The truth is rarely pure and never simple”

 

Everyone, who has been teaching for many years now,  knows how learning has changed, since we started. We are now requested to be entertaining, dynamic, technological and on this purpose we are continuously overwhelmed by new educational theories in a sort of didactic frenzy. Another thing I keep observing every year is that school books have become way less extensive than they used to be with a great deals of patterns, photos  and alluring covers. When I was a high school student, schoolbooks were made of words only, dull and the very few pictures were usually/unfortunately placed  at the very end of the book, so when we had a daily assignment of twenty pages, twenty meant  twenty, no discount.

 Books nowadays are 50% made of pictures. Learning must have a visual and quick impact to catch the students’ interest, who actually strain in being focused for more than 20 minutes. One of the most recent learning theories is to segment the lesson in 3, 4 different moments in order to keep their attention constantly alive. But, is this what we have become ? Comedians who seek for the audience’s clapping by means of a good laugh or the wonder of a magic trick? As, there is another thing I noticed. There has been  a growing lexical gap between me and them in time, and I don’t mean in English, but in our language: Italian. Not long ago, I remember translating the word “bedside” into “capezzale” and they looked at me as if I had all of a sudden started to speak German. We are talking about  18 year old teenagers who have never come across a simple word like that and  which they understood only translating it literally from the English: bed= letto,  side = lato, “ al lato del  letto”= “capezzale”. They are of age and can vote.  What has become clear to me is that the outcome all our endeavors in order to keep them away from  the  “boredom-land”  of activities like reading, writing etc.  has only brought to a dramatic impoverishment of their language eventually.

Several studies have demonstrated that the outcome of the decrease in lexical knowledge and the impoverishment of the language consists not only  in the reduction of the vocabulary used, but also in the linguistic subtleties that allow to elaborate and formulate a complex thought. The gradual disappearance of tenses, for example,  gives rise to a thought almost always in the present, limited to the moment: incapable of projections in time. How is it possible to capture a temporality, a succession of elements in time, whether past or future, and their relative duration, without a language that distinguishes between what could have been, what has been, what is, what could be, and what will be after what might have happened, actually happened?

The use of capital letters and punctuation has become on option of late. An increasing number of my students (who theoretically  are supposed to  be used to studying  Latin, philosophy, physics..) are absolutely refractory to start the sentence with the capital letter , for example,– due to the extensive usage of WhatsApp, I know -, but,  every now and then,  they use it with some nouns, like “ Book”, for instance.  Why? Are you German? No useful answer is produced, but distraction. Let alone punctuation. They master “the stream of consciousness” technique without having read a single line from Joyce’s Ulysses;  it just comes natural.  These “deadly blows” to precision and variety of expression  are but symptoms of the difficulty in organizing thinking,  which affects not only learning, by the ways.  Fewer words, fewer conjugated verbs, lack of speech organization mean less ability to express emotions and process a thought. Without words to construct an argument, complex thinking is made impossible. The poorer the language, the more the thought disappears. If there are no thoughts, there are no critical thoughts and  there is no thought without words.

The historical moment we are living, dominated by mass medias way of communicating, reflects exactly what we have said so far. What is this constant polarization in any matter : vaccines, masks, politics, football, but the consequence of the habit of simplification, which leads to the rarefaction of critical thought? We are no longer used to seeing or better understanding the nuances of a question; everything  is black or white, and you know why? Because it is the simplest thing to do, but “ the truth is rarely pure and never simple”.

School should give the tools to understand what is complex, rather than yielding to this process of simplification. Let’s start from words again. Let’s make read and practice the language in its most diverse forms, even if it looks complicated, especially if it is complicated, because in this effort there is freedom. Everything that creates complexity is the real architect of the improvement of human mind. Without complex thinking there is not any truth.

