Ce n’est un monologue

It’s not Q&A either, but that’s the way it goes.
The speaking exams are over. I have done speaking exams across the course of a day from early in the morning, but I’m sure I didn’t feel half as exhausted by the whole process. On Monday evening at about 6.30pm, my eyes were so tired that I could barely keep them open. Yesterday,  I still had the last exams across the morning, finishing them just before lunch. I went back to school after lunch because I still had classes all afternoon. AS1 was a babysitting job, but by then I was feeling drained and when I went back to the office and told Peter that I’d deal with the results and the recordings today because I had class all afternoon, he told me to take the rest of the day off. Good thing, too, because I’m not sure I could’ve survived the afternoon.
Unfortunately, when I got home, the boys were playing the Hammer and Drill Symphony in B flat major somewhere in the building. I might’ve half fallen asleep in spite of that, but I could’ve done without such a disturbance.
Colin told me that PAL1 started monologuing or trying to talk about some prepared subject they wanted to talk about. I had a little of that, but tried to steer the conversation away from familiar seas into unchartered waters. In fact, I didn’t have a single conversation. It was all Q&A because the little darlings think an exam is all about the questions. Without any, of course, things would’ve gone nowhere and the exam would’ve been a long succession of “What should I say?”

The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir.
Since my repose was disturbed when I got home yesterday afternoon, I took the opportunity to finish off The Lady Elizabeth, which is a fictionalised account of the life of Queen Elizabeth I from the time Henry VIII declared her and Mary bastards to the end of Mary’s reign. The book is a readable, popular account of a life which was often difficult and in extreme peril during Mary’s deeply unpopular reign.
Weir tries to give the book some period flavour by garnishing the characters’ language with some Elizabethanisms. It’s not always consistently used, and is sometimes overdone. For example, there’s a section where everyone’s bruiting (spreading rumours); and then all of a sudden, they stop bruiting and the word is never used again. It was as if Weir discovered the word, used it, and then never bothered clearing out the excess when she was revising the book.
As I said, the book is readable and clearly aimed at a mass market audience, and with Elizabeth I as the subject, it seems hard to go wrong.

A three-ass race?
Is the general election going to become interesting now that it seems to be a three-ass race? Which donkey does the <span class = “sarcasm”>great British public</span> want in Downing Street and does it really care so long as there’s the football, dancing celebs, and new series of Dr Who on?
Come to think of it, if there is a hung parliament, would anyone really notice the difference? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t matter which lot is in power. Government policy merely seems to be max. profits for those with money; min. profits for those without; mention the word “merit” (or some synonym); and say “something something more money for education” (excluding the universities; where do you think more money for education comes from?).
Anyway, here’s a link to the Private Eye website just for the hell of it.

