Friday, 30 March 2012

I looked at some art

Over the last few days I have looked at some art.

The National Portrait Gallery has revived an exhibition I saw a while ago at Montacute House in Somerset. It consists of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pictures which were bought as being a particular person, but were then realised not to be that person, and left marooned as anonymous in the storage vaults of an institution that's all to do with the named. They got a few authors to write stories inspired by the pictures, though I didn't actually read those this time. It's the sort of exhibition that's good for the imagination, though it does suffer a little from being on a landing. There's also a little exhibition about Charlotte, Princess of Wales, and her cousin who later became Queen Victoria, and how Charlotte laid the way for Victoria's image.

I also went next door to the National Gallery, where they are showing the Titian Diana and Callisto. I do like the little free exhibitions which the National Gallery does showing one picture, or one main picture with a few related things, just in one room, and with interesting directed captions. In this case the Titian is alone and the room has lots of information about the collection it's from, the subject of the painting, and some translated Ovid. There's also a bench in front of it so you can sit and look at it properly. This is in striking contrast to the over-crowded, over-priced and under-captioned exhibitions which the National Gallery puts on in its basement blockbuster exhibition space.

Somerset House has a "contemporary graphic art fair" called Pick Me Up on in the Embankment Galleries. I'm not quite clear what "graphic art" is as opposed to just "art", but I think it implies lower pretensions, and more interest in the concept of illustration. I really liked some of the stuff there, particularly a watercolour by Rikka Sormunen of a tired woman being hugged by a monster under her bed. I also liked Jon McNaught's wildlife charts, and Paul X. Johnson's Rachael picture. Because I got lost on the way out I stumbled across a free exhibition of art by one of Japan's leading traditional tattooists, which was also good.

Then I went to the late night opening at the V&A. I foolishly took a friend who is not fond of loud crowds; the V&A late nights are very popular. I'm never quite sure what to make of the V&A. Sometimes it seems a bit like the nation's attic, full of high-class tat, and sometimes I stumble across cool things in there. For the late night opening they had a lot of music, and story-telling, etc. They had put a brightly-lit disco ball in one of the big dark sculpture galleries; I was quite enjoying this until I found out it was art. Apparently it was called "Mechanisms of Disorientation: Towards a Fragmented Understanding". According to the bumph, it "reflects on and distorts notions of space and cultural reflexivity. ... Reflecting on past histories vis-a-vis contemporary objects, [the artist] draws a parallel between how we observe history in relation to affairs in contemporary culture". I think that the phrase "I was quite enjoying it until I found out it was art" would probably describe my relationship with modern art in general.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The drought of march

It's surely spring, and even in London the sun is shining on grass, birds are singing, and all that. I'm recovering from the last few weeks, and in the meantime, I think this is brilliant summer pop. I had previously decided that Nicki Minaj is better in other people's songs than her own, but this one is great:

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Most Reverend and Right Honorable Dr

So Rowan Williams gets to stop being Archbishop of Canterbury.  I wonder whether that will free him up to talk more, or whether he will have to be quiet for the sake of his successor?  His talk called The Body's Grace given to a Lesbian and Gay Alliance church back when he was mere Professor Williams is remarkable for taking as its starting point the idea that to think about sexuality you have first to address the question of what it is about sex that matters.  And I do like this aside:
(Incidentally, if this suggests that, in a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a "perversion" - well, that is a perfectly serious suggestion.. .)

Sunday, 11 March 2012


I've just heard that Ray Page has died. He was Emeritus Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, the one before the one who was there when I was an undergraduate, and a brilliant scholar of things Norse and Anglo-Saxon, especially runes -- he was the runemeister. He taught people who taught me, but I didn't know him until he was retired. He was also the Librarian of the Parker Library back when this was not a full-time job but something people did as well as being heads of departments, etc. If the two great early modern manuscript librarians were Parker and Cotton, Ray Page lived up to the Parkerian rather than Cottonian attitude, with a bias towards not letting people handle the manuscripts... Consequently he was not loved by art-historians. He was the man behind the setting up of the Conservation Studio at Corpus -- his concern was always for the manuscripts' survival more than for the vanity of scholars.

