Uncle Tungsten and Australian madnesses
Schubert, symphony no. 8 in B minor, D. 759
“Unfinished”. This featured in Spielberg’s recent
Minority report to good effect.
- Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten.
This is a very enjoyable book. It is a mix of about three
parts science history to two parts autobiography, and Sacks does
both very well. The story of his childhood is an interesting
one, being set in war-time London and England, in a well-to-do
household (servants), in a Jewish extended family.
It’s a mix of autobiography and science because science was
a very importannt part of Sacks’s childhood. He became quite
obsessed with chemistry and did all sorts of neat experiments.
(Sacks mentions in passing that many of these would now be
impossible for a child to do. The chemicals involved are so
dangerous that no-one would sell them to children over the
counter.) Sacks was encouraged in his hobby by his family, and
particularly by two uncles. One of these is the Uncle Tungsten
of the title, a man who part-owned a light-bulb factory, and who
had lots of tungsten (used in filaments) on hand to show his
Sacks frames his scientific stories with plenty of
background about the science he was investigating. So, the
reader is treated to descriptions of the famous chemists of the
past (Lavoisier, Priestley, Mendeleev, among others) and the work
they did. This material is written engagingly and held my
interest, though much of the material will inevitably be
familiar to anyone sufficiently well-educated in popular
There is also room for quite a bit of material that is
completely unrelated to chemistry, and describes episodes in
Sacks’s life as he grows up. He has quite a traumatic time when
sent away to the country to be safe from German bombing attacks
on London, for example. There’s all sorts of family life
described, and I found this all quite fascinating. People’s
lives are usually pretty interesting to read about, and Sacks
writes about them very well, and often very amusingly.
To review next:
Arthur Ransome, Winter holiday.
I heard on the news this morning that the Australian government
had to act quickly yesterday to stop 13 Turks who landed on Melville
Island in the Northern Territory from applying for refugee status.
The Governor-General was called away from the Melbourne Cup stadium so
that he could do his bit on the Executive Council and approve a new
regulation to excise Melville Island from those bits of Australia
where immigrants can apply for refugee status. I don’t know why they
don’t just require wannabe refugees to present themselves to the
debating chamber of the House of Representatives in Canberra.
And what about this Melbourne Cup madness? The whole country
seemed obsessed by it yesterday. Lead stories in the radio news
bulletins were about this, and work-places had special afternoon
sessions to watch it on TV. How anyone can get in the least bit
excited about horse racing is beyond me.
Ella Fitzgerald singing the Cole Porter song book.
I’ve just spent much of today writing some course material to accompany the one(!) lecture I’m giving as part of the department’s
Logic Summer School. You can even
get it from
my new home-page. (This has
been carefully set up with redirects and the like to mask my old Cambridge
’S Marvelous: the Gershwin songbook. Classic songs.
- Arthur Ransome, Winter holiday.
This is a classic children’s book in the Swallows and
Amazons series. It was the fourth published, and is
definitely towards the top of my list of favourites. When
re-reading it recently, I found myself grinning at it for long
periods of time. Part of its appeal lies in the fact that
Ransome introduces two new characters, Dick and Dot Callum, who
view the Swallows and Amazons from the outside. This gives us a
novel perspective on familiar characters. The setting has the
same thing done to it, for it is the Lake District again, but in
its winter clothes. Finally, Peggy also gets to develop more
fully as a character when circumstances pull her out of Nancy’s
shadow somewhat. All of these new twists show Ransome at his
best, taking the reader into new territory with verve and
The whole book is also beautifully plotted, with a dramatic
finale in three strands, and lots of adventures leading up to
this point. Dick and Dot are good as new characters, adding
real variety to the six existing characters. Who could ask for
anything more in a book?
To review next:
Granta 83: this overheating world.
Christmas Carols ancient and modern, sung by the BBC
Singers. I wouldn’t buy a CD of carols myself you understand, but
this was a freebie with an issue of the BBC Music
Magazine. And Christmas isn’t that far off either; the
decorations are up in the shops around town.
- Granta 83: this overheating world
I was rather worried that this issue would be full of
alarmist non-science at the level of Greenpeace’s generally
incoherent propaganda. Pleasantly, with the exception of one
piece of rather apocalyptic fiction, which put me in mind of
John Wyndham, I enjoyed most of the material.
I particularly liked Matthew Hart’s The Greenland
Pump, which described Hart’s experience of joining a
scientific research vessel that was taking samples from various
parts of the North Atlantic. The ship was trying to gather data
to determine how the flow of oceanic currents that make up the
Gulf Stream may be changing. If the Gulf Stream were to weaken,
Northern Europe might become dramatically colder.
Continuing with the outdoors-y theme, I liked Philip
Marsden’s description of his trip to Mongolia, Wayne McLennan’s
description of rowing from Seattle to Anchorage (the length of
Canada’s west coast in other words), and James
Hamilton-Paterson’s philosophical piece Do fish feel
Finally, there were three interesting essays about the
situation in Iraq. These were all good, and interesting, and
told from different perspectives. Christopher de Bellaigue
discusses the looting incidents that happened in Baghdad’s
museums, James Meek describes being an embedded journalist with
invading American troops, and Nuha Al-Radi is very interesting
on the experience of trying to live a normal life for a month in
Julia Glass, Three Junes.
