Monday, 24 September 2018

Summer Reading Round-Up

When I was a bartender I used to read, on average, a book a week. Now I consider myself lucky if I get through a book in a month. Here's my summer reading round-up:

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

As you folks probably know better than I do, a 9-5 job and the demands of a small child are not conducive to keeping up with the latest developments in Chinese Science Fiction. Thus, I am only on the second volume of Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem sequence. The titular forest is a fabulous metaphor for a particularly depressing answer to what is sometimes called the Fermi Paradox. (Paradoxically, the Fermi Paradox isn't actually a paradox).    

Where's Spot? by Eric Hill

Spot isn't the star of 'Where's Spot?' On first reading, you wonder whether the author is going to pull a Beckettian swerve and have the eponymous hero absent: a Godot-like anti-presence. On the 199th reading, even the planned surprises in 'Where's Spot?' cease to be surprising (especially now that Finn Jr has ripped off two thirds of the flaps). However, a quest narrative with a strong female lead and a false ending/twist (no spoilers) is a Gold Standard that fiction writers consistently fail to meet. And Eric Hill did it in fewer than fifty words!  

Who's Who When Everyone Is Someone Else by CD Rose

When my aunt asked me for recommendations for her book club, this was my immediate suggestion. The tale of a minor academic visiting a street-shifting unnamed European city to deliver lectures on unread books to dwindling numbers of attendees. The reader gets to sit in on each of these lectures and explore the city and meet a number of its quirky inhabitants. 

With my currently limited schedule for reading books aimed at adults, I am looking forward to revisiting WWWEISE and, if you already know how Where's Spot? ends and your book group is divided on the merits of Chinese science fiction, I recommend you check out the latest from CD Rose.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Three Ways to Hinder Freedom

Like Schopenhauer, I tend to think of freedom as an essentially negative concept. Freedom is a sort of absence of hindrance. Most obvious in the physical sense - freedom is not being constrained in any way. In case you haven't got round to reading Schopenhauer's The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, I won't reveal how he goes on to demonstrate that the freedoms of morality and intellect are similarly negative concepts deriving ultimately from self-consciousness. We'll just take it as an assumption.

I've been thinking about freedom quite a bit recently because my son Finn Jr has just turned one year old and is demonstrating considerably more will than in the early months.

Happy Birthday, Finn Jr!  

Like most humans, Finn Jr just wants to be free. He doesn't want to be constrained by encumbrances such as clothing, bathtime, naptime, cupboard door locks and stairgates.

My job as parent is basically to be the hindrance to his freedom. At this age - mobile but pre-linguistic - this essentially means turning myself into a literal physical barrier between my son and the various dangers of the house. My reasoning often runs thusly: if I lie down and let him poke me in the face, at least he won't be swinging on the door of washing machine and ramming drawers closed on his tiny fingers. This activity (along with following him around the garden steering him away from the nettles, foxgloves, rhubarb leaves and rose briars) now takes up most of my own 'free' time.

I think of this as 'Stage One' hindrance of freedom.

Stage Two will consist of purely vocal control. It's marvellous to see parents of older children who have instilled a modicum of obedience in their offspring. Enough to make them safely follow instructions to 'Stay in the Park'. I also see plenty of counterexamples: children who wilfully ignore their parents' sage advice. I strongly suspect wilfulness is an innate quality and the amount a child has is down to a genetic lottery.

Once a child is significantly older and off enjoying life out of earshot of the parent, I guess both parties start to experience freedom. In this third stage, the only way a parent can hinder that free activity is by whatever ethical system they have managed to impart to the child. 

Not being of a religious bent, I don't get an ethical system off the shelf. Which is good news in terms of eating pork and avoiding casual misogyny, but rather labour intensive as I have to research and devise one from scratch.

The second of Schopenhauer's two fundamental problems of ethics is concerned with the basis of morality and this seemed like a good starting point.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Back to College

When I was a teenager, I knew everything. Twenty years later, I have many doubts. If things carry on this way, by the time I am seventy, I could be as wise as Socrates: who was certain only that he didn't know anything. 

With this in mind, it may seem odd that I have been made a mentor to the office apprentice - surely it should be the other way around? In order to become a mentor, I had to complete a short course at the local further education college.

Further education colleges have changed a bit since my day. Between 1996 and 2003, I spent a happy few years dropping in to (and out of) the colleges of Dorset and south Somerset, studying a plethora of subjects and making some good friends. The biggest change was the banks of computers everywhere and the rigorous signing in programme. I thought of the leftist anarchists that used to wander on to campus in Yeovil College for a debate, they wouldn't get very far at this establishment.

After my identity had been sufficiently verified and a VISITOR lanyard strung around my neck, I was shepherded into a glass box where another half dozen or so mentors were waiting. The glass box was to screen out the noise of the computers that filled the rest of the room. 

