Could it work here?

I have just discovered that the human brain is a truly astonishing organ, and I was already fairly impressed with its capabilities (lest you fear I have finally surrendered to rampant egomania, I speak in general rather than holding my own cerebrum up as any sort of exemplar).  Researchers at the University of Glasgow have discovered how we avoid drifting off when listening to the truly boring.  This is a topic in which I have some interest given the number of very long meetings at which I have acted as secretary over the years.  The coping strategies I used on such occasions are covered in an earlier post, but, as you will be aware, the reporting of a few anecdotes does not satisfy the demands of the scientific method.

The folks in Glasgow used fMRI for their study (a facility I lacked back in my days as a technical secretary) to “scan” the brains of 18 people (a modest sample, perhaps, but still better than hearsay evidence from a single source with a questionable grasp on sanity).  They discovered that when presented with a boring speaker, the brain creates its own more exciting internal monologue.  It would seem that we really do make our own fun.

Sadly, the study did not cover the written (or typed) word, though one of the authors did note that directly quoted speech is more vivid than indirection quotation.  So, it is unclear whether the readership of GofaDM will be augmenting their enjoyment in an analogous way.  I would suggest that, from a certain point of view (to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi), this whole blog could be considered directly quoted speech, which helps explain my inability to write (or indeed utter) convincing dialogue – a fact which has rather limited my career as a scriptwriter or playwright.  If you are truly providing your own entertainment during the all-too-frequent longueurs in these ramblings, it would certainly take some of the pressure off the author.

Sweet essay

It is now six weeks since I threw caution to the wind and attempted to challenge the wisdom of proverbs: could a middle-aged dog be taught to re-use his limited range of tricks in a somewhat new arena?

My chosen instrument was the Open University course hight AA100: The Arts Past and Present.   This is proving to be both great fun and suitably thought provoking: whilst I read quite widely for pleasure, doing so for a specific purpose does seem to augment the experience.  I think I may be tapping into the same phenomenon that leads to betting on a poker hand – personally, I’m waiting for bridge to take off as an internet craze.

Next week I have my fourth tutorial (which being in Cambridge should probably be called a supervision): well, technically it will be my second (if I make it) as I missed tutorial 3 as it clashed with a recital by the Endellion String Quartet (and you will recall, missed tutorial 1 due to incompetence involving a calendar): luckily, attendance does not count towards my final grade!

After Cleopatra and Dr Faustus have come Paul Cézanne, Michael Faraday and Josef Stalin: I am still firmly in the Reputations strand.  But it’s not all fun: today, I had to listen to two songs from the 1980s by Madonna to analyse the vocal performance and musical context.  Let’s just say her diphthongs were rather unimpressive and I haven’t been inspired to explore more of her ouevre – despite an exhortation from the OU to check out some of her videos.  However, it’s not all reading and listening to 80s pop: oh no, there have been two DVDs and an audio CD of a recent BBC Radio 3 production of Marlowe’s most famous work to enjoy as well.  The modern OU provides a truly multimedia experience – though, as a chap of some vintage, I do keenly feel the lack of the TV broadcasts in the dead of night: where are the beards and dodgy 70s fashions?

Despite its modernity, the course does still retain the rather old-fashioned idea that students should do some work and that this should be marked.  A couple of weeks ago, I had to submit my first assignment – comprised of two essays: one on screen representations of Cleopatra and the other looking at how Faustus is characterised by Marlowe in the language of the first half of his final soliloquy.  This is the first formal writing on the arts and humanities I’ve done in 30 years (unless you count this blog – and I suggest you probably shouldn’t) – and had the added challenge that each essay was limited to 500 words (including quotes and references).  As you might imagine, the word limit did rather increase the challenge presented by this particular assignment – still, I completed it and submitted it on time.  I had thought of making my essays available through GofaDM, but this is against the rules (apparently, it could facilitate plagiarism: which does make me wonder if any of this blog is being used as the basis for a student’s homework somewhere?).  Yesterday came the feedback and the marks.  Actually, I did really rather well: yes, this post exists wholly for me to boast about my essay prowess!  I was also unexpectedly impressed by the feedback.  For a start, there are a few conventions about writing in this subject area which I should now be able to follow (blogging and writing for business don’t fully equip one for everything) – though I am disappointed to have to lose the word “ditzy” (I’ll leave you to guess in which of the essays it was used).  The other thing which became clear to me – which was probably already obvious to you, dear reader – is that I have no real idea how to use paragraphs, and this lack is only made more obvious when constrained by a word limit.  I think his could be the first benefit that my the GofaDM audience receive from my return to academe – let’s face it, there’s been no obvious sign of the word count falling in these posts.

