Sunday, 30 October 2011

Technology, Dystopia and Young Adults

This list has been updated: a newer, expanded version can be found at
17 February, 2017
I was recently asked about the young adult (YA) novels I have been reading as part of my academic work in Children's Literature. To that end, this is a list of the relevant novels  (in no particular order) I have read recently with the briefest of descriptions against each one. The common thread is the incorporation of technology within the novels and this frequently means they portray dystopian visions of a possible future.

There is a range of labels which could be applied to the texts (including, but not limited to, speculative science fiction, science faction, magical realism) but this is not the place for an academic discussion about that or the concept of dystopia. Rather I hope it might be a glimpse of books written in the past decade that are all worth discovering in their own ways.

All of the images link to Amazon where fuller descriptions and reviews can be found (along with the obvious ability to do some shopping!)

Be More Chill - Ned Vizzini (2004)
A teenager ingests a squip - a new organic supercomputer purchased on the black market - which advises him how to behave in order to win the girl of his dreams.
Little Brother - Cory Doctorow (2008)
Set in contemporary San Francisco, the teenager protagonist stands up for civil liberties having been falsely accused of a terrorist offence and plays a game of cat and mouse with the government in which both sides are using technology to their advantage.
iBoy - Kevin Brooks (2010)
An accident leaves the teenage protagonist with an iPhone embedded in his brain but rather than it killing him, he harnesses the iPhone's capabilities.
Dangerous Reality - Malorie Blackman (1999)
The Virtual Mobile Interactive System developed by the hero's mum is the subject of industrial espionage and people's obsession with technology is shown through their actions.
Feed - M T Anderson (2002)
In a dystopian vision of the future, everyone who's anyone is connected to the feed. The typical rich boy/poor girl story follows a teenage couple's relationship when their feeds are hacked.
Hybrids - David Thorpe (2007)
A virus infects humans causing them to fuse with an item of technology they use a lot and the resultant hybrids are feared by the uninfected humans.
Metagame - Sam Landstrom (2010)
Computer gaming becomes a way of life and the players' limits are explored in the virtual world where the winner takes all.
Dot.Robot - Jason Bradbury (2009)
Technologically proficient children are recruited to use the latest technology in a classic tale of good versus evil.
The Game of Sunken Places - M T Anderson (2004)
Two boys visit the mansion of a distant relative and their discovery of a board game leads to an adventure which takes place beyond the confines of the board.
Skinned - Robin Wasserman (2009)
A popular teenage girl is involved in a near fatal traffic accident, and her brain is downloaded and installed into a new body and she has to discover her new identity.
ttyl - Lauren Myracle (2004)
Written entirely in instant messages, the lives and loves of three girls are shown through their conversations over a few weeks.
The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins (2008)
Twenty-four teenagers are selected at random and are placed into a reality TV game in which the winner is the last person alive.
Uglies - Scott Westerfield (2005)
When teenagers reach the age of sixteen they are made Pretty and they are told this is their lives' purpose. Not everyone agrees and this novel follows the story of a girl deciding to follow the rebels.
So yesterday - Scott Westerfield (2004)
This novel explores the world of following fashions and the creation of new trends in contemporary New York.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Twenty-first century implications for the implied author

Imagine the scene: as a teenage reader in 1991 you are particularly taken by a particular contemporary writer’s work. Having diligently paid attention in your library lesson at the start of Year 7, you turn to an encyclopaedia to try and find out more about them. Unsurprisingly, you draw a blank. Where else do you turn? Beyond the briefest of biographical information on the dust jacket or – if you are lucky – a magazine interview with the author that a friend of a friend of your grandparents’ neighbour remembered seeing some time last year, you can find nothing else out about your newest idol. You return to the books, scouring them for clues as to who the author, the implied author is.

Now, bring yourself twenty years forward: back to the present. You are particularly taken by a writer’s work and you sadly reach the final page of the book. As the finished book lays closed on your lap, you take out your smartphone and either google the author’s name or visit the web address printed on the book's back cover. Within seconds, you have accessed articles, interviews, blog posts, tweets, and Facebook pages which can give you a CSI Cambridge-like forensic insight into your newest idol. The book falls from your lap; you know who the author is, the real author, and their feelings about and motivations behind their writing.

In an age when books live beyond the page and authors are in a position to interact directly – both out of choice and necessity – with their readership through new media, new opportunities are afforded the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the text as texts’ boundaries and authors’ roles become less clearly defined. I believe that the changing concept of the implied author (and the question of for how much longer it can remain a valid concept through the real author’s increasing use of epitextual material) make consideration of an author’s intentions important.

For example, in Ned Vizzini’s Be More Chill (2004), the protagonist buys and ingests a black market 'squip'. This is a piece of nanotechnology, a quantum computer which, he is told, will help him achieve his aim of finding a girl friend by telling him what to do and how to behave. It is sold to him as a ‘cool pill’. The implant fails and the novel’s conclusion is ambiguous, but the impression the reader is left with is that messing with nature is not cool. However, in an interview reproduced on Vizzini’s website, he says that ‘in high school I would have tried out a squip. I was a pretty big dork. I would’ve tried almost anything’, and his FAQ says that as a teenager he was aware of ‘so many products advertised around me that promised to make people cool’. While he identifies recognisable social concerns of the stereotypical teenager in his novel, these admissions (and his collection of articles relating to implanted technology) show his belief that the human – especially the dork – can be improved – or made ‘cooler’ – by playing with untried and untested technology. The epitextual material guides the reader to a clear reading of the text and the real author can clearly be seen in his protagonist.

While Vizzini exemplifies the effect of epitextual material, peritextual inclusions (not only saving the reader the need to google) reveal much about authors too. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008) is concerned with the ways in which technology can be used to control people’s lives, and the reader is left feeling wary about the prevalence of CCTV and records of electronic transactions in today’s society. If the reader goes beyond the final page of the novel they are presented with two Afterwords: one by the Chief Security Technology Officer at BT, Bruce Schneier, and the other by Xbox hacker Andrew Huang (to whom the protagonist refers in the course of the novel as a hero). Both Afterwords exhort the reader to question the world around them, but having the same idea repeated from two opposing ideological perspectives adds weight to Doctorow’s implicit warnings throughout the text. The exhortation to do further research is supported by a bibliography which provides a few lines’ explanation of why each text might (and should) appeal to an adolescent reader. Doctorow’s intentions in writing the novel are clear. Indeed, should the reader’s interest be piqued, a quick google reveals he describes himself as a ‘technology activist’, confirming his call to examine the ways in which technologies are used.

These are two brief examples from a particular genre of YA texts, but as critics continue to debate the concept of the implied author and the validity of considering an author’s intentions, it is now possible for the reader to consider the real author's authorial intentions in an informed manner. Indeed, in a time when books and authors blur the boundaries between media, and information is so readily available, it is difficult for the reader not to allow the way in which they read to be influenced by peritextual and epitextual information.

originally written for the Children's Literature at Cambridge blog and first posted there earlier today

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Pottering through Pottermore

For some people the name ‘Pottermore’ signifies the most exciting development of 2011, to others it means nothing. To cater for those people for whom it means nothing, it is J K Rowling’s latest extension of the Harry Potter series and is a website described as a ‘unique online reading experience’ where users can ‘share and participate in the stories […] and discover additional information about the world of Harry Potter’.