AstraZeneca Drama

I am a very punctual woman, annoyingly punctual, somebody would say. I don’t like to wait, so I don’t make people wait. It comes natural to me. I was born punctual.  So, it was pretty normal for me – but  not for my  husband  –  to arrive at least half an hour before the scheduled appointment to be vaccinated at 4:30 p.m. just yesterday . Actually, I arrived even much before than planned, because there weren’t many people sticking around, due to lockdown. It was 3:45 p.m., when we reached  Fiumicino Covid hub.  There was  just one person queuing before me.” How strange”, I thought. 🤔 When it was my turn a man of the Red Cross scrolled with his finger on the list till he found my name: “Ah, yes , Mrs Tink“. He looked  up and said: “ You are very fortunate. There were a lot of people just an hour ago. It won’t take you long”.🙃 “What a stroke of luck”, I replied. 😜 I hate queuing as much as I hate been kept waiting. Then I started to follow the trail, documents in hand, which took me to the doctor for the anamnesis first, then to another doctor for the jab and then to the final destination, a common space where I was supposed to wait 15 minutes for observation. When I got to that spot, it was 4:10.”Wow, what a wonderful organization” , I thought.🙃 In order to kill time, I soon grabbed my smartphone and I saw that the school chat was jammed with a lot messages, which actually were comments on the following article 😳😳😳:

 “the use of vaccine Astra Zeneca has just been suspended in Germany, France, Spain and Italy  as a precaution, while checks are made into whether there is a link between the shot and an increased risk of blood clots.”

😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱😱

Just ?” “Just, when?”😨 It appears that “just” was 4:00p.m.😰 , that meant  I was very likely the last person to be vaccinated in Italy with AstraZeneca!! 😱That is why there was actually no queue, when I arrived. Everybody knew but me! 😫The most difficult part was  telling it to my husband, as the frustrating thing is that whenever he is right, I find myself reviewing the Conditional sentences, which I hate😤 :”Hadn’t we moved so soon, you would have had the time to be informed” (3rd type),😡  “If we went to the doctor straight away, we could still find him (2nd type) and ask, if you could get any Cardioaspirin to avoid clots (mixed type). 🤔” You have to know that if you get sick , I won’t take you to the hospital near home, I’ve never trusted them”!😠(1st type) How vexing! 😩I let to your imagination, which level of anxiety he reached the hours that followed. Just to give you an example, in the middle of the night😴 I found my husband awake, while he was delicately perusing, if I was still alive.

But here I am. 😜Apparently I had no side effects, not even the most common ones, till now, at least. The point is that it is absurd to suspend vaccinations in such a way, thus giving rise to general panic. Of course, we must know if there a link between AstraZeneca and the risk of blood shots, but without fueling a general climate of mistrust towards vaccines in general and Astra Zeneca in particular. Once you spread doubt, it is very difficult to uproot it. Let’s hope this won’t be not the case.

Meghan in Wonderland

“I would never marry a prince”. This is what I said to myself as soon I arrived in London many years ago while reading an English newspaper full of the latest gossips about the royals. I would never wish to see myself on  papers, I thought, and read articles digging in the alleged secrets of my present, past or even making assumptions on my future. Everybody licensed to judge the way I speak, look, clothes and stuff like that. Just hell. English press is truly merciless. If they had called Prince Albert a sausage, I can just guess how Princess Tink would  have been called, once discovered that  her origins were from the deep South of Italy, for example. I could see the titles after the first errors: mafia pollutes Buckingham Palace, royal pizza connection. No, thanks, I would have never married a prince, let alone an English prince.

But If I actually had wished to marry a prince and had been lucky enough to bump into one I loved, in the remote case I didn’t know much about this Royal Highness, curiosity would have consumed me, hence, I would have promptly googled his name and find out what kind of prince I had hooked .Then, if I had discovered that we were not talking about the prince of Zamunda Akeem Joffer, but the descendant of the oldest and most prestigious monarchy in Europe indeed, after having thanked my exceedingly good star, I would have endeavoured myself to know a bit more about him and his family, particularly if I had resolved upon marrying him. I would have wanted to know every detail and learn what was best to do or learn about the code of behaviour at court. Then, I am sure, I would have downloaded on You Tube “how to curtsy” part .1,2,3,4 before being introduced to the Her Majesty the Queen. I would have wanted to be impeccable, for sure. I would have wished to be informed to fit the best I could. Anybody would have behaved so, but Meghan Markle, who did marry a prince.

