Talk at NCH: ‘History, Political Theory and Philosophy: Different Questions, Different Answers?’

On Tuesday March 22 I’ll be talking to the History of Political Thought Society at the New College of the Humanities, on ‘History, Political Theory and Philosophy: Different Questions, Different Answers?’

I’ll be arguing that while historians, political theorists and philosophers often end up asking different questions, many of their tools are the same. Historians have in effect won the battle to get political theorists and philosophers to think historically and consult historical research, but political theorists and philosophers need to do more to convince historians to think philosophically and consult philosophical research. This can be a valuable means even to primarily historical ends!

Time: 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm. NCH Bedford Square

Location: Drawing Room, New College of the Humanities, 19 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3HH. (N.B. Someone will need to let you in, so if possible please arrive by 6.30.)

RSVP: joanne.paul@nchlondon.ac.uk

 

Visiting Professor at Charles University in Prague

The Charles University

From Wednesday I will be spending a few days as a Visiting Professor at Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in the Czech Republic and one of the oldest in Europe.

I’m working hard while I’m there:

Wed March 16: lecture on ‘Passions, Corruption and the Maintenance of Institutions:
From Machiavelli to Today’.

Thu March 17: seminar on ‘How (Not) To Use History of Political Thought/Philosophy for Contemporary Purposes’.

Fri March 18: Hobbes seminar. Part 1: ‘Interpreting Hobbes Philosophically and Historically: Different Questions, Different Answers?’ Part 2: discussion of my chapter on ‘Reason, Deliberation and The Passions’ in the just-published Oxford Handbook of Hobbes.

Sat March 19: ‘Academic Essays’ workshop for students and staff.

(Details here.)

I will also see two Mozart operas (Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte), in the Prague Estates Theatre – where Don Giovanni was premiered in 1787.

Let me know below if you have any suggestions about where I should go or what I should do/eat/drink. I’ll be back in Prague again in September for the ECPR conference so can tick more items off the list then!

Call for Papers: Methods in Political Theory, at ECPR General Conference, Prague, 7-10 Sept 2016

Keith Dowding and I are organising at least seven panels on Methods in Political Theory at the ECPR General Conference in Prague, 7-10 September 2016. Details are below.

 

The deadline for paper abstract submission is 15 February 2016.

 

In order to apply you need a MyECPR account (http://ecpr.eu/Login.aspx). This is free if your university is an ECPR member institution. Then upload a paper abstract. Feel free to contact me (Adrian.Blau@kcl.ac.uk) or Keith Dowding (keith.dowding@anu.edu.au) if you have questions about your abstract or anything else.

 

FURTHER INFORMATION:
(more…)

Bashing UCL – but only when it’s funny

Bentham lantern UCL smallThere’s meant to be a big rivalry between my university, King’s College London, and UCL. I’ve always found this a bit ridiculous: I have the greatest respect for UCL, and its political science, philosophy and history departments in particular. But I’m very weak-willed, and I’ll do my unfair share of UCL-bashing when it’s funny.

So here, once more, is a short clip of me taking the piss out of UCL in one of my recent standup performances. At UCL.

A bit of Bentham comedy

I did my second standup comedy routine in July, on Jeremy Bentham – here is a short clip.

I particularly enjoyed this performance because Bentham’s body is kept at UCL, where the set was filmed; there’s a cheery rivalry between UCL and my university, KCL.

Adrian Blau Bentham standupHere is a link to my first set, about Benjamin Franklin, from May 2015.

The next of these ‘History Showoff’ standup comedy nights is on 7 October 2015 at the Star of Kings pub in King’s Cross; I shall be enjoying this as a member of the audience only! See here for more details and to book tickets, which cost £6.60; profits go to charity.

Nat Blau (1928-2010)

Dad-small

Joseph Norman ‘Nat’ Blau

My dad died five years ago today. He was a brilliant doctor, empathising closely with his patients and making thousands of lives better. He was a neurologist specialising in headache and migraine, and co-founded the City of London Migraine Clinic, which gave free consultations to all migraine sufferers. In 1962 he beat Roger Bannister to the post of consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, at Queen Square in London. He used to joke that it was the only time anyone ran faster than Roger Bannister.

