Monday, 23 January 2017

Bibliographies, New Students, and Mark Twain

It's that time again, time to drag the keyboard out of its academic pursuits and return to the land of the self-aware and those not struggling with bibliographies in LibreOffice. It doesn't seem to work consistently at all... Maybe if I gave the computer a nice hat, and asked it very politely? No, you're probably right, that wouldn't make much difference. I'll keep that strategy in reserve, along with throwing socks at the monitor. There have been studies that -- But, we are digressing! Who really wants to know about fictional studies into the efficacy of sock hurling as a bibliography remedial measure. No-one, of course!

In a spate of activity, the student roster has filled up to a little beyond the safety limit, so there may be some Quirky Muffin interruptions coming, although they will be minimised as much as possible. The accession of new students is infinitely more time-consuming than maintenance of existing ones, as you get up to speed with each person and prepare their lessons and overall plans, often with exams looming on the horizon... Oh, exams...

Finally having finished Mark Twain's 'Joan of Arc', it feels a bit funny to not have that old copy Twain's Historical Romances sitting on the book pile. It had become an old friend, unfortunately water damaged on a trip to Nottingham, serving its time between readings, propping up the other books, and introducing new surprises from time to time. It's not clear what will take its place with such great longevity. Perhaps nothing should. 'Joan Of Arc' should have been finished a long time ago, and not been held up by the fear of the known ending of doom. Is it incredibly difficult to read stories when you know the ending is going to be a death? It certainly is here. 'The Glass Bead Game' (Hermann Hesse) was such a trauma, that nothing similar will be repeated. Someone somewhere has decided that 'great novels' have to cause a nervous breakdown. Let's try to change that. 'Joan Of Arc' is not traumatic, which is a miracle when you consider whose story it is, and so must be a great novel.

Now, back to fighting with the bibliography. It may end up as a manual job, which would be stinky but at least accurate. Something is deeply wrong with the automatic version, and I throw mild curses at the Open University for not allowing LaTeX. References are horrific in everything but LaTeX.


Saturday, 21 January 2017

Story: The Ninja of Health, XXV

( Part XXIV , XXVI )

One week later, a funicular railway creaked as its carriage was hauled up its hill. It had just left its base station and the counterweight carriage was far in the distance. Standing at the front, watching the counterweight become imperceptibly larger, stood the two protagonists of our story. It had been a long journey, that car ride across the country, with several stops at various hotels and campsites. Now they stood, ready to make sense of their prophetic tablecloth or move on to yet another set of cliffs.

"Is it supposed to be gurgling like that?" Wondered the man of the odd noises from the funicular.

"You're imagining it, dopey," replied his partner, ever exasperated at her companion's sense of wimsey. "I'm going to change your name to Brother Wimsey if we ever get out of this miss."

"I don't think Sayers would have liked you taking her sleuth's name in vain. You don't see me talking of changing your name to Sister Vane, do you?"

"Oh, hush. I'm sensing."

"Hushing is in progress." He looked absently around as she silenced herself, not too intently for care of disturbing her tranquil state. Then, he looked more interested when she pulled the tablecloth of the seers from her satchel and held it, while the other passengers looked puzzled. He mouthed "psychic" at them and they looked more amused than scornful. Then he looked at her face and worried. He only got to worry when she wasn't paying attention to him, for she would otherwise just laugh and stroke away the frown.

The opposite carriage passed them with a mild clatter and he realised that they would soon reach the cliffside. The Sun didn't look particularly swirly at this early hour, nor were there forests of pinwheels in the surrounding fields. This wasn't encouraging, especially when the appearance of a large crater would have made the news in some way. No doubt they would have to move on again, to a third candidate site.

"Something is here." Said the woman, just before he touched her shoulder to warn her that the ride was coming to an end. She opened her eyes. "Something new." They disembarked from the carriage, once the other passengers had stomped on up the steps, and then moved out on to the cliffside of St Pierre. They didn't get far, as their companions were all stood inexplicably around the exit to the station in a throng, the first people to make the journey that morning.

Pushing through the crowd, the two ninjas of health were astonished to find a massive crater where the camera obscura was supposed to be. The floor of the crater was criss-crossed with very familiar grooves;  It was a triangulated version of their own personal Pattern.

More? Yes, there shall be more...

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Results Day

It is finally here. The results day for my first bunch of GCSE students has been and gone, and they did pretty well. Congratulations, examinees! The only annoying part is that the Maths Numeracy paper scuppered practically every single one, garnering grades one rank lower than the mainline Mathematics paper. It's supposed to be the other way, if there's a difference at all... In any case, it seems highly suspicious, and I'm sure a huge load of re-marking is even now being requested of the exam board, whose name shall not be mentioned. However, we all know who they are...

