Saturday, August 5, 2017

"What Works For Getting Kids to Enjoy Reading?"

Excerpted from “The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads” by Daniel T. Willingham...
Getting Kids to Rea

I said at the outset that our goal is simply to get kids reading—it’s reading, not positive attitudes toward reading that will make for better lexical representations and broader background knowledge. But then we saw that reading attitudes, reading self-image, and frequency of reading are interconnected. So in fact, getting kids to read will not only improve their reading, it will make them like reading more. Getting children to like reading more in order to prompt more reading is not our only option. We can reverse it—get them reading more, and that will improve reading attitudes and reading self-concept. Well then, how do we prompt a child with negative or indifferent attitudes toward reading to pick up a book?


Adults are frequently confronted with children who don’t want to do what we want them to do. A common solution is to use rewards or punishments as short-term motivators. What if I told a fourth-grader, “If you read a chapter of that book, you can have some ice cream”? The child will likely take me up on the deal and it sounds like he’d have a positive experience. And that’s what we said we’re aiming for, positive reading experiences.

Rewards do work, at least in the short term. If you find a reward that the child cares about, he will read in order to get it. The problem is that you don’t get the attitude boost we’ve predicted. In fact, the attitude is often less positive because of the reward. The classic experiment on this phenomenon was conducted in a preschool. A set of really attractive Magic Markers appeared during free play, and the researchers confirmed that kids often chose the markers from among many toys. Then the markers disappeared from the classroom. A few weeks later, researchers took kids, one at a time, into a separate room. They offered the child a fancy “good player” certificate if she would draw with the markers. Other kids were given the opportunity to draw with the markers but were not offered the certificate. A few weeks later, the Magic Markers reappeared in the classroom. The kids who got the certificate showed notably less interest in the Magic Markers than the kids who didn’t get the certificate. The reward had backfired. It had made kids like the markers less.

The interpretation of the study rests on how kids think about their own behavior. The rewarded kids likely thought, “I drew with the markers because I was offered a reward to do so. Now here are the markers, but no reward. So why would I draw with them?” There have been many studies of rewards in academic contexts, and they often backfire in this way."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Video: 'The markets won't fix themselves' -- Yanis Varoufakis

"“We have a major imbalance between savings and investment. We have the highest savings rates in the history of capitalism and lowest level of investment. You only have to state that to realise what the source of our troubles are.”

Speaking at FundForum International 2017, former Greek Finance Minister and DiEM25 Co-Founder Yanis Varoufakis sat down with FundForum Correspondent Emma Walden to talk about the state of global markets, the role that politics plays in economic stability, and what that means for investment in years to come."

Varoufakis understands that the democracies of the world have consistently rejected full-blown Communism. 

For this reason we all have to accept that a version of Socialism is the only option that can succesfully be advocated and implemented with the fair consent of the populace. 

To impose a system of government and economy on people without enough wider support is doomed to quickly fail. 

The people must be brought along by their leaders rather than dumped on. That is not utopian. It's practical. 

Wealth can then be redistributed with only the wealthiest against it happening. 

The DiEM25 movement backs this idea.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

"Discover Catalonia -- Routes and Getaways"

 An extremely detailed and well-produced English language PDF on the various parts of Catalonia (for tourists and travellers) is available for free here.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

"Echoes of history at Europe's borders"

"Almost a century after a mass “exchange” of Muslim and Christian minorities, the Aegean coast sees a new wave of refugees.

Last March, history repeated itself on Turkey’s Aegean coast after a 94-year hiatus. 

Across the water that separates the country from the northern Greek islands, boats carrying refugees – the vast majority of them victims of today’s wars in the Middle East – traced the journeys of the boats that carried unwanted Muslims and Christians between the newly formed Republic of Turkey and Greece in 1923, when the two countries agreed to exchange their respective minorities by mass deportation. 

It seems to be the fate of this misleadingly tranquil coastline, dotted with olive groves and fishing villages, to witness politicised human traffic on the borders of Europe.

Ayvalik lies just ten nautical miles east of the Greek island of Lesbos, on which thousands of refugees are still held in detention camps. The island of Cunda, accessible via a bridge from the main town of Ayvalik, is a sleepy harbour town of vague nostalgia and faded beauty, of crumbling villas converted into cheap hotels, and abandoned churches converted into mosques or automobile museums. The town has largely resigned itself to tourism, and several high-profile industrialists have built discreet holiday homes on its shores.

