change much from one year to another, then it becomes very tempting to teach to the exam rather than actually teaching things that are useful to know. This effect is exacerbated by the fact that schools are rated by the proportion of pupils achieving at least a C, so they’ll redirect a large part of the resources on pupils that fluctuate between a C and a D — or, to express it in marks, the pupils who are are expected to get between 35 and 43 marks and can be pulled up over the 43 threshold.

This is why it’s useful not to have a specific number of marks needed to get a specific grade. If the schools know that the number of marks needed to get a C can be anything between 35 and 50, depending on the actual paper, they cannot concentrate all their resources on coaching a small number of students.

As I’ve argued before, I think grades should be awarded based on percentages: Once all papers have been graded in the country, a computer should work out the A/B borderline so that 10% of the students get an A, the B/C borderline so that 25% of the students get a B, and so on. This would remove grade inflation overnight.

The SQA are pretending all languages are equally hard

Originally uploaded by albertogp123

My dear wife recently pointed out to me that you can download past papers from the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s website.

I have in the past only seen the French Intermediate 2, and I wasn’t very impressed. I therefore decided to have a look at the various language exams available.

Much to my surprise, it appears to me that all the language papers seem to be designed to be equally hard to a native speaker. In other words, I think a French native speaker would rate the French paper (PDF) the same as a Chinese speaker would rate the Chinese paper (PDF). For comparison, here are the Spanish, German, Russian and Urdu papers.

Now, many linguists would agree that all languages are equally hard to learn as a first language (i.e., children take more or less the same time to reach perfection no matter what their native language happens to be).

However, there’s no doubt whatsoever that the difficulty of learning a foreign language depends strongly on its similarity to your native language (and any other language(s) you might have learnt).

This means to an English speaker, the foreign language that is easiest to learn is probably Dutch, but choosing from the list of languages offered by the SQA, it’s entirely rational to start with French and then do Spanish as the second foreign language.

Doing Russian or Chinese would be crazy, because one would have to reach the same level in a much harder language in the same amount of time.

The way I see it, the exams should be based on the amount of language one can be expected to learn during the amount of lessons offered in a typical school. This would mean that the Chinese exam to a native speaker would look infinitely easier than the French exam, but there’s no real alternative — the language exam I had to sit after one year of full-time Japanese studies at university would have appeared incredibly easy to a native speaker, but otherwise nobody would have passed it.

The way the SQA are doing it, pupils get punished for wanting to learn a difficult language, which surely isn’t right.

I can’t help thinking that the Chinese and Urdu exams are mainly offered for the benefit of the Chinese and Pakistani communities in Scotland. I don’t have anything against this per se, but surely it’s a bit unfair that Léon can’t sit a Danish Higher to get an easy A the same way as Marcel has benefited from having grown up speaking both English and French. How large does a ethnic minority need to be before it can get a Higher in its language, I wonder?

Far til en skolepige

Anna’s first day at school
Originally uploaded by PhylB

I dag var det første skoledag i East Renfrewshire Kommune, og da Anna blev født i december 2007, skulle hun begynde i P1 (1. klasse).

Hun har glædet sig meget, og det var en meget stolt og glad pige, der pilede ind i skolegården. Vi måtte ikke komme med ind og måtte vinke farvel til hende fra lågen.

I dag mødte hun kl. 9.30, men fra i morgen skal hun i skole hver dag fra 9 til 15, ligesom Léon, der nu er begyndt i 3. klasse.

Anna skal nu gå i “primary school” i de næste syv år, og så i gymnasiet (“high school”) i seks år, så hun bliver efter planen student, når hun er 17½.

Aldersmæssigt er P1-eleverne ca. to år yngre end danske 1. klasses-elever, så naturligvis er P1 ikke en kopi af en dansk førsteklasse, men inddrager elementer af en dansk børnehavneklasse (0. klasse). Eleverne har lært alfabetet og tallene i børnehaven (“preschool”), så de skal nu lære at læse, skrive og regne ordentligt, men naturligvis skal de også tegne og spille skuespil og den slags.

How to minimise the number of students from England after independence

At the moment, the main reason why English students are not all going to university in Scotland (where university tuition is free, compared to English universities that will typically charge £27,000 for a 3-year degree) is that Scottish universities charge them up to £27,000 for their degree. This is only possible because the EU rule about not discriminating against EU students only applies to students from other EU countries (such as Ireland, Denmark or Bulgaria) and not to students from other parts of the UK (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

As soon as Scotland regains her independence, rUK students become EU students and will have to be treated in the same way as students from Scotland.

However, some lessons can be learnt from Scandinavia. Denmark in theory has to treat Swedish students the same as Danish ones, but this is not the whole truth.

Denmark used to have a big problem with too many Swedes studying medicine in Copenhagen and then going home after graduation. In 2007, Denmark therefore did two things (link in Danish): (1) They changed the number of advanced highers (“højniveaufag”) a student needs to pass to get a grade top-up, which benefitted Danes in comparison with Swedes. (2) They changed the way they translated Swedish grades into Danes ones (that is, they made it harder for them to get in).

Apart from this, Denmark pays generous grants (typically £7616 per year) to university students who are either Danish citizens, have lived in Denmark for five years prior to starting university, or who have parents that are EU citizens and have moved to Denmark for work reasons. Other students don’t get a penny.

Scotland could copy some of these policies after independence. There are already plenty of differences between A Levels and Scottish Highers to provide opportunities for tweaking the entry requirements to make it harder for English students to get into Scottish universities (the brilliant ones would of course still get in, but that would be to Scotland’s advantage anyway), and Scotland could introduce tuition fees for everybody, but cancel out the effect by creating grants for Scottish citizens and long-term residents.

In an ideal world such measures shouldn’t be necessary, but until it dawns on the English that they’re shooting themselves in the foot by pricing bright young people out of universities, I fear that Scotland will have to take a leaf out of Denmark’s book.