Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Thesis End Game

At last, I am nearing completion of my PhD: at least I think I am. In fact, it has been the continuous uncertainty that has been one of the most difficult problems to come to terms with. Will I ever complete it? Will it ever be good enough? These are the kinds of question that frequently run through the mind of the PhD student. However, after umpteen versions and a previous thumbs up on the first draft from my supervisor, I now feel I am entering the End Game.

What are the different phases one passes through when writing a PhD? Well, the first (sometimes lasting for decades!) is to decide exactly what you are going to write your thesis about. This can be a hideously difficult process as a vague interest needs to morph into a very specific set of questions to be answered in your doctorate. Some would-be PhDers never get beyond this stage, becoming serial presenters of thesis proposals that never come to anything. If you are lucky enough to establish exactly what you want to write about in conjunction with your supervisor, then the next stage will almost certainly be a wide reading program intended to bring you up to scratch with all the conflicting ideas and information in your area. This too can be very daunting, as the more one reads the less one tends to feel that there is really anything left to say. If, in spite of these doubts, the research student actually gets round to lifting a pen, then the agony of composing a first draft will begin. For those who are not used to writing even long letters, let alone an 80000 word thesis, this process has the potential to be a real heart-breaker. Were you always good at writing your essays in the exam room? Doesn't matter, this is a different skill and one for the long haul. Quite brilliant students who got Firsts, sometimes don't have what it takes to order their own ideas and words into a 250-300 page book. One can end up feeling very queasy at the idea that not only does one need to write so much, but that it must also be original and a contribution to knowledge. For those who are able to pass through the pain barrier, yet another shock to the system will come when the Supervisor reads the first draft. Usually, he will make it apparent that you haven't sufficiently mastered all the ideas in the field of study. The notes will be merely functional rather than luxurious and all your repetition will need to be ruthlessly excised.

After a long period of deconstruction and inner reflection, you will go on a second or third reading spree and become a master of the cross reference and subtle aside. You will begin to finally feel that you are nearing a point where you can knowledgeably take part in a discourse with experts. Now, furiously, you will write your far more complex second version which should be highly organized, flexibly able to take its position in a discourse with other experts and, most of all, be a complete and minutely referenced scholastic contribution to knowledge. Finally, you will need to tweak it all for a couple of months more before orally defending your ideas in the sometimes hostile presence of several experts in the field. If you deal with this oral defense adequately, then you should finally be recognized as a Doctor of Philosophy.

Not easy is it?

Friday, May 16, 2008


Movie buffs will certainly recognize the above title as the name of David Niven's second book of reminiscences about Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. Niven had a great friendship with swashbuckler Errol Flynn and they even shared a house in Hollywood called "Cirrhosis by the Sea". Furthermore, the two actors appeared together in several movies of the period. Probably the best of them were "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and "The Dawn Patrol". In the former movie, the factual accuracy of the charge is thrown out the window in favor of an all action plot that traverses both India and the Crimea. However, the story itself takes a back seat to the special effects. "What?" you might ask: "Special effects in 1936?" Yes. Certainly. Of course, they were not anaemically computer generated as is usually the case today. No. Warner Brothers action director, Michael Curtiz,* set up lots of mines and trip wires on the field of the charge and you can watch both horses and men going down like nine pins in what must still be the most effective cavalry charge in movie history. For a few moments, I will ask you to view the film's spectacular charge in the clip from You Tube below.

Several stunt men died during the filming of the charge and, apparently, dozens of horses were killed or had to be put down as well--all for the sake of an accurate depiction! Needless to say, it wouldn't be allowed today--and quite right too! Times change and what may be acceptable in one era becomes anathema in another. Nevertheless, though the film might show its age in some ways (in the simplistic jingoism for example), the charge is quite simply magnificent and completely different from the sanitized computer graphics to which we are becoming accustomed. It is clear that these are real men and horses falling in combat: there is something almost uncannily UNREAL about the kind of CGG that seem to be in the process of taking over all depictions of wild nature and men at war.

Errol Flynn starred in at least 4 movies which ended with magnificent sword fights--two of them against Basil Rathbone, the best swordsman in Hollywood at the time. All of these fights were "real" and carefully choreographed by fencing experts. Certainly I have never seen a modern movie with such accurate, ferocious and extended sword fights. No doubt a modern movie would do it all on the computer--and that would dilute and trivialize what should have been a life and death struggle. For your entertainment and consideration, I have put below the two sword fights from "Captain Blood" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (both between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone). Such care was taken over the filming of the latter movie that from its "look" it could have been filmed just ten years ago rather than 70. Is it possible that in 50 years time students of film will look back on these old movies as being more veracious in their action sequences than the computer generated antics of today's film world?