But I'll mostly remember him as tremendously good company. I first met him properly soon after I finished my PhD. I was working at the Wren Library putting some scanned manuscript-catalogue text into XML, and finishing off a book on calendars. One of my calendar-manuscripts had a runic inscription in it, and in some trepidation I wrote to Professor Page, asking him for his help. At this point all I really knew about him was his reputation as a scary beer-monster -- there were hard drinkers among our lecturers, one in particular, but even he prepared himself seriously for a drinking session with Ray Page. Ray wrote back pointing me at a French publication which dealt with the runic inscription in question (a bizarre invocation of Thor to deal with blood-pus demons, not at all the sort of text you'd expect to find at the monastery of Christ Church Canterbury in the late eleventh century). He also invited me to dine with him at Corpus Christi.

Occasionally Corpus has wine-tastings before the evening meal, and this was one of those times. We tasted 16 wines before dinner. After dinner we went to Combination. When the port came round I poured myself a glass with perhaps a centimetre of clear air at the top. "Half a glass, half a glass", Ray growled at me, explaining that it wasn't really a full glass until you could see the miniscus protruding slightly above the rim. (I noticed later that although his hands sometimes shook a little with age, this did not affect him when raising a full glass of port to his mouth -- then they were rock-steady.) I had three glasses of port. Good port is so delicious, and so different from bad port, and I've only ever drunk good port after Cambridge dinners.

(Also on this occasion I met a man called Geoffrey Styler, who told me about a recent party he'd had for the eightieth anniversary of his first ever piano lesson.)

As combination drew to a close, Ray asked me if I liked beer. I said that although I like beer I find the sheer volume of it hard to handle, and prefer whiskey. "Ah, whiskey!" he said, and invited me to the room, I forget its name, dedicated to the use of retired fellows. In the cupboard there he had some silver quaichs, and a large box of the sort used to conserve medieval manuscripts. It had been made for him by one of the great conservator-binders, maybe Nicholas Pickwoad, and inside it was fitted out in velvet to hold a bottle of Jura whiskey. On the spine where the title should be it had "The Runes of Jura" in stamped lettering. "Let us consult the runes of Jura", said Ray Page, and so we did.

By this point my mind was a little hazy. It was not at its sharpest. We talked about books mostly, I think, and he tested me on quotations, something which I didn't mind in the least because I caught them all, except one from Hamlet. You don't often meet people who have read the same sort of things as you, even the obscure things like The Wallet of Kai Lung and Lavengro. He was much better read than me; he was of the type of scholar for whom being well-read in general was part of having an active mind. I'm not well-read in an abstract sense, but I've read more than most people I meet, and being able to discuss books like that seemed like the most tremendous luxury to me. It still does.

I was tired after finishing my PhD, tremendously tired, and it took me a good few months to recover. That evening was the most I had enjoyed myself for ages, and a sort of illustration of old-style Cambridge at its best. Working out, as I stumbled home in an alcoholic haze, that Ray was exactly three times my age (26 to 78) I found myself wondering if he had any available grandsons... I made it into work the next morning despite my tremendous hangover.

A couple of years later when I was elected to a Junior Research Fellowship at Corpus Ray sent me a note saying how rare it was for the fellowship to make such a good decision, and at one of my first evenings dining in caused tremendous offence to a visiting manuscript scholar by introducing me to her as "A real manuscript scholar". I think he had been pretty fearsome in his younger years, but he was always very kind to me. He occasionally asked me to read some article he was writing on Parker's manuscripts, and they were tremendously refreshing, the best sort of scholarship, the kind that eschews academicy nonsense for clear, erudite commonsense. He had a great sense of humour, a very dry Scandinavian sense, the sort that does not involves laughing or smiling. "You might call that a beautifully rounded argument", he would say with exaggerated politeness -- meaning that it was circular. He got testy if the port stopped at combination, and would talk loudly about the Bishop of Norwich until it moved again. He insisted that the correct loyal toast was not "The Queen" but "The Church and Queen". And one of my favourite stories about him I am not going to put here, even though very few people read this blog, because of its potential to cause an international incident.

It's not a hundred percent accurate to say that I'll miss him, because he hadn't been quite himself for the last few years as old age caught up with him, and I missed him then. But from a selfish point of view, I do wish there were other people like him. But there just aren't; he was more than usually unique.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Some internet things mostly about brains

I just spoke to my little nephew on the phone. "Do you want to come home in a minute?" he asked me. Which is very sweet and has made me feel a bit sad. I told him I'd like to but I can't come home til Easter. Heigh ho. At least the internet remains to amuse us.

