Monday, 27 September 2010

The geek, according to the 10-yr-old

[assume that we can insert here some sort of standard apology for the long silence - really, the main reason I haven't written anything in three months is that I didn't feel I had anything fit to be shared with the world at large]

I know I am always going on about the gender divide in the sciences and particularly in computing*, but it's not my fault things keep happening that I feel the need to share with the world. The other day I had this conversation with my 10-year old girl scouts:

Me: ...and I have this t-shirt because I'm such a geek. [for the detailed-oriented among you: it was a 'this is a wug' t-shirt, and yes, they got it right]

Girls: No! You're not a geek! You're nice! And you look nice! [ah, bless their little souls]

Me: Huh? What is your idea of a geek?

G: They have small round glasses. And ugly t-shirts. And they're not nice.

Me: No! If anything, that is a nerd. A geek can be nice. [admittedly, a low blow on my part against the nerds, but hey]

G: No, that is a geek. And they spend a lot of time with computers.

Me: How do you know that I don't? In fact, my job involves working with computers and writing computer programs.

G: Reeeeallly? But no! You're nice! It can't be!

Me: **despairs**

I am pretty sure I am not alone** in my distinction between geeks and nerds, which sees the former as a more-or-less good thing, if slightly obssessive, and the latter as decidedly socially inept. In fact, you can be any kind of geek in my lexicon: a philology geek (ehm ehm), a library geek, a cookbook geek, etc. It just means you have a really intense interest in that area, but it doesn't necessarily affect your sense of style or human interaction. Randall Munroe agrees with me, therefore it must be true***.

Anyway, my point was not so much that 10 year old relatively posh girls can't tell the difference between a geek and a nerd, but that, at this point, the idea that geek=bad and computers=geek (and therefore =bad) is already firmly entrenched so that someone who is 'nice' (and I am flattered that my awkward interactions with them haven't persuaded them otherwise) cannot possibly have more than a passing interest in computers. Clearly there is a lot of work to do - and work that has to start a lot earlier than I thought.

I know that this isn't a representative sample of girls - that they are fairly sheltered, and girly, and pink-wearing, and all that. And I suppose I could see it in a positive light: hopefully I have played a small part in wearing away their stereotype, so that they might start to see that computer skills and social skills are not in complementary distribution. And it's not just about being women, though that is certainly a complicating factor - computing as a whole too often gets a bad press, and this just reminded me how all-pervasive it is, and made me sad. It's a little trite, but I suspect that this negative impression comes from some unspecified aspect of the outside world - tv? cartoons? parents? - because it's unlikely that they have encountered hard-core computer enthusiasts at their all girls' school. Which makes me think that a) the outside world is really quite pernicious and b) all girls' schools continue to sink in my opinion if one of their effects is to heighten traditional sex stereotypes in this way.

Ok, I am not making much sense. I can't decide if I am fretting more about the anti-computing sentiment (which I can't in all honesty entirely dismiss, having spent some time inside a computer science department) or the anti-women-in-computing one (which is my pet peeve). Either way, I guess, the answer is to get 'em while they're young - ideally not like this ("n
ow you can play with adorable babies and take care of cute kittens" - what happened to fighting dysentery and explosive bananas?!).

* Also, fear not, as I am rapidly developing another pet rant/crusade obsession, which I will be no doubt nurturing when I get back to the UK, so I will be able to diversify somewhat.

** Obviously this is the most authoritative, unbiased source on the subject.
No self-selection involved, oh no.

***Original here - the alt text reads "The definitions I grew up with were that a geek is someone unusually into something (so you could have computer geeks, baseball geeks, theater geeks, etc) and nerds are (often awkward) science, math, or computer geeks. But definitions vary."

Saturday, 3 July 2010


The problem with this blogging thing is that you start off doing it (semi-)regularly and then something or other happens that gets in the way of your routine and then you fall a little behind, and then you think you need more time than usual to do the blog post, and then you never find the time, and then you fall more behind, and then it all just spirals into a big swirl of guilt and delay and procrastination and gets abandoned entirely as it's easier. A bit like replying (or not) to a friend's email, except with more internal turmoil and berating. (or maybe that's just me)

Anyway, I seem to find myself more or less in that situation - I see that the last time I wrote something was the beginning of May, i.e. almost two months ago, and a lot has been going on in May and June all of which probably deserved some kind of nice prose treatment, but now...well, I think I will just sort of start writing, and see how it goes, and hope that I strike the right balance between endless rambling and pointless superficial observations.

