Sunday, 30 April 2017

“Double Star” 1956, by Robert Heinlein

For the past month, prompted by my reading of William Paterson’s highly readable biography of Heinlein “Robert A. Heinlein in Dialogue with his Century” (2010), I have been re-reading my Heinlein. By way of background, for the 70s and 80s H was one of my “go to” authors. When in search of a book to reread he was always a starting point. By the 90s my tastes had changed and I looked to new fields of reading enlightenment, however, after a quarter of a century it is now time for renewed interest! 

Let me say upfront, though I cannot agree with his libertarian justifications for violence, his casual acceptance of poverty, nor libertarianism itself, I do regard H as truly being one of the greats of science fiction, and a man who respected liberty and freedom, but only in a narrow sense.

This short novel “Double Star” was written in 1956, and tells of the transformation of an apparently talented actor, but one with an empty even bigoted life into a larger, farsighted and better person, who will go on to play a crucial role in human history. As with everything H writes the story background is rife with surprises and turns of fate. This future world is of a settled and colonised solar system. A world peopled with Martians and Venusians, and of course humans (for all of his imagination Heinlein could never relegate humans to second rate status), however, the ruler of this varied mix is the Holy Roman Emperor. I will say that again: Holy. Roman. Emperor! Wow.

When I first read this in the 70s I was wallowing in the learning of history, my prime academic interest still. The very idea that the Hasburgs could return as constitutional monarchs of the far future floored me. It still does. Holy. Roman. Emperor! Wow.

Heinlein manages to squeeze everything and more out of a scene. The simplest act generates images, story, and details. For example, in the few pages describing the act of meeting the emperor H gives us a history lesson that introduces and explains the nature of monarchy, and justifies a future constitutional monarchy. Of course, H the scientist and engineer never misses the opportunity to explain science and engineering. Hard and semi-soft SF!

Governments and politics, in Heinlein’s earlier writing career, not long after his own abortive though dramatic joust with the political system, are portrayed moderately well. In “Double Star” hints of H’s own days as a campaigner shine through. The political wrangling that goes on in the novel has the flavour of direct experience. A small joke about the negatives of political life is countered with the statement that political involvement is the most exciting and worthwhile activity one can pursue. The democratic, parliamentary system of the novel is portrayed as somewhat efficient and overall beneficial.  Also that politics is noble, and a worthwhile and necessary endeavour. Beliefs that would slowly fade from H’s writing as the years progressed.

To return to the details of the story, an out of work, yet talented minor actor is hired to stand in for the kidnapped opposition leader of the imperial parliament. Is that plausible? Maybe, stranger things have happened. Anyway, with some reluctance at first Lorenzo Smythe “the Great Lorenzo” masterfully impersonates the Right Honourable John Joseph Bonforte. His first act is to stand in for Bonforte who is up for adoption by a Marian clan. An adoption with huge political meaning, as Bonforte wishes to grant the Martians full citizen rights in the human dominated government. This impersonation is pulled off with great style and success. Next the imposter meets the emperor and is detected, but is allowed to continue in his deception by the emperor. Ethical? 

The denouement is the death of the original, and the decision by the actor to continue his role, and work for political reform that is ultimately successful. The final scene is a flashback from the end of his successful political career where the ‘aliens’ have full citizenship in the empire, and trade is free (naturally). Heinlein concludes the novel with a few words on the innate worth of human life.

Having said this, I will discuss one point that disturbs me—the acceptance of casual psychical abuse, Pavlovian, as a means of 'educating' children. The protagonist several times mentions that his father, also an actor, physical beat him in order to teach him his acting skills. As a teacher I find this a disgraceful portrayal of education, and an approach to teaching that is counterproductive. Conditioning teaches nothing, and creates adults who are unimaginative, obedient to authority figures, and resort quickly to violence to solve problems. To what extent this background item reflects Heinlein's true beliefs I do not know, but I found it the one main disturbing feature of this novel.

