Saturday, December 31, 2005

Old acquaintance

The impending newness of the year drags me, shamefaced, to my poor neglected blog. I could say that I've been busy getting festy in the festive season, which would be true insofar as I have spent as much time as possible garnishing myself with brandy cream. Unfortunately, that means that I've not had a single new thought. Or a thought about an old thought, my more usual MO. So instead, here is a roundup of things which I will blog about most wittily and perspicaciously as soon as I emerge from my month-long carbohydrate induced stupor.

  1. Steve Fuller's The Intellectual, which my mother sent me for my birthday six months ago which I got around to reading yesterday as part of the Great Thesis Procrastination Project 2005 (new manifesto pending). Fuller is recently in the spotlight for deposing in defense of teaching intelligent design in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which is another story altogether. I can't decide exactly how ballistic I'm going to go about the book. Possibly very, with lashings of withering sarcasm. Or maybe just straight-up outrage, with no sarcasm. Watch this space. But in passing, even though I said I wasn't actually going to blog about this yet, the inside flap notes about Fuller on the very sexified matte dustjacket (with spot varnish coffee cup, hem hem) say that he is a "trainee multi-media public intellectual", which I take it is supposed to be a cute witticism designed to endear the professor to us. Whatever. But dude, seriously? Is that website part of the witticism about being a trainee? Christ. My eyes are still bleeding from the wood-effect wallpaper. Ahem. Much more cerebral put-downs to come.

  2. The new Nespresso coffeemaker that Christmas put into the kitchen. Have I sold out? The jury is not yet in. But damn, the coffee is fine. Perhaps I am biased by the stupid yet evocatively delicious names the coffee capsules have, like Arpeggio and Livanto. But more on that later when I am fit to make a joke.

  3. World politics. What the fucking fuck? Generally I am more scared of anyone speaking in the ludicrously earnest and bloody annoying "activist" register than I am of anything they're objecting to. But that was before I worked out that I am living in 1936 Berlin.

  4. Expatriatism. I'm having an identity crisis. I find my accent becoming strident suddenly. What does it mean? (Possibly a wholly-owned subsidiary of aforementioned Great Procrastination Project).

I promise to have some thoughts. Happy New Year.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Stuff I Don't Get, Part Forty-Two

I don't get perfume commercials. The reason that I don't get perfume commercials has something to do with my love of commercials. Especially since the advent of "freeview" pseudo-cable in the UK, there really is nothing good on free-to-air television. Except the commercials. Certain of the advertising artists out there have truly mastered the art of the evocative. Bunnies lining their burrows for the John Lewis spring sale. Robins alighting over the crisp sheets waving in the wind, for the fabric softener you'll put on sheets that are never going to wave in the wind. An older couple smile goofily and disarmingly at one another over the picnic-bedecked bonnet of their car, in some mountains somewhere, for pensioners' car insurance for cars that never leave the garage. But you're there. In a second, you're in the mountains, you're feeling sheets dried in the breeze against your cheek, you're the Honda grooving in the carpark, you're the bunny whiffling its nose and you swear you smell just-mown hay. Wait. Did I say smell?

You'd think, wouldn't you, that this would make the matter of advertising a perfume, a smell, ferchrissakes, a walk in the park for these people. I mean, that's what smells do, right? They put one in mind of something. They conjure something. They evoke something.

Wait while I don my perfume-advertising-hack hat. Let me see ... I need to conjure something light, and floral. Tada! I conjure ... a chick in a clingy outfit with come-hither eyes! Genius! How about something darker, more patchouli-based? Don't blink. You'll miss it. Or, for your quel avant-garde unisex scents, a chick and a guy come-hithering together. Or really kick ass with lots of semi-naked chicks and guys!

I love fragrances. I'd buy twice as many if the advertisements worked with the associations that came with the smell instead of the ones that supposedly accompany the chick with the fan blowing her hair whom I'm supposed to want to be like. But hey. It's Christmas. And it could be worse.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The path to villainy

As I was saying, The Dark Side is manipulating my weak[ened] soul. I have a certain job at a certain academic journal. The irony of this is not often lost on me, given the almost farcical reliance of my entire future upon the decisions made by persons just like myself at certain other journals. But I digress.

In my job, I get unsolicited emails from persons not unlike myself offering to write pieces for the journal. (Let's call it Journal Y). Since anything unsolicited is subject to your usual sadistic blind peer-review process, I generally accept these offers unless they are utterly insane. Which is actually more often than you might suppose, but I digress again.

Some time ago, I accepted one of these offers from a guy, call him Thorn. As in, in my side. Thorn wrote his piece and then proceeded to install himself at number one with a bullet on my all-time shitlist. Thorn has writen me umpty-ump emails about this one measly piece for Journal Y. He requires that I acknowledge his emails within a single working day, or I will receive a second email letting me know that I have not yet acknowledged his first email. Since the day his piece was received, he has emailed me on average once every ten days to check on its progress. We should note that the standard appearance rate in a hot-shit journal is about 2 years. Journal Y is not a hot-shit journal, but the point is, Thorn is crazy. And he's making me want to kill him very creatively. But wait, I haven't got to the supervillain part yet.