...and then, of course, I had three very prettily crafted paragraphs, and something went wrong with Blogger's autosave, and it all disappeared...I am very disgruntled. So now all you get is a very cursory summary of my observations.

- Boston/Cambridge: had lots of fun, and loved Little Italy, and felt a strange pang when I overheard two people at the market speaking in Neapolitan.

- Devon: so so beautiful. Felt quite exhilarated by it all. I can't believe it's taken me so long to discover it (though I guess having a car helps). While Lyme Regis was maybe not the prettiest of the beaches, it had lots of excitement: echoes of Austen, as thrilling as being in Bath; perfect cream tea; and finding and keeping fossils, something I'd always heard about but never thought I'd do myself! I can't wait to go back, especially now that I have a friend conveniently located in Exeter.

- Oxford & friends & Pimm's for two days: no further comment required, surely.

- Edinburgh: seen it for the first time sans Fringe, and found it even more beautiful and fantastic. Perfect weather helped, of course - and I'm sure that if I visited in the middle of winter, some of my love would be lost. But, apart from an inspiring confernece, I spent many happy hours just wandering around and having my breath taken away at each turn - and I sort of feel the urge to go back straight away.

- Summer: here in full force, with temperatures regularly hitting above 30 (celsius). You'd think I wouldn't mind, but it is proving too much even for me at this point. Especially since I am either at work or at home, rather than, say, the shore, which would suit it much better. However, this has allowed for things such as BBQs, strawberry picking, and incredible amounts of produce from the farms, so I suppose I shouldn't complain too much.

- Facebook: among the things that got deleted was a musing on Facebook's usefulness in redeveloping, or strengthening, (real-world) friendships with people that we might have felt we just sort of knew before. I mused that this could be because the minutiae of daily life that get posted, or the other links/videos/photos, sometimes reveal shared interests or other points of convergence that might not have been as obvious when you were mainly in contact through sharing a college or a master's program. It is very pleasing to rediscover people this way, and makes it a real pleasure to then meet up in person and build on that.

- The Future: is ever nearer. No, seriously, all of a sudden this American adventure has entered its final phase and I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about it. Obviously I am thrilled to be going back to Europe, where I don't need a visa or health insurance, and where my nearest and dearest are. And where I have a job. But I am also trying to prevent the anticipation of it all from spoiling these last months here, since the summer is what Jersey does best, especially now that I feel I have a better hang of it all, and people to spend time say nothing of all the work that still needs doing before I leave. I can't quite believe it's been two years since I had my viva, packed up and came here. But maybe I should leave the introspection stuff to later on, when I will be packing up again.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

And I thought learning to drive was hard...

Since I last wrote, there have been all sorts of excitements and fun things - the highlight of course being the multi-part visit of Sandra, Sam, and Steven, which kept me on my toes with the ever-changing configuration of guests and sleeping and parking and train-riding arrangements :-) Oh, and which was also awesome, awesome fun though it did make me a bit wistful...Repeated trips to NYC firmly cemented my love for the city (you should have seen me bask in happines on top of the Rockefeller Center) and I am beginning to worry I will have withdrawal symptoms next year.

I also managed to fit in a quick trip to the Lake District with Nick, which was lovely - very relaxing and pretty and mostly cooperative weather and a very large number of small lambs which I never ceased to find adorable and photo-worthy (much to everyone's annoyment, I suspect) . But they are just too cute, how can you resist?!

I managed to successfully avoid any ash clouds; actually one of the highlights of the trip was the fact that I also avoided flying in or out of Heathrow, using Bristol and Manchester instead. I cannot express just how much nicer it is to use regional airports - being the only transatlantic flight coming in, everything being close together, hardly a queue at passport control, short waits for the luggage, quick ride home (well, ok, the drive from Ambleside to Manchester wasn't exactly short, but that's beside the point). I think Heathrow lost its sheen with me the Christmas before last when I had an eight hour layover (by choice) and it's never quite regained it. Of course, soon the issue of translatlantic flights will become less pressing, but in the meantime I am more than happy to give regional airports good press.