Still, given my early success and apparent ability to acquire new skills (or at least re-purpose old ones) I’m starting to think where next for my second studenthood? (it’s like a second childhood – though earlier and not requiring me to have graduated from my first childhood).  Should I aim to have a BA in an actual art, to complement my existing BA in Mathematics?

Boosting Arts Coverage

Whilst the author is a frequent visitor to events that would broadly fall under the umbrella of “The Arts”, their coverage within this blog falls short of the levels of illumination and insight which would be required if the broadsheet ambitions of GofaDM are to be achieved.  Indeed, it might be thought that analysis of the comfort of the seating and the quality of the interval snacks has been the dominant theme of the arts coverage heretofore.

Well, no more.  I am taking decisive action to improve the quality of the arts-based drivel which sometimes adorns this electronic publication.  No, I am not firing the current writer and hiring a new team (neither budget nor ego permit): GofaDM will continue to follow the British (rather than American) sitcom model, i.e. it will represent the flawed vision of a single auteur, rather than the carefully honed product of a team of skilled writers.  Instead, my chosen approach is to re-train the current writer to improve his critical skills in the sphere of the arts (I will then attempt to instruct an ancient canine in the art of prestidigitation).

As the first, and so far only, step in this bold new initiative I have just started a course with the Open University entitled “The Arts: Past and Present”, aka AA100 (so, I expect a 12-step plan to be involved – still, I think this post covers step 1).  This promises to hone my critical faculties over the coming months til they are sharp enough to split any passing breeze into its constituent zephyrs.

My new life as an (im)mature student has commenced with consideration of the representation of Cleopatra (VII, for the avoidance of doubt) through the ages, Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe and the art of Paul Cézanne.  I can later look forward to studying the immortal Sophocles, Josef Stalin and the role of the diva among many other topics (other peanut-based chocolate snacks are available).

For the first three subjects, I do have some “form” as I believe they say.  I have seen Anthony and Cleopatra staged twice – once with an all-male cast – and have read a range of history books covering the period.  As regular readers will know, I saw Dr Faustus only last summer  – so do know what happens.  This was just as well, as the set version of the text contains extensive notes which are rife with serious “spoilers” for anyone coming to the story afresh.  I’ve also been a fan of Cézanne’s work for a while, and have seen a number of exhibitions over the years – now, perhaps, I’ll know what I was looking at!

However, there is a major challenge coming with the first written assignments (or essays as we, less pretentiously, called them when I was at school).  The first two essays I am required to complete in no more than 500 words.  As should have become abundantly clear to even an occasional reader of this blog, I am not good at keeping it brief.  The last time I had to work within a 500 word limit was for the précis part of my English Language ‘O’ Level back in 1981 – and I had 30 years less junk cluttering up my cranium (and keen to escape onto the page) back then.  Perhaps it was this worry which caused me to turn up to my first tutorial exactly 24 hours late – not an entirely auspicious start, but I was absolutely convinced that 8 Feb was a Thursday.  Things, as one Anthony Aloysius Blair tried to convince us back in 1997, can only get better!  (Though in that specific case, the evidence is at best equivocal.)

Despite my brevity trepidation, the course has been great fun so far – and I have certainly found myself thinking very different thoughts as I wait to fall asleep of a night (rather a pleasant change from worrying about the future direction of electricity markets).  I fear post quality has yet to improve (or fall within a 500 word limit) but it’s still early days…

EU-phuistic

The poor old EU takes a lot of stick, and surely it can’t all be deserved?  Only last week, the government faced a major revolt as some of its members wanted a referendum to reclaim some powers from Brussels.  I fear they may have rather misunderstood the importance of the EU to any UK government – it is a rather handy scapegoat for anything unpopular (just ask Jim Hacker).  If you have all the power, then you also accumulate all the blame – as the other “half” of the coalition has discovered after years of safety in political obscurity (and this has occurred even with a rather modest share of only some of the power).

I’m also not terribly convinced that leaving the EU would do much to protect us from the economic woes afflicting our main trading partner and a continent which lies little more than 20 miles away.  Let’s face it, they seem to be looking for money from China – and they’re neither part of the EU nor physically close.  But, what do I know?

The word “eu” of course, comes to us from the Greeks – a little ironic given the current trouble they seem to be causing the EU.  Eu (or eus) means well, pleasant or good.  So, euphony (eu + phone) is a pleasing sound – which rather fails to explain the euphonium (surely other more deserving instruments could have been blessed with this particular appellation).

