Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Audrey the rat; sad Parker; consoling PSB

I am sad because I have had my little rat, Audrey, put to sleep. She was a very good age for a rat, and it was time to call it a day because she was becoming miserable, and she had had a pleasant life, and I did everything I could to make her comfortable as she grew more frail: all these supposedly comforting things are true, but I still feel very sad. I will miss her. She liked to sit on my lap and make happy teeth-chattering noises. She had an annoying habit of casually chewing things as she passed them, so that most of my electrical goods now have thick clumps of insulating tape around their cables, but when I shouted Hey Audrey, stop that! at her she would look up as if to say Oh, it's you! and then bound over to me and climb onto my lap to have her neck scratched. This was endearing. When given the choice, she preferred to run towards me rather than away, and when rats do this it always seems like a bit of a miracle to me, given the tremendous disparity in size between us.

I have also been reading Matthew Parker's eventually futile attempts not to become archbishop of Canterbury. All bishops are supposed not to want to be bishops, it's a topos known as noli episcopari, but I think in Parker's case, as probably in the case of all those who ought to be bishops, it was not a pose. Poor old Parker. He only wanted to be left along with his books. When his friends Bacon and Burghley, elevated by the accession of Elizabeth I, were first offering to do something for him after the lean fugitive years of Mary's reign, he said this:
But to tell you my heart, I had rather have such a thing as Benet College is in Cambridge, a living of twenty nobles by the year at the most, than to dwell in the deanery of Lincoln, which is two hundred at the least.

He was hoping to be restored to the mastership of Corpus, which he had been forced to resign for religious reasons. But he soon began to understand that they had a higher and much worse honour in store for him.
But, sir, except ye both moderate and restrain your overmuch good will in the former respects to me-ward, I fear, in the end, I shall dislike you both, and that your benevolences should by occasion of my obstinate untowardness jeopard me into prison; yet there shall I bear you my good heart, which I had rather suffer in a quiet conscience, than to be intruded into such room and vocation, wherein I should not be able to answer the charge to God nor to the world, wherein I should not serve the Queen’s honour, which I would wish most heartily advanced in all her wise and godly proceedings; nor yet should I live to the honour of the realm, and so finally should but work a further displeasant contemplation to my good friends who preferred me.

But Elizabeth had decided, and Parker couldn't do much about it. Being archbishop of Canterbury made Parker miserable, and his last letters, after the death of his wife, are very pitiable.

Here is an excellent Pet Shop Boys remix which is helping me to feel better through expressing my melancholy.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Closing tabs

I don't care if I'm far from his target audience, I still think Tony Hawk is really cool:

And he's 42! That gives me eight years to become that cool. I'd better go and buy some elbow pads.

Quantum biology is also cool. According to this article, which you won't be able to read without going "whoah!" at least mentally, quantum tangling may help to keep our dna together. At some point the right-wing American loony-Christians will catch on to the fact that if evolution made God sound a bit uninvolved, or cruel, or whatever it is they object to about evolution, then quantum theory makes Him sound, like, totally stoned. (My Christianity involves believing that God is complex, unexpected, and mind-blowing, so it's all good for me. Hurray for science which reconfirms one's prejudices!)

Kids are getting high on digital drugs! Don't they know there's quantum biology out there, or skateboarding? Anyway, this is not surprising, because Chris Morris is clearly some sort of cleverly-disguised prophet, or like those medieval genres where the parody emerges before the thing it's supposed to be parodying.

The iPhone has no app for making your own apps, and it never will. This is why Android is better.

In darker news, Boing Boing has the advert for prison experiment guinea pigs. Chilling. You can't observe things without changing them, you see.

Popjustice has launched a record label.

According to this website, I write like James Joyce. I think it means that computers can't understand me. Hurray!

And here is a kaleidoscope thing. It goes round and round.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


I've been browsing the Guardian's Galleries, in one of those displacement activities brought on by the need to format bibliographies. There are some great ones:
Here are pictures of some of Edmund de Waal's netsuke which inspired his recent book. (I covet all rat netsuke, and every now and then I look for them on ebay, but the nice ones are too expensive.)
Here is a nineteenth-century French photographer's views of London people. I love the penultimate picture. It should be the front cover of a novel.
These competition entries for a London Transport competition for a cycling poster are really very good.

I love this illustrated blog post about dog training. Wanting so much to be a good dog, and trying everything in the hope that something is right, is such a typical dog thing.

This xkcd thing is very true. I have learnt the hard way that if someone is doing computer things in a wierdly roundabout way you need to think twice about trying to sort them out with something more sensible. Only do it for people you really love and for whom you are prepared to be IT support until one of you dies.