Except, of course, that you end up on much smaller planes - both times it was, I think, a 757, which has just two sets of three seats and a very, very narrow aisle in between - and there is something that just feels wrong about a plane that small doing transatlantic flying. And people feel they can take much longer asking you questions at check in/security - as well as being body scanned (no, you can't see what you look like, and neither can the staff actually standing next to the screen - apparently it's on a screen in some other control room. Bah.), the standard "did you pack these bags yourself did anyone give you anything" line became a third degree on the life story of the suitcase and its recent holiday, and was accompanied by the request to see a higher-than-average number of documents.

And then...we come to the even that the post title refers to, which occurred on my return: I was greeted by the discovery that a mouse (or more than one) had been partying in my kitchen in my absence, making its presence known, shall we say, in far too many places. To say that I freaked out is putting it mildly (and certainly the jet lag didn't help). I love my kitchen, and the idea that a mouse had invaded it with its germiness was just too offensive. Also, ever the good daugther of my phobic father, I quickly familiarised myself with all the possible diseases I could acquire from said mouse and how long I had before I actually died from one of them.

After some time of hand-wringing and cursing the murine gods, I realised that if I didn't do something about it, noone did (let us draw a veil over the helpful man at the hardware store who asked why I didn't just let my husband deal with it - we are in the 21st century after all) and went into disinfection overdrive, using bleach so liberally that I could have probably killed myself with inhalations before the mouse diseases got me. And then did it all over again, just to make sure.

I also followed various people's advice and stopped all the obvious holes I could see (don't even get me started on the state of this apartment, its age, woodiness, and general openness to the threats of the outdoors) and acquired several snap traps, having opted for those over poison after reading all the horror stories of people setting up poison baits and finding mouse cadavers in unlikely places or, worse, unreachable ones so they just made themselves known from their smell. The ones I got are shaped like little tunnels, the idea being that when the mouse is caught (and killed), you don't really have to see it, which I am all in favour of.

Anyway, I was unlucky the first night (cue another round of disinfection the next day), but on Saturday morning (at 6 am, thanks to a combination of jet lag and insomnia caused by obsessing over the mouse's plans) I was greeted by a lifeless tail poking out of one of the victory dance was curtailed by the realisation that I had to now pick the damn thing up and dispose of it and sure the spring was pretty tight but what if it got loose while I retrieved it and a dead semi squished mouse fell out? Even armed with two layers of gloves, plastic bags, and my trusty Lysol spray, the first time I approached it I felt physically sick and had to walk out of the kitchen - but I did manage it in the end (go me! Take that, Mr Hardware Store Man) and, interestingly, since then there have been no more visits. So maybe this was a solitary mouse who had moved in - or maybe he has a family who will wreak their revenge once their period of mourning is over - I remain vigilant (far too much - I now jump at every noise in the house and inspect every inch of the kitchen compulsively) and the traps remain in their place still.

Interestingly, I have discovered that people here mainly seem to view mice as an inevitable event, and shrugged off my freaking out with sensible advice and a complete lack of alarm (including my landlady, who said she has them "all the time", and even my NYC cousins). I am still not sure what to make of it, though I was grateful to have level-headed people around me in the time of crisis.

As for me...well, I did always say that I viewed this time in the US also a chance to test myself and see what I am capable of on my own - I didn't quite expect it to include battles with mice and centipedes (uuuuuugh the centipede! possibly less worse than the mouse only because it doesn't visibly shit, and it wasn't in my kitchen) and could have done without those particular life lessons, but I guess it's always good to find hidden strengths inside oneself? [this last part of the sentence to be read with valley-girl-rising intonation]

Saturday, 10 April 2010

A paean to Korean food, and Jamie Oliver takes America

(let it not be said that I never pick descriptive, straightforward post titles)

It was observed to me, and by me, that I have been writing less frequently. I guess in the first few months I was here, it was very important for me to recount what I had been up to each week, not just to share it with you all but also to remind myself of all the fun and positive things among the doom and gloom. As I feel more and more settled (just in time to pack up and leave again...), perhaps things that would have been really exciting and novel no longer strike me as quite so blog-worthy, which no doubt contributes to the longer gaps between posts. Also, despite being - as you well know :-) - rather self-centred and self-important, too often I feel that the things that are going through my head are not quite appropriate material for this venue, and so they remain unsaid (for the most part).

