Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Makes sense?

I woke up in the middle of the night with that stomachy feeling that there's loads of nebulous but important things to be done. Often making a to-do list helps with that sort of anxiety, so I picked up a notebook and pen and wrote "To Do". Underneath I wrote "1. Write list of all the things I need to do at work. 2. Write list of what I need to do at home". Soothed, I was then able to sleep. This is my first ever meta-to-do-list. It is either a brilliant life-hack or the beginning of the end.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


I was all psyched up for the end of my job tomorrow -- I have started packing my stuff, have deleted personal things from my computer, and have filled in my leavers' questionnaire using words such as "proximate" and "erudite" -- but apparently now I'm needed for parts of next week too. They'll pay me for it, but I still feel oddly unsettled by this. I had a whole plan of intensive UL time mapped out.

In better news, I am rewatching the amazing 30 Rock, which has been making me cackle loudly like a madwoman. Here is some of Tracey Jordan's advice to young Kenneth:
Live every week like it's shark week.
Dress every day like you're going to get murdered in those clothes.

I find this compendium of 90s dating videos from boing boing oddly endearing. I do hope these men found themselves nice ladies with big fluffy hair who wear chenille sweaters and large glasses. Ideally the man who quotes Blake should have a goofy middle-aged librarian.

Sunday, 27 September 2009


I like this picture of my Grandma with my nephew. Apparently he has learnt to say mama when his mother isn't there to make his father feel guilty. You go, nephew! Get the passive aggressive in early and often. If you ever get a sibling they will effortlessly trump you in the passive aggressive stakes and it will all be over.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Corpus Crispies

Tomorrow is the MacMillan Cancer Support coffee morning at work, so I have mixed trademark Kellogg's Rice Krispies with fairtrade organic milk chocolate and put dollops of the mixture into cake cases. I am calling them Corpus Crispies. I'd like to pretend I was solely motivated by the urge to help this cause, but to be honest it was largely the pun that drove me onwards.

If you're a Corpus person reading this, the coffee morning is tomorrow at 10.30 in the NCR. If you don't get there early I can't guarantee that you won't miss the milk ones, and have to make do with one from the less successful dark chocolate batch.

The shiny ages

Anglo-Saxon colour terms tend to be about the degrees of shininess rather than actual tones; horses, for example, are described as bright rather than bay or chestnut, etc. There are now some pictures of the recent Anglo-Saxon hoard find on the Guardian website, including some rather nice script complete with Insular wedges. (On descenders too.) The above is a dagger hilt, with a variant of an interlocking sea-horse pattern found on other early Insular artefacts. (I can't remember where exactly, but I do remember copying it for a Christmas card when I was a sixth-former.)

Saturday, 19 September 2009


I went to hear Stanley Hauerwas, who is one of the few living theologians any of whose work I know. He was talking about his youth, and also, which made me uncomfortable, about the breakdown of his marriage to a woman with bipolar disorder. (Although the last bit was because of a question someone asked.) The whole thing was very like a novel by Robertson Davies -- the small-town boy who travels a long way without ever quite leaving the small town behind him. He talked briefly about the theory of memoir writing, and was clearly going for the idea of drawing the events of his life together into themes and a progression. I think maybe that's why I felt quite so uncomfortable about the breakdown stuff; it seemed so much like something written, with his wife as a narrative character. I suppose this probably isn't his fault. Anyway, it was a very interesting evening, and I got to catch up with a good friend I haven't seen for ages, which was pleasant.

Stanley Hauerwas was brought up a Methodist in the baptist style, and talked about something I remember from my own youth, the worry that the preacher would feel like a failure if no one went up to be saved. I spent some of this afternoon talking to a young family member who has been in California on a worship course, and is very into signs and wonders. On the last day they all had a barbecue at the prophet's house. He's a sweet youth who has roughly half a brain. But is truth only for the intelligent? Probably to the same extent as only the beautiful can be loved.

Thursday, 10 September 2009


1. My little nephew and his parents came to see me in Cambridge, which was very cool. Here he is chuckling on his father's lap, in one of very few photos which didn't come out as a blur because of his ceaseless activity.

And here he is with his tongue sticking out, looking oddly like my Grandpa, possibly just because my grandpa had a round face and wispy hair.