While I have enjoyed being read all of the Harry Potter books by Stephen Fry on long car journeys and seen most of the films, I would – by no stretch of the imagination – count myself as an obsessive fan. I am, however, interested in technology and children’s literature so signing up for one of the million beta tester accounts took me about three minutes earlier this summer.

Having seen my friends receiving their ‘Welcome to Pottermore’ e-mails over the past few weeks, I was getting increasingly frustrated that I was still not privy to the new world until I received my e-mail yesterday morning.

In short, the user navigates through the first book and is obliged to carry out a few simple tasks before they can move on to the next section. The structure matches the original text chapter for chapter but while the book’s reader is allied with Harry, Pottermore confuses this as the narrative is the same as the book, but the user gets to go shopping in Diagon Alley, explore graphical representations of settings in the book, and get given their own wand and sorted into one of the Hogwarts houses as if they are a character in the text but just much less significant than the protagonists.

The allocation of wand and house are possibly the two most significant elements of Pottermore as it stands. In the wizarding world, these are two things which are key to a person’s identity and to have your own (virtual) wand and membership of a house make you feel part of Hogwarts, if not one of the heroes. Both are allocated based on a series of questions some of which are straightforward, but others were more thought-provoking and one genuinely made me ask myself what I would like to be remembered for post mortem.

Users are also able to make potions and cast spells. Sadly the much vaunted wizard duelling (casting spells against your opponent) is currently unavailable as more work is done on the site, so I have been unable to turn someone’s legs to jelly or make their nose run incessantly; such is the hardship of being a beta tester.

Technically the site works well and is quite impressive but, as an aside, as much of it is Flash based I assume that it will not work on iPads. The graphics are good but, in a world where people are used to their Nintendo Wii or PS3 and 3D TVs are starting to appear on the shelves of high street stores, they are limited. While this is a trade off for having an Internet based product at no cost, rather than having the seemingly unlimited worlds of Zelda or Mario to explore on dedicated gaming machines, I can see users getting a little tired of the limiting three level zoom from a fixed position on each scene.

When going through the story I was most put in mind of the interactive fiction computer games of the 1980s where players were given a text description of what they could see and had to type commands such as ‘look north’ or ‘pickup key’ to progress through the game. While these were new thirty years ago and building upon the ‘choose your own adventure’ books of the age, I feel that the twenty-first century computer user expects a little more.

The networked nature of the site means that there are social networking aspects and you can make friends, but (presumably for child protection reasons) as everyone has a ‘magical’ pseudonym this is only useful if you know that your real friend is called CrimsonAsh85 in Pottermore. You can (when it’s working) duel against real people rather than battling an end of level monster, and your collection of house points (earned for duelling and making potions as far as I can tell) engender teamwork by going towards you house’s total. How seriously people are taking this is something about which I am yet to be convinced: with just 41 points, I am currently 13,100th out of 36,030 and while the leader (with 6,459 points) is clearly making an effort the same clearly cannot be said for a significant proportion of the house.

One of the biggest claims for Pottermore is the new material that is featured. For the fan of any book there is always the desire to know more about familiar places and characters, and a comprehensive back story is provided for Professor McGonagall along with some interesting trivia about things like characters’ names and Rowlings’s inspiration. The cynic in me wonders whether much of this material will be things that were cut out of the manuscript for book one: anyone with all seven books on their bookshelf can readily see how much superfluous material made it into the later books once the series took off. Regardless of this, wherever the additional material has – and will – come from, I did not feel that there was enough to add much more to the series as it stands in its printed form. As unofficial encyclopaedias already exist, an official guide with links to a simpler, but informative, website may have been a more lucrative solution.

It is possibly unfair of me to write this after just twenty-four hours on the site, but having had the ‘unique online reading experience’ of the first novel on Pottermore I do not feel that I have really participated in the story much more than did while listening to it being read. While I am pleased that I made it into Gryffindor and have a hard 14.5” chestnut wand with phoenix feather core I could have written an online script to allocate wands and people to houses. But that’s just the point: it was J K Rowling who gave me my wand and put me in Gryffindor and as she created Harry Potter it is – by default – momentous, and the site will duly be perceived as successful.

Yes, I have gone back into Pottermore and revisited sections of the story to find galleons and chocolate frog cards. Yes, I have waited the 85 minutes to brew a potion only to have it fail and then waited a further 85 minutes to get it right. Yes, I will keep logging back in in the hope I can trying duelling, and yes, I will (probably) go through the other books when they arrive online. However, before it goes live to the rest of the world in October, I hope the creators will have a clearer idea of the purpose of the site: users will get bored of re-reading the novels they have already read multiple times with such limited interactivity in a digital medium. The site is neither a game nor a novel but an awkward hybrid: when users reach the end of the final novel on Pottermore they are likely to feel cheated when they realise they knew how it was going to turn out all along.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Missing Days

Having left East Midlands Airport on Monday morning to fly to Malaga and then drive to Granada, I left Internet access behind until Thursday evening. However, trying to keep my Facebook status up to date means that I regularly find myself thinking in terms of status updates. I therefore collected my thoughts about our three days in Granada:

  • Richard is unsure how people with such little knowledge of Spanish driving laws can be allowed to hire cars. He is nevertheless going to get into the driver’s seat with confidence and aplomb. When he remembers which side of the car it is on.
  • Richard feels that six forward gears on a hire car is at least one too many.
  • Richard has a bruised left hand from hitting it against the car door every time he tried to change gear.
  • Richard thinks that roadworks, an outdated satnav, and black and white copies of Google maps are not an ideal solution to navigating around Granada.
  • Richard has now calmed down enough to appreciate a lovely hotel.
  • Richard realises that he knows no Spanish words.
  • Richard now believes what the guidebooks say about nowhere opening until 8pm to serve food.
  • Richard has fallen foul of the tourist trapping terrace and is paying an additional 10% for the privilege of sitting next to a smoker and having a stray dog run around his feet.
  • Richard found his dinner unsatisfactory, but has learnt the hard way what ‘raciones’ meant when he just wanted a supplementary snack.
  • Richard never ceases to be amazed at the vulgarity of the decoration of Catholic cathedrals around Europe.
  • Richard enjoyed watching unsuspecting people having rosemary foisted upon them outside the Cathedral as it made him feel smug for reading the back of the local map.
  • Richard feels very virtuous for having walked so far up hill in the sweltering heat, but – unlike his wife – is not entirely convinced the views are worth it.
  • Richard is embracing the concept of a siesta.
  • Richard was impressed by the barman’s spatial ability allowing him to write the entire order upside down on the bar in order to work out the total.
  • Richard feels that sitting inside at the bar of last night’s restaurant getting served free tapas with every drink is the way in which Spanish food should be enjoyed.
  • Richard has been asked to record his wife’s delight at discovering Prosecco is served on the tap next to the beer pump.
  • Richard has now added the word ‘cerveza’ to his collection of Spanish.
  • Richard feels that getting a different tapas dish with each drink is akin to completing the levels of a computer game.
  • Richard has been tricked into visiting an Arabic bath by his wife. He will report back later.
  • Richard is pleased to report that warm and hot baths, a steam room, a somewhat terrifying exfoliation and massage made up a very enjoyable couple of hours.
  • Richard thinks that hookahs on the table distance Moorish tea shops from English tea shops.
  • Richard thinks the Moroccan tea his wife chose from would be more suited to a roast leg of lamb. He hopes she is regretting pooh-poohing his choice of Pakistani tea with milk.
  • Richard has been forced to admit that Pakistani tea with milk is not really Earl Grey.
  • Richard has enjoyed another siesta: only this time lying on a bench like a tramp while his wife went shopping.
  • Richard feels that trying to find bars which give free tapas by ordering a beer in each one is a dangerous game when there is no free tapas.
  • Richard is pleased to have found free tapas, but is a little disappointed that having no seats inside makes it a short visit.
  • Richard has changed bars and is unimpressed by the claims of ‘traditional homemade tapas’ on a chalk board outside.
  • Richard has fallen back on the safety of yesterday’s bar for free tapas as he’s getting hungry. He is, however, a little saddened to have started at level one again.
  • Richard can now count the words of Spanish he knows on the fingers of one hand.
  • Richard is pleased to have avoided the lengthy queues at the Alhambra having picked up his tickets from a cash point yesterday.
  • Richard thinks the Alhambra is very pretty, but tessellation can get a little repetitive.
  • Richard is pleased he remembered which side the driver’s door was when leaving the hotel car park to embark on the drive to Sotogrande after a glorious few days in Granada.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Online and Offline Self