It was a good results day overall, apart from that institutional snafu, with everyone hitting their targets in Mathematics proper. The tension is over for another few weeks now, before the next exam season kicks in. And then the next. It's a maddening system! Oh, why so many exams, exam board who will not be mentioned? Four exam sessions doesn't seem excessive at all?

Back in the old days, when I had to actually sit the exams instead of prepare other people to sit them, it was never a particularly tense day. At school, you would turn up and get handed a very unattractively shaded piece of paper with some titles and grades on it, and then you would just go back to your usual day. At university, you had to sign in and look at a badly designed web page. It was never very interesting or nervous, from the point of view of a confirmed idiot savant. It is only now that results day actually provokes nerves.

Well, that's not entirely true. There was one results day which was nerve-inducing, one examination process that couldn't be predicted. You have to feel nervous for your doctoral viva voce exam. It's impossible to not be so! That was a nervous day indeed, and not just because I had to go to London and do it there because of freakish scheduling!

In any case, it was results day, everyone made it through. Let's all be happy.


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Random Meandering Thoughts

We won't dwell on the passing of Tess the Lunatic Hound for much longer, except to consider the mourning process (yes, she was a beloved pet) for a little bit, and especially guilt. It seems that dealing with guilt is a mandatory part of losing a pet, or a person. The bad part is that handling guilt is a learned ability; it's not something that you acquire naturally without some effort. Guilt itself is an advanced concept which can only be disentangled or even experienced by creatures with intellectual and emotional memory, after all. It's an artefact.

Much like support groups, or so I see in fictional stories, it seems as if there are several stages to dealing with guilt (grief is different). First, there needs to be some acceptance that we're not in control of most of the things that happen around us (a sense of scale), then a bit later there needs to be a sincere apology to the victim of the perceived guilt (even if they don't recognise that there was a problem), and then you need to apologise to and forgive yourself (reach acceptance).

Isn't it strange that one of the things you have to do when you feel guilty about something is to apologise to yourself? Isn't it interesting? Why should it be? As far as I can tell, having worked through this not at all, and now merely grasping my way towards certain truths, it seems that the apology is part of a social contract: A forgiveness must be preceded by an apology, or nothing changes. Does that make sense? Sometimes, you can't apologise to someone involved because they've moved on, and all you have left is to apologise to yourself and pledge to try better in the future. Even if your interlocutor (oooh, unnecessarily fancy word!) is around, their forgiveness is nothing in comparison to your own, although it is a necessary part of the process. Perhaps people need there to be a God-type figure purely for some notional absolution to come from somewhere?

Whatever the truth about life may be, guilt can only be recovered from with forgiveness. If the people of the world forgave themselves a little more, perhaps we wouldn't be living in quite so much irrationality and madness? Of course, the world might also improve if people actually thought about what they were doing instead of just stomping around and behaving habitually... I wonder where the most enlightened society in the world might be at the moment. Would it be very interesting or very boring to live there?

We need self-awareness, and the ability to manage ourselves. Self-awareness will unlock the future of the planet Earth, and of our exploration of the universe, if we only permit it. If we're going to go out there, perhaps we will have to learn to forgive ourselves as a species and go out and make friends withs the stars.

It's time for 'Star Trek'.


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Book: 'The Conan Chronicles: Volume 1' by Robert E Howard (originally 1932-1934)

(Due to recent events, writing is not the easiest activity to perform. Please bear with me.)

This is a highly curious reading experience. Robert E Howard effectively invented a whole subgenre of fantasy with the 'Conan the Barbarian' stories, originally published between 1932 and 1934. It was called 'swords and sandals', and was highly pulpy magazine fiction. He wrote magnificently, and made a major success of his creation, over that very short period, and the originality shines through even now in 2017. The only problem is that in the 1930s, sexism was still highly dominant in magazines such as 'Weird Tales', in which most of the Conan stories were published. The result is that this first volume is by turns brilliant and uneasy. The women are all 'supple', and very often end up stripped naked and trapped, in danger of all kinds of terrible depredations. However, and this is where the uneasiness kicks in, the stories are set in an ancient age, a period of time lost to history, where physical might ruled. As a result, wouldn't women constantly be in a far more dangerous position in that reality? However, if you can put all these struggles aside, and embrace the other more positive aspects of the female characters, then you're in for a very good ride! On the other hand, the strongest female characters tend to be evil... Maybe we can make a misogyny charge after all...

In this first volume, presented in internal continuity order, we encounter rogues robbing a wizard's tower, metallic giants bringing long dead cities back to life via the arcane arts, witchy twins usurping their sisters' thrones, gigantic snakes galore, monstrous sorcerors, cannibals and crooks, and more gory battles and steely thews than you would find in any other set of stories in existence. Oh, and a thousand uses of the word 'supple'. Howard may have been obsessed with the word 'supple' or it may have been imposed by editorial policy! Conan is a great character, a noble barbarian who makes the moral choice more often than not, in stark contrast to his 'civilized' contemporaries. That is the real core of these stories, that deliberate spearing of the hypocrisies of what we call civilized society. Never does the barbarian do anything dishonest, not even with ladies who promptly end up relying on him for their safety.

