Saturday, 30 May 2009

Sad things

1. My dad's pheasant chicks were killed by a cat. He sounded very sad about it. He's been trying to breed from them for ages and finally they hatched two cute little chicks, and the previously tame male pheasant went aggressive in a touching sort of way. There are too many cats where they live; since another four moved in next door the effect on birds has been noticeable. Some dogs are bird dogs, like setters and spaniels, while some are mammal dogs, like terriers and hounds. Our dog Elly would go crazy for birds, which she hardly ever caught, but confronted with my pet rats would just look at me doubtfully as if to say "you do know you have rats on you?" Some cats prefer mammals, but I don't know how you tell in advance. There are ridiculously vast numbers of rabbits and no small number of rats around my parents' village, but the cats just go for the finches.

2. A festschrift has recently come out for an Anglo-Saxon legal historian who died, only in his 50s, a few years ago. It is oddly candid; I've never before seen a festschrift which includes a memoir of life with the deceased festee written by his estranged ex-wife. This particular man was an example of how academia can go wrong. He got an All Souls prize fellowship straight out of his undergraduate degree, and never finished his PhD; he didn't manage to produce anything of book length until a few years before his death, although he did write some very good articles. But he could never get over being terribly clever at Eton, and then terribly clever at Balliol. He wanted to be clearly acknowledged as the cleverest all the time and the more he succeeded the more he felt he had to achieve not to fail, and the more it was impossible for anyone to praise him enough. There was a surprising amount of generosity towards him in academic circles; I suppose he was enough of a mess to arouse more pity than anything in most people, and perhaps it was also because his alcoholism led him to behave so very badly that it was clear he was seriously ill. I disliked him and feared him, myself: I didn't realise at the time why he was so unpleasant to me on the rare occasions when he was forced to notice my existence. Apparently he was convinced that there were conspiracies against him, the major one emanating from Cambridge, and specifically from my DoS/ex boss, who was I hope unaware of this, being a genuinely nice person. He would have seen anything I achieved as reflecting well on this particular teacher, and in that way damaging to himself. I'm not sure that understanding makes it OK though; I used to dread occasions where I knew he'd be present. I remember vividly my relief when he didn't turn up to the charters symposium in September 2004, which turned to mild feelings of guilt when I found out that he wasn't there because he had been engaged in his fatal alcoholic binge. Still, reading the festschrift it did strike me hard what a terrible waste the whole thing was. Saddest of all was the description of how, even as he was being consumed by this stupid insecurity, he was trying to cope with the same condition in his famously horrible Peterhouse father, by dedicating his work to him and frequently talking of his debt to him in print. Bubble egos, huge but hollow, are sadly common in academic circles.

3. I read a guardian article about how more and more divorces are said to involve some sort of digital infidelity. (Complete non-news, obviously -- it's like a story saying more people are using the internet than ten years ago.) It had some links to websites which help people arrange affairs, and perhaps foolishly (especially given that I was on my work computer at the time) I clicked through. The site had a big banner at the top offering to introduce me to lonely and unsatisfied housewives in the Cambridge area. I was a little freaked out that it immediately knew I was in Cambridge, but also annoyed that it assumed that I was a man, a predatory unwilling-to-travel man who he is sure he can satisfy housewives. If I had been a lonely and unsatisfied housewife looking for a site to use I'm sure that description would have felt like an unflattering mirror and put me off, and assuming that they have more male than female users anyway it seems short-sighted of them to do this. Of course another possibility, given that my work IP address is shared with the whole college (for wikipedia purposes, at least), is that someone from college had been using the site and told them he was a man in the Cambridge area. Anyway, I had this sudden protective urge to find out who these lonely and unsatisfied housewives were, collect them into some large feminist group, and turn their minds to other means of expression and fulfilment. I'm not 100% sure what that would have been, but I guess it would have involved sneaking around the city at night leaving clay figurines like those of Gormley's Field for the British Isles in unlikely places.