Euthanasia – rather frowned upon today – comes from the concept of a good death (and it was this derivation which inspired this post via a recent episode of “In Our Time”) while euphemism comes from good speech and eulogy from good word(s).  In fact, it is from the “art” of eulogy that this blog springs: so clearly one can take direct translation from the Greek too far.  Back in the last millenium, when people left whereso’er I was working I would write a brief eulogy to mark their departure (not for everyone, obviously, just for those I knew well).  These eulogies would all be based on the truth – but wilfully mis- or over-interpreted to produce a soi-disant amusing result (so, not much has changed).  It was my attempt to re-capture the “glories” of these juvenilia that has led to so much suffering (or at least being reminded of them acted as one of the proximate causes of GofaDM).

Not all words starting with the letters “eu” have this etymology.  The word “euro” does not come from the Greek at all – but instead from an aboriginal Australian word for a type of kangaroo.  If you’re going to name your currency after a kangaroo, I think you’ve got to expect a few ups and downs – and, probably a pouch.

Whilst vaguely on the topic of the the current Euro crisis, am I the only one to feel that Ben Stiller must be a shoo-in to play Nicolas Sarkozy when the film is made?

The title you say?  I thought it rather an apt description of the style of GofaDM (which very much follows in the footsteps of John Lyly).

Metablog: the Flattened Fifth

Or, from a certain point of view, the Augmented Fourth.  Either way, the mental dissonance should leave you craving resolution: a resolution which can only be delivered in the form of the later, fabled, sixth metablog – though, I suspect the real challenge may be reaching number ten (I was thinking by analogy to symphonies, but I suspect Downing Street may also lie beyond my grasp).

I would say, “always leave the public wanting more,” but that would suggest an initial public appetite for weapons-grade inanity (actually, that is probably a safe assumption given even a cursory perusal of the TV schedules or magazine racks of this septic isle) and, having seen my contribution to the stockpile, the continued desire for more.  In my defence, I would ask where else you would see cannibalism, pony-based, young female-reader directed literature of the 1950s and the electrification of the railway to Anglesey sharing a stage – that has to be juxtaposition at an International level!

However, do not fear that I will begin to rest on my laurels, I think I can keep that particular fear at bay for you.  (I do wonder if should I explain the bay is a laurel – Laurus nobilis – here?  Or would explaining the pun in some way diminish it?  Can something that weak be further diminished? I suppose that would depend if pun strength is a continuous variable…)  No, stung by recent criticism, I will be turning over a new (bay) leaf.

In an attempt to keep the hypocrisy below the blog-based critical mass (a hypocrisy melt-down can thus be averted), I have turned off Ratings on the Home page (which has magically removed Liking as well) – but you can still rate by opening each post.  However, this is a personal choice – between each reader and their conscience.

The heads of the GofaDM Quality Assurance department have rolled so many times now that they are (a) almost perfectly spherical and (b) now actively repelling moss (if only I could say the latter about the greensward here at Fish Towers).  I can only say that they will try and do better in future – less late-night blogging for me!

There have also been suggestions – not without foundation given my continued failures to deliver – that many promises made within this blog are for purely rhetorical purposes. Well, no more!  Before the week is out, my Twitter novel, which I proposed in the comments to “Staff Room”, will be launched on Condensity.  It will be called “Divine Comedy” for reasons that may become apparent (though it is likely to lie at some distance from the divine – or, indeed, the comic).  Due to the limitations of the medium, this will not entirely follow the model laid out by Charles Dickens – and so characters will not have names like Martin Chuzzlewit or David Copperfield, but will instead have much shorter appellations (not the mountain range in the US).  The story will also mine the near-exhausted theme of detective fiction – with our main protagonist being a gumshoe. Each micro-chapter will start with a special character to indicate that it is not a run-of-the-mill Condensity entry – and the story will develop tweet-by-tweet into a searing examination of the human condition.  Well, it might – I’ve only written the first 5 or 6 micro-chapters so far, so anything could happen!  Quite literally!

Prepare yourselves for the literary sensation of the millenium!  This could be your children (or grandchildren’s) set book in years to come – but you, the lucky few, are in at the beginning…

…and relax

The last few weeks have been an exhausting whirl with festivals of comedy and music parting me from my usual life of abnegation.  So many nights out past my usual bedtime; so many nights out, period (or, in this case, exclamation mark)!

With the festival season over in Cambridge, my annual pilgrimage to Edinburgh looms, like a giant weaving machine, on the horizon.  Even more comedy and music crammed into even fewer days.  Will I survive the cultural onslaught?

