Thursday, 23 November 2017

Youth Platform Autumn Meeting in Budapest 2017

Hello from (presumably) somewhere over the Irish Sea! I’m currently on the flight back from my trip to Budapest for the ETSN Youth Platform’s autumn meeting, so here’s a bit of a rundown on how it went.

Image may contain: 3 people, people sitting, table and indoor

Conference-Related Stuff
  • *      We had a talk on the funding and legal matters of the YP
  • *      We tried out a ‘3D Virtual World” which was really more like a video game that had your documents/stuff from the internet/links incorporated into it. That was pretty technically impressive, to be fair.
  • *      The Council decided we need to have one of us be a supervisor for each project so I chose the blog project and have been helping them out.
  • *      We heard about ECHA 2018 in Dublin and discussed what we’ll contribute to it. Mad how much more expensive Dublin is than most European cities.
  • *      We had lots of time set aside for the project leaders to make progress on the projects. Beforehand, they presented to us about their progress so far or lack thereof and what they’d found challenging or needed help with, and after the project work sessions we had a debrief where they talked about what they’d done. So it was definitely the most practical, work-focused, concrete meeting we’ve had so far, which I appreciated.

General Abroading Stuff
I have some things to say to Hungary/Budapest/the hotel.
  • *      To whichever receptionist had this wallpaper on your computer: nice Image result for sleep all day party never

    • *      Why did you freak out when I said I’m a vegetarian, and give me fish instead, and then be confused about why that wouldn’t work? Why did you then proceed to give me literal slabs of grilled cheese for future meals? Apparently this is a thing lots of continental Europeans eat. Personally I think the bread/other substrate is an important part.
    • *      Budapest, you need more pedestrian traffic lights, for real. Had some very stressful experiences running down entire long streets to find a crossing in the dark/while running late for flight.
    • *      Why did the hotel have a dentist? Or at least a sign for a dentist?
    • *      Please do not change the stops on your bus route when it goes in different directions. I guess I should’ve believed Google Maps when it didn’t give me the same route back as it had on my way in, but oh man why did the airport shuttle bus stop somewhere I connected to on the way from the airport but then not stop there on the way to it? Very confusing, and led to lots of stressed-out getting lost and arriving to the airport only an hour before my flight when I’d meant to arrive 2-3 hours before it.


    • *      I had great fun getting Anna (from Greece), Marco (from Italy) and Robert (from the Czech Republic) to try to pronounce Irish names like Caoimhe, Siobhán and Sadhbh. They concluded that Irish sounds nice but looks awful and is very inefficient with its letters. It really was amazing fun though, like chocolate for my brain.


    Things I Learned
    • *      Italian is a beautiful-sounding language, oh my God. I got Marco to read out the first verse of TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (which is in Italian) and honestly it was amazing.
    • *      Hotel staff can be super helpful. I’m always really dehydrated in hotels and this year I’m super broke so couldn’t buy tons of water bottles, so I went down to the bar and they filled up my empty bottle for free. Also, they printed my boarding pass for me at the desk.
    • *      If you’re lost in a country with a different language (maybe in general to be honest), go into a hotel and ask a receptionist. They’ll generally be able to speak English.
    • *      Czech people (two of them, at least) don’t know that the backwards peace sign means ‘fuck you’ in Ireland.
    • *      Greek has a letter that literally just looks like a curly bracket.
    • *      If you’re really unhappy about something, speak up! You might succeed and change the thing for the better, or you might fail and get impeached/resign and then at least you don’t have to be associated with and work on a bad thing anymore. Win-win when you kick the fear out. Also, if you’re feeling it, chances are other people are too but also don’t want to speak up. So just be open.
    • *      The Hungarian government is intense and oh boy funding has strings attached.
    • *      Survivorship bias is a hell of a drug.

    Personal Development Payoffs
    • *      Having learned in Ireland over time that buses going in different directions generally have their stops on the opposite sides of the same road really helped when I needed to find the bus from the shuttle bus to my hotel without being able to read Hungarian.
    • *      I realised that I’ve actually picked up a lot of knowledge and experience in my five years of blogging and was able to help and advise people with actual good, actionable advice.
    • *      All my public speaking practise has definitely made me more articulate and better at thinking on my feet.


