Wednesday, 25 December 2013

A poem for the winter solstice

It is a night of turning points
Helios reverses his retreat
To ride further to the sky
And Hades returns Persephone
To bring the summer dry

It is a night of turning points
Think what you would like to change
Would you be bolder and braver
Revel less or more in all things strange
Choose who to be, and be your own saviour

Tonight's the night of turning points
Use it! From the dawn behave as one
Who embodies that you would like to be
And keep trying to be that person
Until that person is you, naturally

And may your sun rise ever higher
May your days run ever longer
May you become each day warmer
And your light will shine each day stronger
And be your best, and happy.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Review: Sorrel in Scarlet

Sorrel in Scarlet is a book by Peter Vialls. Disclaimer: I do know Peter personally (although not particularly well) but I won't be taking it easy on him. I'm sure he wouldn't have it any other way.


If I had to give it a rating, it would be 4/5. The characters are engaging, the world is well thought out and feels totally alien as well as totally real. Once you've got over the invented vocabulary the book races towards a thrilling climax.

It isn't without fault, however but the faults are more than made up for by the qualities.

All told, you probably won't regret buying this book and you certainly won't regret reading it.

!!!! Spoilers follow !!!!

The best bit was Sorrel herself: the depth I felt Sorrel had was superb. She felt exceptionally real and it was easy to feel her anger and to feel her history. Making a point of her lustfulness early on really sold the character - she was more than just a pilot or a warrior. Lust is so very human and it makes it easy to relate to Sorrel early on. (How many people could honestly say they wouldn't be thinking "Oh, I wish I'd slept with so-and-so..." as they die? Especially people around Sorrel's age.) Being quite impulsive was a nice way to keep some level of tension in the book. It allowed the pace to keep going while Sorrel acted as she thought without too much pre-planning, and for her to get into situations where we aren't sure quite how she intends to escape. (That said, her thing about not killing if she can avoid it does seem to disappear occasionally - what's with stabbing the throat of the Graalur who looked like he was going to go flower picking? She's knocked plenty unconscious before, and could do it again. This one doesn't even bother her later...)

There is a much heavier emphasis here on the male gaze. It was often, and effectively, used to make Sorrel quite uncomfortable although it was apparent she could be just as bad at times. It almost, but not quite, became a theme of the book.

The World was clearly very well planned out. It felt like there was a lot of unseen depth that made it feel very real. The book could well have got badly bogged down exploring it, but this was mostly avoided. It took a while to really get a feel for the world, but that's alright, because the world was just as alien to Sorrel as it was to the reader.

I had to finish the book before I knew whether I liked the pacing. On the whole it works but it's not always apparent. However, the race for Tograil at the end of the book was superbly done. The tension mounted beautifully, and  Several of the battles felt somewhat like random encounters but they did make the world feel hostile. It would have felt nice if a little more had been done with these encounters. I rarely felt like we'd got to know Sorrel or the world particularly better for some of these battles.

The pacing near the start was quite strange. It starts in the aftermath of a big action scene and immediately starts ramping up the danger. It's a long time before Sorrel starts to feel safe again and it made the first half of the book feel quite difficult at times - there was no respite from conflict or danger and I felt quite battle-weary by the half-way point. Not nearly as badly as Sorrel but I really felt that some time in a safe, relaxed environment was needed. The time at the village was too focussed on the conflict with Kelhene to feel relaxing and it would have been a good time to see Sorrel take stock of the situation and for the reader to learn about the surface world. It's much easier to follow Sorrel and Wrack when you understand the history of the surface but a lot of this only comes later.

The theme of clothing was an interesting one to follow. Sorrel regularly mentions how naked she feels, although she's clearly used to it by the end of the book - she is, I think, no more or less naked than the natives. Her flight jacket is a running theme for the first half of the book and Sorrel often says she wants to ditch it, but can't part with it as it is her only real connection with the surface.

This was screaming out at me that she'll lose it, or ritually destroy it at the same time that she decides to stay in Chasm. And it didn't happen. The jacket gets lost like a coat gets lost in the cinema and Sorrel spends quite some time after that deciding whether or not to stay. It felt a little bit odd. A relationship was set up and then ignored. More realistic, I suppose, but also a missed opportunity for a good bit of symbolism.


