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.