Monday, February 7, 2011

Too many words about Sherlock Holmes

For the record, if I had to pick a favourite character out of any work of fiction, my choice would have to be Sherlock Holmes. The only reason Sherlock beats out The Doctor (from Doctor Who) is because The Doctor has many of his facets borrowed from Sherlock. The arrogance, the brilliance, the aloofness - that all comes from Sherlock. The friendless, overconfident, brash, know-it-all who would stumble straight into the domain of asshole if he weren't so consistently correct.

I had heard a while ago that the BBC was making a new television series called 'Sherlock'. It had grabbed my interest but I'm not much for television so I hadn't planned on watching it or was even excited. Plus, I had seen the film from 2009 with Robert Downey Jr. and I really don't mixing up stories and characters. If I'm going to have to commit Sherlock to film/television it will be in one consistent carnation. That's just me.

However, about two hours ago, I discovered that Steven Moffat was the writer for 'Sherlock'. He is also the head writer for Doctor Who. This, I could not pass up. The man who puts the words in The Doctor's mouth was now doing Sherlock Holmes? I had to see it.

Fuck Robert Downey Jr.

Don't get me wrong. His film is entertaining and I enjoyed it. But there was something off. It was too Hollywood. His Sherlock felt more of a  reclusive playboy than a man married to his work. Too much of the mystery and tension was lost in favour of action. I like action. But Sherlock Holmes is about mystery.

Steven Moffat is a master at creating tension. The Doctor Who episodes 'Blink' and 'The Empty Child' are two of the most frightening and stressful things I have watched. Here are some trailers:


That's getting a bit tangential though. On to 'Sherlock'. The pilot episode is titled 'A Study in Pink' - an homage to the first Sherlock Holmes novel 'A Study in Scarlett'. While the series takes place in modern day, it remains resoundingly faithful to the books. Dr. Watson's introduction and initial relationship with Sherlock play out identically to 'A Study in Scarlett'.  I always enjoyed their first interaction and Watson's subsequent fascination with Holmes. It's through his fascination that the reader can see Holmes for the brilliant man he is, rather than an arrogant show-off.

As well, something I thought Moffat did splendidly well on was the mystery itself. It takes a good writer to craft a mystery worthy of Holmes and he does just that. How he does it though, is the most exciting. Moffat took elements from the mystery in 'A Study in Scarlet' and rearranged them, sometimes even subverting them. The best bit, I think, is when Sherlock comes across the dead girl with 'Rache' scratched by her nails into the wooden floor. Inspecter Lestrade, declares that the girl is German as 'rache' is the German word for revenge. Holmes unexpectedly refutes this claim as preposterous and instead says that she was spelling 'Rachel'. This is reversed from the exact same scenario in 'A Study in Scarlett' - it was Holmes who believed it was German.

The only fault I had came early on in the episode. Watson is escorted to a man who describes himself as 'Holmes archenemy' and offers Watson money to spy on Holmes. I felt that this inclusion of Moriarty so early in the story was unnecessary. Many of the Holmes adaptations focus on the rivalry between Sherlock and Moriarty but in Doyle's stories Moriarty appears but once in 'The Final Problem'. The fascination stems from the fact that this is the story in which Sherlock meets his end, at the hands of a rival. Television and films insistence on including Moriarty diminishes the character. In the stories, he appeared shortly and was fleeting - much like Holmes. That is what he draws his effectiveness from. That same mysteriousness surrounding Holmes now working against him.

Thankfully, before the episode is over, Moffat pulls yet another beautiful subversion, and I am forced to forgive him as Moriarty is left as an abstract threat. Certainly real, yes, but for now invisible.

As a side note, I'd like to declare my love for Steven Moffat. After watching 'A Study in Pink' I looked him up on imdb and realized that not only did he write that brilliant re-imagining of Holmes but he has also written some of the best Doctor Who episodes to date as well as the entire Coupling series. He has also written a tv series based on another of my favourite books: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I will for sure check it out once I'm done with the rest of Sherlock.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Lesson #2: Don't take the last train on a Friday night.

Glasgow is a very strange city. Some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet in your life live there. However,  it is also the knife crime capital of the UK. There's a joke that people like to tell about Glasgow - yes, someone might stab you but they'll also call the ambulance and wait with you until it shows up.
Generally, just having basic common sense will keep you safe but there are a few other good things to know about the city that aren't exactly intuitive to newcomers. Things like: Stay out of Kelvingrove Park at night, don't go wandering about Maryhill when it's dark, don't go to Ibrox if you're wearing green and white, and don't egg on neds. Here is a picture of  neds:

It's difficult to explain

This is a story involving trains. Specifically, the last ones on Friday nights.

Part I

I was going to Spain. Or at least, I was going to be going to Spain. It was 11pm and I was at Glasgow Central train station, on the last train to Prestwick Airport. This time tomorrow, I'd be in Malaga. First, however, was an overnight stay at the airport. Unfortunately, the cheapest flights always leave before the trains to the airport start.