If you happen to be feeling a bit nostalgic about your home-town,
what better cure than to check out this selection of Wellington
Three Junes and Portuguese irregular verbs
Mozart, Divertimento in G, K63.
- Julia Glass, Three Junes.
This novel is a good read. It is divided into three
sections, each being one of the Junes of the title. The first
June is that of 1989 and describes a holiday to Greece taken by
a recently widowed man. Flashbacks to his family story are
interspersed with descriptions of his holiday and the people he
is on tour with.
The second June is in the mid nineties, and is told from the
perspective of the widower’s first son. This section is the
heart of the book, and again consists of intertwined stories.
One story is in “the present” and sees the son
return to Scotland, where he grew up, from New York to deal with
an important family matter. The other chunks of narrative are
all about the earlier stages of the son’s life in New York, and
his various relationships.
The third June is that of 1999, and is told from the
perspective of a younger woman, who has a distant connection
(via a couple of routes) to the family that is central to the
whole novel. This third June is something of an epilogue to the
novel, and relatively brief (though still a chapter or two in
length). Here again, the story is constructed by alternating
flashbacks with events in the present.
Plot-wise, Three Junes is really very
conventional. It is what I’d call a “family saga”,
with the story gaining its power from persuading the reader that
they care about what’s happening to the central characters, who
have the sorts of trials and tribulations that you might expect.
I think it does a pretty good job of this. The central
character of the novel, the eldest son who is the focus of the
second June, is well-realised. He seems plausible, and makes
comments about life and the people around him that ring true.
His family and the people around him are also well-drawn, on the
I didn’t think much of the third June. This was because so
much had been invested in the main family up to this point. Having
to back off and see them from a distance as the novel
closes, and to have their story mingled with that of another
character, with her own independent back-story too, was just a
- Alexander McCall
Smith, Portuguese irregular verbs.
This slim book is a gently humorous series of vignettes
about a ridiculous German professor of linguistics, Professor von Igelfeld. The charm comes
from the fact that the ridiculousness of the setup is allowed to
seem quite reasonable, and from the fact that everything is narrated
from the professor’s point of view. He doesn’t appreciate just how
much of an incompetent and bore he is, and the reader is carried a
little into his own odd view of the world.
Nor are all the stories simply
instances of von Igelfeld behaving stupidly or ridiculously. One story
has him visit Goa and it’s strangely fascinating watching his
reaction to the unfamiliar surroundings. The closing story in
the book is about a trip to Venice, and is a strange miniature
spoof of Death in Venice (this is also McCall
Smith’s title for this chapter), featuring a beautiful young
Polish boy, and a strange affliction in the city.
This book is slightly weird. It's certainly not guffaw inducing, but it's amusing,
full of character, and worth reading.
To read next:
Karl Popper, The open society and its enemies.
Mozart, symphony no. 27 in G major, K. 199.
A work-related link: a
story from Wired about voting computers. There’s a
right way to do things (that’s the Australian way, and given the stamp
of approval by ANU academics), and a wrong way (as done in the US).
(If you want more than my gross simplification, read the article.)
And there’s more: in recent top secret developments, I have become
involved in work looking at applying the mighty power of Formal
Methods to make that stamp of approval even more impressive.
PS: Australian copyright law really sucks, and music industry types think so too.
The sound-track to the computer game Railroad Tycoon
II. The game CD to this comes with more than a dozen tracks of
folk/country instrumentals that are really very listenable. I haven't
played the game itself in ages (old games don’t die, they just don’t
get played anymore), though I note that there is a part III sequel
A recent movie:
Spellbound. This documentary film follows eight
competitors in a recent iteration of the US’s National Spelling Bee
competition. The whole field consists of 249 children, drawn from all
over the US, and in at most the eighth grade, making them all about
12–14 years old. The finals of the competition are held in
Washington, D.C., and once the field gets down to a certain size,
it’s even televised on ESPN.
And this is a competition with no second chances. Get one word
wrong, and you’re out. After having been introduced to the eight
different competitors (well-chosen to provide great variety), watching
excerpts of their progress makes for compelling viewing. One example
is the young guy with parents who have emigrated to the US from the
Indian sub-continent origin. He struggles to get
“Darjeeling” while his intense father (who seems to take
the whole thing more seriously than anyone else involved) watches
despairingly from the audience.
There are charming interviews with parents, teachers and the
children themselves. You really want one of those that you see to
win, and you feel quite distraught when one is eliminated. Just take
some consolation from the fact that one of the eight does win it.
(They presumably filmed interviews with all of the 249 competitors and
then selected eight to screen after the competition had finished.)
So, if you get the opportunity, I’d highly recommend seeing this
very entertaining film.
Popper, The open society and its enemies.