Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Books I Read In December

'Winston Churchill' by Henry Pelling
This book was first published in 1974 and I read a revised edition from 1982.  However, in general it felt even older than that.  It has a style that would not have been out of place in 1954.  Despite what some reviewers say, it is not a strictly chronological book as chapters step out of the flow of history to look, for example, at his private life or his writing.  It gives details that many readers will not encounter in general histories about Churchill as a man and as a writer as opposed to being a leader and it is good on those times when he was not in office.  His interest in bricklaying was something I never knew.  It also shows him as a constituency MP and this also gives a perspective on local British politics through the period that he was standing for election.  It gives a fair appreciation of Churchill's role in the Great Upheaval of 1910-11, a topic of particular interest for myself.  What it is particularly poor on, however, is a blind defence of the Dardanelles Campaign during the First World War.  It was an utter fiasco and yet Pelling portrays it as not being that bad and somehow finds some value in it.  Otherwise he excuses Churchill's involvement due to timing of him being in various roles.  This approach really weakens the credibility of the book.

The book is almost purely narrative, with minimal analysis and certainly no efforts to bring out long-term trends in Churchill's politics, this is left down to the reader.  What became apparent was Churchill's imperialist mindset, indeed a form of racialism (as opposed to racism) in that he seems to have categorised peoples of the world into a hierarchy.  The 'English-speaking peoples' that he wrote of appear to have been at the top in his view and towards others, certainly beyond Western Europe he adopted a patronising attitude.  He seemed to be quite content to see the dissolution of Poland and Czechoslovakia by the Germans, but for the fact that this advanced the strength of Nazi Germany as a rival for Britain.  This attitude which becomes apparent from connecting points through Pelling's book explains his hostility even to self-government or dominion status for India.  It is clear he saw the Indians as a benighted people with weak leaders who were incapable of even approaching democracy.  His attitude to African colonies was even more dismissive.  This is not surprising of a man of his class and time, but tends to be overlooked and there is sometimes, as seems the case with Pelling, that whilst Churchill was a defender of democracy against dictatorship he also worked tirelessly to deny democracy to many people.  Overall this is a worker-like book that is probably best used for reference rather than for getting a rounded picture of the man.

'The Holy Thief' by Ellis Peters
This was one of the Cadfael stories that was televised (in 1998), though there are subtle differences between the book at the teleplay.  However, Sub-Prior Herluin is less of a forceful character than the very sharp portrayal of him by George Irving (born 1954) in the television series.  The story surrounds representatives coming from another Benedictine monastery at Ramsey in Cambridgeshire which we have seen ravaged in previous books as a result of the continuing upheaval of the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud.  Shrewsbury where Brother Cadfael is based suffers a bad flood and the reliquary supposedly holding the bones of St Winifred (though readers and a couple of characters know from the incidents seen in the first book of the series 'A Morbid Taste for Bones' (1977) that this is not actually the case) is moved for safety and then is stolen.  How it ends up on the lands of a local lord is different to in the television series. However, much is the same, with the involvement of the wayward monk, Brother Tutilo and the musicians/singers Rémy of Pertuis and his slave Daalny. Local characters, the Blounts, who featured in 'The Potter's Field' (1989) also reappear.

This book is stronger for being back in Shrewsbury. It is also good to see the Blount family once more as often in the Cadfael books, bar the reoccurring central characters, often you do not find out about what happened to people wrapped up in earlier cases. The book highlights the issue of slavery which while discouraged was permitted in England at the time and the use of sortes Biblicae, i.e. flicking through the Bible and stopping at a random point to come to decisions about clerical issues. As in a number of stories in the latter half of the sequence, Peters looks at men unsuited to being monks and the female perspective on the choices such men had made. This gives her some room for the romantic element which she likes to include and this story does have elements of a 'courtly love' tale of the kind that troubadours like Rémy sing about. However, it also leavens the very certain and very male perspective of books centred on a monastery. Readers will also be glad to see Brother Jerome, one of the nastiest characters in the books, have some kind of come-uppance. I enjoyed this story and felt in the penultimate novel of the main Cadfael sequence, Peters was back to form.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Three Years Old And My Computer Is Dying

In the movie, 'Blade Runner' (1982), the replicants, the life-like androids have a life expectancy of only four years.  The portrayed society of November 2019, like that of the Roman Empire, is worried that its slaves would become too strong and would overpower the citizens.  The plots of the movie is around replicants seeking their maker to have their lives extended.  It seems that we are quite a way from having androids threaten our society, though Stephen Hawking fears basic artificial intelligence will be able to do it first.  However, the built-in expiry date seen in 'Blade Runner' already appears to be in place.

In the summer of 2011, I bought an Alienware laptop computer for £1400 (€ 1750; US$2240).  Being a keen PC gamer, I ordered one of the highest graphic and sound quality and with a fast processor so that I could enjoy the online 'Total War' games and 'World of Warcraft' to the best standard.  This summer, 2014, moving into a room I was renting in a new house one of the current tenants, a postgraduate pharmacy student asked me about my laptop and when he found out it was coming up to three years old he scoffed, asking me how I hoped to achieve anything with something 'that old'.  I did not mention that my mobile phone was bought in 2005 and does not have a camera in it.

