Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Books I Read in February

'The Years of Rice and Salt' by Kim Stanley Robinson
This is a counter-factual novel that I bought in hardback (rare for me) new, in 2002 at a book launch by the author.  It envisages a world where the Black Death has wiped out about 99% of the population of Europe though has had much less impact on the rest of the world.  Adopting Hindu and Buddhist views on reincarnation it follows the lives of three of people who form a group that keeps being reincarnated in close proximity to each other and interacting, though they sometimes switch sex and even become animals.  This approach allows Robinson to look at the development of the world from 1405 to 2002 CE, though the dating systems used in the book are Muslim or Chinese because these are the dominant cultures in the world without large European states.  I look at the counter-factual aspects in an upcoming posting about the Black Death and so here will concentrate on the literary aspects.

I was irritated by the whole reincarnation aspect of the story and would have preferred Robinson to simply have a series of vignettes showing the world at different stages in its history.  Many of the sections seem aimless and even if you feel that with each passing life the trio are trying to improve themselves by the end you feel that even those efforts are utterly pointless.  I was also disturbed by the casual brutality shown.  The castration of a young African man in the first section almost led me to abandon the book.  Later the cutting off of the right hand of an alchemist based in Samarkand is similarly unpleasant and also seems to go against Robinson's line of argument that technology would have developed to a modern stage, even beyond what we know, as he keeps showing societies interesting in suppressing invention often through the use of violence.  He makes a clear blunder when talking about the Amerindians as he shows them scalping people.  Scalping was only introduced to North America by European settlers whereas North America in this novel is settled by the Chinese and later Muslim powers and people from Travancore a region in southern India.  Many tribes in North America 'counted coup' meaning that in conflicts between tribes touching an opponent was sufficient.  Thus, again out-of-step with the tenor of the novel, Robinson sees scalping and associated violence as indigenous to North America when, in his world, in fact it would largely be absent from that continent.  Fair enough he could have had Chinese, Japanese or Muslim forms of violence/punishment but the one he picks is wrong for the set-up he has adopted.

I have read some analysis of the book: and people talk about re-reading it because they are uncertain how to perceive it.  I am far more discontent with the novel, even though counter-factual really engages me.  I think I dislike the aimlessness of so much of the writing and the weakening of the drive of the book with Robinson trying to insist technology would have still advanced and yet repeatedly showing societies that would be inimical to such development.  I would not bother with this book and read 'The Gate of Worlds' envisaging a pretty similar path, instead.

'Is Heathcliff A Murderer?  Puzzles in 19th-Century Fiction' by John Sutherland
I enjoyed this book more than I had anticipated.  It is a series of essays about a wide range of 19th century novels that was published to accompany the The World's Classics series of versions in the mid-1990s.  I had read a few of the novels discussed but Sutherland writes in a way which allows you to engage with the debate even if you are unfamiliar with the novel discussed.  In looking at a range of questions, some of which had been discussed a great deal, some of which have received far less scrutiny, he draws out three fascinating perspectives.  First in sections like 'Mysteries of the Dickensian Year' and 'The Missing Fortnight' of 'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins he shows the challenges for authors of making everything work in a novel, especially in the days before wordprocessors.  However, convincingly he also shows that elements perceived as 'errors' can be intentional on the part of the author but misunderstood by snide readers, for example 'Apple Blossom in June' regarding 'Emma' by Jane Austen, 'On A Gross Anachronism' in 'William Esmond' by William Thackeray and 'How Old is Kim?' about the Rudyard Kipling novel 'Kim'.  These essays are excellent in raising our view of the author as even cleverer than we might have thought and subtly using narrator techniques.

Other essays give us a valuable perspective on the requirements of the readership for which the books were written rather than ourselves.  The discussion of effluent on London streets in ' Bleak House'; the use of mesmerism in 'Oliver Twist' and 'Jane Eyre'; the non-electric animation of Frankenstein's creation in 'Frankenstein'; how pregnancies and incest are portrayed in work by Trollope and Eliot and in a Sherlock Holmes story and the ambiguous endings required as a result of the burgeoning subscription library readership of the 1850s are fascinating aspects of social history too.  Overall, an enjoyable book that is great to dip into.  I look forward to reading the sequel soon.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Enjoying 'Fresh Meat'

Comedy based on a university campus seems to enjoy a revival every decade or so.  I remember 'A Very Peculiar Practice' (1986-8) which ran while I was studying at the University of Warwick and was apparently based on occurrences that had happened there as the author, Andrew Davis, had studied there.  In particular the American vice chancellor and the incompetent doctor who served the university's medical centre and was still doing so while I was a student, were referenced.  Previously there had been 'The History Man' (novel 1975; television 1981) by my old friend Malcolm Bradbury, set at the fictional university of Watermouth apparently modelled on Brighton, though Lancaster University, the University of Sussex and the University of East Anglia where Bradbury taught have also been cited.  That story was as much about the sexual and political mores of males in the 1970s as about university life.  Also worth mentioning is 'The Comic Strip Presents - The Summer School' (1983) shot at the University of East Anglia.

I saw the other day that David Lodge's 'campus trilogy': 'Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses' (1975), 'Small World: An Academic Romance' (novel 1984; television series 1988) and 'Nice Work' (novel 1988; television series 1989) has been re-released.  Like Bradbury, Lodge has long worked in universities.  A lot of this fiction pokes gentle fun at places which most of the population never went close to.  With the rise in the level of eighteen-year olds attending university from 6% at the time 'A Very Peculiar Practice' was showing to 42% today it is probably to be expected that with them coming more into the experience of young people and their 'helicopter' parents that a university would be the basis for more situation comedies in particular.