Until 1922, Ayvalik was an entirely Greek Orthodox town in the heterogeneous hodgepodge of the Ottoman Empire; a hive of trade and commerce, bustling with merchants, olive farmers and black-robed priests. All the Christians who once lived there were either killed in the last years of Turkey’s War of Independence (1918-22) or shipped off to mainland Greece in 1923, to be replaced by Muslim Ottomans, many of them from nearby Lesbos. In total, 1.2 million Christians were “exchanged” for 400,000 Muslims – almost the totality of each minority residing in the two countries, with the exception of those living in Istanbul and Western Thrace.

Today, the elder generations of the imported Muslims who replaced Ayvalik’s former Orthodox inhabitants sit playing backgammon under slowly turning fans in seafront cafés: weather-beaten but upright, dignified men chatting quietly in a mixture of Turkish and a Greek dialect learned from their parents, who were brought here from the Greek island of Crete in 1923. The dialect is Cretan, or “Giritli” as the Turks call it – a rougher version of standard Greek, incomprehensible to other Turks and to mainland Greeks."

 Read more from source at New Humanist here.


Friday, July 7, 2017

"Real red: Corbyn, Goytisolo and the rallying of the left" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Elections can be strange events. The British one last month produced a mixture of results but one thing it showed was that a genuinely democratic socialist government there is a distinct possibility after the next time the nation goes to vote again.

For the first time since the mid-1940s, the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, led by underdog Jeremy Corbyn is offering a collection of policies that are not a softer, pale imitation of the Conservatives and roughly supporting the economic and social status quo.

This Labour party with its election programme (or ‘manifesto’) was full of plans to tax the richest in society and increase company tax to pay for better public funding of schools, hospitals and social care, all of which have been cut away horrifically by the Cameron and May governments since 2010. In truth, many of these severe austerity policies had actually begun under previous Labour leaders in power.

Corbyn however has moved his party clearly to the left and many of his ideas proved to be popular during the last few weeks of the election campaign. Theresa May lost her majority in parliament but we simply cannot know for sure how much this was due to her bumbling campaign and how much credit Corbyn can rightly claim.

What we do know is that over 70 per cent of young voters in the 18 to 24 age bracket voted for Labour candidates. Partly, this must have been due to Corbyn’s policy of guaranteeing free university places for all, instead of the current system which demands exorbitant annual fees but it seems that his appeal was wider than just this one promise.

His more concrete and costed commitments to put the rail network back in public control and reverse the creeping sell off of the NHS public health system also appear to have found support from the young to the old. Labour’s pledge to raise the minimum wage to 10 pounds an hour was another vote winner. It showed that they have once again gone back to their red roots and are not afraid of being labelled radical by the establishment-controlled media.

Another progressive iconoclast who has lived by his left-wing beliefs and regularly paid a price for doing so is Barcelona-born writer Juan Goytisolo [pictured above], who sadly died at the age of 86 at his adopted Moroccan home in June of this year. As a critic of General Franco and conservatism in general, he was known across Europe for his books such as “Campos de Níjar,” a travelogue that detailed the harsh social and economic conditions in 1950s Andalucia (translated into English by Peter Bush.)

As a writer, I was also inspired by Goytisolo’s autobiography, “Forbidden Territory”. It is rare to read such brutal honesty about his own evolving sexuality and highly-personal inner landscape. Through creamy prose, he makes a sharp dissection of the “ill-formed universe” of his bourgeois upbringing. We can only hope to see others follow in his wake.

[This article was first published under the title "The rallying of the left" in Catalonia Today magazine, July 2017.]

Saturday, July 1, 2017

'Ours is not a bloodline, but a textline'

 "I just found out only a few weeks before coming to Girona, that through the Horowitz branch of my family, I am Gironan, through my forebear Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz. This made me shudder a little bit, but I still don’t believe in God. I don’t think it’s a coincidence; I think it has to do with the secular movement of Jewish continuity."

Israeli writer and historian Fania Oz-Salzberger who was interviewed by Catalonia Today editor Marcela Topor here.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Video: 'Capitalism will always create bullshit jobs' | Owen Jones meets Rutger Bregman

"Rutger Bregman is the author of Utopia for Realists and he advocates for more radical solutions to address inequality in society. His ideas include the introduction of a universal basic income, a 15 hour working week borders.

When I went to meet him, he told me politicians have failed to come up with new, radical ideas, instead sticking to an outdated, technocratic form of politics. He argues this has allowed politicians like Geert Wilders and Donald Trump to slowly shift extreme ideas into the mainstream.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

"The lost photos of Barcelona"

[Image: Milagros Caturla, courtesy of Tom Sponheim]

  An envelope in a Barcelona flea market held the work of an unknown master photographer...

