June 10th 2020
Tomorrow I'm going to be sitting the weirdest exam of my life. In fairness, previous exams haven't been that weird. I've been trying to rack my brains for strange ones, and I've come up with a few:
Maths of Random Events (final year at Warwick): what made this one strange was not the topic itself, despite the name, but rather the fact that it was a second year module that I was taking in the third year. Since I'd already done the exam for the follow-on third year module, it meant that more or less everything I needed to revise for this exam... I'd already revised. So confident was I, in fact, that I went on holiday with my family between the penultimate exam and this one - which took place about a month after the third year exams had finished.
CA3: Communications (actuarial exam): the fourth time I took it, I mean, by which point it had become a strange writing / presenting two-day hybrid in Oxford. Among several strange elements to this was the fact that it was part-way through Movember, so I did my presentation on gender discrimination in pricing - or something like that - while in possession of an unimpressive semi-moustache.
AS German oral exam: only weird because I was helping out some friends with their drama exam on the same day, so came from playing Lopakin in a scene from The Cherry Orchard straight into talking about train journeys in German. By the by, in the final question I was asked if I had any more to add, and while I thought if I did, Mr Tennant clearly thought I'd not understood the question and so he rephrased it. I've always wondered if that cost me a grade.
SA2: Life Assurance (actuarial exam): apologies if I've brought this up before, but the preparation for this one was weird because I'd given up on the exam days before it happened, and only really stayed for the duration because Simon was picking me up at the end. Somehow, I passed.
Anyhow, I think you'll agree, not very weird. What makes tomorrow's exam on Advanced Mathematical Methods really, really strange is that it's going to be done from home. What with COVID and all we can't traipse to an exam centre, so instead I'm going to download and print off the exam tomorrow morning, complete it more or less at my leisure, before scanning and uploading my answers before the end of the day. Technically, therefore, I have 23 hours and 58 minutes to complete a 3 hour exam - the paper itself, in fact, was written when it was still believed we'd be taking it as normal, and has not been changed.
A few ground rules: there has been no attempt to limit us to a 3 hour window; indeed, the tutor has somewhat optimistically suggested that we might use the extra time to make our submissions more legible. Possibly my reputation precedes me. Naturally we've been told not to cheat, although trying to establish exactly what counts as cheating has not been entirely easy - clearly, discussing the paper with fellow students (or anyone else) on the day is a no-no; we've been told to steet clear of the internet, too, although I did see one person saying that surely it would be fine to look up some trigonometric identities online. We're not allowed to use Maple, the software that was part of the course, either... except that the tutor then said that we could use it to 'check' answers if we wanted to. I'm not sure this entirely holds water, because if Maple shows that we were wrong... surely we will then use the correct answer instead? All a bit confusing.
One thing we can definitely do is use notes. That's not so different to a normal Open Uni exam, actually, because they're open book anyway - the real difference is that now they're open books instead: we can have as many notes as we choose to lay our hands on (I even dug out my first year Differential Equations A notes from Warwick, as I find a lot of my struggles are due to not having done much in the way of differential equations since then). So, instead of scribbling pages of notes inside the textbook - which I'd already started doing before the situation changed - I've got stacks of pages of A4 notes to hand, ready to leap upon.
And that's what makes revision really strange (and partly why I'm spending time writing this on the eve of the exam, rather than cramming). Usually before an exam I might go through notes looking for anything I might not have committed to memory as well as I should; now, there doesn't seem a lot of point: if it comes up on the exam, I can look it up then. Goodness knows I'll have plenty of time.
Understandably, the tutor is expecting scores to be rather higher than usual, and has indicated that they might be reduced accordingly. One or two students in the tutorial made the claim that they were expecting their own results to be lower than would otherwise be the case - due to the recent impact of COVID on their lives - but, well, I'm not in that boat, and I'd like to think that the extra 20+ hours of exam time they've been afforded might be enough to compensate for that. My only gripe was that the grade for the course was supposed to be based 25% on an assignment and 75% on the exam; the tutor slipped casually into his closing comments that this was no longer the case, and that the grade would instead be the lower of the two. He proceeded to caveat that quite heavily, although for my part I don't think it makes much difference in what I need to get.
