learning

History, Prehistory and Everything Before and After

Ours is not as bad as H.E. Bates’ Larkin’s house where there was always a TV on in every room, but the one telly we have does seem to be on a lot. Mostly, I tune it out but sometimes it worms its way past my unconscious defence.

As it did yesterday. It was showing a medieval drama, a jousting event where armoured blokes upon armoured horses charged at each other, aiming poles at the other’s delicate body parts. And at other times on foot, hacking at each other with huge broad swords. Apart from the jousting scene, you could tell it was a medieval setting because all the poor people were dressed in sackcloth and rags. A funny thing though, a lot of them were exceptionally clean shaven and had nice haircuts, and all of them had really clean faces and hands, as if they’d just taken a hot bath or shower.

To be fair, I guessed it was a semi-comedy drama. What gave it away, and what drew my attention to the telly in the first place, was during the jousting tournament the crowd were all chanting Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, and in a subsequent scene there was an incongruous electric guitar solo – not acted out in the scene, thank god, but on the soundtrack.


During the above faux historical drama, I had begun listening to another podcast about the planet Venus. Early on in our history, Venus was considered to be Earth’s twin, it being close to Earth’s size as well as being our neighbour (Mars is much smaller). It’s also most noticeable in the sky having a highly reflective atmosphere; it appears as a star. Early on, people imagined it contained life and, as it was closer to the sun, its life would be consistent with that of hot, tropical jungles.

That idea was binned once scientific evidence established how hostile its atmosphere actually is: mostly carbon dioxide and so thick, the pressure at ground level would crush a human being, and so hot it would melt lead. Mars seemed a better bet for life after that.

One of the three scientists giving account of the planet gave a short description of how planets formed around the sun, beginning with a swirling of space dust, eventually sticking together by electromagnetism and then gravity, the sun then reaching ignition point, and the residual turning forces of swirling matter making everything revolve and orbit. For Venus and Earth, the period from adhering and coagulating dust particles to a proper orbiting sphere would be around 100 million years. At that would just be the beginning.


I was thinking about my primary school and how I remembered a lot of lessons about prehistoric life. We began with fossils of trilobites and ammonites, those funny looking segmented and spirally sea creatures, then the fishes and amphibians, and eventually the rise and decline of the reptiles – dinosaurs! – and ending with a few early mammals.

It seems to me now how each of these periods in Earth’s past is a distinct portion of the Earth’s life simply because of the huge passage of time each had taken. The Earth has had many lives, so to speak. It may have many more ahead, possibly without us.

And there I was, marvelling at those significant names from England’s “Dark Ages”, and how they seem to dabble in politics and culture as much as we do, and write books about it all. And, well, yes, but it’s only 1400 years ago. Nothing in time. When we’ve barely 100 years each in which to experience existence, how inconceivable is a passing of a million years!


It’s extraordinary to me to think how Earth has sustained some form of higher life for so long, and mostly, if not all, by chance. What are the odds? Do you think we’ll come face to face with aliens from another planet? Across time and space, as vast and hostile as it appears, and to coincide with our time here?

I don’t.

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Sex Words

With luck, our forthcoming house move will happen in the new year and I am beginning to look at home improvement and gardening projects more and more. Only this morning I looked into how to wire up a wall-mounted TV above a fireplace before moving onto asparagus beds. In our allotment years, we had inherited an asparagus bed from previous tenants and the fresh shoots, cut, cooked and eaten within a half hour, were so divine, a new bed is at the top of the list of gardening endeavours.

I hadn’t realised asparagus is sexed. That is to say there are male and female plants, the females bear fruit while the males push up more spears, and are more desirable to cooks. Of course, I then remembered about the holly and hunting at this time of year for red berry bearing twigs to make Christmas wreaths – the female plant again bears the fruit.