4. Let's all cheer up now!

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Books and stuff

I read lots of books on my trip to the US but I've forgotten what a lot of them were. I gave two to Fiona and left five at the guest house. I think the two I gave to Fiona were Mavis Cheek, Amenable Women, and Patrick McGrath, Ghost Town. I found them both good but a tad disappointing because both of them have produced things I've really enjoyed in the past, specifically Mavis Cheek's Janice Gentle Gets Sexy and Patrick McGrath's Asylum. I also read Mark Morris's A Great and Terrible King, about Edward I, which was quite good. Also Slouching towards Kalamazoo, by Peter de Vries, which is quite funny. It's about a youth who's failing eighth grade and then gets his teacher pregnant. I can't remember the others though.

I read James Meek's We Are Now Beginning Our Descent last night. I stayed up late to finish it. It was very good but I really should have gone to sleep because I think there was stuff going on which I was missing. There was an absolutely fantastic bit where a man's talking about a novel he wrote some decades before; it made me think of the amazing stuff about the Siberian death camp in The People's Act of Love.

The Siege by Ismail Kadare is also great, and quite monumental.

I resisted book buying at Kalamazoo because it's easy to get carried away and I need to live more lightly. But I did buy an excellent book which I hadn't heard of before, Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love, and Betrayal, by Gabrielle Langdon. I went to the Uffizi for the first time as an adult a couple of years ago and decided that Bronzino is my favourite painter because of those fantastic Medici portraits. Their self-sufficient beauty is slightly frightening: the children are really beautiful but you're glad not to have been in the same class as them at primary school. Also, you're afraid to ask what happened to them, especially Bia de Medici. And in fact it turns out that by the time it was painted she was already dead, and Bronzino probably got her features from her death mask. The same face is on the monster "fraude" in the Bronzino allegory in the National Gallery.

In the same book I liked the description of Giovanni de Medici as "considered papabile from infancy".

I also read Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. It's extremely good, and it's a bit annoying that it's only the first volume of a trilogy of which the rest are as yet unwritten. I read Christopher Brookmyre's Snowball in Hell. A wierd thing about Christopher Brookmyre, Ricky Gervais, and those people who do South Park, is that I enjoy their output even though it is clear from it that they are arseholes. Also, even though his rants about manufactured pop are put in the voice of one of his characters and shouldn't necessarily be seen as his own views, etc, it's still a little dangerous for someone to go on about this whose entire career is based around the book equivalent of manufactured pop: enjoyable, disposable, and with a consistency of output which is as much a professional strength as a failing.

I've started a book called Arcadia by Adam Nicolson about the early Earls of Pembroke at Wilton. They took over most of the lands of Wilton Abbey, and since I'm writing this bloody book about the land-holdings of Wilton I thought I'd read about the later stuff. The problem is first that he writes in quite a stylised way; but more seriously that he gives a little potted history of Wilton Abbey which seems to be entirely based on his misreadings of the fifteenth-century legendary material about it. He says that Alfred the Great laid the foundation stone; and that Edith of Wilton was rebuked for her fine clothes by Bishop Adelwold of Lindisfarne. It was actually Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, her contemporary and an important political figure, rather than a hermit who lived on the other side of England and died more than two centuries earlier. He's obviously come across the spelling with a d rather than a th and ended up with the misidentification because the d spelling is more common in northern material -- in the medieval legends they're all pretty clear it's the Winchester one, so he hasn't got it from that. The anachronism could have rung alarm bells, since Edith is a pretty well-documented character, the much-loved oldest child of Edgar the Peacemaker, and her Life was written only about a century after she lived. (She held her own with Bishop Æthelwold, by the way, saying that since God sees the inner person she could be just as holy in rich clothes as in sackcloth and ashes, and the redoubtable Æthelwold was silenced; she's a pretty endearing saint, and even had her own zoo.) He's also pretty uncritical in his repetition of all that "naughty nun" stuff so beloved of the Reformation era. So I've had to pause in the reading to consider the question of whether cavalier inaccuracies like that cast doubt on the rest of his work, or whether it's a different thing to write about social trends between the Reformation and the Civil War. But really, when you read things by later historians which touch on Anglo-Saxon stuff you sometimes end up wondering whether later history even involves source criticism, or whether they just read narrative sources all the time. This particular author's attitude seems like it might be all about building something nice; I can't explain quite what I mean, but people with theories, or doing Theory, often seem a bit like scrapbookers, who can cleverly assemble existing stuff into something nice and clever, which might have its own intrinsic value, and perhaps win the Turner prize, but isn't much to do with what they started with; it's actually all a game to do with human intelligence, and really more about anthropology than anything else.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Odd little things