Finally the damn thing is accepted, signed bloody sealed and delivered. My plan was to shoehorn it into the very next available issue, no matter what the Higher Ups had to say, and then skulk off home to dab iodine gingerly on my chronic thorn-wounds.

But, I'm sure you see it coming, the kind of tipping-point event designed to convert frumpy secretaries into vessels of evil is upon us. Today, I received another email from Thorn informing me that (1) he'd like an update on the progress of his piece, (2) he'd like to write another piece for Journal Y on subject Z.

Xtin dons supervillain catsuit

BwaHAHAHAHAha! You are never writing a piece for this journal again, my poor deluded little friend! You have choked yourself on your own carcinogenic annoyingness! You may now kiss my shiny black latex ass before I cram my six-inch stiletto boot-heel down your scrawny sanctimonious throat!

fade to black

Oh, this is terrible. And I will never know if I hate him because he's an idiot, or because my piece for Journal Q is overdue.


Silence has prevailed on my tiny little outpost of the blogosphere due to some virus colonising my digestive system. Cruel and bloody unusual.

But it did remind me of the childhood wonders of AstroBoy, and his ass-launched machine weaponry. According to AstroBoy Online, the guns are "technically in his hips". Whatever you say, boys, but you might want to have a word with the boys over at, who are calling them his butt-guns.

As a kid, I was always impressed by the spectacular pragmatism of the butt-gun. Astro could grab the girl, lauch for safety with his rocket feet, and still kick the bad guy's, uh, ass. How rational is that? I could never get those crazy superheroes who hung around to get whipped by the sociopathic bad dude and his poisoned green vapour when they always had some seriously hardcore fast-travel method. Sure, squash The Big Bad like a bug, but get away first. Unless you have a cool destiny-linked deathwish or something, of course.

I have my suspicions lately that I am shaping up to be the sociopathic bad dude fuelled by bitterness and the kind of narcissism that leads to the development of devilish world-dominating technologies and attracts henchmen prepared to wear matching outfits. I'll take mine with a cold dish of misunderstood.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

PhD is good for me

This poster is on the wall of the tearoom at my department. It has a bizarrely apposite role in the iconography of my life. Quite what one's PhD might be for, or what value it might have, is often rather obscure. In my case, very often indeed. But the general panacea for these anxieties is some general thought of the form, "Of course it's not clear to you. But fear not! It is Good. Everyone thinks so!"

Which just makes me think of DDT.

Second, and assuredly more disturbingly, one of my professors (Dr X the fungi nut, not Prof Agent Smith) has likened me to the woman in this poster. Twice.

God knows, the cow looks happy.

Achtung karma

The new moon has struck! The screen of my long suffering, sadly aged Toshiba Satellite 3000 has bitten the dust. New beginnings, indeed. I must say this what not what I had in mind. XP, fade to black.

I have my suspicions that the karma bug has bitten. "My computer broke" is "the dog ate it", redux. I tell my students that I never want to hear that their HD crashed or the RAM failed or the disk got corrupted or whatever, because it is always a lie. Ahem. I delicately wiped the egg yolk out of my eyebrows as I cancelled my students for the day, what with not actually being able to read their papers an' all.

Now my laptop is plugged into ye olde cathode ray tube monitor which is playing electric chicken with my neurons via the migraine-worthy interlacing refresh rate. Yo. Me and EM radiation are like this.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Soon there is a new moon. They are the harbinger of, no kidding, new beginnings.

I hope that is true, because this blog has made me excruciatingly aware of the fact that the things that run through my mind are on a schedule like the meals at a psychiatric facility. Mondays, stew. Wednesday, roast. Sunday, pancakes. Tuesday, haiku. Thursday, existential angst.

But I do have a new pair of boots. Watch me blaze trails.

Tuesday haiku

Strangely, the rug curls
Around the foot of the chair
As though it's frightened

Wild frontIkea

Yesterday I took a trip to my local Ikea. I say local. But, its spectacular and longstanding erudition notwithstanding, my hometown is in the sticks, so it took about two hours to get there involving multiple trains and dangerous overpass-hiking. (See note on frontierswoman spirit below).

My favourite latest improvement at Ikea is that it now offers a Home Assembly service. Of course, I am not impressed by this because I want anyone but me to assemble my Ikea purchases. Heavens no. Wielding the allen key and the vast planks of birch laminate makes me feel like an urban frontierswoman. The advantage is that the price of aforementioned Home Assembly is now marked on all of your flat-packed dream items. I have always thought that the information that one really requires on that hangtag, rather than a breakdown of just exactly how many old-growth forests that were pulped in item's production, is just exactly how much of a protracted pain in the ass the simple home assembly will be. Because it will be. Make no mistake, I can put together a 80x202 Billy in 16 minutes. (Yes, I timed myself. Which kind of tarnishes the frontierswoman effect, but what the hey). But it will be a pain in the ass, and the more parts you have, the more permutations of horror proliferate. Moving parts? Take a valium. But then don't use the cordless drill.

