Six of Hearts: I am wrong about The Road Less Travelled By.

Headcanons, readings of text that are either not necessarily supported by the text can be tricky things. In some ways, it is natural to build on what is there, to bring in our own knowledge and experiences to our readings of characters, themes or word choices. It is, however, important to remember the difference between our headcanons and the actual text, if only because when we talk to others, they will bring their own constructions to the text, their own headcanons.

In some cases, these readings go beyond merely unsupported and, whether due to misreading, forgetfulness or antagonism against the text (or, indeed, other people’s reading of the text) become actively contrary to what was written. That is the position I find myself in when dealing with the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken. Or, as it is often mistakenly named (and I have delibrately misnamed it in the title of this blog post) “The Road Less Travelled By”.

My specific misreading is, like a lot of misreadings of the text, based in the final stanza of the poem. Unlike a lot of misreadings of it however, it is based on, or rather diverges from, the first two lines of that stanza. My default reading of the poem, the one my brain brings to the front before I can conciously correct it, is that the famous final three lines are being said in the future, after the rest of the poem, a triumphant, if wrong, declaration that what made the difference is that the narrator took “the road less travelled by” in an attempt to bring meaning to an ultimately minor decision. Indeed, sometimes I almost convince myself that the decision is so meaningless that in fact the two roads lead to the same place, despite this being completely false and actively contridicted by the text!

I think this reading is almost entirely brought on as a reaction not to the poem itself so much as the most common misreading of it, the “triumphant declaration” I mentioned above, which only really uses the final three lines of the poem. “Two roads diverged in a wood and I-/I took the road less travelled by,/and that has made all the difference.”. Commonly, the last full stop is, when read aloud, converted to an exclaimination point, as done by Robin Williams in the film The Dead Poets Society. It is treated as a declaration of independence, that what really mattered is that the narrator took “their own path” and didn’t follow the crowd. But again, I think this common reading focused on these three lines, which we might actually call The Road Less Travelled By, a three line poem in itself given how it is often used, misses a lot of the poem.

The rest of the poem is at pains to establish that “the passing there/ had worn them really about the same” and “both that morning equally lay”. The narrarator is faced with two options in the wood that (I assume autumn, given that the wood has turned yellow and the leaves are lying there undisturbed) morning, and they are, crucially, as far as the narrator can tell, essentially the same. The second stanza is, I think, pretty indecisive, capturing the feeling of looking down two options and trying to determine which to take. It is not an informed choice, given that the undergrowth blocks the view of the final destination of either road. But a choice is made.

Even in the final verse, the narrator notes this. “I shall be saying this with a sigh/ some ages and ages hence”,before reaching those famous final lines. The narrator knows not only that this is not a choice made based on the observable facts, but also that time will remake the importance of this decision and recast it as being a well thought out and indeed noble choice, to take the road less travelled by. In other words, the narrator knows that in the future, they will convert this sorry autumn day where they took the path that may be slightly less walked along, and turn it into…well, the three line poem The Road Less Travelled By.

But that’s not to say that this choice is completely meaningless, and certainly not that my reading of it as a minor or even meaningless decision is correct, because of what I think may be the most important stanza of the poem; the penultimate one. “Oh, I kept the first for another day!/ Yet knowing how way leads on to way, /I doubted if I should ever come back.”. The two roads are, in fact, leading to seperate places, and like so much of life, you can’t remake this decision. While the choice was not made for any particular reason, and will be reimagined by the narrator in future so that the reasoning behind it was the important part, the choice is still made. The narrator will not stand in these woods again and be able to take the other road. The title even puts emphasis on the other road. The road more travelled by. The Road Not Taken.

I’ve been thinking about this poem because I am at a fairly important crossroads of my own life now, and I am feeling drawn towards a particular path, despite having tried my hardest to climb another, steeper, possibly more rewarding but definitely more brutal on me path. Perhaps I will keep going, perhaps I will turn onto a new road, but one thing is for sure: I will not stand in this yellow wood again, as long as I live. There will always be a Road Not Taken.