Cyberspace is viewed by many critics as a utopian, consequence-free playground where people can experiment with their identity, and the recent case of Tom MacMaster, the male, married, mature American student at Edinburgh University who was posing as the young, lesbian, Syrian blogger, Amina Abdullah Arraf al-Omari, demonstrates this to a certain extent.

One of the earliest academics writing about technology and self identity, Sherry Turkle, published a book in 1995 in which she explored the psychology behind creating different lives online; the practice behind her ideas is perhaps best demonstrated by the interest the virtual world, Second Life, received when it was launched in 2003.

However, Turkle has now abandoned her 1995 position and she takes a far less utopian position as the boundary between the online and offline lives of the permanently connected individual has become increasingly blurred. We are no longer in a position to create the online identity we want by choosing only the best pictures or only making the wittiest comments in a public forum, and gone are the pre-digital camera and webcam days when the response to the chatroom’s opening question ‘a/s/l?’ would determine the course of the conversation.

Beyond what we chose to share, our online identity now is shaped for us by other people posting pictures of us (which do not always show our best side), and commenting on what we post; it is important to note that this is a reliable shaping as the online connections we make on social networks today are primarily with people with whom we have genuine offline relationships. The ability of our online persona to influence our offline character is reflected in a line I heard recently (and I cannot remember where) thinking about the night before the morning after: ‘If it’s not on YouTube, it didn’t happen’.

The academic and Guardian columnist Aleks Krotoski wrote recently that she adheres to Turkle’s original 1995 view; while I agree that it is still possible to create an experimental online identity, I cannot subscribe to it being consequence-free. With the quantity of publicly available personal data that exists, and is continually being generated, and the connections that are made, keeping genuine and playful online identities separate is not straightforward.

I have been reading Turkle and Krotoski’s work recently as part of my own studying, but it was made more personal for me this week when I signed up for Google+. I dutifully filled in the basic details required by profile and found a couple of friends; then standing (metaphorically) surveying the website I realised how empty it was. For a moment, I felt like an explorer coming upon a new land and standing on the shore looking around somewhat bewildered. And then I felt a shudder of fear.

The fear was not of an attack from a extended metaphorical native, but from the realisation that I have spent the past four years creating my online identity on Facebook and the prospect of starting in a new land was too onerous. Before that moment, I had not realised the time or unconscious effort that has gone into making my online Facebook presence reflect the reality of my life and suddenly the thought of the status updates which I have mentally composed but not posted made me wonder how far my online identity is shaping my offline identity.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Let nothing ever grieve thee

When asked what type of music I enjoy, my favourite conversation-stopping answer is ‘Renaissance choral polyphony’, and the majority of my CD collection (despite being an iPod user, I still have to purchase any tracks electronically) will bear testament to this. As with any rule, the glorious moment is finding an exception to it, and that is how I see Johannes Brahms’s Geistliches Lied.

For want of a generalisation, I object to the music of the Romantic era (not least because the label suggests anything written before about 1830 is free of emotion which is anything but true when much Renaissance music is considered) but this small scale sacred work for a mixed choir and organ cannot be overlooked. If you know it, I hope you will understand why I am choosing to write about it, if you dont, I hope you soon will.

The text was written by the little-know German poet and medical doctor Paul Fleming (1609-1640) and is simple but moving.
Laß dich nur nichts nicht dauren
mit Trauren,
sei stille,
wie Gott es fügt,
so sei vergnügt mein Wille.

Was willst du heute sorgen
auf morgen?
Der Eine
steht allem für,
der gibt auch dir,das Deine.

Sei nur in allem Handel
ohn’ Wandel,
steh’ feste,
was Gott beschleußt,
das ist und heißt das Beste. Amen
While I am not a German speaker, a comparison of printed editions of the music, a little judicious Googling and poetic licence gives this translation for which I do, if necessary, apologise.
Let nothing ever grieve thee or oppress thee:
Be still and trust God’s good will.

Why brood all day in sorrow, worrying about tomorrow?
God stands for all and will give you grace and mercy.

Be steadfast in all that you do and stand firm;
What God decrees brings peace. Amen.
I feel Fleming offers words of hope and reassurance in what is a beautiful prayer. The sentiment is simple, but effectively moving and it struck me during Evensong this week how suitable it would be for a funeral.

Brahms (1833-1897) wrote the song in 1856 and, as might befit the earlier years of a composer’s career, it could be seen as a technical exercise as it combines, in the Grove dictionarys words, chorale-like melodies with strict canonic procedures. However, for something that is so technically precise it retains a lyric beauty that belies its complexity.

It is the use of the canon that makes it so impressive. Non-musicians may remember singing Row, row, row your boat as a child and being delighted to discover that if one singer starts the nursery rhyme, a second singer can start singing the same tune from the beginning a bar later, a third singer can start another bar later and the parts fit together. This simplest form of canon is called a round.

Clearly writing a tune which fits with itself is a technical challenge, but in a canon this is made more difficult as the second voice comes in at a different pitch. In Geistliches Lied, the distance in pitch (or interval) between the starting notes of the two voices is an octave and one note (a ninth). Imagine playing two notes next to each other on the piano: it is always a dissonance and this is the challenge that Brahms sets himself.

However, not content with overcoming the problems of writing something musical as a canon at the ninth, Brahms writes two independent canons – both at the ninth and following the strict rules – which are sung at the same time. This means that
  • Voice 1 (soprano) starts singing tune 1 on an F, then
  • Voice 2 (tenor) starts singing tune 1 on an E flat four beats later.
  • Voice 3 (alto) then starts singing tune 2 stating on an F two beats later, and finally
  • Voice 4 (bass) starts singing tune 2 starting on an E flat four beats later

This pattern then continues for the entire piece with all four voices singing in their double canon at the ninth throughout and fitting together perfectly.

Writing a canon could be viewed as a mathematical puzzle and Brahams has given himself difficult constraints in which to solve the problem. But to solve it and in doing so write something so beautiful, blurs the boundaries between – for want of a better description – scientific precision and art.