Last year actually saw two university situation comedies.  The first was 'Campus' which had been piloted in 2009.  It attained very low viewing figures and it was easy to see why.  Rather than using the university setting as a microcosm to reflect on wider society as these other stories had done, it was specifically about the interaction between academics and their very particular concerns such as research profile, issues that mean nothing to students let alone the large mass of the population.  It was as engaging as a comedy about the teaching staff of Eton would have been.  In addition it was simply not funny, despite being produced by the same team as the far more successful 'Green Wing' (2004-7) hospital situation comedy; it certainly lacked the wit of Bradbury or Lodge.  Interestingly the biggest impact (if true) is that I have been told that Brunel University (located in West London rather than Bristol as you might have expected) removed a sculpture of the word 'Brunel' made of free-standing red plastic letters as in 'Campus' the university featured, Kirke University, had something identical. 

The second university situation comedy of 2011 was 'Fresh Meat', also shown on Channel 4, but to a much warmer response.  One reason for this is that it came from the perspective of six students sharing a house.  Unlike many portrayals of universities on television, this was up-to-date given all the news about first-year students being unable to be accommodated in student halls and being farmed out into houses.  It seems to be set at Manchester Metropolitan University.  It features a cross-section of students studying geology, dentistry and English literature including the rather rebellious Vod (Zawe Ashton) who looks like a classic lesbian but is straight and geek Howard (Greg McHugh); more mainstream sometimes almost couple Josie (Kimberley Nixon) and Kingsley (Joe Thomas) as well as the upper middle class 'Oregon' (real name Melissa, played by Charlotte Ritchie) and upper class J.P. played by stand-up comedian Jack Whitehall who makes much play of his social class in his comedy.  There were criticisms about the fact that sex featured so highly in the series.  However, I feel that this reflects reality.  Back in the 1980s 40% of students graduated as virgins but we live in different times and with 34% of UK boys and 38% of UK girls having sex before 16 in 2008, this is not surprising.  In my day even when people were not having sex they were still angsting about it and I doubt that has died out.

The show is contemporary in approach in most things.  The classes it shows are far too small for the size that is actually the case certainly over the past decade.  However, at least it moves a few increments on from most drama series which show all universities, no matter how modern as having a kind of Oxbridge supervisory system that even Oxbridge no longer has. 

There is of course the staff-student relationship between 'Oregon' and Professor Tony Shales, something which seems to be compulsory for any story featuring universities to include.  Whilst I may be tired of that kind of relationship being portrayed I have to confess I have worked with two women who have married their lecturers and whilst in and around universities knew at least three male academic staff who had married or had long-term relationships with particular students.  The one aspect that all television dramas about universities seem to miss that these days with more mature students (officially defined as students over 25 in UK or 26 in continental Europe), though with fees their numbers are dropping away, it is more than likely that an academic will encounter single or divorced students their own age which seems far more likely to spark a relationship than them chasing 18 year olds.  However, I have never seen such a relationship shown in the media.  The closest is 'Educating Rita' (play 1980; movie 1983) and in that case the sexual relationship was ruled out primarily on social class grounds

'Fresh Meat' does address concerns of contemporart students, showing the revival of student radicalism in these 'Occupy' times but this sitting alongside the usual worries about grades and relationships. The fact that most of the characters come from comfortable middle class families if not upper class ones accurately reflects the UK university system which has seen a stagnation in working class recruitment since 2002.  The real growth in attendance in universities has been among the less capable siblings of middle class people who would normally have gone anyway.  The characters of 'Oregon' and J.P. are reflective of those who go to university but Vod, Josie and Kingsley do not come from impoverished backgrounds either.  'Oregon''s attempts to appear more ordinary than she is, much to Vod's changrin is again spot on target.

It is not a laugh out loud series, more one in which you go 'yes, that is so true', things like the friends you try to get rid of and the boy/girlfriends from home who cling on to students yet believing they are more 'real' than anyone studying at university.  The issues around parties remain pretty much the same as they always have been.  In some ways the series is a more grounded version of 'The Young Ones' (1981) but in my view is both entertaining and engaging.  Channel 4 has sensibly decided to keep 'Fresh Meat' live on its 4OD service and I recommend you go and watch it there:

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Reviving Old Computer Games

As regular readers of this blog will know, as I have aged, my dominant hobby has become playing computer games.  These are PC games rather than those on gaming consoles though I occasionally access the Playstation 2 of the 10-year old who lives in my house, mainly as that system was blessed with a range of games with an interesting medieval Japanese setting and even a game modelled on my favourite James Bond movie 'From Russia With Love'.  I have not really been a player of online games, though I keep up a subscription to 'World of Warcraft' due to the unpleasant behaviour of so many players on there I only drop in occasionally.  As I have noted recently even buying games delivered on DVD-ROM often compels you to log into an online facility, often the Steam  system in order to play them.  The key challenge is the erratic nature of internet access.  We had to complain to the telecoms ombudsman in order to break our contract with BT because for large portions of every day even at 05.00 let alone during the peak evening times there was no internet connection available.  I now spend most weekday evenings away from home and these are the times when I need entertainment and playing a computer game can provide that.  However, again the internet provision can be erratic especially in hotels even if you can get the login and password to work. 

The problem with some new PC games is how bugged they can be or there is laziness in the design.  A strong example is 'Stronghold 3' which was long anticipated and yet has completely disappointed fans of the series.  It seems to lack what many of the earlier versions had and the woman in my house has ignored it and dug out the older versions.  Things are rushed out without sufficient game testing, which seems ironic as there are queues of people waiting to do that.  I guess it is poor planning and low budgets.  Ultimately, however, the damage to reputation of a game which is so flawed can wreck a company as Troika Games found out.  The major flaws in 'Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines' (2004) meant it was the last game the company produced.  The story was excellent and one of the only genuinely frightening computer games I have played, but if it breaks down every five minutes you soon abandon it.  Even when the system works gameplay can be weak and not engaging.  PC gamers are very discerning in this regard and will walk away from a game that fails to be stimulating.

