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Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Review - William Golding: Rites of Passage

William Golding: 
Rites of Passage (3*)

Rites of Passage won the 1980 Booker Prize. Three years later the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Call me a Philistine, yet I deign to give it only three stars. Why?

A long time ago, possibly in my early teens, I read Lord of the Flies by the same author, about a group of boys who descend into savagery while stranded on a desert island. I thought it unpleasant and am surprised that it often appears in lists of favourite books from school. I find Rites of Passage unpleasant too. Golding seems to specialise in human degradation (albeit not in graphic detail).

The story begins well enough. We are reading the journal of Edmund Talbot on a voyage to Australia in the early nineteenth century. Talbot is an aristocrat bound for a post with the Governor of New South Wales, and is a pompous prig. For example, he would have you believe that just because of his position in life, his understanding of sailing and navigation is equal to that of ship’s officers. He cannot see that others might not regard him so highly. It is clever, entertaining stuff.

So clever that some of the time I was not really sure what was going on. We Northerners tend to say things as we see them, and often have difficulties with those who talk in hints and insinuations. It was too much bother to try to decipher all the nineteenth century subtleties exchanged by passengers and officers.

Then the novel takes a darker turn. Another passenger, the Reverend Colley, whose presence on board is generally resented or at best unwelcome, suffers humiliation during and following an equator-crossing ritual, and subsequently dies. Talbot then gets to read Colley’s journal and realises he might have prevented his downfall. To say more would be to give away too much of the story, but the phrase “rites of passage” would seem to refer to the crossing of the equator, Talbot’s growing self-awareness, and (possibly unanticipated by Golding) ‘passage’ in the smutty sense the camp comedian Julian Clary might use it.

Rites of Passage was originally intended to be a stand-alone novel but was succeeded by two others in what became known as the sea trilogy To The Ends Of The Earth. I won’t be reading them.


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

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Thursday, 21 May 2020

UMIST

Student life 1974 and now

UMIST Mathematics and Social Sciences Building
UMIST Mathematics and Social Sciences Building (when new)

I have been meaning to post about this for some time. I thought of it again this week because we are going to have to take daughter to retrieve the rest of her possessions from her shared house at university (not UMIST). It will be the second chock-a-block car load. The first was in March when the university campus closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Two full loads of a family estate car! Indeed, some students hire Transit or Luton vans to move their stuff. The materialistic society! Not how things were.

Arriving at university, 1974
Arriving at university, 1974
This lad is supposedly just arriving at UMIST (the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) as a new student in 1974. A suitcase, rucksack, soft bag and guitar case accommodate all his worldly goods (although one could question the feasibility of this). You can imagine he lugged it to Manchester on the train. 

It is from a 15-minute film (linked below) made by the UMIST film and television society to give an idea of student life. It’s a real time-capsule for those of that university or college era.

I went to UMIST myself a few years after this for a one-year postgraduate course as mentioned in the last post, and much is familiar, especially the Brutalist Maths and Social Sciences building with the letters UMIST at the top (12:46 in the film), where my course was based. I used to avoid the lift and huff and puff my way up to floor L feeling fit and superior until one day I was overtaken by a Ph.D. student running up the stairs with a rucksack full of bricks on his back.

For me, the film feels more like the three abortive months I spent at teacher training college in Leeds in 1973, or visiting friends at university around 1970 before I went as a mature student. The titles at the beginning say it was made in 1972, but the list of courses, cinema programmes, the name of the person running for election and the dates of rag week clearly date it as 1974.


Among the evocative things are: the dingy, sparsely-furnished accommodation; those electrical appliances; the A/V equipment; the Greenslade gig; the student societies; rag week (would health and safety let them use those floats now?); the cars – I recognise them all; the long gone shops such as Ratners which made the biggest PR mistake ever; “chalk and talk” lectures. And is that George Best who back-passes the ball at the start of the Manchester United match?

I love the background music tracks written especially for the film, accredited to Nick Rhodes, although not ‘that’ Nick Rhodes who would have been only eleven at the time.

It makes three years at university look the wonderful experience it can be, but, interestingly, less than a minute of the film (11.49-12.46) is concerned with academic work.

I have few problems with that. University is supposed to be a shared learning experience. You learn as much socially, by talking things over with other students, as you do from lectures and course materials. If you take away the social, there seems little point in being there.

And they are taking it away. Daughter has not had a good experience at her university this year. Firstly, there was no teaching because the lecturers were on strike, and then the university campus closed half way through the second term because of the coronavirus outbreak. She has been home since then. And for next year, some universities are now announcing that teaching will be online and there will be limited access to tutorials, laboratories, workshops and studios, and few student union activities.