Again, I greatly enjoyed rereading this novel. My recollection was accurate, the details are all there—Heinlein packs a lot in—and the captivating story. As I made clear in my introduction, the theme is not the mechanics of the novel, but the transformation of a man, from a failure to a ‘real’ man.

Again, an engaging novel, I keep wanting to write “surprisingly so”. Essentially, the story is of the simplest with only a few scenes, heavy with exposition. It is Heinlein’s skill as a story teller that makes this shine. Worth a read.

Ten things to do when teaching Online

Online teaching is a recent and promising medium of instruction that has created promising teaching opportunities for educators and learners, however, equally new ideas and new approaches are needed to make best use of this medium. 

Here are ten techniques I now use in my online teaching. These are aimed at western teachers who teach school aged Chinese students, however, they can be applied in varying extent to different students and different ages.

One. Chat at the beginning of the lesson
Before you dive into the lesson spend one to two minutes talking to your student about her or his day, and yours—the idle chitchat that people do. Discuss the weather, school, and friends. 

For regular students keep track of what your student tells you, don’t forget any essentials (see point seven below). A month later, if you can refer back to the time your student lost her kite in the tree, you will make a long-standing favourable impression.

This practice is good with older students, and I believe essential with younger students. A few minutes of conversation will put a smile on their face, humanise you in their eyes (a distant foreigner looking out of their computer screen), and make the learning more relaxed.

Two. Ad-lib
Your online school will give you a lesson, but treat this as a guide. By this I am not advising you to ignore the lesson, but consider the lesson the starting point of your teaching, not the end. Your aim is to educate, which means you must adapt to your student—a student focused lesson. So, when needed, don’t hesitate to divert from the strict time and pages of your provided lesson. 

For example, if you student is interested in one aspect of the lesson follow that interest to its conclusion, or if you student struggles with one section of the lesson spend time revising. In a more extreme case, if you find your student unresponsive, maybe having a bad day, abandon the lesson and go for free-talk.

Three. Invite your student to ask you questions
At the beginning of the lesson, and once or twice during the lesson, tell you student that you want to hear his or her questions. This may seem obvious but students, specially younger students, are often shy with foreign teachers. So, tell your students that you want to know their questions, and when they do ask, be genuinely interested and helpful.

Four. Type important words and phrases from the lesson
New words, important words, significant phrases—anything your student should remember—type into your communication app. Typing signifies the importance of the word and it gives the student a visual cue. Encourage the student to type the word back to you: “Can you type that?”

Don’t overdue this, aim for three to four words each lesson. This is enough to encourage, but not enough to overwhelm.

Five. Ask your student to tell you a word in her language
Bonding. For the entire lesson you are teaching, telling the student something. No matter how interactive your lesson is, no matter how good a teacher you are, no matter how great the student, this becomes a little aggravating. No one likes to be repeatedly told what to do. So, during the lesson when an interesting word appears, ask your student to give you that word in their language. 

Then, repeat the word. You will undoubtedly mispronounce. Your mumblings will undoubtedly cause your student to smile, maybe laugh. Ask him to repeat, and try again. This also gives you a better idea of what it is like to learn new vocabulary.

Six. Remember mistakes and revise at the end of the class
By this I mean make a written note of your student’s mistakes during the lesson. These mistakes can be in pronunciation, grammar, or syntax. Make a note and schedule a minute or two at the end of the lesson to discuss these errors. 

Write the words and phrases into your communication app, ask your student to repeat the text, give them feedback, and speak the word yourself. 
Be positive about this: “There are three words we can do a little work on”, “Lets check these words”. After they repeat the words correctly inform them that they have improved and are doing well. 

This act reinforces learning and shows the student that you are paying.

Seven. Keep notes on your regular students
A good teacher quickly accumulates regular students, and regular students are needed for a good teaching practice. Therefore, right from the start, keep effective notes about your studentsspecifically your regulars. 
This information falls into two categories. The first is their English proficiency, their strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Second, their background and general interests. 

Make your notes immediately after class, when you recollection is freshest. Even jot down points during the lesson, summarise at the conclusion. 
Your means of recording is what works best for you, however, I use Evernote. Works well.

