Hope, Experience, and Efficient File Management

It’s that time once again when hope joins battle with experience: the start of a new academic year. This year, I tell myself (as I have told myself every year since time out of mind), I shall be organized like never before. There will be no more coffee-fuelled all-nighters to prepare lessons; no more hours lost tracking down an old lecture to find it filed in my Music folder; no more staring blankly at my diary unable to decipher the name of the student I am supposed to be meeting; no more panic on an unmoving train because I have left a margin of error of less than a minute to arrive at a meeting. I will be a lean, keen teaching machine, gliding through preparation and lessons with elegance and efficiency, with plenty of time to write and research productively. I may even make some money at last.

If hope is outpointing experience by Christmas then I will be doing well.

First I need to find my desk. That involves hacking a path through piles of books and magazines to the area of my room where I last remember seeing said desk, and then excavating through the papers, unopened bills, junk mail, long-forgotten invoices, receipts, post-its, pens, pencils, paper clips, elastic bands and sundry miscellaneous items to what I believe will be the desk itself. Treasures, in the form of untouched Rizla packets, are likely to be found during this archaeological dig. All of this reminds me of how once, when I had an actual office in an actual academic department, I would advise students on the merits of efficient organization, advice delivered across a scenic landscape of mountainous chaos on my desk.

Then I need to sort out my computer desktop. Unlike my physical desk, upon which no organization at all can be detected, my computer desktop suffers from a worse state of affairs: a half-hearted semblance of organization. Clearly at some point (probably the start of the last academic year) I devoted a solid half hour of attention to this task before being distracted by a book that needed to be read, never to return. There are folders, inside many of which are further folders and files that logically belong there. Keeping them company are many other folders and files whose rationale for being there would surpass the wisdom of God. Different versions of my CV crop up incongruously in various locations as if it is a self-replicating, mutating virus.

Finally, emails… but that will surely, as always, be a task too far. (Ah, experience strikes an early blow against hope…)

I’ve come to realize that when it comes to organization I should either have none at all or a complete, fully worked out and implemented system. The virtue of the former (my preferred approach for many years) is that I became adept at storing relevant and important information in my head. It did not matter that a letter containing the time and date of an appointment was hopelessly buried beneath any one of several piles of papers, nor that I did not write down appointments in a diary, for I had already committed this information to memory. This non-system almost never failed. Problems arose when, having been foolishly seduced by the time-management and efficiency gurus, I introduced some formal systems of organization. Because I was never organized enough in the first place to introduce organization in the proper way (the fatal flaw afflicting these systems among the irredeemably disorganized), I ended up with a hideous hybrid, a jerry-rigged mishmash of systems and memory. So, some appointments ended up in my diary, and some were committed to memory—others ended up both in my diary and my memory, while others (the majority) ended up in neither.

The trick is to get beyond the overwhelming feeling that bureaucratic systems and organization suck the life out of existence, and to overcome an intuitive resistance to the idea that hope can only be realized by efficient organization. Are dreams really built on time management and effective filing systems?

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Flying Ant Day: The Myth of the Myth

Here’s how to make yourself seem clever by pretending that others are fools. First, make up a belief which is provably wrong. Next, ascribe this belief to others by informing everyone that it is a belief commonly held by laypeople. Finally, explain how people are wrong to hold this belief. If successful this method will ensure that most people seem like idiots badly in need of the sort of enlightened knowledge you hold.

flying_ants
Flying Ant Day: just another excuse for a party

Yesterday, while browsing for information about swarms, I came across something I had never previously heard of: Flying Ant Day. The opening paragraph to The Guardian article on this topic refers confidently to ‘what’s known as Flying Ant Day’ as having fallen ‘this year’ on Sunday 2 August. I’ve been around for a few years, during which time I’ve come across a number of strange ‘days’—Pi Day and Valentine’s Day immediately spring to mind—but I’ve never encountered Flying Ant Day. Despite a familiarity with the phenomenon of flying ants, no relative, no friend, no stranger has ever uttered those words in my presence. Have I lived in a bubble for the past forty years, somehow oblivious to something known and spoken about by most people? So I did some research for ten minutes to find some answers.