Given these challenges, I come back to old games which you can simply run off a disk.  Recently I have been playing 'Deus Ex: Invisible War' (2003).  I tried to load up 'Alias' (2004) but was told it was not compatible with the version of Windows that I run on my laptop.  Despite some challenges like this, I do not seem alone in playing old PC games.  I was pleased when Steam re-released 'Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines' with all the bugs corrected so that you no longer have to download 23 patches in order to play it.  Regular commentator on this blog, Yammerhant, mentioned not only playing 'Portal 2' (2011) but also 'Half Life 2' (2004) both made available via Steam.  These trends have gone further.  I was checking on eBay and Amazon recently for new PC games to try out.  The woman in my house is a big fan of city-building games but these come along rarely and the very low quality of 'Stronghold 3' has made this part of the gaming market pretty sparse.  What I noticed was how many old PC games have been re-released.

Examples of PC games updated for systems such as XP and Windows 7 include the 'Broken Sword Complete' a re-release of the tetralogy of Broken Sword games released between 1996 (!) and 2006.  These are 'point and click' mystery adventures with what look like simple graphics but with engaging stories of uncovering conspiracies and precious items around the world very much the forerunner of 'The Da Vinci Code' (novel 2003; movie 2006) style.  I have the original disks of these four games and only got into the first one, perhaps it is time to return to them. 'The Runaway Trilogy' is a similar style of game with more comic-style graphics and interesting produced from a Spanish company.  These games were produced between 2001 and 2009.  'Commandos Complete' brings together the five Commandos games.  These were a squad real time war mission games released between 1998 and 2006.  I bought the first three but even in 2008 my PC was too new to run them, so I may be tempted to buy these updated versions.  The list of updated and repackaged classics of PC gaming goes on.  I highly recommend 'Deus Ex Complete Edition' bringing together 'Deus Ex' (2001) one of the most interesting and provoking PC games ever and its sequel 'Deus Ex: Invisible War' at a time when the prequel, 'Deus Ex: Human Revolution' (2011) is also out.  Others include 'Thief: The Complete Collection' (three games) and 'Hitman: Ultimate Contract' (four games), you can buy these latter three as a bundle from Amazon.  Maybe the trend dates back to when 'Another World' was re-released in a 15th anniversary edition in 2007.

Whilst this trend is great for those of us who missed out on some of the best games of the past decade, I do wonder what it signals in terms of PC gaming.  Back in 2008 it was noticeable that this area began to occupy less space in branches of 'Game' and the focus of PC games is generally now on fantasy role-play games and Total-War imitators.  I do worry that falling back on past glories suggests that ideas have run out.  I see a new 'Tomb Raider' title is set for release this year, though I can find no details of what this will feature.  This may suggest that yet another rehash of something from the past.  One thing is clear from the trend that the focus of PC gamers is not necessarily on having the latest graphics and in fact they will buy games produced 12+ years ago.  What connects these re-releases is the quality of the plotting, the sustained engagement that I believe appeals far more to PC gamers than it does to console gamers.  I wonder where all the talent of the 'golden age' probably 1996-2007 has gone?  Maybe this cohort of game designers is pouring all its efforts into designing free online games or has got a job developing new monsters for some cave system on 'World of Warcraft'.  I do not know enough about the industry to know the answer.  However, as a gamer looking for new, exciting material I wonder if I have reached the end of the road and I have to go back to material from the past. 

If there are going to be more re-releases, I would love to see 'Dungeon Keeper 2' (1999) re-released simply because it was so refreshing and subversive, as long as they crack the annoying bug: I had completed 19 levels out of 20 but then found it simply looped back and gave me level 19 to do once again.  Another, perhaps by Steam, but, if possible, on DVD-ROM should be 'Vampire - The Masquerade: Redemption' (2000) which I have written enthusiastically before.  Even 'Hidden and Dangerous' (1999) which I felt was better than the similarly-themed 'Commandos' despite being riddled by infuriating bugs which I hope they would correct.  Better still I would like to see energetic releases of engaging, well-functioning games which are well plotted and with interesting characters.  If anyone is short of ideas I can provide a whole list of suggestions as I am sure thousands of other keen PC gamers can do.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Powerpoint Heretic?

I keep expecting the use of PowerPoint, the system for making presentations to die in business.  My predictions of 2010 are not being lived up to:  and as I highlight here many of the problems persist.  PowerPoint is now coming up to 22 years old.  Whilst different facilities are available, the basic approach of landscape-orientated slides which can hold about four items of information has remained.  The criticisms of PowerPoint notably by Edward Tufte from 2003 onwards do not seem to have dented its usage.  It is not a good format for presenting the kind of complex information that is often necessary to be discussed in business.  In some ways it stops the content becoming over-specialised for a general audience, but the constraints imposed by making the words fit to the slide size (often hemmed in further by company logos and frames) and yet still be legible often in large rooms means that the content is over-simplified.

Further problems come from how easy it is to make numerous PowerPoint slides so that you end up with a situation in which the audience is 'hypnotised' by the passage of similarly looking content without engaging with the content.  It is unsurprising that watching a procession of very similarly looking objects, pretty much like a herd of sheep going through a gateway leads the audience to fall asleep.  My principle is that you should have half as many slides as you have minutes for a presentation, so if you are presenting for 30 minutes you should have no more than 15 slides; saying that 30 slides in 60 minutes seems excessive and perhaps there is a sliding scale with the ratio falling to a third by the time you reach the hour mark.  However, this view is unpopular.  A colleague severely criticised me when I put forward this principle saying that he found a presentation of 10 minutes which used 98 slides to be acceptable, a rate of one slide every 6.1 seconds.  He said many contained a sequence of single images and I said, well, then do not try to make a 'flick book' on screen these days it is simpler and less distracting to have a looping animation of what you are showing.  It is ironic that PowerPoint facilities such as animation are, in most cases, just used as decoration (and a distraction) rather than actually communicating a point in a more appropriate way.

People read about 70 words per minute at a relaxed pace for content more sophisticated than 'simple', it rises to 100 words for simple content, though I know some business schools who expect 250 words per minute from their students.  Now, this means that for an average slide, at 70 words per minute you would expect it to take about 45 seconds to read it given the amount of content there.  However, these reading rates are derived from books where the idea is often continued on for a number of sentences.  PowerPoint is renowned to providing a whole series of different ideas or factors quickly in succession.  Thus, while your eye can look over the content in 45 seconds the brain may take longer, especially as there is recent evidence that such mental faculties begin deteriorating from the age of 45 so encompassing much a business audience.