Of course, no big surprise that Ikea doesn't want you to know just how many blood vessels you're going to pop in building your Alve desk bureau with extension unit.
But now, Ikea can hide no longer. The information is right there. They might just as well have ranked their furniture by pain-in-the-ass.
  • Home assembly price: £10
    Pain-In-The-Ass Quotient: one star.
    Simple. Clank, bzzt, clank, bzzt, done. One unit Frontierswoman Satisfaction.
  • Home assembly price: £20
    PITA Quotient: two stars.
    Slightly more effort. One or two expletives likely to be uttered. Possibility of one of the components going in backwards by mistake. Two units Frontierswoman Satisfaction.

  • Home assembly price: £40
    PITA Quotient: five stars.
    Maddening. Sixteen different kinds of screws and other attachment technologies. Error necessitates complete dismantle. Spirited narration of sailor-blushing type. Hyper-organised borderline-OCD construction strategy involving careful sorting and categorisation of each component comes to nothing while searching for thirty-fifth self-tightening drawer-stopper screw-assemblage. Frontierswoman veneer abandoned for stiff tot.

I am undeterred by the £50 assembly price on my preferred Alve bureau. But like any good frontierswoman, I am now prepared.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Today's thoughts on academic job search

Do not run. We are your friends.

Excuse me, I have to go get my ass lasered lodge another application.

Three bugs up my butt

  • The word "explicate". God, but that is ugly. It invokes someone getting sputum on the muffin I am about to buy. I am not even going to honor it by investigating its etymology, but I take it that it is a vile back-formation from "inexplicable". Because, you know, "explain" and "describe" and "analyse" or even, god help us, "deconstruct" didn't already cover the bases. You have to sound like sputum as well.

  • Shrinkwrap. Incredibly environmentally unfriendly, and I cannot get that shit open. Like, ever. Morally inexcusable, and makes me look stupid. What's to like?

  • Fonts with amazingly ugly ligatures. For the past eight weeks I have had to read a section of this otherwise perfectly respectable, if rather patchy, anthology of debates. The font in this book (10 on 12.5 Rotis Serif), an otherwise pleasant and readable type, has the most spectacularly vile "fi" ligature I've ever seen. As the wiki article helpfully notes, the point of the "fi" ligature is that the dot on the i interferes with the descending loop of the f and so the ligature absorbs the dot into the descending serif of the f, and the eye sees both the loop and the dot, although actually they are the same. The loop of the Rotis Serif f, however, does not extend as far to the right of the letter as in many other typefaces (technically, the x-width of Rotis is narrow). This means that when you delete the dot off the i in "fi" (and just for kicks, this book is in epistemology so the most usual and indeed ubiquitous instance of it is in "justified"), the loop of the f doesn't even approach the point at which you expect to see the dot. Every time the ligature appears is a smack in the eye. The automatic activity of reading, until that moment completely transparent to you, screeches to a halt as your neurons scream Alert! Bad command or filename. Abort, retry? and you blink as if a flash photograph got taken and there are purple afterimages dancing on your retinas.

    Linotype claims that this face has "become something of a European zeitgeist". The .pdf sample page, which you can have a look at before you hand over your 25 euros for the privilege of hurting someone's eyes, contains not a single fi. Now there's an issue for consumer affairs ...

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Tuesday haiku

Book. Keys. Handkerchief
sleeping in a ball, hems crossed
over its checked nose

Monday, November 21, 2005


Sometimes I indulge in a little self-chastisement (not to say a little flagellation) in the matter of my fantastically over-earnest pursuit of Truths in (lord save us) Life. I raise my internal eyebrow at myself and note witheringly that I should get the hell over myself. Not least because maybe I'm a relativist. Probably not, but maybe.

But today I discovered that I don't know from earnestness about Truth. Not at all. I'm just saying.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

After noon

It is a platitude that the great force of human creativity is a means of dealing with the relentless, bladelike grief of being alive. I'm not so sure about this, as it might just be part of the story we like to tell about the Agony of the Artist, a lie that we tell ourselves about what it is to be authentically human, that it is to be angry and in pain, so that we need not torture ourselves more than we are already tortured. But still it seems to me that there is such an exhausting amount of energy involved in this grief, and I am not a poet. I do not know the pebbled, cobbled, dirt, asphalt, grassy paths of music and I am wide-eyed and often frightened in the face of those who do. I cannot draw.

So I am sitting, marooned in the tumult, and I cannot sharpen it as They do, distil it into nib or note. Instead like the others marooned I grasp at the things which The Others have made, tearing pieces from their pieces and clutching them to myself as though I might slipstitch them together, throw them in the air over and over until they came down arranged into something I might have made.