She is doing art. Her particular interest is decorative ceramics. How can you do a degree in art if you can’t use studios and workshops, or show your work to other students? Similar questions arise with laboratory sciences, computing subjects, music and others. Is there any wonder students are beginning to say they are thinking of having a year out? They are not going to be saddled with student debt for lectures and tutorials through Zoom.

That would affect university finances, especially if overseas students don’t come. That’s a big chunk of Britain’s university income. I predict insolvencies in the sector. Will the government bail them out? Probably not. They are hotbeds of liberals and socialists.


MORE ABOUT UMIST

UMIST started out as Manchester Mechanics Institution, then Manchester Technical School and later Manchester Municipal College of Technology. It became a university college in 1956, able to award degrees on behalf of the University of Manchester, and changed its name to UMIST in 1966. It became a completely autonomous university in 1994 but merged back with the University of Manchester in 2004 and is now no more. The Maths and Social Sciences Building is due for demolition. Courses were mainly in the applied sciences, hence the male student majority. Look at that list (at 11.49 in the film): chemical engineering, electrical engineering, chemistry, polymer and fibre science, textile technology, management sciences, ophthalmic optics, mathematics, computation, civil and mechanical engineering, metallurgy, physics, biochemistry, mechanical engineering, building …

Funnily enough, I visited the Maths and Social Sciences building again around 2003 (although I did take the lift this time). As soon as I was inside it came back what a depressing building it was to be in.


Sunday, 17 May 2020

Acornsoft

Another bit of the memoir

BBC Microcomputers

For every multi-megabucks idea, there must be thousands that come to nothing at all. I thought I’d got one once, but it didn’t happen. Within a few months, I was down at the Labour Exchange signing on for unemployment benefit. 

It was educational software. The government had decided every school should have a computer. Generous funding was provided, advice centres were set up, projects started and teachers trained. Most schools bought “The BBC Microcomputer”, a machine commissioned to accompany a television series and computer literacy project. The manufacturer, Acorn, did very well, eventually selling over half a million machines into schools and homes. A subsidiary company, Acornsoft, was also raking it in by supplying games and educational software to go with the BBC machine.

Acornsoft Word Sequencing written by Ann and Russel Wills
Acornsoft Word Sequencing
written by Ann and Russel Wills
Much of this early educational software was unexciting, and some was terrible, but there was so little available it was all in terrific demand. For instance, there was a literacy program called Word Sequencing which simply asked children to rearrange jumbled sentences into the correct order. The example on the cover was “Cobras deadly are snakes”. Another (in correct order) was “Brush your teeth twice a day”. The full set consisted of just eighty-eight fairly random sentences. I suppose it had its benefits, but I would not have been too happy with a maths or language textbook that offered only eighty-eight test questions. I would also expect them to be in some kind of logical progression. Yet, because teachers and parents were naïve and feared missing out on the microcomputer revolution, it sold a lot of copies. They were priced at £9.95 each.

To be fair, educationalists had yet to understand what kinds of computer-based activities were best. Word Sequencing would have been referred to as “drill and practice” because it repetitively “drilled” learners through a sequence of practice questions. It follows the ideas of behavioural psychologists such as B. F. Skinner and their theories of conditioning. Developmental and educational psychologists, however, were sceptical of this approach, and argued that computer-based learning could be more effective by promoting playful exploration or collaboration with others.

More by luck than judgment, I found myself well-placed to work in this area having recently completed a degree in psychology and an M.Sc. in computing. My M.Sc. project had been with programs that handled language, similar to early chatbots. I got a job with a university team researching how computers might help children whose understanding of language had been held back by conditions such as deafness or learning difficulties. These children needed a lot of one-to-one support, and it was thought that computers might be able to help with the workload of psychologists, speech therapists and teachers. The team had collected thousands of carefully structured sentences from established remedial schemes, and I was taken on to write the computer programs that used these materials.

We were not using BBC computers which would not have been up to the task (they had a thousandth the speed and a quarter of a millionth the memory of a modern laptop), but in my own time  I started to think about what might be done with a BBC. One idea came from an early artificial intelligence program called SHRDLU from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was capable of holding written conversations about objects of various shape, size and colour. You could ask it questions and instruct it to move things around.



I came up with around twenty much-simplified versions of the idea, each of which just squeezed into a BBC and made use of its (rather limited) colour graphics. Some posed problems that had to be solved by asking questions and giving instructions.