I want an etching by Glyn Thomas. You could argue that they're too easy to like, but I really really like them, and I don't think they would wear out over time. I like the way he draws flat spaces a bit curvy, because that's what they feel like somehow when you're there.

I'm usually not that interested in "save this work of art" stuff, and I couldn't be less bothered about this new plan to build a theatre over the remains of the actual Globe, but this portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a West-African muslim who was freed from slavery by public subscription in London in the eighteenth century, and who sounds like a significant figure but isn't in the Oxford DNB, really should be in the National Portrait Gallery.

Sunday, 11 July 2010


Although our village has no shop it has a small pub, which serves Otter beer (motto: relax with an otter) and very good chips, and there's a small church. The church is actually a chapel of ease, which means it was built so that people could have services nearer at hand. There have been three weddings there in its whole existence: some people I don't know, who had to get the church licenced first; my brother and his wife; and a fake wedding which Joss Stone recorded for a music video. (She comes from here.)

It's very nice to be able to walk a few minutes down the road to go to church, and the people are pleasant too. But I am being driven slightly distracted by its infantilism. Admittedly a lot of the services there are specifically for children. But there are endless colouring-in activities, and sometimes we don't even get sermons, we get Christian children's stories read aloud (actually these fascinate me in the way they revive sentimental medieval apocrypha which were just the sort of thing to which Protestants strongly objected at the Reformation, in my view rightly). Today the usual person was away because of a family illness, and so we went one step more inane. We didn't even get a Bible reading, instead we had our next-door neighbour telling the story of the early years of Moses extempore, with a long digression about how he sort of sympathised with Pharoah because he went to London yesterday and no one there looked English and he couldn't read the signs in the shop windows. You may be thinking, well, the King James Version is hard work for a child and maybe it's better for them to have something easier to digest: but we're not talking about the King James here, or the RSV, or the NIV, or even the Good News. (I didn't come across the King James until I discovered it for myself as a literary teenager, and loved it -- "I feel like a bottle in the smoke", etc, though it still wouldn't be my first call for trying to understand what the Bible is actually saying -- and we always had the NIV and the Good News at church.) At the best we're talking about one of those books of Children's Bible Stories which I really hated as a child. (It wasn't a religious thing, I also hated those Children's Stories from Shakespeare books, which really put me off Shakespeare until I was old enough to realise that the point of Shakespeare is not so much the plot as the mad vertigo of the language.) And I fear we might even be talking about one of those "modern" translations written in a mixed slang which is about ten years out of date. (Peter said, What up dog! That was like, so totally rad.) But this would still have been a step up from someone randomly dredging the story out of their memory, with splashes of Martin-Amis-style, I'm-just-saying-what-we're-all-thinking racism mixed in.

In a funny development, the bloke who usually does the service had e-mailed his 5-min talk to my mother, who read it out, and it turned out to be all about how we should welcome people from foreign countries and try to protect them from exploitation. It's heartening how often the people in charge in the church are in charge for a good reason.

Anyway, I fear that I need to find myself a church which is a bit less inane. It's not that I actually disagree in general with these things, it's just that I know that my own religious life has to involve some intellectual content. (Is it any wonder that so many people think Christianity is just a matter of accepting a series of children's stories?) I need to read things written by intelligent Christians, and here's the difficult bit, I could really do with some people to discuss them with me. In Cambridge this was achievable, although even in Cambridge it was pretty difficult to find people who are more interested in theology than aesthetics.

On the plus side the good thing about these lightweight services is that I flee them yearning for some serious meaty Christianity. I read Rowan William's Dostoyevsky book as a direct result of a Christmas eve service of peculiar inanity, and now I feel all driven to read Marianne Robinson's Absence of Mind. (She was on the Daily Show the other day, doing pretty well I thought at pointing out how the people engaged in the Science vs Religion debate are not the brightest minds from either tradition.)

PS Do children really need things to be so thoroughly digested for them? I remember that it completely blew my mind when I was eight and my mother told me that thing Augustine said, that we should love God and do whatever we wanted. I said but what if you love God, but you want to steal things? And my mum said, but if you really loved God like he loves us, you'd know that stealing things wasn't a God-like thing, and that it would pain him, and you'd be revolted by the idea of stealing and try your hardest never to do it even by accident. And this totally blew my mind. I remember thinking about it for some time, and when my mother came up at light's out (9 pm) to check I wasn't reading under the covers, I said that I had had an idea that could make everything alright. If we didn't only love God, but if we loved everyone, and loved them properly, then we could all do whatever we wanted all the time, and everything would be fine. My mother, bless her, said that she knew some people who had said that, and she thought maybe they were right. But I remember it vividly as seeming utterly amazing to me at the time.