My mate Pete had walked with me down St. Vincent to Central Station. It was December 20th and we'd just gotten the first snowfall. Being Canadian, it was brilliant. Christmas needed some snow - even if I was going to be in Spain on actual Christmas Day, I just had to see some first.

Of course, there was also the obligatory snowball fight which was had between myself, Pete, Ignas - a Lithuanian, and Seán - an Irishman.

It was night now though and Pete walked with me all the way to the train station and waited - standing outside the train, waiting for me to disappear forever. He was from New Zealand and due to go back there after touring Europe a bit. I wouldn't see him again so he waited, right outside my window, until I left.

Looking about, I realised that I was the only sober person on the train. The car was packed right full of people. Some of them were all posh looking - obviously on the way back from a Christmas party. Others were just slaggy -coming back from a Christmas pish up. A huge backpack and basic motor skills made me the odd one out on this train.

In front of me sat the only other sober person in the carriage. A businessman who looked to be about in his thirties. Beside me was a bloke only a few years older than myself - completely pished who had his feet up on the other seat and looked rather neddish. This is where the problems started.

"Move yer feet mate", said a man in his late thirties/early forties - also very drunk.

He was ignored. So he just moved the feet himself and sat down.

"Wid ye put yer feet up like that at yer maw's"

He shrugged. To be fair, I felt that the younger one was being a dick having his feet up and probably deserved a telling off.

"Ye've nae got any respect fir anyone ye cunt. Whae'd ye think ye are?"


"Whole train's full ay people n ye put yer feet up"


At this point, I was having a really difficult time deciding which one of these two fine men I despised more. On the bright side, I figured there was a good chance they would beat the living hell out of each other. This also meant that there was going to be a fight right next to me. I traded an exacerbated look with the businessman in front of me.

I decided that it was about time I gave these fine gentlemen names. It was decided that the cunt with his feet up would be called "Feet Cunt" and the talking cunt would be called "Talking Cunt".

In Scotland the word 'cunt' is used in crude slang as a replacement for the word 'person'. I am using the word strictly by it's North American definition. Just to clear things up.

"It's cunt's like you are why this generation is shite."

Feet Cunt didn't like this. However, he seemed very much to like Talking Cunt's throat because he leapt across and started squeezing it. Talking Cunt wasn't fighting back at all. I figured I should intervene - but not right away. Counting to five in my head seemed like the best idea.


Still choking.


Still no fighting back. I found this part really strange.


Talking Cunt was turning a very pretty shade of red. It wasn't quite crimson which is the colour that faces always turn in books when they are being choked. I decided to call it True Crimson.


I would watch that film: True Crimson. Ralph Fiennes would have to be in it though.

Right before I reached five, Feet Cunt backed off and sat down. He still wanted more though.

"Ye fucking start wi' me?"

Unsurprisingly, Talking Cunt was apologetic,

"Naw fuck man. Jist leave it, fuck it, naw is awright."

I figured that was the end of the altercation and that we could all just wait out the rest of the train ride in silence - like how Londoners do it. My assumption was very flawed. I had no idea how thick Talking Cunt actually was.

Nice guess!

After about five minutes of peace and quiet (as much quiet as a train full of drunk people can offer that is), Talking Cunt started right up again being a talking cunt. Big surprise there. I cursed myself for being so good at naming people.

"Ye eywis so disrespectfaw"

The business gentleman in front of me decided to try to intervene. As much as we both knew Talking Cunt deserved it, it would be unpleasant if we had to watch him get his head smashed in.

" Let it go mate. Jist drop it. He's goat the idea"

"Youse gitting started oan me now?"

The gentleman (who I will refer to from now on as 'The Gentleman') sighed and looked out the window.

Now arriving in Irvine. The next stop is for Barassie.

Good. Irvine. That meant after Barassie, there was only the stop in Troon before the airport. I might actually get off the train before a fight breaks out.

Both Talking Cunt and Feet Cunt had gotten quite at this point. I exchanged a glance with The Gentleman. Maybe they'd both calmed down? Maybe Talking Cunt had realized that he was pure going to get fucked? Maybe Feet Cunt was satisfied with his brief choking? Maybe I didn't believe a single one of these scenarios was even remotely true and that shit was going to go downhill fast.

Now arriving in Barassie

Feet Cunt leapt across and started giving out a proper swedgin - three shots to the face before I was up and hauling him off of Talking Cunt, nearly pulling us both into the slags sitting across the aisle. Surprisingly, Feet Cunt was nonchalant about me intervening and simply left the train instead of directing his fury at me.

I sat back down. Talking Cunt had left too.

Shrugging, I looked at The Gentleman,

"Happy Christmas"


I was going to Ireland. Or at least, I was going to be going to Ireland. My flight to Dublin left at six in the morning so I would be staying overnight at the airport first. I was going to be away for awhile this time - 20 days - so I had spent the night having some drinks with my Cairncross mates. This is why I was on the last train to the airport. On a Friday. Again. I should have known better but an extra hour spent sitting in an airport when I could have been in the kitchen with friends was just not worth it. Even when that slight possibility of having the piss beat out of me was taken into consideration.

