Katharine Birbalsingh: especially when it’s difficult

On Thursday 31 May, 2018, Katharine Birbalsingh, the principal of Michaela Community School and the woman dubbed “the strictest teacher in the UK” had a full diary in New Zealand. Click here to see the evidence: you will find several interviews that she gave through the day. After that lot she dined with New Zealand Initiative in Auckland, and gave them a half-hour dinner lecture.

I have been unable to establish her whole itinerary in New Zealand, or even how long she was actually there; but as a UK school principal in the middle of term I rather suspect she merely grabbed, over the Whitsun break, a small handful of days into which she crammed one of the longest return journeys on the planet, itineraries like that Thursday, and diametrically opposite time-displacement.

I’m making excuses for the possibility that she was feeling a little weary, only because she won’t. In her world there are no excuses.

You see where she’s looking? She’s reading a script. I’ve seen speeches where she was shooting from the hip, and heard interviews where she was super-fluent, super-articulate, super-coherent. I was stunned to find her reading this one, went hunting for reasons, and think I found them. She’s dead on her feet, knew she was likely to be so, and therefore wrote the script for her own protection and in order not to let down her audience. She suspected that she would be barely intelligible.

Highly laudable, but wrong. She could have sat in the aeroplane, preparing this – and any other speeches she needed, in her head with her eyes closed. The result would have been every bit as secure, and her delivery demeanour would have been critically more real and natural. She just needed to have been properly taught how.

For her very well-chosen opening story, lasting 1:25 minutes, she is shooting from the hip; and yes, knowing what we now know about how she had spent that day, we can see her weariness and yes we see her having to search for the word “fix”. And then she turns to her script.

She’s a very fine communicator, so the reading is subtly done and with bags of expression. She always speaks in an extrovert fashion, and that is either her natural persona or one that she has thoroughly developed, but here it occasionally breaks out into over-the-top histrionics which are almost manic. That could be caused by her tiredness or it could be a compensation mechanism for reading, or both.

Don’t misunderstand me: this is a fine speech, very well delivered. But, even allowing for her tiredness, it could have been better – not least because it is easier to speak without a script than with one. Much of the spade work was done before she even planned this visit.

  • she is using modules that are clearly well road-tested,
  • I would bet money that she already has well-worked bridges to link those modules,
  • she has a personal mantra that serves brilliantly as an unmistakeable Face for the speech…

…even when it’s difficult – especially when it’s difficult.

Here’s another bet. I bet that speech poured out of her, onto whatever writing medium she used, as fast as she could write it. There would have been no need to stop and think. If so it demonstrates that she could have delivered this without paper, and I believe she knows it. What she doesn’t know, or trust, is how secure that would have been on the day.

At 11:45, “but we still don’t have results. That’s the thing about a free school, at least our free school: you keep on going without the security of knowing that tomorrow will definitely come.”

She has results now. In August the results came through for the school’s first GSCE exams; and Michaela School was in the stratosphere, among the top performers in the country.

So that silenced the hysterical screams from her detractors, didn’t it?

No, they merely changed tack from, “It’ll never work” to “Her pupils are reduced to cowed, humourless, zombie robots”. But I have friends who have visited her school, in one of the most deprived areas in Britain, and found cheerful, lively children who engage intelligently in conversation and are fiercely loyal to her.

And some of them are now founder-pupils of the new sixth form and are studying for ‘A’ levels. We await those results with interest, but I view with trepidation what they do after that. The current state of many of our universities is so dire that these children will be far too good for them.

But they’ll solve that, even if it’s difficult – especially if it’s difficult.

Paul Selva – a study in calm

The 2019 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, in Denver, Colorado, took place in early July. Keynote speaker on the first morning was General Paul Selva.

To rise to the second most senior post in the biggest military that the world has ever seen, you need to be quite something. For all my pretensions of cynical seen-it-all, I admit that I approached this speech expecting something pretty special. I was not disappointed.