It's a great set of stories, albeit with some of the problems of their period,  and covers the first part of Conan's history. Next time, he will eventually end up as the sovereign of Aquilonia...


Friday, 13 January 2017

Sad Day

This is a difficult one. You see, our dog died yesterday and everyone's just a little bit out of their mind. It's not just that the insane barking fiend died, but also that there is always that glimmer of guilt to keep you up at night wondering. Could we have known that wasn't just indigestion, and stayed with her to the end? Was there something that could have been done? Did she know that she was loved when she died alone in the house? It doesn't seem right that she died alone. We loved Tess the idiot dog, and now she's gone. In the rush of taking the body away to the vet, we didn't even keep her disc. We really should have kept her disc, right? That's a thought that will fester. She was a good dog.

It's a terrible thing, to take your pet's body away. With smaller pets, you can bury them in the garden, but an Old English Sheepdog is far too big to bury, especially on a wet January afternoon. Instead, you have to seal yourself up mentally, carry her out on a blanket with someone else, rearrange her legs so she fits in the boot nicely - the worst part- and take her to the vet. Then, two impassive ladies take her away on their own blanket and you're left crying in the car, as the dog heads off to cremation. It's terrible. It shouldn't be such a crude experience. The dog is an important part of the family, and then suddenly they're gone. Is it the same with people? I hope not to find out for a while, yet.

Oh, Tess the Old English Sheepdog, you were a nut. First, you didn't like to chase balls or sticks, and instead just played tug of war endlessly until you got bored. Secondly, you would only go out for walks if a car ride was involved. Thirdly, you guarded your food maniacally from all men. Fourthly, you had all the canine articulacy of a glove puppet. Fifthly, you liked to roll around on my bed in the morning after sneaking in while I was in the bathroom. Sixthly, you scared the postmen silly. Seventhly, you liked to lie on your back and paddle your feet endlessly for attention. Eightly, you ate everything indiscriminately and ninthly, you added extra life to a strange and lonely existence. Tenthly, you were always lying in the worst possible place, and it will be horrible taking the direct route from point to point. Finally, you always wanted to be in the middle of everything.

Rest in peace, Tess, and if there is a doggie heaven, I hope you're swapping tall tales about the family Bain with the other long gone pets. Good luck.


Wednesday, 11 January 2017

On The Book Piles IV - January 2017

Having just completed the first of the two volumes of 'The Conan Chronicles' (review forthcoming), it seems to be an appropriate time to stop thinking about stories being written and instead write a little about what's being read. We can do that or write about 'Turnabout Intruder', the last of the original episodes of 'Star Trek', and I might never be ready to open that controversy. Instead, let's go to the book piles! Here's the choice selection.

'Joan Of Arc' by Mark Twain

It's almost done. Months of procrastination are at an end, as the roaring run through 'Conan' and 'Around The World In Eighty Days' have broken the reading block. 'Joan Of Arc' is a marvelous novel from Twain's distinctive pen, and if he can only get through the martyrdom phase without blowing all the good will earned previously then it will be as close to a masterpiece as is possible to declare without reading his other classics. It's not a parody at all, but a loving historical reconstruction.

'The Illustrated And Complete Brigadier Gerard' by Arthur Conan Doyle

A few stories in, it has become clear that Doyle really knew his stuff. There's something very endearing about the indefatigibly pompous Brigadier Gerard, a character of the same class as Professor Challenger, with the great Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson hovering above them in the Doyle-ian stratosphere. It's going to be a lovely jaunt through Napoleonic times, from the other side of the wartime curtain, and a funny one too.

'Journey To The West' (Volume 2) by Wu Cheng'en

Still not begun, but volume one was so endearing that this is sure to be lovely as well, yes?

'Riders Of The Purple Sage' by Zane Grey

A Western? A Western has made it into the book piles? It's a legendary one, at least. Even from reading the first page, you know it's something special. I'll have to remember to add some Louis L'Amour 'Sackett' novels to the book wish lists...

'The Voyage Of The Beagle' by Charles Darwin

It's fascinating when picked up, and then immediately forgotten when put down again. Certainly, it will be finished one day. After 'Joan of Arc', perhaps? Herodotus awaits in line. The behaviour and thinking of a naturalist in the middle of a fantastic expedition is intriguing and world-expanding, but the historical detail of the mid-nineteenth century is what now makes this a solid middle-grade classic.

'Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious' by Sigmund Freud

Freud knew how to write. Even in translation, the brilliance shines through. I don't care if it has all been debunked, if it has, for the reasoning and scholarship is unparalleled. Would any normal person think about analysing humour and the making of jokes? It will be interesting to check out his other volumes as times goes on.