Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Back from London

Well. There’s so much that really can’t be written about in a way which would do it any justice; there are fragments that I can present, like Jonathan opening the door, the activity in the kitchen before Thanksgiving Dinner, the walk along the river in Greenwich, seeing the Oxford Street Christmas Lights from the Docklands Light Railway late at night… all these things.

There are more, of course — the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhbiition at the Natural History Museum, which was excellent but less so than last year’s and infested with young, male, real wildlife at every turn. The V&A’s new Architecture Gallery which exhibits superb architectural drawings and a truly gargantuan isometric, hand–drawn cutaway of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a superb wooden model of the Tempietto — and there I’ll stop because if I continued, I’d continue all night and that’s not what you’re here for. Yet. ;o)

What else can I tell you? Not nearly enough in a blog post. Not nearly enough about Saturday night at Retro Bar and Ghetto with Owen and Mage. In short, it was a few days in that most kaleidoscopic of cities, London. Even if Jonathan did feel melancholy sometimes. ;o)

Saturday, November 27, 2004


Originally uploaded by peripathetic.
Ginger, wood, wine, and a big bowl of salad. The aftermath of Thanksgiving night, Greenwich, 2005.


Originally uploaded by peripathetic.
The candle is from Greenwich. The leaf is from Greenwich. The table is from Habitat.


Originally uploaded by peripathetic.
More from thanksgiving. A happy cat, from Capetown. Supposed to be like a Benin Bronze, I'm told.


Originally uploaded by peripathetic.
Something from Thanksgiving night. A corner of the living-room, glowing with warmth.

Sunday, November 21, 2004


Haven’t heard any of the songs from this Finnish metal band, but as Giles pointed them out I found the website, and can confirm that I'd definitely give Jukka something to scream about. (He’s the bandana–ed brooder on the first screen of the site.)

Students as customers, students as workers

In this MetaFilter thread, there’s a great deal of discussion over the idea that university culture today is one of entertainment over learning. This is, of course, a generalisation and should be criticised as such: scientific, mathematical and engineering degrees are, I’m certain, full of immensely hard work, and while I’m sure they are made compulsively interesting by a few star lecturers, they are likely to be edifying or intellectual rather than actively enjoyable.

“Colleges don’t have admissions offices anymore, they have marketing departments,” a school financial officer said to me once. Is it surprising that someone who has been approached with photos and tapes, bells and whistles, might come to college thinking that the Shakespeare and Freud courses were also going to be agreeable treats? One result of the university’s widening elective leeway is to give students more power over teachers. Those who don’t like you can simply avoid you. If the students dislike you en masse, you can be left with an empty classroom. I’ve seen other professors, especially older ones, often those with the most to teach, suffer real grief at not having enough students sign up for their courses: Their grading was too tough; they demanded too much; their beliefs were too far out of line with the existing dispensation. It takes only a few such incidents to draw other professors into line.
Mark Edmundson, Why Read?

So is this dumbing down? In some universities, undoubtedly. Certainly, my degree was both intellectual and enjoyable. You could get an ‘average’, ‘respectable’ grade if you were intelligent, paid attention and took care over your essays. And if I had coasted along on that, I would have got a 2:2 — not that that would have mattered vocationally, because my degree was in English.

But in school, and later, in university, I had got into the habit of getting top marks by a combination of going out of my way for them. Not that I mean that coasting felt natural for me — it didn’t. I’m not boasting here, but I was damn good at my literary criticism and research. And I enjoyed tramping through that extra mile of text.

But did I enjoy it in the sunglasses, lounger, drinks–by–the–pool sense? Of course not. It was hard work, but was always intellectually satisfying and I felt that satisfaction even as the headaches, swearing, panic and late nights came and went. And I didn’t like it when I sensed even the vaguest hint of “Hey! This text is cool!” in a lecturer. I wanted to be taught, by force if necessary, that which would be challenging — and yes, even difficult — for me to learn.

That’s just really to make the point that there are students out there who do not demand entertainment of their degrees. Now let’s take a look at some liberal arts colleges in America which combine true intellectual enjoyment and rigour with a distinctly non–standard teaching arrangement which avoids cool or uncool by transcending them altogether.

Deep Springs College educates its annual enrolment of around 30 male students by means of rigorous intellectual academics and manual labour:

Students often rise before the sun. At 6:00 the dairy boys are already milking cows half asleep when the feedman gets up to do his first feed run. A farm teamer may have been in the tractor baling hay since 4:30. All of these people are especially thankful for the breakfast cook, who’s up early preparing the morning’s fixin’s.

