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OpenLearn Live: 13th April 2016

Updated Wednesday 13th April 2016

The Sussex schoolboy who reinvented himself as a First Nation environmentalist, and Arnold Wesker remembered. Then more free learning across the day.

OpenLearn Live brings makes sense of free learning by showing how it fits with the wider world. This page will be updated during the day.

Yesterday, we explored the scale of space, discovered the effects of LSD and celebrated the invisible heroes of public service

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live


Today's posts


Facebook wants to change the world. Uh-oh.

Having already made it awkward to refuse friend requests from your gran, and too easy to accidentally send your colleagues pictures of your bottom, what's Facebook planning next?

Mark Zuckerberg's plans sound like the sort of schemes usually outlined to Sean Connery, while he's being dangled over a tank of sharks. In the future, Mr Bond, all other apps will be brushed aside, and everything you need to do online will be accomplished through Facebook Messenger. Everyone will be linked to everyone else. All around the planet.

You don't need to be upside down over a tank of snapping fish to suspect there might be a downside to all this. NPR's Morning Edition heard some of the worries:

Zuckerberg's detailed keynote had one glaring omission: the public safety risks that are arising, the world over, as his company tries to connect people. "We stand for connecting every person, for a global community, for bringing people together," he said at the outset.

"It's naïve," says Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Tufekci says Facebook has not paid nearly enough attention to the ugly things that happen when people come together. In Burma, the Buddhist majority has used Facebook to share calls for the killing of Muslim minorities. Militias use the site as aweapons bazaar, even after Facebook banned gun sales.

Facebook relies on users of its site to report violations. As purchases move from public feeds and groups to the privacy of Messenger, this model of online —community policing — which already fails to catch wrongdoing – will not work, Tufekci says.

She doesn't fault the company for people's bad behavior when they are connected. Rather, their lack of attention to it.

"These are very basic human dynamics. This isn't Facebook's fault," she says. "I'm just a little surprised. This company is now more than a decade old. [We're] still hearing these really vague mushy values statements that don't take into account how Facebook actually operates as a dynamic, because it's a potent dynamic."

Listen to the report at NPR: Facebook's new master plan

Facebook's problem with 'real names'


Don't read beneath the line

The Guardian is embarking on a campaign to sort out its comments area, and to make it a nicer place to share ideas. As part of the prepartory work to usher in this new world, the paper explored what was happening on the site already. Its finding, though not surprising, are pretty grim:

Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the “top 10”, one was Muslim and one Jewish.

And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.

Why is this happening? Writing at the All That Is Solid blog, Phil suggests the nature of Guardian readers means it's wrong to assume it shares all its roots with other online troll bursts:

 With a weakening of solidarities and the throwing of many families (and individuals) onto their own resources, combined with the disappearance of many masculine-coded jobs there is a coterie of middle-to-old aged men who are deeply resentful that what was theirs by right has gone, and its replacement is a society and set of official values they're disengaged and feel alienated from. Naturally, like most forms of reaction it kicks against what is regarded as the most visible symptoms of a social problem. Immigrants of all kinds, BME communities, minority sexualities, and, of course, women. For a subset of this strata a sense of power, control, superiority and, yes, manliness is recuperated every time they traduce an articulate woman beneath an article. And doing it again and again, one can build up camaraderie with others who do the same, recapturing a simulacra of male solidarity and potency raging against the feminised machine.

Read and explore the data at The Guardian: The dark side of Guardian comments

Read A Sociology of Sexist Trolling

Going out online? Try our free Succeeding in a digital world course


Northern Lights

The aurora borealis was strong over the extreme north of the country last night, as the Met Office has shown:

You might be able to see the aurora tonight, if you're in Shetland.

This is probably as good a time as any to ask the question "what causes the aurora borealis?"

Let's hand over to some Norwegian physicists to answer that.


Arnold Wesker: A short reading & viewing list

The British playwright Arnold Wesker has died at the age of 83. BBC News reports:

He first established his reputation with the Wesker Trilogy at the Royal Court theatre in central London.

During his life he wrote more than 40 plays, as well as short stories, essays and poetry over five decades.

One of his most successful plays, Chips with Everything, was inspired by his own experiences in the RAF.

There's a rich site dedicated to his life and work at arnoldwesker.com, which includes synopses and excerpts of all his plays, and fiction and non-fiction writing. This is from the entry for 1974's The Wedding Feast:

"Then I'll leave, with a joke about the wedding bed which'll make them roar with laughter, and then I'll kiss the bride, gently, on the forehead, and I know how they'll all look at me because it's a beautiful gesture, in the right proportion, at the correct moment, everything correct, most important. For to every action is a time and place and they see that I know that. And then, in the factory, next week, the efficient industrialist. Kindly but firm. Not the place to remember weddings and kisses. Work! The world must turn on. Men must be fed, houses built, shoes cut out and sewn up. Two sides! They'll see two sides of me and when they're old they'll tell their children and I'll be spoken of with affection, honoured, remembered."

The British Council website offers a critical perspective on Wesker's work:

Although he was a central figure in the post-1956 generation of New Wave playwrights who flourished at the Royal Court theatre, there are good reasons to doubt whether even then the term 'realist' adequately described Wesker's dramaturgy.  The Kitchen (1961), Chips with Everything (1962) and above all the Trilogy - Chicken Soup with Barley (1959), Roots (1959) and I'm Talking About Jerusalem (1960) - established him as a social realist because they brought a strikingly new content to the British stage.