Jack of Diamonds: The Cluedo Weapons

A small selection of collages of weapons from the game Cluedo, each colour coded to a separate character who might wield them.

Note: The side stories attached to these contain descriptions of murder and in one case suicide, which is why I’ve put it below the read more. While they aren’t too graphic, if you don’t want to see these, there is a twitter thread with just the images here.

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5 of Diamonds: Bullets Per Minute – A good off beat effort

When we talk about games, particularly shooters, we often talk about among other things the “rhythm” of the games. It is not hard to reimagine a gun as a percussion instrument, particularly in the safe world of fantasy. Using weapons as musical instruments in a game lets you make those bangs without any chance of hurting anyone. These isn’t even new: youtube videos matching video guns firing to a beat, or gun syncs, have been around for a while, but there’s a drastically older example in classical music: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with it’s literally bombastic use of cannons. This flows into the gameplay, with both the firing of the weapons and the lower frequency rhythm of reloading and superpowers recharging controlling how the player goes through the game.

Given this, it is curious that, as far as I know, no one’s crossed the shooter over with a different genre – the rhythm game, where the game is controlled by the player matching the beat of the game in a very literal way. Until now.

Similarly to how Crypt of the Necrodancer pulled the adventure game into the beat of a rhythm game, BPM, Bullets Per Minute, adds rhythm mechanics to first person gun slinging and it…for the most part, works. The core part of the game, the way guns will only fire on a beat or half beat, the way your dash ability makes a drumbeat sound when you match the rhythm, that all feels really good. It’s difficult to get used to from other games, and some may find it a bit too forced in; you could remove the rhythm mechanics and have a rather generic FPS, but I do think the extra mechanic fundamentally alters the gameplay enough to make it worth it. While different guns having different firing patterns is hardly unusual, BPM takes it to the next level and have different kinds of weapons not only fire on different beats (for example, the pistols can fire on the half beat, which I struggle to do so I usually switch as soon as I can), but each weapon has a different reload rhythm, with the reloads being far more involved on the player’s part than most games, such as the revolver having you hit reload on the beat/half beat for each bullet you load in. The bosses also have attacks that go on the rhythm; the boss of the first level for instance has an attack that alternates from side to side to do damage, sending you dodging left and right in a wonderful dance. When the rhythm aspects work, they work really well.

Unfortunately, outside the bosses and some of the minibosses, the enemies don’t join you in your dance. Normal enemies don’t attack or move on the beat, at least not in a way that I can notice after quite a lot of runs in the game, which weakens the experience overall, which is really important given how much that experience is what carries the game.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the game; it’s a very small studio and the game is pretty impressive for that, with a surprising amount of material in it. It seems combining two genres wasn’t enough for BPM, as it is also technically a roguelike. Each level is algorithmically created, consisting primarily what you might call encounter rooms, where you are faced with an array of enemies, upon who’s defeat the doors open and a chest appears, along with a second random reward. The goal is to defeat the boss of each level and move onto the next realm of Norse mythology, and you don’t need to defeat all rooms in the map to move on. There’s not that much variety in the rooms – each level will have the same enemies, selection of minibosses and boss across runs. The main difference between runs is what rewards you get, and there’s an impressive amount of stuff to obtain.

There are two shops, a general shop and an armoury. The more you spend there, the more items will be available from them, including at least twelve different guns. Also, really importantly, the shopkeepers are huge dancing birds named after Odin’s ravens. That’s really important, it’s fantastic. If this was a youtube video I’d end it on just a recording of the giant dancing birds. Anyway.