Having said all this, there are a few bits and pieces that have caught my attention in the last few weeks, so here goes, in no particular order.

Korean food had already received a fleeting mention a few months ago when I sort of learned to prepare jap chae, but I don't think I have ever fully expounded on how much I like it, and what a great culinary discovery it has been. Thanks to my Korean colleague and friend, I've had Korean barbecue twice at a fantastic place in Edison (sadly I don't remember its name - but it's the sort of 'local' place which seems to cater mainly for the local community of expats) and it's such a great meal - there is a grill/live coal thingy in the middle of your table, and delicious strips of beef are grilled on it, and you have various paraphernalia to eat it with, and random dishes of very spicy things (in particular kimchi, pickled veg - usually cabbage). Also, when Nick was here said friend had us over at her house for dinner, so we got proper home-cooked Korean food too - spicy stir-fried pork, and less spicy pork, and more kimchi and jap chae - it was so delicious, I could've eaten it all night. Basically, if you ever come across a place that serves Korean food, try it out. It's than Chinese food (which I am choosing as a term for comparison mainly because I figure it's the Asian cuisine that most people will have been exposed to), in the sense that I feel like there is less interplay of several different spices and more of just one or two bold flavours coming through. But I am not a food writer, and I suspect that these poor attempts of mine aren't doing a good job of conveying the idea...sorry.

Also on a food-related note, I've been watching Jamie Oliver's latest experiment, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, which is basically Jamie Oliver doing Fifteen and that other show he did about healthy eating in schools and somewhere up north all rolled into one and packaged for the US. He is in a town in West Virginia which has been labelled as one of the most unhealthy in the US, has a high rate of diabetes and obesity and other illnesses, a high rate of deaths linked to these, etc. And he wants to go into the schools and change their meals, and get people on the streets cooking, and meet individual families and change their know the drill.

Now, while not wanting to be rude to my host country, there is a lot that is wrong with their approach to food here, no doubt about it. A quick walk through any supermarket will prove it - not just the sheer amount of products, and varieties (Tropicana, for example, has at least six different kinds of orange juice - and I don't mean 'orange + another fruit', or 'blood orange' instead of 'normal orange' - just different varieties of bog-standard orange juice), and the enormous sizes that things come in (gallons, two dozen, and the like), but the very large proportion of these that are convenience foods, prepackaged foods, pre-prepared, ersatz, and generally troubling. I am not trying to preach - there is some American junk food that I absolutely adore, Reeses cups and Tootsie rolls and Hostess cupcakes probably being the holy trinity (blame my US schools for that!). And I can well imagine that, given the apparently unstoppable fecundity of women here, having access to a lot of convenience food is the best way to manage to feed your family while not losing your sanity. And I won't even go into the discussion of how this relates to income and other sociological factors. But what seems to be lacking in so many people, almost in the general consciousness, is the notion that there are alternatives to a lot of this kind of food. I notice this for example when, in magazines, they have those 'helpful' articles that say "swap this food for this other food and it will be better for you": and invariably both of these things will be some prepackaged snack or something you can get from a fast food joint - like, swap the Dunkin Donuts triple breakfast cheesy egg sandwich for a Dunkin Donuts single turkey bacon English muffin. Or, uhm, make your own breakfast? "Handy 100 calorie snacks!" screams the article: and mostly lists brands which have made smaller packages of their snacks so that the calorie count comes in at 100. The idea that you could bypass these kinds of foods and buy actual ingredients instead just doesn't seem to register, most of the time.

So in this respect Jamie Oliver's efforts are more than laudable - showing people what makes food (and what goes into processed food), what makes tasty recipes, just getting them to think about the issue at all. There are epic battles in the elementary (=primary) school he is targeting, where among other things children get pizza for breakfast and there is no cutlery given to them, which of course somewhat restricts the range of food that can be served...In fact, I generally find myself liking the man, somewhat despite myself (his fake chumminess/blokeishness is really grating, his florist's collection of daughters is pretentious, and really he does try too hard): I obsessively watched his various crusading tv shows and have bought his posh magazine and even ate at, and didn't dislike, Jamie's Italian (though that may have had something to do with my lunch companion - let me show off, ok?). I think that it's because I do believe that, deep down, somewhere between the book deals and the celebrity endorsements, he does care about people eating decently and having a love of, or at least an appreciation for, good food, and that sort of cancels out all the other annoyingness.

