Sunday, 22 December 2013

Tudors, Stuarts, jewels, and exploration

I went up to London to see some people, as an early Christmas present for myself. It was a very pleasant trip. I thought I'd review two excellent and complementary exhibitions, "The Cheapside Hoard" at the Museum of London, and "Elizabeth I and Her People" at the National Portrait Gallery.

The Cheapside Hoard is (probably) the working stock of a particularly fine jeweller in the the seventeenth century, buried beneath a Cheapside cellar sometime between 1640 and 1666. The cellar survived the Great Fire but the building above did not and was rebuilt in 1667. The hoard was dug up by startled navvies in 1912, and we may or may not have the whole lot. If as a child you ever thought of the treasure in a pirate's chest, or the hoards that dragons sit on, or the fabulous jewels in the treasury of a sultan's palace, this exhibition is almost gratuitously satisfying -- there are just so many jewels. There are amazing delicate chains of enamelled flowers, buttons set with pearls and diamonds, amethysts and emeralds carved into bunches of grapes, garnets, moonstones, diamonds, agate cameos and carved gems, even toad stones. Some of the stones are unset or even uncut but most are in the form of jewels in the old sense of several gems in a settings, jewels like you might find in an inventory, or jewels you might wear in a ruff or in your pomaded hair. There is a fantastic emerald salamander which could have been 1930s Cartier, and a watch case made from a single hollowed-out emerald with a slice of translucent emerald as lid. The word for all this is gorgeous. It's a thoughtfully laid-out exhibitions too. You get a magnifying glass when you go in the door, and most of the jewels are not laid down in flat displays but hung up in front of you in glass cases so they catch the light. There's good contextual material, with maps and city views, as well as information about where the jewels came from, and the state of the goldsmith's trade in seventeenth-century England. The best contexts though are given by the literally sumptuous portraits showing how these sorts of jewels were worn, in one case even seeming to show an exact duplicate of a pendant in the hoard being worn as an earring.

The NPG exhibitions is a bit more conventional. I love Tudor and Stuart portraiture, with its grave expressions and willingness to turn people into patterns. The best pattern of all is Elizabeth, an oval face between a geometric ruff and hair criss-crossed with jewels. The second-tier portraits of her are often the most interesting. There's a really lovely one owned by Cambridge University which is all in yellow and gold, and one from Hardwick Hall where the focus is on her complexly embroidered skirt. The builder of Hardwick Hall (more glass than wall) was the shrewd Bess of Hardwick, known to have had an interesting in embroidery, and there are some pieces from her collection in the exhibition. The catalogue doesn't make any mention of this but I wondered whether the skirt, which is covered in sea monsters and other beasts, was made or commissioned by her. There's a very good short story about Bess of Hardwick in Susanna Clarke's Ladies of Grace Adieu, catching her uncannily successful brand of domesticity.

The idea of the exhibition is to cover people from various ranks of life, on the grounds that the middle class became more prominent in Elizabeth's reign. So as well as a room full of aristocrats there's one of burgesses and other professionals, and at the end, to represent the poor, a rather plaintive collection of rough pots and a sailor's costume. There are quite a few loans from private collections, as well as the well known and obvious pieces like Burghley on his mule (which makes me want a mule). There's a wonderful picture of three children, whose identities aren't known but whose ages are five, six and seven. The eldest, a girl in a starched ruff and lace cap, sits in the middle with a guinea pig, while her brothers flank her in identical slashed peach doublets. There's also an excellent picture of Elizabeth Vernon, who married the Earl of Southampton (possibly Shakespeare's fair youth) in secret when he got her pregnant, thereby annoying Queen Elizabeth a lot. Elizabeth's reaction to the affairs and marriage plans of her maids of honour is often interpreted as jealousy, but given how much depended on her personal myth I think it's fair enough if she wanted the girls closest to her to behave themselves. The portrait of Elizabeth Vernon shows her dressing (says the catalogue) or undressing (says me) in a private chamber. Her ruff is pinned to a curtain behind her, and her jewels are laid out on a table beside her. She looks straight out at the viewer, her bodice unlaced, and she brushes out her long loose hair with a comb marked "Menez moi doucement", which means lead me gently. More strait-laced is the picture of Esther Inglis, a famous Edinburgh calligrapher, some of whose work is also on show.

At the end of the NPG exhibition was a sign about two related exhibitions: one was the Cheapside Hoard, and the other an exhibition at Exeter's Royal Albert Memorial Museum. This seemed like a nice coincidence to me. The Exeter exhibition is called "West Country to World's End: the South West in the Tudor Age". It fits in rather nicely with the other two. The biggest contrast is that it's free -- the catalogue costs little more than the entry to the NPG. It includes loans, including a few Holbeins from the royal collection, and old bits of Exeter now belonging to the V&A, but in general it's quite small. The idea of the exhibition is that the Tudor era was a golden age for the South West, not least because local sailors took part in the world exploration of the time -- Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh would be the most famous of those. There's a section on Exeter goldsmiths, as well as on Nicolas Hilliard, the son of an Exeter goldsmith who became a famous miniature painter, and went into exile with the Bodley family during Mary's reign. There's even some information on Thomas Bodley of Bodleian fame, though without mention of his embezzlement of Exeter Cathedral's manuscript collection. Apart from size and price, the other big contrast is in the oddly broader focus of the Exeter exhibition. Because of the question of sea voyages and exploration it's much more international than the other two London-biased exhibitions. There's some excellent pictures of native American life from Raleigh's Virginia expedition. They also have the Elizabeth I Armada portrait, which shows the defeat of the Spanish, admittedly largely by the weather rather than the English navy, behind a tremendously ornate Elizabeth with her hand placed over America on a globe.

