But it don’t make no difference
‘cos I ain’t gonna be, easy, easy
the only time I’m gonna be easy’s when I’m
Killed by death

I first encountered Motorhead when I was 14, at school in Australia. I had just moved to a new school (again!) and was getting bullied in my home room, so I was spending a lot of my time alone. In my home room was a sullen, muscly kid with a dark character, called Matthew, who was friends with a guy called Glenn – even more muscly, and rumoured to have been held back a year. Glenn had a scary reputation, but it was one of those high school reputations that has absolutely no backing – no one, when asked, could say why or what about him was scary.

One day Glenn came up to me in lunch and asked me in his rough and ready way that he had heard I was good at computers? Back when I was 14 being good at computers was a kind of novelty, and I had in fact done a one week long intensive course in BASIC a year earlier, so even though my family were too poor for a computer I was, for my time, pretty good at computers. Not too sure where this was going I said yeah I guess I am and he told me that Matthew was going to be held back a year just like Glenn had been if he didn’t pass computer class, and he didn’t get it all, and we were in the same class, so would I help? I was aware that Glenn had a reputation as the kind of boy to whom you can’t say no, but I also had a tendency not to do what other kids told me to do – a key skill when you’re being bullied at school.  However, I had noticed Matthew in class and was kind of sorry for him. I was just a year away from the abandonment of my brother by my family, who had left him in a children’s prison in the UK and moved to Australia, and I was sensitive to kids who couldn’t get it together at school. So I agreed to help.

Matthew passed computers, though I can’t say if it was my help or just because he tried. During the term that I was helping him, though, something remarkable happened – Glenn invited me to hang out with him and Matthew at lunch. It turned out that Glenn and Matthew were as outcast from school life as me, with no friends except each other, and they spent their lunchtimes in the school weights room, which no one else even seemed to know existed but which they had managed to score for themselves. We would eat our lunch in that hungry mechanical way boys do in about three minutes, spend a couple of minutes chatting while we let it settle, and then set to work on the weights. And while we lifted, we played Motorhead on the stereo. Sure, sometimes there was a bit of Anthrax or Suicidals, but mostly it was Motorhead because Glenn and Matthew were old school like that.

I have only a vague memory of that six months – my parents moved after six months of course, so my budding friendship with Glenn and Matt disappeared into the sludge of my childhood moves. But I do remember that Motorhead was the first music I took seriously in my teenage years, and those two boys were the first two boys who took me seriously. There we were, clustered around the bench press, Glenn pushing my body weight and then taking off all the weights so I could struggle with the bar, no judgments passed or scornful jokes made, just a group of young men making the best we could of our lunch hour. Compared to me their school days were harsh – I had been streamed into the top maths class and was enjoying my studies but for them school was an ongoing series of trials, trying to understand shit they just didn’t get, or understand why they had to get. Sometimes we would take our lunch hour out at the back of the playing fields, and they would get stoned and hang around with a couple of similarly outcast girls, with me tagging along sober.

Once I started hanging out with Glenn, the bullying stopped. Once I tried volleyball club, and some dickhead at volleyball club got in a fight with me in the car park, and Glenn wanted to know who? Where? And I had to ask him not to waste his time. For that rare six months, in that school, Glenn was my lucky charm, the first man who ever made me feel like I could be respected just for being alive and there, the first man who ever  understood the concept of mutual aid and just being good to each other.

And he was a stoner and a Motorhead.

After that I moved to another school, in the country on the edge of the desert, and when I arrived as usual I had nothing in common with anyone – except heavy metal. Motorhead opened doors for me, again mostly with the boys who were repeating the year because they didn’t take the first one seriously. Now we had Metallica, Megadeth and a whole new world of thrash that I would never even have known about if it hadn’t been for those six months in the weights room, with Glenn in his Motorhead singlet, thrash booming, the smell of sweat and iron …

Without those metal boys my high school would have been slightly less alive, largely a life of skulking around waiting to be hissed at by the popular kids. Through metal and role-playing (which of course those kids were doing) I found a group of people who took me seriously and cared about me. I can’t say that metal inspired those kids to be nice – after all, I’ve even heard that people who don’t listen to metal can sometimes be nice human beings – but it was definitely the soundtrack to my discovery of human kindness. And it was somehow appropriate, because that first breath of human spirit came from a pair of boys who were in their own way as cast out as I was, and we were all listening to music that was fundamentally about not compromising yourself, about rejecting people who reject you. Motorhead, especially, is about being yourself and not letting anyone drag you down.

This morning I learnt that Lemmy, lead singer of Motorhead, died suddenly of cancer. It’s hardly surprising given his claim to have drunk a bottle of Jack Daniels a day, and his huge smoking habit. He was 70, and playing gigs right up until last year. His band released a statement on his death which includes this simple, beautiful admonition:

We will say more in the coming days, but for now, please…play Motörhead loud, play Hawkwind loud, play Lemmy’s music LOUD.
Have a drink or few.

