30 September 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 104

It turns out that I shouldn't have been so worried about running out of time. The last three chapters are so short that writing about them may take less time than reading them! =P We've all been wondering how Jimmy turned into Snowman; now we know. But does solving the mystery make us feel any better?

I don't have much time, but I will try to set down what I believe to be the explanation for the recent extraordinary events catastrophe. I have gone through the computer of the man known here as Crake. He left it turned on--deliberately, I believe--and I am able to report that the JUVE virus was made here in the Paradice dome by splicers hand-selected by Crake and subsequently eliminated, and was then encysted in the BlyssPlus product. There was a time-lapse factor built in to allow for wide distribution: the first batch of virus did not become active until all selected territories had been seeded, and the outbreak thus took the form of a series of rapidly overlapping waves. For the success of the plan, time was of the essence. Social disruption was maximised, and development of a vaccine effectively prevented. Crake himself had developed a vaccine concurrently with the virus, but he had destroyed it prior to his assisted suicide death.

Although various members of the BlyssPluss project contributed to JUVE on a piecework basis, it is my belief that none, with the exception of Crake, was cognisant of what that effect would be. As for Crake's motives, I can only speculate. Perhaps . . .

After we read Jimmy's last message, he effectively destroys it--and we read, "It is the fate of these words to be eaten by beetles." At first I thought that was part of his dramatic internal monologue. Then I realised that it could also be Margaret Atwood's omniscient third person perspective. Both work, but the latter is infinitely sadder. When the author of your world gives up on you, then all you have is despair. At least the author of the Crakers' world was more beneficent than that, even if he was also a psychopathic loon.

27 September 2014


Locus Focus: Take One Hundred and Ten!

Today we get to graduate from the Unschooling Challenge . . . but not before we get our big twist! (Yes, a twist. Not a diploma. Trust me: it's better this way.) So far, all the settings that I've featured have been "organic," in the sense that no one changed anything about them to make them safer for children or otherwise "age-appropriate." But today, we visit a completely controlled environment that still managed to be optimal for learning.

26 September 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 103

When I saw how long this set of three chapters was, how short the last bunch, and how little time we have left in September, I thought about just writing one last big post. I changed my mind when I saw the rest of Oryx and Crake covers I hadn't used yet: surely I had room for two more. Today's cover isn't a triumph of design, but it's perfect for these chapters with the pigoons.

. . . seven pigoons have materialised from nowhere. They're staring at him, ears forward. Are they the same as yesterday's? As he watches, they begin to amble in his direction.

They have something in mind, all right. He turns, heads back towards the gatehouse, quickens his pace. They're far enough away so he can run if he has to. He looks over his shoulder: they're trotting now. He speeds up . . . Then he spots another group through the gateway up ahead, eight or nine of them, coming towards him across No Man's Land. They're almost at the main gate, cutting him off in that direction. It's as if they've had it planned, between two groups . . .

He reaches the gatehouse, goes through the doorway, pulls the door shut. It doesn't latch. The electronic lock is nonfunctional . . . They'll be able to lever it open, pry with their trotters or snouts. They were always escape artists, the pigoons: if they'd had fingers they'd have ruled the world . . .

Could they be any more menacing? Nowhere else in Oryx and Crake does Dystopia overlap with Horror so effectively. We may have a smoother transition into October/November than I had thought!

23 September 2014


Talking to You about . . . Madonna
(Part of my series on Rob Sheffield's Talking to Girls about Duran Duran)

Of all the complex females in my life, Madonna was the one who taught me how to be completely exasperated by a woman, and how to like it. She was the first woman who ever told me I can dance (I can't) and the first who told me I came when she wished for me (I'll have to take her word on that one). I literally never go to the movies without thinking about that scene in the "Into the Groove" video where she puts her head on the guy's shoulder and lets him feed her popcorn. She screwed me up good. Oh, Madonna--you put this in me, so now what? So now what?

At the end of the post on karaoke, Brandon helped me to decide between Madonna and Morrisey by pointing out that it is the former who has become more of a universal language. Or as Rob Sheffield would put it, borrowing Madonna's own lyrics, it is she who has put something in more of us. And she was able to do it because she has always understood better than most people how the symbols of a culture work. But I doubt that most of us, whether we love her or loathe her or fancy that we are completely indifferent to her, could describe with Sheffield's certainty what influence she has had in our lives.

I'm a little luckier in that respect: as I mentioned in my main Reading Diary entry on Talking to Girls about Duran Duran, my mother decided not to end a teenage pregnancy because of Madonna's Papa Don't Preach. A few months later, your blogger was born. Pop culture is powerful like that. Which is not to say that my mother would have made a different decision in a world where Madonna sang a different song, but that Madonna's song helped her to put into words, and later also into action, her own deepest beliefs. It's usually the songs and symbols of a religious culture which have that power.