1. I've been toying with the idea of online backup, though I probably won't buy any in the end. The one I'm looking at right now offers storage locations with bullet-proof walls, and NSA-approved encryption. Why would I want NSA-approved encryption? Doesn't that mean encryption it won't cost them too much money to break if they decide it's worth monitoring me for anti-American activities?

2. I have mixed feelings about good music being available for free. The new Dragonette song can be got here and the Kleerup song here. Both are excellent. But shouldn't I have to pay for this sort of thing? Here's Sophie Ellis Bextor and the Freemasons, not free.

3. I don't quite get the hugeness of the MPs expenses scandal. It does make them all look like childish prats, but I'm bored of it now, even though I was away for most of it. Are the journalists really shocked, or are they just chuffed to have caught some people out? Journalists are a pretty unattractive bunch of characters. Now I'm getting tons of UKIP and BNP stuff through my letterbox, as if a suspicion that all mainstream politicians are on the make will send me, with relief, to people who are just going to pour all their energies into making life unpleasant for foreigners and those who look a bit foreign. The BNP promises, with lots of WWII imagery, to protect our British soldiers from insult by Muslims on our streets. I'm very sorry that anyone's insulting anyone on our streets. Also these putative BNP electees will give ten percent of their putative salaries to a fund to pay for people to celebrate St George's day. I could help them with suggestions for what St George's day celebrations might entail -- I'd vote for lots of fantastic Middle Eastern street food in honour of his origins, probably Greek or Palestinian. Falafel in pitta breads, and slow-roasted lamb on mounds of yellow rice. It would be a nice occasion to share with people from other places where he's the patron saint -- I know Palestine is one of them, and wikipedia has just told me that Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece and lots of Spanish places also have him as a patron. The Eastern Orthodox, for whom St George is very important, hold that icons of him fighting the dragon represent the spiritual struggle against the evil within; also it's often held that the dragon in the story was actually the emblem of a particular legion in which George was a soldier, and that the legend of the dragon fight grew up around his refusal to give in to the demands of normal legion life (specifically to sacrifice to the tutelary deities), so St George's day could be a day of protest against excess militarism. That would be nice. It's actually sounding like quite a fun day.

4. I just got the proofs for a note I'm publishing in a Belgian (French-speaking) journal. They have changed all my colons to semi-colons. I love colons. It's possible that I use them too much, but I think I use them correctly. Either I put them between two halves of a sentence which balance and oppose each other, like the fulcrum of a seesaw, or I put them after an introductory phrase which is followed by three related examples or explanations, separated by semi-colons (of which ideally the third is the longest). I hate the look of semi-colons in their place. I suppose it's a French language thing, like little double angle brackets for quotation marks, but it seems a shame to me.

5. This Guardian story must have caused some blushes at the Guardian and elsewhere. Well done journalists. I think this is at least as shocking as getting the public purse to pay to have your moat cleaned -- given that the allowance is for maintaining a second home then at least you haven't done anything against the letter of the rules, even if you do look like an idiot, whereas using unverified stuff you got off a notoriously unreliable website undermines the entire point of journalism. Maybe we shouldn't bother with newspapers at all any more, if we're all better off making our own intelligent judgements on the accuracy of the material which we find using a google search.

6. This looks very sub-early-Britney and sounds very post-Duffy. I suppose one should feel sorry for someone called Pixie, but she must be old enough to change it if she wants. But I do like the bit at the end where they all have some sort of girls vs boys pat-a-cake contest.

