Friday, 29 January 2010

Thursday, 28 January 2010

A literary drunk

In a Life magazine gallery of famous literary drunks and addicts I found this picture.

Raymond Chandler is sprawled into the back of a sofa looking lost and vaguely owlish. More intriguing are the people smiling at each other across him. Apparently the man is Anthony Blond, a publisher, but the identity of the woman isn't recorded. According to his obituary Blond was married at this time to a Charlotte Strachey, a part-time model, and the woman is married, so I hope it's her. I wonder what the smile means -- how drunken this novelist is? They divorced in 1960 after a series of miscarriages and a still-birth. There's something touching about the slight reservation in her smile, and the way her name isn't recorded. It reminds me of a clever novella by Jane Stevenson, included in her Several Deceptions, in which the middle-aged son of famous literary parents inserts, as an Umberto Eco-inspired joke, his drab secretary into the history of their circle by identifying her with anonymous women in famous snap-shots, and becomes powerless to correct the record when she starts to run with the role.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

More good things

Furthermore, here are They Might Be Giants talking about their new Here Comes Science album. I gave their Here Come the 123s to my nephew and god-daughter for Christmas. Little nephew, as soon as it was put on, started bopping in his high chair in an odd but endearing manner. It is very energising and likeable stuff, which I played to my mother in the car while we drove slowly down the M3 in a snow storm in the small hours of the longest night of last year, to help keep her awake. Here's one of the songs:

Plus CuteOverload has a really good picture here, not quite their usual sort of thing.

Yesterday and the day before I spent a total of eleven hours on trains (surprisingly pleasant) and four hours teaching seminars (it's easy to forget how draining teaching is when you haven't done it for a while). It was tiring but I read some very good stuff, and this reminded me that I haven't blogged about books for ages. (I got so far behind that I could never catch up, so I'm just starting again from recent things.) I really enjoyed Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby, who is a very funny writer. I particularly liked the unaggressive but judgemental analyst; perhaps analysts who say the sort of things your mother would say could be quite popular, really. The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt is fantastic; I had to ration it because it was absorbing me while I was meant to be doing other things. I will definitely read it again. It's essentially about the children of Fabians growing up in late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century England. It starts off being about the boys and moves more and more into the fates of the girls, who are just that bit less prominent in their parents' thoughts. There's a very good bit where some of the girls are deciding, in the face of the general indifference of their parents, whether to go to the cocoa-drinking female enclave of Newnham or do the default thing and look around for nice husbands, and they suspect they're going to have to choose between thinking and sex. Both these two books are definitely keepers, and not for the Oxfam pile.

I've also been reading some sci-fi/fantasy. The sci-fi sections of bookshops are very frustrating, because you know there is seriously good stuff there somewhere, but it's very hard to find it. There's not much point looking at covers and blurbs, because those just tell you what some publisher's assistant has guessed you want to hear, but I picked a few things from this list of the last decade's best sci-fi/fantasy because it seemed reasonably intelligent. The Mount by Carol Emshwiller is about a future where aliens with very short weak legs but very effective weapons have crash-landed on Earth, fallen in love with humans as a species, and now breed them as a lovable form of transport. It's not quite a straightforward them-versus-us thing because the aliens, the Hoots, love the humans, and some of the humans really love the Hoots back. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton transposes Trollope to a world of dragons, and the combination of dragon behaviour like eating the bodies of the dead and hoarding gold with Victorian societal mores is fun and and quite clever. The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia is the most typically sci-fi/fantasy of the three, being set in a another world where you have to learn about different creatures and the ruling structure. The main character is a fragile robot with a porcelain face, whose maker has agreed for her to be emancipated and to earn her own living, but who won't give her the key that winds up her heart. It's quite good but probably the least memorable of the three, though I did enjoy The Secret History of Moscow by the same author. I'm looking forward to doing the same train journeys again in a fortnight, and getting some more reading in.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

There there

After an afternoon of Mandelson-related indigestion (lots of burping) I turn to the internet for its soothing powers. Here are some happy things I found:
1. The bones of an interesting Anglo-Saxon woman may have been found in Germany.
2. If I had an iphone I would definitely buy this app for making pictures of real life look more exciting.
3. The Onion has quite a funny thing on idiot Pat Robertson's comment on Haiti. (If the Haitians made a deal with the devil to get rid of the French then that devil was the French -- the "reparation" they had to pay to leave the French empire has had permanent repercussions, as explained in this bloody depressing Times Online article written months before the earthquake.)
4. Here a curious wild chimp in the Congo pokes a camera with a stick.

5. Here is a seriously freaky Japanese robot: The Japanese lead the world in uncanny robots.
6. Did that robot make you think of Lillebror? If it didn't, are you perhaps not familiar with Lars von Trier's amazing supernatural hospital drama comedy Riget? If so you should track it down -- it's by far the best thing he has ever done, by turns hilarious and very frightening. Make sure to get it in a format which includes the spooky introductions:

and von Trier's little talks over the closing credits:

Here is the Swedish doctor Stig Helmer expressing his distaste for Danish exile:

Hatred is bad for you

There are some obvious truths that it's hard to live out in real life. For example, it's bad for you to hate. Every now and then I find myself disliking someone really really intensely and when I do I try to find a few redeeming characteristics in them, and then just stop thinking about them. People are only people on the whole, and not worth destroying your digestion over.

Recently though my feelings about Peter Mandelson have been really getting away from me. I can literally feel my bile rising every time I think about him or encounter anything he says or does. I'm not going to go into the humanities research debate; my personal situation at the moment is such that I feel simply too close to the whole question. I've always had a feeling that when I get to do research I am extremely lucky, but I'm not sure that that's inconsistent with a suspicion that humanities research is an essential part of civilisation, chiming with something intrinsic to the human condition, etc. With all the gloom of recent humanities pronouncements I am reminded of being at birthday parties when I was small -- there's a sense that the music is stopping and I don't have anywhere to sit. Back then my usual snap response was to feel disdain for the game; so it's really too complex for me to make judgements about the humanities at the moment.