It was therefore a little sad that his first forays into the psyche of this town were so fraught, and saw him reach lows that included crying and dressing as a giant pea pod. People didn't understand him - not just his accent, but his whole way of being, of interacting - they saw him as the annoying posh bloke come over from across the pond who wants them all eating lettuce and using cutlery. I guess that, although some of his shows have been on tv here in the past, he, understandably, doesn't have the weight of his well-known public persona behind him here; he's not a household name, a famous guy, so people are more irritated than awestruck when they have to deal with him or listen to him trying to change their work patterns. That, on top of any other ideas they might have about food and what does or doesn't constitute an acceptable meal for children or adults (pizza: good, it has 2 servings of 'bread'; Jamie's stir fry: bad, we can't be sure that there are two cups of vegetables in every serving we dish out).

Of course, everything we see is mediated by the editing of the show, which is gratingly modelled on the "Plucky solitary man overcomes incredible challenge and triumphs at the last minute against all odds including the evil native (here, the local radio presenter)" narrative that is a staple of reality shows (especially US ones, she says from the height of her TV-less experience). Pits of despair! Respite in the form of the carefully assembled team of earnest high-schoolers (seriously: Hispanic youth who has been in and out of juvenile prison; pretty Indian girl who has been adopted and tragically lost her father to obesity; bulky black American football player who even turns up in his kit; white obsese girl who may die of liver failure; generic non-threatening white boy, tending towards red hair and freckles to balance everything out)! Attacks from the local DJ! Moral support from the local priest! Disappointment when people seem uninterested in stir fries! Unexpected deliverance in the form of a flash mob dancing and making a stir fry at the same time! I kid you not - here is the video to prove it. You have to watch it.

So it's hard to really know if any of this is really working (and there are still a couple of episodes to go) because concrete results are, of course, eschewed in favour of catchy soundbites and tearjerking moments (and if someone is crying, the camera is so close it's basically in their tear duct), and also I think I have been rambling about this instead of making a point, so I will try to make one now and then shut up: I guess my take on this is, if it works for American audiences, and if they can overcome the feeling of being preached to, and at least change the way they think about food, if not the way they actually consume it yet - well done Jamie. But I have a strong feeling that he's just preaching to the converted.

Other than this (since I've gone on for far too long) - loving the lovely weather and trying to go out on my bike as often as possible to take advantage of it; looking forward to having Sandra and Sam and Steven here!!!!; and kudos to Radio4 for producing, in the past weeks, an absolutely riveting 4-hr adaptation of Clarissa (sadly I think no longer available) - I was completely engrossed in it, couldn't wait for the next week's episode, listened religiously and shouted at the characters as if it were a football match. Radio4 is simply one of the best things on this planet, and I don't care if this makes me sound like a middle-aged tweed-wearing wannabe intellectual.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Ada Lovelace Day 2010

This post is my contribution to Ada Lovelace Day, which is, as their homepage says,

an international day of blogging (videologging, podcasting, comic drawing etc.!) to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science. Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines, whatever they do.
As you may know, Ada Lovelace was, among other things, Byron's daughter; more importantly, she was a mathematician, and worked with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, for which she wrote an algorithm which has earned her the label of 'first computer programmer'.

Anyway, the point of my participation in this is that as many of you know I am rather obsessed with the gender imbalance in the sciences and particularly in computer science. I get even more frustrated when I go to talks and forums (fora?) on the topic, and all we seem to get is restating of the problem, followed by wailing and gnashing of teeth, abstract wishes for improvement, and not a shred of a concrete suggestion of how this could occur apart from "we need better childcare!" or "we need to fight stereotypes!".