And thus the exams finished

Well, until next week.
ash cloud We’ve just finished a week of mock exams in preparation for the big push in about a month’s time. I had to invigilate a few exams, and babysit the little darlings when I’d normally have class during those awkward times when the exam timetable and the normal timetable were out of sync. Only the PAL classes had English exams because they’re the only classes doing an official exam. The AS and A2 classes have wholly abandoned English, which means they’re all about IELTS 5 and worsening with every passing day.
I managed to mark the listening fairly quickly because there’s nothing involved in that. There was a cock-up on the exam front because Jenny had already used the intended paper as practice. I pulled a CD out of my drawer, downloaded the paper, and advised Peter to listen to the CD just to make sure. It turned out that the CD (generically labelled by the Brains Trust [call them UCLES if you like] in Cambridge) was for the extended exam so that there were some differences between it and the core paper. I adjusted the marks accordingly and no real harm was done.
The reading and writing paper, which I would like to have been sat early, wasn’t done until yesterday. I made good progress this morning, completing the marking of PAL 1’s papers this morning partly because I had to babysit AS1. But when I tried to duplicate the feat this afternoon, I only got about halfway through the class. I think that was partly because I preferred chatting to Linda on qq for a bit before she had to go and invigilate an exam herself; partly because it was hot in the office this afternoon and my brain became sluggish. This is what it’s like to be in AS1, I thought. No, I mused, reconsidering my position. My brain can’t possibly be that sluggish; and partly because I’m sure PAL 2’s writing takes more effort to mark since it requires a greater use of red pen.
Unfortunately, my trials are not over yet because Colin and I have speaking exams (the real thing) on Monday and Tuesday starting from an early hour. If you’ve ever done EFL speaking exams, you’ll know how quickly your brain turns gooey after listening to the same witless drivel time and a again. Since I’m testing PAL 2, I basically have to give the dunces the one subject about which they can say something. I’m sure I’m going to be told quite a few times that the topic can make them exciting. (They mean “excited”, but they’re oblivious of the difference and don’t have the breadth of vocabulary to employ any synonyms.)
It was actually a reasonably pleasant day today. Whether this is a harbinger of the 30° Wednesday which are meant to have next week, I don’t know, but paint me sceptical. The weather over the past week or so has been almost complete bollocks.
The picture with this entry is a satellite image from the Beeb of the ash cloud from Iceland streaming across the Atlantic towards the UK.
Meanwhile, I know no more about the earthquake in Qinghai than anyone else who’s neither there nor well-informed. At the moment, it seems less devastating than the Sichuan quake, but that news may change. Whether there’s any connection between this quake and the one two years ago, I don’t know, but the Earth has been rumbling quite a lot recently. Perhaps California is about to slide into the sea.
I’ve been nosing around one of the online chess sites to see what sort of games the uncool kids from the world of chess are playing. My data is still slight at the moment since the process is all a little random, but I get the impression that there are players who, regardless of the outcome, almost always play the same opening every time and have almost certainly never thought of doing some research into it, but have simply learnt through experience that if their opponent plays X, they play Y. Yet such players seem to play partial openings such as the guy who plays the Sokolsky (1. b4) as white and the Pirc (1. d4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 g6) as black, but actually plays neither, and is probably only successful because his opponents don’t really know what he’s doing (though he doesn’t either) and don’t know how to respond.
There seems to be a profusion of Philidors (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6), though for reasons I can’t guess, and less popular King’s Pawn Games such as the Vienna Game (1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6) or Bishop’s Opening (2. Bc4). Sicilian Defences occur occasionally, but are not that common either because this species of player either doesn’t know what one is or has bought into the whole myth that anyone rated under 2000 shouldn’t play one. (Rot!) I can’t recall seeing any Caro-Kanns at all (1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5) or French Defences (1.e4 e6 2. d4 d5), and if I do see any, I expect they’ll be accidents.
1. d4 is not unknown, but it is a rarity, and 1. …Nf6 is even rarer still in spite of the fact that that’s the most common response to 1. d4. Against 1. d4, you’ll probably end up with a Queen’s Gambit (Accepted or Declined), but never a Slav or Semi-Slav (again, except by accident).
I doubt whether this is a world in which one player not only challenges another, but also does some research on what they like to play. At least, that’s what I’d do if I had a large database of matches from which to compile such statistics. In some cases, I note, statistics may not help, but that might mean the other player is trying to use some self-devised system, which is probably not a wise thing to attempt unless they’re a GM.
I keep thinking that this should be giving me some insight into the human mind, but I’m not sure what interpretation to place on the prevalence of openings which are uncommon (e.g. the Vienna Game) or those which are common, but seemed to be played because 2. …Nc6 is just too obvious (e.g. Philidor). Possibly what I should be doing is learning from those players who persistently play the same opening all the time, although I cannot help but think that there is a whole world of openings to consider for variety where the uniformity of such players is perhaps borne from ignorance of that world.

Oh to be in England

Now that spring is there.
Wherever spring is, it isn’t here. We’ve had three days of dense and inert haze. I’m not sure whether I want to know what the haze is made of (it’s certainly nothing like fog as I understand it) or whether I’d rather remain ignorant of the elements of cloud of particles malingering around the streets of Wuxi. I’m now hearing that we might be in for a little snow some time this week, and certainly another drop in the temperature. May is a little more than two weeks away, but any sign of spring weather remains over the horizon. If my first winter in China was the coldest, then this has been the longest. I’m sure that by this time, just as the SARS crisis was about to shut the school I was at then, the weather had improved, the ice on the school lake had melted, and it was already feeling summery by British standards.
That pleasant Monday we had last week, which I thought might herald the arrival of spring weather, proved to be a one-off. Since then, the past three days have been more livid in hue, but grey has been the theme of the week overall.
We started the mock exams today. I’m sure the results in English will be about the same as last time because there hasn’t been the time for students to improve. My prediction is that their overall average for English will be a B. If I could mark them on their actual intellects, then they might be lucky to average a C-.
For the PAL classes, the IGCSE ESL paper will be their second-to-last meaningful English exam. There is no AS or A-level EFL exam, which is a pity because the English which AS1 wrote on the board last week was an error-riddled embarrassment. So many of them are going to be doing remedial English when they go abroad. All right, retarded English, from where they’ll work their way up to remedial.