     I am very much in Dublin finishing this post ten days later, in case you were concerned that I've been in an airplane for that long. But yeah, there's a quick rundown on the meeting. You can watch a video one of the project leaders made about it here.

    Thursday, 2 November 2017

    Review: October 2017

    Hi guys! I've been hella busy this month but just with college and studying mostly, not with a ton of super exciting events like last year, oops. Have been generally happy though, so that's cool. I'm gonna talk about the modules I've been doing (next week I'll have a blog post on each module talking about what I've learned in the first six weeks), Lablinn, pals, Physoc, conferences n things, Harvard grades, going outside, Hurricane Ophelia and other miscellany.

    COLLEGE: EVOLUTION MODULE 

    This is probably my favourite module. It covers the mechanisms of evolution (natural selection, genetic drift, founder effect, bottleneck effect, allopatry/sympatry/parapatry, polyploidy and hybridisation, etc), the evolution of animal behaviour (co-evolution between predators and prey including arms races and mutualisms, Batesian and Mullerian mimics, sexual selection and dimorphism, cooperation (including mutualism, reciprocal altruism, kin selection, the evolution of intelligence and more)), endosymbiotic theory, biogeography, genetic evolution (genotypes and evolution, phylogenetics including tracing the origin and evolution of HIV, and upcoming lectures on human evolution, evolution of development, and disease genes). 

    I know I just listed all the stuff we've studied, hope you survived that paragraph, but anyway it's so fascinating and fun and I'm learning so much while having a blast. The practicals are also all really creative -- they're all self-directed, which is pretty challenging, and one was to go down to the Trinity Botanic Gardens and answer a ton of questions about plants there and their evolutionary relationships, one was to go to the Zoology Museum and build phylogenetic trees of animal lineages based on morphological characteristics, and for the upcoming one we have to test a theory of altruism by designing and completing our own experiment out in the world. Surprisingly challenging, but very cool. Also, the lecturers have in general seemed to love their subject and be friendly and positive, and all around it's just a great experience that I'm delighted to get to experience. 

    COLLEGE: BIOCHEM I MODULE

    This is a strong contender for favourite module; it's a lot of work because of the module structure, and it's harder, but it's super interesting. It's taught as a flipped classroom, meaning we're given recorded lectures to watch and take marked (for continuous assessment points) quizzes on before attending the lecture, and then extra material is covered in the lecture or we get more quiz questions in the lecture via clickers, which are great because we can answer the MCQs on the slides without having to risk shouting out an answer and being wrong, and also the lecturer can see what percentage of the class picked each answer so they know how much we understand. 

    Because we often have two or three presentations and quizzes to do per lecture, it can mean that we essentially have 12 Biochem lectures a week instead of 4, but I do like it because it makes sure I stay on top of things and because we get the results of each quiz and I generally get 100% so (a) I know it's contributing lots to my CA marks (b) I know that contrary to what members of college admin said, I am in fact capable of doing this subject despite not having done it for first year or Leaving Cert. They really wore down my confidence despite all the work I'd done to get up to speed but this is a really nice means of validation and of seeing that I am in fact capable of doing well/getting 100% instead of failing like they acted like I would. So I like how this module gets me to work hard but does reward me for it. 

    So to get to the actual stuff we cover:

    • Eukaryotic Cell Structure (cell anatomy and means of transporting molecules in and out of organelles; the cytoskeleton i.e. how things are transported around and arranged in cells; DNA, RNA, Transcription and Translation; the Cell Cycle and Apoptosis i.e. programmed cell death)
    • Proteins (Amino Acid Chemistry; Protein Purification & Analysis; Protein Folding)
    • Enzymology (Michaelis-Menten Kinetics, Briggs-Haldane Kinetics; Enzyme Inhibition modes; Enzyme Regulation)
    • Neurochemistry (chemical synthesis of neurotransmitters; action potentials and signal propagation through nerves; neurotransmitter reuptake and degradation; medical applications including Parkinson's and depression medications)
    • Signal Transduction (upcoming)
    I didn't really like enzymology but acknowledge that it's important so will learn it. The other stuff has on the whole been fascinating -- there are so many disease-related applications, for one (imagine how excited I was learning how Triple Therapy for Parkinson's works and being able to understand why), and just getting to learn so much and understand so much about how life works. It's an intense course with the essentially 8 to 12 lectures a week thing but it's meant I've learned an incredible amount. I never thought I'd be able to understand this much after just six weeks of college (and a lot of work over summer) and it makes the hard work so worth it. 