A two hundred year old prayer, a mathematical challenge and a dash of genius: I am only sorry that after the (hopefully intelligible) description, I have to direct you to a tinny recording on YouTube of King’s College Cambridge singing it.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Dust thou art, but unto silicon dost thou aspire

It used to be the case that when you wanted to use the Internet to find an answer to a query, you had to pick the keywords from the question (much in the same way students are told to approach examination questions) and then Google them. I realise as I chose ‘Google’ as a verb that, at the time, users had to ‘Yahoo’ or ‘Alta Vista’ the keywords as these were pre-Google days; maybe if/when Google is supplanted as the dominant search engine its name will remain as a verb, just as ‘hoover’ has done. The user would then have to wade through pages of results containing the keywords to find the combination which answered their original question. Google’s search technology has, without doubt, improved search results (something for which we should be glad considering the daily expansion of material available online) and the answer to the question can now – usually – be found within the first few links.

While searching for keywords to answer questions may still be the technique of choice for people who have been using the Internet for some time, a trend I have noticed over the past couple of years, and was reminded of this week while watching a group of Year 7 pupils research a topic, is for users simply to type the question they want answering into the search box and hit return.

Several years ago this would have been a fruitless approach. However, as people expect computers to become more human in their behaviour, the natural language abilities of search engines to understand what users intend by their question has been improving. Indeed, this is linked to the ideas behind the Turing Test in which the responses from a human and a computer are hoped to be indistinguishable, and the ongoing quest to build increasingly humanoid robots. Computers are still not wholly adept at parsing natural language queries, but it will not be long before it is the way we will be obliged to interact with the leading search engines.

As part of the understandable desire to make technology conform more readily to its human masters’ wants and needs, there is the clear link to the development of artificial intelligences with its associated, inevitable, and arguably frightening idea of singularity. In spite of this, I feel there is a still more worrying trend: the aspiration to human-ify technology is in direct correlation to the aspiration of humans to become more machine-like.

Our language choices reflect this and Brian Christian notes in The Most Human Human that fifty years ago, a whizzy new item of technology would be described as being ‘like a computer’, but now we are likely to find ourselves describing a human maths prodigy as ‘like a computer’. For the past couple of years there have been smartphone applications, or ‘apps’, which use readily available content combined with the phone’s GPS-determined location to show sites of interest or businesses. This is a useful tool as the user does not need to enter a long string of keywords or to wade through pages of search results to find, say, a local restaurant. However, recently the apps have developed and also switch the phone’s camera on and superimpose the labels onto the view shown on the screen. The user is therefore looking through the screen at the view they could see if they lifted their eyes, but it is more like a head-up display containing additional information which changes as the camera’s position changes. This is the type of technology that has been seen in fighter jets and the point of view shots of protagonist of the futuristic Terminator films, but is now available on an individual’s phone.

The labelled view of the world is a technologically mediated view of reality presented through – as I have observed here previously – a screen and is known as ‘AR’ or ‘augmented reality’. Users are choosing a technologically enhanced view of their surroundings and thereby negating the need to receive input – a word from the world of electronics appropriated by humans – from other humans, relying instead on their own augmented reality. Humans can have their own head-up display and use the information it presents to follow other humans before them: people who choose to do this are becoming more like the robots on production lines carrying out the repetitive tasks which they took from humans decades earlier.

To me, singularity is therefore not just the evolution – a biological word tellingly appropriated for the inorganic – of technology to reach a point where it is beyond human intelligence, rather it more worryingly reflects humankind’s wish to emulate the futuristic machines of science fiction.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Gins and Tonics

Over the past few weeks I have found myself discussing, rarely at my instigation, my favourite cocktail with a variety of people. A gin and tonic is one of the simplest cocktails but I am not sure whether it is the drink’s simplicity, its quintessential Englishness, its inevitably refreshing and invigorating effect or a combination of all three which make it such a welcome start to any evening.

The fact that it is the start to an evening – there is only one person I know who chooses to drink gin as a post-prandial cocktail – is something which is worth bearing in mind. We spend money on finding a good bottle of wine to drink with dinner, but by then, the pre-prandial drinks and the concomitant food detract from the drinker’s appreciation of the wine. While I am not advocating scrimping on the choice of wine, I am advocating thinking about the importance of the choice of ingredients in the pre-prandial gin and tonic.

At this point it might seem likely to comment on the choice of gin. While I will, the dominant ingredient, by volume (in most people’s cases, at least) is my first port of call. Schwepps and Britvic are the mainstays of many bars and restaurants and my heart always sinks if I see the bottle is Britvic. Schwepps had always been my favoured tonic – the full fat variety, not the bitter saccharine laden diet equivalent – until I was introduced to Fever Tree whose unique selling point is that they only use natural ingredients, which means that the artificial sweeteners in other tonics are eschewed in favour of sugar. While I know some people find it too sweet (arguably they are too accustomed to the bitterer chemical taste of artificial flavourings) I was a convert on my first tasting and now just have to ignore the price: while twelve individual cans of Schwepps cost around £3.50, four individual bottles of Fever Tree cost approximately £3.00. However, as the majority of the all important first drink of an evening, this is an expense worth bearing.

I mentioned individual bottles and cans of tonic and it is, of course, always essential that the tonic is freshly opened; larger bottles – unless catering for several – are without any question a false economy.

When it comes to gin the choice is much wider. Everyone has their own favoured brand, so I will merely set out the gins I have discovered and embraced or shunned. For some reason, I have ended up trying more new gins in the past six months so these are all recent impressions.

For a long time, my favoured gin was Bombay Sapphire. Its range of botanicals was a departure from the staid and long established Gordon’s and Beefeater and it was responsible for waking me up to the intricacies of gins in the first place. Tanqueray proved a satisfactory alternative and as it often now seems to be available on special offer, and therefore more cheaply than Bombay Sapphire, it has become my standard ‘house gin’.

I had always shied away from trying Tanqueray 10 because of its cost, but coming back from the USA last year, it was on special offer in duty free and a purchase ensued. It is a delicious gin and its smoothness, but complexity of botanicals made it a worthy replacement for Bombay Sapphire.

As established and readily available gins, I would recommend all of these. However, the ones I have encountered recently are more interesting and worth comment. Another from the house of Tanqueray is Tanqueray Rangpur: this is a smaller production run and uses Rangpur lemons to give it a more citrusy and refreshing taste; it quickly became a regular in the range of gins at home.

Hendricks is probably best noted for its quirky bottle, and it is a heavier gin with flavours I associate more with a pink gin. A friend drinks it with a slice of cucumber (one of its flavours) instead of the traditional citrus fruit but, as cucumber is not one of my favoured fruits, this is an embellishment I am yet to try.

Sipsmith is a small, independent distillery in London and it is possible to find the date on which your bottle of gin was produced on their website. It is a very easy drinking gin and, to use the words of many TV pundits, full of flavour.

Sacred gin is from another small independent distillery and their interest in mixing botanicals is shown through their website from which you can purchase the different distillates to experiment with mixing your own gin (a feature for which they have trademarked the name ‘OpenSauce’ with more than a nod to the technological community). Their standard gin is again a very smooth drinking gin, but there is a brighter edge to the taste than Sipsmith. Interestingly, their name derives from the fact they include Frankincense, or Boswellia Sacra as one of the botanicals.

Williams gin is from Herefordshire and made from organic cider apples which gives it a unique taste and sadly one with which – despite trying several times – I am still not entirely convinced. Tesco’s Finest range gin was recommended to me by a friend whose opinion I value: sadly on this occasion, I was unable to agree with them finding it nearly undrinkable neat (part of the obligatory tasting routine) and a subsequent waste of tonic water.

