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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (Antipodus)

How to Recognise a Student

I keep hordes of wolves away from my door by teaching people how to use their computers to the best advantage. I’ve just finished teaching a web site development class. I told the class the story of Cinderella, we discussed the curious relationship that Humpty Dumpty has with words, and I quoted several stanzas from The Hunting of the Snark. Trust me – all these were relevant to the subject at hand. We also studied many mysterious computer topics not unconnected with web pages. A fine time was had by both teacher and students and much knowledge was exchanged, to the great benefit and enjoyment of all.

To be fair, the vast majority of courses are as enjoyable and successful as this one was. But sometimes there are exceptions…

Often it begins when the student arrives at reception.

"Hello, I’m here for the course." The definite article in this sentence is always a dead give-away that trouble lies ahead.

"Which course are you on?"

"Errr…" A look of panic begins to spread over the student’s face and there is much hunting through pockets, bags and briefcases. Somewhere there must be a copy of the official welcome fax that gives details of the course being attended?

The receptionist tries another approach. "What is your name?"

The student’s panic increases. Oh God! All the hard questions are coming first!

Once I was privileged to hear the following dialogue:

"Which course are you here for?"

"Building Blocks!" This was stated firmly and proudly. A hurried hunt through the courses scheduled for that day revealed only one that might apply.

"Would that be Microsoft Word Building Skills?"

"Yes, that’s right." The student nodded happily. "Building Blocks!"

The next major initiative test comes when the student first encounters the coffee machine. This is a fearsome beast, much given to the making of odd grinding noises as it ponders the current refreshment requirements. A liquid crystal display requests the prospective imbiber to Select Beverage. A column of buttons provides a wide menu of choice.

Most students do actually manage to place a cup beneath the spout and press the button corresponding to their refreshment of choice (though failure in these early stages is not entirely unknown). The liquid crystal display then changes and exhorts the customer to Please Wait. There are grinds and groans; liquid gushes and the machine vibrates in a demented manner. The general impression is that it is about to take off and blast a hole in the ceiling on its way into low Earth orbit. The student begins to quiver with anxiety.

There is a brief moment of silence as the machine takes a deep breath and girds its loins for a final stupendous excretory effort. The student often takes this as a signal that it has finished its task. Despite the fact that the display still says Please Wait, the student snatches the cup away, stares in bewilderment at the thick sludge it contains and watches helplessly as vast quantities of savoury liquid pour into the waste tray. The display then changes and says Select Beverage again and the machine sits smugly, waiting for its next victim.

Some students never manage to muster the requisite skills for taming the coffee machine, and they spend the entire course in a state of acute caffeine deprivation. They have far too much blood in their coffee stream as a result, and so they learn very little and get poor evaluations from their instructor. Perhaps we need to run a coffee machine operating system course?

Anthony Boucher was one of the founding editors of Fantasy and Science Fiction, perhaps the most prestigious magazine (in literary terms) that the SF field has ever produced. He was also an avid mystery fan and wrote several well received detective novels (many of which were full of SF references). He was much less prolific in the SF field itself, though. He wrote a handful of short stories, at least two of which (The Quest for St. Aquin, and Barrier) can legitimately have that over-used word "classic" applied to them, but that was about it. Now NESFA Press have released a complete collection of his short SF fiction and in doing so have resurrected an enormous number of stories from obscure sources. The vast majority of the stories in this collection have never been republished since their original magazine appearances.

To read them all as a chunk reveals a common theme – Boucher’s devout Catholicism shines through. He used SF to question the tenets of his faith. Sometimes he was cynically profound, sometimes he was just profound, but always he was absorbed by the implications of a deep religious commitment in a technological age (which is not to say that he restricted himself to technology – his fantasies were delightful – see, for example, The Compleat Werewolf).

One of the things that makes the magazine he founded stand head and shoulders above the competition is its insistence on high literary standards in terms of both style and content. Boucher instigated this editorial policy and all subsequent editors have honoured it. In his own work he insisted on an equally high standard and while many of his characters and situations are pure pulp (which, given his market at the time of original publication they would almost of necessity have to be), the writing is always clean and elegant. I don’t think he could have written an ugly sentence if he tried.

I was hugely impressed with this collection, though I found it hard to read in one go. The thematic unity of Boucher’s world view (which does not sit easily with my own) was a little tiresome in large chunks. I found this more a book to dip into than to snuggle up with. But it is a welcome addition to my library and I cherish it for its merits, which are many.

The third Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) was published in the UK on Thursday July 8th at 3.45pm (its anticipated popularity was such that the publisher insisted on a uniform publication date and time across the entire United Kingdom, hence the precision). I had a copy in my hot little hands by the following Monday July 12th – so mine may well have been one of the first copies into New Zealand. Is this a record?

