Change Of Address

In order to more effectively consolidate all of the crap that I have accumulated, all future content will be posted to garymcgrath.wordpress.com

And the deed is done…

So after months of deliberation, doubt, faffing, putting off, procrastinating and downright just ignoring the issue and hoping it would go away and leave me alone, I finally posted off the exit paperwork for my Masters course. It all feels like a bit of a weight has been lifted.

Perhaps my excitement mixed with shock at what I had just done was to blame for the face that, after 6 years living in this town, I seemingly could not recall how the one way system for traffic works here and nearly got myself run over twice on the way to campus. I ended up doing the silly half walk, half run thing whilst trying desperately to look anywhere but at the angry car driver now probably yelling obscenities in your direction.

I feel good, though. Like I can finally move on, and put this botched chapter of my life behind me. There’s a saying and it goes like this, “today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

Weeeeelllll….

Tomorrow definitely is, at least. Probably.

Why Everything Sucks (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Life Again)

A year ago things were looking pretty rosy. I’d quit my job, been accepted onto a Masters course and generally believed that I was about to be moving on with my life, finally doing the things that I wanted to be doing.

Turns out I had been wrong on more than a few accounts.

I discovered pretty quickly that once you have left home, moving back in with your parents is never a good idea, not matter how financially appealing that it may appear. I get on well with my parents, and you may think you get on well with yours. But, and this is very important, once you have tasted your own independence for the first time there is really no going back from that. Going back to living under someone else’s rules and schedules really just doesn’t work out how you think it would. Essentially it is important to remember that no matter how old you get these guys are your parents; it’s their house, their rules. They will not be the equivalent of older house mates for you.

I also later discovered that postgraduate study is really not what you expect it to be. I would advise anyone thinking about it to think long and hard, and then think about it a little bit more. As I write this nearly a year after I started I am no longer studying; I have opted to cease my studies without the submission of a dissertation. This may seem like a waste at first, after all my course wasn’t exactly cheap at £3,500.

Whilst the sheer workload had been a bit of a shock, it had not been an unexpected one. What had been unexpected was how violently postgraduate study would turn my against my subject. The more I delved into it, the more I began to felt alienated from reality. I no longer felt as if I was pursing anything worthwhile, but merely absorbing and regurgitation information for the very sake of it, and the further I got the more I began to realise that this was the modus operandi of probably 90% of the academic community. The deeper I got into my subject the further I felt from it; I no longer experienced the excitement which first led me towards history, and this is what affected me the hardest. Something about which I had once held so much passion had now become like a dead shell to me, nothing more than a repetitive exercise of verbal masturbation.

It is sad that I have come to feel this way, but deep down I know that the spark of interest has left me entirely, and at this level unless you can sleep, eat and breathe your subject then it will be very difficult to make progress. Postgraduate study is most certainly not for the faint of heart.

What all of this did make me realise is how much I had abandoned the things in life which I really do enjoy. I no longer read for pleasure, for it had become nothing more than a chore to me. This was probably the straw which broke the camels back; I figured that if I could no longer take pleasure in the things in life which I used to enjoy, then I needed to cut out that in my life which was taking so much of my time that I no longer could pursue these pleasures.

And that is the story of how I became a graduate drop-out. I’ve never ‘failed’ anything academically before, but I guess there has to be a first for everything, and it has still been a big learning curve for me, albeit in a way I never would have first imagined.

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Learning Points

  • It turns out that you can get away with playing a wide range of music at parties, although Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica in its entirety is not one of them.
  • Shouting the lyrics to Safety Dance whilst attempting to stage a re-creation of the music video in the middle of the street is usually considered inappropriate.
  • Dancing in confined spaces does not work. You cannot mosh to Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street.

For those who like progressive psychedelic folk jazz

I’m going to a party tonight and I agreed that I would sort out some playlists for it. Here are some of the highlights:

Ghost – Ganagmang


Comus – Song To Comus

Espers – Dead Queen

Hawkwind – Magnu

Camel – Lady Fantasy

I have this horrible feeling I’ll never be allowed to make playlists for parties ever again…

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My Thoughts on Valentine’s Day

Hearts (Explored!)

I don’t really have a strong opinion about Valentine’s Day, either one way or the other.

I do sort of agree on the one hand that it seems a little pointless, as if you are truly in love with someone then you don’t need a set day to make a declaration of that love.

But then again the tradition is kind of nice, and it’s harmless enough, so I can’t really begrudge anyone who decides to celebrate it.

Maybe it’s because I’m a historian, but I find the history behind it much more fascinating. Like many other holidays, if you go right back, before the day was re-appropriated to be the day of Saint Valentine, this period in February was already being celebrated by the Romans in a festival called Lupercalia. Look it up on Wikipedia. Like all of the best bits of History it is replete with gory details. Here’s the best:

“The festival began with the sacrifice by the Luperci [a particular sect of priests in ancient Rome] (or the flamen dialis) of two male goats and a dog. Next two young patrician Luperci were led to the altar, to be anointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk, after which they were expected to smile and laugh.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupercalia)

Ever since I found that out, whenever people mention Valentine’s Day I always immediately associate it with blood sacrifice. I find there is a certain amount of dark humour to be found in this, given that it is a celebration of love. I’m sure such sacrificial overtones will be appreciated by anybody who has ever experienced love go bad. After the blood has been wiped on your face, what else can you do but laugh?

