Saturday, 31 December 2011

Reading in 2011

One of my three New Year's resolutions for 2011 was to keep track of what I read. I've done this using LibraryThing, which is quite a good system. So here is my personal set of book awards for 2011.

Favourite all-round book of the year:
A tie between these two, which are both humane, amusing, and intelligent:
  • Moo by Jane Smiley
  • Rameau's Niece by Cathleen Schine
Moo is a great campus novel which I read back in January. Rameau's Niece is another academic-y one. I read it in August, and since I never reviewed it on this blog I'm posting here my review from LibraryThing:
Wonderful, my favourite of hers so far. Margaret has a lovely husband, a terrible memory, and a surprise bestseller under her belt, an edition of a post-Revolutionary anatomical treatise by a Frenchwoman. Now she's editing an eighteenth-century philosophical dialogue which is really the story of the seduction of the eponymous niece of Rameau -- written by a philosopher at a time when "philosopher" had a secondary meaning of dirty, dirty man (e.g. Sade, Casanova). Unfortunately she gets rather caught up in her work, and rediscovers erotic yearnings. This novel is great fun, affectionately satirical, and pokes gentle fun at the idea of the search for knowledge as a form of sexual desire.

Snidest and most subtly brilliant author:
  • Muriel Spark, especially for The Abbess of Crewe
  • Barbara Pym, especially for A Glass Full of Blessings
Enjoyable company, but likeable?  And a runner-up prize for Elinor Lipman, The Ladies' Man.

Best light-hearted reads:
  • Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce books
  • Paul Magrs's Brenda books
Two excellent series, worth saving up.

Favourite author discoveries
  • Jo Walton
  • Javier Marías
  • Ismail Kadare
with runners-up awards for Cathleen Schine, Allegra Goodman, Kate Christensen, and Ian McDonald.

"I'm an Intellectual me" award for high-brow books I actually really enjoyed
  • Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow trilogy

Reliably cheering author award:
  • Marian Keyes
  • Jilly Cooper
and a lifetime service award to Georgette Heyer

Brilliant memoir award:
  • Rhoda Janzen, Mennonite In A Little Black Dress
  • runner up Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Woman

You're A Bit of An Arse award for being entertaining but mostly a bit of an arse:
  • Russell Brand, Booky-Wook Two

Very interesting history/biography award:
  • Bride of Science by Benjamin Woolley (about Ada, daughter of Byron)
  • Mad Madge by Katie Whitaker (about Margaret Cavendish, another early female scientist)
  • Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey
  • Augustine of Hippo by Henry Chadwick (worthy but more likeable than you'd expect)
  • As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil by Rodney Bolt (Mary Benson)

Ouch award for unpalatable truths:
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
There's a lot of racial tension in the US but when you read this book it's hard to understand why there isn't out and out war. Of course this book was credited by Abraham Lincoln no less with starting the War Between the States.
Honourable mention to John Lanchester, Whoops!.

Best drawings:
  • Hark a Vagrant! by Kate Beaton
  • The First In Line by Mattias Adolfson

And here is an analysis borrowed from how Stuck In A Book does it, though shortened.
  • Total number of books read: 209
  • Gender of authors (of each book): 107 male, 92 female, 5 not sure (they're all K. J. Parker), and 5 anthologies
  • Fiction vs non-fiction: 181 to 28
  • Number of re-reads: 23
That's less non-fiction than I would have guessed, and fewer rereads.  Also I would have expected the male/female ratio to be more equal (though K. J. Parker is probably a woman, which would make the numbers closer).

Saturday, 24 December 2011


1. I forgot to post about things I read in November. I mostly enjoyed books by Elinor Lipman, who is gently funny, or sometimes not so gently in a Spark/Pym style. (E.g. The Ladies Man.) Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman was very enjoyable. Strictly speaking we ought to be further along in feminism than this by now, we shouldn't need someone to point out that equal treatment for men and women is a good thing and beneficial to both, but it seems that we do. I wanted to post about it properly but I doubt I'll ever get round to it. But it did make me think that given that a lot of women are prone to crazily analytical thoughts, and given that women are at least fifty percent of the population, does that really count as crazy after all? If a lot of people do it it could be argued that it's quite normal. Anyway, I recommend this book mostly because it's funny.

2. I meant to post about the Victorians. On my way into college I walk past either the Natural History Museum or the Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial, or sometimes past the V&A. In my childhood I was frequently told by both grandmothers that the Victorians would not have stood for my behaviour and would have taken away my food, beaten me, and probably clamped me to metal things to stop me slouching, and I got the impression that the Victorians were a very dull lot who hated children. But you can't go past those buildings without realising that actually the Victorians were completely crazy. I really meant to blog about the amazingness of the Natural History Museum building, and to read up on Victorian things, but I never got round to more than reading Strachey's Eminent Victorians, which I loved.

3. I never got round to writing a post about K. J. Parker. I still want to do this one day. In the meantime I'll just say that her (or possibly his) Engineer Trilogy is a really excellent work and one of my favourite discoveries of 2010. I reread it recently and I still think it's great.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Brilliant music

Popjustice's list of the top 45 singles of 2011 is out. (Have I mentioned that popjustice is great?) There were two great songs on it which I had missed. Here's Donkeyboy (who did Ambitions before Joe McElderry), City Boy, with quite a watchable video:

And Selena Gomez, who deserves sympathy for being hated, did this excellent pop song, Love You Like a Love Song.

Thursday, 22 December 2011


I met my brother's baby girl, my little niece. I suppose in the normal run of things one just doesn't encounter little babies very often. I was struck, just like I was by my nephew when he was tiny, how wierd new babies are. I can't remember what philosopher it was who said that we can never know what it's like to be a bat, but I could make a much better go at imagining a world defined by clicks and twilight flying than imagining what it's like to a be a little weeks old baby. They look so alien, and they can't touch things or see much. They go dark and stiff when they're angry, and cry like small animals coughing, and they have freakily tiny necks. My nephew is clearly finding the adjustment a bit frustrating, though he's generally being good. My niece needs most of the attention of at least one of her parents at all times, and sometimes both, and she's too young yet to do anything which would engage my nephew's interest. He strokes her head very gently, but it annoys him if this doesn't stop her crying. I expect he'll find it easier once she starts smiling and sitting up, and generally being more human.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Bip-bop: a retraction

So it turns out that when I emended my mother's term "bip-bop" to hip-hop I was wrong and she really meant beat box. I think I might have guessed this if I had thought more carefully about the small likelihood of her substituting the labial plosive b for the glottal pseudo-fricative h, the fact that even Devon-dwelling grandmothers have probably heard the term hip-hop at some point, and the text-critical rule of lectio difficilior. But I know for sure because she made me first search for and then watch the rapping vicar on YouTube. So I am embedding it here. I'm not sure I'd recommend it but it has made my mother very happy. Go vicars! If you want to, be unusual.

Good stuff

Because my last post went all ecclesiastical I didn't quite feel up to posting at the end some other videos, especially this song, which I enjoy as music, but which is depressing if you listen too much to the lyrics, which seems to be just how things are these days (unless you're listening to a rapping vicar, in which case the other probably applies).  I quite like Andre 3000 as a talking cat.

Ages ago I ordered Kate Beaton's Hark A Vagrant book, which was waiting when I came back, and is great. The first cartoon in it is this brilliant Bronte one. Go Anne!

I like this song too, and the video is quite good if not brilliant.

Monday, 19 December 2011


I'm back in Devon.  My mum collected me from Honiton and drove me back through the Blackdown Hills.  She tells me that they had a rapping vicar at church yesterday morning.  She said she was surprised at first but that when she listened she thought the lyrics were quite clever.  "He didn't call it rapping, though," she told me, "but bip-bop."  I asked if it was possible she meant hip-hop, and she said yes, if that's like rapping.  I love Devon.  I felt I ought to warn her that teenagers are unlikely to have been impressed by it, and I'm glad that I wasn't there, but still I do think vicars should be allowed to rap if they feel like it.

It is impossible to be unmoved by the Blackdown Hills AONB, but I have to say that enjoying living in London has slightly shaken my faith in my living-in-Devon life plan.  London has so much going on that's good for the mind. And another thing is that even leaving rapping vicars aside, the church situation in London is so much easier to deal with.  I think for the first time ever in my life I'm going to a church where my rather liberal views are in tune with those of many there.  The vicar is the chairman of the Inclusive Church movement, which is mostly famous for its stance on LBGT issues, but which also campaigns about women's ministry, mental health, poverty, and other things that can make people feel excluded from the church.  When I went to St Andrew the Great's in Cambridge, many years back, I couldn't avoid the feeling that that church was there for undamaged, successful people, and it made me feel out of place.  Jesus' ministry was largely to people who had failed or been hurt in some way.  (Though St Andrew the Great's is an excellent church and good at prodding the comfortable.) 

