Wednesday, 15 April 2015

It’s Not Easy, Being Green ...

About a year or so ago the local authority delivered big green wheelie bins to every household within their purview.  These are the size of a kennel for quite a large dog.  At the time I thought we’d never manage to fill the container to the top – how wrong can you be?
  However, although our own recycling stuffs the bin to the gunnels every month, the Tetrapak cartons, plastics, tins and so on which go into it all have to be washed. This in turn takes energy in the form of water, both hot and cold.
  I guess it’s worth it, otherwise our stingy council wouldn’t bother, but there must be further energy expended in the recycling process itself – as long as the material isn’t being compacted and shipped off to China. Its ultimate destination seems to be subject to the Official Secrets Act.
  But not everyone makes the effort.
  Here, we’re apparently to receive purple bins for glass. These will be filled with ease: some here trot off to the bottle banks twice a week. On the negative side, apart from the noise, yet another bin will make our patio impassable. There will be five of the Dalek-like monsters sitting there.  The current four are food and garden waste for compost, one for paper and cardboard, a general household bin and the big green monster.
  I made the error of ordering a smaller-sized paper bin.  Big mistake. If the wind blows when I’m on one of my shredding missions there’s a snow-like scattering of cross-cut paper fragments lying around, like confetti after a wedding.

There’s being green and then there’s being a Green. There’s a difference between the two. The Greens’ policies appear optimistic but, one fears, unrealistic.  They stress public transport, but economic issues underpin it. Our buses and trains are lamentable. Run by diverse companies, nowhere do they marry up with other services (unlike the super-efficient Swiss).  Plus we’re an unprofitable rural route.  It’s mostly pensioners who use the buses, and it doesn’t take a genius to spot how some drivers mark up the value of zero cost OAP tickets funded by the Scottish Executive. These are simply issued ‘to the terminus,’ even if a little old lady’s only going a couple of stops. I bet she doesn’t realise.
  On the other hand, market economics have done for the coal-fired power station of Longannet – a good thing, too. It says it was elbowed out of its erstwhile connection to the Grid not just by costs but by the rise and rise of wind energy. 
  I try not to moan about the unlovely turbines – although I wonder how many more white colossi will be thrown up across our hills when GovUK’s subventions cease?  But even with the surge in Scottish clean energy generation there still remains the problem of storing electricity.  This is only accomplished with hydro power; kilowatts not unloaded to the Grid at times of low demand can be diverted to pump the water upwards again and so on – a virtuous circle.
  As Kermit said, its not easy being green (!) but opting for any other colour is equally difficult. Where doth one park one’s X?  I’m undecided, but it won’t be Cons, Kippers or those myopic one-trick ponies, the ScotNats. They didn’t see the collapse in oil coming, did they?  What did they imagine the North Sea was going to finance in their fantasy ‘Braveheart’ new world?   Health and hospitals, was it? Free nursery places?  I forget.  
  The SNP shop had a discount spring sale – we presume the items are well past their sell-by date, ‘BBE 18.09.14’.
Otherwise, Easter eggs having now been demolished ~ lovely dark German marzipan-eier mit schokolade ~ the humdrum hermetic existence continues.  Albeit, as this is being written and posted well ahead, by the time it’s up on t’Internet I’ll likely be oer the hills and far away. 
  I bought a little Chromebook last month, to check emails while travelling and promptly sent my 10Gb March Broadband allowance spiralling upwards! As the thing depends on connecting to WiFi, we’ll see if it functions in all locations: cars, trains, boats and planes.  It will mostly be used for notes, but I can also amend blog posts ~ although the font tends to go haywire. Finding out what else it can do is a gradual process. At least Chromes OS doesnt need anti-virus add-ons?
 If the mobile network’s anything to go by, I doubt theres much of a signal north of Inverness.  It’s no better going west. En route to Oban, you can be marooned on the ‘dark’ side of Ben Cruachan (Gaelic: Cruach na Beinne) – these days, a hollow mountain with a hydro scheme inside – or in the middle of Rannoch Moor, where there are no longer any familiar old red telephone kiosks to hike to o’er the heather. ...
  I believe even the railway line there is a request stop.  

