Monday, 3 December 2001

Granta 68 & The English

Listening to:

Schubert, piano sonata in A, D959. Beautiful, wistful music.

Just read:

Granta 68: Love stories.

This collection of fiction and non-fiction pieces wasn't spectacular, but just about everything in there was good stuff. (Here's the contents page.) I particularly liked the story by Ruth Gershon about an affair between an English, Jewish woman and a Palestinian man, conducted in Israel (apposite perhaps given the horrible events of the weekend). I also enjoyed the non-fiction account by Keith Fleming about going to live with his gay uncle Edmund White in New York when he was a teenager. The last piece in the collection was another non-fiction account, this time of learning to be a doctor in 70s South Africa. This was very depressing. What amazed me is the inertia seemingly exhibited by most of the whites there; I'd like to think that if I found myself in a similarly screwed up country, and had the means to escape, then I would. Of course, those with the means to escape are often those who see least reason to leave, but I don't know how I could stay and feel complicit in what was going on. And of course, I don't know how many other countries were accepting South African emigrants. Finally, this issue's photo essay was a cool pairing of informal portrait photos from 20 years ago with similarly posed portraits of the same people in the present.

Jeremy Paxman, The English.

I got this book as a Christmas present in 1999, so I feel pleased that I'm back inside the two year gap between acquisition and reading. (I think I was there before starting Ulysses, but that slowed me down no end.) The English is a good read, but isn't very deep. I think it suffers because it doesn't offer any particularly coherent overall thesis. Paxman writes pretty well at the paragraph-to-paragraph level, and includes some neat anecdotes and statistics, but it's all a bit patchy. My guess is that he didn't want to be accused of reverting to stereotypes and generalisations (quite right too), so he is careful to pick out lots of things that point in quite different directions. My problem is that he never really seems to synthesise all this material.

There's lots of neat stuff in the book. I forgot to bring it in with me today, so I can't provide any excerpts, but maybe I'll remember on Wednesday.

Paxman is quite a famous BBC journalist/presenter, and has a bio-page on the BBC web-site.

To read next:

John Fothergill, An innkeeper's diary.

New Zealand have set Australia a target of 371 runs to win the test in Perth on the last day, and Australia have eight wickets left to do it with. Exciting stuff!

Wednesday, 5 December 2001

Links and things

Listening to:

Blossom Dearie, They say it's spring.

Important web-log moving note: David Chess (or more accurately, his log) has been temporarily exiled to Pitas because his domain-name has been stolen by aliens. Well, his ISP seems to have died, and it comes to the same thing. (If you don't already know it, David's log is a good read.)

Neat article: Robert Cringely on why Moore's law failing would be a good thing.

Bizarre story: Copyright infringement and Ulysses.

Forgot to bring in The English today, so no neat D. H. Lawrence quote. Oh, and the cricket was a draw. Still, it was an exciting draw.

Friday, 7 December 2001

Bill Gates just popped in

Listening to:

Couperin, Nouveaux concerts.

Grrr. Writing code to deal with (i.e., parse or tokenize) raw text is the most tedious part of computer science, and sometimes the tools that are meant to make this easy aren't quite up to scratch.

Bill Gates just came by. He's came to see his new building, after first having seen some of his scholarship students. Is this not terrible name-dropping? Well, it's not as if I actually met him: it was more a case of hanging about in the background with a bunch of others as he spoke to important people like Heads of Department and Vice Chancellors.

Thursday, 13 December 2001

Cambridge admissions interviews

Listening to:

Bach, St. Matthew Passion.

I didn't write an entry on Tuesday because I was interviewing prospective undergraduate students for college. The whole process is rather weird, and also invidious, because you know that roughly two thirds of the candidates are going to have to be rejected. The university has a nice set of pages about the process, which tries to be as reassuring as possible, but it's still pretty intimidating for the students. I also can't help wondering how well I, at age 17, would have answered the questions I, at age 30, asked.

I'd share the questions just to convey a sense of the sort of things we asked, but we might want to use them again, so I think we'll practice a bit of security through obscurity. (On the other hand, you can always read about some interview experiences at sites like this one.) Or, if a candidate, you could get yourself professional help from these people. Spooky!

Monday, 17 December 2001

An Innkeeper's Diary & Conrad

Listening to:

Brahms, violin sonata #2 in A major, Op. 100.