Libraries, which require keys to unlock, let you obtain new abilities to add to your powers, with larger “Ultimate” abilities like healing or summoning an ally taking time to charge while more direct powers like are, like your dash powers, useable on the beat. There are four equipment slots, which also give a wide array of effects that are usually pretty powerful, such as granting infinite ammo or explosive shots or improving your jump. The equipment can be brought from the general store, found in chests (that again sometimes need a key) or sometimes you will find four high level pieces, one for each slot, and you can only choose one (probably the rarest reward). Finally, there’s also six skills you can upgrade as you go, with damage being usually the most useful.

As you go through the game and beat the levels, you unlock new Valkyries to play with, each with a different starting loadout; for example, the first Valkyrie Goll is armed with the weakest pistol and has 100 HP, and beating the second dungeon unlocks Freyr, who starts with the more powerful revolver and 150 shields, which are subtle different from HP in that once lost you cannot restore them with HP items and his total starting health is actually zero.

Like I said, there is a lot going on here, and this brings us to one of the first issues I had playing the game; it does a very bad job of explaining itself. While there are hints on the loading screen, there is just a lot of things to use and get used to in the game and without something like a codex it can just feel as if you don’t know what’s happening. It doesn’t help that many of the upgrades don’t say what they actually do, just give a word like “Cleave” or “Solar Flare”, some of which you can work out from in game actions and some which I still have no clue what is going on.

Speaking of a codex, the game could really use one. There’s plenty of weapons and enemy types that it could really benefit from it, but most importantly the codex could go someway to explaining what certain modifiers actually mean in terms of game mechanics.

Then again, perhaps they chose not to include one not just because it is a large amount of additional work for a small team, but because they wanted to make the game harder and require you to figure it out for yourself. And yes, the game is bloody hard even on the easy setting. Part of it is just how damage works; you start with 100 HP as the base character, but even the most basic enemies will do 25HP, meaning you have effectively only 4 hits before dying. Later characters start with even less HP, although they do have bonuses like extra starting stats and better weapons to make up for it. Even the smallest enemies like the worms in the first levels can kill you, and in fact the smaller ones tend to be the most deadly since it can be hard to see them coming. This brutal health requirement only gets worse when against bosses who have attacks that can basically instan-kill you if you’re not coming in with plenty of health, although one bone the game throws your way is warnings placed in the beat counter across the centre of the screen letting you know when to dodge the biggest attacks and which way. Also, while I wouldn’t call health exactly common, you can pick up tinctures along the way and buy health potions and max HP increases from the dancing bird shopkeeper on each floor.

Another factor of difficulty is from the reload/fire to the beat mechanic. As much as I enjoy them, they are slower than most game’s reload/fire mechanics, and unlike most you can not only miss your shot in spatial terms (not hitting the enemy) but in temporal terms as well (missing the beat to fire). As the enemies are not bound to attacking on the beat like yourself, this can leave you open for valuable beats that can end a run. This means that you need to be constantly on the move, since the rooms tend to be fairly small and filled with enemies that can easily surround you or pin you in with projectiles. You start with a pretty decent dodge, although you can’t do it at the same time as firing or reloading, adding another factor to the game’s action economy.

I haven’t really talked about the aesthetics of the game yet, which are actually pretty important! The soundtrack is a fairly standard mix of rock themes that you will hear a lot if you do multiple runs, but I haven’t really found it grating on me over time, and more importantly, it has a strong beat that matches the one you fire on, so it’s really useful for keeping track. I’ve noticed that playing the game with the sound off, as I might do with other games while watching a video, makes it notably harder, which does indeed make sense. It’s a functional soundtrack, both aesthetically and how it interacts with the game’s core mechanics.

Visually, the game has a very peculilar style. Each pair of levels has a different theme colour, starting with orange in the first level and moving through yellow, black and black and red as you go on. And when I say it’s a colour theme, I mean everything in the level is tinted in that colour, from the enemies to the walls and the floor. The game is also weirdly fuzzy, with details abstracted out and blended into the colour, and uses a blocky lighting engine that often has you seeing just a block colour of light to represent say, a window. It’s not a bad aesthetic, and it doesn’t hinder the game play, but it is definitely unusual. Which I think can sum up most of the game – it’s an unusual game with an unusual art style and a really strong core mechanic which is just a bit too smothered in other mechanics for my liking. It’s currently $20 on steam and that’s a fair amount for what it is, possibly on the pricy side, but if you see it in a sale I definitely recommend giving it a look.