Queen's Square consultants, Oct 1974. Dad is second from left in the middle row.

Queen Square consultants, Oct 1974. Dad is second from left in the middle row.

My dad teaching my brother about migraine

My dad teaching my brother about migraine

He published over 100 papers in scientific journals, not only on migraine but also on such things as ponytail headache (from tying ponytails too tightly) and sleep-lack headache. He edited a respected textbook on migraine, and his Headache and Migraine Handbook (1986) was written in a straightforward style for ordinary people. He was a superbly clear and concise writer: many of the tips I pass on to my own students came from him.

Mum and Dad's wedding

Mum and Dad’s wedding

He was married to my mother, Jill, for 41 years. He was a caring father to me, my brother Justin and my sister Rosie. He put a lot of emphasis on our education, and inculcated a questioning attitude in us. One of his sayings I still quote is: “If a theory explains all the facts, the theory must be wrong, because some of the facts are wrong.” He disliked the phrase “we now know”, because in his view, some of what we “know” is actually incorrect. His papers would sometimes mention what we don’t know or what his hypothesis could not explain – partly out of honesty, partly as a spur to further research.

He used to refer to “Blau’s Law of 10%”, which was his rule of thumb that only 10% of people have “got it”. He would sometimes follow this up with another comment: “If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. If you haven’t got it, you’ve had it!”

Meeting Princess Diana

With Princess Diana

His preferred version of IQ was the “Insight Quotient”; no one could get to 100% on this scale. He also invented an SQ – a “Sleep Quotient” – referring to the number of people in the audience who were asleep in talks and lectures. His own SQ was almost always zero, I suspect – he was an exceptionally engaging lecturer. He would never get stuck behind the lectern or talk at an audience.

Maida Vale Hospital staff, Nov 1968

Maida Vale Hospital staff, Nov 1968. Dad is in the middle of the front row.

He was by all accounts a superb teacher. He taught until he was 80, when his cancer excessively affected his mobility. His students had great admiration and affection for him. He disliked the way that medical students were expected to soak up knowledge without also developing critical faculties.

He was very funny. If we complained of some pain or ache, his answer was always “Talking too much”. In my case, this was usually true.

Dad age 75

J.N. Blau, at 75

Around the age of 75, he started work on a book called Wrong Ideas and No Ideas in Medicine, which he never finished. He had always been fascinated by wrong ideas which held back progress. He published a seering critique of the neurologist Harold Wolff (Cephalalgia 24:3, 2004) which attacked him for “a high degree of obsession, a desire to be on top and to win, and from an intellectual point of view, his dogmatism and ultra-focus on the vascular theory of migraine …. Wolff retarded progress in the understanding of migraine by at least 30 years”. That sums up several things Dad regarded as key sins. He used to say “Listen to the patient: he is telling you the diagnosis.” Wolff’s descriptions of migraine clashed with what Dad heard from the vast majority of his own patients. The one thing worse than a theory which explained all of the evidence was a theory which didn’t even match much of the evidence in the first place!

A black-tie event at Queen's Square, Feb 1965

A black-tie event at Queen Square, Feb 1965

In his day, most medical students came from wealthy backgrounds. He had next to nothing, and if he hadn’t worked hard at school he couldn’t have won the scholarship that allowed him to study medicine. I’m incredibly proud of what he achieved.

I think of him most when I’m very sad or very happy. When I’m sad I wish he was here, and when I’m happy I want to share good things with him. When I won a teaching award in 2013, I had a brief moment of joy and then started crying, because he wasn’t around to hear about this. My brother won a teaching award in the same year and I think my dad would have been prouder about these two prizes than the promotions my brother and I also got that year. Teaching mattered more to my dad than academic standing. When I asked why he wasn’t a Professor, he said: “I don’t profess to know anything.”

I love and miss him very much.

Laughing at history

Here’s a video of my standup comedy routine, for the second ‘History Showoff’ comedy night, at the Star of King’s pub near King’s Cross on 27 May.

The following people or things were harmed in the course of this routine:

  • AmericansAdrian Blau at HistoryShowoff2
  • Canadians
  • Montesquieu (“completely mediocre in every way”)
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • the truth
  • my reputation

My next set is on July 9th at the Bloomsbury Theatre near UCL (details here). Tickets cost £6.60 and profits go to charity.