As this post is already rather cumbersome, I will refrain from commenting on my choice of citrus fruit – either lemon or lime – with particular gins, apart from saying that with Bombay Sapphire it must be lime; the other gins seem to be more forgiving but lemon is (currently, at least) my general preference.

I know there are lots of gins available which I have not touched upon and I recently discovered from which a remarkable range of gins can be purchased. While it is easy to stick with old favourites, I encourage every gin drinker to explore the different varieties available from smaller distilleries: the past six months have been my most enjoyable gin drinking months since I discovered the attraction of the drink some eighteen years ago.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Demanding a response

Exploring the history of language and communication this week, my group of Year 7 students were genuinely bemused by the concept of smoke signals and carrier pigeons. While they knew what they were and understood the concept, the need to use them was seemingly inconceivable to them.

We are all aware that we now live in a society which expects – and to some extent demands – instant responses to electronic communication. Text messages, or short messages as they were originally named, first started appearing in the early 1990s and they were a logical development of the telegram which was already well past its heyday. However, while a telegram still had an inherent element of delay as it had to be delivered to, or collected by, its recipient once transmitted, texts arrive instantly on the phone secreted somewhere about your person.

Try an experiment: next time your phone beeps to herald the arrival of text, don’t press ‘View’ for ten minutes. I predict two possible outcomes. Either, you start panicking and an overwhelming sense of nervousness and uncertainty pervades your body and you give in and read it, or, you end up forgetting about it and read it a couple of hours later.

If you end up forgetting about it and there was no telephone call chasing you, the chances are it was unimportant in the first place. If, however, you gave in and read it, it is because we now have a Pavlovian response to communication and the social demands placed upon us by others. We are happy to disrupt whatever we are doing to respond immediately and flit between tasks meaning that we are ultimately working – and therefore thinking – less efficiently and less effectively.

The demanded immediacy of response has crept into society as technology has infiltrated our lives. There was, as people of a certain generation often cite, a time when people had to stick to arrangements they had made and turn up as agreed, rather than texting at the last minute to rearrange, and a time when if you telephoned someone you knew they were sitting in their hall talking on a device plugged into the wall. How it was possible for some of the greatest human achievements in the history of the world to be made without exchanging texts, instant messaging, or telephoning will forever remain shrouded in mystery.

While I know that technological developments in communication have saved people’s lives and improved situations for others, we have continued to welcome new media into our lives and find uses for them where none existed previously. Inventiveness and creativity are part of what makes us human but as we become more like the networked computers of the internet, permanently connected and switched on, are we not at risk of losing a little bit of that which made us human in the first place?

PS. If you do try the little experiment, I would love to hear how you coped and how old you are in a comment below (anonymous posts are fine if you want to keep age and name separate).

Sunday, 5 June 2011

A mental snapshot

Deciding what to blog about is, for me, always a little tricky as I have a fairly diverse range of interests. As such, I decided I would pick five things I have discovered this week and share them in no particular order.

Number 1: The novel Neuromancer by William Gibson. Written in 1984, this is seen as a defining work in the cyberpunk genre. It is widely credited with introducing the word ‘cyberspace’ to the language although Gibson had, in fact, used it two years previously in a short story. The concept behind the virtual reality based future it portrays was borrowed by, or possibly provided the inspiration for, the 1999 film The Matrix. Neuromancer is, apparently, going to be released as a film at some point this year, 27 years after the novel and 12 years after The Matrix presented terrifying visions of the future.

qrcodeNumber 2: QR Codes (example pictured left). I have noticed these appearing for sometime and knew (from days gone by when I knew an unhealthy amount about barcodes) that they were 2D barcodes and surmised that they were intended to be scanned by a smartphone. I now know that while they took off in Japan a couple of years ago, they are only just beginning to take more of a hold in America and Europe. They can contain a text string and are predominantly used for marketing purposes to allow (most often) a URL, contact details or geographical position (latitude/longitude) to be shared quickly and accurately. Artists and writers have already tried to adopt this form as the text length works well for short poems and, as the error correction allows for a 30% deterioration in the code while still remaining readable, there is some flexibility in the design.

Number 3: The history of Las Vegas. As a place I have been visiting with worrying regularity for the past 11 years, I have seen the city changing and growing. It has only been a city for a hundred years and realising that I have seen a tenth of its history for myself I have found a couple of books about its development from a railroad town to the entertainment Mecca it is today. Some of the people involved in its history are remarkable and it begins to become fractionally clearer why there is nowhere quite like it (despite a few pretenders) on Earth.

Number 4: The Russian/American novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. Although I have only seen the first programme in the BBC series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace the influence of her support of rational egoism and rejection of altruism on the development of policies and technologies in the US since the 1970s is remarkable. While the idea of technology being able to take over human decisions is a familiar one, seeing the reach of these ideas and their global impact is frightening.

Number 5: The Loebner Prize. In 1950 Alan Turing asked how people could tell if machines could think. He proposed a test whereby if a human could not tell whether the responses they received in a conversation were generated by a machine or another human, the machine could be said to be thinking. Each year since 1990, Hugh Loebner has funded a competition in which the most human-like computer wins a prize; as of 2010’s competition the grand prize for a machine whose responses are indistinguishable from a human’s is still unclaimed. The book The Most Human Human describes the 2009 competition from the author’s perspective as a human subject and considers how human conversation varies from an artificial intelligence’s conversation.

Monday, 30 May 2011

The Screenager

I came across a new word this week in Richard Watson’s Future Minds: screenager. While the wiggly red underline tells me it’s a new word to Microsoft too, Google reports over 200,000 instances and the OED’s earliest citation is from 1994. The definition is guessable and refers to teenagers (the OED graciously includes twenty-somethings) who have grown up having had the majority of their world mediated by a screen, be it television, computer, or mobile phone.

Watson is a futurologist (no red line, half the number of hits and 1967) who is exploring the ways in which technology has changed the way in which we are thinking and arguing for the need to include ‘deep thinking’ in our mental diet. His book includes many similar ideas to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and many of the points that are made in both texts are important for people to consider.

I was first aware that technology had physically changed me when, after getting broadband installed at home in 1997 (even though I had been accessing the Internet over a dialup connection since 1993), I was spending much more time online staring at the screen and I had to start wearing glasses. In reading these books, I am also now able to recognise the changes in the way I am thinking.

I feel in a privileged position as I am adept at using the new technologies and endeavour to embrace them but I can also – with a little effort – sustain a far more focused approach to reading or writing and I am just about happy to manage a few days without Internet access as travelling abroad sometimes enforces (although I am, admittedly, always pleased when my phone logs onto a free wireless network).

As teachers we are told that our students need short activities to keep their attention; indeed, research shows this is more effective in helping learning. However, this is pandering to the rewired brains of the screenager. Carr cites research which shows how quickly the brain will rewire and retrain itself (a mere five hours of using the Internet showed changes occurring in an adult’s brain) so the reverse - undoing these changes - must also be true.

While writing this, I have Facebook open in another browser tab, but I am refusing to allow myself to switch to it as I know it will distract me (and I firmly believe that we are not as competent at multitasking as people believe, regardless of alleged gender differences). In doing this I am making myself concentrate on writing this blog and thereby forcing myself to think more ‘deeply’.