(Oh, I dropped hints about this, but you’re playing as various valkeries, including male ones, and you are supposed to be fighting through various locations in Norse mythology. Honestly this doesn’t come up much other than in the boss names, the shopkeeper birds being named Huigin and Muninn after Odin’s ravens, and some of the upgrades. The architecture and music doesn’t really shout norse to me, and the base enemies include things like scorpion ladies so…again, this is where a codex might be handy to establish this stuff better than the game itself does. Still, like so many things here, the solid core gameplay mechanics are enough for me to let it off.)

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Jack of Hearts: The House Robots, ranked.

Well, people seemed to like the one about my top 13 favourite robots, so I feel like it makes sense for me to churn out some more Robot Wars themed content for you all. Luckily it’s one of the few things I can currently focus on in this world without getting depressed, so I’m totally down for this too (Future Mattilda note: I’m actually doing a lot better now, because this piece took a long time to write!).

One of the big aspects that set Robot Wars apart from other similar shows is the House Robots, a collective of heavily armoured and armed robots that lurk at the edge of the arena, and essentially act as moving obstacles that the roboteers must either dodge or drive their opponents into. During the earlier seasons, they would also be allowed out of their patrol zones (either the perimeter patrol zones in series 1 and 2 that stretched around the entire arena, or the corner patrol zones in series 3 and onwards, usually referred to as PPZ and CPZ respectively). They are usually much heavier than the competitors (although near the end of the original run Shunt in particular was only 5kg over the competitor weight limit), and are allowed to break the rules, such as Sgt. Bash having a flamethrower despite it being banned for contestants. This was actually why number two on my previous list, Diotoir and its predecessor Nemesis where covered in fur; they saw that you weren’t allowed to bring flamethrowers in and decided the flammable substance would be funny to have, not realising that the house plays by different rules.

The House Robots acted as mascots for the series as well. Competitors came and went, but only one House Robot was fully retired between series before the 2016 reboot with series 8. They returned in the reboot greatly reduced in number, in fact, they were back to the group’s original size all the way back in series 1, although the line up wasn’t quite the same. This was due to budgetary reasons, and the rebooted House Robots were a lot larger than their previous counterparts; the BBC released a trailer of them ripping a car apart in the run up to series 9, which really gives you an idea of the scale of the robots.

Another quirk of the House Robots is the way they are treated by the show. While they are, of course, actually remote controlled in the same way the contesters are, the show rarely refers to the House Roboteers who control them. Instead, the show, and particularly the announcer Jonathan Pierce, treats them as living individuals who are in the arena not just as a way to liven up the show but driven by a hatred of the puny robots that invade their territory and a lust for battle. All but one of them are generally referred to using pronouns other than it; she for Mattilda and sometimes Dead Metal, and he for the rest of the House Robots. In classic style, the show really hypes up the House Robots, giving them titles like “The Tin Tyrant” and “The Matriarch of Mayhem”

On a more practical side, the House Robots are often called in to help sort out the arena, particularly Refbot, introduced in series 4. Broken robots can be dangerous, with exposed electronics and the potential for fire, so the house robots will often push damaged robots into the arena pit as a safe containing area. Before Refbot, a weaponless housebot called Shove that wasn’t shown in the TV edit was used to clear the arena after battles, with Refbot taking over, and then the job being taken over by the remaining House Robots in the reboot. If competitors get stuck together or on the arena, sometimes the House Robots will come in and break them apart so the fight will continue. Sometimes.