From Shaler's Fish
draining the land into raw salt and a poverty of sand and judgement
and I am balanced on one foot, assuming that the next step is groundward
but wherever the ground is, blood.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

My heart glazeth over

I was in London today to see the Samuel Palmer exhibition at the British Museum. (Notice the ".ac" extension. Nice). The exhibition was wonderful. There were some drawings of trees which competed for depth and silence with real trees. There was one of a willow which H said was the first she'd ever seen which succeeded in putting the tree into a stiff wind. And she was right. My favourite was a study of some cyprus in Italy which you could have put your hand straight into and out the other side into Narnia.

Dazed with the odd satiation that comes from spending time paying attention to beautiful things, we wandered out into the brilliant glare of Christmas-shopping season on Oxford Street. Of course, the right thing to say here was how dismally the garish displays of cheap tat paled against the noble beauty of the art of the soul. But nay, dear reader, I am as easily seduced by the wonders of the boutique section at Topshop! And oh, the wonders! Aladdin has nothing on this four-storeyed Cave of Cheap Couture. I coveted the tweed skirt with ruffled hem, the Victorian-style buttoned knee boots with stacked heel, and the obi-style tops with diamante detailing. And about eleventy-zillion other things. H and I had no desire to ruin our Topshop high by actually queueing up and buying anything, so we danced down the street to the fabulous solidity and Corinthian columns of Selfridges. Which, once you make it through the completely blinged-out handbag section milling with the kind of tourist who lives only for The Bag, is beyond the wildest cornucopial dreams of the modern girly consumer. So we consumed some Krispy Kreme from the food hall. Original glazed, ma bien sur.

I cannot go on. I have not even told you about the Arts and Crafts show on the top floor of Liberty, but I am becoming verklempt. Bless you, London, and all of your great gifts.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Once more into the beech

We went for a walk in a beech wood just outside of town today. On the way there we passed a new residential development draped with that strange construction fabric which prevents pedestrians from being hit with flying debris. Or keeps the whole thing gift-wrapped so that people are more likely to buy off the plan, perhaps. Around the middle of the big gift-wrapped development there was a ribbon of enormous larger-than-life posters of people living their lives wearing expressions of ecstasy as a result of Private Leisure Facilities and Total IT Connectivity. Shudder.

Mercifully we were shortly beyond the precincts and parked in the layby favoured by the local doggers. The eroticism of this boutique activity escapes me in the same way as Mile-Highing. Aircraft toilet? How is that sexy? On the other hand, I don't know why the woman in the white bikini on the giftwrap poster with the indoor swimming pool shared by 450 Exclusive Residents was having a transcendant moment. Clearly the cultural moment is passing me right by.

The wood was gorgeous. Quiet and cathedrally, as beech woods tend to be, because there is nothing growing in them except beeches, and in this wood, a wild privet hedge around the edges. And a frost-hardy fungus or two. H picked them and sniffed their gills, because that's what you do. Neither of us knew what any of them were, though. We said hello to a blue tit, who behaved like an old guy who doesn't like neighbours much. He cocked his blue beret and let us have it. My Collins bird guide says that it was a "scolding series": ker'r'r'r'rek-ek-ek. *Lock and load* Get orf m'propertay!

Blackbirds, on the other hand, rustling like ninjas in the first fall of leaves. Shhh. rustle,rustle Silence. rustle,rus... Beady eye appears. Hello blackbird! It is huge with cold and privet berries, which are everywhere.

I'm home now, and my bird is eating the sugar sprinkles left over from a donut I bought earlier. Ah, nature.

Mother Knows Best

Do you know what really makes me crazy? It is the fact that because I am five years older than most of my grad student peers and have comfy, snuggly looking boobs, I get to be the Matriarch of the Tribe. This means that I possess the putative Knowledge about ... yanno ... Sex 'n' Stuff. For god's sake. I am as stupid and ignorant and insecure as the rest of you. OK, although maybe I've had more sex.

Monday, November 14, 2005


I am the sleeping goat. Reel in the fish, for the love of Mike!

First frost

Goodbye, fungi. See you next year.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Sign o' The Times

Hey, all you stalkers! The back of my head is featured in Friday's Times HES. And my PhD gets related to fungi. I could cringe myself to death, but instead, let's celebrate my first ever citation!

A round of drinks please, bartender.

Once upon a time

My friend S, a brilliant and ludicrously dry and witty cultural historian, and I have lately been discussing the power of The Story of Your Life. I'd link to what would undoubtedly be her fabulously inventive and witty blog, but she doesn't have one. A travesty. (Are you listening, S?) Anyway. The trouble with The Story is that you write it into your head when you're 18 and it takes 15 years for you to realise two things. First, your Story is now officially retro. You were supposed to be doing the part that comes after happily ever after, right now. At first that doesn't really matter, because you move the Story a couple of years ahead every couple of years. But eventually, that doesn't work because the story all at once doesn't scan any more. Even if (ahem, just for example) the white charger and its worthy cargo were to arrive right now, it would be wearing last season's armour.

