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What a waste: the future’s rubbish

bin.jpgEvery now and then the press gets exercised about your bins. They’re getting smaller, or they’re only being collected once a fortnight, or they’re going to be chipped, or weighed, or they won’t be emptied if you leave it in the wrong place (see image left, which comes from this story)… Nothing upsets Middle England more than being told they throw too much away and need to recycle more.

In France, over the past couple of years, I’ve seen through a little window into the future of rubbish, and I can tell you it’s not pretty.

I’m pretty much on the side of making recycling as easy as possible. All kinds of stuff: into the one bin, and it gets sorted at the recycling centre. It provides jobs and it’s removes the fuss and bother at the consumer end. I’m not keen on the kitchen rubbish bin, however. A lot of people have compost heaps, of course, and good on them, but one thing I don’t want to do is encourage anything in my garden to grow more than it does. I was listening to Gardener’s Question Time on my way to the dump with garden waste the other day, and every question seemed to be about how to get stuff to grow. My question is always, how do I get stuff to stop growing? 

Another thing I’m in favour of is abolishing the personal bin. I think there should be neighbourhood bins, the big ones, and you should have to walk a hundred metres or so to dispose of you kitchen and bathroom bin bags. I’m pretty sure most people would be averse to this, but I think it makes sense in terms of cost savings, as opposed to investing in smaller bins, or chips, or any of the other solutions. Of course, the fear is that people are likely to abuse the bigger bins and use them as skips.

In France, we do have a compost heap, or compost area, that is frankly half the size of our garden back in England. What we don’t have in France is a wheely bin. Because we’re only there for a couple of months a year and don’t pay the equivalent of council tax, we have to dispose of our own rubbish on an ad hoc basis.

So here is the future of your rubbish.

Recycling in France is a straightforward DIY affair. You have to drive to one of the many recycling areas, and you can dispose of cardboard, paper, plastic, and bottles. But not tins or aluminium, which is odd. If you want to be properly green, it’s possible to walk about half a kilometre and back to a recycling spot down the road from us.

General household waste, however is more of a problem. Because we have no wheelie bin, we have to find some other way of disposing of it. Last summer, we were able to use a big bin (the kind described above) which was outside the local fire station. There were three of these “red bins” in a row near the recycling, so we’d just drop off a black bag as and when. 

But the recent local elections saw a right wing party take over, and one of their first acts (after removing the municipal flowers and other displays) was to remove the big bins. Domage! Now we’ve got a problem. The choices were stark. We could stop in a lay-by with a rubbish bin and dump stuff in there. This single bin gets emptied once a week and fills up very quickly, so we were not the only people doing this. The other choice was to prevail upon relatives and neighbours, but while you might think throwing a bin bag in someone’s wheelie would be fairly harmless, there was a cost to pay.

In France, people pay a council tax and a bin collection fee on top of that. If your bin isn’t emptied one week, you don’t pay the fee. So people are quite canny and only put out their bins when they are full. My brother-in-law generally only has his emptied once a month. So if you throw in a couple of black bags, you’re asking someone else to pay for an extra collection.

It gets worse. If you put your bin out and the lid won’t close, the bin men refuse to empty it. They say this is because, clearly, you should have put it out the week before, and paid for the collection then. Now you’re going to have to wait an extra week.

It gets even worse. When you do put your wheelie bin out, your sneaky neighbours might sneak their own rubbish into it, in order to avoid paying for their own collection. If your neighbours throw a bag in your bin and the lid won’t then close… they refuse to empty it. So now your neighbour has fucked you up good.

In the city of Belfort, the big bins all have locks on them. So even if you just want to dispose of chewing gum responsibly or a sweet wrapper or something, it’s hard to find a bin on the street that isn’t locked.

Welcome to the future.

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I’ve always been a Maverick

When I updated my phone to iOS 7 a few weeks ago, I was a little concerned. I know enough to know that you should never, ever, be an early adopter. But I’ve always been a maverick, so I went for it.

After a couple of days, I updated my iPad, too. In both cases, I hesitated over the “update apps automatically” setting. I know enough to know that sometimes an update isn’t an improvement, and (especially with iOS 7), you can’t go back again. But I’ve always been a maverick.