As it happens, my own small number of years spent fretting over this problem have not brought me any more enlightenment, so it is perhaps hypocritical to complain about others' lack of solutions. And the point of this day, and this blog post, is to celebrate rather than whinge. In that spirit, then, I want to note that I do personally know plenty of successful women in my field who not only do well in their careers, but also manage to have a family, know what's going on in the world, and generally be sociable and interesting and fun human beings. It is a bit unseemly to parade them about like freak-show exhibits, but if that's what we have to do for a bit longer to prove to younger girls that it can be done, then so be it (cf. also my being summoned by my ex-department to go talk to A-level students and encourage the girls in the audience that Computer Science was a good choice - sadly there were no girls there...).

More pertinently, I think the most valuable aspect of having these various generations of women who've either been there, done that, or are currently facing the same problems and dilemmas as ourselves, is, of course, being able to discuss the things that worry us. And so I finally get round to introducing the woman I have chosen to celebrate, FemaleScienceProfessor of the eponymous blog. From her 'About Me' blurb:
I am a full professor in a physical sciences field at a large research university. I am married and have a young child. I have the greatest job in the world, but this will not stop me from noting some of the more puzzling and stressful aspects of my career as a Female Science Professor.
FSP blogs about issues big and small that arise in her daily interactions with academia and scientific research - dealing with applications, writing reference letters, teaching classes, thinking about her daughter's schooling, negotiating grants and journal articles, sitting in meetings...I really value her insights (of course, or I wouldn't be reading her blog), but even more I value the little community that has sprung up around the blog, people who comment more or less regularly and share their own experiences of being researchers, scientists, students, women, postdocs, academics. There are people at all stages of their research career, and their personal lives, from different countries (though it is still a bit US-heavy), different disciplines.

I'm not sure I have ever taken practical advice or followed actual suggestions from anything that appeared on the blog, but I definitely feel a strong sense of community with others there - knowing that there are other people who are dealing with the tension between going where the job is and going where the other half is, with balancing the demands of family life and research, with figuring out how to 'do' grants and covering letters and CVs and conferences and and and...Sometimes to keep going we don't need advice on how to do something, we just need to know that we're not freaks and there are other who have felt or feel the same way - that the problems and challenges don't stem from our incompetence, but are part of the process. Misery loves company and all that.

FSP deserves to be celebrated today for encouraging the women she encounters, both in real life and via the blog, to keep at it and keep fighting bias and prejudice, and for having created such a pleasant community around her blog, giving us a place to keep the conversation going (and it is worth noting that she usually also takes the time to engage with the comments).

I was going to end this post by saying 'Long may it continue!', but actually, that is wrong: may it soon become obsolete, proving that the gender imbalance is no more.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Mind the gap

This blog post stems from a comment I made almost absent-mindedly in a email to Rob recently. I had been listening to a one-off program from BBC radio on the Miners' strike (it's here, though only available for another four days; also related is this good Pulp song), a topic which up to now had been of very little interest to me. Indeed, I wouldn't have known about the program at all if the G2 hadn't given it a glowing review (and it was indeed very good). But, as I said to Rob, I felt compelled to go and find it to learn more about this event, because there is so much I don't know about the recent history of what is now fairly certain to be my adoptive country, and I feel I need to somehow fill all these gaps.

But do I really have to? Is it necessary, upon acquiring a new home country, to get up to speed about all the events of the last 30 years that are impressed on the psyche of those who have been there all along, or is it pretentious (in a look-at-me-how-well-I'm-assimilating way) and futile (since obviously snatches of history here and there are not going to replace having lived through a particular period or event, even with videos and interviews and soundbites and all that)? I'm still trying to figure it out, and maybe writing about it will help me along the way.

To be clear, I am not talking about keeping up-to-date about current events in one's home country (however transient) - that seems to me to be a given, for any number of unsurprising reasons, such as feeling like you're somehow part of the wider community, being able to follow a conversation with your local friends and colleagues, knowing what's going to happen to the places or institutions around you, and maybe understanding your hosts better. It's why I made myself sit through the web-streamed State of the Union the other month, check this guy's blog more or less daily, and sometimes even get round to looking at the CNN homepage.