"In the summer of 2001, American Tom Sponheim was vacationing in Barcelona with his wife. On their way to the cathedral of Sagrada Familia, they wandered through the bustling flea market of Els Encants.

Sponheim spotted a stack of photo negatives on a table, and after checking that they were decently exposed, asked the vendor how much. She asked for $2.50 for an envelope of the shots. He paid her $3.50.

Upon returning home, Sponheim scanned the negatives and discovered that he had stumbled upon the work of an unknown but immensely talented photographer."

Read more from source and see more of the remarkable photos here.

(Article first found via Business Over Tapas.)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

"The quiet one" -- My latest article for Catalonia Today magazine

[Photo: Lluís Serrat.]
 There he is. Sitting along the side of the class, with his head down. He could be a child or an adult -- and certainly female too -- but today at least this introvert has very little to say for himself.   

Familiar to most of us who spend any time in group situations at work or in a social setting, the introvert is not shy by definition. 

According to North American author (and self-acknowledged introvert) Susan Cain, shyness is actually about fear of being judged by others.

In fact, she argues, it’s just that “introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they're in quieter, more low-key environments.” Extroverts -- their opposites -- are people who simply function better with a high level of social stimulation.

The wider point that Cain makes in her book on the subject is she believes that a bias has crept into “our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces. They are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts' need for lots of stimulation. And also we have this belief system right now that I call the new groupthink, which holds that all creativity and all productivity comes from a very oddly gregarious place.”

Myself, as someone who does not fit neatly into either category of the out-going chatterbox or the silent internal type (but rather seem to flit between the two depending on the moment) I confess to having largely failed in my attempts to run a fully inclusive classroom. 

When I was a secondary teacher I tried to democratically involve all of my students in being vocal but (like many educators) I was unaware of how best to do this or that some teenagers just do not want to speak if it can be avoided.

Teaching adults over the last few years I’ve learned that the prevailing culture in this part of the world too is clearly in favour of extroverts. I have even taught in companies where they believe that they do not have any introverts working alongside them as their colleagues. 

In the endless rounds of group meetings and chatty open plan offices introverts often fade into the background. It is as if being introverted is a mark of shame and sets someone apart as “not a team player.”  

But there is no good reason for this to be the case. 

As Susan Cain discovered, “when it comes to leadership, introverts are routinely [ignored] for leadership positions, even though introverts tend to be very careful...and when psychologists look at the lives of the most creative people, what they find are people who are very good at exchanging ideas and advancing ideas, but who also have a serious streak of introversion in them.” 

She gives the examples of Charles Darwin, Steve Jobs and genius children’s author Dr Seuss.

Of course, extroverts can and do lead us the wrong way though. 

Cain notes that “groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

For some reason, the name Donald Trump immediately comes to mind.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, June 2017.]

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Video: Spanish man wins at European Stone Stacking Championships 2017

Pedro Duran from Arcos de la Frontera in Cadiz, Spain has been awarded first prize for 'Most stones balanced' at the first annual European Stone Stacking Championships 2017 in Scotland.

On one day of skill, patience and artistry "the competition brought together a community of stackers from across Europe and featured some inspiring and breathtaking balances."

Sunday, May 28, 2017

"Most EU states drifted backward on gay rights"

(Photo: Miguel Discart)
 "Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland still show the least respect of all EU countries toward sexual minorities, with activists calling for political “courage” and “backbone” by EU institutions. 

The three member states all scored below 20 percent on a map of human rights compliance in Europe published by Ilga-Europe, a pressure group in Brussels.

The NGO ranks countries on the basis of laws and policies that impact LGBTI people’s rights in six areas, including equality and non-discrimination, family, and hate speech and violence.

At the other end of the scale, Malta (88%), the UK (76%), and Belgium (72%) led the way, with France (71%) not far behind. 

The map, as in previous years, showed more red (non-compliant) or shades of red and orange in the east, compared to green (compliant) in the west. 

The rating did not always correlate with religious mores - Italy, a Roman Catholic country, scored just 27 percent, but Ireland, Portugal, Spain, which are also Catholic, scored between 52 percent and 69 percent.

Even though Italy scored low, it improved by 7 percent from 2016. 

Denmark, Finland, France, and Slovenia also improved slightly, but the group-of- five were the only ones to do so, while most counties eroded slightly and a few others stayed the same.

Meanwhile, the worst places in Europe to be gay were Azerbaijan (5%) and Russia (6%), where gay people have been rounded up, jailed, abused, and, on some occasions murdered in Russia’s Chechnya province despite EU outcries. 