Anyway (if it embeds properly, I'm not used to vimeo) here's the vicar of St John's Waterloo preaching about power and powerlessness as part of a sermon series he organised for advent.

Revd Giles Goddard from David Simoes-Brown on Vimeo.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Week Eleven

So here we are in the middle of week eleven, the last of term.  It's been very hard work, and I feel simultaneously relieved at the thought of a break, and very anxious at the idea that we have almost finished with one of just two teaching terms for the whole course.  I've been doing OK in coursework, but the courseworks are a tiny tiny piece of the total mark.  I got one back yesterday that counts for one third of ten percent of three-quarters of a module, out of nine modules in total.  (And there's an individual project too, the marks for which remain separate.)

A lot of the time I don't notice being older than the others but sometimes it really hits home, and then I feel like Louis CK in this coffee shop (it starts about a minute in):

Sunday, 4 December 2011


When I was a student the first time round it was a relatively short time since most Cambridge colleges had started to admit women, a short enough time that no one in my year at Trinity was going to have a mother who also went to Trinity.  The gender balance of colleges and courses was something people were aware of in the way that they were also aware of the need for a balance of social and economic backgrounds.  In Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic we were proud of ourselves for being pretty much 50/50.  (And by the time I left ASNC many years later I think the senior members were about 50/50 too.)  So when I was first a student there was a feeling that gender imbalance was a problem that was slowly being overcome.

I don't know if it's just a natural part of moving from youth to middle age, which is famous for making you look back with rose-tinted spectacles, but it seems like in so many ways gender things have failed to get better, or even got worse.  I first noticed it at about the time I became a research fellow.  The fellowship was very male-dominated -- it was numerically more typical to be an out gay man than a woman -- and although no one was ever anti me as a woman, they certainly commented on it from time to time.  One fellow told me that as a woman I had got second place in the lottery of life, which I laughed at uproariously because I thought he was making a joke, until I realised that whether joking or not he did actually think this was true.  Anyway, it wasn't a problem, it was just odd because it seemed like a retrograde step.

Now I'm a student again things are even worse.  I'm one of seven women out of 56 students on my course, and although we're a pretty vocal bunch -- our year's student rep is a woman -- we're vocal in that way that women are when they're surrounded by men.  Imperial should be a bit ashamed of this imbalance, which is visible throughout the department.  They should be even more ashamed of the examples used in our Object-Oriented Programming lectures.  In object-oriented programming you model the scenario you want to program by thinking about different types of objects as classes.  So if you were modelling a traffic junction you might have a TrafficLight class and a Vehicle class.  You can have subclasses which share some behaviours and data with a superclass, e.g. Vehicle might be a superclass with subclasses Car, Bicycle, and Bus.  Then you can make things behave differently according to which subclass they're part of.  In our object-oriented design lectures we have all this demonstrated with repeated examples using a Human superclass which has a Female subclass.  Humans enjoy walking and Females enjoy cooking.  When a Human goes on holiday it spends its time walking, but when a Female goes on holiday she cooks.  When a Human talks to a Human they talk about sport, but when a Human talks to a Female they talk about discos.

Clearly this is appalling.  When I was younger I might have been actually genuinely hurt by it.  By now I just find myself thinking that the men involved in it are all arseholes -- I think they realise it's not OK but they think it's funny not-OK not change-it-now not-OK.  And because I too can be sexist I find it very hard for my contempt for these individuals not to leak out a little bit onto men in general, or at least the young men on my course who think it's funny too.  I wish they'd just sort it out.  The feminism I believe in is about ending not perpetuating the war of the sexes.  I'm not just damaged by sexism because it might stop me doing things, but also damaged by it when it makes me a worse person by provoking a reactionary sexism in me.

So welcome to a difficult world, little niece.  I promise never ever to buy you anything pink.

Friday, 2 December 2011


My niece was born this morning.  I am now twice the aunt I was!  It's very exciting.  I don't know how my little nephew will deal with being a big brother.  He's usually quite a nice kid -- he has an endearing habit when playing of stopping and handing the toy over to you, saying "your turn now" -- but I think any child would be challenged by the sudden arrival of a smaller more demanding sibling.  I can remember when my little brother was born even though I was a bit younger then than my nephew is now.  I remember realising I wasn't going to get all the attention from now on, but I felt quite fatalistic about it.  My Granny bought him a teddy bear and she didn't buy me anything, but then again it was a horrible knitted teddy bear and I didn't want it.  Even at that age I felt that living up to people's attention could be hard work sometimes.

On the theme of its being pleasant not to be the only one, here's Chris Lowe singing One of the Crowd:

Friday, 25 November 2011


Here are some good things:

1. The 20th was stir-up Sunday. The full collect reads:
Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may be by you plenteously rewarded through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Most Anglican collects come from late Antique Latin via Thomas Cranmer or one of his ilk, and in the sixteenth century they could get away with writing English which sounded both Latinate and elegant. (E.g. that we by thee being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness, etc.)

2. LibraryThing has introduced support for books with co-authors. I haven't tried it out yet, but this was my major problem with the system. So maybe I'll be able to put my academic books on too. (Although it occurs to me that unlike my novels some of them have value, and do I want to make my ownership of them public? LibraryThing does have a private book feature but I had assumed it was for porn.)

3. Prolog! Prolog is a computer language for doing logic. It's not like C++ where you tell the computer to do things. Instead you give the computer lots of facts and then ask it questions about them, along the lines is it possible to find a variable X which fulfils all these requirements. It's a lot more powerful than that sounds -- it's not just a database engine. We did some basic natural language processing the other day, where we made a system which could check and generate sentences from a basic list of vocabulary, doing elementary checks to see that the article, subject and verb all agreed in number, and with optional adverbs. Anyway it's not easy but it's cool. Part of me yearns to try to process some Latin. Part of me feels that would be a retrograde step.

4. London! London is great. I thought it would be hard work living here, but the tube is so much easier when you do it every day and know exactly where to stand and walk and you don't have a suitcase with you (or a box of rats), and there are many cool things going on, even if I don't make it to most of them cos I'm busy, and best of all I am catching up with lots of people I see only occasionally.  Some time ago in Cambridge I used to have a party every year between Christmas and New Year, as the best time to catch my friends who were working abroad and came back to England at that period to see their parents.  It worked pretty well for several years, but then they started marrying and having children, and if they come to England at all for Christmas they are very busy with family stuff.  But living in London makes seeing people on fleeting visits just that bit easier.

5. Even though I'm a man-hating middle-aged spinster somehow most of my friends are men. When I spend time with women without men there we somehow often end up talking about men. I find listening to women talking about men absolutely fascinating in a sort of gruesome way, and some of my female friends are very witty, in a crazy self-deprecating style, on the subject. An evening spent listening to them slagging off a) men, b) their own stupid dependence on the opinions of men, is very amusing. But sometimes it depresses me that for much of the time my life would fail the Bechdel test. So hurray for the women on my course! There are only seven of us out of fifty-six, and I think that makes us feel automatically friendly towards each other. And when we talk we talk about all sorts of things, including memory allocation and virtual functions.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Computer systems panic!

I'm panicking a bit about how I don't really understand Systems Architecture.  So I've got hold of the standard textbooks and am trying to get through them all this weekend.  Obviously the other thing I need is good music to keep me going while I read up on pagefiles and commit charge.  Here's Little Boots' new song, which I really like:

Also, if like me you're a Community fan, and I don't get why more people aren't, here's quite a nice little video, to which I am giving rather more screen-space than the previous:

Tuesday, 8 November 2011


I'm living a bit of a double life at the moment, but for once in a good way.  I got a bundle of offprints the other day and sent them out to the usual people.  As a result I've been in touch with quite a few people to whom I only talk intermittently but of whom I am fond, and I have lots of nice postcards from professors on my corkboard.

In my other life as a computing student I am working very hard and enjoying myself though feeling tired.  We are now in week six of eleven.  I'm not used to such a long term, because Cambridge has an eight-week term that goes at a mad gallop.  We're galloping too, and going very fast, but I do think that as a Cambridge undergraduate I had to produce rather more work for submission.  For one thing then I did three languages from the off (Latin, Old English, and Middle Welsh) and here we've only just started our second (Prolog, in addition to C++), plus we've only handed in two sets of coursework so far, neither of which we've yet had back marked.

There are two big contrasts for me.  The first is with being someone on the teaching end of the lectern.  For example, the fact that we're only six weeks into an eleven-week term makes me feel really good about the time I've got left to learn things before the Christmas break, whereas for so long the end of term has felt like something to be desired with mythical intensity. And there's also a big contrast in the sort of hard work we're doing.  For someone who is teaching and all that stuff, term-time is a big slog, but hard work without necessarily being of itself testingly difficult.  I'm not working as hard as someone who's teaching, but the work I'm doing is right on the outside fringes of my brain and needs a lot of reaching as far as I can into concepts I hardly grasp.  It's exhausting in a different way.  I could work harder than this but I'm more or less at full capacity in my ability to think.