Eight. Revision and homework
Give your students revision (don’t call it homework). This is usually not part of the package, however, revision is an essential part of learning. Let me be clear, not homework, but revision. Not new work, but a revision of what was covered in class. Ask your students to read through the lesson one more time, and then write new words and phrases into their “English Book”. This should take only a few minutes and will reinforce the learning carried out in the lesson. This will also reinforce your worth as a teacher to the student and their parents.

Let me stress the importance of writing. Humans, if we write new knowledge onto paper we will remember what we write. If we just repeat it a few times, we will not. Thus, have your students in each lesson write three or four new words into their English book. If they don’t have an English book ask them to use any paper to hand, and encourage them to acquire an English book. Your aim is to encourage your student to automatically write new words and phrases as soon as they are encountered. 

Writing serves several purposes. It improves memorisation, it is a valuable skill in itself, and it focuses the student’s immediate attention on their work.

Nine. Name. Say the students name, repeatedly
Repeating a student’s name reinforces their self-worth, and keeps their attention focused. At the start of the lesson use your student’s name, during the lesson address the student directly by his name, and at the end of the lesson thank the student for her or his work, by name. 

Ten. Curtesy, treat your youngest student as an adult
Manners, curtesy, respect, show these qualities to your student. Use please and thank you. Treating your student with curtesy will encourage them to act in the same manner and to give your curtesy and respect in return.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

"I am Legend" — the 2007 movie. My late review.


It is impossible for SF fans of my generation to see this movie without automatically comparing it to its predecessor, the classic 1971 film "The Omega Man", starring the late, great Charlton Heston. To cut to the chase, while "I am Legend" it is a good movie it is inferior to the original.

This may surprise some. Clearly, in some respects the modern is superior—the CGI, the creepy vampires, the sweeping photography, the stunts, are all impressive, however, where the modern lags is in the story itself. IaL has a relatively simple plot. Neville lives in an unpeopled NY. We see him hunt, fish, and talk to his dog (the presence of which is an obvious survival necessity, missing in the original), and search for a cure to the plague that eliminated 95% of humanity. Well produced as it is this backstory is mostly filler, with good actions scenes, and the evocation of pathos for the lonely isolation of Neville.

It is in the final half hour of the movie that the plot progresses. Here we see the final conflict between the vamps and Neville. He meets a woman (with whom he does not have sex) and a boy, and, moments before his heroic death, he discovers his cure, which provides him with posthumous salvation. The movie ends with the vacine delivered to a small colony of human 'normals'. IaL is a good example of the sub- genre, post apocalyptic survival plot. Better executed than most, further boosted by Smith’s excellent acting, but no more than this. An entertaining, predictable, and forgettable B movie.

In contrast "The Omega Man" is a different tale. Here the story is complex, with multiple participants, each of which have their own goals and agenda, and with multiple sub-plots. It is even possible to feel sympathy for TOM vamps and their plight and their own struggle. The Heston Neville interacts far more with his fellows: the vamps, who capture him on two occasions; a handful of normal humans; and we even see interaction between the vamps themselves, who have their own vision of the future (and can speak). The supporting characters in the TOM are each individuals (and Neville does get to have sex with the girl).

In some ways the difference between the two movies is a reflection of different times. The ease of modern CGI is a temptation to substitute visuals for plot complexity, while the interaction and dialogue of TOM reflects the changing times of the 60s. Even the gun toting Heston can express doubts about American society, an issue not even raised in the post 911 IaL.

The portrayal of Neville also differs between the two movies. This is again partly due to different times, but also due to different actors. Heston is a man alone, who gives every appearance of reveling in his goal of eliminating the vampires, who wish to destroy what is left of his world. When Heston’s character meets his band of fellow human survivors we see him engage in a game of dominance. He is the man in charge, who goes so far as to outfit himself in a US military uniform for his final confrontation with the vampires. His death is a manly sacrifice to his own beliefs. Smith plays the character differently. He is burdened with the loss of his wife and daughter, the death of humanity, and what seems to be his ‘survivor guilt’. He is willingly waiting for the end to come and embraces it when it does.