It’s quite true that cats rule the Internet.  Inspecting the blog list, ‘cat’ ones receive the largest number of hits.  Even if a post doesn’t entirely consist of feline issues, obviously the Google crawler picks up on ‘cat’ ahead of almost anything else, e.g., ClassicFM here. Now, if cats were able to play Mozart, or Carl Czerny’s doleful Piano Duet (Opus 153 #2) they would be just perfect.
I’m a fan of Tom Cox’s Guardian pieces about The Bear, the world’s most melancholy cat (+ here). The cat-human relationship seems nicely balanced (i.f.o. a feline view of the universe). The felidae are naturally disheartened by our species, with good cause, but The Bear’s philosophical meditations counter human stress.
  For all her advancing years, the resident cat is feeling spring-like. Sitting by the window, she watches birds as they busily fly around, two by two. She chitters sotto voce, swishing her long thin black tail in indignation.  Her bird-catching days are long over – they never did cause much concern. Her most frequent quarries were field voles and a colony of mice which lives beneath the garden shed.  She would persist in bringing these into the house and dropping them – humans had to scoop the little creatures into a box or boot for release into the garden, sans the helpful assistance of an interested cat. I tolerated the wildlife forays because she has a slightly malformed lower jaw: her ‘bite’ is awry, so she rarely murdered anything. Now, she mostly eats and sleeps, punctuated by intermittent patrols around the house, yelling her head off, plus the daily mad half-hour of dashing up and down the stairs. (The term ‘mood swings’ was invented for cats). 
  One PhD friend occasionally emails feline haiku regarding catly behaviour and habits. But the cat’s my companion, too.  She’ll sit with paws folded and tail curled around, watching me solemnly from the doorway of my closet of a study. That ‘The idea of calm exists in a sitting cat’ (Jules Renard) is accurate – most of the time – and the watcher by the door is a charm to ward off the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer.  

Thesis: proceeds slowly ~ the further into the process, the slower it becomes.  The research must, of necessity, take in more than just textual sources; anthropology, history and geography impinge, as well as ancient poets and art.  But I need a break.
  Alas, the gaps are longer now, if or when the writing stops.  But the post-grad review was positive (~ish) although I neglected to click the ‘video on’ screen button, so, for most of the time, the Skype panel were looking at my profile picture. (A black cat. Of course.)
  It makes you feel better when academics say nice things about your work ~ actually, when anyone says such.  Labouring alone here, it’s difficult to get a handle on how I’m doing, whether it’s good enough.  That’s ‘good enough’ according to one’s own lights; we’re always our own fiercest critics. I suffer from inadequacy syndrome.
   Och, well: keep the focus, keep on going. 
   At time of writing, the word count is ca. three-quarters of the prescribed total.  On 7 April I printed out the whole second draft as a hard paper copy, for back-up: 208 A4 pages, single sided, line spaced 1.5, etc. ~ an inch thick. (Not being green?) And I haven’t yet done even a rough bibliography! Not certain the margins are correct or uniform, but that isnt germane at present.  Such will be adjusted when the things .pdfd for the university printer and binder. Made up into a working file, it’s a hefty weight but portable. 
  Thus the remainder of Chapter 6 plus Chapter 7 (Conclusions) and a possible couple of addenda must be no more than thirty-odd thousand. Not a lot to play with. However, the re-write will doubtless strike out some of the wordier footnotes, as well as modifying the lexical vocabulary, excising repetitions and deleting irrelevancies. I’ve got to the stage where a ghostly editor’s peering over my shoulder.

As for actual thinking, Tom Cox said (Guardian, 25 March), “[...] one of the cruel paradoxes of getting older: you have better thoughts than you once did, but you forget most of them seven seconds later.”
   H’m. Five seconds, Tom.  Especially that brilliant aperçu experienced before going to sleep – the scintillating one you’re certain-sure you’ll recall when you wake up.
  And don’t. 

Picture credits: green bin,; Ben Cruachan, © Joan Bryden Photography,
Tom Cox,; cat photo, © JAS, 2015;

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

More books? Enough already ...