A sequence of screen shots
A sequence from one of the programs

My supervisor started talking about the programs at academic conferences, which caught the attention of Acornsoft. The managing director came to see us: a tall, young-faced man, precisely how you might imagine a successful computing entrepreneur to be, who uncurled himself languidly from the driving seat of his sporty Jaguar, took one look at the software and said: “I’ll buy it”.

They would pay 25% royalties and, going by Word Sequencing, would expect to ship at least twenty-five thousand during the first year. F-ing hell! Do the maths. Twenty-five per cent of twenty-five thousand at £9.95 a time. How long before I too would be languidly uncurling myself from the driving seat of a sporty Jaguar?

Then the university management heard about it. I was hauled before one of the deputy vice chancellors and firmly told that anything I invented was the intellectual property of the university: it had been developed on university equipment and despite doing it in my own time my contract specified I had no own time.

Acornsoft already had the programs anyway, and we had also proposed a new project under which they would fund my university salary to dream up educational software to create collaborative learning activities over computer networks. We had only vague notions of what these activities might be, but four brand new BBC Microcomputers with as yet unreleased Econet nodes rapidly arrived free from Acornsoft – over two thousand pounds-worth of kit.

Then we waited for the programs to be published. And we waited for the new project agreement to arrive. And we waited longer. And my fixed-term employment expired but Acorn assured us the new agreement would soon be with us, so I worked for almost a month unpaid. And then Acorn ran into financial difficulties due to problems with the new Acorn Electron and Acorn Business Computer and heavy research and development costs, and was broken up and sold off. My programs were never published and the new project never started, and I had to sign on the dole. That was my brave new world of 1984.

For a short time, I really believed I’d made it. It would never have turned me into a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but when the average U.K. house price was still under £30,000, it could have set me up very comfortably.

Acornsoft Elite Space Trading Game
There was just one minor benefit. I still had one of the new BBC computers and used it for games and word processing for six or seven years. I even won my Elite badge. Then my nephew borrowed it for three or four years more. Acorn did ask for all four machines back during the winding-up process (I have no idea what happened to the other three), but I ignored it and never heard anything more. It finally conked out around 2005.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Hedgehog Update

Last month’s video of hedgehogs in the night was popular (view again here), so here is an update with a bit of hedgehog history.

Boris the hedgehog

Some years ago we spotted a tiny hedgehog at the side of the lawn. It was lethargic and not very healthy looking. It remained there for several hours. We put it on straw in a cardboard box with some cat food and water, and kept it in the greenhouse for a few days. At first it slept most of the time. We called it Boris (which at that time raised no association with any other person of that name). It did not need a ventilator.

A few days later, daughter noticed another little hedgehog running along the road on the way home from school (we have very well-educated hedgehogs in our village). It was a good way from the open fields, so it seemed best to rescue that one too. We called it Bear.

Boris is shown above in his cardboard box, and below curled in a glove, with Bear on the ground. Tiny, little, weightless things.

Bear and Boris the young hedgehogs

Bear soon went off on his own, and after a few days Boris was running around in the greenhouse. He was quite smelly, so we gave him a bath and put him in the sun to dry. He climbed out of his box and ran off: a good sign.

Spike's dry hedgehog food Neighbour's cat eating hedgehog food
We made a hedgehog feeding station out of a plastic storage box, and it was visited regularly into the autumn and each year since. One day, noisy crunching revealed quite a large hedgehog inside.

Last year, food continued to be eaten into the winter months, long after hedgehogs should be hibernating, so we bought a low-cost infra-red wildlife camera (a 20MP, 1080p, Apeman HSS for around £70, plus batteries and an SD card) to see if they were still active. It filmed only very fat mice, so we stopped feeding.

This year in early April, wondering whether hedgehogs were active again, or whether it had been only mice all along, we put out the camera again and filmed the hedgehogs in last month’s video. As the old hedgehog feeding station was holed and brittle, we left food in a dish beside the shed. Within thirty minutes it had gone, the culprit, Blacky Whitepaws, caught on camera. It was time to make a new feeding station.


Hedgehog feeding station and infra-red wildlife camera

Here is the new one beside the shed, with the wildlife camera tied to the tree. The feeding station is basically a wood-lined plastic box with a hedgehog-sized hole in the end (cut with a Dremel electric craft tool so as not to split the box), covered with a sheet of roofing felt. The newspaper on the floor is for the hedgehogs to read while eating (as mentioned above, they are very well-educated).


The camera is set to capture ten-second video sequences (there are now nearly a thousand of them), so there are jumps when the clips are stitched together (I could get the old laptop and use Windows Video Editor to make nice fades between the clips but that’s too much bother. I cannot understand why there is only a cut-down version in Windows 10). The assembled video is at the end after the following summary of its content.

