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 HeĆ°in 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.