I think adults – and in particular teachers – need to bear this in mind and young people should be made aware of it. When our minds jump rapidly from one thing to another we are living a very superficial mental existence. We need to take time and, if necessary force ourselves to, engage more completely in what we are doing. However, the engagement may also be in time away from the screen: time in which to reflect on what we have said or read or heard or written.

In allowing our brains to have been rewired to process information (and I chose my words carefully) more like a computer, we are – arguably – losing one of the most important things which makes us human and many of us simply need to take time, make space, and think.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Facebooking Eurovision

Much against my better judgement I was compelled to watch the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday evening. I do not intend this post to be a release of my pent up annoyance at the (generally) tuneless and out of tune songs, or the lunacy of some of the costumes, or the embarrassing fact that so many countries’ songs were performed in English (notably contrasted by the French presenter’s refusal to speak any English), or the tedium of the entire results process, rather it is a reflection on the way in which I watched it.

Having had the television tuned to BBC1, I used my smartphone (an increasingly inappropriate name when it’s used more for computing than phoning) to update my Facebook status with some sarcastic remark as is my wont. Within a couple of minutes, a Facebook friend defended the event; we exchanged a couple more comments with me still using my smartphone before I had to resort to my laptop computer to type my comments and responses at a rate at which I could keep up with the other posts that were also appearing.

As I had the full size keyboard I was able to update my status and respond to other people’s comments at a far faster pace and, seeing all of this going on, my wife picked up her laptop and we sat next to each other on the sofa engaged in digital exchanges with other people and occasionally with each other. I was quickly paying more attention to Facebook than to the television and duly made a remark about my status hosting a virtual Eurovision party.

Despite teaching about the purpose of texts and considering their permanence (at A-Level, at least), I am struggling to define what we were writing. Unlike instant messaging, which can most readily be paralleled to a conversation as the most ephemeral of texts, our posts and comments have – unless I delete them – become a part of my Facebook Wall for all to see. What we were saying, or writing, was in effect a private conversation (or, more accurately, a series of personal conversations as different trains of thought were pursued in different update threads), but it was all carried out in public and a record remains for anyone to read. While I know the likelihood of it being read in the future is minimal, we have added more to our ‘external memory’ or, for want of an alliterative oxymoronic description, our personal public persona. We are generating digital content at a phenomenal rate, but to what purpose?

Google has said that their aim is to organise the world’s information, and if you Googled ‘Eurovision’ during the event, their results included a live news feed and posts from the Twittersphere; I have seen this during other live events and assume it is a regular feature. What were personal remarks and comments for friends have become part of a greater public consciousness.

But none of this really crossed my mind as I sat commenting and updating my status. It was entertaining to interact with friends in our virtual environment: arguably, the Internet has made communication the easiest thing on the planet but it is, ironically, removing a human element from the whole process. Maybe next year I should invite a group of people round so we can be rude about the songs in person.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

John Christopher Timothy Jennings

John Christopher Timothy Jennings is a name I fondly associate with my childhood. He was mentioned to me again recently and I was reminded of the fact that, unlike Richmal Crompton’s William Brown and Frank Richards’s Billy Bunter, his name is unknown to many people, despite the usually Midas-like Stephen Fry having recorded audio versions of some of the Jennings books which are still broadcast relatively regularly on Radio 7.

Although I have not read Crompton or Richards for some years, I do still revisit Anthony Buckeridge’s books and, as a result of the comment, thought I would try to consider their appeal. In short, I believe that Buckeridge provides a realistic perspective on the thoughts, behaviour and actions of a group of 11-13 year old boys. As a former preparatory school teacher, he was ideally placed to observe the lives of his charges and does so in a way which combines an adult’s insightfulness with a youngster’s unbounded enthusiasm.

When I first encountered the Jennings books, I (like the eponymous hero) was a boarder at a preparatory school. I feel that it is the realism of the situations coupled with the tendency of incidents to develop one step further than one would imagine that makes the stories entertaining while retaining an important authenticity. Critics have acknowledged Buckeridge’s good understanding of how boys talk, but what seems more convincing to me is Buckeridge’s understanding of how small boys think. One early example is the explanation as to why Temple, whose initials are CAT, is known as ‘Bod’.

As Temple’s initials are CAT the other boys obviously call him Dog; however, that was felt to be to long-winded so they call him Dogsbody for short. When Jennings points out that Dogsbody is, in fact, longer than Dog, Venables’s simple response is that it therefore needs shortening to Bod, succinctly summarising it as ‘Bod short for Body and Dogsbody short for Dog.’

Apart from the glorious schoolboy illogicality, this moment also demonstrates Buckeridge’s insight. The explanation is given to Jennings over the first meal the pupils share at the start of his time at Linbury Court and his naivety in the matter is greeted scornfully by the other boys, including Atkinson. Buckeridge’s understanding of the behaviour of the boys is shown when he tells the reader:
Atkinson, as a new boy, had asked exactly the same question less than a year before, but his manner implied that he had been born with preparatory school jargon on his lips.
From experience I know that such details are true to life and that such concerns are real and it is entertaining (and potentially reassuring) to see them written down. Reading them today they also serve to bring a wry smile to one’s lips as previous preoccupations are remembered affectionately, doubtlessly through rose-tinted spectacles, and with a light heart.

If I do have a criticism of Buckeridge it is for writing two more Jennings books in the 1990s, some fourteen years after the previous book had been published. One of them, Jennings Again!, is concerned with the fashionable green issues of the late twentieth century and, as a result, makes it feel, ironically, more dated than texts first published in the 1950s. However, if these can be overlooked as aberrations, I would heartily encourage anyone to make John Christopher Timothy Jennings’s acquaintance.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Placing initialisms

Every three months the Oxford English Dictionary adds revisions of current definitions, new entries and new subordinate entries to the OED online (which, many people are not aware, can be freely accessed at home using your membership number for your local library).

This quarter’s new entries include, inter alia, the initialisms OMG, LOL, IMHO and BFF that are associated with the new medium of electronic communication and, therefore by extension, children and young adults. Apart from the surprisingly early first use of OMG in a collection of published letters from 1917, the earliest citations are found in the 1990s and most often in Internet Usenet newsgroup discussions.

I am regularly teased for having more prescriptivist tendencies when it comes to the English language but I do very much acknowledge that language does (and must) develop and move forward; however, I feel that the foundations on which the developments are made and occur should not be forgotten and am – admittedly – more defensive in my personal desire to see a living archive of language rather than the more liberal thinkers’ approach of consigning punctuation, spelling and grammar rules to history.

In a world in which boundaries are routinely blurred as a result of people’s use of and reliance on technology, it is not uncommon to see these initialisms appearing in my pupils’ work. Apart from ensuring that I have to keep up to date with examples I was not using on the Internet before many of them were born (a fact that surprises many of my students), the students are, as children and young adults have done for many generations, merely trying to establish their own identity through their sociolect, which is doubtless the reason they bridle if I write ‘LOL!’ in the margin of their books next to something genuinely funny.

I am not against people using these initialisms, but what I do find infuriating is the way in which they have become accepted as a societal norm in any medium. When instant messaging, the written word replaces the spoken: its immediacy can readily mean that capital ‘I’s may be forgotten, paragraph breaks are not used and shortened forms abound. It is a private conversation for personal consumption. The immediacy and length restrictions on a text message mean that shortened forms may be necessary, but they are, again, private exchanges.