The British don’t really think about gender beyond the animal kingdom and even within it, they tend to make crazy assumptions: how many readily assume any cat is a “she” while any dog is a “he”. I remember listening to a man wax fondly about his banger of a car. It was “she’s a good little runner; she doesn’t like hills as much as she once did though; I can still get a good many miles out of her for a gallon…” etc. while I’m thinking “it’s a car: bits of metal, rubber and plastic”. Fair enough, I’ve never been one for cars.

When learning Spanish as a “foreign language”, or French or Italian, the native English speaker will have some trouble with gendered words. Not only are we required to use the correct grammatical article before the noun, and the correct adjective form after, but we trouble our logical minds with why certain things are masculine or feminine in the first place. For example, why is a man’s jacket (una chaqueta) female and a woman’s dress (un vestido) male?

I suspect the problem arises with our chronic presumption about gender assigned characteristics. A woman can wear a jacket and a man a dress. For native speakers learning their words from birth, there isn’t a problem; it is what it is (I believe this is a secret to learning new languages too – don’t over analyse, just accept it).

Sorry if I’ve misled you with the title. Did you know asparagus is considered to be an aphrodisiac? El afrodisíaco, in Spanish, even though Aphrodite was a goddess? Don’t over analyse!

Questions

I am indebted to an art tutor of mine from several years ago who asked, after considering one of my worser efforts,

What is it you are trying to achieve?

This is now my $64k question and it should be applied to almost everything we do. We ought to ask it of ourselves first thing in the morning, and what harm would it do to repeat it last thing at night?

As I am about to leave my job, I was thinking about the job interviews I’ve had and the sort of questions interviewers asked me and how, if at all, this related to the job. Of course, of all those jobs I didn’t get I can’t say other than nearly all of those involved tedious questioning; my unconscious reaction to tedium may have contributed to being rejected, who knows?

The interviews that went well and resulted in acceptance usually went something like,

Is this the kind of thing you do/feel confident doing/think you can do?

What’s your hourly rate?

How soon can you start?

I don’t mean to infer that good interviews are over in less time than it takes to drink your cup of tea (actually, I learnt to decline any hot beverage offered because these things can be over embarrassingly quickly – embarrassing if you’re still sipping your scalding hot cuppa, discussing how nice the weather is looking with three guys eager to get on with their work. Always ask for a glass of water instead).

Good interviews show the human side of everyone involved, not the cynical, distrusting side,

Yes, I confess, I don’t really have a job relevant degree, the letters are phoney, I lied about having thirty years practical experience, I’m no way “computer literate”, and I absolutely loathe “teamwork”. My CV is a utter work of fiction I made up the night before emailing it over. All I have to offer is big balls and a brass neck, so tell me why wouldn’t you want to hire someone with those?

Despite presenting an accurate CV, they still want to check it out with their impudent interrogation. They doubted my honesty. Would you want a job that began like this?

I was only ever asked once the usually hackneyed question,

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

That interview actually concluded in a bit of an argument so no guesses how that went. I knew someone who was asked that question and answered, without irony and in all seriousness,

Running this company.

That has to be the perfect answer, whether you’re serious about it or not. I regret not having had a second chance to say that.

A Dabbler’s Education

I had been thinking about those little GIF cartoons I attempted some years ago, and then how and why I came to blog, and it’s probably right that I self-identify as a bit of a dabbler. If you can’t be a Master at any one thing then at least try to be a Jack of all things. This I believe.

If I see something I like, I’m interested to find out how it works and what better way than to have a go at it yourself? That way you get an understanding and a better appreciation of the thing, and, by extension, the whole world. Or at least as much of the world as you can cram into a single lifetime.

This education began with my Mum and Dad. They were, and still are, the most self-reliant people I know. For them, I think it was partly out of necessity, not having a lot of money, but they are practical people too, in spirit.