The NPG exhibition is only on until the 5th January, but the Cheapside Hoard is around until the end of April, and is really worth seeing. I also saw the early Durer drawings at the Courtauld, which is always a good place to visit with intelligent shows. Also at Somerset House, and really worth catching, is Stanley Spencer's First World War Memorial Chapel from Sandham. It's very moving. Most of the panels are of very routine parts of soldierly life, like making tea and doing laundry. The big altar piece couldn't be moved but a picture is projected on the wall. It's called the Resurrection of the Soldiers, and shows those serried ranks of white crosses all jumbled up and pushed aside as the soldiers rise on the last day.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

PS Lily Allen

In supplement to my last post, here is a Lily Allen song (not in the John Lewis style). I like Lily Allen, she's bright and quite funny, and this song is clearly a dig at that idiot Robin Thicke. Although you could argue that it gets away with a lot of the same things -- I assume those rears are being wobbled sarcastically:

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Choice of music

This Daft Punk song is about the most pop-music subject of all, hopeless crushes. Sometimes it's really hard to disentangle a song and its video -- I don't think I would like either quite so much without the other:

If that makes you feel a little melancholy, I strongly recommend this Shatner song:

Saturday, 23 November 2013

What I've been up to

1. I've had this brilliant Sia song on repeat on my ipod. I love Sia. She's an excellent singer and songwriter who decided that stardom was a lot of hassle and now gives most of her good songs to other people. (And then you get occasional YouTube clips of her singing them herself much better, like her version of Rihanna's Diamonds.) I also really like Diplo, though his thing where he just nicks sounds from lots of different cultures makes me feel a bit uneasy. He is half of Major Lazer, who have this really brilliant song which I may have posted before.

2. I had a custom Carrie-necklace made which reads "Tetchy". I really like it but now I can't decide if I can actually wear it. It would be very cool if someone thought my name was Tetchy but on the other hand is wearing it a bit passive-aggressive? Because I am quite tetchy a lot of the time, which is why I like it obviously, but maybe it's not a good idea to draw attention to it, and furthermore I work with a lot of friendly men some of who are slightly timid men and it would be rude to disconcert them. Plus I would like to be less tetchy and maybe this necklace would suggest that I'm proud to be tetchy. I can't really give it to anyone as a present either -- it's a total minefield. But I do now quite want to have other ones made, which read "Confused" or "Irascible" (or "Discombobulated" though they tend to have a 10-letter limit). Maybe abandon adjectives and go for "Paninaro" or "Pynchon" after some things I like. If I thought of the right words they would make good presents.

3. I'm the only woman in my team at work, and there weren't many women on my course last year either. The gender-balance situation in computing has got worse not better since I was an undergraduate. This is daft because programming is fun. It mixes creativity and abstract intelligence to produce things that are immediately useful. Plus it's a brilliant industry to be in if you care about work--life balance because once you have a certain level of skill people will buy however much of your time you want to sell. Loads of people in my department work part-time to share child-care duties. But there it is, I'm the only woman in my team of between 10 and 12 people, even though the contractors come and go so the actual number of people I've worked with over the last year is something more like 17 or 18. This is why I'm a STEM ambassador and try to be visible to children as a female programmer. I keep meaning to blog about it properly, but because I want to do it properly it keeps getting put off. But more and more I feel a side-issue which is that whenever I start getting involved in conversations about gender balance I end up feeling really bad about myself as a rubbish woman who was an atypical girl. I'm fed up with hearing how good girls are at communicating and multi-tasking. Me, I'm not a great communicator, and I strongly suspect that most people who think they can multi-task are self-deluding. Also apparently women are bad at self-promotion and we should put ourselves forward more: well, maybe I read too many Just Seventeen problem pages as a girl but I resent being told to change my personality in order to attract the attention of men. Stop making me feel bad about myself, people who are trying to help! In these situations maybe the tetchy necklace is indicated.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013


So I've been a computer programmer for a year now. I'm just about beginning to be useful, and I think that in a few years' time I could be a reasonably solid employee. Programming involves pretty extreme amounts of abstract thought; a friend emailed me some advice which included this:
"If there are two things to learn in your career as a developer it is algorithms and design patterns. Both last much longer than any language or framework. By having those core approaches constantly in mind most programming tasks can be distilled into elegant solutions that help you to transcend their superficial drudgery and reveal their inner mathematical beauty."
(He's been doing this much longer than me, I don't find any of it at all like drudgery yet.) So the eventual aim is to be language-agnostic (which is a wierd term because it seems like you don't know for sure whether or not languages exist) and instead to see the organisation that underlies clean programming structures. But at the moment I am concentrating on Java (and Scala), because I am all new.

The study of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts may be obscure but it's reasonably instantly engaging when you try to explain it to people. It was rather easier to talk to strangers about at a superficial level. I can tell someone about a beautiful manuscript and probably make them understand why it's beautiful to me -- most people can imagine seeing a book and thinking "that's beautiful" even if they've never looked at a medieval manuscript in their lives. It's harder to explain why Scala is beautiful, and why Prolog is beautiful, and why some clean, concise, flexible code is beautiful. I can't think of anything else that's quite the same. Maybe the nearest thing is a really good bit of prose. If you write a well-made phrase, or, more probably at least in my case, read one, the feeling of rightness is quite similar. Some of the Religio Medici makes me feel like that, or Gibbon's Decline and Fall. But I don't think I can easily explain why it's also true of this definition in Scala of all the prime numbers there are, using Eratosthenes sieve:
def sieve(s: Stream[Int]): Stream[Int] = s.head #:: sieve(s.tail filter (_ % s.head != 0))
And really that's a very similar thing: the elegant and concise capturing of meaning. I recently started to read a book called The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs and was intrigued by this:
"Underlying our approach to this subject is our conviction that "computer science" is not a science and that its significance has little to do with computers. The computer revolution is a revolution in the way we think and in the way we express what we think."
I don't know that I agree with that but it's an interesting thought. (It's a shame in a way that this idea is hidden in a book which no one will read unless they're looking for a tough programming primer.)