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The End of Guitar Hero: Inevitable?

Activison has laid to rest the Guitar Hero franchise.

I was a little shocked by the announcement at first, since it was only a few years ago that it was impossible to escape from the Guitar Hero phenomenon. I was certainly addicted to it for a time.

On further reflection, however, I don’t think it should be too surprising. I think the business model of Guitar Hero was pretty much doomed to failure anyway. In the beginning it was a great new novelty and a lot of fun because we had never experienced a game like it before. Sure, there had been musical rhythm games in the past, but none of them preyed upon the air guitarist hidden inside all of us. Don’t lie – we’ve all done it, and Guitar Hero basically said “it’s okay, so have we, so why not have some fun with it?”. And it was, for a time.

The problem was that each successive release of the game was… well, it was essentially the same thing all over again. The graphics would be slightly improved, the mechanics tweaked and refined and the shape of the controller changed. But that was never what we really cared about with these games. Nobody ever said “hey, check out the hammer-on/pull-off mechanics on the latest Guitar Hero!”. No, it was all about the songs. In the end it ultimately boiled down to this; £40 for a new list of songs. A list of songs in which there would be, maybe, 10 you really wanted to play. The rest would be inconvenient hoops you would have to jump through before getting to the real rocking-out.

I think an even greater emphasis should have been placed upon downloadable content when the series hit the current generation of consoles, sticking to one release of the game and offering customisable song packs, and not releasing more and more versions of what was basically the same game. I also feel that the addition of the ‘band’ element was the beginning of the end and by the end it felt as if the game had become or a jack of all trades and a master of none.

It is a shame, though. There is still Rock Band, but I always preferred the feel of the earlier Guitar Hero games. They were straight-up, no-nonsense, in your face shredding nirvana. I guess I’ll have to just keep rocking it with my copy of Guitar Hero III.

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In which I detail my recent experiences with the much improved Ubuntu operating system

I’ve recently come back to the Linux fold, after being away from it for two years.

For a time I used to run Ubuntu as my sole OS, eventually moving back to Windows due to becoming increasingly more frustrated with getting games to behave themselves under WINE and because of a problem with my old laptop whereby the CPU was constantly overheating. The only thing I could do to stop it from reaching critical temperature and powering down was to run it at half speed whenever I was doing anything particularly intensive, which was generally pretty frustrating as “intensive” in this case seemed to include watching videos on YouTube.

Recently, though, I decided that my current machine was long over due for a clean-up, so I decided that in the process I had may as well see what had changed in in the world of Ubuntu. I decided to set up a dual-boot system, since my need for Windows is still really only for gaming purposes, and have Ubuntu for my day-to-day stuff.

After playing around with Ubuntu 10.10 for a few days, I am seriously impressed by the progress that has been made in the past two years. Some of the highlights for me so far have been:

  • The overhaul of the UI. I remember Ubuntu being a rather unseemly combination of brown and orange which, whilst still being prettier than Windows XP was then, had still left a lot to be desired. The new default UI now feels much more polished and professional looking. This may be a minor point, especially given how easy it is to install new themes in Ubuntu, but for a distribution which puts the user experience first this counts for a lot.
  • The installation procedure in Ubuntu has now been simplified to the point where, providing all hardware is correctly detected, pretty much anybody could do it. The partitioning tool has been overhauled since I last encountered it and now makes things much more straightforward if you choose to manually edit your partitions, presenting you with a nice graphical representation of how your hard drives are to be divided up.
  • It now boots FAST. My machine goes from GRUB to the log-in prompt in 10 seconds.
  • Hardware support has improved considerably. It was pretty straightforward getting my wireless card up and working. I have a card with the Broadcom BCM-4306 chip set, and although the drivers themselves are now included in the kernel, the firmware necessary to make use of them isn’t due to licensing issues surrounding proprietary software. Thankfully a brief Google search provided me with a tutorial I could follow to install the firmware. I had expected an afternoon of loading drivers through ndiswrapper, which had been my experience in the past, but instead I had got it working in under 5 minutes. In fact, in all of my years of using Linux (which I have done so to varying degrees since 2004) this is the first time I have ever had a machine where all of my hardware is supported. Most of it out of the box and the rest of it after the briefest of Google searches.

All in all I have been extremely pleased to see the progress which has been made, and has even made me feel slightly guilty about abandoning it in frustration when I did. I understand that there is debate within the Linux community over Canonical, but I feel that ultimately the Ubuntu community should be congratulated for what it has managed to do for the desktop Linux experience.

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Adjusting to Postgraduate Study

I’m now roughly halfway through a History MA. I say ‘roughly’ because I have finished what, for want of a better term, I have come to regards as the ‘easy’ stage. The real challenge still lies ahead. I am currently staring down the gauntlet, at the wrong end of 20,000 words and I have realised one thing; the entire experience has been markedly different from anything I could have expected or prepared myself for.