After supervision meeting, nearly three weeks ago now, something clicked. And another book arrived which supplied a further minuscule neurotransmitter between synapses ~ click!  Or maybe an increase of spring sunlight was giving rise to a more positive state of mind. Doesn’t matter what it is / was, as long as it works.  I think this was the penultimate book purchase ~ (there’s one more to go, but not available for months yet: most recent estimate June, which is exasperating).  There is a definite feeling of putting the first of the final bricks in a wall, of contemplating endgame and ‘topping out.’ It’s all to do, but the impression (illusion?) is hopeful.
  Authoring a thesis is akin to writing a book backwards. From day one I’ve known where I want to end up; the research has been about finding out how to get there. Now I have the ground plan, the string lines and first courses. All one has to do is construct the edifice and hope it doesn’t topple over.
  So, primed and trying very hard to be confident, I'll be sitting here later this morning, waiting on a Skype review panel. 
Meanwhile, out of doors, spring inches ahead: two steps for’ard, one back.  Even in wind and rain the birds sing from every chimney pot and leafless tree, establishing territorial claims.  A storm cock (mistle thrush) sits on top of a copper beech, a throstle (song thrush) on our roof and a blackbird on a nearby TV aerial. The dawn chorus is tuning-up.
  They remind me of childhood, a kind of nostos. You take this homecoming yen everywhere you go in a lifetime; a little bit here, a little bit somewhere else – it’s portable. It doesn’t matter where you are, a blackbird or thrush can take you right back. They never change. They stay the same, all your life.
  Mothering Sunday: a huge armful of over a hundred daffodils and tulips arrived from south of the Border: delivered on the actual day, too.  For a whole week the house was scented with spring ~ the almond-honey perfume of the flowers rising from every available vase, in kitchen and living room.
  On the Friday of the solar eclipse I was picking at the computer all morning, half-blind. I’d unwisely gone out the back door and looked up at the sun being occluded by the moon.
  If I shut my eyes there was a fine print-out of the partial eclipse on my retina.
  Dunno if the effect’s that bad, long term, but it was weird. ‘And a darkness covered the land.’ Birds all perched in their usual roosts: a little flock of starlings in the beech above the garage, and a crowd of rowdy seagulls out on the fields opposite, loudly protesting.
  When the light began to return there was a second dawn chorus, and then the avian crews flew off again to carry on with their day.
  The sunlight never left the very tops of the hills, just a fleeting shadow climbed up a bit and then receded again.  Not as dramatic as the Faroes, of course, but here cloud cover eventually assisted viewing the sliver of sun remaining, and the dark circle of the moon across it, filtered through cloud for a moment or two.
  The media became as excited as a passel of Druids over it all.

The extensive televised obsequies last week for Richard III were rather moving. Leicester did the ‘lost’ king proud. The pro~ and anti~ camps remain embattled, but the history books will have to be re-written. Truth is indeed the daughter of time ~ even if it takes five hundred years.
Alas, we’ve lost Sir Terry Pratchett. He was more a fantasy writer than SF proper, but my scientific Canadian journo friend said he was ‘sad to hear of the demise of yet another Sci Fi powerhouse.’ In his opinion, ‘Most of what passes for Sci Fi these days is in fact fantasy. I’ve found very little science in most of it,’ which is true, but the label sticks. #1 daughter loved Pratchett’s books, and certain phrases and words passed into personal lore. The only one I still use is ‘mip, mip, mip’ ~ signifying the same dismissive attitude as a shrug or a ‘Wotever’ from today’s teens. As I recall, ‘mip, mip, mip’ was from a Pratchett bromeliad-dwelling froglet chorus ... but #1 picked it up fast.  It’s pure Aristophanes.
  I quote: ‘It would be nice to say that the tiny frogs thought long and hard about the new flower, about life in the old flower, about the need to explore, about the possibility that the world was bigger than a pool with petals around the edge. In fact, what they thought was: ._._.mipmip._._.mipmip._._.mipmip.’ (Terry Pratchett, Wings).  