This is one of the big problems with the House Robots. While they are a unique addition to the show, they can also be inconsistent about how they intervene and how much damage they do. Particularly in later series when they become more and more heavily armed, a House Robot intervening when they shouldn’t do so can disrupt an entire battle unfairly. This was made even worse in Series 9 and 10, where instead of just releasing the pit, the so called “Doom Dial” may swing over to the “Rogue House Robot” option, allowing the House Roboteer currently driving the robot in the arena to leave their CPZ and attack whoever they please. This inconsistency was particularly bad in the very first two series; in series 1, the House Roboteers were as confused as the competitors were, resulting in slow and lethargic house robots that occasionally got a good blow in. In series 2, they swung all the way over to the opposite end of the control spectrum and became hyper aggressive. Multiple fights ended when a robot just barely crossed the line into the PPZ before all the House Robots jumped them at once.

Another issue with these two series is that the House Robots were far more directly involved in the contests, since, unlike later series, it wasn’t just battles they had to go through. The initial round of both series was the Gauntlet, an obstacle course with multiple potential routes. Robots were marked on how far they got across the course and, if they completed it, how fast, with one robot going out at this stage each episode. The gauntlet was also patrolled by the House Robots, and how far someone got was often as dependent on how aggressive the House Robots were as their own skill. The Gauntlet stage was followed by one of the Trials, another contest where the lowest scoring robot goes out. These trials often consisted of the competitors challenging, if not battling, the House Robots directly; tug of war against Dead Metal, robot sized bowling where the robots needed to knock down barrels without being caught by Killalot, the Sumo Basho where the objective was to try and survive being pushed off a platform by Shunt (or indeed, push Shunt off the platform), ect. That last one was actually what Shunt was designed to do. In series 3 and 4, the trials were dispatched to side tournaments, and they were abandoned completely as the show went on. I personally like the idea of the gauntlet and the trials, making the roboteers think about more than just the battles, but if they were reinstalled they would need to be a lot better handled than they were when first included.

The House Robots’ inconsistency got better overtime partially as the show went on just because the show stopped needing to rely on them to put on a show as entrants brought better and better robots. In series 3 the House Robots’ area of control dropped from the huge Perimeter Patrol Zones to the much smaller Corner Patrol Zones, and in later series the number of house robots in the arena at one time was dropped from four to one or two plus the neutral Refbot. Still, a lot of the time the House Robots were called in at the end of a fight just so it wouldn’t end without some proper damage, descending on an immobile competitor robot which had been knocked out of the match and ripping it apart for the audience to see.

This use of the House Robots to do damage for the sake of damage drew the ire of several Roboteers, in particular Roger Plant who created the Mule, The Big Cheese and Wheely Big Cheese, who noted that the contestants put a lot of money and time into their robots for the show, and the show, which was already taking advantage of these passion projects by making battles with them but not really paying even the big names who’s robots had merchandising deals, was pointlessly damaging them.
Indeed, beyond issues like this, the House Robots often became targets for the big names on the show, particularly the flippers. Flipping a house robot is almost a rite of passage if you want to show you are a really good flipper bot, and the Wheely Big Cheese itself was made to try and flip the biggest one of them all (at the time) Sir Killalot. A willingness to pick a fight with the House Robots is commonly seen as one of the signs of a team’s greatness, partially because it means they can survive the competitors, beat them, then have a go at the mean machines in the corner. Attacking and damaging the House Robots doesn’t get you any points if the battle goes to a judge’s decision, so it is entirely done for flair and for the love of it.

And with that, I think the basics of the House Robots are pretty much covered. I am going to go through and rank the ten House Robots that have appeared in basically my order of preference, although some of them may swap places depending on how I’m feeling that day. Like a lot of the competitors, the House Robots went through multiple iterations, with most being rebuilt or upgraded as the show progressed. Rather than ranking each appearance of the House Robots, I’ll try to base this on the entire lifespan of the robot, and explain any major changes they have gone through. As there are only ten house robots that have appeared (outside of Shove and other offscreen bots), the list will not be particularly surprising, outside of maybe a few bits of the order being shuffled around from what you might expect. In fact, the biggest surprise might be right at the very start…

(All images are taken from the Robot Wars fanwiki)

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6 of Hearts: “Burning the Books” and the stories we tell

CW: This post discusses homophobic and transphobic attacks by the Nazi regime.