PPS Wouldn't it be great to love God like that, so that all the commandments just became descriptions of what you were like? Wouldn't it be amazing to be that person out of love, not duty? I think that's what Paul is saying in Romans.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Visiting Oxford

I've had a lovely few days in Oxford, catching up with lots of old friends, especially my little god-daughter, who doesn't really count as an old friend because she's only two and three quarters. She's lovely, and has an air of responding to the world in quite a considered way which is very reminiscent of her mother. Also she loves books, and can even read a bit already, which is luck for me -- I am figuratively rubbing my hands planning birthday after Christmas of interesting book presents. She now has a little sister who is one of those babies who looks at you very steadily for a long time in a way which is oddly flattering and disconcerting at the same time.

It would be fatuous beyond words to say that the Bodleian Library is an old friend, but as libraries go it's certainly a grower. Once you get used to its ways, and find out about its unusual resources, it's one of the best places I know to do research. Almost all the manuscripts are currently in a temporary reading room at the Radcliffe Science Library. A science library is a bit of a quaint thing, and it was very quiet, though I suppose it is out of term. Contrariwise the special collections area was packed. Now, the Science Library has free photocopying to a USB stick or e-mail (unlike the UL which charges 8p!!!! per incorporeal sheet), and it's very easy to print things out, and get books ordered there, etc. But it was nice that my work also took me to Duke Humfrey. I may not have many more chances to read there, because eventually even the Select manuscripts and the reference resources will be moved out, and in a few years' time it won't really be a reading room at all, but part of the tourist tour. No more sitting by the shushing gargoyle; no more Selden end. You're allowed to take your own pictures of manuscripts now, after filling in a form to say what you require, so while I was trying to get a good image of an original ninth-century limp binding (very exciting!) I took a picture from the window, out across the gardens to the Radcliffe Camera and St Mary's Church (where you can get nice teas).

And it's a lovely building inside too, full of paintings I never look at properly.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

I love you, Literary Review

The reason the Literary Review is great is that its book reviews address the question: do you, a reader, want to choose to read this book for pleasure? Academic reviews concentrate on the value of a book to academics who are users more than readers: some journals, like the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, project the attitude that reading is a duty, imposed on us by being the sort of terribly well-educated people that we are. But the Literary Review is interesting, and its reviews tend to be as much about the book's subject as the book itself. I suppose an author might feel a bit aggrieved if a review makes little mention of their book -- sometimes in the Literary Review judgements on the actual volume are limited to something like "this well-written but over-long book" -- but as a reader I like it when a reviewer tackles the interest of a book's subject. You can tell me that someone has written an excellent book on Pavel Florensky, for example, but I need some context to tell me why I should care about Pavel Florensky.

Pavel Florensky sounds absolutely fascinating: apparently he was a brilliant mathematician, physicist, and theologian; helped electrify Russia (turning up dressed as a priest to meetings with Trotsky); spent his time as a prisoner in an Arctic labour camp working out how to extract useful chemicals from sea water; and was a brilliant geologist who refused to prospect for gold on moral grounds. Furthermore he lived a good life, loved his family, confessed to crimes when interrogated by the NKVD so as to spare others from torture, and worked hard for his country despite persecution. He ended up in one of Stalin's mass graves and is a candidate for sainthood in the Russian Orthodox church. I know about this because of the June issue of the Literary Review, and I intend to read the biography at some point. (By Avril Pyman.) Also in the June issue are reviews of a biography of Cardinal Newman which makes him sound very interesting, and a book about the battle of Little Big Horn, both of which I might read if they come out in paperback. There's a piece by Diana Athill about the Edmund de Waal book on his inherited netsuke. There's also a review of a book by Paul Bloom on pleasure. I don't think I will read the book, but the review, by Michael Bywater, says some quite interesting things about the subject in general, and about what Bloom's book doesn't tackle. And there's a review of Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind which makes me feel that I really have to get to grips with her work at some point. I've always been daunted by her, because the archbishop of Canterbury reveres her intellect. The archbishop of Canterbury eats languages for breakfast and when given a sabbatical to refresh himself spiritually before the Lambeth conference spends it lightheartedly making a serious contribution to the study of Dostoyevsky. Marilynne Robinson sounds even tougher.