Share stories.

Celebrate the LIFE this lovely, wonderful man celebrated so vibrantly himself.

HE WOULD WANT EXACTLY THAT.

Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister

1945 -2015

Born to lose, lived to win.

That statement took me back to those teenage months with Glenn, when I was fumbling around learning to be a person for the first time. It’s probably hard for modern kids to get, but back then we were still wrestling with whether it was okay for girls to swallow, whether you should wait till your wedding day to do it, whether a single toke would get you addicted to heroin for life … there was a lot of fear of just living back then, and now that AIDS was stalking the earth there were new fears of transgression and sexuality. But metal was about living, it was about life, and it rejected all that old fussy stuff about what we should and shouldn’t do. Obviously it wasn’t just Motorhead, but Lemmy was ferociously present, he was living large and telling us all to be who we wanted to be. And we did just that, and our lives are better for it.

Lemmy’s death is obviously a big blow for metal. But on a deeper level, it’s a reminder to all of us of our mortality. If ever any man on this earth could keep living just by sheer force of will, it was Lemmy, but he was killed by death. If Lemmy can’t escape that caped doom with which he was so familiar, what hope do we have? Only one: to live our lives large and as we like them, regardless of the consequences, as he did, and dare Death to come and get us. Let death be the least of our experiences, and deservedly the last.

In the Australian state of New South Wales, final year mathematics exams were held a few days ago and the Sydney Morning Herald reports the advanced maths exam was “cruel and difficult.” Students on some message board are posting sad messages saying they might as well not have bothered because it was so hard, and some teacher says:

I am appalled that an examination committee could set such a difficult paper which gives the competent student little chance to show what they know

Poor kids! I was interested in this because when I did my year 12 (in South Australia) in 1990, the NSW assessment was famously challenging, and we were in awe of the effort the students put in. There’s a certain pride that comes from completing a year 12 advanced maths exam, and I can understand why even if the results are scaled (so you don’t fail if the exam was too hard), it’s discouraging and mean to put out an exam that is too hard for the subject content. I’m also interested because in my opinion Australians are much more numerate than British, but much less than Japanese, and I’m interested in our educational trajectory.
Fortunately, the herald also gives an example from this exam, and here it is:

A game is played by throwing darts at a target. A player can choose to throw two or three darts.

Darcy plays two games. In Game 1, he chooses to throw two darts, and wins if he hits the target at least once. In Game 2, he chooses to throw three darts, and wins if he hits the target at least twice.

The probability that Darcy hits the target on any throw is p, where 0 < p < 1.

(i) Show that the probability that Darcy wins Game 1 is 2p – p[squared].

(ii) Show that the probaility that Darcy wins Game 2 is 3p[squared] – 2p[cubed].

(iii) Prove that Darcy is more likely to win Game 1 than Game 2.

(iv) Find the value of p for which Darcy is twice as likely to wine Game 1 as he is to win Game 2.

So I’m interested to know … do my readers think this is challenging? I did it on a single sheet of paper in 10 minutes yesterday, and it really didn’t seem tough. Admittedly I should be able to do this stuff quickly, but when I compare it to the work I did in 1990 it doesn’t seem very hard at all. Questions i and ii are basic applications of probability theory, without even any conditional or joint probability questions; part ii requires use of basic combinatorics but I remember this stuff was not too hard in year 12 when I did. Questions iii and iv are trivial exercises in problem solving with quadratics: you need to do a sign diagram for iv and complete the square of a quadratic but if you can’t identify and solve such a problem in year 12 surely you have stuffed up somewhere? Also, you don’t need to get i and ii right to do iii and iv, which in my opinion is very far from cruel. I would have been very happy to see that option in an exam when I was doing year 12! Basically, the first two questions are year 11 level probability (at most!) and the last two are year 10 functions.

So I’m wondering, have standards slipped in Australia in the last 20 years, or am I turning into one of those teachers I hated when I was at university, who say “this is trivial high school maths” as they introduce a path integral that can only be solved numerically? I’m pretty sure it’s the former (or the question the Herald gave is not representative) and 38% of people who answered the poll on the Herald website agree with me. Dissenting opinions (and reminiscences about the horrors of your own school days) are welcome in comments…

Update: I found on reddit some photos of two other questions: question 5 and question 7. I think these both look tough though I think I could do question 7 (I think you use differentiation and a change of variables in part i, then ii and iii are just straight nasty old manipulation; though maybe part i is induction). I’ve always been terrible at trigonometry, and I remember fluffing a question very similar to (possibly the same as!) number 5 in my exam in 1990. I don’t think I’d do better this time round. But I’m not sure that this material is excessive for a year 12 maths exam; maybe question 7 is more a first year university question …? But I don’t think so. Kids should be doing series and induction in year 12 for sure …