I enjoyed both movies, however, I am firm in my conclusion. "The Omega Man", dated and corny as it is in parts, is the superior movie. It revels in social concerns and criticisms, raises the questions of right and wrong, and has a complex story to tell. Conversely, "I am Legend" is your basic vampire/zombie movie raised up a notch. For those of you in a younger generation than myself, with a fondness for a good movie and who have not yet seen TOM, go and rent a copy. You will not be disappointed.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Review of “Beyond this Horizon” (1942) by Robert Heinlein—the dean of science fiction writers

 “Beyond this Horizon” (1942) by Robert Heinlein

I was prompted to reread this novel by my current reading of William Paterson’s readable biography of Heinlein “Robert A. Heinlein in Dialogue with his Century” (2010).

Rereading Heinlein after all these years!

I first read H. and this novel in my high school days—1970s. For two decades it held the distinction of being a novel I reread every three or four years. I was always tantalised by the nuanced background and eclectic narrative of the novel, however by the early 90s my reading tastes had sufficiently changed (matured?) that I no longer turned to H. to fulfil my reading needs. Therefore it has been three decades since I last perused the pages of H’s first successful novel.

After this long absence I still found H’s writing enjoyable. He creates a vibrant novel that challenges, entertainingly invokes, and criticises social norms. For example, he briefly, but directly states that men wear nail polish, that men wear brightly coloured clothes, even that a main character is both dark skinned, and highly intelligent. Ideas shocking a century ago when the story was written, still now surprising.

What has always struck me about the novel was the rushed pace of the narrative. Too much is squeezed into too shortish a novel. Also events jump from scene to scene without interlinking explanation, even minor events occur without explanation. Better editing would have produced a better novel.

I did not know this in the past—I had an ivory tower image of writers sitting before their typewriters, patiently whittling away their words—but Patterson tells how H. was pressed by the rapidly approaching WW2, and a dozen other needs, to finish the novel as quickly as possible. Whereas if you had asked me half lifetime ago I would have averred that H. had spent a year carefully polishing his masterpeice.

Putting aside the trivial, here is my serious objection to the novel—H’s casual acceptance of violence. H’s brave new world is a gun carrying paradise. An example of this is seen early in the novel. While discussing pistols the protagonist casually describes the unrecognisable damage his new weapon would make of an opponent’s face. No remorse, no introspection, no regard. Just bravado. Cold and empty.

There is also an early scene that has a man with “coldly dangerous eyes”. He and the protagonist almost come to a shoot out over the trifle of accidentally spilled food, in a crowded restaurant. This is followed by a scene when gunplay does occur and a perhaps fatally wounded drunk is dismissed as a “little excitement” that is good for the appetite. So to Heinlein (and his libertarian buddies) casual death is the norm, where the hero calmly ignores any qualms or feelings of empathy over the loss of another human being. Ummm.

Also, we are told later, that any ‘innocent bystanders’ who get hit do so because they didn’t move fast enough—natural selection. Ignoring this ridiculous take on evolution, such a cold disregard for human life is beyond shocking.

H’s indifference and moral pragmatism on the matter of human well being is seen in one major subplot. In the novel a group of rebels attempt to overthrow this paradisiacal future. The coup is suppressed with lots of dead rebels, the deaths of which the main characters approve of (we are told how some are gassed to death). Yet the protagonist protects his best friend, who was also a member of the conspiracy. For the friend no punishment, as the hero believes him to be simply misguided. In this the protagonist ignores the possibility that the other now dead conspirators may also have been equally misguided  and thus deserving of a pardon. The protagonist’s compassion and awareness of shared humanity extends only so far as his circle of friends. The deaths of outsiders are a matter of little consequence. Them and Us.

This level of violence is mandated by the belief that an armed society is a polite society. A belief held now and then by a number of people and groups in our society. For H. it meant that men (more on that in a moment) go around armed, have elaborate rituals verbal and social to ameliorate interaction and disputes, and that a shoot out will occur every now and then. Those men who do not wish to go armed wear a badge indicating such (“brassard of peace”), and surrender some of their rights. Unspecified, but essentially, they differ to armed men.