Friday, 15 May 2009

The time in England is now

In New York I stayed at an excellent guest house called the Sutton Residence, run by a bloke called Bruce. I would recommend it; it wasn't cheap in terms of anywhere else in the world but New York is very expensive, so it was good value.

Quite late in the day a friend of mine decided to join me in New York because she had a few days of unexpected leave, which was great, because she's much better at doing interesting things than I am. If she hadn't been there I expect I would have spent almost all my time in museums. We rendezvoused on the viewing platform of 30Rock, 850 feet above street level, just to be a bit dramatic. Here's the view north, over Central Park.

Here's a list of all the things we did, more for my own future reference than because I think it's likely to make interesting reading:

1. We went to the Corner Bar in Greenwich Village, because a friend of mine's boyfriend said they have the best burgers in the world. The burgers were very good, but I'm not sure how far you can really take a burger.

2. We went on a three-hour boat trip all around the island. The commentator didn't really help with the general feeling of unreality by his refusal to distinguish between fact and fiction, and his invocation of imagination for both of them. One minute he'd be telling us just where the north tower used to stand, and how we had to picture them both there twice as high as any extant building, and then he'd be pointing out the tram-lines where Spiderman saved all those children in 2007; the Yankee stadium was famous for Babe Ruth doing something impressive in the 50s, but also as the workplace of George Costanza. Actually Fiona didn't have a problem with this, but I found it wierd.

3. We ate s'mores at a place where you toast your own marshmallows at the table. Mine kept catching fire.

4. We ate at Tomoe Sushi back in the West Village, which was very good and not too expensive, and very satisfying because we got the last free table and when we left there was a long queue down the street.

5. We went to two diners for breakfast, both of which were good. The Lexington Candy Shop, which isn't actually a candy shop, was very nice, but with a no refills policy. It's not far from the Met. The other one was the Comfort Diner, which was a bit less well-lit. Fiona tried grits and biscuits. They are not pleasant. The difference between us is that she wants to try things out, sometimes with bad results like the turnip juice in Istanbul, while I just asked for my eggs sunny-side-up (or British style as they also call it) with bacon, and politely refused the maple syrup.

6. We went to the Met. It's the sort of place where you see things and think "I didn't know that was here", like the Damien Hirst shark. There were some fantastic Fayyum mummy portraits:

and a wierd thing like a huge growth of metal roots on the fifth-floor terrace, overlooking Central Park.

7. Then we split up because I wanted to see the Cloisters and Fiona had been there before. Also I don't think she could quite see why I would go all the way across the Atlantic and then go and look at medieval bits and pieces given that I live in Europe. I have to admit she has a point; she lives in Rome, a stone's throw from the Pantheon, but even in Cambridge I don't really need to go out of my way to see Romanesque architecture. I found it a tad underwhelming of itself; the cool thing is being able to look out through medieval French arches down to the Hudson river. I suppose it's the equivalent of the old Getty in L.A., a replica of the Villa of the Papyri on a hill overlooking the Pacific. But the old Getty has some really amazing things in it. In the meantime Fiona crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and did something else interesting, I forget what.

8. Then we tried to go to a thing called the Secret Science Club (not that secret given that it was in Time Out). It was at 7th St and 2nd Ave, and we looked for it for ages before realising that it was 7th St in Brooklyn. Heigh ho. While looking we saw Alphabet City, which has shouting drunks in it, and which I preferred to the West Village. Instead we ate fondue at a place called the Bourgeois Pig, which was OK; they ID'd us which made Fiona happy, but made me think that they thought we were too scruffy. The place was lit like a brothel; I spent ages trying to find the lights in the loo before realising they were already on, which made me feel very old.

9. Then we went to an East Village comedy night run by Seth Herzog, called Sweet. His mother did the DJing but couldn't work the ipod, so introduced many of the acts by singing show tunes from her youth. There was also a bit where she told us how to get mildew off a shower curtain. It was quite funny. I can't remember the name of the people except for Ben Lerman, who sang songs about gay sex accompanying himself on a ukelele. Here's his blog entry about that night. He doesn't mention chatting to Fiona.