Otherwise, a month of ploughing on, buried in thesis when not trying to catch up with the woefully neglected house and other domestic concerns.  No one tells you research will take over your whole life or, when a few years have elapsed and you think you might just perceive a life sans thesis, the workload will increase exponentially and people will begin to assume you’ve moved house – or worse, gone the Crow Road.  I can readily believe there is such a thing as PTSD – post-thesis stress disorder, being detached from something which has ruled your life for years.  How disheartening.
  Let alone the despair consequent on finding someone else has published something horribly similar ...

Nevertheless, having alighted on my two USPs, happiness ensued ~ a week of burying oneself in Darkest Thrace. Now it’s a matter of slogging on. The next stage is the midpoint one of re-writing, re-working – which isn’t straightforward. Re-writing (necessary, anyway, due to new discoveries) is always a pain, but I need to avoid the temptation of chunking and pasting text to save time, effort and eyestrain, or relying too much on secondary sources.  Originals can be fiendishly difficult to trace, but it’s a bad idea to accept others’ references as 100% accurate.  Check, check and double check.  Even esteemed scholars in the field have made mistakes in attribution. If you don’t verify sources an error can be duplicated in volume after volume, until it is gradually accepted as a ‘fact’ when it isn’t. Plus, if it’s ever held up for forensic inspection you bet it’ll be your thesis which will suffer from the sudden academic enlightenment!    
  Going back into the literatures of the early Twentieth century’s Graecists, there wasn’t the same meticulous referencing we now take for granted.  Authorities in the Classical field gaily quoted from here, there and everywhere. You may or may not recognise the sources, but beware referencing a secondary source which doesn’t give you chapter and verse about where s/he got it from.  Which edict writes off several, despite their venerable reputations.  A few are punctilious, e.g., Peter Green, but with many you find the odd unsupported supposition sliding under the radar, hidden in a slew of impressive prose and masquerading as a ‘fact.’
Pre-war Classicists tended to render their excerpts in the original, minus translation, which upset those who insist on ‘equality’.  OK, read the Iliad, Simonides or the Greek tragedians in translation, but ‘tain’t the same. They’re alright, but are not the originals, and the modern versions do vary.  Sooner or later, you might want to acquire Greek, and there’s a growing number of works aiming to make access easier, e.g., Geoffrey Steadman’s collection of print-on-demand volumes. He’s a teacher of Greek and Latin at a public high school in the States, and his Books 9-12 of Homer’s Odyssey (2010) faces each set of 20 lines of Thos. W. Allen’s edition (originally published by OUP in 1908, thus out of copyright). There ‘is a single page of corresponding vocabulary and intermediate level grammatical commentary.  Once readers have memorized the core vocabulary list, they will be able to read the Homeric Greek and consult all relevant vocabulary and commentary without turning a page’ (info culled from Amazon, UK). At approx £9.50p these are a darn sight cheaper than the green Harvard Loebs.  Although Dr Steadman warns they are sort of works-in-progress, and his readers should be alert for typos, I certainly find the Greek easier to read than Loeb’s.

Right ~ back to the ever-revolving grindstone ... 
  Tomorrow is a Study Wednesday: a modicum of prep must be done ~ assuming this mornings Skype doesnt leave me gutted. (Courage and belief, mgirl!)
  Imagine a world without research requirements. Imagine the dusting, vacuuming and other domestic tasks which will be accomplished!  (And cooking? says #2 daughter, hopefully.)

Picture credits: library with a book ladder,; Mum,,;

Thursday, 5 March 2015

World Book Day

I’ve never been certain exactly what World Book Day stands for. Is it just for children, simply to bolster literacy or reading, or to sell books? Whatever the reason behind the idea, it’s fatal for bibliophiles like me, who buy books, hoard books, cannot live without books – and increasingly can’t live with them. They take up more houseroom than I do.
  On the upside, our local library emailed to say Better World Books are hosting their own WBD event today, even providing a free shuttlebus to the warehouse premises. This second-hand book charity concern was where many of our Carnegie library volumes were carted off to (ref. blogpost, ‘The Fourth Wall,’ 31.03.14) so I’ve decided to make a date and go fossick around in the antiquarian and ancient history sections ~ hopeful of finding the odd gem lurking in their stock, e.g., a Loeb Aeschylus.  It might be there ~ I borrowed it enough times!  I figure ancient Greek isn’t too high on the ‘must-have’ lists of the local populace.
  I’ve ordered second-hand volumes from Better World before now, but always have to pay p&p, even though theyre only down the road as twere. With luck, there might be other titles which once reposed in the Carnegie backroom reserves, in the days when libraries were libraries and not infohubs, coffee shops and / or anything else dreamed up by local authorities anxious to be sharp, modern and ‘inclusive.’
  We shall see what the new ‘updated’ library offers, but I don’t believe it will be the same as the old one. If Iain Banks was still with us, I can’t imagine him giving readings of his latest work in a designated corner of ‘the book space.’