I've been thinking about whether I would have moved in the other direction if I had started out on the CompSci side of things. It would have been much harder to do, I think. The humanities are a bit indefinite and easy to feel bad at. However insecure you are in your work, at least in computing if you do well in an exam that's no one's judgement call; it's an independent endorsement. So it would have been harder to change to being a humanities person in my (early) middle age than it has been to change over to computing. It would have taken a lot more courage to plunge into the less tangible world of essays and conference papers.

So at present I am feeling really good about having made the change. It's not just that I'm enjoying my work, it's also the first time I'm ever been able to think years ahead with any degree of confidence in what I might be doing. I've never had a contract longer than three years, and most of them have been considerably shorter. I do hope to finish off a few Anglo-Saxon things at some point -- I don't really want to at the moment but I hope to want to in future.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Modern life is too much for me again

I was trying to sort out my iTunes library and also watching the X-Factor while following the Graun's X-Factor live blog and twitter when popjustice retweeted This is a live video feed of Sinitta, some drag queens and some half-naked muscley men watching the X-Factor loudly while tweeting. Modern life is demanding too much of me but somehow I can't stop watching.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Talking to nuns about Pope Francis

Pope Francis is quite interesting. He has refused to move into the papal apartments and instead lives in the rooms in the Domus S. Marthae which he had before he was elected. The Domus S. Marthae is a residence/hotel which was built by Pope John-Paul II so that cardinals could have somewhere to stay while electing popes. It's generally used as a nice enough hotel but it's not that fancy -- I know because I stayed there in Spring 2010. Looking at how I described it at the time, I said that the rooms upstairs were straightforward and plain but the downstairs reception rooms quite fancy. (Though the view was pretty impressive.) By staying there he is avoiding the control which the Vatican system could otherwise have over who has access to him, and dodging the civil servants.

He has an interesting past too, in a bad way. Several decades ago his withdrawal of support for some priests in the slums of Argentina led to their arrest and torture. These priests were proponents of liberation theology, which takes the view that priests must live and work alongside the poor, and which has been viewed with suspicion by church authorities because of its links with Marxism. According to some readings of Francis' life since he has been increasingly filled with guilt over this, and moved more and more towards the liberation theology way of thinking. The idea that the church is for the poor doesn't seem in the least controversial to me, but the Roman Catholic church has a complicated history to work from.

So what will happen as a result of this, who knows? It might be something good. The nuns felt positive about it. I don't myself quite understand how you can have a pope. Pope Francis has responded to a series of reflections in an Italian newspaper by an interested non-believer in what seems to me, given that my Italian is basic, to be quite friendly language. (There is a not-very-good English translation here.) He has suggested that of course atheists must abide by their own consciences. (Which may not be a papal statement that leaves most atheists overjoyed and relieved but then he is responding to specific questions in a particular series of articles so it's not something which he has come out with from thin air.) But what about Roman Catholics, are they also supposed to abide by their own conscience? I honestly don't know how it works.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

News from the internet

I've been to Cambridge, which is a complicated place, and to the monastery of Le Bec Hellouin, where I chanted Psalms in French and discussed Pope Francis with some Benedictine sisters.  But now it's lovely to be back in my little house at the end of the street. Here are some things that have happened while I've been gone.

1. This child tricked, rather than wrestled, a hamster into costumes. Good parental advice there.

2. Is this a real book trailer for Pynchon's new book? It seems legit, and is linked to from the Penguin website, but it's also pretty wierd.

Bleeding Edge book trailer from The Penguin Press on Vimeo.

3. This thing about the accent of Shakespeare's time is quite cool. I wish I talked like that all the time.

4. You've probably already seen the "Ask a Slave" youtube series.

5. I knew breakfast wasn't really that big a deal!

Sunday, 1 September 2013


There are two (2) things that make it a little bit harder for me to blog these days. The first is that I am sleeping tons better than I'm used to. I don't want to jinx it -- and given how much sleep is affected by some deep level of the subconscious that seems like a real possibility -- but at the moment I keep doing this weird thing where I turn off my reading light, shut my eyes, and am asleep within about twenty minutes. No more mulling over deep thoughts in the middle of the night. The other thing is that I spend most of my working hours thinking quite hard. My post-doc academic jobs have involved large amounts of what is essentially just data entry. Once you know how to take book X and summarise its position on charter/manuscript Y into database Z (hint: start at the index) you find that it's not quite taking up all your brain, not to mention that there's all the time you spend physically tracking down a copy of book X, backing up database Z, etc etc. Whereas mundane activities are rare in my current employment. Most days I do something which I had no idea how to do the previous day. I have to do a lot of thinking abstractly about organisation and patterns, and I also do a lot of learning to use new tools.

It's not that I don't have things to blog about. I've been doing quite a bit of thinking about gender in particular, because I find myself in a very male-dominated though thankfully not macho environment. I've been doing some STEM ambassador work (to encourage the youth in its regard for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths, though I really only care about computer programming) because I want there to be more visible female computer programmers and the only one whose visibility I get to control is me. I really want to blog about these things. I fear that maybe not blogging about them is a sign that I haven't been getting the chance to think about them to semi-finishedness.