My housemate's predictions rapidly have come true.  I know in terms of online games, you expect fast developments and I do not expect it to run as quickly as it would have done in 2011.  I am also aware that in a house with five residents, even broadband gets stretched between all the uses.  However, even offline, the computer now struggles.  It is a pain to watch it labour to open Word and you have to expect it to crash at random even when simply looking at text documents.  It can struggle to open a second document or move between two.  Very challenging when you write as much fiction as I do.  I spend a lot of time watching a spinning disk against a black or a white blank screen.  Ironically I end up reading the newspaper, writing a diary (by hand with a pen) and even practicing Chinese characters, again with pen and paper.  It is almost as if my laptop feels that I am too old these days to use its facilities.

The deterioration in speed over the past three years has been phenomenal; declining very rapidly this year and so naturally I worried something was wrong.  I have a scheduled 'defrag' every Wednesday and a virus check every Monday evening.  I run through the list of all the software I have installed and eliminate anything which does not appear to be of use.  I removed every image from the laptop and put it on a 1 TB external hard drive, not that I had that many photos that it should have taxed the laptop.  I have even taken it apart and cleaned the fans, concerned they may be clogged and so it was overheating.  None of these things have been able to halt the slowing down and the increases in crashes.  It is as if, in the way my housemate viewed it, at 3.5 years old, my laptop is elderly and no longer can even do the basic tasks it once did such as handle a Word document, let alone play the games it was bought for.

Part of the problem is that the computer only occasionally does what I ask of it.  Much of the time I can switch it on and it can happily play with itself.  Every day there is some download that seems to take precedence over anything I might want to do.  In the middle of games, the machine will shut down and tell me it has to restart to accommodate a new update which seems to make absolutely no difference to the running of my computer bar from ruining my game.  Humans now have minimal control over their computers.  We are shaped by what they want to do and they make it clear our interests are a long way down the list behind the masturbation that are all these updates.

Obviously I feel that I have thrown away a lot of money on something that really was going to cost me £700 per year for the kind of service I wanted.  There seems to be no point in buying anything except the cheapest computer next time round.  Clearly online gaming with a PC is really only open to people who can afford £1000 per year in hardware in order to engage with it.  Given that my car cost £900, it is clear that I am no longer in that social class and so will be shut our of 'Total Rome II' let alone 'Shogun 2' which taxes my machine even more because of the greater landscape graphics.  Yes, before you suggest it, I have scaled down the graphic detail on these games and that is all that has allowed me to play them into mid- to late-2014, but clearly not in 2015.

I feel an idiot for believing if I spent a large sum of money it would be enough to own a machine that would remain with me for five years.  Clearly you can only expect to have the performance you paid for, for two years.  This adds to the ever growing pile of discarded computers and all the components that go into them.  It also makes them devices which have a life expectancy far less than many electrical devices out there.  If you had to replace your washing machine every two years, it would become tiresome.  Even while I write this, the computer is straining to keep up the connection to the blog and is going into overdrive downloading some update that I cannot even see when I search the system.

I would be grateful if someone could direct me to a company that makes computers that do what you want them to do rather than insisting that their desires have priority.  Clearly that company is not Alienware and I am angered that I was so misled by them.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Be Bashless and Norant: Have Gorm and Ruth

The other day the 13-year old boy who used to live in the house I once owned, was playing a computer game in which he constructed vehicles and then takes them on to the Martian landscape where he battles with other players.  For his age, his vocabulary is incredibly developed, something I put down to him being the son of an authoress.  However, when he was playing he was telling me as his vehicle charged forward that he was being 'bashful'.  I watched his game play and said I did not think that was the case; explaining that bashful meant 'shy' rather than being 'full of bash'.  He gathered what I meant and subsequently when acting boldly in the game he now tells me that he is behaving in a 'bashless' way, which I thought was a great invention.

This then got me to thinking about words in English which lack the alternative.  English is an irrational language anyway and I am not going to get into a discussion of 'cleave' here.  The two that came to mind were 'gormless', i.e. someone who is lacking in intelligence and certainly attention and 'ruthless', i.e. someone who is merciless.  When did we stop saying someone who is intelligent or attentive is 'gormful' or 's/he has got real gorm'?  When was anyone noted as being 'ruthful'? 

I did wonder if there was another in 'ignorant'.  The prefix 'ig' can mean lacking in something, the main example being 'ignoble'.  You can be 'noble' and so I wondered if you can also be 'norant'.  Examples might be, 'that Stephen Hawkins is a really norant man'. It is clear that someone who was bashless and norant would be far more dangerous than someone bashful and ignorant. Then I came on to 'baleful' and considered how nice it would be to meet someone who was 'baleless', i.e. jolly.  Someone who was 'hapful' as opposed to being 'hapless' may indeed also be baleless as they go through life without any mishaps.  Clearly these are antonyms - hap and mishap, but they do not manifest themselves the same way in our language.  In the same category would come 'aimful', the natural opposite of 'aimless'.

English has too many left-over remnants.  It can be entertaining to note the anomalies.  However, not for the first time do they increase my appreciation of anyone able to learn English as their first or subsequent language, especially up to the idiomatic level.

P.P. 08/12/2014
As I had hoped other examples came to mind.  Two which seem to lack antonyms are 'wistful' and 'listless'.  Often they can go together as someone lost being wistful for the past can end up listless.  That is not to say that someone 'wistless', not at all looking at the past with nostalgic sentiment would be necessarily 'listful', i.e. full of life.  I did wonder if 'list' was simply a distortion for 'lust' as in the sense of 'lust for life' rather than sexual connotations.  We do not speak of anyone being 'lustless' though 'lustful' is certainly used, but again, mainly related to an urge for sex rather than for living.