But the most special thing about it is how it presents itself as so ordinary. No wild histrionics, just an enormous message backed by calm matter-of-fact details. If you didn’t listen carefully you could imagine he was discussing the weekend’s shopping, yet the descriptions, details, data, are mind-boggling. It is that characteristic that makes me think that this would be an ideal copybook example to the senior business people who make up nearly all of my trainees. When you are dealing with resources and concepts on this scale, delivering an all-singing, all-dancing performance is of no particular use. Unless, that is, you happen naturally to be an all-singing, all-dancing type of person, in which case you probably wouldn’t be in his position.

It is all so deceptive: this is technically spot-on. He runs sentences together when he wants to sweep us along; he gives us pauses – sometimes quite long ones – when something needs to sink in; he couches data in terms that anyone can understand; and it all acts subliminally under his aura of calm. This is damn good. He gives added meaning to “owning” an audience.

Regular readers of this blog, knowing my obsession with paperless speaking, will wonder as I did what that small sheaf of papers is doing in his hand. He barely looks at it, and when he does he never needs to, reeling off his data and statistics from memory. He periodically peels one sheet off the top and puts it to the bottom, and seems to do it more often than there seem to be pieces of paper which is puzzling. Is it there simply to supply something for him to do with his hands?

And then, shortly before the end, (at 15:30 actually) he reads a quotation from Albert Einstein. That is an absolutely justifiable use of paper, because it shows us he is not paraphrasing.

I’m glad I watched that speech.

Ali G: da Harvard Massive

On June 9, 2004, Harvard’s Class Day Ceremonies received a speech from Ali G.

This could be different.

There’s a very well established showbiz principle that a performer can push the boundaries of acceptability much further if it is perceived that the material is said or done by someone else. Ventriloquists have known this forever and have long delivered, with impunity, outrageous material via their dolls.

Rod Hull was an English comedian who made a good living, routinely submitting people – mainly chat show hosts – to serious physical assault on live Television. He did it by carrying an Emu puppet which viciously did the attacking. YouTube has several videos of it. If he’d done it without the puppet he’d have been arrested.

Some performers exploit exactly the same principle by – so to speak – climbing inside their dolls. For instance I think it’s fair to say that Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson use material that Barry Humphries could not for himself get past the lawyers. More significantly, for a student of audiences like me, I don’t think Barry Humphries would get the laughs with that particular material either.

Here is that process by Sacha Baron Cohen. Before we consider how funny it is my immediate interest is in the quality of the performance. The characterisation is total, as it is/was with his other characters like Borat and Bruno. It seems to amount almost to self-hypnosis, and makes me suspect that if a crazed lunatic broke out of the audience and attacked him he would defend himself in character.

Is it funny? This is a time capsule, performed fifteen years ago, and it’s interesting to consider how it stands up. It’s fascinating how much parents and university staff of that time are seen to enjoy the show. I was already a bit old for Ali G’s stuff when it was new so I surprised myself here by laughing out loud a couple of times. Riding on that ventriloquist principle he was the height of dangerous edginess at the time, and I’m a sucker for edge and danger in humour, but today’s students are reputed to be very different.

Live and let live: they’re entitled to their tastes so long as they leave me out of it. I believe there’s an adjective – Woke – about which I know very little and couldn’t be bothered to learn because it doesn’t concern me and everything I hear on the subject seems vacuous and bores me rigid; but don’t today’s students get exercised by something they call cultural appropriation? Wouldn’t most of a student audience today need PTSD counselling after a show like this?

I wonder what Sacha Baron Cohen is doing these days.

Michael Heseltine’s half-truths

In Summer 2019 The Oxford Union hosted a talk, followed by Q&A, by The Rt Hon Lord Heseltine. The last time I heard him speak in public was many years before I began this blog, and roughly coincided with the last time I heard him speak in private. He was holding forth at a neighbouring table at a restaurant off Eaton Square in London. Over that I shall draw a veil.

This video lasts more than an hour and sixteen minutes: the talk is thirty-two minutes long. Simple arithmetic tells us that the questions keep coming for essentially three quarters of an hour, and indicates both the interest shown by the audience and Heseltine’s accommodation of it.