Among the books I’ve picked up recently is Richard Ovenden’s Burning The Books, about book burnings throughout history and the actions of those who have saved precious manuscripts and the knowledge they contain. On the first page of actual text, we get a description of the night of May 10th, 1933, when the texts of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft were burnt by Nazis. Looking in the index, this opening page is the only mention of the Institut in the book. It briefly mentions that among the books burnt, both in Berlin and in other locations, were from gay authors, but…it leaves me wondering. See, this event, the 1933 book burnings, are important, and they began with an attack on the Institut on May 6th, 1933. The Institut was also, notably, a pioneering location for trans studies, carrying out some of the world’s first reassignment surgeries. It was also an important centre for studying sex, and particularly gay and lesbian love. It’s library was unique around the world, and it was destroyed. 

Stories from LGBTQ’s people’s lives at the time, the detailed notes on sex reassignment surgery procedures, all the studies the Institut had carried out – they were all destroyed by the German Student Union. The book agrees that this was a super important event, and even discusses how a bust of the Institut’s founder, Magnus Hirschfield, was carried ceremonially to be thrown upon the flames by the nazi students carrying out the burning.

So, given all of this, it is weird that this is the only time the book, as far as I can find, chooses to examine these events, particularly in a time when so many are turning against trans rights in particular and across the world LGBT rights are under threat. This is not a callout for the author or his editors. I do not believe this was maliciously intended; this is the incident chosen to introduce the entire book, and other victims of the nazis are covered in later chapters. There is also a single superscript note, pointing towards a note in the section at the end of the book, which in turn mentions that if you want to learn about the Institut, see The Hischfield Archives by Heiker Bauer, a text I may try to track down myself. By itself, this omission is simply curious; a gun over the mantle piece is commented on at the very start of act one and then never goes off.

However, I think it is important to think about these gaps in what we tell, the narratives we create, and how these narratives flow into the larger currents of society and what we see. There’s only so much you can put in a book, true, but this is what he chooses to start the entire book with; the image of the head of the institut’s bust being set alight. This is event is important, and I must assume Ovenden agrees with me on this because, again, this is what he chooses to start the book with. So why are the details of this attack, what the Institut did, and why the Nazis chose to attack it, not explored even later on when the chronological chapters catch up to that era? Why is there this gap?

Information is lost not just through deliberate acts of book burning, but also simply through what we don’t tell, what gets left behind, sometimes deliberately. The choices we make in what we choose to tell matters. Burning the Books opens with the famous quote from Heinrich Heine: “Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” In the attack on the Institut, the Nazis left a number of books unburnt; specifically the membership records that held the addresses and details of those patients and researchers who used the institut.

The path to burning human beings was very short indeed.

Perhaps the actual content of the first big Nazi book burning is avoided in discussions about book burning because it means you need to handle the awkward fact that those targeted were still arrested under the allies in both West and East Germany. 1920’s and 30’s Berlin were far more open to queer identities, partially due to the work of the institute, and the Nazi’s targeted it for being “degenerate”, declaring that they were returning to an utterly imaginary, murderous “pure” past. Burning the Books does at least avoid one of the biggest issues with writing about what the Nazis did by actually listing specific groups the nazis where burning literature from, as opposed to just saying they were burning books with “threatening ideas” or that were “different” – everyone wants to think their ideas would be the kind that the Nazis would find threatening and want to stamp out, so these kind of bland descriptions tend to result in people assuming that of course the libraries being burnt would look a lot like their own.