20 September 2014


Locus Focus: Take One Hundred and Nine

This month's Locus Focus theme is settings that make great "unschools." The two we've looked at so far have been "nothing special," in the sense that they were perfectly accessible to the people who already lived on or near them. So much for the idea that the best schools are the hardest ones to get into, aye? Today's setting is another "school" that anyone can walk into and learn in, as long as he has someone who can point out the way. 

18 September 2014


Deutsch (und Disney!) am Donnerstag
Or less alliteratively, German (and Disney!) on Thursday

This post is either perfectly timed or totally out of place: it all depends on how dystopian you think Disney is or isn't. LOL!

My German lessons will resume soon, but I haven't been totally idle. Recalling how great English songs were as teaching tools when I was an EFL tutor, I decided to learn some German Lieder for myself. Naturally, I started with children's songs (like Der Kuckuck und der Esel) and older pop songs (like Ich Will Keine Schokolade); but they just didn't stick to my memory the way I wanted, and studying with them never quite transcended a translation exercise. It was very frustrating for a while--because I could feel my language muscles getting flabby--but unexpectedly, this revision strategy collided with another and I found the perfect cross.

That other strategy involved reading the German translation of an English novel that I'm already very familiar with. Knowing what to expect, I believed, would free my mind to pay attention to context and keep me from pausing my reading in order to look up new words. Unfortunately, Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen was far too ambitious a choice. =P I'm not quite on that level yet . . . but as I found out through a serendipitous YouTube recommendation, familiar songs can take me where familiar novels can't.

Here's a three-legged list with some of the Disney classics that I've been enjoying. Let's see if you notice a theme!

3 German Versions of Disney Songs
That I Can Sing A Decent Bit Of

17 September 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 102

Last meeting, we focussed so much on the past that I think it's only fair to look more closely at the future. (Or should I call it the present?) Besides Snowman, the only other human beings (if we can still call them that) who still seem to be around are the so-called Children of Crake. And unlike him, they are thriving. After all, they were designed that way . . .

. . . [The Children of Crake] are not immune from wounds--the children fall down or bash their heads on trees, the women burn their fingers tending the fires, there are cuts and scrapes--but so far the injuries have been minor, and easily cured by purring.

Crake had worked for years on the purring. Once he'd discovered that the cat family purred at the same frequency as the ultrasound used on bone fractions and skin lesions and were thus equipped with their own self-healing mechanism, he'd turned himself inside out in the attempt to install that feature. The trick was to get the hyoid apparatus modified and the voluntary nerve pathways connected and the neocortex control systems adapted without hampering the speech abilities. There'd been quite a few botched experiments, as Snowman recalled. One of the trial batch of kids had manifested a tendency to sprout long whiskers and scramble up the curtains; a couple of the others had vocal expression impediments; one of them had been limited to nouns, verbs, and roaring.

Well, who could blame Crake for pursuing this line of research? We "Two or Three" Book Club members probably wouldn't blow our savings on NooSkins cosmetic treatments, but something like Wolverine's "healing factor" is something a bit more practical. Wouldn't you like the ability to heal your own broken bones or burns? The real question is whether you'd overlook the fact that several "trial batches" of "kids" had to go before you. During the last discussion, Sheila pointed out that sometimes we just have to accept that the past is the past. But how far in the past would, say, the measles and rubella vaccines have to be before we no longer mind too much that they were developed using aborted babies? When does the present stop being the present and finally become the past?

13 September 2014


Locus Focus: Take One Hundred and Eight

"Our success," Sir Ken Robinson has said, "is always synergistic with our environment." As an education adviser, he was likely talking about schools, although he is best known for a talk in which he explained how they kill creativity. But if we've learned one thing from last week's trip to 1940s Monongahela, learning and thriving don't need artificial structures to coax them out. Never underestimate a good unschooling setting.

And now for a cover that the impeccably artistic Stilwell will never forgive me for . . .

09 September 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 101

Pictured today is the cover of the Oryx and Crake edition I would have had if I had been willing to read it in uni. That "frenemy" whom I told you about was so eager for me to read it even after I told her I didn't think it would fit into my book budget, that she offered to buy my copy from me after the trimester, if it were very gently used, at a very generous price. But as I explained, it just wasn't worth it. On the other hand, I'm quite happy to be reading Oryx and Crake today with you all. So it worked out in the end, aye? =)

"We give people hope. Hope isn't ripping off!"