Demands for the audience further diffuse their ability to concentrate on content.  Many audiences become indignant if you do not provide handouts of the content you are parading on the slides.  However, if you do that you add a third form of input into their minds on top of your voice and whatever is on the screen.  PowerPoint has increasingly enabled the use of audio and video resources so how do you put them on to a handout, print them out as a 'flick book'?  In addition, anyone who asks for handouts is effectively saying that they are not actually going to engage with what you are saying, they will flick through it later.  I accept that people with particular disabilities benefit from handouts but then they are using them instead of what is on the screen not in addition to that content.  There have long been slide presentations, dating back to magic lantern shows of the 19th century and many of them were very tedious.  What the difference has been with PowerPoint is the ability to add words on to them so duplicating visual and aural communication of the same message, especially as so many presenters simply read from the slide.  I always feel that this suggests the audience is illiterate and the presenter is filling the role of the mice who read the headings in the movie 'Babe' (1995) the director knowing that the reading age of much of the audience was pretty low (it is a children's movie).

Due to these difficulties, PowerPoint presentations often become a ritual rather than any form of communication.  It is like watching holy communion and brings similar benefits to you.  As yet I have not heard of any priests using PowerPoint for their sermons though I may be mistaken.  Religious officers have a history of knowing how to present, it is something that they have been doing for centuries.  Of course, some people feel that they can brighten up their content with unrelated images or even random sounds. 

I am fascinated with the industry of creating 'business images' often surreal portrayals of 'business people' faking a meeting or bellowing at each other through megaphones or wandering around a desert pulling something like a ball and chain.  I wonder what the working conditions are like for these people who have to model strange activities in these deserts.  If the image whether a random shape or one of these photographs is of use, why not simply have it to represent the idea you are trying to communicate?  Why have the words and the picture too?  Of course, in international business images can be culturally confusing though I also note having worked with Americans and South Africans that words even in the same language can obfuscate more than they can clarify.

Back in the 2000s I found such any different approaches to the slog through numerous slides was challenged and I was told that it showed I lacked ability in using PowerPoint, apparently a necessary minimum requirement.  There was no discussion of the intellectual engagement, purely a focus on the cosmetic aspect.  It was more acceptable to have an excessive quantity of slides for the time allotted than to try a different approach which stepped away from the ingrained expectations of PowerPoint.  I certainly believe that 'less is more' in terms of PowerPoint. Often you can put questions up which you then answer orally for the audience.  You can use it to present diagrams of illustrations that provoke discussion.  Ironically, Bill Bailey in his 'Dandelion Mind' tour does this surprisingly well when discussing 'Doubting' Thomas in art.  Part of the problem of these approaches are that they are dependent on using PowerPoint in the way it was designed to be used, i.e. as an aid to an oral presentation.  Now, however, you have to prepare slides for different purposes.  I am now habitually asked to put my slides on to websites or email them to people.  Thus, I need to have enough words on them that someone who does not have me standing beside them talking about the content can still understand them. 

Increasingly I make two versions for these different audiences so reducing the benefit of the time saving offered by PowerPoint.  However, someone looking for the content to read online or be emailed to them would far better receiving a piece of prose, a report going into the details in some detail or simply summarising them.  There is no point in having slides if you are simply going to print them out or read them on your own computer screen, you might as well simply have a body of text including appropriate illustrations.  You would not expect to put pages of a Word document up at a presentation so why do you expect to give presentation slides to someone as if they were a report?  PowerPoint has become so fetishised that it is difficult for many people in business to think about communicating without using it even when it is not an appropriate medium for what you are saying.

Perhaps my views are beginning to take root in some isolated places.  Whilst I am being pressured to write more and more wordy texts so that I can go through the ritual of twisting round so I can read my own words from an inappropriate way of presenting them, i.e. vast and close to my face, a young colleague has listened to my views.  I have now attended two presentations in which he has eschewed PowerPoint except to introduce the fact that he is not going to use it.  At the last presentation he pointed out to the audience that, whilst they were apparently not aware of it they actually knew all the points he was about to raise about customer demands already.  He gave them three questions and in the space of fifteen minutes the audience of fourteen came up with all the findings that he would have presented.  Perhaps they felt cheated of their ritual of slide watching, but I have a feeling that they gained the message more effectively.  We need to keep reminding ourselves that it is the effectiveness of what we are doing in terms of communicating what we have to say that must be the starting point.  Otherwise it is like picking up a hammer or a saw and struggling to think what we could build with them rather than planning to build something and then taking the appropriate tool out of the box.  Trying to defy the dogmatic, orthodox PowerPoint approach, however, may expose you to being treated like a heretic of old.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Opportunities Denied At 10 Years Old

Back before the last general election I wrote at how opportunities for people who have not been to a public school (i.e. an elite fee-paying school in the UK sense of the term) to have a good career and a decent salary were being closed off:  I anticipated that if David Cameron came to power then this situation would worsen, which is certainly the case.  I also see that I thought that it would be difficult for Cameron to get into power which also proved to be the situation given he was only able to do it as a part of a coalition which was difficult to negotiate.  Up until now I have tended to view the decline in the opportunity for ordinary people (the 90% of the population who earn up to £40,000 per year or less; the average yearly income was £38,547 [€45,870; US$59,740] in 2011 which means since I was made redundant in 2010; on £35,000 per year, I have fallen back below average whereas in 2005 I was earning about 50% more than the average) as a rather objective situation.  However, with the 10-year old living in my house it has began to impact literally closer to home.