The second thing you realise is that this is not the only reason you need a new Story. You need it because, were the charger to gallop into view, stamping and snorting steam and jingling its fairytale bridle, you'd probably raise an ironic eyebrow at it.

I need a new Story. I think I'm waiting for an amnesiac assassin.

Lest we forget

The poppy seller nearest my house is not this gentleman, but he might be. He is rather taller and finer-boned, and has the kind of perfectly-combed silver hair under his beret that you are certain would have the faintest aroma of old-fashioned hair tonic, if only you could get close enough. He speaks sofly and deferentially, like those who are accustomed to being deferred to. He has the sort of demeanour and gentle, frank goodwill in his face that makes you think National Service is a fantastic idea.

I bought a poppy from him. So, apparently, did everyone else I see around here -- including the groups of ten year olds who hang out in the mall out the front of which he is stoically and benevolently parked. They probably have no idea whom they supported by buying their poppy, nor what the poppy itself commemorates, nor why it is a poppy at all, rather than, say, a piece of ribbon or a daffodil.

And you know what? It doesn't matter. Their poppies commemorate it anyway, pinned incongruously onto the faux-fur lined hoods of their pink and blue and purple winter puffer jackets.

And it is worth seeing the look on our poppy-gentleman's face as he sees that everyone that passes has a poppy. Because in truth, no matter how much any of us knows about what the poppy is for, its importance is utterly negligible to anyone but he. Clive James said of the atrocities of WWII that if we could have any idea what it was truly like, we would die of grief.

I'll wear my poppy in gratitude that I have nothing to forget.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Bourne again

So I'm watching The Bourne Identity, and I'm deciding that Jason Bourne is the most irresistible representation of of masculinity ever commited to film. It's a great movie. It's brilliantly shot, even more brilliantly cut, and as H pointed out at the time, glamourises Europe in a way that hasn't been managed since the heist flicks of the 60s. But all this is as naught against the hypnotic magnetism of our hero.

He speaks German and French and has bullet holes in his back. He can kill a guy with a ballpoint pen. He can escape from the US Consulate in Paris by flinging a security guard down the stairs and ripping the evacuation map off the wall; lose the gendarmes by doing a handbrake turn into the oncoming traffic at 60mph in a stick-shift mini. And (this is the killer) he has no idea who he is.

He breaks a German policeman's wrist with the kind of masculine proficiency that usually goes with a flinty, Vin-Dieselesque detachment, but instead bewilderment struggles with purposiveness in his eyes. (Sidebar: no mean thespian feat, that. Kudos to the criminally underused Matt Damon). He paranoically wipes the hotel room for prints and then sits quietly in the corner watching the girl sleep. His eyes are limpid with relief upon coming upon the first passport, for it contains A Name, only to have the hurt, betrayed bewilderment return with throat-constricting disappointment in the face of another name. And then another. And another. He takes the handgun out of the safe deposit box as though he has handled a firearm thousands of times, but there is a gingerness about it, because he doesn't want to know this about himself.

He looks at a map like he is the Terminator processing information, he runs as though escape is important but he is afraid of nothing, he drives like the car is an extension of his hands, he fights with the brutal grace of the man thinking of nothing but outcomes, a man unworried by his own power -- he can do anything, but he has no idea what to do.

The completely rampant sexiness of this combination is a stroke of narrative genius. Which is part of the reason that The Bourne Supremacy made none of the fatal missteps that usually make sequels so insipid. Sequels so often screw it up because the bewilderment is gone, the force of not knowing is gone, the whole thing jumps the shark because the epistemological imperatives are all taken away, the motivation withers to nothing and all we are left with is a car chase. Or some SFX. Or another prize fight. Or whatever. But Bourne's second outing doesn't make this mistake. Jason knows the score by then, he knows what to do ... except he doesn't. Bewilderment still struggles in his eyes along with the purposiveness.

He still has no idea what he will do next. This makes for awesome cinema. Especially since it might be using a toaster to blow up a house.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Thursday haiku

Class, fright in their eyes
Robin on the parapet
Winter is coming

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

One of these lives has a future

Of course, the structure of academia is insane. However, like a mad scientist, it has its moments. The genius of the system is the fabulous craftiness with which it cashes in on the raging, pathological neediness and insecurity of its poor little members -- particularly those who play with the font-size in their CVs a lot.

Our hunger for legimitacy and recognition is so voracious that we are prepared to identify almost anything as counting for it. (Or almost nothing, but that's another story). The slightest tang of acceptance, of being allowed to sit at the grown-ups' table, and we'll do anything. Anything.

They (you know, Them) know this. They know that they can get you to do things that require bizarre levels of commitment and expertise (possibly expertise that only you possess) merely by implying that your abilities have value. The spotlight of recognition is so heady that you are nailed down shut into the dark airless coffin of your commitment before you even begin to realise that they just got something for bordering on nothing.