No paper. Heseltine is shooting from the hip. I should have been sorely disappointed had it been otherwise.

He opens with the usual courtesies to the Union; but then in quiet and measured tones, which inevitably lay silence upon the audience, he talks of his youngest days. He tells us he was born on the day Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany (not quite accurate – about five weeks out), and gives us landmarks from his youth which formed his views on what was to become the European Union. It’s a clever and very effective ethos-laden opening.

The whole speech is clever. It’s a politician’s speech, dripping with confected sincerity. But it is a brilliantly constructed tapestry of half-truths. I will supply two examples.

He can’t resist disinterring the weary canard of Winston Churchill saying that we must build a United States of Europe, but like others of his persuasion he carefully omits that in all such urgings Churchill made it clear that Britain should be not part of it, but apart. Churchill said –

We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.

He also cites Harold Macmillan’s Winds of Change speech. It will probably come as no surprise to you that I have the transcripts of many notable speeches of history; and to make sure of my recall of that one I dug it out and read it. Heseltine implies that Macmillan was heralding concepts like the EU, whereas he did the opposite. He was calling for freedom and self-determination of nation states.

This sort of misguidance could be the idle result of sloppy research – like the inaccuracy of his birthdate not quite coinciding with Hitler’s election – but merely a cursory glance at his career in politics and business would suggest that sloppy research would not be a habit. I believe we’re looking at carefully constructed half-truths. And, as Mark Twain observed –

A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies.

Peter Ridd and the penalty for dissent.

At the end of September last year, 2018, LibertyFest held a conference in Brisbane, Australia. One of the speakers was Professor Peter Ridd, latterly of James Cook University (a.k.a. JCU) in Queensland, Australia.

Ridd had been in a spot of bother with JCU, and here he is speaking about it.

Oh what a shame! He’s reading it.

I don’t necessarily blame him, because he has probably been instructed at some stage in his life that he should script his speeches: there is still a lot of that nonsense taught. But you only have to home in on the little asides when his eyes lift from the script and the man is actually talking with us, as distinct from regurgitating something he wrote earlier, to appreciate the lift in quality. He has an appealing personality, and that bloody script is hiding too much of it.

To make this speech shootable from the hip could not be easier. It consists of autobiography mixed with scientific data with which he has worked for years. Everything here, if he were answering questions in an interview, he could rattle off effortlessly.

Nevertheless it is still an absorbing story of how an academic hears and reads lies published about his specialist subject, and has the temerity to say so. As a result his university tries to gag him and when that fails it fires him.

I have had, for some weeks, this speech in my stock of to-do material; and what caused me to dig it out now was reading recently in the press that the court had awarded Dr Ridd $1.2m against JCU in damages resulting from unfair dismissal. JCU is appealing the judgement.

We are repeatedly told that the catastrophic alarm attached to climate change is shared by 97% of climate scientists. Awkward bastards like me check the data and of course find that the assertion is garbage. You are actually hard pressed to find a single climate scientist, not dependant for salary, mortgage, and/or pension on conspicuously toeing the line, who agrees with the alarm. But even without our checking the data, stories like this must raise everyone’s suspicion of the claimed consensus. How genuine can be consent when this is the penalty for dissent?

Robert Elliott Smith got algorithm

On 2 August there was posted on YouTube a speech by Robert Elliott Smith, promoting his new book, Rage inside the Machine. It is subtitled How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All. It was under the imprimatur of Talks at Google.

Robert Elliott Smith is quite a lot of name; so if no one minds I shall refer to him as Rob, which is actually what I call him. He is a trainee of mine, so at least I won’t have to bother with any script-reading nonsense. I know he will shoot this from the hip.

I approach this talk with the words of Albert Einstein ringing in my ears –

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Rob’s book is about algorithms, on which he is expert. I am very definitely not, so I should make a good judge of his powers of explanation.

Nevertheless the Q&A which begins at 42:15 shows that his audience compromises people who got algorithm, in fact they seem to be Google employees. His dilemma therefore is how to set out his stall so that video-watching dumdums like me can grasp it while not alienating the experts in the room. He solves it in the first seconds by metaphorically tipping his hat to the audience’s expertise. It’s a simple device, but effective.