An article in the science section of The Independent from last year similarly begins with some confidence, informing the reader that the thousands of ants witnessed the previous day ‘was because we are in the throngs of what some call “Flying Ant Day”’. The author gets bolder: ‘most people have grown to accept that there is one day every summer that will see ants inevitably turn up in their thousands and then quickly disappear again’; and then bolder still: ‘“Flying Ant Day” is the layman’s term for [this] time’. So having stated that the majority of readers hold this belief, the article then shows them all to be wrong to do so. In answer to the question ‘When is “Flying Ant Day”?’ the author for the first time mentions (and notice the disappearance of capitals) ‘a “flying ant day”’. And then at last we are told that ‘Despite the notion that the appearance of flying ants is for just one day a year, scientists have proved that this is in fact a myth’. Yes, there may be several days of the year on which ants fly. Of course the real myth is that anybody believed in this notion of the grand Flying Ant Day in the first place rather than in the fact that every now and then there is a day on which conditions are just right for several colonies of ants to go mating.

The Guardian article similarly tells us that ‘Flying Ant Day is actually a bit of a misnomer’ and ‘a myth’. But no doubt if a story is run annually claiming that people do in fact believe in Flying Ant Day (and, so far as I can tell, science journalists have been running this Flying Ant Day myth since 2012), then eventually we will believe not so much in Flying Ant Day itself but in the notion that most other people believe in Flying Ant Day (even though they don’t). We can then happily conclude that most other people are idiots who need a little scientific enlightenment (even though they don’t). And we can marvel at the myth-busting power of science and journalists (even though it was the scientists and journalists, or maybe even greetings card manufacturers who think Flying Ant Day is an untapped market, who invented the myth in the first place).

I did learn something fascinating from these articles which thankfully (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) does not seem to be a myth. When the male ant mates with the queen his purpose in life is over and he quickly dies. Cause of death: his genitals explode inside the queen.

On Swarms

220px-The_SwarmDavid Cameron recently described migrants as ‘a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean’. The context was events in Calais, otherwise known as the ‘Calais migrant crisis’, a ‘crisis’ that owes much to an inventive construction by media and politicians: the attempts by a few hundred desperate individuals to enter Britain has been turned into apocalyptic warnings of a ‘flood’, ‘migrant madness’ and an ‘invasion’. The Prime Minister’s own linguistic contribution to the issue has been condemned by the Refugee Council and others as ‘awful [and] dehumanising’.

The best defence of Cameron’s phrase is that it was an uncharacteristic ‘slip’. But there was no subsequent apology from the Prime Minister or his office, no acknowledgement that this was careless language he would now like to retract. It is more likely that his choice of words was deliberate. Cameron’s tendency to cloak himself in a few garments of the far right has developed into a habit. In particular, over Scotland, immigration and the EU he has not been shy to sprinkle among his more apparently rational pronouncements the scaremongering, divisive and xenophobic language and ideas normally associated only with extremists. It is, one can only assume, a deliberate but risky strategy to encroach on the ground of the far right as a matter of political and electoral calculation: an occasional raid on the far right may keep the extremists in his own party in check as well as adding a few more Tory voters to the cause. A strategy as fast and loose as this is bound to have unpredictable consequences. But feeding a few more hostilities between England and Scotland and between England and Europe, and prompting an increase in racist abuse and attacks, are probably deemed an acceptable price to pay for the wider political gains Cameron hopes to make.

deadly-swarmAnother defence of Cameron’s reference to ‘swarms’ is the attempt to suggest that criticism of the Prime Minister is simply contrived fuss over language that is innocently appropriate. This tactic is generally adopted not by professional commentators but by the anonymous keyboard warriors writing below the line on media articles; it’s the defence of the ‘I’m not racist but…’ brigade. Surely, they argue, ‘swarm’ is simply an objectively accurate description of the behaviour of these migrants. Swarming is an observable characteristic throughout the natural world: it is exhibited by numerous species of insect, bird, bat and fish, and applies merely to any dense, mass, aggregate behaviour. Set aside the fact that the primary dictionary definition of the noun ‘swarm’ refers explicitly to insects, and that the word is used only transfiguratively of any other type of multitude, then it might be supposed that to liken migrants to a swarm is to use language entirely neutrally. Are such commentators right? Or do they have an extremely dull and simple-minded conception of language? Or is this the disingenuous argument of the subtle racist?swarmed