There was one thing that really bothered me, however. That was Wrack and, more specifically, Sorrel and Wrack hooking up at the end of the book. It really felt for me like Sorrel was going to him like a battered wife returns to her abusive husband. Wrack had many of the hallmarks of an abusive boyfriend, even quite late in the book he still claimed that Sorrel (or rather, humans) were inferior to dragons and couldn't have equality. He enjoyed (by his own admission) owning Sorrel and could still be possessive towards her and even physically overpowers her at one point as if to prove he can. Even his grand gesture, the big speech and  joining Sorrel's fight, is extravagantly grand it still feels like the grand gesture the abusive boyfriend does to say "I've learned, I've changed, I won't do it anymore." Especially since Wrack doesn't really have the autonomy to choose otherwise. He has to stay near Sorrel or he's vulnerable.

Sorrel is capable of fighting back, but that does not make a strong relationship!

I felt Wrack's confession and repentance came too little, too late. Did it make a good ending twist? I didn't buy it. Many of Wrack's previous actions from the backstory do get painted in a softer light, but we have only Wrack's word for it. I'd have bought it far better if Wrack had made his confession and then had some time to and prove he meant it (roasting Graalur doesn't count - they were legitimate threats to him and he'd have done so regardless of Sorrel), if he'd started acknowledging that Sorrel was his equal - at least in the Chasm,  if Sorrel had taken more time to decide whether she loved her former slaver.

Before this intense criticism of one small plot detail gets too much, I'd better finish and say I'll buy the sequel.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Willful ignorance makes me really angry

Let's talk a little bit about Anne Widdecombe. Ann Widdecombe is a former MP and studied at Birmingham University, and later Oxford. She has served as a minister. The point is that she's well educated  and intelligent.

She also opposes gay marriage and is campaigning against its legalization.

This is not, in and of itself, a problem. As much as I absolutely believe gay marriage should be legalized I also believe that people have the right to peacefully campaign and try to influence public policy in whatever way they choose. But the debate should be based on facts and we turn to our MPs to present arguments in a coherent way in order to decide on the best public policy.*

Earlier today, Ann Widdecombe said:
tell me how a party devoted to freedom, that’s always opposed oppression and the power of the state over the individual, can even contemplate creating such a Britain [where gay marriage is legal.] [Source]
 She argues that people's rights to disagree are being trampled by the Prime Minister's support of gay marriage, as Christian teachers could be sacked for doing so.

Willful ignorance makes me really angry. For someone with an Oxford education the argument is profoundly stupid. Teachers preaching bigotry should of course be sacked. If gay marriage is legalized than we should treat a teacher who tells their pupils it's wrong the same as we'd treat a teacher making equivalent arguments about, say, inter-racial marriage.

The right to disagree would still exist: people are free to thing interracial marriage as wrong as long as they don't start sabotaging weddings or preaching hate.

Marriage (gay or otherwise) isn't even on curricula in the UK, except perhaps in the study of civil rights, and if it were a teacher could be expected to toe the line, just like everyone else with a job doesn't openly criticize their employers when dealing with clients. I even had a creationist biology teacher do a perfectly good job of teaching evolution even though she didn't think it ever happened.** A Christian teacher opposed to gay marriage could easily avoid tackling it if they felt strongly about it. Ms Widdecombe's argument about the right to disagree does not hold water.

But why, Ann, why the total non sequitur and rhetorical sophistry of saying that a party "devoted to freedom" would oppose gay marriage? Who's freedom does she care about here? A party "opposed to oppression" would want to stop oppressing gay people by telling them they can't marry. A party "opposed to the power the state over the individual" would absolutely support gay marriage by legislating less stuff.

The only way Ann Widdecombe could make an argument so obviously wrong with a straight face is someone wasting their intelligence. If she truly opposes gay marriage can't she give us argument worth listening to rather than bilge designed to sway those who don't listen too closely to what they are told.