Burning The Books discusses, among other things, how the burning of libraries is not just a symbolic act, but a brutally practical one for ripping out the knowledge base of those you declare others. When people ignore why the Nazis attacked the Institute, or, as some transphobes have, directly use the attack on the Institute and the other 1933 pyres as a metaphor to attack trans people with, that history continues to burn away. 

10 of Diamonds: Top 13 Favourite Robot Wars Robots

Roboteers, Stand By

Three.
Two.
One.

ACTIVATE.

Robot Wars is a long running (admittedly with a decade long gap) british tv show created by the company Mentorn, first airing in 1998. The show saw members of the public known as roboteers building, driving and battling remote controlled robots in an arena surrounded by bulletproof glass. The show ran till 2004 originally with seven main series and two side series called Robot Wars Extreme, all airing on the BBC except for series 7 which was moved to Channel 5. In 2016, the show returned for three more yearly series.

The show is a cherished childhood memory, and while some of it doesn’t hold up to my recent rewatching of the entire series on youtube (I’ve had a lot of time during this pandemic), with a particular note being some awkward 90s era casual sexism that did improve over time, the robot fights are still as fun to watch as ever, with the buoyant and incredibly enthusiastic commentator Jonathan Pierce and an array of wonderful presenters such as Craig Charles, Philippa Forrester, Julia Reed, Dara O’Briain and Angela Scanlon. The show is fascinating to watch as a demonstration of the evolution of robotics throughout the period, with huge jumps between each series, and an even bigger one during the hiatus.

The stars of the show are, of course, the robots. The show has a set of robots called the House Robots that act as moving obstacles and, during the classic series, finished off immobilised robots for the delight of the crowd. I’ll probably cover the House Robots later, but today I want to look at the competitors which fought in that arena. This is a list of my personal favourite robots. Essentially anything that I can enjoy about them can get them on this list, from battling skill to design to the team to just having good memories about them. It began as a top 10, but with so many robots to choose from, over a hundred in series 3 alone, I ended up adding some extra slots. Please enjoy.

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Queen of Hearts: Defining the Head of A Pin #1: Planets

Defining The Head Of A Pin is a series looking into the definitions of various words and concepts, discussing the reasoning behind them, and exploring the limits and limitations of both the definitions and the way we use them.

Definitions are tricky things. Quite a few discussions have decayed because the participants are working with differing definitions for the same word. In many circles, the question of what art is is one of great interest, whether that is artists exploring it in their work or politicians attempting to defund endowments for the arts on the grounds that what they are funding is not true art. But actually discussing what definitions are is…somewhat unpopular. When you poke at many definitions, you tend to find more definitions lurking underneath, like a fractal argument. Those that don’t are usually either artificially created, like well agreed upon country borders (when they are not well agreed upon, we get some of the worst arguments about definitions), or specific, well separated natural states, which are far rarer than one might expect.

So then, one might ask…who wants to spend ages discussing definitions? Who would want to make a whole series just poking at this?

Me! I do! I love poking at definitions, from working out who created them and for what purpose, to finding weird counter examples at the fuzzy edges of them. This is something I do for fun, even for definitions that don’t really have a practical purpose; ones where you may as well ask “How Many Angels Can Dance Upon The Head Of A Pin”* for all the good it does.

* Oh look, we have the series title!

For now though, let’s look at a definition that would seem to be nice and clear, based in the world we live in. In fact, it is directly related to the world we live on.

What is a Planet?

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Collage created by the author

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9 of Hearts: An Introduction to Mathematics.

I do a lot of mathematics in my everyday life. Some of that is due to me doing a climate science PhD, which requires me to be able to handle lots of data, some of it is due to me doing programming and maths problems in my spare time, but a lot of it I think is just part of living in the modern world. Finances are an obvious example, particularly things like taxes and interest that require an understanding of percentages. Another is the constant barrage of statistics and studies that we are surrounded with. Being able to, if not carry out the statistical analysis itself, but at least understand how one would do it can help you navigate the data and hopefully avoid those trying to pull one over on you using manipulated statistical data.