In his first week back at school he received a letter advising his mother about the steps she could take to prepare him for the 11+ examination.  This letter went out to all parents no matter what academic ability they have.  Until the 1970s the 11+ exam was universal in the UK.  It was the examination which pupils took at 10 to determine which school they went to.  There were supposed to be three strands along the lines of the German model: the grammar school for academically capable pupils, the secondary modern school for the ordinary pupil with a vocational focus and the technical school for pupils who showed particular technical ability.  Typically for Britain the number of technical schools was tiny and many have become technical colleges these days instead offering post-16 education.  This system was introduced in 1947 and while it began to disappear from much of the UK in the 1960s and 1970s it was retained in certain counties such as Kent, Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire and parts of other counties such as Wiltshire, Warwickshire and Merseyside. 

The trouble with the so-called Tripartite (read Bipartite) System is what it denied the 75% of pupils who would be sent to a secondary modern school.  They would not have a chance to study a foreign language and the school would be poor in science facilities.  The secondary modern pupils would not have the ability to study the curriculum for certain qualifications let alone take the examinations.  Thus, there would be no chance to go to study in further education (i.e. for 'A' Levels) let alone higher education.  You can see why the creation of the Open University in 1969 setting no such hurdles was so radical in this context.  At the age of 11 a person was locked into a path which unless they were incredibly lucky or their parents had the money to take them out of the system and pay for a school place, they could not escape.

There was a further challenge.  Across England and Wales 25% of pupils went to grammar school but the level at a local level could vary considerably.  A mark in the 11+ plus which would have easily got you into a grammar school in one district, say one with an ageing population, would be insufficient to win you a place in another district with more younger families.  Some towns had more grammar schools than others.  Grammar schools were often single sex so a twin boy and girl could get exactly the same grade in the 11+ and one would get into grammar school and one would not, usually the girl as the mark needed to get into grammar schools was higher for girls than boys both due to provision and girls' abilities at 11.  In a country that was trying to develop an educated workforce and provide equal opportunities you can see why the system was unsatisfactory.  If you have, as I have done, spoken to teachers who work in secondary schools in the areas where this system persists, you find how demoralised secondary modern school teachers are knowing their pupils are being shut off from a range of opportunities.  Similarly talk to parents shifting across the Kent-Sussex border. 

In most places in England and Wales schools steadily turned to comprehensive schools which means that they take pupils without any selection by ability, though they may select on the basis of where they live and increasingly on faith as well.  As was reported last month, the Church of England will be able to associate itself with schools that have previously been non-faith, despite the fact that only 5% of the UK population attends any denomination of church regularly.  When a school becomes a faith school it can discriminate against pupils and staff on the basis of religion and even which church or other religious institution in the case of non-Christian faiths, they attend.  Discrimination on the basis of faith is also a covert way to discriminate on the basis of social class and ability, something I have discussed before:  The woman in my house sent her son to a faith school and he got in on grounds of proximity to the school rather than her particular faith, to the disadvantage of less capable pupils who were regular attenders at the associated church.  An additional unsettling fact about the school is how self-righteous its interaction is with parents and how with a faith is supposed to come a subscription to a kind of lifestyle which was going out of date in the 1950s: mother at home all day, able to bake and sew to provide cakes and historic costumes for school events at regular intervals, able to collect a child from school at any time of the school day.

The Blair governments in the 2000s allowed the creation of more faith schools and of new grammar schools, thus beginning to turn back from the comprehensive model which had been promoted by the Labour Party in previous decades.  To a great extent this was because Blair's personal agenda was Christian Democrat rather than Socialist, Labourite or even Liberal.  We now have a mish-mash system with a mix of faith schools, selective grammar schools and academies which are centrally funded schools often revived failing schools with a particular curriculum focus such as in art, sports or technology.  On top of this are the so-called 'free schools' permitted by the coalition government which can be created by groups of parents or other interested bodies.  It might appear that this creates wider opportunity through greater variety.  However, it becomes an issue of Venn circles.  If you are not of a particular faith (or even if you are but attend a different church), if you child cannot pass a particular examination, if you did not have the time to insinuate yourself into a particular circle of parents, if your child's strengths are not in the area of the specialist schools in your district, then you quickly find that your choices have fallen away.

I will turn to the particular example of the selection facing the 10-year old in my house.  Those who live in the town, which is in southern England, may detect it from the statistics, but as always I will hold back from naming it due to wanting to protect my identity.  In the town precisely 30% of the secondary schools are girls' schools and 30% are boys' schools.  This is an unusually high percentage and I wonder what the history is behind this.  In the town 20% of the schools are selective grammar schools; 20% are Christian faith schools of different denominations; 20% are specialist schools focusing on two different subject areas.  As you will have guessed, there is some overlap between these different categories but I will not outline how many fall into more than one category for fear of giving the town away too easily.  Now, only 20% of the schools are co-educational, comprehensive schools.  Thus, if you do not mesh against the particular criteria (a number of which are mutually exclusive, i.e. boy/girl, different denominations, different specialisations) you rapidly come down to selecting between only 20% of the school stock in the town and that is entirely ignoring geographical location.

The boy who lives in my house has already been told that he cannot sit the 11+ as his handwriting is insufficiently good. As it is, the guidance provided by his primary school (which though a faith school is comprehensive) is that unless his mother can afford to buy past papers and engage a personal tutor then his chances are low.  We are already familiar with income shutting the boy out from certain opportunities as even our combined household budget does not stretch to the £365 needed for him to attend the residential course for Year 6 pupils and so he is shut out from that.  We are not a 'poor' 'family' compared to those on benefits and yet even in our kind of average income we cannot access opportunities that would benefit the boy; it will be worse when he reaches secondary school. 

It is ironic that he is already written out of the 11+ as he is in the top set for mathematics in his school and his abilities in computing and science have already been recognised; his vocabulary too is extensive and his reading age is about 12 though he is too lazy to read more.  Now, the National Curriculum compels all schools to teach a wider curriculum than was the case with secondary modern schools.  Even specialist schools ironically have to teach subjects which seem a long way from its specialism.  In addition we do not live in an entirely tripartite system area and whilst 60% of the schools select on certain criteria they do not explicitly discriminate in terms of ability.