E-mails (and the question of whether I should have used a lower case ‘e’ and a hyphen is still to be answered) start blurring the boundaries. They have the immediacy of a text message but today an e-mail often replaces a letter. Is this, therefore, a formal piece of text, or not? The answer, obviously, depends on who the recipient is: the audience.

My frustrations come back to the mantra that we endeavour to instil in English lessons where writing is concerned: whatever the piece of writing, the three things which must always be considered are purpose, audience and form. Writers, be they children or adults, need to be able to distinguish between the situations and media and make their language choices appropriately. However, while people demonstrate an increasing incapability to do so, it is reassuring to know that the OED is still recording usage and helping those still bewildered by BFF.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Relationships with Facebook

In different circles I have heard the question of what we all did with our time ‘before Facebook’ raised a couple of times this week. I know that back in August 2007 Facebook quickly become part of my computer routine and, having had a smartphone for the past eight months, I now regularly take opportunities to see what my friends (and I do pride myself on the fact that I have, with only a couple of exceptions, met all the people with whom I am friends in person) are doing or have been doing.

There have been stories in the press of couples splitting up over Facebook, and by this the reports mean one half of the couple discovering they are no longer an item thanks to a status update, rather than Facebook itself being the cause of the split. To a bystander who does not know the people or details, these headlines indicate something of an abhorrent manner in which to behave, but it is surely only the logical extension of perpetually broadcasting the details of one’s life on a public forum, rather than managing the public and private spheres and informing one’s soon-to-be-ex of their impending situation privately over the telephone or (shock, horror) face to face.

Traditionally, social announcements were made in the London papers – indeed, for a small fortune they can still be made in the London papers – but now details of relationships can be precisely addressed to their target audience at no cost. Earlier this week I was saddened to see the relationship statuses of two friends change from being ‘In a relationship’ to being ‘Single’; while I have seen these changes being made by individual friends before, this is the first time when I have known both people and seen their profiles change in such a synchronised way. The touching thing that followed this was the number of messages, albeit public, of reassurance and support that each party received.

The use of Facebook also came up this week in individual tutorials (or ‘Learning Reviews’ as they are officially termed for us) with pupils at school. As the exam season is looming large, it was reassuring to be told, unprompted, by two A-Level students that they had deactivated their Facebook accounts and had no intention of using them again until the summer. I half seriously asked both students whether they were suffering withdrawal symptoms and both said that while they knew they had to deactivate their accounts for the good of their revision, they had suffered no anxiety about not logging on since deactivating them.

While I was pleased to hear about their decision and that it was not causing them additional anguish, it did make me wonder how we really view and use Facebook. Deactivating an account leaves it dormant on the system and the simple process of logging on to Facebook again will reactivate it. If it is possible to disconnect and reconnect so easily from one’s personal social network, what does that say for the nature of today’s human relationships which underpin the whole concept of social networking?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Ancient and Modern

In what is an era of rapid change in so many areas of our lives, I am a great believer in respecting tradition and upholding customs (even if they are, at times, outmoded) as I feel it is important that identities and histories are not lost in the name of progress. Nevertheless, when people do make changes, as long as they are justified, explained and attempt to retain the spirit of the original concept, I endeavour to accept them without complaint and view them as the next stage of development in what are often long established practices. I like to think I am not so arrogant as to insist that people, societies and nations remain static.

However, in the course of this week I was faced with a tradition being up-held which frustrated me. The Lichfield Conduit Lands Trust is inviting applications for two new trustees as a result of two retirements. According to the publicity, the Trust makes charitable grants to individuals aged under 25 to further their education and to local organisations for more general purposes and, having been resident in Lichfield for more than five years and thereby fulfilling the stated requirements of the post, feeling that this might be a good opportunity to get more involved in the local community I decided to apply.

I already knew that the Trust had been founded in January 1545 to provide water for Lichfield and it was an organisation I had encountered while researching the history of the Cathedral’s Choral Foundation as records of Chapter’s nineteenth century meetings discussing the management of all aspects of Cathedral life include the provision of water for individual houses in The Close.

The fact that it is such a historical organisation had an inherent appeal, and the four meetings a year seemed manageable; the only question to which I did not know the answer was when the meetings were held.

I contacted a representative of the Trust to answer this question and was given the dates. Apparently, the meetings in March, June and September are always held on Wednesdays and December’s meeting is held on a Tuesday in keeping with an ancient tradition. Quaint, but not unmanageable. However, the meetings are always held at 3.30pm and, having been that way throughout living memory, I was brightly and confidently told ‘that’s not likely to change any time soon’.

Suddenly, a tradition was being upheld but for what purpose? By implication, the applicants and trustees must, most likely, either be retired or unemployed. The trustees of a charity making donations to help young people are to be distanced from their beneficiaries: I had felt that, as a teacher, one of the strengths of my application would be my work with young people.

I bit my tongue merely saying that, being a teacher, there was clearly no point in applying – which was duly agreed with – and I hung up. I struggled mentally for a few minutes with the question of tradition and rationality and decided that if people are going to be so protective of traditions which, when considered in the larger scheme of things, appear risible there would be no point in questioning it.

As I sighed to myself, I was left with my penchant for tradition tarnished and a sense of disappointment that, even in our era of rapid change, there are still some people who seem too stubborn to acknowledge it.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

A cry of despair and a warning to humanity

Two years ago my wife and I visited Krakow for the first time. As part of the trip we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, the two most famous German concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. The experience of visiting the concentration camps is undeniably harrowing, but one that people should certainly take if given the opportunity.

Over half term we returned to Krakow but did not make a return visit to the Oświęcim (Auschwitz’s pre-Nazi-occupation name). However, this time we visited a relatively new museum established in what had been Oskar Schindler’s factory. While there is much that could be said about Schindler and Hollywood’s presentation of his eponymous list, there was one exhibit from the museum – a video reconstruction of an event which occurred in November 1939 – which lodged itself in my mind.

When visiting the concentration camps, the headline figures are always – understandably – about the number of Jews who were killed by the Nazis. Indeed, much of the Schindler museum shows the way the Jews were forced to live in Krakow and the way in which they were treated while still, in name at least, free. However there were many other groups of people who were also sent to the camps and one group, imprisoned in the Nazi operation codenamed Sonderaktion Krakau, was the Polish university professors.

On 6 November 1939, the rector of the Jagiellonian University – the fourteenth century University of Krakow – was obliged by the SS to instruct all Polish professors to attend a lecture on German plans for Polish education. There was (and it is easy to say now) of course, no lecture. The 144 professors who turned up and another 39 people in the building were arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps on the pretext that the university was educating people without German consent.

Although an international outcry led to the release of 101 professors aged over 40 in February 1940 several of the older individuals had not survived the relatively short stay in the camps’ terrible conditions and notable Polish academics died.

This operation was one of many which made up the Nazi’s plan, the Intelligenzaktion, to rid Poland of the Polish intellectual elite as the educated were deemed to pose a threat to the ‘Germanisation’ of Poland. Under the plan around 60,000 intellectuals and members of the upper classes were killed and Polish secondary and higher education was stopped until the end of the second world war.