And if I haven't been thinking about those things fully, there may be more important but less to-be-blogged-about things that I haven't been considering. I'm off next week on the Corpus Christi College annual trip to the monastery of Bec, which will give me some time to think about God and truth. But as for blog things I think maybe I should try to do what I would do with a complicated task at work, e.g. break it down into several different small parts and write short clear things for each one.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

People whose job is to kill people

I read a really interesting but uncomfortable book recently called Soldaten, by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Weizer. It's based on some recently rediscovered transcripts of bugged conservations between German P.O.W.s in World War II. It's very interesting to hear how they talked among themselves. These aren't (mostly) S.S., but soldiers in the ordinary army. The book was written jointly by a German historian of that period and a social psychologist with some background in writing about soldiers' experiences and the idea of war as work -- presumably the occasional interesting parallels with other wars, particularly Vietnam, come from him. The first very uncomfortable thing about the transcripts is the sense of all the conversations that haven't been recorded -- how do current British soldiers talk among themselves? What would recordings of the conversations between WWII Allied P.O.W.s have sounded like? Would they have talked so casually and incidentally about terrible things they had done? Is that just intrinsic to war? When I was a kid and first heard the term "war crimes" I was very confused because war is about killing people and that's the biggest crime there is. I don't want to be part of a society that brutalises young people by making them do awful things for the continuation of that society, but I can't see any other society to be part of. It's enough to make you want to join a gnostic death cult, like in the Avignon Quintet.

But then of course if all war is brutal then at least World War II is one of the easiest to defend our fighting. How much did the German soldiers know what was happening to the Jews? It seems that they knew a lot. (Although arguably there are different kinds of knowing -- I've always sort of known that politicians are mostly on the take and that the government spies on us systematically, but that doesn't mean I wasn't shocked and disappointed to find out that what I knew was true.) The grimly fascinating thing is how many were utterly sure that something was wrong. They talk of being ashamed to be German, ashamed to wear the uniform, when they talk about the atrocities they have seen, in particular the treatment of the Jews. But they still can't quite put their finger on what is wrong. They say that it's been very badly managed, they say they should have got the war out of the way first, they say it's a scandal how it's been handled, and they don't seem to be able to get that what's wrong is the wholesale victimisation and killing of a group of people. The idea that it is necessary to "do something" about the Jews is so deeply engrained that they can't get past it. Quite a high-ranking man talks about how terrible it was in Latvia to come across endless batches of Jews being lined up naked, twenty at a time, on the edge of a pit and shot so that they fell down onto the corpses below. His outrage sounds genuine and visceral, the first quoted extract ends: "I went away and said 'I'm going to do something about this'". But he continues his story:
I got into my car and went to this Security Service man and said: "Once and for all, I forbid these executions outside, where people can look on. If you shoot people in the wood or somewhere no-one can see, that's your own affair. But I absolutely forbid another day's shooting there. We draw our drinking water from deep springs; we're getting nothing but corpse water there."
This combination of terrible shame and outrage and the inability to identify its real cause is striking and very frightening. The holocaust was done to people like me by people like me. Would I have been able to see what was really wrong? And if I did would I have done something about it? Part of me says of course, it's obvious, and it's so clearly vitally important. But then again, most people didn't. The people who could see it and dared to try to do things about it were very exceptional people. Am I an exceptional person? I think I'm mostly average. Anyway, a very interesting book, if depressing, and presumably at least reading it might make me more alert to the demonisation of groups in modern society.

Friday, 9 August 2013

1. I don't work on Space Weather but some people in my team do so maybe I should pretend I do. They have lots of beautiful images of solar flares.

2. You've probably already seen Patricia Lockwood's Rape Joke.

3. I'm thinking of getting this image as a tattoo -- imagine that the sun is my shoulder.

4. I'm also thinking of using more gifs, mostly ones with Lucille Bluth in:

5. Does it matter that 'RSS is dead' and some young people only encounter the internet through Facebook? I don't see why it should, because the internet has always been a thing where unusual people can band together to make a self-sustaining mass. In the playground anyone odd is side-lined; at University those odd people will find someone to be friends with; and the internet is one step beyond, so if you have a passion for the works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes you can make contact with the very few other people in the world who care, and that way Thomas Lovell Beddoes lives on. I will be very sorry if the internet loses this character. I will also be sorry if those young people don't at some point realise that they are themselves a sub-culture -- of course this isn't an easy thing for the young to see. Long live sub-cultures!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Two good things

1. This woman is just amazingly strong. Watch at least as far as from about 0:19 to 0:35 as she reinvents the push-up/pull-up in the scariest way possible. Also the music is good -- it's Running, by Paranoid Breaks.

2. I also really like this song and its Raeburn-influenced video. It's generally pleasant to watch and near the end there are ponies.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

80s pop video tropes

Because I was a kid in the 80s they seemed pretty normal to me. Recently two (2) pop videos have reminded me of them. Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines involves the eponymous blue-eyed pop star interacting with ladies' bodies with all the raw sexuality of an early George Michael video. It's quite possible that this is because he actually likes women. It's weird to watch a pop video which simultaneously makes you like the pop star a lot less for being in it, and a bit more for being clearly so uncomfortable. Pharrell on the other hand is obviously fine with all that "I'm gonna split your ass in two" stuff.

Feminism by the way is in big trouble. Actually let's not even use the word feminism here, it means different things to different people. Gender relations, and consequently the possibility of people having healthy relationships with those around them, are in big trouble. Things may actually have got worse since the 80s in this regard -- I've been getting involved with trying to encourage girls to program, which I'll blog about at another time, but I keep coming across seriously depressing statistics.

On the other hand John Newman, of Rudimental fame, is clearly the Rick Astley de nos jours. He looks like a fresh-faced under-nourished sixteen-year-old and sings like a man who has encountered all the troubles in the world. It's a good song. I remember people claiming that little Rick Astley couldn't possibly be the source of that deep voice but I haven't heard anyone say that about John Newman so maybe some things improve in this world.

Friday, 28 June 2013

An rss-reader and two songs

Google Reader dies on Sunday. I think my preferred substitute is The Old Reader.