"At NooSkins' prices it is. You hype their wares and take all their money and then they run out of cash, and it's no more treatments for them. They can rot as far as you and your pals are concerned. Don't you remember the way we used to talk, everything we wanted to do? Making life better for people--not just people with money. You used to be so . . . you had ideals then."

"Sure," said Jimmy's father in a tired voice. "I've still got them. I just can't afford them . . . Anyway, [this research has] been paying for your room and board, it's been putting the food on the table. You're hardly in a position to take the high ground."

I just disliked Jimmy's mother at first, but now I see that she's more complex than I thought. While I'm still not happy that she just gave up on being a mother (and then complained about how her son was turning out--just like the parents I wrote about in my Reading Diary entry on John Taylor Gatto's Weapons of Mass Instruction), I'd love to know more about her. What was the incident that was just too much for her? Was there another incident that made her finally decide to take action so many years later? And did the latter have anything to do with Crake?

In the next three chapters we finally get to meet the two title characters--and it's easy to see why they continue to haunt Snowman's imagination long after they seem to be out of his life.

06 September 2014


Locus Focus: Take One Hundred and Seven!

Welcome to the Unschooling Challenge!

Although my theme for September is "Dystopia", the settings I have chosen for September's Saturdays are as anti-dystopian as can be. No, that doesn't mean they're utopian--not when every utopia is a dystopia waiting to happen. You could say they're real-world-ian, just as "unschooling" is real-world-ian.

03 September 2014


Reading Diary: Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto

"It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced," wrote G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy. For the more reasons you have to stand by something, the harder it is for you to sum all of them up. Which kind of explains why The Last Psychiatrist blog has been all over the place in the last year or so. Well, there's also the obvious fact that coherence is no longer a high priority for Alone, even when he's painstakingly spelling everything out. But I confess that I didn't get what he was saying about Randi Zuckerberg until I started reading John Taylor Gatto.

. . . seeing the connection between long-term legal confinement of children and the nation's business gives us an essential perspective in rethinking the role of mass schooling. Classical business values corrupt education, they have no place in education except as cultural artefacts to be examined.

For the first two centuries of [America's] existence, such an institution would have been unthinkable--the young were too valuable a part of economic and social reality. Indispensable, in fact. But when the young were assigned to consume, not produce; when they were ordered to be passive, not active, as part of the general society, the schools we have were the inevitable result of this transformation. As soon as you understand the functions it was given to perform in the new corporate economy, nothing about school at all should surprise you. Not even its Columbine moments.

Strong words, aye? Can you guess which part hit me in the face like one of Alone's brickbats? It was the line: ". . . when the young were assigned to consume, not produce . . ." Which is just another way of describing the very handicap that Alone observed in a child who "had been well trained to want things but not control things." And now everything is so amazingly obvious to me that I would be all over the place, too, if I tried to explain it. Consider me that "ordinary intelligent man" whom Chesterton says would be unable to come up with an impressive answer to the question "Why do you prefer civilisation to savagery?" if you dropped it on him without warning.

But I've obviously had some warning, or else this post wouldn't be so nicely formatted. =P So perhaps I am now an "ordinary intelligent woman" who just gets a little impatient at anyone who tuned in too late to hear all her stories about those two years as a high school teacher and the next three years as an after-school tutor, while they were happening, and who no longer cares to explain herself. I also have a personal bias against conversion-based apologetics, remember? (Trick question! Because if you've just tuned in, then you don't.)

01 September 2014


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 100

We're in the triple digits!!! =D Was anyone else around during our very first meeting? But regardless of when you "joined"--and even if you have since "left"--I'm grateful to have had your company at any point along the way. If you're also feeling nostalgic and have any "Two or Three" Book Club memories that you'd like to share, please let me know in the combox. =) But now that my copy of Oryx and Crake has finally arrived, I shouldn't keep you waiting any longer . . .

"Snowman, oh Snowman," [the children are] saying . . . To them his name is just two syllables. They don't know what a snowman is, they've never seen snow.

It was one of Crake's rules that no name should be chosen for which a physical equivalent--even stuffed, even skeletal--could not be demonstrated. No unicorns, no griffins, no manticores or basilisks. But those rules no longer apply, and it's given Snowman a bitter pleasure to adapt this dubious label. The Abominable Snowman--existing and not existing, flickering at the edges of blizzards, apelike man or manlike ape, stealthy, elusive, known only through rumours and through its backward-pointing footprints. Mountain tribes were said to have chased it down and killed it when they had the chance. They were said to have boiled it, roasted it, held special feasts; all the more exciting, he supposes, for bordering on cannibalism.

Oh, look! An unlikely and unexpected connection to the ending of State of Fear. LOL! (Sorry, Amy. But you know I couldn't resist. =P Let's just hope it's not foreshadowing!)