But what about what went before? On a very basic level, filling the gaps is good because it enables you to get cultural and historical references, in people's conversations, in films and tv shows, in songs. It's not a good enough reason, though. Sometimes I feel like I'm not really allowed to call the UK my home (ignoring for now all the other issues we were talking about a couple of months ago) because I have not lived through the same things that my peers have, big events like the fall of the Tories, the IRA bombs - I know so little about it all. Then again, I don't know that much about my own country, either - obviously there are events you live through and experience, but it's not like I could give anyone a reasoned and detailed account of Mani Pulite or the Red Brigades. Perhaps, if all this socio-historical background is really so important to me, there is an argument to be made in favour of learning more about where I come from before worrying about where I'm going.

Or perhaps I just have a very warped understanding of what makes one feel settled within a community, and a shared past is in fact not a key part of it? After all, one can very happily go about their day-to-day business without needing to know what O-levels are or why one hesitates for a moment when a Jeffrey Archer novel is donated in the Oxfam shop. But shared past, I think, is one of those things that make themselves known only by their absence, not their presence. Ultimately, if you are going to be living in a place for a long time, you want to feel you belong there - not to the point of losing your own identity, just to the point of feeling, understandably, at home and comfortable, without drawing attention to your 'otherness' all the time (just at crucial times, like the World Cup or the Six Nations or when being dragged to Pizza Express :-) ). And, of course, nothing singles you out as 'the other' as quickly as not being able to understand or share in the public reaction to an event (or the memory of one). Like when Gordon Brown had tea with Maggie Thatcher a couple of years ago and most people I know were livid: I could rationally understand their reaction, but I was just missing too much to have the same reaction emotionally.

I guess that, with time, these things smooth over and you end up acquiring enough of a back catalogue, in some way or other, that the issue ceases to be one. And then you can start worrying about losing your homeland identity...

Friday, 19 February 2010

A confused tangle of thoughts

Where the confusion that characterises my mode of expression at the best of times, is here compounded by the fact that I am trying to get over a coldy-fluy thing (my just retribution for feeling smug about having avoided illness all winter so far) and am typing this on my little eee laptop (which, I hasten to add, I love dearly, but just wasn't made for spending 14 hours in front of as I seem to have done today), since the hard drive on my 'proper' one has finally given up after more than four years of honourable service, loads of travel, a DPhil thesis, and general abuse [1]. Anyway. Having just (well, a few days ago now) returned from a quick visit to England, I find that I have lots to say and think over, so brace yourselves for a long post...

First, for once BA got a few things very right, so I think it's fair to mention them. Having seen the blizzard alerts (which eventually resulted in over a foot of snow and my office being closed for 2 days while I was away [2]) I decided to move my flight to an earlier one to minimise chances of being stranded at the airport (well, actually it was Sarah's wise suggestion, but still). They let me do this without batting an eyelid, and crucially without charging me a penny - quite unheard of. I was impressed. Also, among the on-board entertainment (which I was determined to ignore, in the vague hope of getting some sleep) was one of the most fantastic things I have ever seen: Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra. Buy it, rent it, look it up on YouTube (it was all there last time I checked) - it was so good and clever and hilarious - and not just because I love Bill Bailey anyway (Black Books FTW!). He goes into all sorts of insightful discussions of the effects of individual instruments on symphonies, soundtracks, incidental music, and really makes you think about what you're listening to. Like an updated version of this (just being pretentious and highbrow here). Just look at this and laugh and marvel along with me!

So, Oxford. Not having been back since April, it was sort of a test to see if what I had said a while ago did in fact still hold, or if I would be overcome by nostalgia and wistfulness and have to be put on the coach to the airport kicking and screaming and clutching the sides of the St Clements bus stop shelter (hm, not a very glamorous image, all things considered). As it happens, the wistfulness did happen, but I think I managed it more or less ok and boarded the coach to the airport with equanitmity (and much tiredness, which probably helped). I had a great time, and loved seeing everyone again, and was very sociable, and was reminded what a very sociable and tight-knit lot we all are - with both 'historic' and more recent additions to the fold. I know not all departments are like that (Comlab, anyone?) and we are particularly lucky, and that makes it all the harder to have to leave it behind again - though I realise that as we all get older and move on post-DPhil things will change anyway, as they already slowly are.