If you're interested in apocalyptic sci-fi scenarios coming true right now, why not read about this woman's experience of attaching electrodes to her head to learn how to shoot better? She's a journalist who tried the US military's enhanced sniper training involving 9 volt batteries attached to the temples. She seems to think that all the big ethical questions are changed by the fact that she enjoyed it so much, when really they're just intensified. I already find it a bit frightening that we pay people to kill people for us, but the idea of switching off their self-doubt while they do so might just be a step too far. All the same, I did feel a momentary urge to try putting a current through my mind. (Also I saw it on Boing Boing, where Cory Doctorow pointed out that "If you can't open it, you don't own it", which is quite funny.)

This psychologist makes an interesting point about how the self-selecting personalities and long training of psychologists might make a serious difference to their view of what mental health is. I like this quote:
Having steered the higher-education terrain for a decade of my life, I know that degrees and credentials are primarily badges of compliance.

In other internet news, if you buy a copy of Pendulous Breasts Quarterly and put "Zing me!" in the comments they will hand-craft some insults just for you. It's mostly by Onion and Daily Show writers and others of that ilk. It's a bit hit and miss but there's something pretty cool about being able to buy random humour things from the other side of the world on a whim. I heard about it because it has some Kate Beaton cartoons in it. As the title suggests, though, it's mostly pretty boyish.

In contrast, you could celebrate International Woman's day, which I think is around here sometime, with this excellent Dragonette song. It's from a pink-covered album about being proud of being a woman. I'm not sure I think that's particularly admirable. I'd rather be a woman than a man, but shouldn't I try to suppress that feeling rather than exulting in it? Isn't it a bit like those playground arguments about whether boys or girls are better? Couldn't we grow up past that stage? Nonetheless it's a great song:

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Bye bye AI

I'm a bit sad because today I hand in my Artificial Intelligence coursework, and this is probably the last time I get to use the logic programming language Prolog. It's a very cool language, essentially made of punctuation rather than words. I still have a few more AI lectures left though. We just had an interesting one about the problems with using Classical Logic for actual reasoning. In classical logic, if you have a set of things that are true, and another thing, let's call it P, follows from that set, then, whatsoever you may add to that set, P still has to be true. But we need a different sort of logic for practical reasoning, a defeasible or default logic. In this way of proceeding you have a default, e.g. birds can fly, and then you assume the default that if Tweety is a bird Tweety flies. When you find out that Tweety has a broken wing, or Tweety is a penguin, or Tweety is dead, you change that default. In classical logic you could only do that by stating that birds fly if they are not dead and don't have a broken wing, and aren't a penguin or an ostrich, and aren't glued to the ground, etc, etc, and then when you had Eddie (an eagle) you could only prove that he was able to fly if you could also prove that he wasn't dead, glued to the ground, unwell, an ostrich, etc, etc. Default reasoning is like the legal position where you assume that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. It's also known as the Closed World scenario, like in databases, where it's assumed that what is not recorded is not true. In Prolog it's called Negation By Failure. If you can't prove X then you act like for practical purposes you have proved not X.

This seems very interesting to me. It seems like the default reasoning method is a bit like the whole quantum, Schrodinger's cat thing, where only the observable is true. Does it make much difference to people's personalities and attitudes to spend their entire time in an environment where only the observable is true? This seems like almost the opposite of the Humanities approach, and I think this is what Imperial is lacking by having no Humanities here, just a loose association with the Royal College of Art and the Royal College of Music. Tomorrow I may or may not go to a talk by an anthropologist who works on people who work with mice, which seems like an interesting related thing.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Books of February 2012

I read a few very good books in February. Apart from a couple of poetry anthologies (I recommend Andrew Motion's From Here to Eternity) and an exhibition catalogue (for the brilliant Grayson Perry exhibition about which I have failed to blog) everything I read last month was on the Kindle, and most of it was stuff I'd got very cheap in various Kindle sales.