    COLLEGE: CHEMISTRY

    Chemistry has been my least favourite module this year but it's been alright. We had a week of Kinetics, which was very intense and squished into fewer lectures than it should've been, and since then it's been Inorganic Chemistry (Coordination Chemistry of Transition Metal Complexes and Molecular Orbital Theory). Our Inorganic lecturer is good with creative analogies, and I did like Crystal Field Theory and the associated field splitting diagrams. My appreciation for them isn't really because they helped me understand stuff that much, it's more just that I got them quickly and like making logical diagrams and populating them according to logical rules. 

    COLLEGE: MATHS (MULTIVARIABLE CALCULUS)

    Maths has been way better this year, mainly because we have a really good lecturer now and also some stuff seems to have clicked because I had to finally learn them for the summer exams, like finding a vector product using matrices and using the various techniques of integration (I can't believe it took me until after the first of the summer maths exams to just learn that stuff properly). 

    There have been some things I haven't understood but I've generally felt comfortable asking the lecturer during or after class because she's really approachable and cheerful, so that's been really helpful. The maths can get pretty crazy though -- look at this from today:



    LABLINN

    We've been working hard over at Lablinn. 



    • We held a Training Day to train the team members in holding workshops and worked out logistics for going out in pairs to schools. Also did all the associated things (there are so many associated things) like refining the presentation, writing a script, minutes, FAQs, templates...
    • We have a workshop organised for a school in Meath next week, and two more being organised at the moment. 
    • We have an interview underway with APOPO, the organisation behind the HeroRATs that detect TB and landmines.
    • I've drafted Lablinn's themed weeks, which run every two weeks, from November until May. Next week is Diagnostics week, so we'll have our APOPO interview and some articles from me on nanodiagnostics and the relevance of diagnostics to antibiotic resistance. 
    • Daniel, a Gaeilgeoir member of the team, is heading up a project to get some of our material translated into Irish so we can talk to Gaelscoileanna as well. 
    • Ella wrote an article for the blog about presenting her research at the Young Scientists' Journal conference.
    • Members of the team have in general been really great at taking the initiative and coming up with e.g. interviewees to contact and articles and ideas for developing Lablinn.
    • I've been invited to speak at Twitter Dublin about our work next week. 
    We're also doing a bunch more that I'll share later but yeah, I'm really loving the momentum we have going. Lablinn team is cool. 


    HURRICANE

    Hurricane Ophelia hit Ireland so college was cancelled for a day. It was pretty windy out. That's it really -- we had prepared to lose electricity but we were lucky and didn't even though thousands of people near us did. So a pretty chill hurricane on our end. I did see a tile fly off a roof and over my head and smash on the ground in front of me though, which was pretty cool. 

    HARVARD GRADES 

    I got my grades back from the Harvard Business School thing I did over the summer -- got 100% (800/800) on the Statistics exam, 96% in Economics and 93% in Accounting, which was cool. Kinda funny since I don't like business but in fairness I do like stats so. 




    OUTSIDING

    I went outside sometimes! Climbed the Sugar Loaf (a mountain, for the unacquainted) on the bank holiday we had off college with a bunch of college pals. Here we are.




    LEON

    Have been officially living with Leon for a month and a half now. It's pretty good. This month we went to the cinema to see Maze, which was about an IRA prison breakout, and bought a new board game to play together called Forbidden Desert as a Halloween treat. We've mainly been playing Magic and Carcassonne this month, which are both fun. We were playing Pandemic a ton (epidemiology? yes please) and he got sick of it so  "accidentally" left it behind when we moved out. 

    PHYSOC

    I'm Physoc Secretary this year, which as an exec position actually has some responsibility attached. I quite like being Secretary; my responsibilities are to write the weekly email to our members and take minutes at meetings. I stress a bit about having the wrong information in the email but generally it's worked out pretty fine and I like it, it feels like I have my own domain which is nice. 