* In theory, at least.
** I should talk more about that, but not in this post.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Westminster Skeptics: Anonymity on the internet, dealing with "trolls", and meeting one of my favorite bloggers

At the start of this month I finished my MSc. dissertation. This meant two things: firstly I get my weekends back and secondly that I moved to London to work.

For the first time in two years this meant I could go to Westminster Skeptics in the Pub on Monday. Today's post is largely based on some thoughts and reactions to the discussions there. The theme was vaguely defined as "social media" and several topics were covered.

Oh, and one of my favourite bloggers, Helen Lewis from the New Statesman Blogs, was there.

Helen Lewis's blogging at New Statesman has really helped me shape myself as a feminist. I'm a white, well-educated, British, upper-middle class man. All societal discrimination works in my favour. Without Helen writing about what online harassment actually looks like I'd never have actually believed it was happening to the scale it was happening.

Also, and maybe more importantly, she highlights the little bits of sexism that usually pass unnoticed by WWEBUMCM's like me.

And if all that sounds too serious for you, or I've made her sound like a one trick pony try reading something more lighthearted or on a different topic altogether.

Between these two things Helen opened my eyes to the realities of modern feminism, and to how society still has a long way to go. But, what is more, I also had my eyes opened to the small assumptions we make in everyday life and this is where I as a WWEBUCMCM can actually do something by catching myself whenever I start to make one of these assumptions.

I realise that's a lot of links to a lot of reading. I don't care. They're worth the read.

Onto some of the stuff discussed at the meet:

Anonymity on the internet

There was some very interesting discussion around anonymity on the internet: is it moral to be anonymous on the internet? Is it moral to 'out' those who choose to be anonymous and, if not, do they deserve protection against outing? The panel included outers and the outed as well as some people who'd faced the anonymous "trolls" of the internet.

All parties agreed that those committing illegal acts forfeit their right to anonymity. Two of the panel had written very worthwhile blogs that they could only have written with the protection of anonymity.

John Gabriel's "Greater Internet Dickwad Theory" is commonly used as an argument against anonymity. It is a little simplistic, however. One major thing that the theory doesn't account for is the mob mentality it is so easy to build up. The internet has made it very easy to find like minded people and to have your viewpoints amplified by not meeting anyone who opposes you. In this environment it's easy for flippant thoughts to become full blown action. Anonymity may be empowering to dickwadery but nothing stirs it up quite like a mob mentality.

Ultimately we need to treat anonymity as a privilege, rather than a right. Those who abuse that privilege should absolutely be exposed. The question then becomes "what counts as abusing anonymity?" 

(Full disclosure: I don't use my real name on this blog, but make no secret over who I am in real life - it is more to differentiate between the real life me who enjoys terrible puns and playing the fool, and the more intellectual face I wear writing here. I tend to use my real name in other parts of the internet, thought.)

Dealing with "trolls"

Or "bullies" as they should really be called.

Actually, that would be a good first step. In internet parlance a troll is a practical joker. Mischievous, but rarely malicious and with a long history. By referring to the horrible abuse some people throw about as "trolling" the media actually make it sound acceptable.

Taking away anonymity wouldn't help much here either? Would people still do some of the vicious things they do if we knew their real name? Well... yes. Some of these are on Facebook groups where you are required to use your real name, and some groups even are happy to go and "troll" in person. Removing anonymity is not a panacea. The truth is that some humans are assholes.

But there is a solution.

It's all about signal to noise ratios. Increase signal, remove noise. Moderators work to delete inappropriate or unhelpful comments, and the community doesn't respond to them. Bullies are less likely to try to work where they won't have an audience.

If a place is being inundated, add to the signal. Ignore the noise. Noise is zombie like. The moment you engage with it you become part of the noise. It doesn't matter how offensive anything is, how harshly you want to take the bully down by attacking the problem like that you become part of the problem.

Staunchly ignoring bullying and effective active moderation will do wonders for a site by attracting more people you want and putting off the ones you don't.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (no spoilers)

I was going to write about Journey on the PS3 this week, but went to see The Dark Knight Rises and thought Journey can wait.