The second constrast is with being a humanities student.  The great thing about trying to write a computer program is that you get instant feedback on what's wrong with it when it fails to compile or, having compiled, run properly.  If you mistranslate some Latin or misunderstand something in a history essay you don't get an immediate error message.  It's a very useful thing for learning to be told that something is wrong and only get a slight hint about what it is, so that you have to go back, work out what it is, and fix it for yourself.  I don't know how you could reproduce that in humanities teaching.

I think the one thing I would change about my classmates is the quality of our conversations.  I'm sure it's quite a lot my fault, and it's partly because so many of my fellow students are young -- the other day I was talking to someone about exams, and when I mentioned that I last did a non-humanities exam in 1994 he told me that he was four years old then.  And it's partly because I think people who choose this sort of subject have a tendency to be quite straightforward, which is mostly a good thing.  It's not that I want to spend lots of time bitching about things as such, but I miss the feeling that if bitching were to be going on it would be done amusingly and without being too predictable.  Luckily I have interesting real friends to talk to about actual things and I can continue to relate to the young course people in a largely auntly manner.  Go aunt Rebecca!  I'm trying hard to stay on the right side of patronising...

Saturday, 5 November 2011

October books: Strachey wins

I didn't read much in October, unless you count books with titles like Problem-Solving in C++ and Structured Computer Organization.  I liked The Family Markowitz by Allegra Goodman, though I still think Intuition is my favourite of hers.  I also liked some short stories by Muriel Spark -- her particular sort of nastiness comes over well in short story form.  But the thing I enjoyed most was Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians.  I should have read this years ago.  Because it's free on Project Gutenberg I read it on my Kindle, and highlighted some bits I enjoyed.

Here he is on History in general:
THE history of the Victorian Age will never be written; we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian—ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art.
Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal processes— which is eternal, and must be felt for its own sake.
Poetry and common sense -- not my experience of Cambridge, but maybe Newman might have done better there:
Even in his own age he might, at Cambridge, whose cloisters have ever been consecrated to poetry and common sense, have followed quietly in Gray's footsteps and brought into flower those seeds of inspiration which now lie embedded amid the faded devotion of the Lyra Apostolica. At Oxford, he was doomed. 
 The Oxford Movement, making Cambridge look good by comparison:
'It would be a gain to this country,' Keble observed, 'were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be.' 'The only good I know of Cranmer,' said Hurrell Froude, 'was that he burned well.' Newman preached, and soon the new views began to spread. Among the earliest of the converts was Dr Pusey, a man of wealth and learning, a professor, a canon of Christ Church, who had, it was rumoured, been to Germany. 
The Irish monsignor who did for poor old Newman:
Monsignor Talbot was a priest who embodied in a singular manner, if not the highest, at least the most persistent traditions of the Roman Curia. He was a master of various arts which the practice of ages has brought to perfection under the friendly shadow of the triple tiara. He could mingle together astuteness and holiness without any difficulty; he could make innuendoes as naturally as an ordinary man makes statements of fact; he could apply flattery with so unsparing a hand that even Princes of the Church found it sufficient; and, on occasion, he could ring the changes of torture on a human soul with a tact which called forth universal approbation. 
Here is Florence Nightingale considering a proposal of marriage:
'I have an intellectual nature which requires satisfaction,' she noted, 'and that would find it in him. I have a passionate nature which requires satisfaction, and that would find it in him. I have a moral, an active nature which requires satisfaction, and that would not find it in his life. Sometimes I think that I will satisfy my passionate nature at all events. …' 
Dr Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby, wants to improve his pupils' morals:
... and it was that that Dr. Arnold set himself to accomplish. But how was he to achieve his end? Was he to improve the character of his pupils by gradually spreading around them an atmosphere of cultivation and intelligence? By bringing them into close and friendly contact with civilised men, and even, perhaps, with civilised women? By introducing into the life of his school all that he could of the humane, enlightened, and progressive elements in the life of the community? On the whole, he thought not.
And on General Gordon in the Sudan:
One catches a vision of strange characters, moved by mysterious impulses, interacting in queer complication, and hurrying at last—so it almost seems—like creatures in a puppet show to a predestined catastrophe.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Made by people

Now we've done some logic of the "Either Adam or Bill is a murderer, and if Bill is a murderer then..... etc" type, we've started doing some stuff about the basic logic that underlies the physical implementations of computers. For example, if you have an AND gate in a circuit then it has two inputs and one output. If both the inputs are true, or 1, which means that they have a small current going through them, then the output is true. Then you can put a NOT gate on it, which just turns a true into a false and vice versa. The two together make a NAND gate, which apparently is the most useful gate -- you can put NAND gates together to form lots of different types of gate.

The thing is that these outputs all vary according to the current input. If you put two NAND gates together in a particular combination you can make a latch, which can be set to true or false and then remains at that value even though both its inputs are set to true as default. This is a way of storing some information -- one latch can store one bit, e.g. one instance of true or false (1 or 0). So suppose you want to store the number 5, which is 101 in binary. That's three bits of information, but to put it into a computer you have to follow the computer's rules about how numbers are stored. On a 64-bit machine an integer is probably stored as 4 bytes, that is 32 bits of information. So you need 32 latches to store it, each of them consisting of four little gates, two AND and two NOT. I have a little USB pen about the size of my thumbnail which has 2Gb of storage. 2Gb is (strictly speaking) 2 x 1,073,741,824 bytes, which is 2,147,483,648 bytes, which is 17,179,869,184 bits, and each of those bits has four gates, making a total of 68,719,476,736 logic gates just on that little thing. I think that's truly amazing.

Of course it's possible I've not got this right because unfortunately our lecturer for this is very softly-spoken and doesn't give the impression of thinking it's amazing at all. I really need to sit down and work through it properly.

Sunday, 30 October 2011


The Occupy London camp is a wonderful place. I went down for a Sermon on the Steps event which involved several people from different faiths or none each talking for about five minutes. But one of the things I love about London is its occasional chaoticness -- people selling poems on the streets, that sort of thing -- and the camp is like that but all mixed in with a huge earnestness about getting things right. There are systems for dealing with rubbish, and all sorts of organised structures for signing in and out of tents, and on top of that just people being a bit odd -- people being people freely. A free hugs station, a Christian meditation tent, a little library, lots of posters of varying degrees of craziness, big signs saying "The Beginning is Nigh" and "Root Out Usury", and all sorts of things. I loved it.

And just to get it out of the way, they really don't seem to me to be blocking anything, all the tents are all off to the side and densely packed in rows, and I just don't get the Health and Safety thing. Based on my experience of being a fellow at Cambridge, I would guess that the higher-ups at St Paul's have made the mistake of talking to lawyers. It is basically impossible for anything to retain a shred of humanity and decency and mutual respect once lawyers have been asked for their opinion -- after that it's all them versus us. Here's a picture I took from the steps of St Paul's during the sermon event -- we the congregation might be congesting the paths a bit, though there were still lots of tourists going in and out, but you can hardly see the tents, they're all off to the right.

Another sermon picture: oh no, puppets!

Here's James Lawson talking. You can see some people in front doing the jazz hands thing which they use instead of clapping while people are talking so as not to interrupt their flow.

And here's St Paul's after dark. So much of what the camp is saying and doing is so completely what the church should be saying and doing, the conflict makes me sad.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Cool things

1. My course! My MSc course is immensely cool. I am so enjoying being right at the edge of what I can do. I have found two people older than me now, a 36-year-old and a 40-year-old, so we can occasionally catch up and talk about ZX81s and such. A lot of the kids were still in primary school when I got my first degree. But actually they're a really nice bunch, and some of the ones who were annoying me at first by flaunting their understanding turn out just to be a bit socially challenged, and pleasant at heart. I have discovered that I have uncannily accurate gaydar: show me a young man, and if I find it easy to talk to him, he's gay. I think there may be other factors at work here though and not just my perception. For example, I give pretty good conversation about which is Britney's best song. (Just fyi, Toy Soldier has to be in the running.)

2. If you're looking for a mouse to use with a laptop this one is great:
Swiftpoint mouse review
It's designed to be used on the wrist rest part of the laptop, below the keys, so even if you don't have any other flat surface to hand you still don't have to use the trackpad. This is a relief for my RSI, which has been giving me twinges when I use the trackpad for six hours of lectures in one day.

3. I've been putting my ipod on shuffle a lot recently and rediscovering lots of brilliant songs I'd forgotten. Like this Cloetta Paris song, Broken Heart Tango. This is the sort of song you should only listen to when you're happy.

