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.