I feel oddly uncomfortable about liking the latest Arctic Monkeys single -- they're not usually my sort of thing. The lyrics have an excellent end-rhyme-without-scansion thing going on.
Have you got colour in your cheeks?
Do you ever get that fear that you can't shift the tide that sticks around like summat in your teeth?
Are there some aces up your sleeve?
Have you no idea that you're in deep?
I've dreamt about you nearly every night this week
How many secrets can you keep?
Cause there's this tune I found that makes me think of you somehow and I play it on repeat
Until I fall asleep
Spilling drinks on my settee
It reminds me of John Fuller's Valentine, which is the only respectable modern love poem I can think of. Here's the actual music:

Anyway this is more my thing: the Pet Shop Boys celebrate dance music, with dancers wearing amazing Minotaur hats. When this album comes out I will probably have this track on repeat for a week:

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Books catch-up

I think I haven't posted about any books at all so far this year. I haven't been reading as much as in previous years, which I think is because my job involves so much thinking. And I'm doing a lot of rereading now I've got my books unpacked -- Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Hilary Mantel, I love you.

I read David Mitchell's sleb memoir, Back Story. Now, I like David Mitchell. He's funny and sensible, and when dealing with politicians he can be pretty acute in a Jon Stewart sort of way. What I learnt from this book is not to read the autobiographies of comedians, especially if I like them. It becomes clear as soon as he gets to Cambridge that he is exactly the sort of student who made Cambridge much worse for me both when I was an undergraduate and when I was a teacher. I loved theatre as a sixth-former, and went enthusiastically to lots of productions. By some point in my second year Cambridge amateur dramatics had completely killed it for me as an art form and I have never been able to take it seriously since. David Mitchell is not just the sort of person who killed it for me, he may have actually been one of those involved, since he was in the year above me and recounts how he auditioned for and took part in huge numbers of productions throughout his time there. The other side of the coin of his enthusiastic am-dramming was his avoidance of all work and actual learning. (He seems to have got away with this by tapping into some intra-fellowship antagonisms at Peterhouse, perhaps unaware that it would have been more impressive if he could have got them to present a united front against him.) This brought back memories for me of how frustrating it was trying to teach students who still took a school-like attitude to university and acted as if evading teaching was somehow a clever thing to do. I had one particular student, also at Peterhouse, who used to really annoy me by skipping my third-year Anglo-Saxon history seminars in order to rehearse for a student production of The Rocky Horror Show. He was a fool to miss those seminars, which were really good because all the other students were really really good. Anyway, now I have to avoid David Mitchell for a while on screen and in print, in the hope that I will forget the annoyingness of this book and go back to liking him. After all, who isn't a bit of an arse as a student? But I shouldn't have read this book.

I read nothing new in February, I just reread things by Muriel Spark, Robin Hobb, and Elinor Lipman.

In March I went on a Charlaine Harris True Blood reading binge. The books are much less dark than the TV series -- in particular with regard to Lafayette and Tara. I suppose when they made the TV shows they thought that a series set in Louisiana should have more black characters, but it's odd that the black characters take the brunt of the trauma. Also I read more Pym and Spark.

In April I mostly reread Kage Baker. I love you, Kage Baker. I also read Marian Keyes' new book. I think this may be the best book I've ever read about depression. Go Marian Keyes! I really love you too.

I read very little in May, but it was of high quality. I reread my favourite Kurt Vonnegut, Galapagos, and also A.S. Byatt's amazing The Children's Book. Really that is such a tremendously good book. I also read The Black Count by Tom Reiss, a biography of the novelist Alexandre Dumas' mixed-race father. This is a pretty amazing story. As a youth he was sold by his own father, who later sent for him and made him his heir. In post-Revolutionary France prejudices about race were all shaken up, and Dumas became a very successful general. Napoleon didn't like him, and it was Napoleon who eventually brought back all the racist laws. The novelist Dumas clearly idolised his father, whom he lost when he was just four years old. It's easy to see how this sort of idolisation contributes to the flatness about humanity which makes Dumas' books just great stories. But the thing that really amazed me was the contribution of the French monarchy to the American revolution. I tend to avoid both revolutions as depressing examples of the swift perversion of good motives into awful events (which sometimes seems like humanity's defining characteristic). So I always thought of the statue of liberty as a gift from France to America to say thank-you for the idea of being down on kings. Perhaps everyone else already knew this but the American revolution would probably not have happened without the wholesale support of King Louis XVI. By opening up another front for the British Navy -- essentially a front that consisted of all the coasts and oceans of the world -- they divided British forces and gave the Americans the extra space they needed. Which makes the whole "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" thing look not just rude but stupid. The French got essentially nothing from this expensive war, and although they probably largely did it just because annoying the British was something they enjoyed, there's some suggestion that young, not-very-bright King Louis actually liked the idea ideologically. (Paris fashion embraced the idea of "insurgents" and came up with crazy things like lightning conductor dresses, with wires trailing to the ground, in honour of Benjamin Franklin.) So one of the last acts of the Bourbon monarchy was to help set up the American republic. Then again, because of my ignorance I had always thought that the bankruptcy of the French state which led to the French revolution was due to the extravagant lifestyles of the nobles built on the work of starving peasants. But however much silks and jewels cost, they can't compete for sheer crazy expense with a war. French support of the Americans emptied the French treasury, opening the way for the initially reasonable revolution and the Terror that followed. The American revolution was like one of those epiphytes that feeds off its host and then kills it.