The first real shock when you begin postgraduate study is the increased volume of work.It is something which you try to mentally prepare for, but it still takes you by surprise and by the end of the first week if you don’t feel like you have had the stuffing knocked clean out of you, then you are either superhuman or lying. Or perhaps possibly both. The reading lists alone tend to be longer than a first year undergraduate core text. These are, of course, merely lists of ‘suggested’ reading and, if in the course of my academic life thus far, I have learnt anything at all, it is that the term ‘suggested reading’ in more or less analogous to ‘light bedtime reading’.

Hyperbole aside, you will certainly find a step up in pace such as you have never met before. No, it is not like changing from college/6th form to university. It is much more intense. The best thing you can do by the end of the first week is to laugh. If you can laugh, then you have a good chance of surviving. You will definitely need that sense of humour later on. I won’t lie; it won’t stop you from occasionally feel as if you are going insane, but you’ll at least believe that you’re having fun whilst you slowly lose your mind.

You do eventually adjust. The trick is finding new ways to cope with, and to stay on top of, the vastly increased workload. I refuse to believe that even the most seasoned of academics can steel themselves to pour through dusty tomes every waking moment of every day. No matter how strong your passion is, sooner or later something else will become more appealing. The trick is to find ways to keep yourself engaged with what you are doing when your mind does begin to wander. I have now begun to understand why so many historians like to pepper their work with anecdotes which on first glance may seem to have little relation to the main thrust of their argument. It’s because we need such diversions account of a runaway horse one morning on the streets of later eighteenth century Norwich (C.B. Jewson, The Jacobin City: A Portrait of Norwich 1788-1802). Day-to-day life is full of such irreverence, and it does us well as historians to remember this fact.

The past 4 months have been tough and exhilarating at the same time, but it is in beginning to prepare myself for the hefty task of researching a Masters dissertation that the real fun is starting to begin. I can already feel the lure of the archives calling.

Snow

Do we stop playing because we grow old, or do we grow old because we stop playing?

Actually, we grow old because of the continual deterioration cells within our body, occurring over a span between two points in temporal space measured by an arbitrarily defined and implemented calendar system.

But aside from that, one of the times you know that your inner child has well and truly kicked the proverbial bucket is when you awake early in the morning, blearily rubbing your eyes and staring out of your bedroom window, to be presented with a view of a countryside turned bright white. The virgin snow lies pristine and fresh in the morning, crisp and perfect with an inviting charm, and your first thoughts are not that of excitement and wonder, but dread and despair.

As a child you would see a world transformed, a world of excitement and exploration. As an adult you realise you are, effectively, trapped. Miles from any town and all routes of transportation impassable, you realise that you are completely cut-out off from civilisation.

Well, actually we have telephones and radios and TV and the internet now so I guess that isn’t true. And the house is pretty well stocked up so there’s no trouble there. And, of course, on a clear day you wouldn’t be going anywhere anyway. But now that you can’t, you feel the need to. Maybe it’s something to do with a primitive fight-or-flight mechanism that we are hard-wired to feel anxious when we are forced to stay in one place. Maybe logic just takes a back seat when your brain is hell-bent on trolling you at every available turn.

Of course I immediately regretted the decision to leave my Christmas shopping until the last-minute. All of those excuses I fed myself about waiting to get essays done, and how I had been under too much stress at the time all start to seem suddenly very silly indeed in the face of the bigger stress presented by this veritable conundrum of logistics. Town is miles away. My car will never get down that snow-covered hill… hang on, where IS my car? Oh, it’s that large looking snow drift over there, or rather it is inside it somewhere. I hope. Well, that’s not a good sign. Not getting anywhere in that.

I guess the one consolation is knowing that probably no shops are open anyway. But with only a week to go until Christmas, and with all of my shopping still left to do, I am feeling more than a little foolish.

I should have known this would happen. I’ve seen enough films that I should know better – leaving things to the last-minute is always a bad plan, doubly so at Christmas. Of course, if this was a film then a series of bizarre circumstances and hilarious hijinks would ensue. Everything would go wrong for the first half, until I realise that Christmas is about love and family and that all of those other things which had gone wrong weren’t important at all and it all pulls together nicely into a heart warming scene at the end. Probably everyone is standing around the tree, an open fire blazing, whilst the camera pulls out and upwards away from the sitting room window, rising up to show an idealistic scene of a snow-covered patch of suburbia whilst saccharine holiday songs play over the end credits. Of course in reality there would just be a lot of awkward silences; a shaking their heads mental notes are made to strike you from the Christmas card list next year.

Not that I believe I have any grounds on which to complain. I pity the poor sods nervously checking announcements on public transport operations as they try to return home to their families for the holidays. At least I have been stuck in the right place. Maybe next year we may wise up to the fact that we have been blind-sided by snow for three years on the trot now, and all be slightly more ready for it, but I’m not getting my hopes up too much. And besides, when all is said and done, snow is still fun.

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