The short version of this is: go see the film. Nolan and Bale really have put on the best version of Batman on the big screen. The film isn't as good as The Dark Knight but is really worth watching. If you don't mind a few non-crucial spoilers Movie Bob has a great analysis of the film.

The performances given were brilliant. Christian Bale, Garry Oldman, Michael Cane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hatheway, Marion Cotillard and Morgan Freeman all give superb performances. I was particularly impressed with Marion Colillard as Miranda and Michael Cane as Alfred.

I thought the plot twists were mostly well executed, if somewhat predictable for anyone vaguely familiar with the Batman mythos. I have to say I was kicking myself for not putting together the three major clues for the crucial twist at the end. When it came I realised all along the answer had been right there and I'd not followed them through.

The plot did a nice job of escalating the stakes too, although with this it managed to depersonalise the situation. Now that the entire of Gotham is under immediate threat the human story gets a little lost. It may have been worth the time to see how the events reflect one specific person or family instead of focussing on how many people could be killed at the touch of a button.

I also had a problem with the fight sequences. Batman was very keen to just go into battle fists pumping. Sure this wins against crowds of mooks / underlings, but it's not a very clever way of going into battle and doesn't suit Batman who was always known for striking from shadows and out-thinking his opponents. Seriously, mooks, you have guns. Take three steps back and cover him with machine gun fire. It works in Arkham Asylum / Arkham City, it will work in a film too. The bit where Batman and Catwoman sneak into Bane's lair was very effectively done with true Batman style combat.

This was most noticeable where Batman just goes and gets into a fist fight with Bane. At no point does he try to outmanoeuvre or trick his opponent. He just lets himself get overwhelmed. This is disappointing, as it would have been a good way to show that Bane is a match for Batman's tricks. It is a very well choreographed fist fight, though.

The other major flaw with the film is in the pacing. The crux of the film (and this is really not a spoiler, because it's in the title) is that Bruce Wayne has to learn to be Batman again. The end of act two has him in desperate circumstances, and he has to remind himself what it is that made him become Batman to overcome the obstacle. That's great, but if he does act three, why does the film start with him in retirement? Why does he have to learn to be Batman twice in the same film? The film makers wanted to make the case that Gotham had largely been safe for a long time, and that Batman hadn't been needed, but integral to the Batman concept is that Bruce Wayne needs to be Batman as much as (or more than) Gotham needs Batman. It's his coping mechanism, and I felt robbed of scenes of Batman doing cool, Batman-y things.

In the end, though, the spectacle is fantastic, the characters are well executed and well written, the basic plot is solid and John Blake is awesome. Go see it, you won't regret it.

Monday, 16 July 2012

"How should we teach science?"

Earlier today I did an egosearch to check that potential employers googling* my name weren't going to find anything embarrassing.

The first page of results lists my LinkedIn profile, my Facebook profile, my Twitter feed, a page I set up about ten years ago on SoundClick with a song link I really don't want to click on and finally a post I wrote for the "How Should We Teach Science" campaign around three years ago. (No direct link to this blog, which is unsurprising seeing as "Arkady Chenko" is a pseudonym.)

While the science curriculum has changed I still think this is largely relevant, so here it is:

Link to the original.