    SPEAKING

    I've been invited to speak at a Twitter-UNICEF event on Thursday November 9th at Twitter Dublin HQ about my work with Lablinn and "raising your digital voice", so that's a thing.

    CONFERENCES N THINGS

    I'll be off in Budapest 10th to 13th November at the Youth Platform's annual meeting there. 

    IN GENERAL

    In general, I've really buckled down over the last few months after transferring to a subject I love and am doing fewer conferences and superficial things and more just keeping my head down and putting the work in. Conferences are fun and I'm open to doing some if asked (see above), but I'm not seeking out that sort of thing quite as much and am instead studying a lot and working away building Lablinn up. It feels really nice and wholesome and fulfilling. 

    I should have significantly more blog posts in November I think because I'll be writing about my impressions of each of my modules after six weeks, Budapest, Twitter, and maybe some stuff about Lablinn. If you want to keep up more with Lablinn, you can check out the website or @LablinnTeam on Twitter. 

    Sunday, 1 October 2017

    Review: September 2017

    Did I do anything this month? Hmm.

    BIOLOGY: Continued studying biology, writing notes on chapters of Campbell's Biology. I had to take a week off because handwriting ~90 pages and typing another ~30 over the summer gave me tennis elbow, according to the doctor. It was the most frustrating thing -- I never realised how many things I used my hands for until doing anything with them was paaain. To add illness to injury, over the last couple of days of September and the start of October, I've come down with a horrible cold/flu and it has rekt me. 

    Anyway, I eventually finished the Genetics and Evolution units. 


    Also, studying Biology is the best. At the start of the month, I couldn't stop talking to everyone I met about what I'd just studied (Cell Cycle and Speciation). It's just so cool. A cool thing that happened, for example, was that after spending the day studying genetics with the example of genetics of labrador fur colour and what makes it yellow/brown/black, I stepped outside and ran into a yellow lab and a brown lab. Very cool. Some pictures of me having fun studying: 

    HARVARD: I did my Harvard final exam in a Pearson testing centre in Dublin on the 1st of September. It went alright, still waiting on my results though. 

    MOVING OUT: Leon and I moved into our new apartment on the 15th. It's in a gorgeous area, right next to the DART, is super bright, gives us a really nice room, is pretty cheap and has a dishwasher. Nice. I've honestly been finding doing chores like laundry fun because adulting.

    STARTING BACK AT COLLEGE: I've had two weeks of college so far, Freshers Week where I (wo)manned the Physoc stand and then one week of lectures, though only Chemistry and Maths lectures and a Biology lab because Biology lectures don't start until this week. I love my maths lecturer so much, she's great. Doing the Biology post-practical homework was pretty fun too, and the Evolution labs look like great fun. Tonight I have to watch David Attenborough videos for homework. 

    PHYSOC: Like I said, I was on the Physoc stand for Freshers Week from 18th to 23rd September, and apart from that am settling into my job as Secretary (fewer errands and more responsibility in comparison to last year's role as first year rep, which I like). Sending the emails and taking minutes suits me better so all g here. Also had a good time at the Quiz we ran last week.

    LABLINN: We've been organising a Training Day for the team for workshops, talking to schools, and are working on planning the competition. Also, we published this post by Ella Willsmore on why it's so hard to develop a malaria vaccine. 

    LEAKYCON: Went to the last day of LeakyCon on the first of September. Pretty good. 

    BLOG: I published 8 blog posts in September and started working on a ninth (about my experience finding accommodation during Dublin's rental crisis). I'm writing posts at about double the rate I need to hit the goal of a post a week but college can get very intense so want to stock up. Click for links to posts:


    READING: I read three books and started a fourth in September. Click for links to my reviews:
    I've just started Beating Back the Devil by Maryn McKenna, and next up is probably Kelly Hoey's Build Your Dream Network. The goal is to read an average of two books a month so, like with the blog, I've been trying to do a few extra in prep for intense college times, though definitely being more successful with the blog.


    So the answer to the question at the start of this post is ... sort of. It feels like I didn't do much, but it's more that I did a couple of big things and very few one-day events that would be listed separately. 