But they’re not the only ones up. Some people pull all–nighters to get their work done. Others sleep first and wake up excruciatingly early to do classwork. At every hour of the day there are at least a couple people up, discussing Heidegger, playing chess, or strumming guitars.

If the cows break out of a grazing area, we need to gather them and fix the fence as soon as possible or they could bloat from eating fresh alfalfa and die. Labor emergencies can happen at any time of the day.

On Tuesday nights the community gathers for Public Speaking. Public Speaking consists of several short (10 min.) speeches, or sometimes lengthy presentations by only one or two students. Other special activities happen at night, too. A poetry reading group meets, committees convene, a bible study group gathers, and other cool things go on. But for the most part, students are hard at work with the next few hundred pages of Proust or Derrida.

St. John’s College has a single curriculum for all students, which is studied by directly reading the work of the most influential thinkers from Ancient Greece to the 20th century. There are four years of seminar, language, advanced mathematics, three years of laboratory science, and one year of music.

Students teach themselves by closely supervised discussion and enquiry; there is one compulsory lecture, for all students, at 10pm on a Friday night. Sometimes the lecture may be a concert. Last night’s lecture was “Old Comedy, New Comedy, and the Problem with Tragedy” and last week’s was “The Use of Infinity in Mathematics”

The following teachers will return to St. John’s next year:
  • Beethoven
  • Euclid
  • Plato
  • Tocqueville
  • Newton
  • Racine
  • Goethe
  • Galileo
  • Hume
  • Liebniz
  • Locke
  • Well, you get the idea. Plenty of different ways to get yourself a non–vocational degree and be pushed very, very hard indeed. If you’re interested in more ‘quirky’ colleges, then look here.

    Saturday, November 20, 2004

    “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

    A picture of a grey cat

    MetaFilter reports on a recent representation to the US Senate by Kansas’ Senator Sam Brownback, who breathlessly pants that we’re all in danger of becoming addicted to online porn.

    Aside from the examples you hear about — the office worker with his own room, playing jerky–jerky under the table for the whole day — I really do think that this is a crock of shit. First, every human being, if they function correctly, likes orgasm. Second, every human being, if they work correctly, gets sexually aroused by suggestive or explicit imagery which matches their sexuality.

    That’s different from addiction, even if people regularly look at porn. Addiction is a big scary word intended to make us believe we’re collective victims of some immensely powerful force we have no power over. Is porn that force? I think not. Besides, there are people in this world who just don’t find porn does much for them; there are people who use the net and have never seen a porn site. (Although I admit that they are somewhat in the minority.) And as for porn destroying lives: no. The reactions of a prudish society destroying the lives of law–abiding adults? Yeah.

    Anyway, Senate is being told to fund billboards warning people against porn. I wonder what effect that will have? Penultimate word goes to Brownback:

    Brownback, a Republican from Kansas and an outspoken Christian conservative who has championed efforts to curb indecency on television and the Internet, said the public is beginning to realize “they don?t just have to take it.”

    Heh. Quite so. I quite like giving it, too. Har. ;o)

    Mom’s Cancer

    “…it's as real as I can make it while condensing more than a year’s worth of events into comic strip form.”

    I’m utterly speechless. What a synthesis of humanity and art.

    Another true story: my mum’s cancer. (PDF)

    Off to kitchens old…

    …quite soon, and I’m not sure when I’ll be blogging before that, so I thought I’d queeze in one large post or a few smaller ones between now and then. We’ll see how it goes before Greenwich sees more of me.

    At this time of year, my thoughts turn increasingly to the contrast between the cold, crisp dark outside and the warmth inside. Particularly since we’ve some very cold weather in the past few days, with snow here in Belfast on Thursday night.

    When I think warmth, I think company, something to eat and drink — therefore food. And by food I think rib–sticking, rich stuff. So it’s nice to see a fittingly warm E–cookbook (by which I mean that the book is electronic, not the cooking): All About Apples (PDF download from the linked page).

