Monday, 12 September 2005

Back in action

Listening to:

Bach, cello suite no. 4 in E flat, BWV 1010. Played by Maurice Gendron.

“Whatever happened to August?” you cry.

Well quite. Part of the reason for my not writing much was the fact that I was in the UK for two weeks. I attended the TPHOLs conference in Oxford, and also visited friends and colleagues in Cambridge. Loyal though I am to Cambridge, I have to say that Oxford is prettier. It was a lovely venue in which to catch up with other members of my research community. Chatting face-to-face is by far the best way of resolving various questions, and of learning what other people think.

I have also been very busy with the course I’m currently giving to interested PhD students within NICTA. You can see the lecture slides and assignments as they appear on the course web-page. Gerwin, my co-lecturer, is lucky because he ran something very similar to his half of the course last year, and has lots of material already written. I am writing my slides on a “Just-In-Time” basis, and it does suck up quite a bit of my working week.

I leave you with a heart-warming tale of room-mates and bits of dissections in shared fridges.

Friday, 16 September 2005

Hidden histories

Listening to:

The sound of World of Warcraft in the background: crashes, bangs, and the wails of virtual creatures as they are brutally taken to bits by a troll rogue. (Nerf rogues!)

Just read:

Granta 85: Hidden Histories (contents)

Intriguing title notwithstanding, this issue of Granta doesn’t really seem to have any particular theme. There’s still some good writing to be enjoyed though. Among the collection, there was lots of good non-fiction. I particularly liked Diana Athill’s memoir of an unexpected pregnancy in the 1940s or ’50s; Giles Foden on the historical events that inspired The African Queen (a German warship on Lake Tanganyika, and the British response); Geoffrey Beattie on growing up poor in Northern Ireland; Brian Cathcart tracking down the fate of a guy (like him, also from Northern Ireland) with the same name; Daniel Smith on surgical “cures” for obsessive-compulsive disorders; and Jennie Erdal: very amusing on being a ghost-writer for an incredibly vain wannabe novelist with no real talent.

Of the fiction, I liked J. Robert Lennon’s Eight pieces for the left hand, eight cute miniature stories all set in a small country town in the US, and Jonathan Tel’s Put not thy trust in chariots. The latter, set in modern Israel, is simultaneously intense and inconsequential. It does a great job of conveying the humdrum realities of lives led under a combination of normal everyday pressures and the thought that innocuous Arab colleagues might really be terrorists.

Friday, 23 September 2005

Granta 86

Listening to:

Blossom Dearie, On Broadway, a live performance from Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London.

Just read:

Granta 86: Film (contents)

This is a ho-hum issue of the literary magazine. The theme is all there, and perhaps that’s the problem. Writing about film is a great excuse for pretentiousness it seems, and many of the pieces in this issue seem to prove the claim.

But let’s accentuate the positive, and talk about what I did like. Ian Jack, the editor, has a reasonably interesting nostalgia piece about the Lancashire cinemas he frequented as a kid in the ’30s and ’40s. Maarten ’t Haart is also interesting on providing lots of live rats to be part of Werner Herzog’s film, Nosferatu. This sort of thing does interest me; I can watch the credits of films and wonder at the enormous legions of people who seem to be required to make them. They must all have useful things to do, and pieces like ’t Haart’s go some way towards illuminating back-stage.

Thomas Keneally has a neat piece on how he came to meet a bag-maker in Hollywood who provided him with the story about Oskar Schindler. It was this encounter that led to his book, and ultimately the film Schindler’s List.

Finally, Andrew O’Hagan is good on the experience of being a film critic for two years (he rants about the perfidiousness of Miramax); and Adam Mars-Jones has an entertaining little rant of his own about bad soundtrack music.

Sunday, 25 September 2005

Eight little piggies

Listening to:

Beethoven, symphony no. 6 “Pastoral”. The Royal Philharmonia conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Just read:

Stephen Jay Gould, Eight little piggies: reflections in natural history.

This book is a collection of 31 essays, originally published in the Natural History magazine in what was Gould’s regular column, This view of life. Each essay is self-contained, and each is an interesting reflection on some topic in natural history, very broadly construed. For example, one of the essays starts off by talking about a contemporary observer of Mozart the child prodigy when visiting London. This gracefully leads on to a discussion of the way in which evolution works in a “modular” way, on systems or body components that can evolve independently of each other. (Gould cites the example of infant gulls and the way they “learn” to induce their parents to feed them.) Without such separability, evolution by natural selection would have a very hard time of introducing any kind of adaptation into organisms.

Another essay is an extended meditation induced by a visit to a quaint village in Iowa, one of the Amana colonies. These were founded in the early 19th century by a German religious minority, and now survive, at least in part, by selling tourists a vision of bucolic charm. Gould is a little cynical about this, but still admits to feeling charmed by the pleasant village environment. That is, until he finds the village graveyard, full of the gravestones of infant children. This he calls the Great Reminder, quoting Gilbert & Sullivan, of

the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own

Gould is equally lyrical on the needless extinction of snails in Tahiti; the unnecessary mocking of Archbishop Ussher (the man who dated God's creation in Genesis 1 to 23 October, 4004 B.C.); and how it is that land vertebrates all share a body-plan involving five digits at the end of each limb. It’s all good stuff: thoughtful and entertaining.