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

The Hunting of the Mark – An Agony in Multiply Chosen Fits.

I make my living teaching people about the mysteries of computers. I show them how to sacrifice goats on the network servers so as to get the best performance. I demonstrate that if you frighten a computer into obedience it will tell all its friends on the network about how big and bad you are, and those other computers will all behave themselves as well. Sometimes my students believe me when I tell them these things…

Microsoft have recently changed the rules of teaching. As of January 2001, all Microsoft trainers must have what they call a premier certification in order to be able to continue teaching the Microsoft courses. A premier certification means you have followed an approved course of study and passed exams in the major and minor arcana. Few if any Microsoft trainers run courses in all the subjects that make up a single premier certification. We each have our own smaller areas of expertise – the field is too large and nobody can be an expert on everything. Nevertheless, we must still venture in to those areas. Rules are rules.

So, gritting my teeth, I embarked on a course of study designed to award me a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer certificate, or MCSD for short. Recently I passed the last exam and got the certificate.

Two days after passing the exam I received an email from Microsoft congratulating me on becoming an MCSD. The day after that I received another email from Microsoft congratulating me on becoming an MCSD. The following day I received a third email from Microsoft congratulating me on becoming an MCSD. I began to feel quite overwhelmed by all the attention.

Then the rot set in. The following day I received a Microsoft email that warned me (in no uncertain terms) that if I didn’t get my premier certification by the end of the year I was no longer eligible to teach their courses. It urged me (in the politest possible way) to get my finger out.

One department within the monolith was obviously not communicating with the other and their knickers were right royally twisted as a result.

Cold in July and The Bottoms come from opposite ends of Joe Lansdale’s career. The first is a very early novel, the second is his latest, and they make an interesting contrast. Cold in July is completely plot driven. Richard Dane shoots a burglar and kills him. The burglar’s father vows revenge and threatens Richard’s own son. So far so predictable – but Lansdale deliberately pushes this fairly hackneyed scenario as far as it can go, ringing the changes left right and centre. As soon as you feel you understand what is happening and why it is happening he pulls the rug from underneath you by revealing a new plot twist. The whole thing is positively machiavellian as well as being undeniably entertaining and ingenious. The tangled vein of the plot twines and turns through a myriad unexpected directions. It is hugely clever and ultimately unsatisfying simply because it is so clever. The characters turn into pawns; cardboard cut outs moved by the writer across the chessboard of the plot and completely under the control of the writer’s whim. They feel shallow as a result and the book becomes manipulative as they act out their predetermined parts, not for their own motives, but for the author’s.

The Bottoms, on the other hand, has almost no plot to speak of. It is completely character driven and is a much more mature and much more satisfying work. It is set in East Texas during the great depression. Young Harry Crane discovers the mutilated body of a negro woman bound to a tree. His father, the local constable, investigates. More bodies turn up – a serial killer is on the loose in East Texas. But he is only killing niggers. Nobody cares. Then a white woman is killed and the Klan decide to take matters into their own hands. An elderly black man is lynched. But the attacks continue.

There aren’t any surprises (I guessed the murderer before I was half way through). But that isn’t the point. What matters is the way the people react. The book consists mainly of character studies. It is an examination of bigotry, and of the results of prejudice. It has an overwhelming sense of a time and a place; of history brought alive. This is a very deep book. I was constantly reminded of Harper Lee’s magnificent novel To Kill A Mockingbird (the feel and the style of both is very similar and the resonances between their concerns are obvious). The Bottoms has classic written all over it. It is a mature novel by a mature writer and it is positively breathtaking in its brilliance.

I’ve been taking exams, on and off, since I was eleven years old. My generation of English children was one that had to take the dreaded 11-plus; an exam that marked you for life, for if you didn’t pass it you were considered to be one of life’s failures. You were sent to a secondary modern school and you studied woodwork and metalwork until you left to get a dead end job. If you passed the exam you went to a grammar school where you studied latin and science and maths and eventually you went to university and became a captain of industry. It wasn’t a very fair system and the exam has long since been abolished. But that’s the way it worked back then.

The exam itself was largely an IQ test, though there were papers in English comprehension and grammar and papers in arithmetic as well. For a whole year before the exam proper we did nothing but practice IQ tests in the classroom. The experts will tell you that practising for an IQ test does no good. They would have you believe that intelligence is a fixed quantity and you cannot affect the absolute value at all by practising for the test. This is bullshit of the smelliest, most diarrhoeal variety. Over the course of the academic year, every single person in our class managed to raise their IQ by measurable amounts as we got used to the way the tests worked and as we got our heads around the sometimes rather twisted thinking that the questions required of us. If we’d managed one more year of study, I think we might all have reached genius level. As it was, we were merely very, very bright.