* Curtiz, who was Hungarian and famous for his picturesque English, is credited by Niven as speaking the now famous line "Bring on the empty horses" at the end of the charge.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Season in Retrospect

It has certainly been a season of non stop interest and kudos should go to Benitez once again for maintaining interest until almost the very end of the season. Highlights were the victories over Inter Milan and Arsenal in the later stages of the Champions League and the earlier thrashings of Porto (4-1), Marseilles (4-0) and Besiktas (8-0). Even the semi-final loss to Chelsea was in no way shameful. The team was unlucky to concede at home in the 95th minute and, after that, they were always chasing the game at Stamford Bridge. Going down 3-2 at Chelsea was disappointing, but provided the neutral fan with some great football and some great goals. If the team didn't seem quite so tight at the back as in previous seasons, this was compensated for by some marvellous attacking displays. Of course, new boy, Fernando Torres was the star with 32 goals, but Rafa's other new signings did a good job too. Babel, is clearly a diamond in the rough and can only get better, while the wiles of Yossi Benayoun also frequently bamboozled the opposition. Both players, very creditably, scored 10 goals each in all competitions. Vorronin, another new boy, was less successful but he was frequently injured and did show the odd flash of quality from time to time. Skrtel settled in quickly and put in some mature defensive displays against the best teams in Europe in the latter part of the season.

The Liverpool old guard enjoyed mixed fortunes this season. Gerrard was his usual consistent self and contributed 21 goals from midfield. Alonso, on the other hand, suffered a loss of form after injury and struggled to regain his place in the side due to the success of Mascherano and Brazilian new boy, Lucas Leiva. There have been rumours about his imminent departure, but all true Liverpool supporters will hope that Benitez convinces him to stay as Xabi, at his best, is undoubtedly a world class player. Carragher sometimes seemed more fallible than usual this season and his loss of form in the middle of the season undoubtedly saw Liverpool drawing several games they should have won. The season long injury to Agger was an immense blow as his speed and guile had become an important factor in the linking up of defense and attack. Hyppia, once again, was immense and everyone connected with the club will be delighted that he has won another contract at the age of 34. Crouch's frustration was apparent to everybody, as he struggled to get a game while Torres was blowing away defense after defense. In spite of this, the England player still picked up 11 goals and no one will blame him if he decides to play his football elsewhere next season--though personally I hope he stays. The much reviled Dirk Kuyt reinvented himself as a winger this year and enjoyed something of a renaissance, scoring crucial goals against Inter Milan, Arsenal and Chelsea. All in all, he scored 10 goals and showed himself to be a great team player and a man for the big occasion. Liverpool finished the season as the top scorers in England with 117 goals in all competitions (with one game left to play as I write). In spite of this, in the PL the team once again failed to compete and come next season, Benitez's fifth in charge, more will be expected in this regard. In a nutshell, RB doesn't need to win the PL but he does need to be seen to mount a serious challenge.

This leaves us with only the off-field antics to consider. Off the field, Liverpool FC was something of a soap opera this year and everyone who wishes the club well, will hope that this circus doesn't continue into the new season. First, there was the much publicised row between Rafa and the Americans and the coach was almost forced out. After that, Gillet tried to sell his shares to DIC and was blocked by Hicks. The latter then declared his intention to buy his partner out himself, but so far he's been unable to raise the necessary finance. Meanwhile, Rick Parry's erstwhile untouchable position was well and truly compromised when Hicks demanded his resignation for incompetence. Parry refused and Hicks couldn't force him out as he didn't have sufficient backing on the board. What happens from here on in is anyone's guess, but supporters will hope that Messrs. Hicks and Gillet can at least agree on a transfer budget for the close season. Next season promises to be a good one for the club with players like Torres, Babel, Mascherano and Skrtel having come of age this year. There is a feeling of optimism at the club; a general sense that Rafael Benitez is just one or two major signings from creating a team capable of challenging for every honour in the game. Let's just hope that the Hicks-Gillet tragi-comedy doesn't put a spoke in the wheel of it all!