The feeding station was visited by a large hedgehog on night one, and from the way it unhesitatingly went into the box, it had probably fed from it last year and knew what it was. It ate half the biscuits and then had a drink. 

The following two weeks were colder nights and there were only cats, mice and birds.

The mice seem to have had a litter of little ones which gradually became more adventurous. After a few days, they inevitably found the food in the feeding station and if you watch carefully you can see them jumping away with biscuits in their mouths and scurrying under the shed.

Stripey Cat Watching Mouse
The cats clearly know about the mice. Stripey Cat lays in wait for ages but, so far as we know, has not caught any yet. Isn’t he handsome! Does that little mouse think he’s handsome too, as if hypnotised by fearful symmetry before being grasped in a deadly throat-hold?
Long Legs watching hedgehog
We are not buying food for mice, so we moved the box to a different position. Two nights later, in slightly warmer weather, a hedgehog appeared in the presence of Long Legs. The camera shows what I’ve read elsewhere: cats and hedgehogs rarely bother each other. After Long Legs had gone, hedgehog returns and gives its ear a scratch, and then returns again after dawn.

Finally, we moved the camera to another position and caught a hedgehog rooting through the vegetation. Nights then became colder again and they have not used the feeding station for a while. Hopefully, by moving the camera around, it might be possible to track down where the hedgehogs are nesting.

It’s not exactly David Attenborough. Blogger Rachel sees hedgehogs all the time in rural Norfolk, and Elizabeth in Oregon (Saved By Words on Wordpress) has skunks, woodchucks, opossums, raccoons and coyotes in her yard. Even in ordinary English town and village gardens, there are things in the night we don’t see. Our cats know but never tell us. Here is the assembled video. The date, time and temperature for each section appear in the black band at the bottom.


Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Night Cats

I am going through the infra-red camera to post a hedgehog update video, which will take a while, but here for now are some stills of cat visitors caught in the night.

I would have loved one of these cameras when I was ten. I could have fixed it to a lamp post or telegraph pole to check up on Geoffrey Bullard. Even better, a drone. I used to dream of having a remote-controlled model aeroplane with a camera so I could make sure he wasn’t hanging around looking for bullying opportunities before I went out.

Anyway, back to the cats. Who, after all, does not delight in pictures of cats (apart from Geoffrey Bullard)?

Phoebe is not actually a visitor because she lives here and does not go out at night. Little Black Kitty lives in the house at the back where she climbs up and sits on the upstairs window sill looking superior. Long Legs lives next-door-but-one. We have never seen any of the others in daytime and have no idea where they live. I do like Stripey Cat. He is wonderful and will have a major role in the hedgehog update video. As will Long Legs.

Phoebe and Stripey Cat
Phoebe
Stripey Cat

Blacky Whitepaws and Black Kitty
Black Kitty

Stripey Whitepaws and Long Legs
Long Legs

Patchy Face

Patchy Face
George (left) and Phoebe a few years ago

Ginger George and Phoebe

One other regular visitor, Ginger George, has not apparently been in the night recently. He is easily mistaken for Phoebe, even by us sometimes, but bigger. He’s the sort that sneaks into other cats’ houses to steal their food. He once squeezed in through our kitchen window. Completely fearless. The neighbours come round here to complain and blame Phoebe. 

You have no idea how much I had to struggle with the html to set this out like this.

Friday, 1 May 2020

New Month Old Post - Carolus II Dei Gratia Mag Br Fra et Hib Rex

(first posted 5th May, 2015)

Charles II shilling 1668

It is by a long chalk the oldest thing I own apart from the worse-than-senseless blocks and stones in the garden - a 1668 Charles II silver shilling. It is quite worn and the King’s face is damaged but the images are clear. A cautious numismatist would probably describe it as being in F or ‘Fine’ condition, just short of VF or ‘Very Fine’.

The ‘head’ side or obverse is inscribed “CAROLUS II DEI GRATIA” – Charles II by the grace of God – which continues on the ‘tail’ side or reverse, “MAG BR FRA ET HIB REX” – King of Great Britain, France and Ireland. The claim to France was historical but one of the shields on the reverse still displays the fleur de lys, the emblem of the King of France. The other shields portray the three English lions passant (i.e. walking, some heraldrists hold them to be leopards), the Scottish lion rampant (i.e. standing) and the Hibernian (Irish) harp. I think the shilling is the variation known as ‘second bust’ but I have insufficient experience to be sure.