In the early seventeenth century the migrant issue of the day was the prospect, upon the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England, of Scots seeking their fortune south of the border. The Scots were likened to a swarm—and the comparison was hardly a detached, neutral, objective observation. Mark Kishlansky relates how the ‘English élites feared “swarms of tawny Scots” who, locust-like, would devour office and wealth’ (Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 (London: Penguin, 1996), p. 78); the brilliant puritan author Lucy Hutchinson, wife of one of the regicides of Charles I, numbered among the ills that arrived in England with the accession of James I ‘the swarms of needy Scots the King had brought in to devour like locusts the plenty of this land’ (Hutchinson, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson (London: Everyman, 1995), p. 64). Indeed, the word ‘swarm’, whether applied of insects or humans is invariably used in a hostile, fearful, disparaging and negative way. In the Book of Exodus in the King James Bible God, through Moses, threatens Pharaoh with ‘swarms of flies’ (Exodus 8.21), and the Bible is replete with nightmarish visions of divine retribution taking the form of ‘swarms of locusts’. A ‘swarm of flies’ which descended upon London in 1675 was not met with equanimity but ‘wonder’—in the sense of something so removed from human experience that it elicits incomprehension—and ‘consternation’ (Relation of the most miraculous swarm of flies, 1675). A seventeenth-century mayor of London alarmingly described the prisons as full of ‘swarms of loose and idle vagrants’. In Macbeth, the treacherous rebellion of Macdonwald which begins the play grows from the way ‘The multiplying villainies of nature / Do swarm upon him’ (Macbeth, I.2).

black-swarmThe fear of swarms has provided an interesting sub-genre of horror movie that plays on the terror of killer bees, wasps, ants and other insects. Several films have ‘swarm’ in their title; not one of these films portrays the swarm in question as something to be embraced with stoic calm or affectionate interest. Irwin Allen’s 1978 killer-bee film The Swarm, starring Michael Caine and described by the Sunday Times as ‘simply the worst film ever made’, has a typical template: the swarm has to be stopped, the bees exterminated, since it’s kill or be killed. Deadly Swarm (2003), Swarmed (2005) and Black Swarm (2007) explore the same sophisticated ideas. In reality there have been occasional human deaths from killer bee attacks, although they are extremely rare. The bee colloquially termed as ‘killer’ resulted from American cross-breeding of European and African honey bees; interestingly the subspecies has been given the name ‘Africanized honey bee’ (not, of course, that we should imagine scientific nomenclature ever contributes to racially pejorative thinking and language…).

shark-swarm-posterThe right-wing media and politicians are not slow to point out the African origin of the Calais migrants (even if they have yet to describe them as ‘Africanized migrants’). That the Prime Minister should describe these migrants as a ‘swarm’ fits neatly with the broader agenda of de-individualization and dehumanization. When Katie Hopkins likened migrants to ‘cockroaches’, the similarity with the language of genocide-justification was obvious. (Hopkins has subsequently, and laughably, implied that her use of the term was a compliment—another example of the disingenuous faux-naiveté of the extreme right.) Cameron’s use of the term ‘swarm’ amounts to the same adoption of pro-genocide language. He may not want genocide, but he’s happy to stoke up a little genocidal emotion for his own political ends. Either that or he is a clumsy, thick-headed user of language. Historically and culturally swarming is distinctly non-human, alien behaviour; a swarm has almost always been something to be feared for its propensity to kill and devour; a swarm is something to be exterminated and can be done so with a clean conscience, since the constituents of a swarm are not individuals in any human sense. But my guess is that Cameron’s Eton and Oxford education has equipped him to understand the historical and cultural resonances of such language.

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The ending of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), the apocalyptic nightmare evoked by all talk of ‘swarms’

‘Fear travels in packs’ states the poster for the 2008 film Shark Swarm. It is this natural fear of the swarm, which goes back to the locusts and flies of the Old Testament and which has become a cultural topos, that Cameron and the media want to play on. The nightmarish image they want to conjure up—however deliberately fanciful and without any grounding in reality it is—is not far removed from the conclusion of the greatest of all ‘swarm’ films, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Melanie Daniels and the Brenners, having barely survived the final attack by the swarm of birds, abandon their once-idyllic community which has now been completely taken over by the swarm. It is surely no coincidence that alongside their coverage of the events in Calais, and their eager description of it as a ‘migrant crisis’ demanding tough measures such as the use of the army, the media have also been devoting much space and comment to ‘killer gulls’ blighting Britain’s coastal towns and the need for a cull. The language of ‘swarms’, invasions and culls is attempting to prepare the ground for even nastier rhetoric, and its consequences, ahead. Cameron knows that and, even if he does not genuinely want it, he is cynically prepared to play with the nastiness.