Just read:

John Fothergill, An Innkeeper's diary.

I actually read this the weekend before last, but didn't record it because I missed my Tuesday entry afterwards. It's a lightweight, humorous book that describes roughly five years of Fothergill's life as an innkeeper in the Oxfordshire village of Thame, running the Spread Eagle Hotel. He was doing this in the mid to late 1920s, and one of the interesting things about the book is the way it reflects that period's different mores. Fothergill was very concerned to have his hotel reflect high standards, and he had little compunction about telling his guests off if they transgressed. This provides a good part of the humour in a Basil Fawlty kind of way, but some of his clients' sins seem pretty minor. He does things like tell Oxford undergraduates off for bringing shop-girls to dinner, and he insists that couples must be married if they are to share a bed.

There's plenty of name-dropping, though most of the names meant nothing to me, but the fact that he was hobnobbing with the rich and famous of his time is a reflection of the way he transformed the hotel into an institution with very high standards. I was even more interested to learn from the Introduction that Fothergill was a member of Oscar Wilde's set twenty years earlier, and quite the Bohemian aesthete that he later tends to turn his nose up at.

Joseph Conrad, Typhoon and other tales.

This is a collection of five stories, two quite long, and three shorter pieces. The first was Typhoon itself, being the story of a steam-ship on a journey to a Chinese city, carrying on the order of a hundred ‘coolies’ home after their tour of duty. The ship encounters a massive typhoon, and the captain takes rather a pig-headed approach to it, refusing to divert around the bad weather. This story is basically a very well told adventure story, with a number of different characters getting a chance to put their view of events. (None of the Chinese characters get a voice, needless to say.)

The next story is Amy Foster. This is rather a strange and unaffecting story, that is over almost before it begins. The Amy Foster character is rather inscrutable, which doesn't help. The most interesting part of the story is the account of how ‘Yanko’ made it from his birthplace in Central Europe to an English sea-side village, and his reactions to the bewildering sights he saw. Given that Conrad made a journey with similar start and end-points (Poland to England), there's probably a deal of personal experience bound up in some of the descriptions, but it's still rather an unsatisfying story.

Next was Falk. This story featured another impossible woman, but a trio of interesting men in a memorable situation. Like Typhoon, this story is also set in South-east Asia, and the atmosphere and particulars of the story are very convincing. The awful hotel-keeper Schomberg from Victory also makes an appearance.

The last short, short story is Tomorrow. I found this decidedly creepy, and a very nice example of a short story. It's about an old man who is obsessively waiting for his son's return ‘tomorrow’ and what happens when the son finally does show up. There are really just three characters portrayed in the story and they're all quite real.

Finally, the last story in the collection I had was The nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. When first published in the US, this was sold under the title The children of the sea because of American racial sensibilities. This is quite a good alternative title, because the story is all about the crew of the Narcissus and their child-like simple-mindedness and violence. The story covers their voyage from Bombay to London, and they are shown at their best in coping with the massive storm that hits them off the Cape of Good Hope. They cope less well with James Wait, the ‘nigger’ who claims to be sick for pretty well all of the voyage, and Donkin, a shifty trouble-maker. This is another great tale of sea-faring adventure, but with plenty of psychological meat, as the various interactions among the crew are explored.

To read next:

More Conrad, Under Western eyes.

Wednesday, 19 December 2001

FotR film reviews

Listening to:

Brahms, double concerto for violin and cello in A minor, op. 102.

The next version of HOL is just about ready for release. Look for it soon at all good theorem-proving systems outlets.

The Lord of the Rings film opens today in Britain. Reviews from the Observer, Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The New York Times.

My choice of reviews above was mostly determined by how easy it was to find them. Some online newspapers are decidedly unfriendly when it comes to finding material. (Indeed, the (British) Times apparently now has an official policy forbidding links from elsewhere to anywhere on their site except the front page. If I could find anything useful on their site, I'd link to it just to thumb my nose at them.) The Guardian/Observer site is easy to use and preserves links to reviews that may not be in that day's edition. I fluked the Telegraph's review by using a search function that seemed to give me every article in their reviews section, but the LotR at position 10 on the list. The New York Times seems best of them all, with an online archive organised alphabetically just two clicks away from the front page. Now who'd have thought of that? (And these articles are available despite the NYT's usual policy of making things inaccessible after 2 weeks; hurray!)