4. Victorians! I'm revising my opinion about the Victorians, but I need to post about this separately some time.

5. Plus I'm off to the Occupy London camp this afternoon to hear an old friend preach from the steps of St Paul's. He was the chaplain at Corpus when I was a fellow there, and I'm hoping he still holds the anti-capitalist views he had then, or it's going to be rather embarrassing... Go social justice! Not being more involved in social justice is just one of the many ways in which I am a bad Christian.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Expectations; morals

1. I am making a small hostage to fortune here by stating that I am really looking forward to starting Logic Programming this afternoon. I enjoyed the logic I did over the summer, and Prolog is something I've been vaguely interested in for a while. However, everyone in the department speaks of logic in fearful tones so it may turn out that I'm being naive.

2. Looking instead to the past, this spring I wrote an anonymous reader's report for a publisher on a book which I felt had interesting potential but needed a lot of work. I found it extra difficult because I have respect for the work of this academic, had heard this book was in the pipeline, and had looked forward to reading it -- which perhaps made it more of a disappointment to me than if I had come to it with a blank slate. Now I have just had an e-mail from a different publisher asking me to write an anonymous reader's report for a book with the same title. The author is not given, but the abstract makes it clear to me that it's the same book. So either the first publisher rejected the book, or asked for the changes I thought were necessary and the author refused to make them. I'm going to e-mail to say that I have already written on the book and therefore think I'm not the right person to do so again. Whether or not it's been altered, I think the book deserves a new reader at this stage. It's a moral question for me whether I should just refuse without giving reasons. Interestingly my housemate feels that my moral duty lies in a different direction, towards the libraries which would have to buy this book, the librarians who would have to process and shelve it, the academics who would have to read it, the students who would have to learn to read it critically. But I can't help feeling just how big a thing a book is to write, and what a personal thing it is for the author -- not to mention that this author has always been kind to me. On the plus side, this book is not a start-of-career work, it's an end-of-career thing by a retired or near-retired academic of serious standing. And I like to think that probably the first publisher commissioned two readers' reports.

Saturday, 15 October 2011


I feel very guilty for not going to help occupy The City today -- especially since Imperial is so cosy with big business. (It's like the Daily Telegraph to Cambridge's Graun.) @heardinlondon posted this brilliant picture from the steps of St Paul's:
On the steps on St Paul's Outside St Paul's #OccupyLSX on Twitpic

Thursday, 13 October 2011

First deadline

Tomorrow is the last day of our intensive 2-week C++ course, and next week we start on systems architecture, logic programming, and such, as well as continuing C++ at a slightly slower pace. To mark the end of intensive C++ we will be given our first formal assignment. We get two weeks to complete it, and there are three lab sessions (when there will be TAs available to answer questions while we work on the lab computers) in that time. This sounds OK. But at the same time tomorrow they will give us another six equivalent problems. We don't have to hand them in at all! Instead they're for practicing on. Because as soon as we get back after Christmas we will be set an eighth problem, this time to be completed not in two weeks, but in two hours under exam conditions. This amuses me because it's so obviously ludicrously ambitious. Our assignment and the six practice questions are all just exam papers from previous years of the course.

I'm really looking forward to the logic programming. And I have met a few more humanities people on the course, which is good. We had some interesting discussions which I'd like to post about if only I hadn't used up all my energy on trying to manipulate linked lists of nodes.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Course stuff

My course is really hard work. I'd like to say "in other news" but that's all the news there is. Luckily I'm still getting the endorphin rush when I get things to work, and I'm getting through it at a steady pace -- not quickly but not getting stuck either. In this I'm reminding myself of every mature student I have ever taught. Earlier this week I was finding some of the other students a bit irritating -- basically cocky young men who like to talk loudly about how easy they're finding it. Which is great for them, but since some of them have spent several years earning their living as software engineers it's not entirely something for them to boast about. Also some of them have money and have loud conversations about which local nightclubs Prince Harry goes to. But I've decided to find this amusing rather than annoying, because I am in serious danger of becoming a bigot about young men. And they're OK really, just young.

Anyway, onwards: I've got to learn about using pointers to create dynamic arrays.

Thursday, 6 October 2011


I'm a student again! I used to enjoy teaching a lot, but somehow it just feels right to be back on this side of the lectern. It seems like such a tremendous luxury to have intelligent knowledgeable people telling me things. On the first proper day of teaching I felt more completely out of my depth than at any time since the start of my undergraduate degree, but both times in a really pleasurable way. There's the same air of people throwing you in at the deep end but with every confidence that you can swim. And I can! I can swim! If by swim you mean write C++ code in emacs and compile it in g++ using a makefile.

So it's going well so far, if exhaustingly, although I think it speeds up once we've done the introductory course and start the full range of languages and courses. (We're going to write in Assembler!) Thankfully Welcome Week is truncated for us masters students, because I don't need all that awkward acclimatisation stuff. All the new postgrads together had a welcome from some senior people on the first day, and it was a bit odd to be exhorted to look after each other and make lifelong friendships. I found myself thinking, "But haven't I already got some friends? I'm sure I've got their names written down somewhere". But I think I felt pretty similarly the first time round. The Freshers' Fair was really horrible, and that's just how I remember it too. (Incidentally, my brother who works at Exeter University was complaining about having to call it Welcome Week not Freshers' Week for no reason he'd been told, and Imperial seems to have gone the same route. Maybe it's clearer for overseas students, who make up a large proportion at Imperial, something like 40%.)

The lecturer who does our introductory course told us that they've recently had a rebranding exercise, and although you can call it "Imperial" or "Imperial College London", it is now forbidden to call it "Imperial College". I found that rather pleasing, not least because it's reminiscent of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, who could be called Princess Diana but never Princess Diana of Wales, and I like to spot similarities to her in everyday life.

The other students seem like a nice bunch. I've not found anyone older than me yet, but I have found one other person with a humanities PhD. There are seven or so women from about seventy students, and between a third and half of the students are from China. Most people have degrees in Maths or Engineering, and some have been earning their living for years as software engineers, which is pretty daunting of them. Some of them seem so young they make me want to take up knitting and start calling people "dearie". But oddly there are only two or three other people who take notes on their laptops. And everything is done on paper. All the departmental registering was done by post, even my ID photo which I had to print out so that they could scan it into their system, and all the lectures come with massive wodges of notes printed off the internet (which at least saves me the trouble of having to scan them in again).

Also much as I love Devon I think it's going to suit me very well to be back in a city for a bit. Hurray! Even the District Line can't get me down.

PS That post title is actually quite clever you know.

Sunday, 2 October 2011


This Frankmusik song has the catchiest chorus ever. I also really like the video. (This is not how I think of Frankmusik.)

Also Nicola Roberts' My Lucky Day has really grown on me.

And I have completely changed my mind about Gary Barlow. Back after Take That split up I used to think of him as the epitome of talented but unappealing. But seeing him and Robbie reminiscing at Judge's Houses on X Factor was brilliant. I'm sending this out there into the ether because I don't actually know anyone in this country who would understand what I mean, except maybe my sister-in-law, and I'm too ashamed to phone her up just to talk about Gary Barlow.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Sad news

Mark Blackburn, super-excellent coin man, intelligent conversationalist, one of the best sort of scholars, has died at 58. I only just heard.

Reamde and other September books

It's the last day of September and I am fretting about some electrical works the details of which I will not bore you with here. So I thought I'd take some time out to blog about some of the more noteworthy books I've read in September.

1. Reamde, Neal Stephenson.
I'm a big fan of Stephenson, and I loved this book. But I was a bit wierded-out by the way it didn't seem to be about anything. Cryptonomicon, for example, is a great adventure story but also about security in various different forms. It has lots of big ideas in it. The Baroque Trilogy, which I adore, is about a big shift in ways of thinking, an attempt to remake the world in terms of intellectual productivity instead of inherited landed status, and it's about the big flaw in the remade world (slavery), and at the same time it's extremely rollicking. Anathem is just amazingly crammed full of ideas, far too many to summarise. I loved the bit linking the oddities of consciousness to quantum physics, I loved the alternate worlds stuff -- it's just amazing. In fact when friends of mine complain about Stephenson it's the crammed-full-of-ideas-ness of it that bugs them. I like this, myself -- I can't imagine anyone else who could make you feel how truly amazing it would be to be around when Newton invented calculus. So Reamde is a brilliant adventure story, reminiscent of some of the bits in the Baroque trilogy where Half-Cocked Jack is careering picaresquely around the South Pacific. But it doesn't have a theme or idea. It has baddies -- crazy Russians and international jihadists -- and a heroine, and it's very hard to put down. But even though it's immensely long (the Kindle was invented for books like this) it still feels like one episode in a much larger canvas which would bring out what it's all actually about. (The bits in the MMORPG are neither here nor there -- they're just another setting, like the bits that are set in mountains, or the bits in docks in China.) So maybe this is a Neal Stephenson book for people who aren't fans of Neal Stephenson. It's a great read, but it never made me feel the thing where it's like he's opened up a big dizzying vista of ideas, and that's my favourite Neal Stephenson thing.