    Saturday, 30 September 2017

    Review: Mort by Terry Pratchett



    Mort is a short and hilarious romp through Terry Pratchett's Discworld featuring:

    •  Mort, a teenager whom no one except Death wants to hire as an apprentice and whose name people find it impossible to remember
    • Death, the reaper tasked with transporting important people to the afterlife and who's very confused by the mortal concept of fun
    • Death's daughter 
    • an unkempt magician
    • an obstinate Princess. 

    After a dispiriting day of waiting in vain to be hired at the town hiring fair, Mortimer is just getting ready to trudge home from the town square when Death appears looking for an apprentice. Mort's father is a bit confused, but after making sure that it's a job with good employment prospects that'll make a good contributing member of society of Mort, off Mort goes to Death's home outside Time. 

    386372The plot essentially consists of Mort taking a few people to the afterlife and then making a big mistake when he tries to save a princess he has a crush on and manages to create a hole in the fabric of reality itself. Hijinks ensue.

    The plot, while perfectly serviceable, definitely isn't the main draw of this book -- the writing is just hilarious. Whether it's:

    Pratchett just has incredible voice, and so his very-involved-narrator role works really well. 

    "“Well,----me,” he said. “A----ing wizard. I hate----ing wizards!” “You shouldn’t----them, then,” muttered one of his henchmen, effortlessly pronouncing a row of dashes.” 


    The worldbuilding of Mort doesn't really stand up to rigorous scrutiny, which is fine. This is lampooned by Pratchett a few times, when he says that he has no ambition of creating a consistent Discworld and is perfectly happy for the rules of magic/physics to be different in different places, and when a plothole is explained away by Death telling Mort not to rely so much on mathematics. He also explains people not being shocked by the appearance of Death/Death's apprentice or not seeing them as 'people see what they expect to see'. 

    Some quotes (not even necessarily the best ones honestly, just the ones I could find, which are still great...)

    [Quotes are from here or Goodreads Quotes]







    Thursday, 21 September 2017

    Renting in Dublin: The Digs Experience

    Renting in Dublin is notoriously extortionate and difficult to sort out, and as a student it can be harder because everyone thinks you'll trash the place. Digs are one solution: here's my experience living in digs for my first year in college. 

    I moved out in September 2016, a month after my 18th birthday. For a year, I'd been banking on a free apartment in Grand Canal Dock, and that was pulled out from under me just a week before college started. I suddenly had to find a way to live and rent in Dublin on 330 euro a month (my SUSI grant), and oh boy things were stressful. 

    The first place I tried (the first to answer the frantic emails I sent out through daft.ie the next day) was a place on Dorset St being advertised by a Mr. Razor "Ray" Razor (I kid you not). I arrived on time and was kept waiting for an hour with a crowd of about ten mature international students before being brought to the house (which was nice enough) and told they didn't like first years, the deposit was three months' rent, and they'd only consider giving me the place if I recruited a friend to share the room with me. Nooope. 

    I actually saw that place on Daft this year again, a white cottage on Dorset Street. I know rent is €200 per month, but don't do it. Dodgy as hell. 

    Then I had emails with some other people, all room-shares because when you're looking to rent for under 250 per month that's the most you can hope for, including more very creepy ones, but about four days later I got a phone call at 9 pm telling me I'd won the Naughton Scholarship (thanks Naughton) and would get 5000 each year for four years. Since I've been entirely financially independent since I moved out aged 18 and that's what I've been living on, that was pretty helpful. 

    I could upgrade to non-shared rooms! 

    Anyway, I eventually (this was within a couple of busy busy days in fairness) got viewings at two digs, one in Skerries and one in Saggart. The one in Skerries had a beautiful bedroom, I will say, but I went with the one in Saggart and lived there for a year. Here's the experience I had. 

    People

    The identity of your landlord isn't as important in other rented accommodation, but it's very important with digs as you'll be living with them. Luckily, my landlady (or digs mom, as I ended up calling her) Viv is lovely and we had great chats when I came back at night. She was really helpful -- one example: I missed the last bus and had to get a taxi from Tallaght but didn't have cash to pay the driver, and she stayed up into the early hours and met me at the door with cash to give him -- and thoughtful. She also gave me the comfiest dressing gown ever, honey-and-lemon tea when I was sick, some lifts to the Luas, the odd cupcake ... Viv is awesome. Thanks Viv. The rest of the family were also nice, so it worked out well. 