The trouble with the rum assortment of schools on offer is the attitude.  Single sex schools benefit girls much more than boys.  However, in an age where the division between sexes is hardening at an alarming rate and is a tendency which promotes sexist behaviour and violence especially from young men, it seems terrible to put so many boys into an environment without girls.  Ironically the teaching will still be a more female friendly approach but without the girls to show how this works.  It is tougher for the boy from my house as he works so well with girls let alone being popular with them.  I can just see him being transformed into one of these thugs that expects girls to serve him sexually and that fighting is a norm.  In a town with a grammar school he will know from the age of 10 that he is 'not good enough' to attain that level.  What does that do to his aspirations?

Until the mid-2000s Britain was doing pretty well in encouraging people who were 'late developers' in academic study or need to change track in what they had studied.  Funding has been shut down for such education and the number of mature students going to university has already fallen by 15%.  Thus, as back in the 1950s once you have failed to get into grammar school, later opportunities will be scarce.  A 10-year old is amazingly alert to such divisions and the likelihood is that he will be shut off from pupils who might write more neatly and yet not be half as good in science or computing and be made to feel that he is the 'second best'.  He may also be shut off from girls as if they were a different species.  What is that going to do to his interaction with the opposite sex when inter-gender relationships are becoming dangerous, not only in terms of personal relationships but in the workplace where they need to function well. 

I know I am beginning to sound like an embittered middle class parent whose child failed the 11+.  However, this is the perspective of the majority in England and Wales.  The British schooling system may have faced difficulties but since 1997 there has been a rush to wreck even the good that was there and to adopt so many different fads and to adopt so many criteria on which children can be categorised that we have been left with a bewildering array of schools without an increase in overall quality and which promote mindsets that say putting people into boxes on gender, religion and ability is fine.  You cannot sustain a fair and equal society when so many young people are being exposed both to such segregation and for so many a sense that already at the age of 11 they have failed.  Are we surprised at the disengagement with our society and the violence that breeds if a child of well-educated (pseudo-)parents of a reasonable income face such disappointment, how much harder must it be for those without such advantages?

Friday, 3 February 2012

Virulent Misogynism Where You Would Least Expect It

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a mild interest in the Sherlock Holmes stories both the original ones and those written by authors other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Consequently it will be of no surprise that I have followed the second series of 'Sherlock' which ran last month.  It is written by Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat who have both been involved with 'Doctor Who' after the past few years; Gatiss also has quite an interest in steampunk as seen in his version of 'The First Men in the Moon' (2010) for which he wrote the screenplay and starred in.  'Sherlock' loosely bases its episodes on the renowned stories from the Doyle canon but brings them into the 21st century.

The first episode of this second series was 'A Scandal in Belgravia' modelled in part on 'A Scandal in Bohemia' (1891) the third Sherlock Holmes story published and the first in short story form.  The antagonist of both versions is Irene Adler in the original an American opera singer and in the recent version a high-class dominatrix prostitute.  In both, Adler has compromising photographs of royalty, in the original of the fictional King of Bohemia and in Moffat's version of an unnamed female member of the British royal family.  In the original story Adler is heterosexual and uses a photograph to leverage non-interference for herself and her new husband, a solicitor; in the modern version she is a lesbian, though she has male customers including a leading member of the Ministry of Defence and uses the photographs (held on a mobile phone) as leverage for non-interference by the UK government.  In both stories Holmes manages to locate the photographs by simulating a fire but is outwitted by Adler who escapes to safety (or not quite and this is where the important differences creep in).  Holmes in both stories has an ambivalent attitude to Adler in turns charmed, excited, challenged and angered by her, ending with begrudging admiration for 'The Woman', the title she earns in the 1891 story but starts with in the 2012 one.

I found the episode of 'Sherlock' engaging and there were new sub-plots such as the British government faking aircraft explosions to mislead terrorists.  However, the part of Adler deteriorated as the story went on.  Despite being a lesbian she falls for Sherlock Holmes (in a way which reminded me of Pussy Galore in 'Goldfinger' (1964)) and steadily comes to depend on Holmes for her safety.  The ultimate degredation comes at the end where she is seen dressed in a hijab about to beheaded by a gang in Pakistan only to be saved by Holmes masquerading as the executioner.  With that scene I half expected the next Gatiss/Moffat collaboration to be a producing of 'Kim' or some other tale of the Great Game set in Afghanistan just as if this was 1901 again and we were watching something penned by Rudyard Kipling.

The fact that 'Sherlock' saw the most renowned and strongest female character from the Holmes stories turned into a vulnerable female falling in love with the sexless Holmes, against her own sexual orientation and then rather than escaping from him and gently ridiculing him as she did in 1891, being a victim who can only be saved by him, not only irritated me but other commentators, well at least one.  On 3rd January, in 'The Guardian' newspaper, Jane Claire Jones wrote an interesting analysis of the gender politics of the episode and how Moffat's seemed to be a retrograde step from Doyle's version despite female equality having (supposedly) advanced in the last 121 years.  The article is here:

Now, I am not going to write a critique of the article, which I had no issues with, what I am going to focus on is much of the content of the fifteen pages of online comments that followed in the three days after the article was published.  Now, 'The Guardian' is a liberal newspaper and you might expect many of its readers are as well.  I accept that the online version may attract a different audience to the paper version, but you might think that people with more conservative views would access one of the more numerous right-wing newspapers available online for their articles and to comment on.  What is alarming about the comments is how so many of them are misogynistic both against the article's writer and to the female character she is discussing.  The fact that 'The Guardian' had to remove so many of the comments and replace them with:   'This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn't abide by our community standards.' indicates some of the problem.  Not all of the comments were offensive.  Some just wondered why there was such fuss about a television programme, though you could argue that about any television review included in a newspaper.  However, television programmes, especially popular ones as 'Sherlock' clearly is (riding near the top of the I-Player list throughout January, so clearly being viewed by people in addition to the millions who saw it on television), do inform how we see society and I guess some of us were depressed at Gatiss and Moffat while being modern and usually supporting of gay characters turned to a Post-Feminist approach.