But science! I feel like posting a Youtube video screaming "Leave science alone!". Seriously, leave science alone! The sciences represent pure intellectual curiousity to me, for various reasons. I can count among the scientists I know from my time as a research fellow some very very bright people many of whom share a particular trait which is hard to describe -- a sort of way of looking at the world freshly, of always wanting to know why something happens, which is often coupled with a particular sort of kindness and just a hint of innocence, though not naivety, in relations with people. I'm not describing what I mean well: but if I were to counterpose the engineers from my old college with the historians I might even suppose that these different disciplines produce different characters. I wish I could explain what I mean better; it's almost like the humanities are the Roman Empire in the second century AD, while the sciences are back in the days of the Republic, when Cincinnatus would take on supreme power to beat the state's enemies and then resign the dictatorship and go back happily to his farm.

It's quite possible of course that I am talking complete nonsense.

But I do often wish I were more of a scientist myself. I did double maths and physics at A level, and I often find myself missing the simple elegance of maths. If you make it so that research scientists have to work on questions closely related to immediate profit then you'll hobble them from understanding how the universe works, and understanding how the universe works is important, and can even eventually be extremely profitable. (See this Observer article about how arcane and useless any investigation into lasers appeared to be for a long time.) So why is Britain letting Peter Mandelson anywhere near our beautiful fragile sciences? He's not elected. He doesn't actually know anything. Hasn't he been repeatedly discredited and made to move on? Why's he back again, and how did he get to be even more Teflon than Tony? Why is any of this anything to do with him?

I'm no fan of David Cameron -- very very far from it, he's pretty content-free, and reminds me of that processed cheese that you peel off its plastic backing and put on burgers. But if there's a chance that we can at last shake off the inexplicable leech that is Peter Mandelson then bring on the election. I don't care if it would be like changing one set of wound-bothering flies for another, just get Peter Mandelson away from my consciousness now. I could almost bring myself to vote Tory on this one issue: get this terrible terrible man away from the things I love (universities and the digital world, on which I haven't even touched in this post).

Sunday, 10 January 2010

What Britain is Actually Like?

PS to last post: you've got to find it touching that while yesterday (Saturday) most UK towns on had "curry" as a frequently tweeted word, today (Sunday) both London and Bristol have "roast".

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The interesting inanities of crowds

1. I've finally worked out what Twitter is for. I've tried following people on it, and I've even briefly tried tweeting, but neither of these interested me. What you want to do instead is go to some Twitter analysis tool, for example which annotates a google world map with tag clouds of words frequently used in tweets from specific areas. Of late in the UK there's been lots of "cancelled", "freezing" and "bothered", but also "nexus" on the day the new Google Nexus was announced. Today most UK cities seem to have something about "curry" and things relating to the football attack in Togo, plus things relating to CBB7. I like that in Newcastle many people's tweets include "@joemcelderry91". Also I have learnt that the yout' these days says "lool" or "loool" or even "looool". I assume that's because of the natural human urge to make words longer -- I did find something that said that lool is for Laughs Outrageously Out Loud, but I suspect that's a false etymology. In New York the kids say "lmaooooo" and seem to be talking a lot about going to "ihop", which google tells me is a pancake restaurant. Anyway now I have found this I want to contribute to this huge largely anonymous cloud of data (but I'm not sure I can quite bring myself to churn out tweets of the necessary dullness for fear that some poor soul actually reads them). It reminds me of one of my favourite Pet Shop Boys songs, a Chris Lowe one about the attractions of being One of the Crowd:

2. Well, I think it's a shame that Adam and Joe are leaving BBC Radio 6 for an unspecified length of time, because they're quite amusing. Here is Adam in his shed:

3. Lady Gaga's next single is going to be Alejandro, which I have embedded before, but which I am embedding again because it's Great.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Stuff I have done

I have been doing various things, for example: putting all my stuff into boxes in a van which my dad crashed (very minorly) and had to abandon for a night at the bottom of an icy hill in the back lanes of Devon; trying to find a copy of the Guardian in the countryside, which is truly Telegraph-land; and looking into tax regulations, which is taking a while because I keep getting distracted by coming across things like the rules for declaring income derived from a gravel pit, which send me off into complicated daydreams about how I might acquire and use a gravel pit. Presumably one would need some sort of gravel washing device.

Also I've been playing with small nephew. Small nephew is very excellent indeed. He's just over a year old now, and very cheerful. He loves light switches, turning the pages of books, and crawling out of the living room, into the hall, into the kitchen, and then back into the living room by a different door -- he thinks that's very funny. He likes pretending that a TV remote is a telephone, and the other day he managed to embark on a long-distance phone call to his other grandparents in Germany -- he used the Last Number Redial button and then gurgled at them down the phone for some time before his mother noticed. On the down side I have now got my first small-child-spread cold. He gets quite a few colds because of going to nursery, but he has such a good time there that his mother, who agonised about sending him at first, now feels guilty that she only sends him three days a week. They have a special baby area where they do things like putting them all in swim nappies and then letting them do whole body painting, and he made his parents a Christmas card and a 2010 calendar -- his parents kept finding glitter between his toes at bathtime.

I also got my favourite ever spam message, from someone who wants my details so that he can give me a discount on puppies.

In sorting through some old papers I found this excellent old handout from one of Simon Keynes's Anglo-Saxon History lectures. It's an extract from the index entry for E. A. Freeman from a book by (I'm pretty certain) J. H. Round. Click on it to get it full-size, because it's worth a look.