What I watched a few days ago was an lengthy interview on the sorrows of a grown up woman half Alice in Wonderland, half Little Mermaid telling the sad story of her connecting with the Royal family. The entire construction of the interview meant at winking at the story of Diana, but it didn’t work, as it looked like more B movie on the topic of depression.  There were few facts told, but, actually, the responsible of those acts was let to the viewer’s imagination, and you know, imagination flows. The shocking events were mostly these: Megan was soon embittered as nobody had thought about organizing an English anthem class for her, then she proceeded telling about a squabble about the dresses of her bridesmaids, thus revealing that it was her sister-in-law Kate, who made her cry and not the other way round, as odious English press assumed. How shocking. I was wondering if that was before or after Prince Charles walked her down the aisle.

Then there was this continuous mantra, about the security they have been deprived of and the cruelty of seeing her child with no title even if titles do not matter. Actually, the host of the show, the astute Oprah Winfrey, was moving the threads of her puppet to take her to the core of the interview which was dearest to her cause, that is Meghan’s accusation of the royals of racism. That was the shell cast in the middle of a tedious interview made of trivialities mostly. Racism!!! I guess it must have been a great disappointment for those gullible Bridgerton fans, who were made believe by Shonda Rhymes only two months ago, that there was black aristocracy in Regency times.

All that talking about dark thoughts, bridesmaids, anthems was nothing but the tasteless “appetizer” of the more juicy “main course”, which was the accusation the Royal family of being racist. And you know what annoyed me the most? Harry, the real or better, the royal puppet of the situation, because he allowed all this. He  allowed his own overexposed family to be even more exposed in this way. While she spoke, he, the Prince, was at first left apart, to observe her wife’s show. It was her limelight. Couldn’t he see the marginality of his role and person? While I was watching this pitiful show, one Italian proverb, kept rolling in my mind: “mogli e buoi dei paesi tuoi” *. Ah, the wisdom of the oldies!

(Difficult to find a real equivalent in English, which sounds: ”Wives and oxen from your own country” . This should mean that it is better to select your partner from people who belong to your country and  have a similar background, in order to  avoid unpleasant surprises.)

Ada Lovelace

Is thy face like thy mother’s, my fair child!

ADA! sole daughter of my house and heart?

When last I saw thy young blue eyes they smiled,

And then we parted, — not as now we part, But with a hope. –( Child Harold Pilgrimages, Canto III)

Ada Lovelace never saw her father, yet in a way he never left her. Her name Augusta Ada, for example, was always to remind her the scandalous liaison he had had with her aunt Augusta Leigh, actually, his step sister, who was so dear to him to dispose that his daughter should be named after her. Easy to guess, her parents’ marriage came to an end soon and the small talk concerning the circumstances of their divorce would follow her till her death. This may happen when your father is poetry super star George Byron. The swelling tide of rumours about his indecorous conduct forced him to leave the country when Ada was only five weeks old, never to come  back. He died in Greece, when she was only eight years old.

Her mother, who came from a rich family and was a renowned mathematician, in a way feared her daughter might be inclined to the study of humanities just like her father and introduced Ada to her own field of expertise. It was soon evident that the magic of words was not to be in her future, but rather the enchant of numbers. At the age of 12 she made the project of a steam power flight machine. As a true scientist she studied birds’ mechanisms of flight, and then examined various materials, including silk, feathers and paper, with which to build wings. She jotted down the results of her research and recorded each experiment in an illustrated guide, entitled Flyology . One of her tutors proclaimed that if a young male student had her skills “they would have certainly made him an original mathematical investigator, perhaps of first-rate eminence”. But she was just a girl.