2. My mother's doing her parachute jump on Saturday. She hopes it's not going to take too long because she wants to get to Lakeland.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

I had two thoughts

1. Mathematicians have a concept "trivial" for things which are theoretically solved, and do not therefore present a challenge. If you've shown that something's as true for x+1 as it is for x, then there's really no need to worry about x+2. A Mathmo friend of mine, someone I had known at school as well as university, had a really bad break-up in his second year. He was worried that this was something with which he simply could not cope, and he couldn't see how things would get any better. But one day I met him looking much more cheerful, and he told me that he had suddenly remembered that he had felt the same devastation when he split up with his sixth-form girlfriend. He realised then that he had dealt with this before, and that it was therefore trivial: and from then on he was completely fine about the whole thing. (One of the lesser known uses of maths.) There's also a joke about a mathematician who wakes up to find his bed on fire, works out exactly how to put out the fire with his water jug, and then goes back to sleep in the burning bed, because the problem is trivial.

Anyway I think that this concept is not a helpful one when dealing with joint technological and academic projects. The technological people can see how things would work all mapped out in their heads, in beautiful clarity, and every layer of extra information causes no trouble whatsoever, because the design is extensible -- addition of an extra layer is trivial. In fact these additions often result in serious increases in the actual complexity of amassing, mostly inputting, data.

My experience with working on academic projects which are mostly just ways to represent existing data online has made me sad whenever I hear techie people talking about how theoretically easy everything is. For this reason I have just invented the concept "intermediate information technology". This is based on the idea of intermediate technology, e.g. things which are perhaps more basic but more fixable by the non-skilled. A bicycle is intermediate technology, but a DVD player is not. From now on my aim is to be involved in information technology which I can understand. I don't mind needing a few days' training or even a week or two: but I don't want to have to have a masters in Computer science. My current limit is some light XSLT, and some Visual basic. A good example of the right sort of stuff is the tiddlywiki, a stand-alone .html file which does some very powerful things, but which even I can hack about. I want more of this! Down with total reliance on the schedules of over-worked humanities computing providers! I very much envisage my future self as a sort of IT Ray Mears.

2. I wish people would stop using the words steatopygous and callipygous as if they expect us to be wowed by their saucy erudition. This does not except Stephen Fry.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Reading and other stuff

1. I like that Borders now has a "paranormal romance" section. I didn't notice if the misery memoir section is still there. I do like the idea of their changing their store layout to incorporate current trends.

2. Doesn't this book sound amazing? Maybe more amazing if you're up on ancient Greek literature. Maybe I should read up on it as preparation. Some people don't like really clever stuff, like Stoppard, but I can forgive excess cleverness if the book is done well. One of my favourite clever clever books is Betrayals by Charles Palliser.

3. Anyway back to book reviews.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
I loved this book, I really did. But I've had very bad results from recommending Neal Stephenson in the past. I adore his Baroque Trilogy, but two very different friends have recently abandoned it less than halfway through the first book. I think I like Stephenson is the best novelist for conveying ideas. Also, he has real science in. I started reading PopCo by Scarlett Thomas but had to give it up. I couldn't cope with how the main character is supposed to be all intelligent but obviously knows far less about code-breaking, etc, than me, and I'm not even a scientist. I've heard her likened to Douglas Coupland. I would agree with that, but not in a good way. So, if you know what the Fibonacci sequence is and realise that it's not a big deal to do basic alphabetical shift codes in your head then read Stephenson. (Cryptonomicon is also great.) If not then read Scarlett Thomas. I will not judge you.

The Queen of Whale Cay by Kate Summerscale
Interesting biography of a woman whose life more or less mirrored twentieth-century attitudes to lesbianism, except that she was terribly rich, which immured her from a lot of problems. Eventually she just bought a small island in the Bahamas and set herself up as ruler there, with a series of beautiful girlfriends. It was interesting to hear about Dolly Wilde, "Oscar's unusual niece". Maybe I should read her biography too.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
This is very good in an unostentatiously haunting way. A fat young boy, bullied at school, becomes friends with a strange girl who moves in next door. Because of the recent film of this book I think it's pretty well known what's going on, but it still surprised me by being unexpected in places.

The Black Death by John Hatcher
Since the author is my boss's boss, at least til the end of the month, it's rather a relief that this is good. I nearly chickened out of reading it because I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to cope with the history-told-as-fiction structure. But it actually works quite well, I think because it's still kept reasonably dry, and has straight history bits at the start of each chapter, and full notes to each chapter at the end. It's an interesting way of tackling the problem of telling the history of ordinary people at a time when they're not hugely well documented. It made me think that I'd like to read a book in which someone who has sympathy with late medieval religion put its case; I suppose it would have to be Eamon Duffy. Cos I'm a protestant through and through, and the stuff about indulgences made me feel very angry. Also, it turns out the Catholic church still has them, which seems odd to me.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I think this is the most readable of all his books, because it has quite a lot of plot, with a whodunnit as part. And Ivan's Grand Inquisitor story is just excellent, though I don't approve of Penguin issuing it by itself as a booklet.