10. And we ate cheesecake at Katz's Diner ("Send a Salami to your Boy in the Army"). It was quite good.

11. Also I had a bagel at Ess-a-Bagel, which is in the finals of Best Bagel in New York. It was a tad disappointing because although it was good I have had better bagels in London. It's probably more a matter of getting them really fresh than anything.

12. We hired bikes and rode around Central Park. On the plus side it's such a huge place -- 850 acres, when the island is only 2 miles by 7 -- that a bicycle is handy, but on the other hand there's tons of places where you're not allowed to cycle. I would have preferred to wander around more relaxedly, I think. Plus it wasn't cheap.

13. We had some good pizza at Naples 45; it claimed to be authentic Neapolitan but really wasn't -- it was more in a crispy Roman style. It was ranked one of the top ten American pizzas by American heritage, which was again a bit disappointing. All in all the food in New York was mostly quite good, but over-hyped.

That's probably it for me and America. It's the third time I've been, each time paid for by some project or other, and I've seen San Francisco, LA, Chicago, Kalamazoo, and New York. I'm unlikely ever to choose to go there on holiday because of the jet lag. The places I really want to go are Israel/Palestine again, Istanbul again, and the shores of the Black Sea. Of course I've still got to go to Newfoundland later this summer, but that turns out to be only 3 and a half hours' time difference, which is a relief.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Being a part of it

I arrived in New York this evening and suddenly everything seems a lot better. My back is still hurting, but somehow it doesn't seem quite so bad now, even if I am still walking like Elvis probably did as he made that final trip to the bathroom.

The day started in a trying manner. I lent my laptop to my boss for his presentation, and carefully turned off my google mail notifications, but didn't realise that that didn't include chat, so in the middle of his talk a little bubble popped up from a friend asking how things were - was I in a session? It got a big laugh but I felt rather foolish. Then I had to abandon the laptop for the last of the six papers so I could hear an old friend down the hall, and when I got back it turned out that during the questions it had started playing my screensaver, random pictures from my hard drive, starting of course with Figaro the cat in the bidet. So I suppose I at least made my contribution to the mild conference humour. My own paper was OK, I think. I talked about the sorts of things you could get undergraduates thinking about with these materials -- things like "how do you edit an unfixed text", etc.

The flight from Kalamazoo to Chicago was packed with people who are Names. It occurred to me that if it crashed a large proportion of my acquaintance would always say of my death "she was in the same plane as X" and how annoying that would be, like the people in the same crash as the Big Bopper, who don't even get their death to themselves. I spent the entire waiting period and most of the flight talking to someone who stands out as eccentric even among medievalists, and is not viewed by everyone as harmless. I long ago devised a strategy with her where I just let myself go and outwierd her, feeling no shame about being both odd and passive-aggressively self-aggrandising -- consequently I quite enjoy her company, and she probably considers me a terrible pest. It was a bit wearing though.

I cheered up when we were flying over a little green figure on a small island, because it seemed pretty certain to be the statue of liberty. Manhattan was looking like a carefully-made replica. I took a taxi from the airport and the driver made me shut my eyes as we were coming over the bridge, and then open them when the whole city was visible, by this time night-lit and sparkly. He said that his friends made him do that when he first came to the city. (They also took him to a gay bar, apparently -- he didn't offer me that option.) It seems very silly to be here somehow, when it's so clearly a place from stories: as if you suddenly found yourself walking around Combray, or Barchester, or the Land of Lost Content. Also it all looks slightly smaller. The man who runs this guest house is very nice, in a camp way. He told me where to get good pizza, and I also picked up an amazing slice of cheesecake. It was creamy and fluffy at the same time, and tasted slightly of vanilla; it was utterly the best cheese cake I have ever tasted. If I lived here it would probably be the cheese cake which would kill me, even though after dark the streets are a little scary, with people shouting oddly, and someone dancing on one of the subway vents where the steam comes up.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Only five hours behind now