    Price 

    Digs is generally significantly cheaper than other rentals, and it was a good match for me. Mine was also far out (see next point) so it was only €280/month, which is hella cheap. It varies but digs generally is that bit cheaper, and food is often provided too which helps.

    Bills are also typically included in the price from what I've seen, which wouldn't be the case with an apartment rental or houseshare.  

    Location

    The location of my digs was incredibly inconvenient, a 90-minute plus commute each way between it and college, which meant I was late a lot because on going to college I lost the ability to get up at 7 for a 9 am. But digs are dotted around everywhere, this is just the case with particularly cheap ones. 

    Duration

    Digs are typically for the academic year only and may not apply over Christmas and Easter breaks. This one was a Sunday to Thursday night arrangement (I stayed with friends or sometimes family the other two nights of the week). 

    Independence/Adulting

    Digs aren't ideal for independence, in the sense that I wasn't allowed have any guests over  (at least not to sleep over) or use the cooker and I didn't do any chores, so I didn't get the full adulting experience. That said, I could still come and go as I pleased and conduct myself as I wished and had privacy in my room so it was a nice transition since I moved out early. I'm enjoying the increased adulting in my new apartment (even really enjoying the chores honestly), but that was nice for the year to let me focus on dealing with college. College is already really intense, so I got to figure out how that worked while moving out and living independently, but still having a safety net -- as long as I could pay my rent, I knew I wouldn't starve. 

    Amenities

    Cons: I wasn't allowed use the washing machine.

    Pros: Breakfast and home-cooked dinner were provided every night. I was rarely up early enough to eat breakfast and I was often too tired to eat much of the dinner (god I was so tired on coming back from college at 10 or 11 every night), which I felt bad about, but I appreciated having it there. 

    Overall

    I loved my digs despite the annoying location and not being allowed have people over, mostly because my landlady was awesome. You don't always get lucky like that, but if you do I recommend digs for first year in college. If you're still searching, I found mine approx last week a year ago so there's still hope. Good luck!

    Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood


    The Handmaid's Tale was yet another hyped-up disappointment for me, because it reads not like a novel but a literary exercise. It's certainly an example to be discussed in a college English class, but it's not a story. 

    It centres Offred, named for the man she belongs to, in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian Christian theocracy. Offred is a Handmaid, the main role for fertile women in Gilead; she lives with a man and his infertile Wife where her only purpose is as a vessel for babies that the Wife will then raise. Gilead has a population crisis and so having babies is the most important thing anyone can do; Offred's only worth lies in her "viable ovaries". Women in this society are property and are not allowed to read or write. They're allowed out once a day to shop for groceries with their Handmaid pair and see the bodies hanging from the Wall. 

    Btw, the population crisis comes from mass infertility caused by radioactivity ... and chemicals ... and anthrax ... and Iran? Lots of things alluded to, none explained. 


    via GIPHY


    Writing

    The Handmaid's Tale is lyrically written, quite often to a fault, but still impressive. Atwood clearly has a mastery of arranging the English language and making aesthetically-pleasing phrases. Unfortunately, she gets a bit carried away and writes incredibly run-on sentences with ten commas. She also refuses to use quotation marks for some reason -- to make it more dream-like or stream-of-consciousness, I guess? She's also good at analogies and metaphors. 

    “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.”

    Framing

    This book is framed as the handmaid's literal diary, recorded into audiotapes and discovered by historians hundreds of years later to be regarded curiously as a potential source document for the historical Republic of Gilead, though this is only made clear in the Epilogue. It's very much a literary exercise in framing, playing with narrator-as-historical-source-material and a somewhat unreliable narrator who sometimes just says random things. Maybe if this had been told to me at the start it would've been okay, but I just felt betrayed by it at the end. 

    It just seemed designed to be clever, rather than to be a good story. Yes, it's an interesting format, but the playing with my suspension of disbelief just annoyed me. 

