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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

So many books to read..... but I need to sleep..... (sometimes).

Just Finished Reading: Hitler’s War by Harry Turtledove (FP: 2009)

Europe, September 1938. Using the assassination of a German politician as an excuse Hitler orders his armed forces to launch an all-out attack across the Czech border. With immediate effect both the British and French declare war – hence starting WW2 a whole year ‘early’. Whilst the fighting begins to ramp up in Czechoslovakia the on-going conflict in Spain turns up the gears as fresh supplies arrive from both Germany and the Soviet Union. As French forces tentatively move across the German border and British forces move up to their new front line in France on the Belgian border the Czechs finally fall to the German onslaught led by its new Panzer tanks with close support from the terrifying Stuka dive-bomber. Within days the German forces retake its territory and move through the Low Countries threatening French soil. The question on everyone’s mind is whether the combined forces of France, England and their respective colonies can hold back the full might of the Wehrmacht.

I’ve been avoiding Turtledove for some time now because I had become bored and irritated with his writing style. Despite being a reasonable storyteller he has the annoying habit of constant repetition – characteristics of the main players revealed over and over and over again, constant reference to events that occurred earlier in the book or, if you read far enough into his numerous series, things that happened in the previous book or the three before that. As you can imagine that gets tedious rather fast! One good thing about this book – being the first in the series – is that the repetition never gets to the level where I wanted to throw the book against the wall in frustration. There were times, many, many times, where I rolled my eyes and sighed after yet another mention of a Stuka pilots milk drinking habit or the fact that neither the Russian or German troops could speak freely without the possibility of being ‘disappeared’ for being politically untrustworthy but it didn’t stop me largely enjoying this novel. OK, I’m highly unlikely to read any more in the series, but I still found this interesting and fun enough to make my way through just under 500 pages in quick order.

Being a Brit a few things did stand out. First was the fact that UK air defence was much better than anything the Germans had encountered before and they got their asses handed to them in early engagements (and even more so in ‘our’ Battle of Britain) particularly the early Stuka attacks against mainland targets. It was interesting that the first attacks were beaten off by a Hurricane/Gladiator combination. The second thing that struck me was the loss of Gibraltar to Spanish forces. Now I’ll be the first to admit that a detailed knowledge of the Rock in WW2 is not something that I can claim but the fact the Gibraltar remained firmly in British hands throughout WW2 must stand for something. With the base their being vital to holding the Med it would have been defended with everything we had. Losing it the way the book presented just didn’t seem realistic at all. Despite everyone mentioned above though I did actually enjoy this breezy read and it proved to be a reasonable start to a stack of 10 Alternate-History books I had planned for the early summer. Obviously much more to come.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Just Finished Reading: In Other Worlds – SF and the Human Imagination by Margaret Atwood (FP: 2011)

I’m a sucker for books on SF which is by far my favourite genre (though historical fiction is fast catching up). As an added bonus I thought I’d try the much talked about Ms Atwood. I thought I’d read something by her years ago but now I’m not so sure. He style is so unique that I’d definitely remember it if I had.

Anyway, to the book itself. This turned out to be only in part about SF and was probably in equal part about her growing up in Canada and becoming an author herself in later life. The book consisted of (largely though not exclusively I think) a collection of slightly modified articles about SF previously published elsewhere. In part one she covered (kind of) super heroes in relation to her very earliest ‘creations’ as a child, how both heaven and hell had to keep relocating to keep at least one step ahead of real-world explorers and (one of my favourite bits) the evolution of Utopia and Dystopia over the centuries. This was followed by various book ‘reviews’ both classic and modern which she analysed with great wit including She by Rider Haggard, Dr Moreau by Wells, Brave New World and a rather intriguing book called Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age by Bill McKibben. The last section consisted of 5-6 very short pieces of fiction.

Despite its scatter gun approach I really liked this little volume. I’d heard Atwood speak on TV a few times and found that she writes exactly as she speaks – or so it seemed to me. Her special unique voice certainly came across loud and clear in every paragraph here and was honestly a delight to sit back and enjoy. It really did feel like I was having a fascinating conversation with a very well read and very intelligent eloquent woman. As I said, a delight. I smiled, I laughed, I nodded sagely in agreement, I gasped at an incisive comment or observation and I downloaded the covers of most of her books to remind me to start picking them up. That’s a warning, by the way. If you do read this you might end up buying her entire back catalogue – just like I’m going to. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

'Grunting' teens need school help, says head teacher

From BBC News

11 April 2014

Schools should do more to ensure teenagers are not "grunting and monosyllabic" so they can succeed in life, a former aide to Tony Blair says. Peter Hyman, now a head teacher, told the TES it was a moral issue that young people be taught to speak eloquently. He also criticised the government's decision to downgrade speaking and listening in GCSE English. The government said it wanted all pupils to be able to speak in public, make presentations and debate.

It added that its English curriculum in primary and secondary schools places a far greater emphasis on the spoken word. But changes to GCSE English means there are no longer any marks awarded in the final exam for speaking and listening. Mr Hyman is a former speech-writer for Tony Blair who now runs School 21 - a free school in Newham, east London. He told the Times Educational Supplement that speaking and listening was an "undervalued area of literacy". Instead, the spoken word should be "built into the DNA of the school", he said. "Speaking eloquently is a moral issue because to find your voice both literally and metaphorically and be able to communicate your ideas and your passions is crucial to how they are going to be a success in the world," he said. "If you can speak and articulate yourself properly that will happen. But it's also the number-one issue that employers put in all their surveys: they want good oral communication. We've got to dispel the myth of the grunting teenager, the monosyllabic teenager that make employers say, 'I've got this person who I know on paper is quite good, but they can't string a sentence together.'"

Despite its importance, Mr Hyman said the general trend was moving further away from encouraging pupils to develop their speaking and communication skills. The Department for Education said in a statement: "The primary curriculum is clear that all teachers should develop their pupils' vocabulary and provide extra support where necessary. Speaking also plays a vital role in all other subjects, including maths and science. In addition, we have given all schools the freedom to set the length of the school day, with many already using these freedoms to run extra-curricular activities, such as debating competitions." It added that in primary school, children were expected, to be able to listen and respond appropriately to adults and their peers, ask relevant questions to extend their understanding and knowledge and articulate and justify answers, arguments and opinions.

[Well, that certainly made me laugh out loud! Eloquence and the ability to get across ideas – in other words communicate effectively – is a ‘moral’ issue. Really? Of course what made me really laugh was the inevitable “it's also the number-one issue that employers put in their surveys”, because as we all know the only (and, it would seem, not even the primary) function of education is to serve the Corporate Machine and to be rewarded with a ‘good job’ until your services are no longer required when you’ll be thrown on to the scrap heap without so much as a thank you because it’s a tough world out there and we should all just learn to deal with it etc, etc…. Of course it’s all very well teaching teenagers – or even children – to speak well but would that entail them being able to think and reason well too? Or is that just a little bit too dangerous to a system that prefers people to be educated but unthinking drones? Is it really eloquence they’re after or the appearance of eloquence without the intellectual substance to back it up. The ‘monosyllabic teenager’ (if they even exist) is a creation of the very system that is now criticising their existence. To change that it’s not anywhere near as simple as changing the teenager. You need to change the system that produces them. Which, of course, is never going to happen.]