Those Pro Tools guys used to make me smile, with their oh-so-slow adoption of and support for new operating systems. I used to work with a designer who persisted with Quark XPress 3.1 while the world moved on through versions 4 and 5….

When Apple announced Mavericks was a free download to supported machines, I thought about it. I thought about the various Macs in my classroom and their different-generation operating systems and saw an opportunity to bring things into line. I thought, I’ll install on my MacBook first, see how it goes. The wise old power user inside of me protested. Wait for the .1 update, he said. Then see how it goes. But I’ve always been a maverick.

I should have backed everything up first, but that takes soooooooo long. I’ve used Time Machine in the past, and as far as I could tell, it seemed to be designed to just fill up hard drives..in any event, I only backed up documents and not the system and apps, figuring I would just install those from scratch should the need ever arise.

So I was a fool. And then several things seem to have combined to make my life (especially my job) very difficult. First of all, Mavericks wouldn’t install. It reported a damaged hard drive, and threw a wobbler about 75% of the way through the process. Having done that, my Mac was non-functional, because the previous system was gone. Kernel panic after kernel panic, as I tried to restore. So I had to spend the day trying to get the hard drive to even mount so it could be I mounted and erased. I plugged it in in target disk mode and ran disk first aid. Half an hour later, it was at least visible. I then copied as many of my files as I could. That took all afternoon.

In the evening, I reinstalled Mountain Lion, an operating system I had hoped to see the back of. When was the last good one? Snow Leopard? I had the disk, but the computer wouldn’t let me install it. Instead, it downloaded ML from the App Store. As a matter of urgency, for lesson 1 today, I needed Keynote and Pages. Tried copying the files from another Mac. No.

Meanwhile, I realised, too late, that my iPad versions of these apps had already updated to the iOS 7 versions, which will only synch with the Mavericks versions. So my cloud versions of the files, if opened on the iPad, would no longer work on the Mac, even if I could get iWork working again.

This morning, reinstalled iWork from the original disk. Twice. And downloaded the updates. And rebooted into Safe Mode. Twice. And repaired permissions. Twice.

And so?

“An unexpected error has occurred. Please quit and reopen Keynote.”

I’ve always been a maverick.

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Apps for Cyclists

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 08.41.55

I’ve tried a number of apps for cycling, but the one I keep returning to is Cyclemeter. Unlike a lot of the others, Cyclemeter is a paid app, and the great thing about that is that it doesn’t nag you constantly to upgrade to a “pro” version.

I am not a pro, have no aspirations to be, and I don’t want to pay for features that don’t interest me. On the other hand, I will pay a reasonable amount of money not to be nagged.

Cyclemeter does one thing really well: it works as a cycle computer with a very clear display, it measures your current, fastest, and average speed, your cadence (if you have a speed/cadence gadget on your bike), your ride time, the distance cycled, and other stuff if you’re interested, which I’m not. It also remembers all your routes and loops and tells you how far behind or ahead of your best or median rides you were. It stores a map of your GPS track, a record of all your rides in the calendar, and a graph of your speed, cadence, elevation, and so on.

It does allow you to share your rides on the Twitter and the Facebook, and post links to your rides online, and it does have some kind of competition feature, but I’ve not paid any attention to it, because I’m not interested in that kind of thing. And because I’m not interested, and it doesn’t include nagware, it doesn’t bother me. Just does what I want it to do, reliably.

MapMyRide, on the other hand, puts the sharing and competition elements up front and centre. It also nags you constantly to upgrade to their paid subscription, which looks really expensive. I don’t mind a one-off cost for something I consider worth it, but I will always steer clear of a monthly or annual subscription. What I did like about MapMyRide was the ability to plan a route using the map on their web site, and then send it to your phone. This allows you to plan routes in areas you’re unfamiliar with, and know in advance the distance and elevation. I’ve used it to plan my ambitious rides around Auxelles Bas this summer. I have an idea of what I want to be able to do each week, with the build up to something big at the end (some hope).