Pictured: Fifteen things worth getting
punched for

Plus, today was March 23rd. There is absolutely no reason for hordes of people to be out drinking on March 23rd and so only the usual amount of drunkards would be on the train - which I hoped would be manageable.

I took that walk down St. Vincent street again to the train station - this time alone. We had been watching a film in the common room so I simply snuck out when it was time to leave.

I was right in my assumption; the train was nearly empty. No worries here. I closed my eyes and tried for a wee nap.

At the first stop, in Paisley, six neds got on. In case you've forgotten, these are neds:

Such upstanding members of society

I didn't think much of it. They were standing at the opposite end of the train from me - clearly drunk but not belligerent. Still no worries. I went back to trying to nap.

Just after Kilwinning, I was snapped out of semi-consciousness. Two of the neds had gotten into an argument. I couldn't make out what they were saying. Not because they weren't talking loud enough but because they were talking in Glaswegian Ned. For the record, you've a better chance of understanding someone who doesn't speak English than a Glasgow Ned.

I watched them closely. The other four neds were hovering around the altercation but they seemed to be heavily favouring one over the other.

Now arriving in Irvine. The next stop is in Barassie.

The one ned started getting pummelled. Punches from every direction. He fell and scrambled out of the train. I thought it was over. The neds hadn't had enough though. They followed him out of the train and started wailing away - kicking and punching as he fell to the ground, rolled and started to run.

Now they were satisfied. They were also getting back on the train, just as the doors were closing.


I briefly thought about the pocketknife I had stashed in my backpack. Then I realize that these are neds and they've each probably got a chib - if it came to that. Worst idea ever. So I simply hoped that it wouldn't come to that and that they'd leave me alone.

The train got to Barassie and the neds got off - thank fuck.

From here on I was never going to take the last train on a Friday night ever again.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Notes on wasted time (part one)

One of the requirements of my degree is that I take a first year computer science course: COSC 121. The course itself teaches how to use the programming interface Java. I will never use Java to do maths. Maple, Matlab, Python and R are all much better programs/languages for the sort of problems I need to do. So this course is already pointless to me.

The professor is high and mighty on a certain teaching method which she 'developed' (and apparently has won awards for) which she calls "Team Based Learning" (TBL). According to her, there is a much higher average mark in classes where she has employed this technique and students walk away with a better understanding of the course material. The first part of this statement, I agree with completely. The grading scheme in TBL is rigged to give a higher average. It's not even rigged in a particularly clever way. The grades for assignments/quizzes taken as a team are worth 3 times as much credit as individual assignments/quizzes. There are two different sorts of lectures that are given in this class. Here is one of them:

11:00 - 11:25

Arrive to class and prepare to write a quiz. The quiz is based on a reading we were given to do outside of class. The professor has, not even in the slightest way, talked about the material on the quiz. As part of the preparation we are given some time to ask her questions about the material.

This turns into a 25 minute session of private tutoring for a girl who I will refer to as "the girl with the tramp stamp on her boobs" or just "trampy boobs" for short.

It's windy because even God laughs
at her terrible decisions

Curiously enough, Trampy Boobs is the sort of girl who tries way too hard. Her questions are usually only tangentially related to the information we need to know and are so convoluted and pointless that the other 50 people in the room are all imagining her dying in creative and horrible ways. My favourite is where her boob stamp comes to life and strangles her because even it can't believe how awful her taste is.

11:25 - 11: 40

Fifteen minutes is then spent writing the quiz on pieces of paper. For the record, the quizzes are generally nine or ten multiple choice questions. Fifteen minutes seems a little excessive for that but some people are slow and I enjoy ten minute naps so I'll let this one slide.

11:40 - 11:47

Because this is a computer science class, we couldn't just write the quiz and be done with it. No, for the next seven minutes we write the quiz again, using iclickers to create a digital copy of our scores. Why? Because the professor is too goddamned lazy to just get grad students to mark them like everyone else does technology! I guess?

Just because something is advanced
doesn't mean it isn't retarded

11:47 - 12:00

Remember that bit about team based learning. Here is where it comes into play. We get together in our groups and spend 13 minutes taking the same quiz. Again. The mark we get on it as a group is worth three times the mark we get on it as individuals. This completely invalidates the point of writing it by ourselves. You could get get zero on it the first time but if your group gets 100% (which almost always happens) your final mark on this 'quiz' is 75%. That is a B. You get a B. FOR KNOWING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. The higher averages in TBL have exactly zero to do with quality of teaching.

By this point we have spent 35 minutes of an 80 minute lecture (almost half) on 10 multiple choice questions.

12:00 - 12:20

The final twenty minutes of the lecture are spent on actual lecturing. This is where, for the very first time, the professor actually tries to teach us about the things we were just quizzed on. Unfortunately, by this point, no one in the room is even pretending to listen anymore because they just cannot believe what a phenomenal waste of time this has been. Also: we had effectively taught the material to ourselves thus eliminating the need to listen to her talk about it.

Tune in next week for part two wherein our groups discuss a homework problem