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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Just Finished Reading: Little Girl Lost by Richard Aleas (FP: 2004)

P.I John Blake could hardly believe his eyes. Miranda Sugarman, his High School girlfriend was in the paper – looking just as she had 10 years previously when he’s seen her last. That’s because they had used her High School Year Book shot. Well, they could hardly have used her most recent pictures shot by the police before they took her body away. Especially when she had been shot twice in the head at point blank range. If that wasn’t mystery enough for John to wrap his head around there was the fact that her body had been recovered from the roof of a strip joint – a particularly seedy strip joint – where Miranda had worked and she wasn’t behind the bar. What had happened in the intervening 10 years? When Miranda left New York she was going to College to become a doctor. What had happened to change her direction so drastically and who was responsible for her particularly bloody and apparently senseless death. John was determined to find out no matter what it cost. His Boss warned him against such a personal case, the strip club owner warned him not to interfere, the police warned him not to take the law into his own hands and, just before he lost consciousness the club bouncer warned him that, next time, he’d kill him. But John has something to prove and he’s young enough, still green enough and romantic enough to think he can do just that.

I’ve read about a dozen of the Hard Case crime novels so far – pretty evenly split between classic 40’s and 50’s tales and more up to date versions of noir themes. Almost without fail the older books have been consistently entertaining and the more modern books consistently poor. This book definitely breaks that mould. Bang up to date but with a lovely noir feel to it, a simple but rather convoluted plot, flawed, shady but complex characters (even the main gangster has understandable motivations that can be appreciated if not approved of) and enough red herrings to start a fish shop. More than once I thought I had worked things out only to find that I had been misdirected and was off down the wrong street full of confidence. Not only was the dialogue often fizzing away even in casual conversation but the asides and ‘off camera’ comments were equally noir-ish. This was my particular favourite: They’d gotten there quickly, but there’s no such thing as quickly enough when you’ve been shot in the head with hollow point bullets….. and that was on page 25 with another 200 pages to go. Needless to say that I enjoyed this immensely. Luckily I have the sequel with I’ll be reading in the next few weeks. Unfortunately Mr Aleas has only two books to his name. Shame that. Real shame. Recommended for all hard-nosed crime fans.     

Monday, November 13, 2017

Just Finished Reading: The English Rebel – One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties by David Horspool (FP: 2009)

We Brits are a belligerent bunch. Not only will we pick a fight with just about anyone but we never know when we’re beaten (or invaded) and never take a slight or insult lying down. We’ll fight each other and we’ll fight anyone who has the temerity to tell us what to do - at least that’s what it feels like reading through this fascinating history of rebellion. Starting with the 20+ year resistance to the Norman Invasion (they probably regretted invading us not long after they arrived), the all too regular power grabs from the friends and family of the rulers, the Baron’s rebellion that led to the signing of Magna Carta in 1215, The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, the Wars of the Roses (incorporating the uprisings led by Jack Cade and Perkin Warbeck), the arrival of Mary Tudor and the death of the Earl of Essex who plotted with Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Catesby and the Gunpowder Plot, the Civil Wars, the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Mutiny’s and Strikes throughout the 18th Century, The Chartists, The Suffragettes, the General Strike of 1926, the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and ending with the Poll Tax Riots in 1990. All in all quite a breathless ride!

I was impressed that I’d at least heard of most of the incidents discussed in these 400 pages although one or two events were new to me. I did enjoy learning more about (and the links between) popular protests from the 18th century on. Most of the earlier stuff – pre-modern – normally concerned grabs for power within the existing power elite. Although an important part of our history it actually interested me less than the more popular or class based revolts and rebellions of peasants and the working class. From the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution a more political revolution was never really far below the surface. People like the Luddites and the Chartists showed that the workers could never be taken for granted or ever completely subdued. Especially after the horrors of the French Revolution the upper class of Britain never slept in their beds in total ease. Taken more for granted these days there is still that vague fear that the ‘lower orders’ might turn on their ‘betters’ if pushed far enough. The periodic riots in some major cities are proof of that. The English Rebel is far from dead!