2. The Cookbook Collector and Intuition, Allegra Goodman.
I hadn't heard of Allegra Goodman until an article which received quite a bit of notice in book-related blogs, especially American ones, claiming that the ignoring of Goodman while Franzen was surrounded by "Great American Novel" plaudits was due to the sexist nature of the modern literary world. This was specifically about The Cookbook Collector, which came out at the same time as Freedom. That's why I read The Cookbook Collector, and I really enjoyed it. It's about two sisters who are particularly close because they lost their mother as children. It starts in the late 90s when they are both living in the San Francisco area: sensible elder Emily is the CEO of a highly-revered internet startup; idealistic Jessamine is a post-grad who works part-time in a rare-book shop (where she encounters the eponymous Cookbook Collector). There's more than a hint of Sense and Sensibility in their relationship. After this I read Intuition, which is an excellent examination of the scientific method and its intersection with the reality of humans with their complicated motives and ability to self-deceive. I really enjoyed this one too, and I recommend it highly. (As for Franzen, I just couldn't get caring about The Corrections, but I'll give Freedom a try sometime.)

3. The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins.
A much plaudited trilogy set in a nearish-future post-Apocalyptic North America where poor children chosen by lot fight to the death in a complicated arena for the amusement of the rich and powerful. It's very well done, and quite realistic about the psychological toll of killing. This does not make it a cheerful read. -- in fact it's a bit oppressive. Probably best for intense teenagers to write book reports on.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

PS to last post

PS Bill Bailey is in a bunker surrounded by rats.


1. I moved to London! This was despite the best efforts of a nasty cough which my Dad picked up in China. He was lured at short notice to an international conference on biodiversity, the organisers having suddenly noticed that their international conference had only one overseas participant. So they panicked and asked my Dad and a few other people including a Norwegian who is one of his oldest friends. Together they climbed a mountain to look at a particularly rare species of birch. (There are only eleven specimens known apparently, and they were taken to see just one of them.) He came back laden with souvenir gifts -- I think it was in the interests of the organisers to make much of their overseas guests in order to emphasise their importance. I have no idea whatsoever how scholarship works in Communist China but in this regard it sounds just like western academia, in that you have to have a big conference with lots of overseas visitors to demonstrate to your funders that you're doing international collaboration, and interoperability, and all that liaising stuff. They gave him a commemorative pot laser-engraved with the date and title of the conference in both Chinese and English, and a lavishly produced book about the region containing at its centre a gold medal commemorating the 150th anniversary of the independence of Mexico, for reasons none of us understand, being Mandarin-illiterate. I think he had a whale of a time. But he brought back a nasty virus which I caught off him and which, among other things, made me come out in hives on contact with sunshine. The doctor thought this so interesting he called in another doctor to have a look. So at least someone got something out of it. Anyway it seems to be under control now. Hurray!

2. I'll miss my excellent nephew. I'm sure he'll remember me, but I hope he won't miss me in a sad way. Apparently the other day he came across a big spider, and said to his mother "Very big spider scare Rebecca" so maybe I'm not always the best influence.

3. Oh how beautiful Devon is. I am going to miss the countryside very much. But on the other hand London has some big advantages. I have never lived here before but for the nine or so months when I worked at the British Library manuscripts department felicis memoriae I spent quite a bit of time here with people who were not well paid, and I know that it is possible to amuse one's self without huge expenditure. For example, the V&A does excellent free evenings like this one. And when I hear about interesting talks it will now be much easier to consider going to them.

4. On the other hand everything else in London is horribly expensive, and I am not living near any cheap shops. There's a little Sainsbury's but it essentially serves people passing through Waterloo station so it's hardly a good place to buy things regularly. I am going to be oh so very skint this year. But skint in the pursuit of knowledge!

5. In other news, the Amazon Kindle website suggests that the new Neal Stephenson is for people who are fans of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross. This is wrong. Stephenson could eat Stross and Doctorow as a pre-breakfast snack. It's like saying Tolstoy is for fans of Henry James. I am loving Reamde so far. I had serious trouble putting it down and going to sleep last night.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

It's the guilt

After a couple of difficult weeks when I removed at least one massive spider from my room most nights, I now haven't seen any for several days. Last night I was bitten twice on my arm by insects. I do know I deserve this.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

The bigger person

Last night I evicted a massive spider from my bedroom in my parents' house. Just now I removed four -- four! -- from the collar of a coat that lives in the same room. I spent most of the day ignoring them, trying to be the bigger person, like Uncle Toby and his philosophy that there's enough room in this world for us and invetebrates. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't stop thinking about them behind me. I know I'm a fool, but they were massive! A good three inches across each, and the big hairy kind with large mandibles. Although Wikipedia tells me that the giant house spider is one of the few UK spiders capable of biting through human skin, I'm not at all afraid of one biting me. I fear the guilt of squashing one by accident, and I fear the fear itself. There must be more around too...

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Books I enjoyed in August

This week I have been missing a) the internet b) my mum. My mother has gone on holiday for the first time in something like fifteen years, and is only rarely reachable by phone. At my little Exeter house, where I'm trying to get things up to scratch so I can let it out when I move to London, I'm double stymied by not being able to ask either google or my mother questions about basic DIY.

Anyway, I'm back in wifi range at the moment so I thought I'd blog briefly about some of the books I read last month.
1. The Old Man and His Sons by Heðin Bru. An interesting picture of the old Faroese way of life at a time when it was dying out. This novel starts with a great whale hunt in Seyrvags fjord. Everyone hurries down from nearby villages to take part, and in the excitement afterwards 70-year-old Ketil bids too much at the whale meat auction. The novel follows Ketil, his wife, and his dim-witted son, as they try to get some money to pay the bill despite their self-sufficient lifestyle. They clash with Ketil's other sons, who have married and try to live a less unsophisticated life. Very Scandinavian in being both funny and grim, often at the same time.
2. Stories edited by Al Sarrantonio and Neil Gaiman. A great short story collection. There are no duds and some are brilliant.
3. The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. Excellent near-future sci-fi set in Istanbul, queen of cities. It starts with a terrorist attack on a tram, and goes on to mix the ultra modern with history and lots of different cultures in a way which I think of as typical of Istanbul (though it's not a city I know well and I've only been there once, so perhaps it's a romantic vision of the city).
4. Booky-Wook 2 by Russell Brand. Entertaining, but he's got too much brain to keep on like this. Is it good to be self-aware when you're aware of being a tool? Or is it just reprehensible?
5. Jump! by Jilly Cooper. Oh Jilly Cooper, I love you! Read this if you're a fan, if not then don't. Some of it is preposterous but I still enjoyed it immensely.

Also I reread some Georgette Heyer on Kindle. My favourite Heyers are Venetia, Frederica, and The Grand Sophy. Venetia still makes me cry.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Message for Anna full of unsolicited advice...

I was writing a reply to a comment made by Anna (from Step by Step to the Classics) on my last post when two things happened. 1, for some reason blogger won't let me leave the comment and 2, the comment got ridiculously long (which may be the cause of 1). So I thought I'd post it as an actual blog entry. It's mostly completely unsolicited advice about PhD and post-doctoral work. Since some of it's personal to Anna's situation I do hope that she won't mind my posting it like this... But then again my blog has a very limited readership, and it occurred to me that of the few people who do read it some may have useful comments to add, or corrections to make. For an academic career to be sustainable in the long term you have to get a permanent post, and I never managed to do that, which I'm very aware rather undercuts any advice I may give...

Hi Anna

My experience is not everyone's, and I think the crucial problem for me was the lack of stability. Because I do love the subject, and I loved the teaching, and for a while even though I was doing far too much (at one point two half-time jobs, two days a week of 9-5 supervising, plus various committees in my capacity as a research (hah!) fellow) it was stuff I liked doing. It's so hard to say no to something when it's something you really want to do. And there are plenty of tenured academics working that hard, though not all of them by any means. Because what they are doing is part of their real job, they can work like crazy over the examining period (the only way to get through it) and then in the following week take things just a bit easier, even if they still have things on like Masters examining. Whereas for me the following week was when I had to stay late at work to make up for all the time I'd had to take off to get the examining and supervising done (and even then my boss was doing me a favour by being flexible). I would get endless invitations to May Week afternoon garden parties and want to send them all back with "I HAVE A JOB!" scrawled on them in some sort of crazy crayon. (Which of course would have been very unfair on the inviters, who were just being nice.) The situation was not sustainable in terms of my mental health. Also I never meant to be an academic, and the job I adored was at the British Library, but it was only temporary, and there was a Research Associate post just at the right time to lure me back to Cambridge. With the benefit of hindsight that may have been a mistake, though at the time I didn't have much option.