The signs are not entirely positive – a couple of weeks ago I kept acquiring minor finger-based injuries, and this week my shins are acquiring stray wounds.  It is often said that where sense is absent, there is an associated lack of feeling.  This may well be true as whilst I could recall a few of the incidents that led to damage to my phalanges, I have no memory at all of any of those that led to the tibial damage.

So, in this intra-festive lacuna I have decided that I need a rest (and not just to make a tricky snooker shot) before descending once more into the fray.  I also have a stack of BBC4 documentaries to catch up on: the pseudo-intellectual trappings of this blog have to come from somewhere, you know.  As a result, I have tried to spend this week taking it easy – but have discovered (once again) that I’m really not very good at it.  My best attempts at loafing have resulted in a loaf (of bread) and the sharing of my loaf-based secrets with the world (or at least the readers of GofaDM).

I comforted myself with the knowledge that my failure to rest had at least meant that a number of long-outstanding errands had been completed.  However, reference to Mr Collins (the publisher of my dictionary rather than the heir to Longbourn) suggests that an errand requires a trip (in the sense of journey rather than a fall – though I suppose that would also be a journey) of some form – so it seems that I have merely “done some stuff”. When I come to think about the main “stuff” done, viz re-arranging my bookcase to increase the accessibility of my extensive library (including the sorting of the fiction alphabetically by author) and tidying up the wires behind the TV, it does seem worryingly to represent classic displacement activity.  Since relaxation is what I was supposed to be doing, it would seem that at some subconscious level I have some objection to chillin’ (as I believe the kids of a decade or two ago would have said) and am desperately seeking alternatives to avoid it.  I rather fear therapy beckons: with all too much material into which the followers of Freud or Jung could sink their metaphorical teeth (in my, entirely untrained, opinion and, in a nod to Clement’s grandfather, I blame my mother).

Then again, who needs a man with a mittel-European accent and a couch? I have a blog! What more therapy can any man need?  Or, indeed, how much more displacement activity?  If any readers should care to proffer a diagnosis (I will require you to show your working) or text-based therapy, they should feel entirely free to do so – whilst recognising that I shall feel equally free to ignore it!

Metablog Goes Forth

The title retains the brief Blackadder theme for metablogs one last time, but it’s mining a seam which is now exhausted.  Given the theme, at the end of this post we should all go over the top to our certain doom – not sure about certain doom, but some may feel that this blog has been going OTT for some time.

As I write this today (as opposed to as I will crochet it a week on Wednesday), the blog has recently passed its three-thousandth page view.  It has also passed 150 posts and if we assume an average of 500 words (say) per post then the blog is up to 75,000 words (excluding comments) – which is around the length of a first novel.  Each post is, natürlich, a classic of its kind – as long as ‘its kind’ is defined with a suitably restricted scope (a common ‘weapon’ in the armoury of the marketing industry – I think you will find 77% of 17 women agreed when offered a free sample and the question was suitably phrased).

The blog is also approaching its first anniversary: well, obviously, it has been approaching its anniversary since its inception – but now it is actually getting quite close.  GofaDM was birthed back in August 2010 (to the sound of whale song and without an epidural), though it lacked any content whatsoever until October.   Even once content arrived, back in those halcyon days, a new post was a rare and precious thing.  It wasn’t until the end of the year that the production rate was ramped up with a concomitant decline in quality.

So, congratulations are due to any of you who have stuck with it, wading through a novel’s worth of my ‘wit’ and observations – interspersed with the odd (rather desultory) review and a few rants.  I would promise something special for the first birthday of the blog – but I’m aware that readers are still awaiting the video promised way back in post 99A, so perhaps I shouldn’t create false expectations.  Instead, I will just suggest that the blog will continue very much like a de-oxygenated red blood cell – or, for those who are not students of the work of William Harvey, in the same vein.

Finally, I have recently noticed a new feature in WordPress – well, I admit that it may not be new but my awareness of it certainly is.  When accessing the public view of my blog (as opposed to the usual engine-room perspective given to the author) I am given the option to “Report as mature”.  I fear I shall never need to use this particular function…

Metablog Two

This is the fiftieth post to this blog, so I now have quite a body of work on-line, and WordPress tells me the blog has received more than 600 page views.  This does suggest that it can only be a matter of time before the men in white coats come and take me away (ha ha).

As a result, it is time once again for me to peer out beyond the electronic proscenium arch, over the virtual footlights and directly address the darkened (and quite possibly empty) auditorium which forms the inevitable conclusion to this (probably ill-advised) extended metaphor.