The reader is also informed, several times, that smart and capable men (H’s type of men) do carry a weapon, but never have to use it, due to their skilful understanding and manoeuvring through the travails of society. Appealing?

Lest I seem overly critical of Mr Heinlein let me say that his description of ‘modern’ technology is second to few: voice control, water beds (a Heinlein invention), space flight as an every day happenstance, showers (the word seems too small for the services provided), all weave an appealing future. Even his libertarian society is not without appeal. There is a Universal Basic Income, various other welfare payments for various categories of citizens, free food for all, an open acknowledgement that unregulated capitalism does not work, and that the government should and does successfully guide the free-market.

Not your Ayn Rand libertarianism.

The theme of the novel is eugenics, and the extent to which genes control us, all in a world where gene engineering is the norm. Heinlein does propose a more sensible proposal than many to deal with the dangers of this technology. Essentially, parents are free to use gene editing to produce the best possible baby they can produce, without artificial enhancements. Shades of “GATTACA” in there somewhere. Heinlein goes out of his way to dismiss both totalitarianism and pacifism as creeds that misuse genetics for their own flawed ends.

H’s morality relies on evolutionary thought. Survival is his mantra. In doing so he does disregard the possibility that a succession of short term survival steps can lead to species extinction.

H’s also expresses a dangerously modern view of religion. Raised in the Bible Belt he quickly threw away his own conventional religion when exposed to rationalism and the great minds of his time. BtH has only one indirect (possible) reference to Christianity, dismisses conventional afterlives, but abounds with references to an unexplained religious belief as the norm: “Great Egg”, “Name of the Egg”, and so forth. This was wonderfully entertaining when I first read, and is still so.

The novel’s attitude towards people is also distinctive. Rather than condemning the poor (of which there were none, due to state intervention in the economy, and welfare), and the unenhanced, H goes out of his way, against prevailing attitudes then and now, to praise human beings. “man is a working animal”—people like to and will work, even when they don’t need to. One of the enviable tasks of the future is to distribute new wealth to the populous. The outcome of this largesse is a cultured and accomplished society. This is in contrast to belief held by many today that giving away welfare money will lead to sloth, indulgence, and so forth.

Governments—governments and politicians—it is a trope that both are incompetent, corrupt, and generally bad, but in BtH the “planners” of the novel are intelligent, thoughtful, and wise people. H’s post-BtH novels return to a more dismissive disdain of governments, but for now he shows a rare regard for those chosen to lead the world. Even democracy is praised, seemingly. The means by which his planners are appointed is unspecified, but they “represent” their electorates, suggesting some form of democracy.

Women—as social forward thinking H is about other matters, in his novel women play a largely subordinate role to men. There are exceptions, but men are in charge of the world. Women have the same right to bear arms, but few do. Also, women like it when men are aggressive. Early on the protagonist wrestles his new love interest into submission and then kisses her several times. This is the first step in their love affair. 

Sub-plots—the story is livened by a skilfully woven series of sub-plots that serve the dual purpose of providing indirect exposition and moving the story along. The most amusing of these is the man from the past: a man from the 1920s kept in stasis for centuries, who, when released into H’s world is seen to be a good man, but one unable to cope well with the modern world he is reborn into. There is also the search for the meaning of life. Not a new idea, but with Heinlein’s characteristic bravado, this age old questions is tackled systematically—with science! Also, immortality, reincarnation? The tropes come fast, but are well handled.

H lacks little as a story teller. Fast paced writing, clear though complex exposition, and a conclusion. In doing so H never veers away from telling you the reader what he thinks about what he is writing about, but he does so in an entertaining and mostly enjoyable fashion (he could have tried to minimise the pages of gene engineering description). H’s writing still sells, decades after his death, which demonstrates something of his writing skill.

My take on the novel after half a century is what it was half a century ago. A good read, an entertaining piece of writing, but I deplore the violence and lack of regard for human life.