Many years later, when I was considerably out of practice, I applied to join the intellectually elite world of Mensa. The entry requirement is to have an IQ of 140 or greater. I took their test and my IQ turned out to be 138. If I’d studied for it in the same way I’d studied for the 11-plus, I think I’d have turned the scale around 150. But sour grapes set in and I never bothered trying again.

Ever since we all watched the television series Chef we have had a picture of the inside of a restaurant kitchen in our minds. We know how the hierarchy works; we understand (and appreciate and enjoy) the temper tantrums, the in-fighting and the tension that produces great food. Now, with Kitchen Confidential we can see the real story, and it turns out to be just the same as the fiction. Anthony Bourdain is a chef. He’s been there, he’s seen it all, he’s done it all. Loudly, and to excess. This is his autobiography. All the sordid secrets are revealed. Read it and it will put you off food for life (never eat fish in a restaurant on Monday for by then it is at least three days old; if you order a well-done steak the chances are it will be the oldest, rottenest piece of meat in the fridge and it will have been tossed in the deep fryer in order to carbonise it properly). Bourdain has lived life to the full (the book is as much about drugs and dissipation as it is about food). Oh – and did I mention that it is laugh-out-loud hilarious as well?

James Blish was a well respected science fiction writer and critic who died of cancer in 1975. Soon after his death a posthumous collection of his critical essays was published. It was called The Tale That Wags the God. I heard about the book and I wrote to my major supplier of SF at the time (the Andromeda Book Company in Birmingham, England – I recommend them highly) and asked them if they could obtain it for me. They promised to try, but nothing ever came of it. Now – nearly twenty five years later it has finally turned up the Andromeda catalogue. I ordered it immediately and it duly arrived on my doorstep. This is probably the longest delayed order in the history of bookselling. Can I claim a prize?

The book itself is no great shakes. Blish was very ill when he wrote most of these essays (indeed at least one of them was written in his hospital bed). Also they are not primarily about SF – mostly they reflect the other major interests of his life. There are deep analyses of modern music (John Cage et al) and essays on James Joyce and James Branch Cabell. I found the Joycean essays mildly interesting but the music essays and the Cabell essays left me cold. I don’t like ultra-modern music (Cage is a con artist), and I have never even seen (let alone read) the very obscure Cabell novels that are central to the themes of those essays (and from the descriptions of the plots I am not at all sure that I want to read them either).

The literary criticism that Blish published under his William Atheling Junior pseudonym was first class, some of the most incisive that the SF field has ever seen. And his now largely forgotten novels were also classics of their kind (even today A Clash of Cymbals and A Case of Conscience can send the authentic SF shivers up and down my spine). The Tale That Wags the God is a disappointing swan song. Blish deserved better than that.

Grammar school was fun. But it was hard work, geared all the time towards the General Certificate of Education Ordinary level exams (GCE O-Levels) that we took at age sixteen and the advanced level exams (A-Levels) that were taken at age eighteen by those who stayed on into the sixth form. The O-levels covered an enormous range of subjects to a quite extraordinary depth. One day might find me writing an erudite essay on Dickens, followed by page after page of squiggles as I explored the oddities of the differential calculus. Perhaps I would be required to translate a Latin text or write an essay in French, balance a chemical equation or dissect a grasshopper. I studied nine subjects to O-level (the average was seven) and I passed them all.

After the generalisations of the O-levels, we were required to specialise for the A-Levels and the subjects were studied in much greater depth than before. I joined the science stream and studied maths, physics and chemistry. However to keep my hand in, I also took something called "General Studies" which was a hodge podge of art, science, history, philosophy, politics; you name it. I’d leave the rarefied world of thermodynamics or organic synthesis or celestial mechanics and read Camus and Sartre, discuss renaissance art and trade union history. I also learned to sew and to cook (the girls were taught woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing – in many ways my school was a very enlightened one for its time).

My A-level exams opened up new worlds of discourse. Prior to this, exams had merely required me to regurgitate accepted wisdom on topics we had studied in class and the questions were straight down the middle of the road. However my A-levels began to push the envelope. I had to apply my knowledge in new situations and demonstrate understanding rather than rote learning. I had to develop opinions and justify them. I had to explore implications. There was a certain exhilaration in that and while the exams were tough, they were also fun and enormously satisfying intellectually.

Silverheart is so Moorcockian that his co-author Storm Constantine vanishes completely and that’s a shame, for she has her talents and they deserve to be recognised.