I've had a mixed reading month so far this June. Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies is fully as good as it should be. I also really enjoyed Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, though in a mildly exasperated sort of way. As a writer he has a lot of chutzpah. He's good enough to carry it off, though from time to time you want to say, really, who do you think you are? Because you're not Pynchon. Dark Matter, billed as an adult book from YA-author Michelle Paver, was spooky enough but I could not for the life of me see why it wasn't a YA book. There's some great YA stuff out there and I don't mean the term YA pejoratively, and this had a sort of simplicity about humanity which works better in that market, I think. Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife blew me away. It's a novel based on the life of Laura Bush which I put off reading for a long time because it's a novel based on the life of Laura Bush, but eventually I gave in to all the good reviews. It's quite uncomfortable in places, maybe in a similar way to We Need To Talk About Kevin but less overtly so. I liked this, from when the heroine is considering getting a divorce: "Even putting up with him might be easier than not putting up with him -- being the beleaguered wife, propelled forward, given a sense of purpose, by my troublesome husband." That seems unfortunately true to life, to me. Disappointing, however, were two books by male British authors who I think are actually friends in real life. I was quite enjoying David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet until it swerved off into bizarre and unnecessary Orientalism that I actually found quite offensive. Oh those fiendish Orientals! The paperback I read came with an essay at the end in which Mitchell congratulates himself on having written historical fiction, which is OK, you know, because the Anglo-Saxon chronicle has some dragons in it and is therefore clearly historical fiction too. David Mitchell, you did not write historical fiction, which is and always has been a perfectly respectable genre in no need of justification from you, you wrote a trashy romance. Lawrence Norfolk's John Saturnall's Feast was likewise not half as interesting as its author clearly thought it was. It too is essentially a trashy romance, in this case of the flourishing genre Civil War romance with some cod English rural paganism baked in. Both these novels are the sort of thing that I read voraciously and casually when I was a teenager, and I might have enjoyed Norfolk's at least if I had come across them in battered old copies in a charity shop. But these are both by big hyped male authors, reviewed in all the review sections, and talked about on pretentious American literary blogs. If Maria McCann had written one of these, and Norfolk or Mitchell had written As Meat Loves Salt, it wouldn't have made a difference to McCann's fame, and Norfolk or Mitchell would be hailed as having produced a masterpiece. I like the trashy romance genre and I'm not saying that men shouldn't be allowed to write one, but to do so and then pretend that you've done something interesting and groundbreaking just shows up your profound ignorance. Boo. No more Mitchell for me, but I'll read the next Norfolk in the hope for a return to his original crazy, Pynchon-Chabon style form.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Two (2) things I love

1. I love that although it has been quite warm for just a few days today at Exeter bus station I overheard someone complaining about the "heat wave".

2. I also love this track by Giorgio Moroder:

He's 73 years old!

Monday, 27 May 2013

A few things

1. I think it's quite interesting what this whole "Internet of Things" thing says about the human mind. We like to represent the abstract with the physical -- we like symbols that are more than just symbols, and are in some way actually are the thing they mean. I quite want this little printer that makes flipbooks out of gifs, even though I know both the printouts and the camera would just be more junk in my house.

2. Charlie Stross wrote something interesting about spimes a while back, pointing out that it makes a difference whether the spime was started on the internet or in what the kids call meatspace: "my cat is a spime, but she was instantiated via another cat". I like Stross's blog enough that some day I may revisit his fiction.

3. Fuzzy rainforest caterpillar looks like Donald Trump's toupee

4. There are some good weather maps on the Met Office's website. Go to the five-day forecast page -- click on "Get detailed forecast" in the 5-day forecast box on the front page, or try going straight here. (This will give you the chance of rainfall as a rough percentage, by the way, which is a bit more grownup than the usual pictograms.) Then click on the Map tab at the top of the table of information. You'll get a map with tons of different options available as radio buttons down the side. My favourites are: temp. map; cloud and rain; and surface pressure. The cloud and rain are based on satellite imagery (though of course the forecasts are predictions of the satellite imagery). For surface pressure you might need to zoom out to a UK-wide rather than a local perspective. If you click on the play button underneath the image it will improvise an animation by showing you a series of images -- it might have to do one cycle slowly before it has them all loaded up, depending on how good your broadband is. I do like to watch the Atlantic warming up the Cornish peninsula, or a band of frontal rain sweeping across the nation with little bubbles of cumulus behind it.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Ducks in the summertime

I've gone to my parents' house for the long weekend, mostly for IKEA-related reasons. This Easter my father, whom my mother says has never quite got over being an 11-year-old boy, went a bit crazy and bought huge numbers of fertilised eggs to hatch out. Also his silver pheasant has been laying a lot, and he's been hatching those out too. As a result we have a pen full of adolescent chickens, quails, and runner ducks, a pen full of silver and golden pheasants which are about at the older child stage, incubators full of turning eggs, and a set of six silver pheasants which hatched out yesterday evening. This morning I helped my dad move them from the incubator into a cardboard box in his study, because he's done his back in. They really are amazing when they're that little, with long legs and big feet which must have taken up a lot of the egg space, and scrawny bodies which join the legs to bulgy-eyed heads. They peep and peep because they want something. When I put my hands down into the cardboard box to put in a water-dish (mostly filled with stones, so they don't drown themselves) they immediately decided that my hands were what they wanted. I sat there for about a quarter of an hour with six sleepy chicks piled onto one hand; if I moved at all they would fall off and then scramble back on making loud noises. Eventually I managed to persuade them that the space under the heat lamp was a better bet, once it had warmed up a little. But what particularly charmed me was that in this time one of the chicks hopped down from my hand, ran off to a corner, relieved itself, and then ran back and fell asleep on my hand again.

Of course it doesn't do to get attached. This is sort of one of the big problems at the heart of being human -- you shouldn't get too attached to many things, but then if you're not attached to anything how alive are you? When I was eleven and had just started a new school I remember deciding that the answer was not to love anyone or anything (I was also experimenting with not believing in their existence, having come across the word solipsism goodness knows where). I tried really hard for a few days but found that it just wasn't possible. (I was a strange child but then again I think probably most children are strange, really.) Out of those six chicks, will three make it to adulthood? Others will die casually and unexpectedly of stupid things, or nothing. When I got here on Thursday evening my dad took me out to see the pen of younger pheasants. They have two heat lamps, but they do not necessarily have the sense to go under the heat lamps when they are cold, and one was lying stiff in a corner, in just the place where my father had found one dead earlier that day. I saw its eyelids flutter when another chick trod on it, so I picked it up and warmed it with my hands. It felt quite dead at first, but I took it inside and it started peeping and moving more. This was the point at which I wondered whether I had done a cruel thing, because it wasn't able to stand up alone, and it occurred to me that it might not regain the use of its legs. My mother said that yesterday morning all the chicks were running around happily. Two died during the day. I don't know if mine lived or died, but at least it isn't stuck there crippled, waiting for my father (or more likely my mother, who is tougher) to euthanise it. Nature is bloody depressing sometimes.