By Michael Frayn.
When Stephen Wheatley goes back to the close where he lived as a boy during World War II, he is reminded of the events which follow the announcement by his friend, Keith, that his mother is a German spy. The boys start investigating her and find much to suggest that she’s up to something. But their attempts at counter-espionage are rather feeble and it seems that everyone, including Keith’s mother, is well aware of them, their activities (if not the reason for them), and their hideout. Eventually, Stephen discovers what Keith’s mother is doing, has an encounter with Barbara Berrill, and learns another secret, one about himself.
In spite of the brevity of the novel, it’s quite complicated to try to describe the plot coherently. Stephen is small, much harassed, and easily led by the domineering Keith who takes after his unpleasant, bullying father. He tends to find himself in over his head and resorts to every school boy’s favourite defence – dumb ignorance (which is a little annoying at times). His attempts to do the right thing never seem to work and usually making things worse. Stephen also has an obsession with germs which is never explained. His older brother, Geoff, is oafish and uncouth. As a reprisal for revealing the boys’ mission to Barbara Berrill and Keith’s mother (much implied, but little admitted directly), Keith cuts Stephen’s throat with his father’s bayonet (not fatally) in a final unpleasant act. Older Stephen’s memory is a little ropey at times, but it’s not a motif which gets much airtime. Keith is one of those children who thinks that if the idea doesn’t come from him, then it has little value. It’s hard to say why he even tolerates Stephen, but since he’s unpopular and Stephen is an outsider himself, perhaps that is how they might gravitate together. His father was perpetually whistling his malevolent whistle and tending his garden. His mother, ever elegantly dressed, carried two secrets about her brother-in-law. Barbara Berrill was the Lisa Simpson of the book, being far more aware of the adult world than Stephen and more mature. Since adults don’t appear to have much of a clue when it comes to writing children, she seemed to be that stock child character with wisdom well beyond her years.
I thought Spies was a little bit stage play, though. I could imagine all the pregnant pauses when things are left unsaid, or the parts which we as adults would understand, but which would go over Stephen’s head. The characters would, I think, be quite at home on the stage with their particular traits as I’ve outlined above.
Overall, a decent book.

Replacement day

Calling the letter “b”.
It was a day for replacing things. The front brakes of my bike were badly worn, a state which I attribute less to my fearsome use of them than to the amount of particles in the atmosphere. After I’d been to the bike shop and had new brakes fitted, I went on little adventure to nowhere in particular since it was a pleasant spring day. I ended up on the other side of the canal and on the wrong side of the road, although there were no signs informing cyclists that they should use the cycle lane on the other side of the road. I thought it was distinctly iffy practice to force cyclists to cross the road because I thought there was a chance (and I was right) that we could then cross back again.
There’s actually a lot of work being done on the road on the far side of the canal. The cycle lane is quite new and littered with debris from the beautification scheme that’s been underway since I arrived in Wuxi, but once it’s been tidied up it’ll make for a smooth ride, which is very different from all too many of the roads around here. Come to think of it, it might not accumulate puddles when it rains; or the whole thing will be a stream of water as the footpaths were at school when we had torrential rain in Beijing.
My other replacement was the batteries for my electronic dictionary which I’m sure I haven’t used that much, but find over a year has passed since I bought it. I found the right batteries in Tesco the other day, but no one had the key to the cabinet, and these came from Trust Mart instead. The batteries (I needed two) cost ¥10 each. I hope that they might last a little longer than the rather expensive batteries I bought for my calculator because the display on that is rather dull when you look at it front on. Of course, it might be that modern calculators are designed so that their screens are best viewed at an angle, as you normally would, and the batteries are still sound.
It was a nice day today. Started out with a combination of haze and sunshine, but the latter shooed the former away and it was reasonably clear and warm.

That’ll teach you

An Education.
It’s the unswinging end of London at the unswinging end of the 1960s as school girl, Jenny, does her A-levels and hopes for a place at Oxford to read English. One day while she’s waiting at the bus stop in the rain, a man, David, offers to take her cello for her in his car, but since this is the 60s, then it’s perfectly all right for older men to do that without it being assumed they’re perverts or curb crawlers. They start a relationship which allows Jenny to experience life a little outside of her repressive home environment. There’s something a little dodgy about David’s business, but Jenny doesn’t seem to mind or care that much. Eventually she gets to go to Paris, have sex, and get engaged. But having left school as a consequence of this turn of events, Jenny discovers that David is both married and a serial philanderer. Her life is ruined, but somehow, with the help of Miss Repressed-Lesbian (or Miss Frustrated-Spinster, her English teacher; it was hard to catch her exact name), she makes it to Oxford after all.
My feeling was that although Alfred Molina puts in a good turn as Jenny’s authoritarian father, Jenny herself seems to have been 26 going on 27 rather than 16 going on 17. I found her character just a little unrealistic because she sounded like children in American films who are always spitting out snappy one-liners and making fools of the adults. All right, she wasn’t firing off the one-liners, but I’m sure the way the character was portrayed was as no school girl ever was then or now, no matter what inflated ideas they might have of themselves.
Worth seeing? Yes. Classic of the genre? No, not really.
Since the story is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, I can only assume that the film was punctuated correctly.