But it was the constant worry at the back of my mind about what I'd be doing in a couple of years' time that eventually overcame me. I'm 35 now and I've never had a contract for more than three years. When I'm 40 I'd like to be in a position to make a guess at what I'll be up to when I'm 45. When I was a teenager my ambition was to work three days a week and have a dog. You can't have a dog if you don't know whether you'll be in a position to give it a home in five years' time, it would be irresponsible. And it's annoying how some senior academics, who got long-term posts at a young age, don't realise how grindingly disheartening this lack of stability becomes over time. You say something about how you're really busy, they say they're really busy too, as if it were the same when they're an internationally-renowned tenured professor with no reputation to make and a secure and generous wage and pension package. (Not that I'm bitter...)

I do wonder whether if things had gone differently -- say I had done a Maths or Computing degree instead, or had become an Actuary after my BA which was my plan if I didn't get a first -- I would now be thinking that the money and stability was all very well but I wanted to go with my passion for learning. And perhaps I would be making a move in an opposite direction. That might well be the case, and I think there's really nothing wrong with that. Neither choice is the absolute right one and of course what you want from life is going to be affected by your experience of it so far. Like Jane Eyre we might not be able to find absolute freedom, but still yearn for a new servitude. (I love Jane Eyre. We also learn from her to assume that all men have madwomen in their attics unless proven otherwise.)

Anyway that's a long-winded way of saying that you shouldn't let my experience put you off, just be aware of the pitfalls. You're a sensible person, and I expect having a daughter, though making some things harder practically speaking, would help to keep you grounded. And among all the administrative palaver and petty egotism of academia, you will find some people who truly love learning.

I think I'm right that you've just done a Masters and now it's a question of whether or not to do a PhD and embark on the academic ladder? Don't do a PhD unless you love it, because Humanities PhDs are a weird experience, and the scholarship is only half of it. I think you will be able to dodge a lot of the neuroses by being a bit older and having an actual life, but you will be surrounded by neurotics. I've got some PhD tips:
1. The first thing to write is the contents page. Don't leave your first term without one. Of course you're bound to change it hugely, but having an overview of what you're planning to do is very useful, and makes you feel less helpless in the face of a huge task.
2. Work out what your PhD supervisor is like. There are a few very good PhD supervisors out there but most have at least one serious flaw which you'll need to learn to work around. My supervisor turned my PhD into a complex game of hide and seek, and made me feel like a stalker when all I wanted was a meeting once every two or three months. But he was always wonderfully helpful when I did catch him. Another supervisor I knew was brilliant if given work to look at on the spot but never found time to read it in advance, and was thus best approached in person with little things he could deal with immediately. If you have a sensible PhD supervisor then arrange a schedule with them, agreeing on meetings at particular intervals and on what work you'll produce. Some PhD supervisors do this automatically but you'd be surprised how many wouldn't, and you may have to take the lead in making this sort of arrangement. Some treat dealing with their supervisees as a chore which they will avoid like a small child who does not want a bath. Again, being a bit older and more grounded will probably help you here. But don't be surprised if you have to be the adult one in the supervisor--supervisee relationship. Decide what you want, double-check to assure yourself that it's reasonable, and work out how best to get it given your supervisor's character.
3. Don't get caught up in the "who is cleverer" game. Decide you're clever enough and then just get on with it. There's a lot of neurosis out there. It's not only postgrads either. Again you're a sensible person, I expect you'd be fine about this.
4. Something that was really useful for me, though it might not be for everyone, was having a side-project during my PhD. The main one was a book on Anglo-Saxon calendars which came out as a departmental publication and then more recently with the Henry Bradshaw Society. Its use as a publication is secondary to its usefulness in giving me something to escape into when the PhD was a bit much, something I could feel uncomplicatedly good about because it didn't have the PhD's pressures on it. But because you have a proper life you might not need that escape. A friend of mine played professional-level squash, and said that that different world helped to keep him sane.
5. Invest a little time in learning how to use Word (or whatever word processor you use). Word has features which I discovered a month or two after finishing my PhD which would have been so so useful. Outline view lets you outline things before writing them, and then later move whole paragraphs around without trouble. Styles are really helpful because you can set up a Heading style, a Sub-heading style, a Sub-sub-heading, etc, and then just get on with the writing, secure in the knowledge that your formatting will be consistent. Automatic cross-references will save you from having to fill in lots of "See below, pp. 000-000" footnotes at the last minute. If you've used Styles properly then Word can automatically produce a Table of Contents for you, complete with page references, to your own specifications. And Word also has automatic index-generating features, which can cope with headwords and sub-headwords. My PhD was very manuscript-based so only had a manuscript index, which I compiled laboriously by hand at the last minute, using a complete printout and several different colours of highlighter pen. Indexes, as opposed to styles, are something you can worry about at the end, but it would still be pretty useful to do it automatically: for example, you could search for all instances of the name "Boethius" and each time mark it up as a headword, instead of doing the searching with your eyes. (I don't personally use Endnote's Cite as You Write feature because I find it just a tad more hassle than it's worth, but I do use Endnote to store bibliography for future reference.) These Word features don't take much time to learn and are then really useful. Cambridge has free courses in using Word and I learnt all this stuff in two mornings (a Basic and an Advanced), and it has saved me so very much time since. It drives me crazy now when I have to deal with editors who don't know this stuff -- I send them a beautifully edited piece and they send it back for a few minor alterations with all the styles messed up. Or they can't even deal with tracked comments.
6. Relating to that last complaint, I think the thing which would most improve academia would be the introduction of this simple concept: "professionalism". Younger academics tend to be better at this, but there are so many academics who seem to think it's in some way OK not to be able to use the basic tools of their trade, or OK to act like divas or troubled geniuses. I'm sure you won't need to be exhorted to be professional, with your real-world experience, but you might be shocked to find those around you not being.

Anyway that was some unasked for advice, given rather more for my benefit (because it's nice to feel one has learnt something) than for yours. Here's some more about the post-PhD years:
1. Publish. Don't be neurotic about it, just be active. This was something I did right, because I have always loved writing.
2. Consider your options and be pro-active about creating options for yourself. This is something I did wrong, because I tended to take opportunities which were presented instead of making them for myself. The post-docs were things which were offered to me, and things which I took on the grounds of combined interest and needing a job. Probably I should have applied for money to do my own thing. I never once put in an application for Leverhulme or British Academy funding, because I always had too much on my plate to which I was already committed. I think that landing one of those big projects has its pitfalls -- personally I really like the daily routine of working with people from set hours, and too much working alone drives me a little crazy. But I got so fed up eventually with never getting to do my own thing, and also landing funding looks really good on your CV. (I was involved in lots of funding applications but always as part of a team.) I think that publications, teaching, and ability to procure funding are the three big things employers want to see.
3. If you can go to courses about teaching then that's probably a good thing. A friend of mine missed out on a big job because she didn't talk about Learning Outcomes. She would have been so much better at it than the person who got it. Academics moan about these bureaucratic requirements but I think they've usually got their good points as well as bad. I would have welcomed more opportunity to learn about standard thought on teaching practice, but I didn't realise it was an option until it was too late to take advantage. It comes down to a desire for professionalism.
4. How to be loved at conferences: never ever ever go over the time limit, and give them something to look at, either texts or images. And try to convey a reason why your audience should be interested. The worst papers are those given by people who think their paper is about how clever they are, and actually the more eminent the speaker the more likely they are to fall into this trap, and think that no-one will mind if they go over time. It's professionalism again -- a lot of academics seem to think that being frightfully clever excuses them from professionalism, or even act as though being professional would in some way imply that they didn't have frightfully clever brains, and then younger impressionable ones copy the older ones because they think that's the standard academic way to behave.

Anyway, this was a bit self-indulgent of me,and I hope you won't think it condescending -- I expect that you will effortlessly avoid the pitfalls that await green 22-year-olds when they start a PhD straight from a BA and Masters with no break. Whatever you decide, I sincerely wish you all the best with it.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Future things!

1. I've sold my little flat in Cambridge and am buying a little house in Exeter. I haven't let myself get excited about this hitherto because apparently at the moment roughly one in three house sales are collapsing without getting anywhere, but now we've exchanged and my buyer can't pull out. (Or at least he can, but he'd forfeit the deposit, which would be a consolation of sorts.) So now I'm getting all excited about it. I'm going to have a little garden! This is the first step towards being able to get a dog. If I told my eighteen-year-old self that I was thirty-five and didn't have a dog, she'd be utterly aghast.