So... if you get in touch with me tomorrow, I'm afraid I'll ignore you. Hopefully I'll be nailing some maths. And not shouting at my printer.
June 20th 2020
During lockdown I have been watching a lot of TV. More than usual, and more than I've been watching films - possibly because my evenings have largely been booked up with Zoom things (and/or revision), so I've not had as much time for full movies as I might have expected. Now that football is back (woo!!) I'll be devoting a significant proportion of my TV-watching time to that instead, so here's a rundown of some of the TV series that have been filling my hours during these last few months.
How I Met Your Mother
I started off be re-watching the final season, and realised it is much better as a binge-watch (something I've not done a lot... until recently) than it was in its original weekly instalment form. Based around Robyn & Barney's wedding, season nine all takes place across the span of a weekend - albeit with plenty of flashbacks and, famously, a flash-forward finale that was not well-received by fans - and watching it over a short period of time really helps the call-backs and running jokes to work to their best. I can still see why the finale, which I wrote a post about here at the time, is divisive - but by and large I think it works. Having watched season nine, I went back and rewatched the first eight seasons for the umpteenth time. It remains one of the best sitcoms ever made.
Another American sitcom, this one is much cooler and more of a cult favourite than HIMYM, and was another re-watch for me. Well, sort of. I'd never managed to struggle all the way through the final season when it aired on the short-lived Yahoo! Screen, sans several of the cast and almost all the energy and creativity. Community is unlike any other show, almost wilfully refusing to build a large audience - any given episode might be claymation, a GI Joe-style animation, a Ken Burns documentary take-off, a mockumentary... if you love how stories are written, you'll love this show. The paintball episodes are legendary, and Brie Larson's brief arc remains some of her best work.
Dead to Me
The second season of the dark comedy - so dark that it's not always clear it's a comedy - starring Christina Applegate & the always superb Linda Cardellini as friends who tangle themselves in a web of deceit and murder. I rarely find it funny - although the running verbal tics are often amusing - but it's great at building suspense and pulling the rug out from underneath your feet. Unlike many of the shows on this list, which I'll have on while doing a crossword or a jigsaw, this one requires full attention all the time, which is perhaps why I'm only watching an episode every week or so.
By contrast with Dead to Me, I have binged the BBC 3 sitcom (now on Netflix) Cuckoo, watching all five seasons in a week. However, this is definitely a "have it on in the background" kind of show a lot of the time - while I was struggling manfully with my jigsaw of Toronto, whole episodes would go by when I didn't even look at the screen. The show is rather cruder than I always like, but the performances of Greg Davies and Helen Baxendale - an absolute revelation - are hilarious, and I was surprised to see Andy Samberg as the title character (yes, his name is Cuckoo) in the first season. He's a busy man, so didn't return for later seasons, instead the role of 'cuckoo in the nest' - you see, it still works - being played by Taylor Lautner in seasons two to four, and Andie McDowell in season five. No, they're not playing the same character. Lautner is, surprisingly, Cuckoo's illegitimate son; Andie McDowell - perhaps even less plausibly - plays Greg Davies' long-lost sister. It's one of those shows that I'm hooked by without ever being sure if it's actually any good. I think I must like it. Oh, and they recast the daughter at the start of season two and I didn't notice.
I got back into Suits, having dropped off somewhere in the middle of the penultimate season several months ago. This is not unusual for me in my Suits watching - I tended to get really into it for a few weeks, then abandon it for ages - and it was decent. Everyone is horrible to everyone all the time, and no one is lacking in self-confidence, but, hey, these are American lawyers. It was filmed in Toronto (though based in New York), which I didn't realise until coming back to it, so it was fun trying to spot bits of it I recognised from my holiday there. It's a shame they didn't bring back Jessica for the finale - they brought back Mike; we didn't see Rachel, though. Whatever happened to the girl who played her - Meghan something?