I've moved from Chicago, Indiana, to Kalamazoo, Michigan. The train was OK once it got going, though I've knackered my back humping my laptop everywhere. When I booked, many months ago, I discovered that an upgrade to business class was only seven dollars, and I decided that the project could afford this given that the train fare is a fraction of the cost of flights. For my upgrade I was expecting essentially a better seat. I hadn't taken into account the American attitude to these things: it became clear that the extra money was for a dedicated carriage attendant called Marlene, a startlingly energetic lady who told us on embarking that we were all going to have a lot of fun! She gave several of my fellow travellers nicknames. I didn't get one, though she did call over a co-worker and make me repeat various things I'd said -- she just couldn't get over the way I pronounced "turkey and swiss". She seemed like a nice person but I would have paid the seven dollars to be left in peace. Though it was still certainly much better than flying.

On arriving at the conference I immediately encountered a leaflet advertising "Ipodius: Livin' Latina Voce". They record Latin texts for download, including this CD of Latin versions of popular songs. The joke is that they sing Gaudeamus Igitur with Classical pronunciation rather than the medieval pronunciation it was written for! May God have mercy on our souls.

I'm staying in the dorms, because my boss is too, and since he's a semi-retired eminent professor of worldwide reputation and usually impeccable standards I didn't feel I could really demand a hotel. These rooms are famous for one thing: the shared bathrooms. Everyone has an embarrassing Kalamazoo bathroom story, usually involving a nun. They are shared between two rooms, with a door from each, and there is no way of locking the other door when you are in. So it's entirely a lottery whether someone walks in on you in the shower or on the toilet. This amazes me. The long thin layout of the room would easily allow little cubicle doors in front of the toilet and the shower, but no one has thought to do this. So far the only trace I have seen of the person in the adjoining room, nun or not, is a toothbrush in a glass, and I hope it will remain so.

My paper is at 8.30 on the Sunday morning, the night after the famous Kalamazoo disco, where people behave badly with their conference wives, and attractive postgraduates debase themselves with hairy professors. You can buy t-shirts here which say, in six different medieval languages, "What happens in Kalamazoo stays in Kalamazoo". So I'm not expecting a large audience, which I wouldn't normally mind, but given that we're supposed to be publicising the project it does add to the general "waste of my time" feeling.

I feel rather guilty about my consistent inability to enjoy this sort of thing. I'm never any good at conferences, and this is the uber-conference, a sort of conference black hole, with around 4000 participants and 50 to 60 sessions running concurrently throughout the week. It's clear that many people here, mostly Americans I suppose, thrive on wandering around bumping into old academic acquaintances; enjoy the medieval-related japes, like the Arthurian themed M&Ms (the once and future candy); love the huge variety of sessions on offer and earnestly debate whether by leaving the one on Feminine Gaze early they can make the last paper in the Queering Chretien session. People luxuriate in the several halls full of book stands from all the major and minor publishers, while I just walk around feeling increasing repulsion for the idea of adding to this vast morass of careful words. It's not that I don't like my old academic acquaintances, and it's not that I'm not genuinely interested in things medieval. It's just that there's far too much, and all so facile. It seems to me like a sort of conference version of facebook -- a generator of weak humour with all the disadvantages of social interaction, the effort and the awkwardness, without any actual content.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Six hours behind

1. The best thing about America is the amiable way in which it is familiar and strange at the same time. I suppose that's true of most foreign countries, but particularly America. It's familiar because quite similar to England, and also because it's constantly on TV. Driving into Chicago the whole cityscape with its odd geometric shapes was glistening in the sunset with an oddly large moon above. I wish I could have got a picture but you can't really from the back of a taxi. (The picture here is from the last time I went to Kalamazoo, when I also stopped at Chicago. The wheel is a half-sized replica of the famous one from the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair, as featured in Against the Day.)