I know this. And I still got nailed down today. My professor (We'll call him Professor Agent Smith) can't be in town to give one of his lectures this term. Prof Agent Smith is famous. And also famous for his lectures. He asked (very nicely) if I would be interested in giving the lecture he has to miss. He noted (very nicely) that he thought I would do a great job.


I'm down for the count. I'm lying on the floor, gasping like a goldfish. Trapped in the spotlight like a rabbit. I know perfectly well that the CV points and petty-cash kudos that I will get from Prof Agent Smith for doing this will not even begin to offset the ludicrous amount of work that this one lecture will be, and that any reasonable expected-value analysis, were I even to resemble a rational agent at this moment, would tell me that my time would be much better spent working on my writing sample for the application package to Big Name U, which is due 4 days after I have to give the lecture. But at that moment I was a function approaching orthogonal to rational, and of course, I'm giving the damn lecture. I wasn't even his first choice.

We tell ourselves that somehow all these things will some day come together into a huge, orbiting, planetary mass of brownie points that will transform us into tenured full professors. But we are deluded. Unless your brownie points are peer reviewed, that is.


Yesterday, I was out fungus hunting again, in a forest near a US airbase. I spent four hours with my hands in damp moss and leaf litter, hoping to find an edible lactarius or two, while combat aircraft practised approaches overhead.

When I got home, my wellingtons made damp rippled footprints in my carpet. I didn't notice that for a while, wandering around feeding the bird and putting some washing out to dry and watching the news with half an eye. But as I came down the stairs later, I saw my bootprints in the carpet -- a small corrugated emboss of my foot on each step. I thought, look! Someone has been here! Look, you can see where they turned the corner ...

I knew it was me, of course I did ... but somehow I was struck by the fact that my stepping, my having been, on the ground, in my house, around people's lives, simply never occurs to me. I never leave footprints because I am only ever thinking of the step I am about to take.

I thought of the spaceboot print on the moon. Undisturbed in the breezeless lunar air and in the iconography of our little Western minds. I was born on the anniversary of the moon landing.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Fungi Hunter

On Sunday afternoon, I went out hunting for mushrooms with Housemate H and one of our professors, who among a lifetime's worth of other illustrious achievements, is a complete fungi nut. I shall follow the example of H's very fine blog and call him Dr X.

And, dear readers, I happened to find the rarest mushroom Dr X has ever seen, in thirty years of mushroom hunts. Yes indeedy, that is me holding the object in question in the picture. It is squamanita paradoxa. Its unusualness springs most punnishly from the fact that it is a parasite: it uses another mushroom to grow itself. It bursts, a la Alien, from the interior of something else. Which is why it looks a little like a grafted fruit tree. The other mushroom in the picture, the one nestling in the moss on my palm, is an intact specimen of the hapless human body from which the monster spawn ... sorry, the species of mushroom from which the squamanita has sprung.

I am wracked with guilt. Why is it the vacant-eyed newbie birdwatcher who always spots the ultra-rare red-capped conifer warbler? The casual snorkler who finds a Spanish doubloon under a dead sea sponge? Dr X is beside himself with excitement, but I'd have loved it if he'd spotted it, instead. From a few paces off. Thinks, no ... it couldn't be. A few paces closer. Surely not! Impossible! Only one sighting in UK history! Closer. Confidence dawning. He crouches. He inspects. The hair is standing up on the back of his neck. Egad!

But no. Instead, mushroom neophyte who's basically enjoying the walk around a forest in her wellies casually picks one and says, "Look, this one is cool. Its bottom is different from its top."

Jiminy crickets, readers. I could hide under my desk at the thought. It will be a just punishment if the most notable thing I do this year is find a rare mushroom. A newspaper is doing a profile of the fungi-hunting exploits of academics around here, and Dr X asked me how I would like my research to be described if they printed the shot of me and the mushroom. I laughed manically.

I don't think he knew why.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Salon Baby

I hate a link that takes you to something that you have to register to see. Even worse, a link that takes you to something you have to pay to see. How tantalisingly cruel is that? Even if you know that what's behind the iron-link-curtain is probably not worth the time it takes to think up some random password or other, the Not Knowing is just excruciating.

So pardon me for breaking all my own rules, by pointing you to this article by Steve Almond at Salon, which made me laugh out loud four times, which may be a record for anything I've read before 11AM on a Wednesday. You should subscribe, anyway. I bet you think that there is more brilliant, free content on the internet for you to read in a lifetime, so there can be no possible reason for paying for some. Who am I to argue? But you're wrong.

My favourite part of Almond's article is this:

I find all book festivals depressing, because we writers are so disappointing in person, so awkward and needy and choked with status angst.