Sunderland 'Til I Die
A must-watch for football fans, this documentary was intended to chart Sunderland's attempts to get promoted back into the Premier League, but instead covered their second consecutive relegation and the effective self-destruction of the club. The second season - the cameras were invited to return under the new Sunderland owners - showed their ultimate unsuccessful struggle to climb out of League One. While some of the biggest twists and turns in Sunderland's recent history were not captured on camera - understandably the documentary crew were not invited into the room when various managers were being sacked - the show is revealing about the state of the club while also capturing many of the elements of a footballing operation that are rarely seen, from the transfer negotiations right down to the club chef. What's surprising is that, despite all the failure, few people come across as hapless - other than the coach who suggests that Zlatan Ibrahimovic might want to move to Wearside, and the new owners in season two, one of whom seems to have based his persona on Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Art imitates life - or, indeed, directly satirises it - in this star-studded take-off of Donald Trump's Space Force. Steve Carell is the lead, and supporting cast include John Malkovich, Lisa Kudrow, Ben Schwartz and more. It reunites Steve Carell with Greg Daniels, the man behind the US version of The Office, but this time they have an absolutely huge Netflix budget... and don't seem quite sure what to do with it. Space Force is a more biting satire than The Office ever was, with Donald Trump never directly named but clearly referenced - POTUS in this show is an offscreen tweet-happy buffoon - but the problem with Trump, as ever, is that what he does is so ridiculous that it's difficult to parody. Would Greg Daniels ever have incorporated the Star Trek logo into the Space Force emblem? Trump did. Anyway, I enjoyed this show and will keep watching it if it returns, but it hasn't worked out yet what it is - in particular, Steve Carell's character is sometimes an obtuse fool and sometimes a patriotic sage, and it seems that neither he nor Daniels has worked out which works better. Hopefully they figure it out if they come back, because this could be really good.
I signed up to Disney+ as soon as it was available in the UK - actually I signed up in advance - and have been, I'm afraid, a bit disappointed. I definitely got it with one eye on the future - the upcoming Marvel TV shows, as well as not needing to buy future films on DVD because they'll be available here - but there aren't too many hidden gems, and the supposed jewel in the crown, The Mandalorian, has been a little underwhelming. It looks great, sure. Really, really good. But I don't really care about any of the characters, in particular the lead (played by Pedro Pascal, although who knows how much of the time) who is almost always hidden behind a shiny helmet. Jon Favreau has form in producing a beautiful-looking piece of technical wizardry that has no soul (i.e. the remake of The Lion King) and I'm afraid he's done much the same here. Way too much of people walking in the middle of a set while their environment is projected around them; not enough of Pedro Pascal's face. And I don't even find The Child (aka Baby Yoda) that cute.
Teen Titans Go!
Bright, colourful, zany and madcap, this take on the titans - Robin, Cyborg, Starfire, Raven & Beast Boy - comprises short adventures that are often very funny. It's definitely "on in the background if I'm doing something mundane" watching, and a little goes a long way, but it's been cheery to have on. I've also watched a few episodes of Titans, which is also on Netflix and features the same characters in live action, with swearing and uber-violence, just for comparison. They're... quite different.
Around the World in 80 Days
Unlike everything else on this list, I've watched this on DVD rather than streaming, and it is quite wonderful. Not a Jules Verne adaptation, but instead Michael Palin attempting to cover the same route as Phileas Fogg in the same time - a travel / challenge idea long before Tony Hawks was hitch-hiking round Ireland with a fridge or Dave Gorman was doing his namesake collecting. We used to watch this as a family when it was repeated as I was growing up and had no idea who Michael Palin was, and I've come back to it a few times since but often failed to get all the way through it - partly because it takes a few episodes to hit its stride, perhaps. While he's traversing Europe he's doing the usual travel documentary things - observing unusual customs or the 'unseen' side of a country - and it's fun, but the programme really gets going when he boards a dhow from Dubai to Bombay. This is the highlight of the show, as he bonds with the Indian crew, and shot so much footage that the BBC extended the series from six episodes to seven just to fit it all in. Watching the programme now, it's not only an amazing window into many parts of the world I'll probably never see for real - and a nostalgia trip to my own childhood - it also provides an insight into the late 80s, a time I will definitely never see again (I was four when the 80s drew to a close). No internet, of course, and bits of the world that were almost entirely remote are probably now much better-connected to the rest of us than they were then. In Japan, Palin explains the curious custom called 'karaoke'. The ex-pats in Hong Kong look forward with trepidation to 1997's handover. The biggest shock, though, came in the section in China, where Palin's voiceover noted that he was there mere weeks before the student uprising. A time before Tiananmen Square was synonymous with tank man.