Ilga-Europe said legal gender recognition in France, civil unions in Italy, and a ban on conversion therapy in Malta “made global headlines” last year, but it said LGBTI people in other parts of Europe were “literally living in fear of their lives”. 

It said marriage equality was “not the only marker of improvement” and the new frontier in Europe is the rights of trans and intersex people"

Read more from source at EU Observer here.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Democracy and other duds" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

At a time when the European Union appears to be slowly falling apart, its highest court was fixated on whether a woman at one workplace in Belgium should be allowed to wear material covering her head.

As a staunch non-believer in religion, I find the continuing European fascination with burkas, hijabs and the like very, very odd. 
Yes, when I was 16 in Australia and deeply afraid of the unknown (in the form of Malaysian and Indonesian Muslim students at my school) it was challenging to my childish attitudes but I associate that kind of fear with cultural ignorance. 
I don't see why this style of dress should force someone out of their job, as it did in the case of Samira Achbita.

In essence, the European Court of Justice supported the right of a private company to have an "internal policy or rule" on staff clothing. If this means the wearing of a uniform, I see no problem. 
But to outlaw other items is to trample on human rights. Ironically, this is the very thing that modern and secular society is supposedly better than because fundamental Islam tries to impose restrictions on women's dress. Moderate, progressive Islam does not.

Logic now dictates that if a Muslim-run company based in Europe told its female workers to wear a cloth head covering then they would have to if the company decided it was part of their uniform and not an individual choice. 
As Human Rights organisation Amnesty International stated after the court's recent decision, "by ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a back door to precisely such prejudice."

Manfred Weber, head of the center-right European People's Party, the largest in the European Parliament, said that he believed it was: "[an] important ruling by the European Court of Justice: employers have the right to ban the Islamic veil at work. European values must apply in public life."

If we substitute the words “European values” for “German values” we have the same flavour of statement that was repeated continually in the 1930’s about another religious minority. “Jews have to accept that German values must apply.”

In this way, by establishing the idea that a Muslim cannot be a true European, it is already going part way to also establishing the idea that a Muslim is a lesser human. 
This makes the association of a Muslim as a terrorist much easier to create in the mind of the average person. (It is then only a small step to restrict their travel, as Trump is currently in the process of doing.) 
We are led to believe that the European court decision is a first strike for great European democracy, a brave attack on the terrible dangers of those frightening women who wear a bit more more than others do.

So, what we call democracy has now taken away the liberty of a small number of females without a single good reason. 
Recently, different arms of our imperfect democracies, have also thrown up a far-reaching referendum result in the UK that only 25 percent of the population voted for. In the USA, a demagogue President strutted into office despite his opponent getting almost 3 million votes more than he did.

In other news, it has come to light that in that same 'land of the free' (the USA) almost 1 in 5 adults are are in fact free from the burden of being able to read. 
Hurray for democracy!
[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, May 2017.]

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Video: I talk and listen about this week's national and international stories

This week I was a guest again on Matthew Tree's English language discussion program on El Punt Avui TV. 

We covered topics including Trump's latest actions, the current Spanish government's insistance on preserving Europe's largest fascist monument and their threats of legal action against any company making ballot boxes for the Catalan government.

For a video of the show click here.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Video: "Meet Spain’s Only All-Female Cricket Team...[in Barcelona]"

Via the excellent Business Over Tapas, I came across the above short video that tells how "when Aïna Coscollola began working with a group of teenage girls from Pakistan who had recently moved to [Besos in] Barcelona, she came up with a unique approach to tackling the self-confidence and language challenges that many of these young immigrants faced. 

She started an all-women’s cricket team. Cricket, the most popular sport in Pakistan, proved a unifying force for this community, helping the girls unearth a sense of identity, cooperation, and a newfound sense of self-esteem at school."

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Spain (and Australia) in top ten countries for corporate tax dodging

 "What would you do with $500 billion? 

The first challenge might be actually getting your head around quite how much money that is. If you like to travel in style you could buy 1,150 Airbus A380s, according to the published Airbus list price. 

If you just wanted to show off, you could cover a football field to a depth of 1.5 metres with cash. 

So, it’s a lot of money. It’s also the amount of revenue the world is losing as a result of tax avoidance, according to a new report from the United Nations World Institute for Development Economics Research (pdf).

Corporate tax is a vital source of government revenue across the globe. It is especially vital in developing countries, argue the report’s authors. Their findings highlight the extent of global tax avoidance - as well as the countries facing the biggest shortfalls.