    Aside from weather and food, presents are increasingly in my mind, and I’ve already earmarked this book, all about lost things, for my dad. He never reads this, so I’m quite safe. Sticking with winter, The Polar Express (the book behind the film) is on sale for those of you who need to tell Santa. And as for Santa, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Father Christmas Letters, first published in 1976, is a superb book. Try and get hold of the original imprint, rather than the revised edition. It’s made up of picture–letters full of elves and bears and snow, which Tolkien supposedly wrote to his children, and is as magical for grown–up children as it is for juvenile ones. ;o)

    What better to go with your books and your winter than some wine? Some 2001 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley for example? In a bottle which holds 1,200 glasses of the stuff? It’ll cost you — at this stage, $27,000 and upwards. The bottle is called ‘Maximus’, by the way. And you thought Nebuchadnezzars were big…

    Sunday, November 14, 2004

    The Uncanny Valley

    Still from 'The Polar Express'

    No, this isn’t a late Hallowe’en post, or a landscapes post. It’s about the reasons behind many reviewers’ distaste for the big animated Christmas movie, The Polar Express. From what you can see in the trailer (Quicktime needed), it’s been drawn by computers in the style of the original picture–book, but what really gets people is the inexplicably disturbing faces.

    And why are they creepy? Because our emotional response to anything humanoid but human–created (like toy robots, cartoons, animated characters) rises steadily as the humanoid looks more human.

    But there’s a critical point, just before any humanoid figure looks fully human to us, where our emotional response plummets to zero: we mistrust. We feel distaste, or fear — and that drop in the graph is called The Uncanny Valley (via Kottke). Why all this is so, nobody knows yet. But it’s interesting nevertheless, so I thought I’d share. Anyone have any ideas?

    I reckon it might be that figures like the characters in The Polar Express, which look very modelled, would be looked at like disfigured or plastic–surgery people if they were human, and that’s why we feel the usual distaste.

    Saturday, November 13, 2004

    Firefox vs. Opera

    Get Firefox!

    Get Opera!

    So, here we are in late 2004, and it looks like Microsoft’s cherished preserve, the web browser, is finally becoming less of a Microsoft thing.

    Firefox, which is produced as a small and fast–to–run, fast–to–view browser, is developed by many geeks throughout the world, and is attached to The Mozilla Foundation.

    Opera, which has recently posted its 7.60 (preview release 3) version, is produced as a small and fast–to–run, fast–to–view browser, and is developed by only a few geeks in Opera Software.

    First question: why the fuss about Opera over Firefox? Firefox over Opera? What is the difference?

    In a nutshell, web pages are written in either html or xhtml language, and this language has a correct ‘grammar’ for usage. If you use bad grammar, your pages won’t be perfect and some of their elements may fail on browsers which are built to decode the language completely gramatically correctly. Conversely, if you use perfect grammar, your pages will display perfectly on web browsers which are built to decode the language correctly.

    Except with Internet Explorer. Because Microsoft doesn’t use use perfect html on its websites and products, Internet Explorer is designed to display Microsoft’s bug–ridden pages as if they were written perfectly. It’s not using correct grammar to translate and display html for you. It’s like deliberately adjusting the prescription on your spectacles to be wrong, in the hope of making some weird things look right. But with the same specs you won’t see normal things correctly anymore. And that’s IE in a nutshell.

    The next question: why does it matter?

    It matters because every business in the world is mad about the internet, and therefore every product you buy, from your mobile phone to your computer to your bank account, uses the net. And so the net has to encourage its users (and creators) to all use the same correct grammar, otherwise things won’t be compatible with each other — in so many ways.

    So, since Opera and Firefox are both correct, why do we need both? Surely one would do? And since Opera arrived before Firefox, why is Firefox all over the news and Opera isn’t?

    Aha, good question. Well, Firefox is a tiny little browser with not too many features. You can add loads and loads of features to it really easily, but it doesn’t arrive with them all installed. Opera is a tiny little browser with an email program, a chat program, a flash plugin, different versions for your PDA and your internet–enabled mobile phone. But. The Mozilla Foundation, which makes Firefox, isn’t a company and it has hordes of admirers all over the world who collaborate on writing the software and are fanatical about promoting it. They’re going to take out a fullpage ad in the New York Times, for example, to let the masses know about Firefox. Opera Software, on the other hand, has a loyal multitude of users who have been around for years and greet each new release with microscopic eyes, finding out what can be made better but not being able to help in its evolution: the company does that side of things. And since it’s a company, you either have to let Opera display text or graphical ads, or pay a small one–off fee to disable them. Or you could just go here instead.

    Tuesday, November 09, 2004

    Movers (and shakers?)