2. The other thing one needs is a job. I don't know if it's inconsistent to feel strongly that the humanities should be funded, but also to feel strongly that there's no reason why they should fund me, and that anyone who feels entitled to funding would be hard to like. I love the scholarship I do, and I do it well. But trying to love academia is probably the closest insight I'll ever get into a being a follower of one of those football teams that are consistently crap. I'm tired of short-term jobs which are essentially glorified data-entry, and I'm tired of being presented by senior established academics with the opportunity to do punishingly hard extra work with little support or pay as if this were some sort of favour. The example which I'm still working towards being able to laugh at one day is when I set the Part II Anglo-Saxon History paper, one of the more popular options for that year's finalists. I tried very hard to say no to this because it was not part of my full-time paid job, I was already Director of Studies for about a sixth of the department (I had more students than any of the actual lecturers), and I had made it clear at the end of the previous year that I really could not fit examining in on top of all this, but they said there was no one else available who knew enough about the special subject, and I eventually agreed because I thought it important to do right by that year's students. (Of course it's important to do right by every year's students but they were a particularly bright and likeable bunch whom I knew quite well.) Setting it was very hard indeed, and included producing short texts in Latin and Old English (some of which I had to get not from printed editions but from original manuscripts) together with translations. I did all the proofing, turned up to start the exam (luckily the boss of my proper paid job was understanding), marked it, agreed marks with the second examiner, etc etc etc, and was paid a total of fifty-five pounds before tax. I'm not even going to try to work out how much that was per hour for a very highly skilled, highly stressful, important and responsible job. I used to earn more money that that in a Sunday afternoon on the tills at M&S. The thing is, arguably in some sense I consented to this by putting myself into the whole academic environment, and I can't really complain about it too much when I have a remedy in my hands. I'm not a nineteenth-century factory worker with no other prospects.

3. Anyway I'm middle-aged now and it's practically obligatory for me to do a Masters degree at some point (though it ought really to be with the OU). I've decided to rewind to the other great interest of my teenage years. A long time ago I was good at Maths and enjoyed trying to program computers. For a while I was determined to go into Artificial Intelligence. When I went up to the Open Day at St Johns as a sixth-former I hadn't decided between ASNC and Maths or Computer Science (which in retrospect I can see must have been annoying of me). I went for ASNC out of love for the subject, and a bit because the ASNC who showed me round St Johns got out the Lecture List and pointed out that CompSci had nine o'clock lectures on a Saturday. (He also showed me the glorious ASNC section, alas long gone, in Heffers basement.) But sometimes I've regretted leaving all that other stuff behind. (Not least in the Research Associate jobs I've done where, although I was ostensibly employed for my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England, my actual value to the project was in being able to roll up my sleeves, buy an undergraduate textbook in Relational Database design or whatever (on expenses, I'm not a martyr), and implement a data-management system.)

4. I've got into Imperial College, London, to do an MSc in Computing Science! Yay!

5. This is going to kill two birds with one stone, I hope. For one thing the skills I get should make me able to find intelligent work. Let's hope so, because I do need a job. But also the Imperial MSc has lots of options in Machine Learning and Logic programming etc, which is something I still find really interesting.

6. The downside is that I can't live in my little Exeter house for a year, though I will be renting a room in a friend's house in London (I'm practicing being not too annoying in preparation). Another downside is that I will be surrounded by, I guess, 21-year-old male engineering graduates who find it all much easier than I do. I did ask at my interview whether they take many people from a humanities background, and the man said yes, last year they had a vet. I get the impression that for him "humanities" meant "neither maths nor engineering". One of the things that put me off Maths for an undergraduate degree was the knowledge that I would be learning with geniuses who found it daftly easy, and I think it was a reasonable concern because it's hard for an eighteen-year-old to cope with that sort of thing. But I don't care now, I have enough self-confidence to feel OK with being the slow one in the class. I've always liked mature students when I've taught them. I had one in his 70s during one of my most stressful years, and he always took the time to ask me how I was getting on and exhort me to make sure I wasn't overdoing things. He had been diagnosed with cancer and a limited time to live, and decided to spend his last few years getting a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic. I think we can all applaud that.

7. I shan't miss Anglo-Saxon England because I shan't leave it completely alone. If I have time I may go to the occasional conference as an Independent Scholar -- I know quite a few Independent Scholars who go to conferences and give better papers than the full-timers, and it would be fun to try to join their ranks. As for teaching, I've given that up already, and I do miss it a bit. I particularly used to enjoy teaching those students whom one could enthuse about the subject, and who would go on to get in all their exams except for a first in the one I taught... that was a pleasant ego boost, and it's a thrill to know you've genuinely helped someone to understand things. But then again it is peculiarly draining work, especially for an introvert like me. The academic politics I really will not miss. And just imagine a life which never again involves the Times Higher Education Supplement! I think the THES bears much the same relationship to learning as the Church Times does to the love of God. I wonder if Computing Science has a depressing trade newspaper? I'd like to think it was all like Boing Boing.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Two things, one of them a recantation

1. When my PhD supervisor left Cambridge he was given a farewell party in the English Faculty (under the auspices of which the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic resides, in much the same way that Winnie-the-Pooh lived under the name of Sanders). At that occasion he gave a speech in which he was very rude indeed about the English Faculty. It was one of those speeches which is quite amusing unless you're actually there at the time. (So many Cambridge experiences are like that.) One of the accusations he made was that the English Faculty did not understand the excellent thing they had in the Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics, and that the RCEAL should escape to MML if they could. So it's interesting to see that this has sort-of happened.

2. I have to take back everything I have said about the awfulness of estate agents, because my estate agent has just been extremely helpful indeed. And this despite the fact that he is good looking and has a certain amount of charm. I feel genuinely bad about my prejudices now.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Look, it's an owl

Off of, a slow-motion owl:

Monday, 1 August 2011

What truth is and how to act on it...

... is a sub-heading in a book I am reading about the programming language C++. It contains no philosophical insights as such. (Unless you think that treating 1 (or any other number) as true and 0 or null as false implies agreement with the Augustinian vision of evil as parasitic on the good, having no independent existence.)

Anyway I thought I'd comment on a few good books I read in July.

1. Cathleen Schine, The Three Weissmanns of Westport. This is a modern retelling of Sense and Sensibility, which sounds like it could be awful, but is actually deftly and lightly done. It's amiable enjoyable reading of the sort which doesn't insult your brain but doesn't make you stretch it either. I shall look for more things she's written.

2. George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons. Aaaagh! I am so addicted to these novels that it is not funny. I used to have opinions on them and now I just want to know what's going to happen next. I would recommend them very strongly except for the fact that the series will be a good few more years in the finishing. Perhaps wait until the last one's out and then you can splurge on them all at once.

3. Rhoda Janzen, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. I already blogged about this. It's great. I want to be like her, only without marrying someone with BPD who leaves me for a man he met on

4. Barbara Pym, A Glass of Blessings. So wry it almost hurts, like licking a cut lime. Even though her books are amusing and don't deal with anything too deep, somehow when I've finished reading them I feel like I've been lightly punched in the stomach. A brilliant author.

5. Chris Priestley, Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, and The Teacher's Tales of Terror. These are very good. They're older child/young adult reading really, but sufficiently well done that they catch you out with little moments that are genuinely chilling. I shall read more in the series sometime when I want some spooky tales. Better than Susan Hill's ghost stories, as far as I'm concerned.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Is there any good in the world?

I have a cold, and I'm at that early stage in the cold where the world seems overwhelmingly doomed by every kind of stupidity and nastiness. This morning I decided that all politicians, journalists, charming young men, and estate agents should for their own good be cryogenically frozen until such time as we come up with a cure for being a massive wanker. And I also cried about the US deficit. It's a typical cold mood. So I have been looking for proof that there are good things. I list some of them below:

1) Even though she gave me this cold, I have a truly excellent god-daughter, who is bright and funny, and loves books. Plus great friends from school with whom I am still in touch. This makes me very lucky.

2) Neal Stephenson has written a new book, Reamde. Hurray for Neal Stephenson!
It's out in September.

3) Even though almost every corporation in the world, probably every corporation in fact, is set up in such a way to allow and even encourage them to act evilly regardless of the people who run them, there are occasional fightbacks or fightsback if you prefer. Some people have made a firefox extension called ShareMeNot so that if you visit a webpage with the facebook like button on it, or one of those other social media buttons like the Google+ +1 or the twitter button, those social networking websites don't actually know that you've been to that website unless you choose to click on the button. Which is how it ought to be anyway. The fact that just looking at a page with such a button currently gives information to the button's home-site is creepy.

4) I like this installation of books bursting through a wall. Though it's true that the storage needs of books is an annoying problem.