But it's not just about the books I decide to read, it's also about the books I don't. I read somewhere that art is reading books and going to the theatre and such, and culture is reading the reviews of books and theatre and such, and still being able to discuss them. It struck me the other day that although I have never read anything about the Dreyfus affair, I have read enough reviews of books about the Dreyfus affair to have a reasonable sense of what happened. You could see that as a bad thing, because strictly speaking it would be better if I had read and assimilated all the different books about it and come to my own conclusion (or even better, the actual sources). But what could be attacked as superficial knowledge could also be defended as a broad and persistent curiosity about the world and its history. And there are worse ways to be self-indulgent.

The closest parallel I can think of to the Literary Review's attitude to books is the attitude of Boing Boing to science. Boing Boing often has items about interesting new scientific or technological stuff just out of a sense that these things are genuinely exciting, and no one's duty. Hurray for enthusiasms! The world is wierd and complex in a good way.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Dialect; Big Bird

This list of management-speak contains some impressive terms. I like the statement that nine women can't have a baby in a month; it sounds so reasonable. I have escaped from management-speak land, hurray! To be fair, the salary was handy, and the management-speak was really only a few times a year when our project-partners visited from America. Though it was vital not to think about how the people speaking the management-speak were paid at least two or three times as much for being about half as effective, about a quarter as bright, and about a tenth as knowledgeable as us embittered academic types sitting on the other side of the table writing each other notes in Latin. Being able to emerge from meetings with your self-respect and cheerfulness intact should be added onto Kipling's If poem in an extra verse at the end.

"Mission creep" was one we used to get accused of a lot. It made us (maybe just me) want to scream "This isn't mission creep! It's just actually deciding to do something in a way that will work! Making the thing bloody work is not mission creep!" Instead I would be repressed and snarky and then go home and hate myself.

What is Big Bird? This is quite an interesting presentation. I like the concept behind Pecha-Kucha; it's essentially presentations of 20 slides which advance automatically every 20 seconds, while the speaker tries to keep up. It sounds like it could be a really interesting way to introduce people to research in areas not related to theirs. I'm tempted to make one and just put it online, but that's mostly because there are other things I should be doing right now.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Biblioteca apostolica Vaticana

I get the Vatican Library e-mail newsletter, and it usually makes me feel cheerful. The person who writes it has not heard of the five sentences rule which I mentioned in a recent post; he talks at length, and in an engagingly unfiltered manner. The library closed very suddenly about three years ago, and no one has been able to do any research on Vatican manuscripts in the meantime, which is a big deal considering their collections. Luckily I've only had one thing I needed to see, and I was able to get by without it by fudging a little, but many are anxious for it to reopen its doors. Anyway, here is one entire paragraph from the latest newsletter:
In fact, in recent meetings with various people, I have often heard the question, "Say, when will you open the Library"? My initial reaction, which I always try to suppress, is to think that they have clearly not been paying attention to the newsletters we have sent; nor have they been reading the newspapers or the web pages where the news has been announced and passed on. Of course I tell them, affecting as much indifference as I can muster, that we will open on September 20. But then another idea occurs to me: could it be that the inquirers were well aware of the date, but had been seized by an "impertinent" doubt which made them fear that it might not be true? Perhaps this was their way of asking a different question: "Will the reopening actually happen as planned? Will you keep your promises"?

The combination of, on the one hand, awareness of the neurotic undercurrents in academics' conversations with, on the other hand, the naive expectation that academics will go to the effort of reading newsletters or checking things online instead of just bothering the first person they can find to ask, is really very endearing. The nearly-2000-word-long message ends with this:
The number of newsletter recipients has now reached 15.327: the population of a small city, united by a love for culture and certainly also by reciprocal esteem and friendship. In that spirit, in the name of the entire staff of the Library, I send my warm greetings and best wishes to all.

Which is quite nice. I'm afraid I suspect that there are many among the other 15 326 whom I might find a bit trying, but I am doing my best to esteem them long-distance nonetheless.

Star Trek

Slash fiction started out with Kirk/Spock. (Neil Gaiman explains it here, with the epitomical phrase "it would be logical for you to touch it, Captain".)
Kottke.org has a post on how there is now a musical genre of Kirk/Spock mashups, which are a little more easy on the brain. This excellent Tik Tok one is very light on the slash at all, and serves to remind me just how good-looking the young Shatner was.

On the other hand this Nine Inch Nails one is a bit more loaded. But because all the images come from Star Trek episodes it can't be explicit, and the whole thing would be SFW except that the song is pretty N. There's something amusing about slash fiction in general. I think it's because it's such a female phenomenon, and female attitudes to sex generally involve more deprecatory humour than male. (That's probably a ridiculous generalisation, but I think it's roughly the case among the small sample group of people I know.)