In Karadur, a city at the heart of the multiverse, Max Silverskin, thief and trickster, has been infected with a heart of magical silver. This heart will destroy him unless he can find several secret treasures hidden in the well-guarded vaults of the rulers of the city. Aiding him (and opposing him) in his quest are the underpeople who live in Karadur’s hidden twin city Shriltasi and also his deadly foe Captain Cornelius Coffin (yep – it’s him again).

Moorcock can write this kind of thing in his sleep (and often has). I was reminded irresistibly of Dorian Hawkmoon (there’s not a lot of difference between a silver heart and a jewel in the skull) and the search for the arbitrary number of well-guarded mcguffins is absolutely typical of a Moorcock plot.

The one saving grace of the book is that it is (of course) immaculately written and the whole farrago of nonsense keeps you enthralled. But make no mistake about it, it is absolute, utter rubbish from beginning to end. Good fun though.

Robert Rankin is back doing what he does best. Waiting for Godalming is a surrealistic romp starring that greatest of all private detectives, Lazlo Woodbine, the man with a Brussels Sprout called Barry in his head. It would appear that God has died while on a fishing trip in Norfolk. His will leaves the planet Earth to his younger son Colin. Colin’s mum (and Colin’s more famous elder brother) are a little perturbed by this. And when you want to investigate a dodgy will who better to call on than Lazlo Woodbine? But Lazlo has taken a drug and has woken all the way up. Now he can see the wrong’uns who are, it seems, all around us. Particularly in the Ministry of Serendipity. Could all these things be connected? And how does Icarus Smith, master of relocations, fit in to all this madness? Read Waiting for Godalming and you might find out.

It is undeniably the mixture as before. Robert Rankin only writes one kind of novel. Fortunately he writes it supremely well. In Rankin’s hands the novel is mad, bad and dangerous to know. But mostly it is mad.

A Life in Loose Strides is a biography of Barry Crump, the good keen man himself. It is a less than illuminating book. The treatment is extremely shallow and Colin Hogg tells us nothing we didn’t already know about Crumpy’s life. He has simply taken common coin, woven a few ill-chosen words around it and presented it as a biography. It is intellectually shallow. Crump deserves much better than this. There is far more information and more insight in Crump’s own autobiography (The Life and Times of a Good Keen Man published in 1992) than there is in all of Hogg’s dull volume. Interestingly Hogg is quite dismissive of Crump’s autobiography, asserting that Crump glosses over the facts and shields his feelings. These are assertions that simply don’t hold water (though I will agree that Crump is less than forthcoming about his abusive childhood; and who can blame him for that?). Do I taste the astringent bite of sour grapes here?

Throughout the book, Hogg constantly criticises Barry Crump for short changing his readers. Crump’s books, asserts Hogg, are far too slim and the publisher had to bulk them out with large type faces, many illustrations and the artful use of blank pages.

I find it somewhat ironic that Hogg’s own book is very slim and it definitely short-changes the reader by bulking up its page count with huge extracts from Crump’s own novels. Physician heal thyself.

Don’t waste your money on this one.

At university I specialised in chemistry. For three years I did nothing but study chemistry (with side tracks into physics and maths and a brief flirtation with German. Virtually every chemistry research paper of any merit from the first quarter of the twentieth century originated in Germany). The pressure was extreme.

Intellectually the subject was incredibly stimulating. When I first came across quantum physics I spent an entire year on an unbelievable intellectual high. Who needs drink or drugs or sex when you can turn yourself on like that? So many puzzling things suddenly fell into place. So many mysteries revealed and so many more subtle ones introduced. Quantum physics is, shall we say, less than complete. I never reached such a peak again, but I never forgot the excitement. I was in love with ideas, with the pursuit of intellectual challenges for their own sake. Ideas were important simply because, like Everest, they were there.

One of our maths lecturers was a visiting American. We found him hilarious. He called the subject "math" and he called an exam a "quiz". He gave us "scores". He "graded" us for our work during the "semester". None of us had a clue what he was talking about.

He gave us the first multi-choice exam that any of us had ever seen (at least since the 11-plus. IQ tests, by their very nature, are always multi-choice). We hated it and almost all of us failed. Our lecturer told us we had "flunked" it. Again, we had absolutely no idea what he meant. Out of a group of about 50 students, I think only ten passed. I was not one of them. Our lecturer was quite shocked and surprised; he’d had high hopes for us.