Contrarily America feels strange because the similiarities are constantly undercut by random little differences, and also no one understands a word I'm saying even though we theoretically speak the same language. (I'd forgotten that this happened last time I was in Chicago too; it's wierd because I don't think of myself as having a hugely different accent from the people here.) I realised last night that my toothpaste tasted strange because it expired in March 2008, so next I get to go to a drugstore, which is an excellently typical American thing.

2. The worst thing about America is the time difference. I wouldn't really mind being here if it weren't for that, but I have had so much trouble with insomnia over the last year, and I always have a lot of trouble getting over jetlag. I feel quite sick right now, and that's only from the easier westward journey.

I forgot to smuggle any milk powder through US customs, so this morning I was at the mercy of non-dairy creamer. ("Contains Milk", apparently, which I thought was a non-dairy fail, but I suppose it could be goat's milk. Other contents: dipotassium phosphate, sodium aluminosilicate, sodium tripolyphosophate, etc etc.) But what I had forgotten is that Americans drink their coffee very mild and thin, so milk isn't necessary. Hurray!

3. The flight was delayed, but otherwise OK. I watched: Hotel for Dogs, which made me cry because I cry easily over dogs; Easy Virtue, which had just the right ending -- quite British rather than Hollywood; and Anchorman: the Ron Burgundy story, which I enjoyed much more than I was expecting, especially the bits with Baxter the dog. There were upsetting dog moments in all three, actually.

4. Also: hurray for proper Chicago pizza pie!

Monday, 4 May 2009

Slouching towards Kalamazoo

I have been given two good pieces of advice about my unwilling trip to Kalamazoo next week. First, to take plenty of work to get on with, so that I don't feel guilty about skipping sessions (and to spend plenty of time skipping sessions). Secondly, not to look at the thing as an academic conference; it's actually a big medieval-themed trade fair. It's true that when I went before I got some really nice earrings.

My other problem is that I can't stand non-dairy creamer. I think it's made of sugar and spare, random fat. But in my brief experience of America I've found that it's not easy to get hold of milk. I am going to put some milk powder in a little pot and see if I can make it through US customs. Hurray!

On the plus side I'm flying back from New York, where there's a lot of swine flu. Catching swine flu is looking more and more like a sensible thing to do. Apparently it's quite mild, but likely to come back and bite us on our collective behind, possibly in a mutated form, this coming winter. It might be worth getting the cowpox before the smallpox comes along. Although probably flu doesn't work like that. And if by some chance it did kill me enough people know how much I didn't want to go on this trip that my funeral would be satisfyingly petulant.

In other news, I've realised that you can only be in a cantankerous mood for so many years before it just becomes a cantankerous personality. But I'm not yet sure what to do about it.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The epitome of civilisation

1. I am a member of the Sir Frederic Madden Society, a group so obscure that they leave almost no trace on google. It records stuff to do with the British Museum and the British Library, especially from the days before their legal separation in 1973 and their physical separation in the 1990s. The latest issue of their journal (“Staircase”) has some reminiscences of the great Reading Room eccentrics of yesteryear. My favourite is a Miss McDonald, an elderly lady who cycled to the BM in very short shorts every morning, on whom Peter Barber contributed this:
... One day, around Christmas time, Miss McDonald fell ill. Her G.P. was not available and so my father, another G.P. who was on the district rota, went to see her. I remember how baffled he was when he returned home. He had found Miss McDonald surrounded not only by the usual cards, but by strings of sausages. Apparently, as a result of her studies in the British Museum Reading Rooms she had come to the conclusion that the sausage was the epitome of civilisation (a belief that I think she said had something to do with the Basques). Be that as it may, her friends presented her with festive sausages to mark birthdays and Christmas. I don’t know whether she ever ate them.

and P. R. Harris this:
In 1957 she had to be rebuked by the Superintendent of the Reading Room (in which she worked for about fifty years from 1929) for occupying more than one desk, and attaching strings to the lights from which she suspended anti-Papal tracts.