But the thing about MapMyRide, apart from the nagware, is the fact that the app crashed catastrophically the second time I used it. It then demanded every time you tried to relaunch it that you turn on the Bluetooth to connect to your cadence meter before crashing again (whether you complied or not). In the end I had to delete the app and all its data, then re-install it and log in all over again.

So I used that twice and no more.

Which brings us to Strava, which is the more successful and widely used of all the cycling apps. Like MapMyRide, it’s free, but it nags you to upgrade to a subscription. Some of the things it has for “pro” users do interest me, but not enough to pay $4 a month or $60 a year, whatever it is.

(One of those features is to filter the “strava segment” times to show people who are the same age/weight as you, so you can really see how slow and unfit you are, as opposed to comparing yourself to all comers.)

Strava’s main selling point is that it doesn’t care much about routes and loops, but does allow you to record “segments” – stretches of road where you can push it for an interval. So a couple of kilometres here or there, where you can measure your performance on a discrete chunk of road. This works quite well in the sense that there’s always something that stops you doing a whole loop faster: psychotic drivers, sheep, busier-than-usual junctions, strong winds etc. Whereas no matter how bad a day you’re having, you can always pick a bit of hill or road to have a go, and push yourself for a few minutes.

I quite like this feature, because although I’m not interested in my performance against hundreds of other cyclists (many of whom I’m sure are driving the route in their cars to put themselves at the top of the leader board: it’s what I’d do), but because it allows me to push it on those gumption trap sections that always hit me hard and slow me down, for no other reason than habit and psychology.

I’ve written before about a couple of turns and hills that just feel like hitting a wall to me, even though the evidence of my own eyes tells me that they’re not all that steep. Usefully, many of these sections have already been recorded as Strava segments, so I don’t even have to go to the bother of creating my own. So I’m always going to be 230th out of 260 riders who have done that section, but at least I can force myself to go faster and beat my own times up those hills. And because we’re only talking about 5 minutes of effort, it won’t kill me.

There are other apps I’ve tried. The Wahoo app that works with my Wahoo sensors was functional, but didn’t offer anything over and above Cyclemeter, so I don’t use it. The various national cycle routes apps are pretty poor – especially in terms of mapping (ironically) and the need to download tiles in advance, which is inconvenient and takes up space on your phone, which already has two or three lots of maps installed, thanks.

At the moment, I’m using Strava for the novelty, but ultimately I’ll return to Cyclemeter. Every time I go out and don’t use it, I feel guilty, like I’m cheating on my wife.

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Cheater’s Game by Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

kelly-willis-bruce-robison-cheaters-game

Although married 16 years, this is the first full-blown recorded musical collaboration between Austin-based Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison.

It’s great. The vibe is very similar to Ms Willis’ recent solo work (her album Easy is one of the best-sounding records I own), but here her voice blends with Robison’s to great effect. They share lead vocal duties, but always harmonise beautifully on choruses and so on. A great example is “Leavin'”, which starts as a Robison vocal and then becomes almost like a round with Willis’ harmonies. Great finger-picked guitar, too.

The mood shifts from plaintive (“Long Way Home”) to joyfully heartbroken (“9,999,999 Tears”) and honky-tonk rowdy (“Border Radio“). The playing is superb and the production has a lovely ‘analogue’ sheen. I downloaded it, but you can buy it on 200g vinyl with the CD included if you want. Something about the sound suggests that hearing this on vinyl would be a treat.

I’ve not heard much of Robison before. He’s got a good voice, reminiscent of John Prine at times (which means that there’s an occasional hint of Dylan). This is already one of those albums that when a track comes on during random or alphabetical play, you immediately notice how great it sounds compared to anything else around it.

“I’ve got nine million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand,

Nine hundred and ninety nine tears to go

And then, I don’t know if I’ll be over you.”

Fantastic record. Highly recommended.

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Dancing on the Hedge. Spoiler alert: it’s shit

English: Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeter Franç...
Arse trumpet, more like.

I’ve watched all three episodes of the BBC drama “Dancing on the Edge” – but why, why, why?

I saw the previews. I quite liked the idea of a drama about social prejudice and jazz in the decade leading up to the second world war. I read about it in the Graun, and there was a lot of harping on this Stephen Poliakoff wot wrote it.