I think it was lack of familiarity with the format that defeated us. We were used to wider areas of discourse, broader strokes of the pen, greater intellectual freedom. We needed the right to explore an idea and examine it under ranges of conditions. The concentration of minutiae required for this exam was foreign to us. We couldn’t cope with the rigidity of thinking, the walls around the ideas, the lack of an opportunity to argue our case. Who says there is only one right answer? And why on earth do we have to agree with our teachers?

The level of detail floored us. Detail had never mattered before. In his Life of Johnson, Boswell quoted Samuel Johnson as saying:

                        Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we
                        know where we can find information upon it.

To us that seemed self evident. You can find the detail whenever you need it, so it isn’t in the least bit important. What mattered to us were ideas, principles, the broad picture, the structure. It was hard to descend to the mundane level that these "quizzes" demanded. (It was also annoying that no credit was given for partial answers. It was all black and white; right and wrong. Yin and yang. Excessive attention to detail does that to you).

At the end of the year, our lecturer went back to America and multi-choice exams vanished from our lives, much to our relief. We returned to the more open ended, discursive questions that we were used to. I started to pass my maths exams again and in the fullness of time I obtained an honours degree in chemistry.

Space is the second volume in Stephen Baxter’s Manifold series. It is Baxter’s answer to the Fermi paradox. The universe is so large that if the aliens are out there we should see signs of them all around. Where is everybody? Well, it turns out they are on their way…

Infra red emissions from the asteroid belt indicate that aliens may have arrived in the solar system. They are the Gaijin, robotic mechanisms who are the precursor of a wave of alien beings colonising the milky way. Suddenly there are aliens everywhere. Reid Malenfant puts together an expedition to the gravitational focus of Alpha Centauri where evidence suggests something significant will be found. He comes across what turns out to be a portal that will transmit him across the universe (at the price of taking large slices of time from his life, for the transmissions cannot exceed the speed of light; he is on a one way trip to the future). The journey reveals deep secrets about the origins of life and the structure of the universe; exactly as you would expect from a Stephen Baxter novel.

Normally when Baxter contemplates the infinite he lapses into incoherence. His prose is seldom robust enough to cope with Stapeldonian sweeps through time and space. However for once he manages to keep his rhetoric under control and the ideas in the novel are presented quite rationally. Unfortunately, Baxter has managed the incredible literary feat of presenting extraordinarily interesting ideas inside an extraordinarily dull framework. The book is amazingly tedious, and I really had to force myself through it.

Twenty five years after I left university, multi-choice questions re-entered my life when I began to struggle with the Microsoft exams.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with multi-choice questions. The Open University in England uses them almost exclusively. However their exams are carefully thought out, and carefully phrased. The "correct" answer cannot be chosen from the list until a huge amount of work has been done researching the question. Depth of understanding is required (and must be demonstrated). However this is the exception – most multi-choice exams are badly thought out, and ambiguously phrased. As a teacher, I am constantly amazed at the number of different ways my students find to misinterpret my questions. No matter carefully I phrase them, no matter how clear I think I have been, there always seems to be room for manoeuvre, for misunderstanding. For a multi-choice exam to be fair, crystal clarity of expression is required but is all too seldom achieved. Their sole merit is that they are easy to mark – but that is a benefit to the examiner, not the examinee. Surely that is the wrong way round?

Once, in conversation with a Microsoftie, I learned that in many countries (particularly Asian ones) candidates are given an extra hour in the exam because English is not their native language.

"Wait a minute," I said. "The exams are actually written in American, not English. And American is not my native language. Can I have an extra hour too, please?"

It went down like a lead balloon. You can’t make jokes about Microsoft to a Microsoftie. When the Microsofties have the operation that implants the chips in their skulls, the surgeons always take care to remove the sense of humour gland as well.

It wasn’t entirely a joke though. Just as I failed to understand the bizarre vocabulary of my American maths lecturer all those years ago, so now do I often fail to understand the excessively baroque phrasing of many of the exam questions that are presented to me. A colleague complained that he felt he had to be telepathic. It was the only way he would ever be able to figure out what was in the examiner’s mind. Exams like these can only be passed with luck. Knowledge helps, but is of secondary importance. That too seems to me to be a reversal of the true priority.

Joe R. Lansdale Cold in July Mysterious Press
Joe R. Lansdale The Bottoms Gollancz
Anthony Bourdain Kitchen Confidential Bloomsbury
James Blish The Tale That Wags the God Advent
Michael Moorcock and Storm Constantine Silverheart Simon and Schuster
Robert Rankin Waiting For Godalming Doubleday
Colin Hogg A Life in Loose Strides Hodder Moa Beckett
Stephen Baxter Space Harper Collins

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