Once upon a time, WBD meant a day out for the children.  I remember a Book Train at Haymarket, Edinburgh ~ the girls had a lot of fun on that. They were at an age where #1 daughter read omnivorously and #2 was just getting into Postman Pat.
  Looking around now, it seems every child has some electronic device or other. You rarely
see an actual book in their hands – not even a Kindle. Given #1 daughter would sit on the stairs and read the telephone directory (if nothing else was on offer) what does today’s child do? Read endless banal text messages, or look at Facebook on its smart phone? Not the same thing.  I guess perhaps parents don’t have time, as I once did, to ferry someone to the junior library four times per diem in the long summer holidays, because the morning’s borrowings had been consumed within hours. ...
  Readers are made, not born. If a home doesn’t have access to books – all sorts of books – you’ll not inculcate the reading habit. There’s always something easier, flashier or quicker to distract children.  However, like fast food, this doesn’t mean better.
  And you’ll never make a writer without being a reader ~ a real reader, a person who reads not just widely but well. Not in the sense of reading aloud but reading more than the Daily Mail, the Sun or vacuous gossip-mongering magazines.
  The right to read what we want to is on a par with freedom of speech. However, in the UK there’s evidence of anxieties about inadequacies and insufficient education coupled with fear of a perceived cultural élite. This ‘them and us’ fear, based in class, race and income, and the widespread cult of the meaningless, permeates everything to do with education. There’s not a lot wrong with the notion of an intellectual élite – after all, élite does mean ‘the best’ – except in academia it’s too small and far too narrow in its concerns. The upper echelons, say ca. 10-15% of the population (I’m being generous!), the literati and the media, have manifestly not prevented the UK’s gradual slide into illiteracy, so they’re not in the business of improving much beyond their own hothouse concerns – or, for that matter, stemming the tide of less-than-desirable fallout from the Internet.

I’m beginning to recognise the impact of functional illiteracy in dealing with workmen. Whatever their manual skill levels they will go to endless lengths to give only verbal estimates or information; they avoid writing anything down, much less follow installation instructions. It’s a matter of male pride.  They might believe they conceal it, but the lack is always obvious. An alert is usually manifested, as soon as they step in the door: ‘What a lot of books!  Have you read them all?
  By the way, I note this does not apply to foreign craftsmen. They appear to have a better command of our language than we do.

Coda: Sad news, Leonard Nimoy’s demise. Apart from a sneaking affection for his Star Trek character, Mr Spock (eps still play on the digital channels) I once heard Nimoy reading a science fiction short story as an interact on Radio 3.  It was Robert A. Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth, featuring Rhysling, ‘blind singer of the spaceways’ (how Homeric).  Despite the jingle-like stanzas of Rhysling’s various songs, the rich dry timbre of the narration was powerfully musical.  It has remained in my mind ever since.  
  LN did not sing Rhysling’s verses: such is the province of the Filk music genre: Green Hills of Earth can be set to Amazing Grace. ‘Filkers have been known to write filk songs about a variety of topics, including but not limited to tangentially related topics such as computers and cats’ (Wiki).
  The Science Fiction Poetry Assoc. presents an annual Rhysling Award for speculative fiction poetry.  There’s also a Moon crater named after the character. Truth is stranger than fiction – but sometimes fiction’s stronger than truth.
Picture credits: section of Reading Hour (Lesestunde) Axel Johansen, 1920: Galerie Paffrath, Düsseldorf;  © WBD logo, Google images; Caedmon audio, cover art,