Who he? I thought. I’m a vague on this kind of thing at the best of times. I mean, the one thing we know about the world thanks to the internet is that any idiot can write or take a decent photo, so I find it hard to get worked up about some TV writer. You know what’s better than five hours of television written by one writer? Five hours of television written by five writers. Or a team of writers. Let’s not be precious about it: the golden age of television we’ve been living through has shown that the best TV writing is a team effort.

But some people labour under some misguided ideal about romantic individuals.

I watch three episodes of Dancing on the Hedge. It’s utter shit, not even redeemed by music. It drifts and meanders and nothing fucking happens. It’s boring. The characters are boring. The settings are boring. Apparently, Britain in the 1930s was almost literally empty, apart from a few posh people and a black dance band. I’m fucking sick of the fucking public school educated BBC shitface tossbuckets commissioning fucking dramas about fucking posh people. Fuck, fuck, FUCK! They take a whole episode to go from the shock of finding a character apparently dead to the bit where she is actually dead – and try to get away with having two episodes in a row ending in exactly the same way.

I look up this Stephen Poliakoff on the Wikipedia. He went to Westminster School, what a fucking big surprise. And fucking Cambridge, also big shock. But not a big shock that he didn’t finish his degree. It’s not about getting a degree, is it? It’s about meeting the right posh people and having posh friends who will give you jobs, because you’re a posh boy. Oh, the struggle. He has written literally nothing that I have ever watched. As I have immaculate taste  – a fact that cannot be disputed – this proves that he has never written anything worth watching, including this. Next time the BBC is under attack from the political right, I’ll think about this shit and I’ll shrug my shoulders and say, give or take Eddie Mair, is there anything about the BBC worth preserving? Really? If you could strip away all the dumb posh people and their half-baked crap, what would be left?

Three hours of my life I’m not getting back.

Now, when’s The Good Wife on again?

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Educational Expectations

Students in the incubation room at the Woodbin...
Vocational? (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

One of the latest buzzwords used to smite teachers is expectations. We were sent a form to fill in the other day (filling in forms being the response to most of the pressures put on schools) asking what we were doing to “raise expectations of what students can achieve”.

Like most teachers, I’m offended by the suggestion that I set out to teach with low expectations. You really couldn’t get out of bed every morning if you didn’t have some shred of optimism. Sometimes, your students know almost nothing when they first come into your subject, and imparting a little of my extensive subject knowledge is one of the pleasures of my job. My expectations of what the students can achieve are not low, but nor are they unrealistically high. And I don’t believe in sugar-coating the truth when it comes to giving students feedback on their work. You do your best to tell them exactly what they need to do to achieve top grades and beyond. Sometimes, faced with a challenge or a technical obstacle, they do lose their gumption.

Is that my fault? I tend to think that their own expectations are informed largely by their experience at home. I’ve got a student – capable of a B-grade but currently performing well below that – whose mother claims s/he “can’t read and write.” This is not true – I’ve got evidence to the contrary – but you wonder about the effect on his/her confidence of getting that message at home on a daily basis.

When you’re dealing with sneaky lying Tories, of course, the language they use (“expectations”) is code for something else. They don’t really think that teachers have low expectations. What they really think is that only privately educated people are worth anything, and that state schools should be privatised as soon as possible. So they’re deliberately ignoring 80% of what state schools offer – over and above what a private one can – and judging state schools on the core subjects offered by the conservative private sector and the conservative, “elite” universities to which they send their students.

Oh, yes, the elite. What the code means is that I’m a bad teacher because I don’t encourage/push enough of my students to apply to Oxford/Cambridge. It’s true, I don’t. That’s because I teach subjects not recognised by those institutions. In their infinite wisdom, they see no value in vocational or semi-vocational subjects, and they certainly don’t view film and media as worthy of study. So the students I tend to be advising are applying elsewhere.

I also look at those institutions and the graduates they produce, and I look at the way the country is being run by them, and I tend to think that their so-called elite education is over-rated. The people in charge of the BBC during the Savile era (and before)? Largely privately-educated and graduates of Oxbridge. In charge of the banks that fucked the economy? In charge of the government that doesn’t know what to do about the economy? Yeah.