In time-honoured tradition, we had to wait while a technician was found to fix the link between the laptop and the electronic whiteboard. There was some uneasy ice-breaking introductory remarks. We had to say our names and what we hoped to get out of the course - "an afternoon off work" was probably the truthful answer in most cases.

I managed to alienate myself early on by making a joke that relied on knowledge of the Odyssey. The lecturer was explaining that the term 'mentor' comes from the tutor that Odysseus left in charge of his son when he went to fight in the Trojan war.

"...and we all know how it ended for Telemachus!" I quipped.

But nobody did.

So I had to explain that, upon Odysseus's return, father and son set about slaughtering all the men in the palace that have come there to court Penelope (who in fairness to them, has been essentially single for 20 years).

I kept quiet after that.
Couldn't find my copy of the Odyssey. So this'll have to do.


Saturday, 28 April 2018

Leaf Encounter

Many have struggled to define Englishness. The anthropologist Kate Fox and the broadcaster Jeremy Paxman have book length studies on the subject. A fondness for village greens and cricket may be invoked, as might: picnicking at the seaside, a tolerance for queuing and a national obsession with tea. It has been remarked before that you can tell a true-hearted Englishperson, because they will make you tea once and then always remember how you take it. Never lie about how you take your tea, you may not get a chance to revoke it. I speak from experience.

For reasons apparently mysterious to anyone else who has ever tried it, I drink only very weak gunpowder green leaf tea made with the first pour of a still boiling kettle into a warmed porcelain mug. To me, this method makes a beautiful golden-coloured brew that tickles the tongue with a peppery freshness and leaves a lingering honey-sweetness on the palate. However, an ex-girlfriend of mine always described it as “...that fucking pondwater you drink...” so: to each their own.  

The perfect cuppa?

On my first day at what I still call ‘my new job’ despite having been there 14 months, I went in armed with my own porcelain cup and 100g of the Tea Junction’s finest gunpowder green.

Obviously, the last thing a person should do when attempting to ingratiate himself with his new colleagues who have kindly offered to make him a cup of tea is announce that they all have to learn a new method of making tea. So my plan was to get in first with the offer to make a round of teas, memorise how everyone took theirs and then just have hot water top-ups for the rest of the day. However, as I was settling in, someone else got their offer of making tea in first. When asked how I take mine, I panicked and said ‘white no sugar’.

Naturally, the kindly man who was making the tea committed this to memory and for the next two months I either had to decline his offer of tea or pretend I was so engrossed in my work that I had forgotten about the brew he made me so I could surreptitiously pour it away and make my own. He left the company after I’d been there two months so fortunately neither of us had to go through the embarrassment of me owning up to my nervous lie.

The reason behind the lie was of course the clash created by an intensely individualistic person trying desperately not to seem different from anyone else - and ,if you’re still looking for a defining characteristic of Englishness, it might be staring you in the face.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Changeling Children and Poisoned Milk

Each night, I read Michael Rosen's 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' aloud to my son, Finn Jr. It's one of the few children's books that meet his exacting standards. I no longer need the book to prompt the words as I can quote each verse verbatim, which is good because I get to look at Helen Oxenbury's whimsical illustrations.

In anticipation of a future where night time stories have a little more psychological depth, I have begun to research Faerie stories. These are the stories of the otherworld that mirrors our own and is peopled by immortal creatures who look human, but envy our youth and promise and our ability to change. The stories are told from the mountainous Himalayas to the craggy coasts of Ireland. Ancient versions of the myths are recorded on clay tablets in Sumerian (the written language common to Babylon and Nineveh in the 3rd Millennium BCE). Modern versions can be found in the writings of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clark. As with all folklore, there is no urtext and the stories vary by time and location. But all inform our common humanity. 

Take the story of Lilitu - alluded to in poems associated with the Gilgamesh cycle and later appearing as the succubus Lilith in Jewish mythology - this Babylonian Faerie lives in the otherworld and cannot raise children of her own because of her venomous breastmilk. She longs for a child and so steals into the world of humans at night and suckles human infants. Those babies that are suckled by Lilitu take their fill of poisoned milk at night, refuse to suckle at their mother's breast by day and inevitably die. 

You can see how this works as a supernatural explanation of high infant mortality - a death rate that was most likely due to the crowded conditions and poor sanitation in your average Mesopotamian city. Blame the elves not the city governors. Although there is an underlying theme of demonisation of the childless woman. 

The myth of the 'Changeling' is another story that features heavily in Faerie folklore. Here a human child is swapped for an immortal Faerie that has been enchanted to look like the stolen baby. The Faeries raise the child in the otherworld. The parents lose out on the youth and promise that a new life represents.

If you are concerned that your baby might be a Changeling, the traditional way to prove it is to boil water in an eggshell. Human babies cannot speak, but changelings can. The Changeling child will be so intrigued by your peculiar eggshell water boiling actions that he will ask what you are doing. The dark side of all this is that Changelings could be abandoned in the forest. The myth may hint at a darker reality of infanticide in times of famine and the stories humans tell themselves to justify
their most evil actions.