Harry is about to start his third year at Hogwarts school. However shortly before term starts, the evil magician Sirius Black escapes from Azkaban prison. Black was Lord Voldemort’s second in command and now that he is free again it seems obvious that he will try to complete the task that defeated his master. Harry Potter’s life is in danger again.

When Harry arrives back at Hogwarts, he finds that the threat of Sirius Black is taken so seriously that Dementers (fearsome monsters who are the Azkaban prison guards) are patrolling the school perimeters. The headmaster refuses to allow them into the school proper (much to Harry’s relief – they give him the creeps).

Soon there is strong evidence that Black is indeed prowling somewhere close to the school. The plot thickens and the tension is almost palpable. Rowling winds it up to immense levels and if the last two chapters don’t have you on the edge of your seat you haven’t got a dramatic bone in your body. I was chewing my fingernails down to the elbow.

As always though, it is Rowling's bits of business that really make the book. The wit is as sharp and clever as ever and the everyday school life at Hogwarts is as well described. There are images here that will stay with you for ever. My own favourite concerns the picture of the fat lady who guards the entrance to the common room – she will only let you in if you know the password. All the characters in all the pictures that hang on the walls of Hogwarts School appear to lead rich and interesting lives. They visit each other’s paintings all the time…

Nothing is what it seems in this book. Be prepared to have many of your preconceptions (cunningly planted in the earlier books) turned topsy turvey. Also you, (like Harry) will learn a lot more about Harry’s parents and the mysterious incidents that took place shortly after Harry’s birth that resulted in Lord Voldemort’s fall from power.

There are four more books to go. I want them. I want them NOW!

Once settled in the classroom, students often exhibit many more odd behavioural traits.

There is the student who nods thoughtfully at regular intervals and takes copious notes. Often a second or even a third notepad is requested. Important points are underlined and highlighted. If you examine these notes after the student has left for the day, it is usually found that every single word you said has been written down verbatim - including the jokes. Ominously, the punch lines are all underlined and highlighted. At this point in the proceedings you generally begin to regret informing the class that the only sure-fire guaranteed way to solve network congestion problems is to sacrifice a live goat on top of the DHCP server…

I am convinced that many students have had an operation to remove their sense of humour gland.

I have long since given up telling my classes that once a month they should back up their entire system onto a printer. If trouble ensues and it is necessary to restore some files, all you have to do is feed the relevant sheets of paper through a scanner. So many people have taken this outrageous statement seriously, that I have become severely depressed and have had to retire it.

The more studious and serious-minded class members will treat the instructor as the source of all knowledge. They will take advantage of the opportunities the course gives them to regale you with questions of monumental complexity (and self-contradiction) regarding scenarios so extremely unlikely that several ice ages will come and go in the nether regions of Hell before they come to pass. Often the student will become lost inside a twisty maze of subordinate clauses and the question will gradually glide to a puzzled full stop. (Equally often, the general tenor of the question will reveal that the student has utterly failed to understand anything you have said for the last three days).

Faced with this situation, the experienced instructor will simply lie and make up an answer on the spot. Any answer at all will do (preferably one that involves subjects well outside the scope of the course, in order to minimise the chances of the student ever trying to implement it). As long as the answer is given with a straight face and enormous authority, the student will happily accept it.

Then we come to the lab exercises and the student is required to manipulate a mouse and caress a keyboard. This too is a great separator of sheep from goats. The tongue protrudes a quarter of an inch from the left corner of the mouth, a deep frown of concentration furrows the forehead, and a single finger hovers tentatively over the keyboard as letters are searched for. Eventually an approximate match is found and the finger stabs wildly. Damn! Where’s the backspace key? The hunt starts again.

In The Kremlin Device Chris Ryan gives us another of his ongoing SAS adventure novels. Actually it is by far the best of the stories to date. The uncertainty of characterisation that marred the earlier books is gone, replaced with a much firmer control. The personal melodramas are less overt and more compelling as a result.

The SAS squad are involved in training a Russian special forces unit. The unit will be taking part in hits against the Mafia. Unknown to the Russians, the SAS team also have a secret task to perform – two nuclear devices are to be covertly placed; one near the Kremlin, one near a missile launching site. Once in place, they can be used to pressure the Russians at the negotiating table, should it ever become necessary.

The story is well told, the tension is much less stage-managed than in previous books, though it is just as highly dramatic. The story is a definite page turner (I HAD to find out what happened next). And the ending will take your breath away. I will definitely be buying the next one when it appears on the shelves.