So throughout my adult life, it’s astonished me how many times I’ve heard men say, with undisguised pride, how they “got in a man” to fix something that any fully functioning and reasonably intelligent person could do for themselves in no time. Seriously, I have known men who don’t even possess a screwdriver. It’s just bizarre if you consider how man is identified as a user of tools, a thing that sets us apart from most other animals, and yet there are examples here amongst us without a basic tool, the screwdriver – in a world of screws! And don’t get me started on men who (again, proudly claiming) don’t know their way around a kitchen…!

But back to education. It’s a source of dismay to me how it is in our co-called civilisation that educational support seems to shudder to a halt in adulthood and thereafter is only a real option for the wealthy and privileged. Not that it appears many of them take it up beyond the necessity in getting the right qualification to begin a career – normally a very straight and narrow path to the end.

Ignorance abounds, and it seems as if we’re proud to be dumb. Ironically, we are also very opinionated, and adamantly so. Though, to me, this is likely a symptom of the malaise. I believe it’s true that the more you learn, and the broader your learning is, paradoxically the more there is remaining to be understood.

This dabbler’s education is a work in progress.

North, South, East & West

These four cardinal points walk into a bar…

(Here, I suppose, some sort of joke, pun or riddle should follow. I don’t have one so, at no expense and without the use of a safety net, I shall attempt to make it up on the spot.)

A Roman Catholic Cardinal walks into The Compass and Navigator, a theme pub, and asks the barman for a Scotch. “I’m very sorry, Your Grace, but we can’t serve anyone not entering into the spirit of our theme”, says the barman. The Cardinal points to a bottle behind the barman and the barman says, “Certainly, Your Grace, a single or a double?”

(Okay, what do you expect at short notice?)

It’s not clear whether this Cardinal was Spanish. Certainly the spread of Spanish as a language was likely down to the zeal of the old Conquistadors acting on behalf of the Catholic Church. The language they imposed possibly originated from a vulgar form of Latin spoken in Iberia, the region of the Roman Empire which largely became Spain.

My attempts at learning Spanish begin to feel like painting a door by flicking paint about all points of the compass: some sticks well enough to the door but in all it seems too random and disorganised. I then thought of Youtube and there found a TedTalk on language learning tips.

The most interesting tip suggests holding conversations with yourself in the shower. So, all that singing has been an utter waste of an opportunity! All these years impersonating Otis, Van and Amy Winehouse… I ought to have practiced walking into a Spanish bar…

Buenas tardes. Qué tal? Quisiera una cerveza y un paquete de cacahuetes, por favor. ¿Y uno para ti, señor? Ah, gracias, mi amigo. Quédate con el cambio. …¡Oh!, ¿dónde está el baño?

What actually happened in the shower yesterday was this thought occurring to me out of nowhere. How is that if you travelled North from anywhere on the planet, you’d eventually reach the pole, after which, if you kept moving straight ahead, you’d then be heading South, without changing direction.

But if you had travelled East from your original starting point, no matter what, if you kept moving ahead, you’d be heading East all the while.

There is no East. Or West for that matter. I’m really surprised this omission didn’t occur to the global planners of old.

Hasta luego, mis amigos.


5 Techniques to Speak Any Language by Sid Efromovich via Tedx (youtube)

Mi aerodeslizador está lleno de anguilas

Another reason I haven’t blogged this week is most of my efforts have gone into learning Spanish. It’s a tough language, I think, mainly because the pronunciation of the letters are totally different to similar looking ones in English. Like, a b in Spanish is pronounced more like a v in English, and a z is like a s’th sound in English. Also it’s a language best spoken in an accent which requires rolling the r and a lot of throaty noises. It’s a heavy phonic workout for lazy English speakers like me, for sure.

The other thing, which I suspected myself when using the Duolingo app, is that there’s Spanish and then there’s American Spanish. It’s a bit like English where the US and the UK are spoken of as two nations separated by a common language, so too for Spain and all those Latin American countries, and Duolingo, despite getting some approval from our European Spanish teacher, is also of the American kind.