I first started watching Doctor Who regularly when Matt Smith became the doctor in 2010, and for a couple of years it was comfortably my favourite television programme - possibly the last time, in fact, that I was excited and impatient to find out what would happen in the next instalment of anything on TV. Apart from the football, of course. Matt Smith was superb as the Doctor; Karen Gillan was wonderful as Amy Pond; Stephen Moffat was a great show-runner. I kept watching with diminshing enthusiasm through the Peter Capaldi years, then watched the first Jodie Whittaker season half-heartedly before stopping altogether. I'd also watched Christoper Eccleston's single season (a gift from my friend Matt) but hadn't seen the David Tennant version except for the odd episode here or there. Anyway, I started by rewatching The Day of the Doctor, the fantastic 50th anniversary special that united Tennant and Smith, before deciding that I might as well go back to the start of the modern series (now 15 years old, in fact) and watch them through.
I'd forgotten how abrasive Eccleston's Doctor often was, quite openly rude and impatient with a lot of the people he came across. I'd also forgotten the episode where, in the far-flung future, mankind is still watching versions of The Weakest Link and What Not To Wear. Despite starting in 2005, a lot of that first season feels quite 90s, including the sometimes overpowering soundtrack (oddly reminiscent of the 'you wouldn't steal a car' thing we've all had to sit through hundreds of times on DVD). It feels very different to later seasons, but did its job in re-establishing Doctor Who very well. Then onto Tennant, and, well, he's great. The modern Doctor is written as a man with wells of sorrow, pain and self-loathing, competing always with the joy, love and compassion that he has for every creature in the universe; for my money Smith does this better than anyone, but it was Tennant, really, who kicked it off. It felt odd to look back at a time when Doctor Who was the biggest thing in the country, adored by millions and also spawning the spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, which are incorporated into the show off and on - it really was the jewel in the BBC's crown. I must admit, though, that I never warmed to Rose Tyler as a character, and I found the show more compelling when she was replaced with Martha and, later, Donna (surprisingly good - the trailers did Catherine Tate no favours by showing her at her most sketch-show-like). The Master is darker than I had expected, and the run of specials that saw an end to Tennant's era are truly moving.
Then onto Smith, my Doctor. And those years haven't lost of any their appeal. I mean, I may be a little bit in love with Karen Gillan, but I don't think that's it - after a bit of retconning, the Amy / Rory relationship is beautifully told, and proves that Doctor Who is only as good as the companions. Indeed, the modern version has largely been told through their eyes (I don't know about the original, to be honest, having never really seen it), which is a sensible approach because it keeps the Doctor enigmatic and emphasises his love of humanity. As happened at the time, a lot of my love of the show dissipated when the Ponds left and Clara became the companion - nothing wrong with her, but the show (and, in particular, Matt Smith) felt like it was running on fumes. That said, it was during the Smith/Clara period that The Day of the Doctor came about, with everyone on absolutely top form.
I'm a few episodes into Capaldi's reign, now, at the point where they were trying to make him brusque and callous so as, presumably, to differentiate him from Smith's Doctor, who was defined by kindness. It won't stick. Oddly, having said what I have about companions, the best episode by far of Capaldi's Doctor is 'Hell Bent', in which he is almost alone on screen throughout the run-time. Once I've finished with the Capaldi years I'll probably watch the latest Jodie Whittaker season - her first season isn't available anywhere, as far as I'm aware, but I've got her second one recorded - so I can get as angry as everyone else by the mess Chris Chibnall has made of the Doctor's origin story.
One other point: watching through old Doctor Who episodes is also a fun way of spotting stars before they were huge. I hadn't realised Andrew Garfield was in an episode (in which Russell T. Davies' attempt to keep the Daleks relevant is a comical misfire... I could devote a lot of space to how difficult it must have been to make the Daleks seem scary or impressive, but it's quicker to say that - the introduction of Clara aside - it was mostly unsuccessful), and I'd never seen Carey Mulligan's episode, Blink, before. If you don't watch anything else, check that one out - she is brilliant, of course. You've got the time. Unless you're watching the footie.
|what was I listening to?
The River - Bruce Springsteen
|what was I reading?
Dune - Frank Herbert
|what was I watching?
The Defiant Ones