Robert Rankin is back. Snuff Fiction is set (of course) in Brentford and is the biography of one Doveston, as seen through the eyes of Edwin, his sometime friend and scapegoat and one of the few Doveston acquaintances not to have a freak accident involving dynamite, possibly because they have been friends since childhood.

Doveston is a tobacco expert and snuff provider. Ever the trend-setter, he was the organiser of Brentstock, the world-famous rock festival, and has built on his reputation. He introduced the yo-yo to Brentford and devised many impressive tricks with it ("splitting the beaver" is guaranteed to make your eyes water). He is in negotiation with the Secret Government and intends to take over the world when all the computers crash at the dawn of the year 2000.

So much for plot (never an important element of Rankin’s books). The important things (or at least the most enjoyable) are the misleading digressions into puberty and gypsy folklore, the exotic nature of Brentford’s Kalahari Bushman quarter, the horrible death of Michael Jackson, and the huge number of willy jokes.

In other words, Robert Rankin is back.

Programming courses are particularly susceptible to odd student syndrome. Every so often help is requested to debug some program or other that the student is working on. Woe betide the instructor who falls for this one.

"Just bring the program in, we’ll take a look at it."

The next day the student turns up with a briefcase stuffed to bursting point with a printout of a 500,000 line monstrosity that gives every appearance of having been written by a left-handed warthog in the middle of a very bad acid trip. (They never think to bring the program on a diskette so that we can actually run it to see where it breaks).

Structure? Logic? We don’t need no steenking structure! Logic is strictly for the birds.

You begin to realise why the student has so far failed to complete any of the programming assignments in the class, and you resolve to make sure that the student never finds out your email address.

Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan, a character of mythological proportions. Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t know his name? And now, with the official sanction of the Burroughs estate, Philip José Farmer has written The Dark Heart of Time, the first new Tarzan novel in a generation. Naturally I had to have it. Naturally it is wonderful and I loved it.

Chronologically, the events of the book take place between Tarzan The Untamed and Tarzan The Terrible. It is 1917 and the First World War is at its height. Jane has been kidnapped by forces from the German African colonies and Tarzan is hot on her trail. But events cause him to temporarily abandon his search as he stumbles across a safari who appear to be hunting for him! They have some as yet unexplained mechanism for tracking him through the jungle. They are at best a nuisance and at worst a positive hazard. What do they want with the Lord of the Jungle? Why are they trying to take him alive?

The storyline involves all the usual forgotten civilisations and terrible monsters. The plot (it must be said) is tired and creaky. The joy of this book does not lie in the tale itself, but rather in the nostalgic re-creation of a childhood influence. To travel again with Tarzan through the African jungles and to hear again the victory cry of the bull ape is just an indescribable thrill. If you didn’t read the Tarzan novels as a child, don’t read this one; you will be too irritated by its meandering, clichéd style.

For me, an added bonus was that Farmer pulls no punches when it comes to the general ickyness of jungle life (an aspect that Burroughs avoided completely). Some of the things that Tarzan is forced to eat to stay alive will turn your stomach.

Keith Robert’s stories about the young witch Anita were originally published in the SF magazines in the 1960s. They were enormously popular and garnered much praise. A collection was published but it went out of print almost instantly and vanished into limbo. Now Owlswick Press have made them available again and they haven’t dated a bit; they are just as enchanting as they ever were.

Anita and her fearsome granny live in the wilds of Northamptonshire (and much of the dialogue is a phonetic representation of the dialect, but don’t let that put you off; it is never intrusive and the meaning is always clear). Roberts has enormous fun with the paraphernalia of witchcraft and the praise and worship they witches give to "’im down below". The scenes involving Anita taking various of her familiars to the village vet are hilarious. (She fancies him something rotten and uses this as an excuse to get acquainted. The familiars aren’t too happy about it, but they don’t have a lot of choice.)

The stories range from the trivial (Anita’s sex life) to the profound (problems of pollution and eco-catastrophe) but all are enlivened by the commentaries of Anita’s cynical old grandmother (Granny Thompson), a witch of indeterminate years, uncertain temper and indiscriminate spells. Re-reading the stories now, in these post-Discworld years, it seems to me that there is much of Granny Thompson in Terry Pratchett’s more famous Granny Weatherwax. I would not be at all surprised to find that Pratchett read and enjoyed these stories when they first appeared in the 1960s. (And no – I am most definitely not saying anything more than that. There is a huge difference between stealing and borrowing. Granny Weatherwax is an utterly original and brilliant creation, but I am starting to suspect that she is not without antecedents).

This is a small press book and may be difficult to find, but if you do come across it don’t hesitate to buy it. The stories are truly wonderful. Roberts never quite captured that magic again in any of his other works.