Look around you at the world, who is the most genuinely innovative and successful Briton? Who has designed the devices that millions of people use every day and love? Who works for a company that has grown and made profit by actually selling more products rather than by cutting jobs to cut costs? Apple’s Jonathan Ive was educated at Walton High School, a state comprehensive, and at Newcastle Poly (now Northumbria University).

So, no. I don’t recommend Oxford and Cambridge and their back-to-the-50s classical education to my students. I wouldn’t recommend that route to my own academically gifted children.

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We don’t need more growth, we need more equality

Tax
Tax (Photo credit: 401K)

All the chatter is about the lack of growth in the economy, which is a massive red herring for what’s really wrong.

More growth means more consumption, and we need to consume less.

What remains is a smaller pie, and the problem with the pie is that the idiot who sliced it up didn’t do it evenly. When they talk about social mobility, they don’t really mean it. Because our most urgent need is for a huge chunk to be lopped off the top of the social ladder.

It’s not lack of growth in the economy that makes most people unhappy, it’s inequality.

We all know how to fix inequality. A more progressive tax system, for a start. nd get rid of private schools. Although tax relief isn’t given for private school fees, there are plenty of ways for the wealthy to avoid paying tax. For example, the notion of using your children’s capital gains and income tax allowances to reduce your tax bill is nothing more than a weaselly way of hiding your wealth.

Which brings us to the thorny notion of inherited wealth. It’s easy for me, sitting here on my little molehill, to point up at the people in the ivory tower and say that they shouldn’t be able to leave a shedload of money and property to their kids, but still: tough love is required. Release the wealth back into the wild. So you’ve managed to accrue wealth in your lifetime (or did you start out that way?), but tying it all up in your estate means there is less to go round.

The answer from people who believe wealth should be inherited is always that this isn’t a zero-sum game, that economic growth means that other people can grab a slice. But growth is bad for the planet, bad for the poor, and never enough in itself to mitigate the poisonous effects of inequality.

I’ll inherit nothing; my father and mother inherited nothing. And am I bitter? You bet.

While we’re about the abolition of private & public schools, we need to get rid of grammar schools. They’re just a hidden form of private education. Wealthy parents pay for 11+ coaching, which distorts the results of a test which has nothing to do with the primary curriculum. A disproportionate number of children get 100% on their 11+ test, which distorts the standard results bell curve, meaning that some of the more academically able children are actually branded failures. In any event, being branded a failure at the age of 11 can shatter a child’s self esteem.

The wealth of their cohort also means grammar schools are able to raise more money from parents to mitigate the effect of spending cuts.

Next, we do indeed need to get rid of the House of Lords, which is profoundly undemocratic, and the monarchy, which is an important symbol of inequality and inherited wealth. House of Lords reform is not a distraction: it’s one of the most important changes we can make to the way our society runs. And because the European Union is also undemocratic (it’s being run by bankers, not MEPs), we should leave that, too.

In short: growth is not what we need. Equality is what we need.

 

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A daily dose of wishing I lived somewhere else – a parallel universe, maybe

John Bercow visits the Senedd / John Bercow yn...

Bercow isn’t entirely wrong when he says that the low turnout at last week’s local election was a consequence of the lack of any real choice between the main parties.

It’s even worse than usual now, because the Lib Dems are dead people walking, so the choice between Labour-Tory policies and Tory-Tory policies is like choosing between being kicked in the left bollock or the right bollock. I reached a state of despair with political parties quite some considerable time ago, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. It’s even worse round here, because nobody stands against Bercow anyway, and the Green party are too poor to field candidates everywhere.

Of course, the other main reason for not voting in local elections is because central government has grabbed so much power over the past 30 years that the idea of local government is a bad joke. Most of the spending money comes from the centre, and because of that, local councils have to do central government’s bidding in order to get their hands on the money. The remaining bits of the education system that have some kind of local council oversight are being steadily privatised via the mechanisms of academies and free schools.

Your local swimming pool is probably being run by Serco or similar. Your local comprehensive school will probably end up being run by them, too. But even this stinking and corrupt policy is not entirely the Tories‘ fault. Because it was the fucking Labour party in power who invented the shitting academies.