The Mighty Angel by Jerzy Pilcher
This was a lucky find. It's a strange and compelling book which I consumed avidly on the tube, but it's going to be hard to describe it without making it sound awful. It's mostly about an alcoholic drinking. Here instead is the first paragraph:
Before the mafiosi appeared in my apartment in the company of the dark-complexioned poetess Alberta Lulaj, before they wrenched me from my drunken sleep and set about demanding — first with dissembling pleas, then with ruthless threats — that I arrange for Alberta Lulaj’s poetry to be published in the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, before there began the tempestuous events I wish to recount, there was the eve of those events, there was the morning and the evening of the preceding day, and I, from the morning to the evening of the preceding day, had been drinking peach vodka. Yes indeed, I had been drinking peach vodka, brutishly longing for one last love before death, and immersed up to my ears in a life of dissolution.
Tony and Susan by Austin Wright
Compelling and clever. Susan is more-or-less happily married to a brilliant surgeon and they have three children. But a long time ago she was briefly married to neurotic Edward, who was obsessed with what seemed an unrealistic need to be a writer. Out of the blue Edward sends Susan a novel he has written, with the double-edged comment that she was always his best critic. But it's not a pleasant novel and it's not clear what Edward's motive might be. If it's "about" something maybe it's about being a reader, or maybe it's about the creepiness of domesticity. It's very readable though, I stayed up late to finish it in one day.

Graven With Diamonds: the Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt, Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy by Nicola Shulman
This has been on my Amazon wishlist for ages. I'm quite fond of Wyatt's poetry, though I only really knew about the usual anthologised ones and the question of whether or not they were addressed to Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII was king for quite a long time, and most of this book is about the period when his court was very French-influenced, in the years between Henry falling in love with and marrying Anne Boleyn. Courtly love abounded:
Love was newly fashionable. In the previous reign, English continence in matters of love had greatly impressed a visiting Italian: ‘he had never noticed anyone, either at court or amongst the lower orders, to be in love’ he said, ‘… either the English were the most discreet lovers in the world, or they were incapable of love’. But now, in the 1520s, the young and chic of Henry’s court were all at it, tossing and pining on their pallets for love, or saying they did in lyric poetry.
Shulman is very good on the use that people made of the poems, how they got passed about and altered, and used in games which only later might look a little dangerous:
‘I write by this… I mean by that’ wrote one scribe at the bottom of his poem, just in case his surreptitiousness had gone unnoticed. Accordingly, they were often attracted to those works of Wyatt’s that could usurp their own apparent subject matter and turn into poems about the poems themselves. That may make Tudor courtiers sound like French doctoral students, which they were not; but they were young and self-involved and their poems were the vehicle for that most fascinating of all things, their own social drama.
I also really like her characterisations of the major figures, like Henry VIII:
A flash of this ribaldry comes down to us in a book that was doing the rounds of Wyatt’s circle in the early 1530s, in which someone has written ‘presto para servir’ (ready to serve) and others, beneath it, the doubtful coda ‘forse’ (perhaps). But the king would have no particle of sympathy for an ungallant sentiment like that. For him there could be no forse about his eagerness to serve. He was sincere in all his doings. If he were alive today, he’d be Canadian.
Anne Boleyn:
Anne was a bridge-burner by nature, not a conciliator, and a termagant to boot. As Henry’s companion, she had never been one to cut her cloth. Henry’s letters swim with mollification and – in response to some lost rebuff – the sort of shaken dignity one sees in a senior dog in retreat from an unexpected cat.
and Wyatt himself:
As for courtly skills, there was no shortage of these with Wyatt, one of the few Englishmen in history to be held suspiciously smooth by a senior French diplomat.
Also you have to love an author who, when discussing C. S. Lewis' interpretation of some poems, points out that "There is only one joke in the Narnia books" (and footnotes a reference to it -- it's in The Silver Chair, apparently).

Thursday, 1 March 2012

A few small things

1. I saw this at Spitalfields in one of the dingy warehousey bits by the market where it stinks of piss.

They're spray-painted concrete blocks, the sort that get used as impromptu bollards.  I think they're quite good.

2. Think it would be nice to encourage thoughtful long-form journalism?  There's something that looks good on Kickstarter.  It's already funded.  I hope they can make it work.  Go responsible media!

3. This blog account of a trip to CERN makes it sound amazing.

4.  Crazy philosopher Slavok Žižek has a great accent.  Here he is talking about (what else) The Wire.  I haven't listened to the whole thing but people who have say it's very interesting.

5. My ipod on shuffle just came up with this excellent Pet Shop Boys song:

I want a positive role model!