As interesting as all this research has proved, I don't think I'm going to be reading Finn Jr any of these stories anytime soon. For the time being, I think we'll stick with hunting bears.

" shiny wet nose, two big furry ears..."

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Things My Son Knows That I Don't

For part of my degree in linguistics, I had to do a course in phonetics. The phonetics professor, Ken, was a friendly chap with a good sense of humour. For two hours a week, he had to stand at the front of a class full of linguistics undergraduates sounding a selection of the 600 or so linguistic noises that are used in human languages. We had to write down the symbol and description of the sound he was making. This went on for a whole term. His wife died the year I studied with him, but he kept coming in: chanting his noises while we students frantically tried to listen for whether this particular non-velar alveolar fricative was voiced or unvoiced.

I've been thinking about Ken a lot in the last few weeks as I listen to my son, Finn Jr, produce a variety of pre-linguistic sounds - he's particularly good at uvular rolls.

There's a particular fact about first language acquisition that most linguists take for granted, but other parents look at you like you're mad if you mention it: every child is born knowing all the possible human linguistic sounds, but they forget the ones that they don't hear used around them. My four-and-a-half-month-old son currently has knowledge of all 600 or so phonemes - just like my old phonetics professor! But, over the next year, he will forget all but the 40 or so that are used in English.

The international phonetic alphabet. These symbols can be combined to transcribe the phonetics of any language.

You also probably think that I am barking mad - ascribing such knowledge to a babe in arms who can't sit up without the aid of a Bumbo - so here's a brief rundown of the argument.

Parents have insufficient knowledge to teach a baby how to make linguistic sounds. (This is the point where other parents of babies can get a bit offended).

The average parent may say "[m],[m]" to their child and be ecstatic when the infant says "mama" back. But at what point did the parent pass on knowledge of when to open and close the velum and whether or not to sound the vocal cords? The complexity of the child's linguistic behaviour is far beyond the ability of the parent to impart.   

I spent a term of my University education trying to learn the human linguistic sounds and I only just about managed to master the consonants (except the clicks) and I never learned to tell the difference between a rounded unvoiced vowel and an unrounded unvoiced vowel without looking at the shape of the lips. And I was being taught by an expert, remember. 

Despite how tricky the whole subject of phonetics is to learn: any baby can learn any language. That is to say, if you kidnapped Finn Jr (please don't, his mother would kill me) and had him raised by a Japanese-speaking or Swahili-speaking family: he would grow up speaking that language.

The nativist claim that infants are born with the knowledge of all phonemes and forget the ones that they don't hear is less fantastical than the belief that parents are somehow able to pass on knowledge that they don't possess.

But you try bringing up Ockham's Razor with the other mums and dads at messy play... 

Finn Jr voicing some of the 600 linguistic sounds he knows.


Saturday, 16 September 2017

Shelf Indulgence

Soon after we moved, I decided to put up some bookshelves in our new house. I spent a pleasant afternoon sanding and painting some second-hand shelving units, nailing them to the walls and smugly posting pictures of them on social media.

Eagle-eyed readers will spot Deborah the Giraffe subtly placed where I don't have to look at her from my spot on  the sofa

(If you're nosy enough to have zoomed in, you are probably wondering why the Myths and Legends of the British Isles isn't next to Lady Gregory's Irish Myths and Legends. Truth is: the shelving project is a work in progress and I haven't bothered sorting them all properly yet.)

It was a lovely sunny day, so we took Finn Jr out for a walk. I bought myself a bottle of wine that I planned to drink as a well-deserved reward for the hour of DIY that I had put in. 

Upon our return, I discovered that every single electrical socket in the house had mysteriously stopped working. Because of the subtle foreshadowing ("...nailing...walls...") that I included in the introductory paragraph, you may guess where this is leading but, at the time, this was a total mystery. 

Charlie questioned whether my putting up of pictures and shelves could be the root of the problem, but I explained that I had carefully examined the region and convinced myself that any wiring was running in some trunking that I had spotted to the right of where I wanted to position my shelves. You can see it for yourself in the picture above (next to Deborah the Giraffe).

We had the problem examined, first by my pal Raul and then by an electrician. Everyone was stumped. The electrician couldn't work out why there was a fault on two neutral circuits and was getting ready to rewire the entire house. In passing, I mentioned Charlie's theory that my DIY efforts might be responsible. There was a moment of stunned silence as Raul and the electrician tried to work out why I hadn't brought this up earlier. I explained about my observation that the wire went into some trunking. 

Turns out a fuse box has more than one wire coming out of it. If you're ever planning to put up some shelves. Remember: there are loads of wires buried in the wall - especially directly above the fuse box. By a million to one chance, I had nailed directly through two different neutral wires on the same circuit.

To fix the problem, the electrician had to remove floorboards in the upper floor of the house. And that's how we discovered that we've got asbestos in the ceiling...