    Exposition

    The opposite of Brave New World, which was entirely exposition; this is just hints, with next to no payoff or explanation of what's going on. We're not even told how this totalitarian regime came about so suddenly until halfway through the book, and even then it's vague: [Mild Spoilers] a Christian army of some kind shoot dead every member of Congress and the President, suspend the constitution and take away women's rights. Women become property, which Offred (with her old name) discovers when she tries to buy something and the Compubank doesn't recognise her card because all her money has been transferred to her husband since property can't own property. This is dramatic and quite interesting, but it's never really explained properly how this could possibly happen in the space of a few weeks, and why nobody fought back. [/End Spoilers]

    Also, right before the takeover there were apparently intense feminist marches all the time and you were supposed to hate men? I dunno. 


    via GIPHY




    Characters

    The characters themselves seemed fairly unrealistic. Moira and Offred's mother seemed reasonably realistic, but we mostly only hear stuff about them from before the theocratic coup. The Wife seems one-dimensional, and the Guardians pretty boring. The Commander at least has his illicit Scrabble games. Luke, her husband before the takeover, was a pretty interesting character, but we only get her wonderings about his fate. 

    Offred herself was a pain. A typical quibble with the younger YA characters is their whining, but she was 33 and did it all the time while being the most passive person going. I don't even begrudge her being Luke's Other Woman before the takeover because the rest of her is just so annoying. Like wow. Get a grip. Yes, her life was pretty terrible, but why write a book about someone who just accepts it? I think it was another lesson we were meant to learn, about the forgotten people in revolutions, but again, I don't care to be preached at in novels.

    Agency

    Always a big issue for me; characters who lack agency. Offred just does what people tell her, always. Even when it's stuff she could get in trouble for, it's not compelling because it's still not her own idea. Sure, people get shot for disobeying, but we don't read books for this. 

    Again, this is where YA is better (Offred is 33). Whether it's because teenage optimism or invincibility or something else, a YA heroine would've done something. It might've gone badly and had a sad ending, but there would have been a plot of some kind, and that was just missing here. Honestly, all the adult novels I've read lately have been disappointing; do adults just stop daring to do things? How depressing. As a very proactive person, I identify much more with YA characters. If anyone has recommendations of adult speculative fiction featuring characters with agency, please tell me in the comments or Tweet me @frizzyroselle.

    Character Relationships

    I did like the shift in Offred's original husband's behaviour when she became his property. She was freaking out about it (understandably) but he was much calmer, saying something like 'you know I always take care of you', which would normally be comforting but is now terrifying because he legally owns her. When they go to sleep, she's thinking 'We are no longer each other's; I am his." That was one part that did get to me. 

    Offred and Moira, her rebellious friend who escaped the training School they were brought to to be re-educated into Handmaids, have a pretty interesting relationship, with Moira mad at Offred for passively accepting her fate.  I quite liked Moira -- she was the only one I really saw try to do anything, but her story ends with Offred saying she has no idea what happened to her because she never heard from her again. 

    There's also the relationship between the Handmaids and the infertile Wives, who must hold the Handmaids' hands as their husbands have sex with the Handmaid in hopes of creating a child and combating the population crisis. For obvious reasons, they dislike the Handmaids, and that's quite clear.


    World-Building

    There were lots of cool concepts here: colour-coded costumes depending on your role in society, a re-education school to transform women into Handmaid's. But so many things were mentioned and then never explained or revisited. For example, due to chemicals or radiation or something, some babies are born Unbabies and must be taken away somewhere because they're awful. What does that mean? Do they come out as goat-human hybrids, or something? Confusing. And then the Unwomen, who are apparently shipped off to the Colonies to die cleaning up toxic waste or pick cotton. We know some of them are old women and some are incorrigibles like Moira who get caught and not executed, but what's it like there? If this was a YA book, someone would've gone there and found out what the deal is, but here nobody bothers. 

    There's apparently an underground resistance but we never see it do anything, and there's a war on TV but it might be made up, Offred doesn't really know. 

    There's no plot really, so the whole book is spend showing bits of the world and still nothing is satisfactorily covered. 

    There are lots of interesting concepts here, but they're just not fleshed out enough. 