Secret Diary of a Call Girl.
Since I was on a bit of a roll yesterday, I decided to watch Secret Diary of a Call Girl based on the blog (blocked, natch) of Belle du Jour (aka Brooke Magnanti; probably also blocked). I picked up the book in Page One in Hong Kong once, glanced at it, and didn’t feel remotely inclined to buy it. Unfortunately, because the blog was blocked, I can’t compare that to the programme, although knowing the truth behind the tale (cash-starved scientist finishing off her PhD in need of a grant), I knew that parts of the series really were fictional.
Overall, I must admit that I wasn’t really gripped by Secret Diary of a Call Girl. I’m not sure how much of the relationship between Hannah, her boyfriend and her best friend was for real, or was added to give the programme a little drama; or, indeed, how much of it was spiced up. I’ll give it a shrug. Not sure whether it’s worth two shrugs.

The Fourth Estate

What a bunch of wankers wits.
The Guardian has the usual April Fool’s Day round up of silly stories in the press. Since I couldn’t find the news elsewhere, I thought the story about China supporting sanctions against Iran was the gag story from The Guardian itself because I couldn’t imagine the country strapping on a pair and going against its best (evil) friend. But it seems that the story might be true after all.
In better, and I assume true news, Simon Singh has won his libel battle against the British Chiropractic Association (Guardian story; BBC). If I remember correctly, Singh’s words in the Guardian (apparently now no longer readable) might have been ill-considered, but the whole case raised issues for scientists involved in scientific debates. On the other hand, how can the practitioners of quackery be allowed to bring such cases in the first place?
I forgot to mention April Fool’s Day to either class today. What a laugh it would’ve been if the cretinous dolts in AS1 had turned out to be pretending to be idle and imbecilic for the past term and a half.
Kick-Ass, which has caused such palpitations in certain sectors because of its language, has received a fairly glowing review from Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. Another one to look out for on DVD. Perhaps.
Meanwhile, spring is still being backward in coming forward as we suffer from prolonged rain, wintry temperatures, the absence of competently laid road surfaces, or a knowledge of drains.

Dexter, Series 4

This time it’s John Lithgow.
Dexter is now married with children, including one of his own, and must juggle serial killing with family responsibilities. The two don’t exactly fit well together and some of Dexter’s card house begins to tumble when his wife, Rita, learns that he has kept his flat (like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, but more suburban) and his sister Deborah learns who Dexter’s mother was and, therefore, whose brother (and Deborah’s former fiancé) he was.
In this series, Dexter is on the trail of the Trinity killer who had been killing people all over the country for thirty years. Actually, he kills four people at a time, but Trinity sounded like a much cooler nickname. Since Trinity is played by John Lithgow, the audience is not left to assume that the serial killer of the series is Deborah’s boyfriend. Dexter thinks that he sees an older version of himself in Trinity from whom he can learn how to cope with a family on top of his night job. But in the end, Trinity turns out to be deeply unhinged and prone to wild mood swings.
Dexter does try to eliminate him, but keeps being thwarted in his attempts. In fact, when he finally gets his man, the audience is left to fill in the details of how Dexter managed to track down Trinity’s Mustang, which was being repainted, and get in the boot and remain undetected. Oh well, you knew Dexter would get his man, although I suspected there might be a sting. Wasn’t sure whether Deborah, the reporter, or some other major character was for the chop (budget cuts are a bitch), but it turned out to be Rita (don’t worry; I see Julie Benz got a job with Desperate Housewives).
I was divided between Quinn’s girlfriend being another of Trinity’s victims and being connected to him somehow. She turned out to be another daughter, although it was never explained why he had been as restrictive with her as he had with his other daughter, a detail which got overlooked. She had seen her father on the job when she was five, but instead of it turning her into a serial killer, she took steps to protect him.
On this point, the programme seems to indulge in crude psychology assuming that any child who sees some exceptionally traumatic and gory event is going to turn into a monster themselves. That was the supposition with both Dexter and his brother, Brian, who saw their mother get murdered. If there’s a fifth series of Dexter, it may be the assumption that will now be made about Dexter’s son, Harrison, who was sitting in a pool of his mother’s blood when Dexter found him.
I really need to rewatch the whole of Dexter from the very start to see how it’s evolved (or hasn’t) since the first series. I think I saw the first two back-to-back, followed by the third some time later. At least I think that’s what happened. It usually does.
[02.08.14. Four years later, and I’ve yet to see the final series (one more or two?) of Dexter, but from what I’d read about them on line, the programme had long passed its best-before date.]