(Both from Staircase 13.1 (2008))

2. I’ve noticed this odd phenomenon: quite a few people seem to have problems with the theory of evolution vis-à-vis the existence of God. They feel that both cannot be true. Now I am sure that evolution happens -- it’s just so pleasingly elegant and right. Is evolution alone enough to get us from a huge void tasting faintly of raspberries to Nectar points, or a youtube video of someone dressed as Charlie Chaplin dancing with a dog? I don’t know. The human brain is not really fitted for working out probabilities, and when you get down to it the chances of something happening which has already happened is one in one. I’m also sure that God exists, and I don’t know how he works, but I’m betting it’s in a mysterious way his wonders to perform. I am nowhere near intelligent or educated enough to spot any clash between these two things -- they’re both areas in which my ignorance is large and rather beautiful in its simplicity. Anyway, yay for Darwin, a very clever man, and one who observed things and made sense of them for other people -- the best kind of scholarship. (Though to be honest it wouldn’t surprise me if Darwin turned out to the Newton of his field, making everything beautifully clear, and at some point an Einstein comes along to confuse us all again.)

What I’ve been wondering though why is it is evolutionary biology which gets all the headlines in this regard. Why is no one’s faith ever shaken by quantum physics? Quantum physics is completely and utterly insane. Is it because it doesn’t involve anyone’s grandmother? I suppose evolution can seem a bit cruel, and people object to that, but if it wasn’t until you heard about evolution that you noticed that there is pain and suffering in the world then you’ve got a strange sort of brain. Why wasn’t the young American man earnestly sharing his mistrust of science this morning on the corner opposite Monsoon shouting “They tell us that something can be a wave and a particle at the same time!” in a voice of shock? If we’re going to play the game of using scientific theories to try to guess the character of God, then quantum physics would suggest a deity with a very strange sense of humour, possibly off his head on some substance. If you look at the world around you, maybe a spring-time scene with flowers, grass, birds and insects, sunshine and some clouds, and then imagine zooming in, you can make basic sense of it for quite a while: the trees get their moisture though capillaries, the breeze is caused by differences in air pressure, the cells in the plants have rigid walls, their DNA is made up of spirals of molecules joined by sharing electrons, and then once you get to that point it suddenly all goes completely insane. The atoms are made of vast amounts of space studded with wierd things that no one is sure exists, which behave oddly, and which anyway don’t make sense in the equations so that even less visible variants of them have to be hypothesised so that we don’t have to believe seemingly impossible things about energy and mass. It’s all totally counter-intuitive. Quantum physics has a big philosophical issue involved as well: people have argued all sorts of things which seem logically to them to follow on from evolution, e.g. that marketplaces should be unregulated and left to fight it out, that the human genepool is in need of interventionist maintenance, etc, suggesting that humans like to make sweeping generalisations from specific scientific points. Why don’t people get more involved in the implications of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? Does the impossibility of knowing something mean that it isn’t really there? It’s not something I know much about, I’m just amazed it doesn’t bother people more.

Nonetheless I’m afraid that my copy of Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You remains on my “to read” pile. One of the reasons for that is that quantum theory has hurt me, undeniably. I first encountered Schrodinger’s cat in my early teens, at about the same time that my own little dog died in a truly nasty and unexpected way, followed in quick succession by two much-loved family dogs, one of them just a puppy. I’m afraid what I took from it was that until you have observed that your pet is alive it might not be. I then extended this principle logically to all family and loved ones, especially mothers. Because when my mother went on a long car journey, or my father disappeared off to the Himalayas for a bit, I could just as easily imagine them alive and well as dead in a horrible accident, it seemed like until I had observed that one of these things was true both of them were, and Schrodinger’s cat was my justification for this. And I don’t care if that was a misinterpretation of the original thought experiment: thought experiments don’t have right or wrong answers, that’s what they’re for. Very occasionally my father phones me at work, and in the point between someone calling me to the phone and my finding out what he’s called about it still seems like the dice have been thrown into the air and I’m waiting for them to land. Last time he just wanted me to settle an argument he was having with my mother about split infinitives.