But it has been fun! And I hope it continues to be so.


The above title, you probably know, comes from Monty Python’s Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook sketch, a reminder here,


How to say “My hovercraft is full of eels” in Spanish

Personal Sonata Unfulfilled

Je ne regrette rien. No, I don’t really do regrets but there are a few things I’m disappointed in with regards myself. Number one might be never having become proficient on any musical instrument.

Growing up, our house didn’t have a piano like a lot of my friends’ home’s did. That’s not to say many of my friends played the piano. This is the odd thing, I never heard the piano being played by anyone in those houses, it either was explicitly forbidden to be used or the lid of the keyboard was forever locked. This was a pity because I’d fantasise about flipping up the lid and giving their parents an impromptu rendition of Great Balls of Fire or maybe something from the boogie songbook of Huey “Piano” Smith, and their parents would rush in and say, “Boy, we must leave that piano unlocked more often!”

When I was about thirteen, the man across the road gave me a guitar he’d found clearing out his loft. It was a three-quarter size Spanish guitar but it had a full set of steel strings, not nylon or catgut. It also had an obvious crack from the sound hole to the bridge, and a little beyond. It came with a hard, black case and inside it, hidden under the guitar, there was a copy of Bert Weedon’s Play-in-a-Day. Bert Weedon had an excess of optimism, that’s all I can say about him.

Despite following the instructions, I was never confident it was ever in tune, and the strings hurt like hell, and there’s only so much of There’s A Tavern In The Town that’s good for a thirteen year old’s enthusiasm and self-esteem.

The instrument I ought to have tried would be the drums. As a kid, I was forever banging on stuff: tables, worktops, toolboxes, cardboard boxes, pots and pans. You’d think my folks would have talked it over, agreed their son had potential, gave me encouragement and set me up with a kit and lessons, instead of Dad beating a defensive retreat from the room and Mum shouting at me to “stop that infernal racket!”

These days, it’s not unusual to pass a house and hear some youngster behind a garage door or through an upstairs window, practicing on a drum kit and whenever I come across the sounds, I get a tear in the eye and say to myself, “you know, I think Mum had a point.”

During my college years, I met a guy who wanted to be the next Eric Clapton. With his help, I went out and purchased a brand new Yamaha acoustic guitar and several tutorial books and songbooks – rock, blues and a bit of decent pop. I plodded along with it until my college exams took precedence, then once I stopped, I didn’t find the enthusiasm to start again. The problem always was the pace of my progress wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be.

I still have the guitar, gathering dust beside the bed. Occasionally I dust it off, retune it a bit and strum a few chords – I only remember about four anyway, without consulting a book. Though my kids had been encouraged to play instruments at school – something else I didn’t have – neither had a lot of interest to persevere. I may have to pass the guitar on to a grandchild. I hope he or she becomes the next Ed Sheeren, or whoever, make a pot of money and keep me in the luxury to which I’m sure I could learn to be accustomed. There has to be some purpose to keeping the damn thing.

What are you trying to achieve?

Reading over that last post – because you have to, right? It might be as painful as catching sight of your reflection in a shop window or hearing your voice on playback, but how could you inflict yourself on other people without first enduring yourself yourself? – reminded me of something a previous tutor had said.

They took a look at my effort and asked me what I was trying to achieve.

Imagine attending a mathematics class, or a French language class, and the teacher asking what it was you were trying to achieve. Should art be so different?

Picasso supposedly claimed to have spent four years learning how to paint like Raphael and the rest of his days learning how to paint like a child.

People latch on to the second part, too fondly, I think, as if it’s a profound clue to success. He was having us on. The first part is closer to the truth. Picasso, the man, never painted like a child, not with his ego. He painted like a fully-formed Picasso, one who had previously learnt the fundamental skills and techniques of drawing and painting.

< Pablo Picasso possibly
seated at The Sad Café.