The other side of this dilemma is that I have urged him never to spoon-feed his audience, that people engage more thoroughly with your message if made to think. Therefore he will have to tread, between dumdum and expert, a path made narrow by the need to engage both without spoon-feeding either.

Having explained to the dumdums that algorithms are the ubiquitous electronic calculations that, for instance, cause us to receive targeted advertisements through our computers, he moves into where and why they make mistakes. In particular he addresses the interesting concept that algorithms are prejudiced. This resonates with me. My having turned seventy two algorithms have wrongly concluded that I am in urgent need of a range of geriatric products, thus causing me much hilarity but not helping the supplier client.

Obviously this comes down to the alchemy whereby incoming data are transformed into outgoing conclusions, and Rob addresses the prejudice question by comparing it to human prejudice. He is well-placed, being a native of Birmingham, Alabama, and having been born as the Jim Crow race segregation laws were beginning to collapse.

Thus we have a section describing his growing up surrounded by racial issues; and that subsequently morphs into drawing parallels with data juggling by today’s computers.

I felt he got slightly bogged down in the autobiographical details, which can easily happen, and he needed to be using broader brush-strokes there. But though a card-carrying dumdum, and a geriatric one at that, I still felt that I grasped the essential message that algorithms still in their infancy, relatively blunt instruments, are constantly being made sharper, and here are some concepts whereby the sharpening process can be improved.

What I find particularly impressive is how many comments, not only on YouTube but also LinkedIn where I first saw the video, come from those who got algorithm and now want to read the book. Ultimately the reaction of the market is far more important than my opinion.

And, much more than before, I got algorithm. Who could ask for anything more?

Ann Widdecombe devastates

This is the last of the speeches from the Oxford Union Debate on the motion This House Supports No Platforming.

For the motion we have heard from Robert French and Mariah Idrissi. We should also have heard from Naz Shah MP; but she upheld her devotion to the motion by refusing to speak unless Katie Hopkins was no platformed, which the Union refused to support.

Against the motion we have heard from Toby Young and Katie Hopkins. Now, closing the opposition case we have Ann Widdecombe. It took more than six-and-a-half years and more than 400 blog postings for Ann Widdecombe first to appear here, and she appears for the second time within seven weeks. That previous time she ranted for two minutes, let’s see what she can do in twelve.

I have never seen a more effective ethos-laden opening. Nor can I imagine one. This promises to be quite a speech. [If you clicked that link to my Glossary page, I suggest you keep the tab open…]

Need I even bother to point out that she shoots the entire speech from the hip? All proper speakers can and do, and this is very definitely a proper speaker.

Her structure is a clear narrative thread that takes in examples – mainly during her lifetime (which corresponds pretty closely with mine) – of speech kept properly free, despite offence and hurt; of those who improperly suppressed speech; and concludes with a few extremely abhorrent views which should never be afforded the protection of being silenced. And the brilliance is not restricted to what she says but how she expresses it. In giving examples, she paints very strong word-pictures to give maximum impact to the point she makes. Also she knows her rhetoric technique.

For instance, at 1:41 she launches into anaphora, and not any old anaphora, but one which echoes what is probably the best known example in English literature. Many might not be able to cite act 2, scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Richard II, but are still familiar with “this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty,” and so on. And that’s what Widdecombe echoes, sending her words deep into where we live. This is skill of a very high order.

There’s also humour, including a nice moment at 6:50. The official charged with the timekeeping passes her a note. She picks it up, reads it, and says, “Two minutes more? No I need at least five.” Her calculation is correct to the second.

In her peroration she homes in on something I raised when analysing an earlier speech, and about which I am particularly passionate: free speech is not just about people’s right to speak but more about people’s right to hear.

This must be a strong contender to be hailed as the best speech I have covered on this blog. She is devastating!

I am not in the least surprised to learn that the debate’s motion was resoundingly defeated. I congratulate The Oxford Union.