Anyway a friend has just suggested some emergency Wodehouse, which seems like a good idea. That's a fifth good thing for the list, the existence of Wodehouse, even if his later life was blighted by his stupidity during WW2.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Three mother alpacas with the babies

Here as promised is some video of the new baby alpacas. This afternoon all of them went up to the shade at the far end of the paddock by the pheasant pens. You'll see that my camera copes indifferently well with sudden changes from darkness to sunlight.

When the young ones are a bit older they'll go with their mothers to the main female herd up the road.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Odd thrill

I am writing this while using the operating system Linux, specifically the "distro" (I think that's short for distribution) known as Ubuntu. It's hard to say why this is thrilling me. I've installed it alongside my Windows installation so I can choose which to use at start-up.

In the meantime, here is a bobcat sitting on a 40-foot cactus. He looks very cool, but also a lot like the little annoying cat thing in Thundercats, called Snarf or Snorf or something.

We have three alpaca babies now, and Kinetic has a Kylian and a Kittiwake to play with. Except that Kittiwake is brown with a white hood and white socks, and I idly remarked to my mother that it's a shame that Cappucino doesn't start with a K, so she's probably now called Kappucino. I think that was a '90s brand of Nestle coffee which included a sachet of fizzy white stuff to pour in it. But never mind, she's very sweet whatever her name and I'll try to get some video of them all before long. They enjoy herding chickens.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Friday, 15 July 2011

A few small things

I do so love xkcd. Today's is just brilliant.

All three winners of the inaugural Google Science Fair were girls.

It's just an Onion headline, alas: Vatican Reverses Stance On Gay Marriage After Meeting Tony And Craig

The other day I got an e-mail with quite a good subject line:
I made a popstars circle and I suppose they both automatically add whoever adds them.

What are the kids up to these days? Goodness knows. But these kids made this song which I quite like:

To be honest, I'm not really that bothered about what the kids are up to. I am sufficiently middle-aged now that not only do I always take slippers with me when I stay away overnight, but I no longer believe that the kids are likely to be up to anything particularly interesting.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011


Mum named this baby alpaca Kinetic because he doesn't often stop moving. Watch as he bounds up to me insouciantly and stops to smell a flower before wandering off again. Even if you set the bar very high for dorables he is certainly one of them.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Excellent book cheap now

Today on the train I read Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, a memoir about the author's return to stay with her family after a traumatic divorce and car accident. I enjoyed it very much -- I had to concentrate not to chuckle like a fool or get too teary and freak out the person sitting opposite me on the train. The author's voice reminds me of some of my friends', and it's really nice to read a family memoir with likeable parents. Anyway, it's only 99p in the current Amazon kindle sale so if you're interested you might want to buy it before the end of the month. A bonus of the Kindle edition is that it automatically turns into a link every time it appears, just in case you'd like to find out more.


Most Cambridge fellows are not at all like the stereotype. One or two are, and they're either quite funny or utterly deplorable, depending on your mood and degree of involvement with them. But estate agents! I am fully prepared to start finding estate agents really really amusing just as soon as I have exchanged contracts. They are amazingly consistent at messing things up and then explaining to you why what they did (didn't do) was perfectly reasonable. It's impossible to tell them off -- my current policy when they do something stupid is to phone up and tell them about it in the manner of a kindly aunt. I'm hoping this really irritates them in their self-esteem. I'm mostly dealing with charming young men, and charming men of any age get on my nerves like a bluebottle buzzing round a light bulb.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Small newses

1. I joined Google+. It's mildly irritating in the same way as Facebook. Does this bode well for its future? I have no idea. I loved Google Wave, and look what happened to that.

2. There's a new Waitrose just down the road from my flat. Delicious microwave meals and patronising semi-assembled recipes in boxes ahoy! It's probably a good thing I don't live here any more. My Granny used to shop in Waitrose but she only ever bought discounted things. She didn't believe in sell-by dates, occasionally with spectacular results.

3. If you're in Cambridge at the weekend, buy a pork pie from the market on Saturday (from the butcher's opposite M&S) and on Sunday, cakes from Tom's cakes.

4. Tomorrow I go back to Devon. I'm looking forward to meeting Kinetic, who spends a lot of time chasing the chickens, apparently. I'll try to post some video to make up for the sad Kenelm news.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

RIP Kenelm

I'm away for a few days, but I've had sad news from Devon: my mother tells me that Kenelm was not improving, and they had him put to sleep yesterday. I was sort of expecting this. Although he was very sweet, and tried hard, watching him struggle was only really justifiable if there was a chance his struggling would get him somewhere eventually. They've put Dorcas back into the main herd, where she can get back into the old routine.

But Chloe has had her baby now. My mother says that he was such a contrast to poor Kenelm, on his feet and suckling within the hour, and then dashing around the field crazily, that they have called him Kinetic. (All the alpacas this year will have K-names.) I'm looking forward to seeing him when I get back.

It's very strange camping out in my Cambridge flat, which is hopefully going to be sold soon. I lived here for thirteen years, almost twice as long as I have lived in any other home. I feel like it would be healthy to be a bit nostalgic, but I can't quite muster the energy. It's a nice flat, but owning somewhere you don't live is a bit of a worry.

The anti-English Defence League march went past here earlier today. I was a bit disappointed with it because it was rather hatey. Admittedly the EDL are pretty hateable, but I think a happy peaceful march would have made a better contrast. They were shouting "EDL, go to hell" as they went down here, and then singing, really badly, an anti-EDL song to the tune of She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain. I think there were clashes and a few arrests later at Silver Street.

In other news: a lovely never-released Rachel Stevens/Richard X song; Bill Bailey covers Metallica; and the Parisians have made what they describe as "une curieuse anamorphose végétale" outside L'Hotel de Ville, presumably so they can stand on it and pretend to be Le Petit Prince.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Short video of Kenelm and Dorcas

Kenelm had got out into the rain so I went out to put him back in the shelter, and filmed him for a few moments with Dorcas.  She wasn't quite sure what I was there for.  Watch her check him over after he makes a little squeaky hum noise about 6 seconds in.

He's a sweetheart, I do hope he gets on OK.

Kenelm update

Kenelm is still with us, and I'm beginning to hope that he perhaps might make it after all.  He still can't quite stand up properly, but he does manage to lurch a few steps at a time, and he seems to be getting a little bit better over time.  This morning my parents took him off to the vet for a consultation, rather expecting that they wouldn't bring him back.  But the vet thinks it's worth persevering.  At the moment he gets fed from a bottle every few hours, but we think he's probably also suckling a little by himself.  And he does seem to be getting stronger.  So, cautious optimism here...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Kenelm back with Dorcas

Dorcas has got her baby Kenelm back, and it was very touching to see.  I don't suppose she'd been waiting by the gate all night, but she was there in the morning.  He's still not able to stand up but otherwise he's quite perky.  I don't give much for his chances, really, but at least he's still around now.  The thing that speaks most for him is that my mother has not given up on him yet.  She's really uncannily good at knowing when it's time to prepare yourself for animal death.  She has a harness which we use for hanging baby alpacas from luggage scales to weigh them, and she's got Kenelm to suckle from Dorcas by holding him up in that.  So now the plan is that we take it in turns to go out and hold him up to suckle every three hours.  (This will really be so much easier than bottle-feeding.)  And hope that his legs sort themselves out as he gains strength.  We'll probably need to feed Dorcas too, who is staying with Kenelm instead of grazing.

Monday, 4 July 2011

It's not looking good

Unfortunately little Kenelm has not managed to stand up, let alone suckle.  My mother thinks there's some problem with one of his hind legs.  He's gone off to the vet's with a bottle of plasma (which is spun from alpaca blood, and is a sort of baby alpaca buck-you-uppo), but to be honest, it's not looking likely that he's going to thrive.  It's very sad whenever a baby alpaca dies but the bit I find worst is the behaviour of the mother if we have to take the baby away.  I think I've mentioned before that alpacas are on the whole a little wary of us, but are usually pretty cooperative when there's something wrong.  They seem to get the idea that we are agents of change, and useful to have around in a crisis.  When you take an alpaca baby away to the vet (and probably slightly fewer of these ever come back than don't) the mother makes concerned noises, but essentially doesn't stop you.  And then she waits by the paddock gate, making enquiring sounds, and catching your eyes whenever you look out of the windows.  If you go up to her she peers very intently into your eyes, as if trying to read some message there.  I remember one alpaca whose baby died at the vet's stood for ages by the gate, bleating at us every time we went near.  Maybe I'm reading too much into it; but it's the way that the noises they make at us aren't angry noises, but distressed or asking noises, that I find sad.  I do hope that we'll be able to reunite Kenelm and Dorcas.  She's standing at the gate right now, looking for him.