Beyond the comments about the unimportance of the programme you get on to a spiral of insulting comments generally directed at Jones or expressing views about Adler's character.  They range from the patronising suggesting that Jones give up writing articles and return to study and that she is probably ignorant of the ways of dominatrix prostitutes to utterly vile comments which have now been removed, but the phrase on one: 'death by rape' has lodged in my mind even weeks later.  What we see paraded is a series of comments which treat a woman writer and character at best as if they are juvenile and at worst as if they are some appalling creature who is there only to be abused for the pleasure of males.  Of course, they can hide behind pseudonyms as so many of us do online, but what alarms me is that these men are walking around with such hatred for women, probably mixing with women at work or even in their homes.  People hold vile views, but what shocked me is that in three days so many of them flocked to the website of a liberal newspaper to repeat such attitudes again and again without shame.

I have commented before about the decline of Feminism in the UK, something that has been noted by columnists writing for 'The Guardian' itself like Suzanne Moore.  They argue that Feminism has to be fought for all over again.  I have already agreed with that, but now feel that an active response needs to start immediately.  The internet is rife with vile attitudes in its dark corners, but the women-haters seem confident enough to step up to a widely read website and make such comments, presumably assuming they are 'common sense' and could not be taken as offensive because they are 'right'.  Hatred against someone for simply what they are whether female, gay or of a particular race is never acceptable and the commentators who post such things in places where they can be seen by children ('The Guardian' is freely accessible to anyone on the internet) need to realise they will be stopped because what they say is evil.  They are as bad as those sick criminals they no doubt would like to see executed and should be treated with such disdain themselves.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Seven Samurai; 13 Assassins: A Comparison

For Christmas I was fortunate to receive a DVD of the movie ’13 Assassins’ (2010). Whilst it is an action movie, I found it surprisingly moving. It also has some alarming scenes. It is rated 15 for the UK but 18 for Eire and I would go with the latter level, not because of the combat but because of what the assassins’ target: Lord Matsudaira Naritsugu carries out. Matsudaira is a brother of the Shogun which effectively makes him untouchable by the law and allows him to behave sadistically. He rapes the wife of one of the noblemen of the Akashi clan into which he has been adopted hosting his visit leading to the suicide of her and her husband. He slaughters an entire village of peasants who rose up leaving only one woman alive who he mutilates. The scene featuring her is one of the most alarming I have seen outside a horror movie. He shoots arrows into bound members of a family including women and children simply as a pastime. At the end of the movie when Matsudaira is dying he revels in the excitement he has had in battling his would-be assassins and considers reinstating the Age of War almost as a source of entertainment. To some degree this ensures that we continue to hate him as even at his end he appears as a spoilt child whose games lead to misery for others. Japanese audiences will know how much damage the Age of War did to their country; it is equivalent to the English Civil War for Britain, the Hundred Years War for France and the Thirty Years War for Germany.

Despite his behaviour and attitudes, Matsudaira is in line to become part of the government, a step which alarms a senior civil servant, Doi Toshitsura. It is he who commissions retired samurai Shimada Shinzaemon to assassinate Matsudaira. Through the movie he assembles twelve other samurai, ronin and a bandit descended from a samurai clan to be the assassins. They trap Matsudaira in a village and proceed to kill him and all his retainers. There is a decent review of ’13 Assassins’ (2010) at:

This version of '13 Assassins' ( running time 2 hours 6 minutes on UK version; 2 hours 21 minutes in Japan) is a remake of the 1963 'Thirteen Assassins' [Jûsan-nin no shikaku] directed by Eiichi Kudo two hours five minutes written by Kaneo Ikegami. The remake was written by Daisuke Tengan, based on Kaneo Ikegami's screenplay and directed by Takashi Miike. I hope one of the terrestrial television channels shows the 1963 version. The movie is very well made and moving. It shows other countries how effective an action movie can be in both exciting and intellectually engage the audience. Unsurprisingly it has been compared to ‘Seven Samurai’ [Shichinin no Samurai] (1954) co-written, edited, and directed by Akira Kurosawa (running time 3 hours, 27 minutes) which remains the best known Japanese-made [‘13 Assassins’ is an Anglo-Japanese collaboration anyway] samurai movie. Given that I spent much of the Christmas period battling through ‘Total War: Shogun 2’ I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the two movies.

‘13 Assassins’ is set in 1844, just 23 years before the end of the Shogunate period with the Meiji Restoration which led to the modernisation of Japan. The only reference to the modern world is when one character talks of possibly moving to live in America. The only firearms visible are the barrels of gunpowder and matchlock muskets which had been used in Japan since the 16th century anyway. In contrast ‘Seven Samurai’ is set in 1587 during the so-called Age of War [Sengoku jidai] of Japanese history which ultimately led to the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate which was to rule Japan unbroken from 1603 until 1867. Thus, the movies are set at either end of the last great period of the samurai. The fact that both sets of characters would precisely recognise the clothing, equipment and values of the other shows the degree to which Japanese society was ossified for three centuries if not longer.

In ’13 Samurai’ we see a unit of ashigaru (i.e. non-samurai) soldiers armed with matchlock-firing arquebuses; the bandits in ‘Seven Samurai’ also possess three of these. Arquebuses had been adopted extensively by Japanese forces when introduced by Europeans first in 1543 and within ten years Japan had the highest per capita ownership of such weapons in the world. Once Japan was closed to Europeans after 1635 the technology did not advance until the mid-19th century. However, use of these guns was uncommon in the 1840s and there were few soldiers trained in them, so for them to be used at this time would be very uncommon. Throughout the movie, though, there are references back to the past in Japanese history.