    Over at ubiquity, Americans are being urged, with a gently serious grin, to move house if they want to influence the 2008 election. The rationale is that if you’re blue and you live in a blue state, you move to a red one and make it less red. After saying “Gosh,” (and let me tell you, I hardly ever say that word, either out loud or in my head) “how inspired!” I did a bit of thinking.

    I reckon that it’d be interesting to see just how many blue people you’d need in, for example, a state like Texas to really make a difference. There are an awful lot of very, very blue people in America right now, but here at peripathetic we suspect that they’ll become less blue with the onset of Christmas and the prospect of wine and firesides and pumpkin pie.

    Also — think of all those abandoned loft apartments, mansions, condos, streets and cardboard boxes in New York. The place would be like a ghost town! The Museum of Modern Art would lose its curatorial staff, creating a thieves’ open season, (does anyone know what, if anything, has become of The Scream?) and all the good male strippers would suddenly find themselves in a land of pole–less bars and hostile Sundays.

    Jonathan invites foreigners to marry into America to further swing the vote. I would… but… oh, never mind. ;o)

    Elsewhere, Slate says of the 9–11 Commission Report: ‘How a Government Committee made a piece of Literature’ and thereby reveals its complete philistinism — or that of the unfortunate who wrote the standfirst. You don’t ‘make’ literature — it’s not like a bed or a sandcastle. And what’s with ‘a piece’ of literature?! Huh? *sigh*

    The taller the building…

    …the longer the fall, and so it’s proved at Ground Zero in New York City. As the Twin Towers continue to endlessly fall, invisibly, violently and silently through the fabric of the country, so the site where they fall claims another life. A young man who was said to be depressed — so depressed, in fact, by the re–election of Bush that he shot himself within the Twin Towers site. The first person to do so. In a way, I think it’s all a bit kitschy but I’m not sure why.

    Elsewhere, a shot across the bows of the good ship Tobacco, with her grimy smokestack, from Gothamist — who seems to avoid answering the question of whether a woman living somewhere above a cigar–shop is being cigarred to death, and if so, what anyone at all should do about it.

    It’s fitting that so much talk of death should be punctuated by new life, and lo, the –ists brought forth a new baby, and called it Londonist, and laid it in a server–stack because there was no room for it in Covent Garden. Whether its location shall be marked with a star or you’ll journey to worship it is entirely up to you.

    A rather interesting meta–ish, meme–ish thing: 10X10. A hundred words and pictures that, according to MetaFilter, define the time, but which I think just tabulate the news in a cool way. (The site takes an idea from WORDCOUNT and makes good use of it.)

    Friday, November 05, 2004

    Helping America or hurting Kerry?

    Next time we Americans need help in an election, we’ll ask for it, OK?

    says Michael Schaub from Bookslut today. He’s talking, of course, about the recent Guardian letter–writing campaign to Ohio’s voters, urging them to vote. (You can see more about this in the October archives.)

    Michael seems to think that the Guardian’s intervention, although well–intentioned, did more harm than good. Maybe, but that’s simply an opinion: I’d want to see the numbers before I started using words like ‘more’ in that particular sentence.

    And that is precisely the problem. We haven’t seen the numbers. Hell, even America hasn’t seen Ohio’s numbers! And why? Because in Ohio (and the other States) it seems that a Presidential election is perfectly fine, and can be properly over even when hundreds of thousands of votes haven’t even been looked at and will go straight to the pulping machine!

    Now, I ask you. Is that electoral disenfranchisement, or is it not? Sheesh. The mind boggles. Why are these people not shouting to get 100% of their votes counted instead?! Beats me.

    (Oh. Hang on. Maybe it’s because, at the end of the day, the value of a person’s vote being counted rests on whether or not that vote makes a statistical difference. And in America it doesn’t because of the Electoral College. Hmmmm. I wonder what help America could give itself in advance of the next election…?)

    Meanwhile, take a look at the spread of votes in America not simply by State, but by County, here. And remember that maps don't assume an equal spread of population.

    Wednesday, November 03, 2004

    He’s back — but Kerry conceded early

    I could go into the facts and figures; the arguments; the disagreements; the technicalities. But it would all be in vain, and in any case I’m sure I’ll be blogging about the various consequences of this over the next few years.

    O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
    My tables,—meet it is I set it down,
    That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain[.]
    —Shakespeare, Hamlet I,v,106-08

    [This post was eaten by Blogger so I had to repost and lost an eloquent comment or two. Sorry.]