As an overview (it could be little more with 400 pages covering almost 1000 years) this is a solid introduction to political unrest in England – Scotland, Ireland and Wales need their own similar book to cover their individual rebellious history. I shall be examining some of the more modern rebellions in more detail later (indeed I’m reading about the 1926 General Strike presently) so there’s much more rebellion to come. This certainly helped to focus future reading and future investigation and helped me define any likely post-retirement PhD project a little more. Recommended for anyone interested in rebels or rebellions.     

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Do we need to teach children joined-up handwriting?

By David Molloy for BBC News

11 November 2017

The US state of Illinois has passed a law requiring school students to learn joined-up handwriting, or "cursive", overriding the governor's veto. It is no longer a requirement in US schools, and some countries have dropped the skill from the curriculum or made it optional. Why, then, do some - like the UK - still insist on it in a digital age? Shouldn't children learn to type effectively instead?

While victorious Illinois senators claimed the skill was essential, the reality is that many adults no longer write much by hand. A 2012 survey of 2,000 adults by UK mailing firm Docmail found that on average, it had been 41 days since respondents wrote - and that two-thirds of us only write short notes like shopping lists. The clear, blocky "print" style that children are first taught is enough for that purpose. And for an increasing number of young children, that's where their training ends. US states such as Indiana have dropped joined-up writing entirely; Finland phased out handwriting lessons; and Indian schools are reportedly abandoning it. The usual argument is that the time investment could be used to teach modern skills such as typing or coding instead. But is there a benefit to hours spent painstakingly copying the joined alphabet?

Teaching children to write by hand seems to have some advantages that typing on a keyboard does not. A 2005 paper by researchers at Aix-Marseille University compared typing and writing in children aged three to five to see if there was a difference later in recognising the letters. Their evidence suggested that writing by hand helped the older ones recall the letters better. A study in 2012 went further, putting five-year-old children who had yet to learn to read and write through similar tests - writing, typing, or tracing letters. Then, they were shown images of the same letters and shapes while an MRI machine scanned their brains. In the children who wrote - but not in those who typed - an area of the brain used in reading activated. Researchers concluded that it's possible - but not proven - that the physical act of writing might help children learn to read. "The motor control is important," said Dr Karin James, one of the authors. "Doing things is important in setting up brain systems that are important for cognitive development." Later research from Dr James also suggests that learning joined letters by watching someone else write them - rather than doing it for yourself - does not provide the same benefit.

One argument for the importance joined-up writing is that it's usually faster and more fluid for note-taking than printing letters. But a skilled typist can copy words down even faster - so after early childhood, is there any benefit? The evidence so far suggests that writing by hand retains its benefits for memorisation long beyond early childhood development. A 2014 study from UCLA, titled The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard, found exactly that. It studied laptop use among university students, and said it could be "impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing". It tested students by asking them to take notes from a lecture, using either a laptop or a pen and paper, and then tested their recall on both facts and deeper conceptual questions. Essentially, the study found that students taking long-form notes on pen and paper tended to process the information on a deeper level. "When somebody's telling you something and you're writing it down by hand ... you paraphrase it... you somehow have ownership of it and put it in your own words," Dr James said of the study. Typed notes, though faster, tended to be closer to lecture transcripts than personal notes.

There are also cultural issues. Proponents of cursive argue that hundreds of years of manuscripts could not be read by a generation who never learned it. We also tend to view "a fine hand" favourably for its elegance, and careful calligraphy remains popular on elaborate documents and wedding invitations. In the same way, bad handwriting leads to poorer test scores, according to a study by the Carnegie Foundation. The same thoughts and ideas expressed "in a less legible version of a paper" tended to be scored more harshly. Meanwhile for students with dyslexia, typing can help significantly increase exam grades, according to the British Dyslexia Association. And those with physical impairments have long used technology to record their thoughts. For now, there isn't an international consensus. And with many hours of classroom time spent on traditional cursive writing, the benefits, some argue, may not be worth it.

[I think it would be a real shame if we stopped teaching children to write well. Sure, typing is a useful skill of which I’m rather jealous of those who can, but good cursive script is a thing of beauty. Personally my handwriting isn’t brilliant if I’m just taking brief notes or I’m in a hurry. Given a bit of time and a modicum of effort though and I think my handwriting isn’t all that bad. What a skill to lose though. Imagine a future, not that far away, when reading other people’s handwriting (presumably long dead people) becomes increasingly difficult or impossible because no one writes any more. Imagine the information lost to time…..]

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