So, no, not really surprising that people weren’t bothered about voting. What’s the point? Those who say that you have no right to complain if you don’t vote are dead wrong, too. Supporting a broken system by pretending it still works is a form of denial. What if they gave an election and nobody came?

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Quiet – the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain

It was hard to avoid the publicity surrounding this book in the lead-up to its publication, and the author’s interesting TED talk was so gripping that I was very much looking forward to reading this. This review is based on having spent two weeks reading a copy I purchased myself. It’s not a professional rush job.

This is not an academic publication reporting years of empirical research but an anecdotal amalgam of many research projects, along with personal experience, anecdotes, and woven constructs based on real events. There are many notes and references, which are listed in the back of the book in the narrative style, rather than using footnotes or in-text citations. I guess this makes it easier to read for the layperson, but I found the underlined links in my Kindle edition a bit of a distraction.

It first dawned on me that I’m an introvert a few years ago. I haven’t always known, and if you’d asked me before the dawning I would have seen the word “introvert” as pejorative, a value-laden term used to describe the unsocial, rude, socially inept person I sometimes felt myself to be.

Around the age of 13, I was invited to my first proper teenage party: one without adult supervision, and involving music, dancing, and a bit of snogging. I coped fairly well with that first one, but at the second a couple of months later, I was desperately uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do with myself. At the time, I blamed my misery on the fact that a bunch of the sporty boys had switched on the telly and started watching the football. For me, this ruined the party (and I’m sure it did for others), but what really bothered me was the sense that I didn’t fit in anywhere.

My instinct at all parties was to gravitate away from the noise and to find somewhere quiet with one or two other people. Frequently, this quieter place would be the kitchen. But then there was such a social stigma attached to people who hung around in the kitchen at parties that I forced myself not to do it.

Eventually, I just stopped going to parties. And I still don’t. I also deeply dislike dinner parties, office christmas dos, weddings, charity fun days, and other examples of programmed fun.

I know how this has made me look in the eyes of the world. If anything, I’ve become more introverted as I’ve got older. I’m perfectly comfortable at home, and my preference after a long week of work is to decompress quietly over the weekend. At the end of a full-on teaching day, what do I want to do? Nothing. This has led to a bit of conflict in my marriage, because my wife, who is much more extrovert than me, wants weekends to be more action packed.

So Susan Cain’s book was a fascinating read, and it was a great thing to find that my unsocial tendencies are just a natural part of my temperament and not something that is wrong with me.

My job is actually very social. I’m in contact with young people in an active and social way for many hours a day. Like many introverts, I deal with this by faking a certain level of extroversion. This relates to an idea called Free Trait Theory. We can all fake it when we need to. The problem Cain identifies is that society expects introverts to fake extroversion occasionally, but no such demands are made of extroverts.

And this is a problem. It may be the reason the economy is in the toilet, for example. Because Wall Street and the City of London reward risk-taking extroverts.

(It’s not in the book, but I bet it’s the case that the Challenger shuttle disaster happened because an introverted engineer at the flight readiness meeting didn’t speak up forcefully enough – in the right style, I mean – to indicate that cold temperatures were a problem with the SRB O-rings. Someone did say something, but didn’t do so loudly or forcefully enough.)

(Also not in the book: I suspect the secret of The Beatles’ success was down to the magic combination of extroverts and introverts within the band.)

I’ve been encouraged as a teacher to incorporate group work in all my lessons, and to encourage maximum participation. If OFSTED were to observe a lesson, they would likely criticise any teacher who allowed a few students to “get away” with saying nothing in class. You’re supposed to pick lolly sticks out of a pot and call on students to make a contribution.

But for some students this kind of thing causes deep anxiety and unhappiness. Between 30 and 50 percent of them are introverted to some degree, and, in the words of Bartleby the Scrivener, would prefer not to.

I am now resolved to teach these introverted students in the way that they would like to be taught.

Susan Cain’s book might not change your life, but it might explain a few things, and give you some ideas about how to deal with the inevitable social anxieties and conflicts. Worth a read, for introverts and extroverts alike.