    Monotony

    Oh my god how many times can someone possibly describe the curtains?!?! I swear she did it at least seven times, could be way more. I get that that's a theme of the book, supposed to illustrate the emptiness of her life and womb or ...something. But I hate that sort of thing in a book -- if you can't include symbolism without boring the socks off the reader, don't include it. 



    via GIPHY


    Ending

    [Spoilers obviously]

    The book ends when Offred's diary stops and we never find out what happens to her. All we get is an epilogue where historians at a symposium on Gileadean history discuss the trustworthiness of her diary as a source. I HATE open endings, HATE them. I was wondering how it was going to wrap up when it was so close to the end and still no plot had started, and the answer is that it didn't. Grrr. [/End Spoilers]


    Overall, I think this was a book meant to teach a lesson, and on the way it lost touch with its actual story. If I was looking for a lesson without a story, I would've read a non-fiction book. 2 stars. 

    Sunday, 17 September 2017

    Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

    Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind was a travel book; I bought it in London's Gatwick Airport for the plane home, and read it again ten days later on the plane to Prague and through Prague's underground. 

    It's, I suppose, a history book, but on a very unusual scale, what I'd probably call macrohistory. This history rarely mentions individual people or individual towns, but instead traces the story of homo sapiens from the beginning of the universe, spending a brief period on the evolution of humans and then transitioning from biology to history. It covers revolutions including the Cognitive Revolution, where homo sapiens became sapient and set itself apart from the other human species inhabiting the planet, and began to live in hunter-gatherer communities; the Agricultural Revolution, when humans settled down into farming communities, the revolutions of money, language, religion, imperialism and science, and the future of humanity with increased technological advancement. 

    Thoroughness

    Sapiens covered quite a lot, and I wasn't left feeling like very much was lacking, even though by its nature it had to stay zoomed-out the majority of the time. It seemed to cover the themes of human history rather than the people, so for example it took a brief look at gender inequality in ancient history, using the ancient Babylonian Hammurabi code as an example, which held that rape of a woman was a property crime against her husband or father (a pattern that continued -- the sort of thing where, according to this, the builder's son could be killed if the house he built collapsed and killed the owner of the house's son). Sapiens asks why women were discriminated against to start with and tackles some of the usual explanations, like "men are naturally stronger so they were better at the most important jobs in ancient society", which it counters by saying that physical strength wasn't required for many prestigious positions like the priesthood, but women were still excluded from those. So, like The Meaning of Science and Superintelligence, I got the vibe that the author had put a lot of thought into it. 

    Fresh Voice 

    The author wrote with what was, at least to me, a novel perspective. One thing he brought up was whether the Agricultural Revolution was actually a good thing, as we tend to think it is because we think the arrow of time always arcs towards progress. He described how living conditions actually in many ways got worse, and about the Malthusian principle in which an increase in food just led to an increase in population so everyone was still living horrible lives in poverty, highly susceptible to diseases and blights. 

    He also said some things that were unpleasant surprises, like when he moved on from talking about religion to talk about the different types of humanism, and said liberal humanism implicitly relies on a god to give humans a special spirit that sets us apart from animals, so one of the humanisms left is evolutionary humanism, which I liked the sound of (yay biology) until he said "btw that's what the Nazis used". 

    Well-researched

    Sapiens had loads of interesting stories, like that of the Numantians being under siege from the Romans for 13 months and, when food ran out, deciding to burn down their city and die free rather than becoming slaves. I learned about the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, later renamed New York, and why countries like the Netherlands depended on their strong banking systems and less tyrannical monarchies for their success at exploration. I learned that the first name written down in history is the signature (we think) of some random accountant recording a transaction/writing a financial statement, not a general or hero.

    Favourite Parts

    I liked that it had a whole chapter or two on science, though it did seem to mix science up with technology somewhat. It had a chapter on the Marriage of Science and Empire, which was an interesting perspective. It talked about how much European science gained from the colonies e.g. new lands to explore, new flowers to catalog -- but it also talked about how science helped empire, saying that the reason the British conquered the world instead of the very powerful Chinese is that they used science and acknowledged ignorance, leaving blank spaces on maps to be filled in and taking an interest in what was around them. I'm sure it's an over-simplistic explanation but it was pretty interesting. 

    It was a good book overall, and I'm impressed that a history book kept my interest because I'm not a history fan. Four stars.