The issue was also on the agenda at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. The session ‘Taxation without Borders: A Fair Share from Multinationals’ looked at the action needed - particularly in the wake of the leak of the Panama Papers, which exposed the use of tax havens around the world."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

"The words we use" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Good. Bad. These are two words that have come back into public language recently. 

Unfortunately, they are words which express the extremes of a moral spectrum and have been returned to politics via the snarling mouth of US liar-in-chief Donald Trump.

I have tended to think that using a word like 'good' is a clear one and therefore better than saying something is 'appropriate'. 

We can easily discuss why X, Y or Z is good or bad (and just as importantly, who something is good or bad for) but it is much more difficult to say why something is appropriate. 

That is why it has been a popular word with pre-Trump politicians looking for a sneaky way to justify the unjustifiable.

I remember first hearing the word appropriate when I started out as a secondary school teacher in the mid-1990s. 

Students would often be told that their behaviour was inappropriate and I could see that this word had no meaning for them, apart from being prohibitive. 

It would have been a lot more educational to tell them that they had done something that was disrespectful, dangerous, illogical or even thoughtless.

Of course it could be argued that all this concern with words is just for writers and teachers and is some kind of an academic exercise that has no relevance for the average person. 

After all, they are only words, right? 

I would simply reply: tell that to the Roma rights groups. Only a couple of years ago they felt compelled to protest against a decision by Spain's Royal Language Academy (RAE) to include a definition of a gypsy as a 'swindler' in their new official dictionary. 

Words inform and they can also misinform. Trump and May and Le Pen and Wilders know this all too well.

Others have noted the importance of language across society. Writing in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, Josep Ramoneda argued that "the struggle for power, anywhere, is also the struggle for the control of words. 

The one who imposes his verbal categories on the public mind wins. Example: the word austerity." 

His opinion is that "people are accepting it as something inevitable. Austerity is one of the terms of virtue. From it derives a whole chain of complementary words: sacrifice, rigor, responsibility, etc."

Ignoring all shades of grey in his black and white universe, Donald Trump tells anyone listening what is bad and what is good but he almost never uses the word ‘because’ to explain why things can be categorised so neatly. 

He asserts. He insists. If he and the others like him are to be countered, it will be for the rest of us to do the explaining. 

Through clear imagery and equally simple words.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, April 2017.]

Friday, April 14, 2017

"Marine Le Pen Denies French Guilt for Rounding Up Jews"

Photo: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images
  "A casual remark about France’s wartime anti-Jewish actions by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, threatened on Monday to derail her yearslong effort aimed at “un-demonizing” her party just as she is emerging as a strong contender in this month’s presidential election.

The remark was made on Sunday during an interview in which she referred to the most notorious roundup of Jews in France during World War II, when nearly 13,000 were arrested in Paris by the French police on July 16 and 17, 1942, in what is known as the “Vel d’Hiv roundup.”

“France wasn’t responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she said. “If there was responsibility, it is with those who were in power at the time, it is not with France. France has been mistreated, in people’s minds, for years.”

Ms. Le Pen’s words created a small eruption in an already heated campaign, drawing strong criticism by politicians right, left and center and by Jewish groups, who all saw it as an echo of her party’s anti-Semitic roots."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Chatting with Jim Kent on Barcelona City FM radio

This week I had an extended session chatting (between short tracks) with Jim Kent on the region's only local English language radio station.

An enjoyable time was had by all and the full podcast can be downloaded here.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

"I don't like divisions. They belong to a schizophrenia of thinking"


Romanian writer Mircea Cartarescu makes one of the most compelling arguments in favour of the existence of Europe in an interview with Marcela Topor, the Editor of Catalonia Today magazine...

"I've always been a fervent pro-European. My Europe is one built on an enormous cultural, philosophical and scientific heritage. 

The Judaic-Greek tradition dating back 3,000 years is its spine. 

Descartes is the archetype of the European spirit. His famous quote starts with the word “dubito”, which is the most European word possible, in my opinion. T

he spirit of doubt, which leads to rational thinking, is the best thing that Europe has. This is my ideal Europe: a place of humanism, centred around education and culture...

I don't like divisions. They belong to a schizophrenia of thinking. 
The Berlin Wall was the main symbol of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. I dream of a Europe without frontiers, I am also aware that we still have a long way to go until we can hope to achieve this dream. 
European countries are not just simple squares on a map, but they have a bloody and traumatic past. The United States of Europe seems something of a utopia right now."
Read more from source article at Catalonia Today here.