Teaching has been described as casting imitation pearls before all to real swine (by me, just then, for one, but also, I believe, by those that came before me), and the careful crafting of a post can feel surprisingly similar.  I cannot help but wonder if anyone understands the many layers of meaning and humour painstakingly built into each entry – but then I think, I’m lucky anyone looks at my depraved ramblings at all!

WordPress does provide tantalising snippets of information on my readership – it shows which pages are viewed and any searches that deliver the unwary surfer into my clutches.  This information is, at best, confusing: for example, for some strange reason, “Windows” and “A Classical Education?” are the most viewed pages.  I can only assume these are being accessed by some sort of bot or a reader with severe phalangeal ataxia.  As for the incoming searches, I can only speculate as to the disappointment experienced by a reader seeking enlightenment but instead being delivered to my electronic demesne.

Several of you, dear readers, have been good enough to rate or comment on some of the posts and one has even managed to “Like” a post – a possibility of whose existence I had been unaware.  From this feedback, I have attempted to draw conclusions as to the content which receives the highest level of approbation.  I can’t, in all honesty, say that I have succeeded – though perhaps the more autobiographical and/or satirical posts might be mildly more positively received.

So, I’m afraid that all I can promise you is more of the same, by which of course I mean: promulgation of the work of Carl von Linné, classical allusions and weak jokes, references to particle physics and, when I can find a peg to hang them on, tales from my mis-spent youth and earlier middle-age.  There will also be more long words shoe-horned in wheresoe’er they might fit, more alliteration and further “reviews” (OK, passing mentions) of classical music.

By the way, I wouldn’t want you to think that I only listen to classical music – in 2010 alone, I went to two concerts of young people’s music (i.e. music made for, rather than necessarily by, young people).  The major downside I found with these occasions was not the music, but the fact that (a) no seating was provided so I had to stand-up through the whole concert and (b) there was no upmarket ice-cream to be had at half-time (vital for the maintenance of safe blood sugar levels – doubly so when standing).  I had assumed this desire to sit-down for music was a sign of my age and the fact that I am no longer (OK, let’s face facts, never was) down wiv da kidz.  However, I have just heard an interview with Fyfe Dangerfield (a man of only 30, and founder member of indie band Guillemots – order Charadriiformes – and so who would probably count as one of the “cool kids”) who also revealed the desire for a seat during concerts – so I am in vaguely respectable company.  As many will know, I live my life by the simple maxim “Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down”.

At this point, a rousing call to arms would be in order – go back to your constituencies and prepare to be mildly stimulated and/or amused, perhaps.  But instead, I will just say that you should know what you are letting yourselves in for by now, so you have only yourselves to blame if you continue reading.

Metablog One

This is where I completely smash down the fourth wall (admittedly, I have granted it only limited respect heretofore) and drive a coach and horses into the metaphorical auditorium (in case you are worried and have moved back from the screen, the coach and horses are also metaphorical).

In this post, the blog will refer to itself – risking recursion or even paradox – but I am without fear (well, if we ignore heights, enclosed spaces and a number of more esoteric phobias which I will cover in some later post).

To my astonishment, the inane ramblings of your electronic interlocutor have now received more than 200 “views”.  I’m fairly sure I have only mentioned this blog to four people – so it seems likely that the readership has grown or the four have viewed it 50 times each.  To be honest, either option is somewhat alarming and proof positive that care in the community isn’t working.

I find writing it oddly cathartic, it is a method to harangue a small crowd without any of the usual, concomitant social awkwardness that would ensue (BTW, isn’t awkward an amazing word – W K W can’t be a common sequence of letters in English).  It also provides an outlet for my heavy-handed attempts at humour, an opportunity to provide some much needed exercise for splendid (but underused) words I am unable to home within my business writings and a way to share my frankly dreadful jokes.  At this point I should warn you that my favourite post (by a long way) is Declension Tension – I know it is only a sub-cracker standard joke dressed up with some pseudo-intellectual trappings, but I love it.  (I am also somewhat alarmed that someone rated SOC Sawston a 5 Star post – I can only assume fat fingers or some sort of ocular disturbance were involved).

Please do feel free to use the ratings system (or leave comments if you can work out how) – it will give you the pleasing illusion that you, in some way, control the direction in which this blog will lurch as time unfolds (it may even be more than an illusion).

Writing the blog has also made me realise why so many people write as part of a team – the muse is a fickle jade and sometimes days can pass without a thought worth sharing crossing the howling void between my ears (luckily, I don’t let this stop me posting).  Some days I worry I’m turning into Ed Reardon – other days I view this as a positive outcome..

Normal (normal?!) service will now be resumed (further metablogs may arise in the future, but probably not in the past unless my experiments in temporal physics start bearing fruit).