The motives for the action is different. In ‘Seven Samurai’ it is peasants being persecuted by bandits who come looking for samurais to defend their village from repeated attack. The samurai recruited become involved for various reasons, but to some degree it is a question of ‘noblesse oblige’, the obligation of knightly if not noble men to defend those who could not do so. The ‘sword hunt’ which seized weaponry held by non-samurai was not introduced until 1588, the year after the movie is set. In one scene we see all the swords and armour that the peasants have looted from samurai, probably ronin (literally ‘wave man’, samurai without a lord usually due to death; the often became bandits or were ‘hired swords’). Despite the arms and armour which only the possibly fake samurai, Kikuchiyo, makes use of, the peasants are untrained in their usage. The production and delivery of food in exchange for military protection was the basis of feudal society whether in Japan or in Europe. Though not mentioned the role the seven samurai take on should be being filled by the samurai of their overlord, but either he is negligent or his forces are being used in the ongoing conflicts of the period.

The issue of ‘noblesse oblige’ is a more central debate in ’13 Samurai’. Matsudaira and his chief retainer Hanbei emphasise that the heart of the samurai code is loyalty to one’s lord and effectively blind to his behaviour. However, Shimada and his colleagues and effectively Doi argue that the samurai works on behalf of the people. A similar discussion could have been held in medieval Europe though the codes of chivalry were more for stories than for everyday life the way the principles that guided samurai were. Of course, in contrast to ‘Seven Samurai’ it is not simply peasants who are suffering, it is the samurai class itself which is being put under pressure by Matsudaira and there is a fear that any samurai or noble might lose his daughter or son to the man’s behaviour.

These debates bring us back to the nature of the times in which the movies are set. In the Age of War the time shown in ‘Seven Samurai’, whilst samurai fell in their thousands in battles, many peasants and townspeople were caught up in the battles between the different clans, either serving as ashigaru troops, as a result of being caught in sieges or due to rape and looting by soldiers and ronin even when peace had come to an area. By the 1840s, samurai culture had become stylised and one aspect of those recruited is that they keep to the ‘old ways’ and are skilled in the use of swords and in one case, spear. Matsudaira and those around him may preen with their swords but many are no good at using them. Throughout the extended battle scene you often see members of Matsudaira’s entourage screaming in fear or a kind of insanity often batting ineffectually with their swords. This contrasts sharply with the one-blow kills of the assassins, even of the bandit Kiga Koyata using rocks and a sling.

The formation of the group differs between the two movies. As is noted in commentary on ‘Seven Samurai’ the approach in that movie set the pattern for numerous westerns and war movies that followed in the 1960s and 1970s in particular of assembling a disparate group of men typically with different skills. It is unsurprising that the western remake, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960) and its sequels 1966-72 adopted this approach as did ‘The Professionals’ (1966) but you can see it in ‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967), ‘The Guns of Navarone’ (1961) and even more so in the far weaker ‘Force Ten from Navarone’ (1978) and ‘Where Eagles Dare’ (1968). In ‘Seven Samurai’ the first fighter commissioned recruits the others and while has some acquaintance with them does not know them well. In ’13 Assassins’ the group includes students of the veteran samurai who volunteer and the nephew of Shimada. They have a narrower range of fighting styles than seen in the westerns and war movies. In ’13 Assassins’ veteran widower ronin, Sahara Heizō uses a spear and one of the others uses his wakizashi (short sword) in his left hand and his katana (long sword) in his right in the style of Miyamoto Musashi of the 16th century. In ‘Seven Samurai’ whilst the bulk fight with the katana, Katayama Gorōbei, the lieutenant to the leader Shimada Kanbei, is an expert archer, interestingly the art that samurai were first renowned for before the subsequent development of the cult of the sword. Both movies have a young, untested samurai; a cool, almost clinical expert fighter (though Hirayama Kujūrō is far happier to sign up immediately for the mission in ’13 Assassins’ than Kyūzō is in ‘Seven Samurai’) and a jolly round-faced warrior.

In both movies there is also a ‘mercurial’ outsider. In ‘Seven Samurai’ this is Kikuchiyo not from the samurai class though he is a good sword fighter. He is like the conduit to the peasants that the samurai are supporting though he is uneasy about reminders of his heritage. He may actually be the son of a ronin or a jizamurai also known as a kokujin, poor rural samurai who was closer to the peasantry than they were to their samurai class. In ’13 Assassins’ there is the aforementioned Kiga who also claims samurai lineage. It is not certain if Kiga is actually human as he appears immortal and may be a spirit, something like a Kitsune (fox spirit) or Mujina (badger spirit). Kiga is asked if he is a ‘coyote spirit’ though I assume this is an American translation of Kitsune as there are similarities between this creature and the coyote trickster spirit of traditional American folklore. In Japanese stories these spirits can assume human form. The Shinto religion also worships Kami, eighty million local gods. He may also be some form of mountain demon such as a Tengu, a bird-like humanoid of Japanese legends. In both movies the role of this character is to show that whilst the band is elite there is a kind of approval for their actions from natural law whether the wider sense of society or literally from nature or the spirit world.

In both movies there is a vital role for the village. This levels up the odds between the samurai and their opponents. Of course, in ‘Seven Samurai’ protecting the village is at the heart of the mission. In ’13 Samurai’ with government funds, the assassins buy out the population of the village and only a few remain briefly to reduce the suspicions of Matsudaira’s entourage that they are walking into a trap. In both movies gates are used to corral small units of opponents and to pick them off with the samurai making use of roof tops and buildings to provide an advantage. In ’13 Samurai’ the preparations are taken to a far greater extent with a whole series of booby traps and false routes injure and disorientate Matsudaira’s men. There are a lot of swords for the assassins to use and though not shown I did wonder if, as in ‘Seven Samurai’, there was a stockpile in the village despite the sword hunts.

Both of these samurai movies are primarily about action. However, they also provide more that simple combat including the development of different characters and also discussion about both ‘correct’ and ‘right’ behaviour in Japanese society in the samurai era. It is these other elements which I believe continues to draw back viewers. After all, how many other non-English language movies released in 1954 can you name. I trust that ’13 Samurai’ will be seen in such a light in 2060. I am also looking forward to seeing the movie of ‘The 47 Ronin’ being released in 2012, based on a classic samurai story from Japanese literature.