Lady Byron decided to enhance Ada’s natural aptitude to Math entrusting her training to Mary Somerville, a Scottish astronomer and mathematician, who in 1835 would become the first woman to be accepted, as an honorary member, by the Royal Astronomical Society. Once out in society at the age of 17, it is Mary Sommerville that  introduced Ada to William King, who will become her husband and make her Countess of Lovelace and scientist Charles Babbage, the inventor the “Difference Engine”, a first model of automatic calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions.

When Ada was invited by Babbage himself to see a demonstration of how the “Difference Engine” worked, she was strongly impressed. She couldn’t know it then, but the “Difference Engine” would change her life and would also be the beginning of a long friendship and a fruitful working relationship with Babbage.The man, who at first underestimated that curious girl, began to change his mind and to open up more. They began to correspond about science and even to discuss his ever evolving projects. He also encouraged Ada to indulge her evident predisposition for numbers and to put her potential to good use. For those times, it was not at all easy: the Victorian patriarchal society was hostile towards the ladies who tried to overcome the intellectual, cultural and social boundaries imposed on them.

In  1835, a year before Ada married, Babbage had begun to plan the “Analytical Engine”, a computing system that used cards to multiply and divide numbers and perform a variety of data tasks. The mathematician was forced to seek support and investments on the project abroad, as the British government had tightened the purse strings and this is the reason why in September 1840 Babbage attended the Second Congress of Italian Scientists in Turin.

Among the people in the audience there was the engineer Luigi Menabrea, who offered to draw up a description of the analytical engine, hitherto non-existent. The article appeared two years later in French (Notions sur la machine analytique de Charles Babbage), in a Swiss magazine. Ada Lovelace, who knew French and every aspect of Babbage’s creature very well, proposed herself as a translator. No, actually she did something more.

She added to Menabrea’s writing some of her notes. The new text, almost three times longer than the original, was published in the British magazine “Taylor’s Scientific Memoir” in August 1843. It was signed simply A.A.L. (the initials of Augusta Ada Lovelace) to hide the author’s gender.

Ada Lovelace’s notes also contained in complete detail, a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers using the Analytical Engine, the so called “Note G”.  In short, the first computer program in history. This is the reason why today Ada is considered the founder of the science of programming, at least in its theoretical aspects: for her, in fact, what mattered was the possibility of demonstrating that only one machine could really be applied for multiple purposes, thanks to the instructions that were provided.

Her intuitive mind was able to see even more: if, following instructions, those machines could manipulate numbers, then they would also be able to manipulate the symbols they represented, like musical notes or letters of the alphabet. In a way she was able imagine the behaviour of our modern computers.

Babbage never managed to build his analytical engine and Ada Lovelace could never test his program as she died of uterine cancer at the age of 36. Thus, for over 100 years after her death, no one remembered her, except as Lord Byron’s only legitimate daughter. Her scientific contribution remained underestimated until the “father of computer science” Alan Turing rediscovered her notes in 1936. It is possible that the British mathematician was inspired by Ada’s ideas in theorizing artificial intelligence.

The greatest tribute to Lovelace’s work, however, came in the 1980s, when the US Department of Defence called ADA  the newly developed programming language DOD-1 (Department of Defense 1). Furthermore, since 2009, Ada Lovelace Day has been celebrated around the world on the second Tuesday in October, to acknowledge the achievements of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

By the ways, Ada Lovelace was more alike to her father than her story tells, in fact, she did have the gift of poetry, but she applied it to science. She actually declared in a letter that she aspired to what she considered a “poetic science” and that “ imagination is also the faculty of combining“, that is, “of finding points in common between subjects who have no apparent connection”, but “pre-eminently it is the faculty of discovery. It is what penetrates into the invisible worlds around us, the worlds of Science ”. Those could be the words of any romantic poet; just like her father. When she died, she wanted to be buried next to him at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. Together at last.