Perhaps worst of all is the student who thinks (if that is the word I’m groping for; I don’t believe it is) in watertight (some might say thought-tight) compartments. Such people are constantly amazed to find that the things they studied in chapter three have some relevance to the subject of chapter four. Applying them again in chapter five is utterly beyond their comprehension.

Such a blinkered, straight-down-the-middle-of-the-road reaction to a technical problem often implies that the student is really searching for the philosopher’s stone of computing. They just KNOW that there is one simple answer to life, the universe and every computer problem. A cookbook, a recipe list, one simple series of steps leading to computing nirvana. They bitterly resent that I don’t tell them what it is. Why do I have to torture them with arcane concepts and force them to type bizarre things and click on buttons with the frightening caption Advanced on them?

I once explained to a class that there is indeed a single, simple secret known only to the initiated. But to become initiated, you have to dance naked around a bonfire of computer manuals at midnight, and sacrifice a nerd (not a geek – if you use a geek, it won’t work). Predictably, several people appeared to take me seriously. They wrote it down.

Lindsey Davis is back in the Rome of the Emperor Vespasian, telling another tale of Falco the cynical, wisecracking Phillip Marlowe of AD 73. Falco has been appointed Procurator of the Sacred Poultry, which means he is in charge of the sacred geese (augmented these days by the odd chicken). In some ways the job is a sinecure (Vespasian is grateful for past services) but it means a steady income, steady reponsibilities and a chance to climb up the convoluted Roman social scale. Things are looking good and the last thing Falco needs is a small girl turning up out of the blue and complaining that someone in her family wants to kill her. He sends her home in a huff but is conscience stricken when she later disappears without trace. Despite his best intentions, he becomes involved in the investigation and is quickly mired deeply in the politics of electing a new Vestal Virgin (Gaia, the missing girl, was odds on favourite for the post).

The story is satisfyingly complex, the cynicism is as broad as ever and the book is utterly enthralling. It is, of course, the mixture as before, but the mixture is so brilliant that it never palls.

So too with Janet Evanovich. High Five is the fifth novel involving bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, Mazur her frightening grandmother (who now has a stun gun, much to the discomfort of Stephanie’s father who is on the receiving end), and Rex her hamster. Times are hard for Stephanie. The rent is due and there is only one measly crook to seek out. Glumly Stephanie heads out to his apartment. She is somewhat amazed to discover he is a dwarf and even more amazed when he successfully evades her. In desperation she appeals to Ranger for a job. This may or may may not be a wise thing to do (Ranger’s ideas of morality and legality are strictly his own) but the rent is due, and anyway Ranger is very sexy. Meanwhile Stephanie’s Uncle Fred has disappeared and his wife finds photographs of a dismembered body in his desk. Add to this a weenie wagging Arab sheikh, a garbage company that doesn’t collect the garbage, a bookie who doesn’t take bets and several dead bodies (Grandma Mazur has a field day pursuing her hobby of funeral viewing) and again it is the mixture as before, but as with Linsey Davis it is so brilliant (and funny) that it never palls. I bought this one in hardback – I couldn’t wait for the paperback. That’s how good Janet Evanovich’s books are.

All students who attend courses are asked to fill in a background form detailing their experience and expectations. When the students actually fill one in, they can indeed be quite revealing. I always make sure to read them carefully so as to ensure that the prospective students meet the prerequisites. However some always slip through the net.

"Why do I have to understand arithmetic? I don’t need to know how to calculate a percentage. I just want to learn how to use Excel!"

"Why do I have to know how to type? I just want to learn how to use Microsoft Word!"

Even worse are the students who do not fill in a background form because they are incapable of doing so. One instructor recently had the dubious pleasure of teaching a student whose grasp of written and spoken English was so poor that he could neither speak nor write his own name. He could not fill in the course sign in sheet, and he was unable to understand the lunch menu and therefore could not order lunch. Bets were taken as to whether or not he would starve to death before the week was out. Quite what he managed to get from the course itself remains moot.

Sometimes though the background forms are less than useful. Once I read a form that contained no information other than the student’s name and the course name; and recently one form had as an answer to the question "Course being attended?", the big, bold, black word NONE.

I should be so lucky.

Anthony Boucher The Complete Boucher NESFA Press
J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Bloomsbury
Chris Ryan The Kremlin Device Arrow
Robert Rankin Snuff Fiction Doubleday
Philip Jose Farmer The Dark Heart of Time Del Rey
Keith Roberts Anita Owlswick Press
Lindsey Davis One Virgin Too Many Century
Janet Evanovich High Five St. Martins Press

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