In trying to make science more vocational, more applicable to the real world, we only patronise those who really want to do it.
Arkady is currently studying for an MPhys. at University of Sheffield.
I was blessed at my local all-boys comprehensive school with some exceptionally good science teaching, and some exceptionally bad. I was fortunate that the good outweighed the bad but, as you will read, many very intelligent people were sorely let down by bad science teaching.
TEACHER A The bad teaching was based on a misconception. The idea was that the class generally misbehaved because we didn’t understand the topic. The real reason was because we were bored (I should state that despite use of “we”, I didn’t personally take part in the misbehaviour, although I was very bored). The teachers response was to cover the topic again, but we’d understood it - and found it simple - the first time. We were the top set in a large school. The teacher, when he took over the class, decided to keep things elementary and simple and take it slowly. We found this patronising, and he didn’t realise when we told him “this is simple, sir” that we were telling the truth. So he kept taking things at an easy to comprehend pace, and we got bored and restless. Imagine, if you will, leading a maths professor through a second order inhomogenous differential equation, stopping to integrate from first principles every time, and you’ll get the idea. This led to a vicious cycle, where even the most teacher’s-pet type students got up to some sort of mischief at some point.
TEACHER B In contrast, the physics teacher we had immediately before this train-wreck was superb. She saw we were all top set and assumed that we’d all want to do A-levels in her subject (which was mostly true until the teacher in the previous paragraph took over). In her lessons we would fill pages with equations and worked examples and notes. She took us through topics in a level depth that we didn’t really need for the SATs she was preparing us for, and which stood us in excellent stead for GCSE. As a top set, she assumed we’d be able to keep up, and that those who couldn’t would either seek her out for further help - which was not unusual - and those who did neither didn’t show enough interest and would be dropped into lower sets.
While not everyone understood everything on a first pass, because we were doing real science and getting to the meat and bones of the physics, not one person had to be dropped a set. Furthermore, even the most troublesome of boys (to most teachers) were quiet, attentive, and would only speak out to ask intelligent questions. The major troublemakers of the school were model students because they were actually faced with material that they didn’t find patronising, but that they found challenging. They weren’t troublemakers because they were stupid, but because they were clever (in top set, at least). We didn’t mess around looking at practical situations where you have to calculate torque, but instead at exotic/esoteric situations where the torque was tricky to calculate.
I fear that the Governments constant move to making science more accessible by making it more applicable to real life all the time will have the effect that teacher A had. Furthermore, students with a real interest in science will find science teaching unstimulating and uninteresting. Teacher B showed me that if we want more people to take science to A-level and University, we must make it challenging and forget about real world applications. Very few major physics break-throughs have many obvious real world applications. But, to quote a Nobel prize winner “physics is like sex. Sure, it gives practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” We do it to satisfy our curiosity and to see what the limits of things are. The greatest scientific achievement of the century was launched with the words “we do this, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”
The students we want doing science at A-level and beyond are the students who do it because it is hard, because they want to challenge themselves, and because they are interested in it. In trying to make science more vocational, more applicable to the real world we only patronise those who really want to do it out of the subject.
I would suggest, then, making science GCSE significantly more mathematical, more practical based, and also teach students about the history of the philosophy of science (i.e. empericism, the idea of submitting falsifiable theories and then throwing out those which do not stand up to testing) at a much earlier age, because it is my belief that the single must useful thing a non-scientist can learn from science is how to tell the difference between an excellent idea and an eloquent con.
Anyone interested in teaching standards should also read Michael Rosen's excellent (and far more regularly updated) blog.

* When does a brand name become a verb? When you no longer feel the need to capitalize it.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

LOCOG force Mount Olympus to change its name

Note: Inspired by articles in the Spectator and in the Financial Times.

It has been reported today that the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics are forcing the Pantheon at Mount Olympus to change the name of their home and to cease referring to themselves as "Olympians".

"We feel the name 'Olympus' is likely to cause confusion," said a spokesperson for the legal team at LOCOG, "and that they are using a variation of the good Olympic name to profit from tourism. They are clearly in breach of Article 3, paragraph 1(b) of the Olympic Symbol etc. (Protection) Act 1995.

"Furthermore, by referring to themselves as 'Olympians' they give the misleading impression that they were legitimate athletes at a prior Olympiad, but the records show this simply isn't true."

Asked whether he felt an ancient Greek mountain was within the LOCOG's jurisdiction he gave a tight-lipped smile and told me the Olympics were a timeless, worldwide phenomenon.

The news did not go down well at Mount Olympus.

"They're doing WHAT‽" Thundered Zeus. "They should know better than to whip up a storm with me" he warned, twirling a lightning bolt menacingly.

Poseidon was a little more measured in his response. "This is earth-shattering news" he said.

"For the first time in over a century, I won't be blessing the victors" said Nike.

Even the usually lovely Aphrodite was livid. "They've got too far," she raged. "It was one thing to force me and my Adonis to delay our wedding because we mentioned 'rings', but this..." her voice cracked holding back tears, "they might as well evict us."

More on this as it breaks.