Egad. Just what I've always thought about conferences and academics. Of course, some academics are special, and are truly gripping in person. But I've come to think that is something which floats completely independently of being an academic. They had charisma, and meatspace-skills, before they ever lined their office with the latest issues of Mind. Or, they didn't.

The way that the mythology of The Writer works means that although the cult of celebrity hounds them onto panels at literary festivals, ultimately they can argue that it doesn't make a shred of difference whether or not they themselves are even interesting, much less whether they can fascinate people in person. The point is The Book, or (heaven help us) The Text.

That might be true.

But even if it is true, I worry that something of this lurks in the minds of academics. If I can produce searing analytical prose from my dusty garret piled with dog-eared journal articles, slightly wilted pot plants and first editions of Wittgenstein, then that's all that matters. I can be as awkward and obtuse in person as I like. I can go to a conference and read my paper, badly, with my nose pressed closely into the pages, and fumble with my useless overheads crammed with twelve-point type. It's all in the text. But it really, really isn't. Academics are not writers, even though writing is perhaps the flagship of their endeavours. Academics purvey ideas. They (brace yourselves) teach. And I don't just mean apathetic undergraduates. I mean everyone to whom the academic might like to convey her work. If your work is any good, then it should be the kind of thing that no-one has thought of before. And if that's true, then you have to teach it to people. You have to explain how it does what it does, and why it makes any difference. Anyone who thinks that their written work exhausts that responsibility is surely mistaken.

One of the most (perhaps even the most) influential works in twentieth-century philosophy is Kripke's Naming and Necessity. Kripke never even wrote it down. It was transcribed from a series of lectures he gave at Princeton in 1972. It's not hard to see how much this affects the genius of the book. Simple, declarative sentences and the cadence of a conversation you're having with someone who's very, very smart. Spare, pared-back everyday examples that the audience can hold in mind and which don't require Kripke to number his propositions and refer back to something-something-prime-star four pages ago. Something of the narrative lingers around the lectures, the draw and swell of beginning, middle and end that is so absent from the relentless and encyclopedic feel of much of the literature.

We would all love to steal a little of Kripke's genius, and we should start by remembering that most of it is spoken.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Off de Waal

Edmund de Waal is a ceramic artist. He makes pots. At least, that's the way he describes it. He's also an academic of particularly fine standing who has written several books. As an aspiring academic, that impresses the hell out of me (not least because he's only 41) but really, I'm interested in the pots.

I'm a philosopher of science, nominally, and I don't know anything about art. At least, not in the sense that the people who comment on de Waal's books have in mind. Of course, that makes no difference to the pots, plates, drawings, linocuts, woodcuts, letterpress work, watercolours and glass which take hold of me and don't let go. But it does make it twice as exciting, for my sudden love of these things has both the thrill of the vertiginous plunge away from understanding, and the irresistible draw of the mysterious, like the fascination that attends watching two people converse in another language.

I found de Waal's work through one of my other mysterious loves: teapots. Actually, I don't think it's that mysterious, because I think teapots are plugged into our aesthetic DNA somehow. They are like one of the cultural tropes that appears everywhere, like quest myths. But I digress. I bought a catalogue from an exhibition called Time for Tea that the British Council staged for its collection of teapots. (I was persuaded by the Eric Ravilious woodcut on the cover). One of the pages features a pair of de Waal teapots. They were a soft green. The sort of thing that made me want to throw all my furniture into a skip, and have nothing in the house except the teapots on the mantelpiece under a single halogen spot.

Descriptions of de Waal's work always include the authenticity rider, that declamatory insistence on the most outre of ceramics that they are "intended for everyday use", as though this makes them somehow less pretentious, more real, more down-to-earth, somehow, than cups and pots and dishes intended just to be decorative. This has always puzzled me a little -- what is so wrong with something that is meant just to be beautiful? A thing which is pretentious is pretentious even if someone really serves tea in it or puts a flower in it. And a beautiful thing, a thing as gorgeous, as unpretentious and organic as de Waal's teapot, does not need to actually pour tea for me to long to hold it in my hands. But perhaps it is knowing that it might quite easily be enveloped in a cloud of hot jasmine-scented steam that makes it as beautiful as it is.

And of course, some part of me knows that no-one should put the teapot under a halogen spot. It would be twice as compelling crowded on a shelf with a few jugs and a vase, a nest of cups, a couple of walnuts in a Moroccan dish and a fading bunch of cornflowers, and perhaps a picture of your grandmother.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Money laundering

I've noticed lately that being stressed is not antithetical to being bored, as one might suspect. I'm not sure what it says about me that I have always thought that if stress is not exciting, it must at least be ... diverting. But apparently not. At the moment, I'm as stressed as I've ever been. Doctoral study has had hundreds of years under heavy selection pressures to develop this particular kind of grip on the mind. But apparently, this has no effect on my current case of boredom, one so crushing that I pity the poor trawlers who stumble upon this newbie blog. I can't tell the difference between the interesting and the mundane at the moment. So let me tell you about my money laundering exploits.