10 tips for chairs of seminar/conference papers

A chair tip

A chair tip

1. Don’t read out the speaker’s past history from a printout of their webpage: look as if you know something about them. And for multi-paper panels, all you may need is ‘next up is Jo Public from Edinburgh’.

2. Don’t read out the speaker’s original title, which may have changed since submission. Check the title in advance, or just introduce the speaker not the title. You may also want to check how to pronounce the speaker’s name/university.

3. If possible, tell speakers well in advance how long they have. The organiser may already have done this, of course.

4. If possible, warn speakers well in advance that you will be controlling time carefully. Graduate students and junior faculty may worry about saying this to senior faculty; but if a speaker overruns in a multi-paper panel, it’s discourteous and unfair to other speakers, and if a speaker overruns when she is the only speaker, it’s discourteous and unfair to the audience.

5. Keep speakers to time. Don’t congratulate them on the timing: it’s their job to finish on time, not something which merits praise. If you comment on the timing of the papers, it makes the session about you not them.

6. Before the session starts, tell speakers at what times you will warn them at (e.g. 5 minutes, 2 minutes, time up). Think too about how to warn speakers about timing; it’s not always physically easy (e.g. when someone uses a lectern). A hastily scribbled piece of paper can be hard for speakers to see: if you can, pre-print sheets or use a board-marker pen.

7. Keep questions and answers short, especially when several questions remain near the end of a session. Be firm, be fair. If you’ve asked for short questions and someone starts a four-parter, it’s your job to politely interrupt them. Don’t feel embarrassed: it is they who are being insensitive, not you.  

8. Try not to ask your own questions unless needs be. (Needs sometimes be.)

9. Never collate questions: it’s spectacularly pointless. [UPDATE: I no longer agree with this. Collating questions can save time at the end. E.g. if you have five minutes left and three questions, there’s something to be said for giving each questioner 30 seconds, then letting panellists pick and choose what they respond to.] Be flexible about question order: if someone has already asked a question, she’s less important than someone who hasn’t.

10. Don’t overrun. Don’t overrun. Don’t overrun. Not everyone will want the session to keep going: some people will be bored, others will want a pee, a cigarette or some coffee. When time is up, time is up. In exceptional circumstances, break briefly to let some people escape before you continue.

 

The underlying principles are as follows:

(a) Speakers are more important than the chair.

(b) The audience is more important than the speakers.

(c) Timing matters.

(d) Think ahead.

(e) Be firm.

(f) Be fair.

Powerpoint Tips #2: press F5 – for God’s sake, press F5!

The worst way to start a talk is to waste five or so seconds trying to work out how to load the Powerpoint presentation, i.e. how to start the slideshow in fullscreen mode. “Where’s the mouse? Where’s the little icon to click? It’s not where it is on my computer. Can someone help?”

F5

The answer is: press the F5 key, and the Powerpoint presentation loads automatically. (If you’re on a PC. If you’re on a Mac, either press Control + Shift + S, or buy a PC. Or, sell your Mac, buy two PCs, and learn how overpriced Macs are at the same time.)

So, press F5. For God’s sake, press F5!

 

 

 

Powerpoint Tips #1: stats, tables and graphs

obesity slide

Argh! Too small.

In the comments on my post about conference annoyances, no one mentioned bad Powerpoint presentations, curiously. Yet lots of us have sat through Powerpoint nightmares with graphs and tables which are too small to read, statistics reported to six decimal places, or key findings covered in a milliseconds.

Eva Lantsoght offers some excellent tips on how to make technical presentations accessible to the audience. Her overall message, in effect is:

(a) we should think about what our audience needs to understand technical information, and

(b) the presentation should move slowly enough for our audience to understand it.

My only criticism is with some of her sample slides, where some details are too small. Default settings on stats programmes produce graphs which look OK on paper but are hard to see on Powerpoint.

So, we can add a third point:

(c) the information needs to be large enough to be seen and hence understood.

In case this sounds too self-righteous, I’m well aware that I’ve broken all of these rules at various times!