Denying people education is a simple means by which to control a population and perpetrate the ruling class’s ideology and status. In twenty-first century Britain we are in a position where ‘Every Child Matters’ and every child is duly entitled to an education up to the age of 18, but beyond 18 the country is currently in a state of flux. As university educations are being priced at £27,000 students are understandably worrying about the options open to them in the future. It is not clear where this will leave tertiary education in this country in five, ten or twenty years’ time, but in a world which is changing so rapidly, education and academics are essential and – although I know it is idealistic to say so –  their existence cannot, or at least should not, be based on money alone.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Patience is a virtue

Last week I had to explain Douglas Dunn’s metaphor about the beauty of life being ‘the film that always comes out blank’ to the majority of a group of GCSE students. Coincidentally, the next day the process of ideas emerging during writing was described to me using the simile of an image slowly appearing in a developing tray.

Although there are people who continue to use film cameras – I also learnt a couple of weeks ago that the manual developing process is still taught on photography degree courses – this is another area of people’s lives that technology has radically altered over the past decade.

In today’s world of digital photography, when we take a picture the first thing we do is to squint at the small LCD display on the back of the camera to see if it has come out successfully. If not, we can remedy the situation immediately but if it has, the picture is easily transferred to another medium (often Facebook or Flickr) for general consumption or possibly printed when we return home or next pop to the supermarket.

These instant results are far removed from the physical process of loading a film into a camera, taking 24 or 36 pictures that all count (and squeezing a couple of extra frames in if you were lucky), removing the film from the camera while ensuring it is not exposed to light, sending it away to be developed, and waiting a few days before the arrival of a package of prints in the post. If a new film was loaded towards the end of a holiday, it could be months before the film was finished and developed and then when the pictures arrived on the doorstep they had the power to transport the photographer back to another place and another time.

The delay in seeing the ultimate prints was often tantalising: even at photo labs which offered an hour’s premium service there was still the nail-biting sixty minutes wondering whether any of the shots would be any good. Now we know immediately.

The immediacy in seeing results is both a benefit and downside of technology. Many people are now wholly ‘connected’ so that they can receive and deal with e-mails on the go (accepting we are well past the stage when it was unusual to be able to speak to people away from a landline telephone). As a result of this, senders expect a faster response to e-mails but it is noticeable that people rarely demand the faster responses: it has simply become an expectation.

People now expect things to happen instantaneously; the idea of waiting for something is becoming outmoded. However, there are still reminders of the virtue of patience: buds are beginning to appear on daffodil shoots, and Lent is shortly to make us wait for Easter, but they are things we have to look for and often only find in the natural world. Unless opportunities to wait are searched out and embraced, it is easy to lose the space in our lives for reflection, for ourselves, and for each other in our hurry to show our holiday snaps to the world.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

‘I am wiser than the aged’

I have spent what feels like much of the weekend as part of Lichfield Cathedral’s fund-raising ‘Psalmathon’ which involved the five choirs associated with the Cathedral singing all 150 psalms between Friday and Saturday evenings.

Apart from confirming that any event with the suffix ‘-athon’ is nothing but exhausting, it has introduced me to something new in a familiar setting. Even as a cathedral musician for the past 26 years, I only know about half of the book of psalms: the psalms assigned to each day’s evening worship are old friends, but the morning psalms are the newcomer that everyone regards warily. Discovering the unfamiliar in a familiar context has, for the second time in the past year, caused me to reflect on the impact of psalms on my life.

As a boy chorister, the daily round of psalm singing was part of the job and the strange language and ideas were simply accepted. While the gamut of emotions and events portrayed in the psalms is difficult for a pre-teen to grasp, details did stick out: who were Oreb, Zeb, Zeba and Salmana that princes should aspire to be like? What did God do to the Madianites, Sisera and Jabin at the brook of Kison? Why did the Philistines join Gebal, Ammon, Amalek and Assur at Tyre to help the children of Lot? And all these are just from psalm 83. Many of the names of the people and places are fantastical and would not sound out of place in the worlds of JRR Tolkien or JK Rowling; indeed, the same psalm also includes the Edomites, Ismaelites, Moabites and Hagarenes.
As well as providing a rich seam of people and places there is also the inevitable poetry of the psalms. As an adult this is more apparent, but there are images I remember from childhood readings and psalm 55 is one of my clearest memories:
The words of his mouth were softer than butter, having war in his heart:
His words were smoother than oil, and yet be they very swords. 
Even as a youngster, the dichotomy between what one says and does was familiar to me and the simple metaphors make a clear image. Although I can now identify and comment on the poetic devices in the texts, I was certainly aware of some of the meanings and imagery when I was younger.

Having sung psalms on a daily basis, I have never shirked away from attempting to read English texts. My students shy away from Shakespeare because the language is ‘difficult’ – some even object to the ‘thee’s, ‘thou’s and words ending in ‘-eth’ – but, having been brought up with the words of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, these have always sat comfortably with me.

There is an absolute maximum of seven hundred child choristers in England in any academic year. Through their singing of the psalms they are – unwittingly, like me – having worlds opened up to them to which many children just do not have access. The regular repetition of poetry, some dating back three thousand years, must influence the linguistic development (and possibly even subconscious ability to appreciate poetry) positively and the psalms could, perhaps, in their own small way be admired as a rare, but precious, gem in the crown of children’s literature.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Haggis and Burns, Fish and Hugh

As a self-confessed foodie – a word surprisingly first used by Graham Greene in the New York Magazine in 1980 – it was delightful that last week was the annual opportunity to indulge in haggis to commemorate Robert Burns’s birthday.

Regardless of having no Scottish ancestry, the idea of eating a particular meal to remember an eighteenth century poet who immortalised the foodstuff in verse is too appealing to miss. While I know little else about Burns (apart from his poem To a Mouse providing the title for Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men), his apostrophic poem Address to a Haggis is a celebration of both food, and its importance to Scottish society.

Where is the English equivalent? I know food is seen throughout literature and I have read some intriguing (and some less so) academic studies on the subject, but I cannot think of any text celebrating English food in such a patriotic way. While opinion is divided over the national food – is it fish and chips, roast beef, the fry-up, or chicken tikka masala? – no writing seems to have captured the public’s imagination in such a way as Burns. Or possibly, it could be the lack of interest in literature. Burns’ night celebrates a poet and, apart from the RSC’s local celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon in April, England has not chosen a writer to remember as Scotland has adopted Burns.

The other glorious thing about haggis is its ingredients. My supplier uses a mix of lambs’ lungs and liver (eschewing the oft-included heart) and oats and while the ingredients do not necessarily have the enticing ring of most people’s shopping lists, I have yet to serve it to someone who has not enjoyed it; three of my twenty-one diners had not had haggis before and all had their preconceptions pleasingly dashed.

Haggis is made of the bits of the animal that the poor were obliged to eat centuries ago (the first written record of ‘hagws’ is a fifteenth century cookbook), but in doing so, little of the animal was wasted. I have just caught up with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s recent series of programmes bringing the issue of discards to the public’s attention. The problem is that for conservation reasons, fishermen have a quota for each species of fish they are allowed to catch. If they catch a species which has reached their quota while fishing for another species, they are obliged to throw over-quota fish back into the sea, dead. Figures show about 50 per cent of their catches are wasted in this way. Jeremy Paxman is quoted as saying ‘Humpty Dumpty said that “words mean what I choose them to mean”, but if this policy is ‘conservation’ then I’m the Mad Hatter’: this summarises the issue succinctly.

Haggis is a delicious historical example of preventing food being wasted, and in the twenty-first century it is ridiculous that food is being thrown away when prices are soaring and people are starving. While I did not intend this blog to be political, in the case of Hughs Fish Fight I will make an exception.