On the other hand, an actual wild duck decided to nest by our pond this year. She found herself a spot where she was so well camouflaged that you could look right at her for a while without seeing her, and she hatched out eight ducklings on Tuesday. My parents put an old polystyrene surfboard, with an improvised anchor, in the middle of the pond so that they have a retreat from the local cats, foxes, and badgers. We expect she'll try to take them to a bigger piece of water at some point, but an attempt she made to leave on Thursday went badly wrong when one of the ducklings managed somehow to get stuck in a ten-inch-high empty flower pot. My parents heard the duck quacking and quacking and went out to see what was wrong, so they were able to rescue the duckling. She hasn't tried to leave again since.

Every now and then the drake turns up. My father represents this as him visiting his family, but it's hard to be sentimental about ducks when you've seen Ze Frank's True Facts about the Duck.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

What I have been doing lately

For the first five months or so in my new job I was learning so much stuff all the time that it was utterly exhausting. It made me feel vulnerable but also young in a good way. I had a lull of a month or so and now I'm back to the same thing again. I don't think I have ever had a job where I've had to learn so much all the time, and think so much so consistently. All the jobs I've had as a post-doc have had at their core a sort of glorified data-entry, and any thinking I've done has been either for my own research (when I could find time for it) or very problematic because it involved getting my superiors to see that they were wrong. I'm glad I made this change but it's not what I was expecting. I took it for granted that I would have my exciting M.Sc. year when I got to learn new things, but that that would be my last chance to do thinking-learning for a long time (perhaps until I do a theology degree when I retire). Of course I realised I'd have to learn lots of new things in a job but I thought it would be along the lines of learning new procedures or software packages, like learning to use Powerpoint -- something you learn without thinking. Instead I'm learning things like Design Patterns, which are pure logic, and very hard. I assumed that I'd get good at my job eventually and then it would be boring, but it looks like maybe there will always be new things to understand because there will always be bright people out there coming up with new programming languages based on a particular logical insight, or new frameworks which handle particular problems through doing something unexpected and very clever. I find this wierd to think of. And I feel a bit like a sixth-former again, when I was doing two Maths A-levels and regularly coping with things right at the outermost stretch of my understanding.

The other thing I've done in recent years which has been right at the outermost stretch of my understanding is my edition of the Anglo-Saxon Charters of Wilton Abbey. My original plan was to give myself a year to settle into this job and then pick that up again and finish it off -- I still have the introduction to write, which will be fun, and all the indices of things like Greek loan-words to produce, which will be very hard. I do really want to finish that book. I feel mildly apprehensive about whether I have the brain capacity for both.

So, anyway, I still feel like I'm in the middle of a massive transition in my life, when I had expected that by now I'd feel like the transition was largely made. This job is not what I expected -- I think it's better, but I still feel a little disconcerted. I'm so glad I changed directions: to be honest I am a little bit in love with the idea of myself as someone who can be part of both worlds. If I'd gone the Computer Science route as a teenager (for a while I was certain that I was going to go into Artificial Intelligence and make neural networks) I wonder if I would have spent the last year doing an M.Phil. in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic? And marvelling at my new-found permission to think broadly (and cynically) about things pertaining to humans? I hope I would have.

Sunday, 21 April 2013


I went to my first hackathon this weekend. It was quite interesting. I was going to blog about it but I'm exhausted. Instead here's the one-minute version of that Daft Punk song:

Go Daft Punk! I think listening to this on repeat for a few hours might revive me enough to get off the sofa and microwave some lasagne.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013


I met up with some friends in Zurich over the weekend. In some spare time before the others arrived I went to see the Grossm√ľnster, where Zwingli got his Protestant on only a few years after Luther. It reminded me of a regret I have that in my time at Corpus Christi, which has an annual sermon to commemorate an otherwise forgotten John Mere, I never once managed to get off this joke (pause for effect): "Mere Commemoration? Sounds positively Zwinglian!" (pause for laughter)*

Zurich is remarkably expensive. There are no Starbucks in Rome and my friend who lives in Rome holds that this is a bad thing, so we went into one of the many Starbucks in Zurich to get her a chai latte. I got a small Americano, e.g. just a shot of espresso with some hot water, and it cost nearly four British pounds. Also a small bottle of water at the airport cost £3.75, but that was after security, when all bets are off.

Zurich feels rather small for such a well-known city. It is well provided with waterfowl, and also with large placards to help you identify said waterfowl. The shops all close on Sundays, which is a blow if you were planning to pop into a Coop before you leave and spend all your spare francs on ChocoFresh. I was addicted to ChocoFresh when I lived in Italy.

Luckily my friend from Rome brought me some proper Italian biscuits, which I have been sharing around at work. In a bit of a blow to my career as a Java programmer I found out today that the official rules for doing Java documentation include "Avoid Latin". Admittedly they seem to think that "a.k.a." is Latin, but they specifically say you can't use "viz.". It reminded me of a friend who was trying to force his email to auto-generate Subject lines for replies which started "anent:" instead of "re:". Anent is a good English word while re is not only Latin but from the fifth declension, the worst of all the declensions. He never managed it, and frankly it wasn't likely that he would, since he is a musicologist with little interest in computing. Now I am more connected to computing things maybe I should try to bring his dream to life.

* It's a joke about trans-substantation, and you should admire it like you would admire a dog walking on its hind legs -- "it is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all".

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Things I have learnt recently

1. If you want to start a conversation with the other programmers at your workplace, leave a Game of Thrones DVD box set visible on your desk.*

2. But when you put said box set into your bag and see it nestling next to the fifth volume of Augustine's Commentary on the Psalms you will feel slightly dirty. I can just imagine what Augustine would have to say about sexposition.