Maths pops up everywhere, but I encounter a lot of adults who are either convinced they can’t do it, or are even afraid of maths. Lots of people have that one bit of mathematics, perhaps percentages or algebra or probability that they could never understand, and that is often caught up in childhood memories of feeling humiliated by not being able to do maths, or not having it explained in a way they can understand, or memories of trying to learn times tables by rote. There’s a lot of different ways that maths as taught in early years can not stick. To make matters worse, maths is cumulative, that is, more advanced concepts use and combine earlier tools and ideas, so if you struggle with those, then later concepts will be an even harder struggle.

Given this, I was thinking about how you might go about explaining basic maths in a comprehensive and non-judgemental manner, trying to take into account common issues with learning maths.

First of all, I think the most important thing to do is to remove as many of the psychological issues with learning maths as possible. A big factor here is the fear of failure, of being judged for not understanding maths, and feeling that “well, I’m not ever going to get it”. Like a video game, where a failure just results in a “Continue?” screen, this would need to be a place where you can get things wrong without feeling terrible about yourself. This also includes avoiding certain stress causers such as high speed mental maths and rote learning multiplication tables, or at least finding a way to make these less unpleasant, whether that’s by encouraging learning through repeated practice or just acknowledging that we live in the modern age and if you do understand how to do them, you can just use a calculator.

Another factor here is giving reasons for why we’d want to do this piece of mathematics, linking it into contexts that people will already understand. If a piece of maths doesn’t directly tie into a real world context, then we need to explain why we are looking at it, and what it leads into.

I think also making this connectivity between different areas of maths clear is important as well. For practical reasons, we are taught maths in discreet sections; here is algebra, here is shape and space, here are numbers. Explaining how all of these can be linked together can often be a key for understanding them, since it lets you address a confusing problem through the lens of something you might already understand.

On a practical level, there are two ways to go about a course aiming for this. One is to be extremely specific; reaching out to individuals with particular problems about maths and working with them. While this is a very good way to handle it for those individuals it would be very work intensive, and I think for an internet based course we’d want to go to the complete opposite end of the scale, at least at first. This is what I mean by comprehensive: it would need to cover as many different ways of learning and understanding maths as possible, essentially trying to solve problems that individuals have by solving every problem we can at once. Of course, the range of issues people may have is pretty wide: some people may only struggle with say, division (a common problem I’ve heard when discussing mathematics with people), while others might find the entire subject just a slippery mess, numbers jumping around the place, so it would need to be navigable enough for the first group to get to the part they need, while complete enough to cover all the ground the second group may want, and it must do this without condescending to or dropping the morale of either group.

Furthermore, particularly for the most basic parts, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, we’d want to cover all the different methods. People often have one particular method of solving these, so explaining how all the different methods come to the same answer and might have different uses is important. Finally, if you are a parent of a young child learning this stuff, they might be being taught a very different method to how you were, so helping those parents understand what their children are being taught is vital.

For this project, I am picturing a systematic series of articles and/or youtube videos, explaining concepts of mathematics with an underlying structure between the articles/videos so we can show how it all links together, and with frequent real world examples of the mathematics, would fit this.

Who would the target audience be? Not young children learning this for the first time I think; the practical examples would be created with things like taxes in mind, that kids learning them for the first time wouldn’t get. I am aware that creating a series defined as being “Mathematics for adults who hate mathematics” isn’t a killer pitch, but I think there are enough people who struggle with a particular part of maths, but want to improve, that such a creation would be worth it.

Obviously there’s a lot of work to be done here. Creating curriculum for mathematics is, of course, a full time job. But I think it this is something I can do, collecting resources and creating lessons that will hopefully help at least someone with that bit of mathematics that has slipping through their fingers for years.

If you have a particular issue you’d want covered, please comment below and discuss whatever issues you may have, or if you have ideas on how to go about doing this, I’d love to hear them!