The coin was struck – literally because it is a hammered coin – almost three hundred and fifty years ago, which is so long ago it is hard to imagine. It is dated ten years after the death of Oliver Cromwell and a couple of years after the Great Fire of London. Pepys was writing his diary, John Dryden was Poet Laureate, and Isaac Newton was discovering the calculus or ‘fluxions’ and about to be appointed a Cambridge professor of mathematics. England would soon be at war with the Dutch.

I can tell you how I came by it. My dad swapped it for a pair of boots with a farming acquaintance who found it by chance at the side of a newly ploughed field, the exact location now unknown. It was rare chance because this was well before the days of metal detecting. By now the boots will have dulled and decayed, but the shilling still shines.

A collector wanting a similar example for his or her collection today would have to pay around a hundred and fifty pounds – it could be two or three times that without the damage to the face. I don’t really care. Why sell it?

But what was it worth in the seventeenth century? It depends how you estimate it. In terms of purchasing power it would be the equivalent of around just seven pounds fifty today, but in terms of what someone might earn it would be worth between one and two hundred pounds. It depends whether you use retail price inflation or earnings inflation.

I turn it in my fingers and wonder what other hands held it, and how many. Placing it in history is easy but we can never know who owned it, who it was passed on to, what it bought, who lost it, what its loss meant, how it was lost or for how long it lay in the Howdenshire field where it was re-discovered.

Could it have been lost in drunken reverie? Perhaps it was some unfortunate farm labourer’s wage for the day, or a ‘King’s shilling’ taken by someone newly enlisted in the army or navy. Or did it belong to someone for whom the loss might have been a little more bearable, accidently dropped perhaps by a rich landowner and his farm foreman while paying a group of workers?

Some things we can never know but one day there may be an answer my final question, “Where will it be in another three hundred and fifty years, in 2370?” That is a date that seems like science fiction.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Review - Margaret Drabble: The Millstone

Margaret Drabble:
The Millstone (4*)

Another from the Penguin Decades series – novels that helped shape modern Britain – although my copy is a different edition.

It was first published in 1965 and set in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ when, we are led to believe, sexual liberation was well on the way, at least in London. Rosamund, the protagonist, becomes pregnant after a one-night stand, her one and only sexual experience. Being apparently confident and independent she chooses to have and raise the baby, a girl. She keeps the father’s identity secret from her small circle of friends, and from the father too, and they all admire her determination. 

Well, I don’t know about London, but in my part of Yorkshire, in 1965, it would have been outrageous. Any young woman who got pregnant out of wedlock, no matter how independently minded, would have had a very difficult time indeed. I think of a pretty girl at school whose boyfriend, as rumour had it, was unable to resist her comely body, lovely dark hair and earthy name, or maybe her, his. It was whispered, and then yelled with thoughtless hilarity around town, that they had tried to use a rain mate* as a home-made contraceptive. More home making soon followed. No G.C.E. ‘A’ Levels for her. They were shotgunned together and moved away. Had they stayed around, she would for ever have been known as Mrs. Rain Mate.

In the book, Rosamund is the well-educated daughter of socialist, academic parents, living alone in their large apartment while they are abroad. She is also an academic herself (yes, another one), completing a Ph.D. thesis on Elizabethan sonnets. She narrates her story in intelligent, self-possessed sentences with the word “I” appearing perhaps twenty times on every page. At first I had reservations about this, but it reflects her character. It also betrays her shyness and uncertainties. She is not as confident and independent as she pretends. She is diffident with friends, cannot confide feeling, things are left unsaid and commitments unmade. It is very clever writing.

Yet, Rosamund is capable enough to muddle her way through nineteen-sixties NHS waiting rooms and hospitals, and encounters with other mothers across the class divide. She knows she is treated with more respect because of her address and appearance, but knows how to get what she wants when she isn’t. Although the baby changes her life and her outlook, she still completes her thesis and is offered an academic post.

The millstone of the title is not, as one might first think, the baby. The reference is biblical, to Matthew 18:6: it is less distressing to drown with a millstone round one’s neck than to suffer the consequences of hurting a little one (my interpretation). Rosamund would have found it unbearable not to have the baby and bring it up herself. In essence, the novel celebrates maternity and motherhood, although not in any sentimental way. Rosamund retains her academic detachment throughout – none of the “beauty’s rose might never die” stuff of her Elizabethan sonnets. Even so, it is unlikely I would have been persuaded to read it as a teenager when it first came out.

* rain mate: a foldable, waterproof head covering worn mainly by women, usually made from thin, transparent plastic film.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

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