3. Augustine doesn't half talk about belching a lot. It reminds me of a thing my brother told me about how he and my sister-in-law went to a place in South America which had a religion that was sort of half Catholic and half-pre-Catholic, and they believed that burping was spiritual so they drank a lot of coca-cola before services, and then sat around burping in front of big pictures of saints.

4. They're going to "sunset" Google Reader. Now I'll have to use something slick with pictures in it. Boo! At least some things last:

5. Joss Whedon had made a film of Much Ado About Nothing with Nathan Fillion. Nathan Fillion!

To be honest, the trailer doesn't make it look great. But it's got Nathan Fillion in it! And the whole of the cast of Dollhouse, it looks like. And Nathan Fillion!

6. Here is a comic about how you can do anything you want in life. Go you!

* By the way, everybody thinks that the books were better. I have a theory that programmers read more novels than academics do...

Sunday, 17 February 2013

So it's another internet post then

I keep having thoughts I want to blog but they involve complicated things and I'd have to think hard to explain what I mean and not be totally incomprehensible as usual. Instead I am going to post some things I got off of the internet.

Here's an interesting thing about internet currencies. (I work with someone who is one of the programmers on bitcoin.) I think there's a huge difference between in-game purchases of hats, however unusual those might be, and bitcoin, which can be exchanged for other monies. Tuvalu is a place which should have been invented by Neal Stephenson.

I was trying to explain to someone the other day that the internet has made a huge difference to my usage of exclamation marks -- I used to recoil from them with upturned lip but now I find myself using them quite often, and I have a sense that that has become OK. The person I was talking to didn't have a clue what I was on about. But it's not just me, and here a properly articulate person talks about it.

Apparently Computer Science equals Facebook for Dummies.

The bloody BBC wants DRM in HTML5. For goodness' sake!

Men and women are quite similar apparently.

Saturday, 2 February 2013


In 2010 I was annoyed with First Great Western for not having a simple "Dr" option on their website registration, but "Dr (Male)" and "Dr (Female)". I chose the "Other" option as an ineffectual sort of protest. Now I get emails from them starting "Dear Other Rebecca Rushforth". I quite like this. At the same time as freeing me from the crushing expectations of being The Rebecca Rushforth it also suggests that I'm a bit alternative, like one of those sitcoms (Arrested Development, Peep Show, etc) which get low ratings because only interesting people like them.

There used to be a Rebecca Rushforth who played teenage league tennis in America. Now there's a Rebecca Rushforth who is Professor of Ballroom Dancing at William and Mary College, Williamsburg, Virginia. Rate My Professors has her down as "hot". Comments include: "Fantastic class! Professor Rushforth is incredibly easy going and a fantastic dancer!" I think it's quite likely that she's The Rebecca Rushforth, and she seems like she's making a good job of it.

I'm rather less fond of Virgin Media's habit of sending me emails starting "Dear null". It's hard not to feel a bit dismissed by this. But I did just phone them up to sort out a bill and a polite man in India constantly referred to me as Doctor, as in "Now, doctor, can you confirm your email address", or "please wait, doctor, while I transfer you to my colleague". I did like that. I don't go by "Doctor" in my work life. People don't seem to on the whole -- there are quite a lot of people with doctorates around, not just in the science areas, and everyone's very cool about it.

People being cool about PhDs is such a nice contrast to my previous life. It may well be that at some point I get all misty-eyed about academia, but at the moment I find that almost impossible to imagine. I used to quite like the PHD webcomic, but now when it pops up in my RSS feed I love it, because it reminds me of what I've escaped. Also LinkedIn keeps asking me if I know people whose work I used to find it hard to take seriously, and with whom I had to have dull earnest conversations at conferences -- pretending that I don't gives me a beautiful feeling of release. This probably counts as the zeal of the convert. But long may it last!

Friday, 1 February 2013

Some more things

Neil Gaiman has long claimed that Tasmania is wonderful. I just got this email from a friend:
Instead of having wall-labels, MONA, The Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, gives visitors a mini-iPad with interactive features. The icon for more in-depth info about an artwork is a cock and balls with the caption "Artwank".
He found out about it from this blogpost by David Byrne of a visit to the place. It does sound pretty cool.

The American Storycorps project is very excellent. I think I've posted about it before. It's a huge oral history collection, and sometimes they animate interesting recordings. This one about one of the astronauts who was on board the Challenger when it crashed went somewhere I wasn't quite expecting. It's very good.

Also not quite what you think it's going to be, and very much worth watching, is this:

I think it's from an old British clips show. Are those the dulcet tones of Denis Norden?

Plus there's another video by that excellent dancer:

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Some internet things

I keep intending to write long, meaningful posts about the world and things, but my brain is stuck on Java and how I can't get Eclipse Juno to work. Even if that were interesting I don't have enough articulacy to write about it properly -- I can barely explain my problems to my co-workers. So instead here are some random internet things interspersed with a few small thoughts I had.

1. I love xkcd. There's an xkcd for everything. Here is a very good one which puts really well something I wittered on about incomprehensibly in a previous blog post (see item 2).

2. Watch this super-excellent video, made by a recent commander of the space station on her last day there! It's really very good and strange. There is no up or down! If I were a teacher I'd get my class to watch it.

3. I think this is going to be the year of rereading. I've been unpacking boxes of books which I packed up in 2007. They are full of goodies! I am currently rereading Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, which is very excellent. I'm also rereading Gaiman's Sandman books.

4. I find Gays of South London entertaining enough. (Devon is somewhat heteronormative.)

5. One of the things I'm going to post about at some point is weather. I spent last week learning about it. I know why it's snowing! And I can now identify different types of cloud. I know what an occluded front is, and why Britain is so warm (for its latitude). There are tons of really good things about this on the Met Office website.