Saturday, November 30, 2013

Confessions of a clever clogs

"Clever clogs" is a derogatory British term for someone who escapes difficult situations with style or who keeps getting things right.  If you know anything about England you will not be surprised to hear that such people are hated and despised.  For good or ill, however, I have always been a clever clogs.  I regard that with a little pride but mostly with amusement -- so I thought I would note down some of the episodes in case they amuse one or two other people.

It all started in Grade 2.  Our "English" lessons consisted of the class repeatedly reading a story out of our school reading book until every pupil knew and understood every word in it.  And we could eventually all do that.  One kid would read one sentence and the next kid would follow with the next sentence and so on.

Then one day the teacher did a dastardly thing.  She asked us to close our reading books and tell the story as usual.  And all the kids could do that  -- except for me.  I had no idea what the next sentence was.  To the slack-jawed amazement of the other pupils, I was mightily praised for that.  The teacher realized that I was the only one who had actually been reading.  All the other pupils had simply been memorizing the story.

I was treated very warily by the other pupils from that point on. They clearly saw me as some sort of alien and mostly avoided me.  But I had never known anything else so it bothered me not a whit.  I was after all having a lot of fun reading.  For many years I used to borrow and read 2 to 3 books a week from the local library.

Then there was Grade 3. An episode there that lingers is when the teacher read out the "Little boy blue" poem.  I burst into tears at such a sad poem  -- again to the slack-jawed amazement of the other pupils.  I was the only kid that had understood the poem.  The teacher was much upset at my upset and we heard no more of that poem thereafter.

Something that occurred throughout primary school at that time were frequent spelling tests.  The teacher would read out words and we would have to write them down in correct spelling.  I of course always got 10 out of 10 for that, which again saw me looked at askance by the other pupils.  And when a new word popped up in our  reading, I always knew what it meant  -- which led to my primary school nickname of "The Walking Dictionary"

Another memory of those days was when we were doing parsing.  Yes:   Grade school kids at that time learnt grammatical parsing.  It is not even taught in High School these days I gather.  Anyway there came a day when the teacher (Mr. Madden) had a trick question for us.  He asked us to parse the word "Please!".  Slack jaws all round of course and even I had to think about it for a few seconds.  I promptly popped my hand up and said:  "Verb with subject and object understood".  I remember the teacher looking at me with some disgust. No-one was supposed to be able to answer that.  But he gave me an early mark anyway.

Something that only I knew about at the time concerned our school reading books.  At the beginning of each year we were all issued with a book that formed the basis for all that year's English lessons.  We would spend the whole year ploughing though about a quarter of the stories and poems in the book, trying to make sure that each pupil understood them.

I enjoyed the stories in our reading books and to this day consider them well-chosen.  They were mostly moral and sentimental stories and I still think well of morality and sentiment.

So from about  Grade 4 on I would sit down and read right through the reading book from cover to cover as soon as it was issued. I would do four times the year's work in one day, in other words.  Quite disgusting, of course.  I would even read through the prefaces and introductions, a strange habit I have to this day.

That did make lessons rather boring but I would amuse myself by always knowing the answers to the teachers' questions.  It would get to the point where the teacher would say:  "Yes, John. We know that you know but does anyone else know?"  He would then look around hopefully but often find all the other pupils with heads down.  So then he would call on me.  So I entertained myself in my own way.

I was also an occasional pesky question-answerer in High school.

One one occasion we were looking at an excerpt from Joseph Conrad that mentioned the "throbbing" of a ship's engine.  Our English teacher (Fastiere) asked what was meant by that.  I popped my hand up and said (approximately):  "That would be the triple expansion steam cycle at work".  Fastiere responded hastily: "Yes, yes, reciprocating engines".  The marine triple expansion cycle probably used by the engines at that time was apparently well beyond his ken so he rapidly changed the subject.

In High School, a much wider range of subjects was covered than in primary school.  So my general knowledge came more to the fore there. Again I always seemed to have all the answers and again it was noticed, so that my High School nickname was "The Walking Encyclopedia".

Throughout my schooling I encountered IQ tests fairly often.  We seemed to get one about once a year.  They were as fashionable then as they are unfashionable now.  The most predictive part of a IQ test is the vocabulary scale:  A list of words in increasing order of rarity --  where you have to pick the correct meaning for each one.  The last word on the list is so rare that only oddballs are expected to know it.  But I always got all of them right without effort.

Then one day I got a shock.  The final word on the list was one I had never seen before: "Inchoate".  And the derivation wasn't obvious either.  But I knew how English compounds are formed and I knew the use and meaning of the common English prefixes and suffixes.  So after a minute or two under my gaze the word emerged as meaning something like "unformed". So I ticked the answer "just beginning", which was of course right.

Note that I got the answer not from luck or a guess but as  a deduction from a prior body of knowledge.  That is how a clever  clogs works.  He doesn't know everything.  Nobody does.  But he has a set of strategies that enable him to figure out the right answer from the knowledge that he does have.

That was very evident in the mathematics questions of an IQ test.  I consider myself hopeless at maths but I did pretty well on the maths questions in IQ tests.  Why?  because most of the questions were just sequence detection tasks, which require only the simplest of strategies to work out.  Numbers are much simpler than people.

My best feat in High School, however, was completely unintentional.  The final junior German exam came up and, in my chronic absentmindedness, I forgot it was on.  I was however, something of a favorite of my German teacher (Leonard Gavrishchuk) so he sent another kid around to my place on a pushbike to remind me.  So I got on my pushbike to school and walked in half way through a 3 hour exam.  I imagine Gavrishchuk had to pull a few strings to get me admitted at all at such a late juncture.  Anyway, I finished with half an hour to spare.  I knew the answers so just had to write them down,  And I ended up getting an "A" for my answers, of course.  I still chuckle to myself about it.

But it gets worse.  I taught myself for the Senior exam  -- as an evening student.  Evening students were supposed to take three years to do it but I did it in one year.  I initially studied 4 subjects but later learned that you got judged on your best 4 subjects so it was advisable to sit 5 subjects.  So, just 4 months before the exam I started to study Italian.  I had not studied Italian before.  So in 4 months  as an evening student I did 4 years of full-time work.  I got a "B"! It was a crazy thing to attempt but I knew my strengths by then.

I think I will stop at that stage, though my Master's degree was amusing -- and I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation in 6 weeks.  It normally takes years.  My clever cloggery has never faltered.

A critic might say that if I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation in 6 weeks, it must have been pretty lightweight.  It was not.  I got about 10 academic journal articles out of it  -- which is about as good as you get.

But a germane question that somebody might reasonably ask at this stage  is:  "If you are so clever, how come you can't figure out your mobile phone?"  The question is a good one and the answer is a sad one.

I have become like a bacterium that has become resistant to  certain medications after prolonged exposure to them.  I wrote my first computer program in 1967.  That was at a time when there was no "off the shelf" software.  You had to write your own. And within a couple of years I was writing quite complex statistical analysis programs -- 5-dimensional matrices, anyone?  I ran the programs on university mainframes.  There were no personal computers then.

So I have participated in the tech revolution much longer than most people.  And I have got tired of having to learn how to work new stuff all the time.  I have learnt how to work dozens of electronic and electrical gadgets and most of that knowlege is now  useless -- as old gadgets are replaced by new ones.  So I just refuse to put in any effort to learn how to work new gadgets any more. I don't want my brain  cluttered with any more knowledge that will soon be obsolete.  Maybe I am just old.

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