[...]

But Wesker was far from being a documentarist.  His aims in his first plays, and in the later ones, always went beyond a desire to record sympathetically the everyday life of the working-classes.  Sometimes verging on the didactic, these plays set out to diagnose the situation of the working-classes and offer a tentative programme for change.  He says in the preface to the Trilogy: 'I am at one with these people: it is only that I am annoyed, with them and myself.'

Rachel Cooke met him in 2011 for a Guardian profile:

Of all Wesker's work, it is Chicken Soup with Barley that is the most autobiographical. Sarah and her wastrel husband, Harry, are thinly disguised portraits of Wesker's own parents, Leah and Joseph, who were the children of immigrants from eastern Europe and who worked as tailoring machinists. They brought up Arnold and his sister Della, first in rented rooms in Fashion Street, Spitalfields, and then in a new council flat in Hackney. Both were devout communists. "My father wasn't much committed to anything [Joseph, like Harry, found it hard to stick at any job for long], but in argument, he was a communist. My mother, though, was deeply concerned about justice and good behaviour and honour, and she felt you had to be a communist to be that, or rather, she felt that those who weren't communists were frequently unpleasant people." Was Wesker proud of their politics? "No, I took them for granted, though I enjoyed all the gatherings: the May Day demos, being carried shoulder-high through Hyde Park, all the banners."

Finally, here's a two-part interview, part of the CUNY's 'Conversations with William M Hoffman' series, from 2014:


A week in April: The death of Grey Owl

We're starting up this week with a story from the same day in the past. Yesterday, we shuttled back to April 12th, 1994, and the first commercial spam. Today, we're time travelling to April 13th, 1938, and the death of an environmentalist.

Grey Owl Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain

In a hospital in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, an extraordinary life is coming to an end. Grey Owl, a First Nations environmentalist, is losing a battle with pneumonia; the pneumonia is a side-effect of a battle lost against alcoholism. On April 13th, 1938, Grey Owl slips away, ending an extraordinary tale. His biographer, Lovat Dickson, summarisies what Grey Owl said of his life:

He was the son of a Scottish father and Apache mother. He claimed his father was a man named George MacNeil, who had been a scout during the 1870s Indian Wars in the southwestern United States. Grey Owl said his mother was Katherine Cochise of the Apache, Jicarilla band. He further said that both parents had been part of the Wild Bill Hickok Western show that toured England. Grey Owl claimed to have been born in 1888 in Hermosillo, Mexico, while his parents were performing there.

An unbelievable start to a life. Actually unbelievable, as it wasn't true. In fact, given Grey Owl spent his later years living frugally in Canada's national parks, working to restore species - and especially the beaver - and protect the wilderness, his real origins were just as amazing.

The truth about Grey Owl was revealed the day after his death. A local paper, the North Bay Nugget, had long known he had fabricated his past, but kept its story to itself while he was alive.

Grey Owl wasn't born as part of a travelling show - in fact, he was born in Hastings, on the Sussex coast. And when he was born, he was called Archibald Stansfeld Belaney. His parents were English, although he had a Scottish grandfather. Rather than learning of life in a wagon, he had a fairly normal education at Hastings Grammar School. Arguably, until Spice Girls manager Nigel Fuller came along, he was the most famous of that school's alumni. The school is still open today, although various changes in educational practice have seen it morph into the Ark William Parker Academy.

So how had he gone from making stink bombs in the chemistry lab at a Sussex grammar school to living the life of a First Nations activist?

He'd emigrated to Canada in 1906, and started making a living as a trapper. Around this time, he'd adopted his new persona. He lived with the Obijiwa people, marrying Angele Egwuna and - at least by his own account - being adopted into the nation.

During the First World War, he fought with the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force and - sustaining injury - found himself back in England to convalesce. Here he married a childhood friend, Constance Holmes. Yes, he did get married in the last paragraph. And he's about to get married in the next one, too. Not so much with the divorcing, though.

Back in Canada, a relationship with, and marriage to, Anahareo, a Mohawk Iroquois woman changed the shape of Grey Owl's life. She encouraged his interest in the balance between man and nature, and influenced him to publish a number of works on the Canadian wilderness. She showed him the pain animals felt in his traps and - seeing the universe through different eyes - Grey Owl moved from hunting the beaver to protecting it. He became a sought-after writer and speaker on environmental matters - and his colourful if dubious backstory helped him find an audience. His fame led him to work with the Canadian national park system - and ensured that, as his personal life fell apart, his misbehaviour would at least be tolerated.

He travelled the world to share his view of the world, and its perhaps here that his work continues to find its deepest resonance today. He appeared in Leicester, at the De Montfort Hall in 1936. In the audience were two brothers who found their interests perfectly reflected in the environmental showman on the stage. Richard and David Attenborough carried the night with them - Richard going on to direct a film of Grey Owl's story. And David? Well, Grey Owl helped stoke a fascination with the natural world - and a desire to preserve it.

Did it matter that the man they thought to be born in the frozen North actually came from the English seaside? Should we downgrade the work because of the man? Richard asked David about Grey Owl, and shared the answer with the Guardian:

"He was a major figure, one of the first of his kind. But, sadly, his death in 1938, and the revelations that followed, plus the outbreak of war, meant that all his warnings were ignored. The great tragedy is that if people had acted on what he was saying, the whole ecological movement would have been advanced by at least 30 years."

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