Recently, my housemate H discovered these fabulous hard fruit candies, the name of which now escapes me. They had some punnish slogan on them about being 'clearly good' because you can see straight through them. I thank God I wore my corset, I think my sides have split. We'll call them Bad-Pun Candy. Bad-Pun Candy comes in various fruity-licious flavours, and were particularly delectable according to the avian connoisseurship of our cinnamon green-cheeked conure, B. He would gleefully steal one Bad Pun Candy and spend the next half hour delicately plucking the greaseproof paper wrapping from it and then thoroughly gumming up the exterior of said candy with his little parrot tongue. Then, naturellment, when he got bored, he would drop aforementioned mass of gummy sugar and paper shards on the nearest convenient object of great value or maximum difficulty of cleaning.

This afternoon, as a result of my spectacular impecuniosity brought on by aforementioned doctoral studies, I was rooting around in the bottom of my handbag to see if I could scrape together a double-tall latte's worth of change. What I got was a handful of gummy fuity-licious legal tender. Thanks B. Now, my handbag is a very natty grey felt number from habitat. I love my handbag. It's bloody brilliant. No compartments, zippers, clips or snaps. Just dump it all in. Of course, the change is the heaviest, so the inside of my bag has an alluvial lining of Great British pence and hairpins with the lighter layer of receipts and squished-up Post-its floating on the top. Inter alia. So the good news is that as a result of the lining of change at the bottom of my handbag, all that was gummy was my money and not my felt. Small mercies, n'est-ce pas?

So I put my fruity-licious change-gum ball into my trusty Penguin of Death mug, and I washed my change in some dishwashing detergent in the sink in the departmental tearoom. There were a few undergraduates hanging around drinking tea with a vaguely stunned air, because the first week of term has just run them over and no-one got the license plate number.

They watched in silence as I lathered my twenty-pences and dried them on a yellow checked dishtowel.

I gave them all a winning smile as I left the room. Bless you all, but that is far from the strangest thing you're going to see this week. Trust me.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A picture of serenity

I am Joss Whedon's bitch. I saw Serenity this evening, which is an almost perfectly formed 120-minute entertainment. For some reason, I didn't buy popcorn, which was a big mistake. It's that kind of movie.

All the reasons you think you love Joss are there, sure. The assumption that The Audience Knows. The lemony-fresh one-liners. The cute finger-on-the-pulse touches, like the fact that everyone swears in Mandarin and pilots mumur haiku from Bashő. Women can kick ass without being in an S&M outfit. Shards of Star Wars spliced together with Aliens, tied together with spaghetti from westerns and laid sushi-style on a puck of wuxia rice. But the real reason you love Whedon isn't just that he's seen the same movies you've seen. It's that his characters have seen the same movies you've seen. You know that the crew of the Serenity aren't getting taken in by that there little gambit on the part of the evil Alliance, and why not? Because every fool in the galaxy saw what happened to Lando Calrissian! The Empire got to him first!

The fine piece of apparel pictured above is from the enduringly brilliant folks at thinkgeek.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Em-dash, I knew thee

I'm correcting some proofs. I stare minutely at academic articles and inscribe hieroglyphics into the margins when there's a missing space or a misplaced semi-colon. This is a strange task in the LaTeX era. In one way it's comforting. In another way, it's like trying to measure your eyelashes with a yard-rule.

The proofs are generated from the digital copy, which I already checked. When the proofs arrive, they have errors in them that weren't in the digital copy. I ask you.

If the proofs cannot be generated correctly from the perfect digital text, what hope do I have of introducing greater accuracy with my favoured black Uniball micro in the margins? Even ignoring the truly laughable amount of error introduced by the assumption that the typesetter, who managed to misunderstand the plain-text digital version, will understand my latest piece of graphic performance art, which translated, reads:
Delete comma insert period close up left insert left parenthesis close up right delete period insert right parenthesis close up right

Uh huh. Sure.

Jeebus. If I was going to know whackjob arcane stuff, why couldn't it be cool?

Reality? Is that you?

So of course, like most typically self-absorbed yet pathologically approval-seeking wannabe-intellectuals, I had my worries about this blogging lark.

On the one hand, no-one reads the damn things. How spectacularly onanistic must it be to know this, and yet post one's random musings on all and sundry anyway? Why not lie awake at 4AM and think one's thoughts at the ceiling, like a normal neurotic?

Even worse, on the other hand, everyone reads them. You might garner an enormous audience of fans and trolls. How spectacularly narcissistic must it be to think that your thoughts (or, for that matter, your covetous pictures of the latest iPod or your motherloving amazon wishlist) should occupy the representational space of anything other than a ceiling, much less a human mind? I mean, god, these people might be doctors or something. Or running the free world.

But then it hit me that I don't know which of these things might happen. So I hereby stick my foot right between Onan and Narcissus and welcome you to my ceiling.

Every audience and none. Bloody brilliant.