I must confess to two major nostalgia attacks, the first so stereotypical that I almost hesitate to say - so, I got my alumna yellow card at the Bod (which sadly no longer has a picture of my 18-yr-old self on it), which in itself was highly amusing as it required me to leaf through the Big Red Books (like the Big Grey Book, but red, of course) which contain records of every person who completed any degree in a given academic year to find myself and prove that I had indeed been registered for them as I claimed (computerised records? What are they?). Anyway. I digress. I got my card, and stood in the mercifully-and-miraculously-free-from-tourists courtyard, and remembered what a beautiful, beautiful building the Bodleian is. And felt incredibly lucky that I could keep going there for free, without too much hassle. I did feel a little imposterous walking around the Upper Reading Room (though I did actually have work to do - just not work that necessarily required the library to be done), but also, shamefully, relieved that I could keep doing it.

The second bout of nostalgia was a lot more complex, and brought on by the fact that Nick has been staying in a house off Cowley Road, just round the corner from where I used to live in The Year of Living Out (2nd year undergrad; plus of course various other years between Cowley and St Clements). Who'd have thought that a skanky road filled with shops which are either boarded up or highly dubious (well, ok, there are a few notable exceptions such as G&D's), and characters ditto, could provoke such strong emotions? Granted, there are far too many episodes from that year which it would be best to consign to eternal oblivion, as I was reminded as it all came flooding back, but it was also a fun year, and Cowley's quirks and screwball places make it a great place to live for a little while. Hi-Los appears to be still alive (though one can never be quite sure), as are Bead Games and Honest! Stationery, and the more recent addition of the Neapolitan deli. All together now: aaaw, Cowley Road...

As if all this weren't enough, as you might have seen from Fb, I decided to max out on the nostalgia thing by going to the Zodiac on Saturday night (ok, so technically it was a false nostalgia since we never went on a Saturday but on a Friday, but bear with me), though it's not called Zodiac anymore, I'm not sure what the current name is, some permutation of Sponsor + Academy, I think. This is irrelevant: it is the Zodiac, really. This was a very interesting experience. We had fun, though the definition of 'indie' is clearly interpreted very loosely, taking in Dizzee Rascall (sp?), Iggy Pop, Blondie, and Prodigy (not that this is a bad thing, well, minus the Dizzee Rascall), and, pleasingly, it still costs more or less the same to get in. But so much has changed! For example, I'm pretty sure that when we headed over our main criteria in deciding what to wear were comfort and resistance to drinks spillage. Perhaps attraction to the opposite (or rather desired) sex may have played a part, but I seriously doubt it. But oh, the youth of today! They - well, the girls, really - were so done up. Little skirts and cute dresses and elaborate get-ups and such high heels - I'm not trying to be an old fogey here - there is nothing wrong with getting dressed up (though it would be nice to see some tights once in a while) - but for the Zodiac? Really? It's Also, there was so much security wandering about the place, constantly checking the toilets, bringing in police - surely we didn't have this before? Are they meant to make us feel safer? Because I have to say, they achieved exactly the opposite effect - I kept thinking that if they had to be there, monitoring us all, it was because something was about to happen, and that therefore this was the kind of place where Things Tend To Happen. Which was not a nice feeling. Nick suggested that it might have something to do with changes in the licensing laws, such that there could be more severe penalties if things do go wrong? I don't know, but I didn't like it.

(hang on in there, almost done...)

I was really glad that I managed to catch the last few days of the Steampunk exhibition at the (always pretty cool, if slightly occasionally impenetrable) History of Science Museum. I wouldn't do Steampunk myself, but it is fun to look at (and is clearly all over Firefly) and occasionally very clever; and the Museum had done a very cool thing in creating a display of real Victorian objects and tools of the sort which inspire Steampunk, some of which aren't really very different...

Finally (she says, as she hears a collective sigh of relief coming from the loyal(?) readership), a few brief considerations on Nottingham, a place I had never been to and which I had the pleasure of visiting briefly for a few hours. Typically for England, for fewer hours than it took me to actually get there and back from Oxford on the train. It has a jolly nice campus, with lots of sprawling greenness and fairly functional and newish looking buildings. A very diverse student population, reminding us that Oxbridge is not, in fact, in any way representative of the real world. The centre of town has the usual collection of brands you find anywhere in the UK, but also some lovely bits of industrial archeology and buildings in the process of being reclaimed, which I know isn't everyone's thing, but I quite fancy. More importantly, it has a nice canal, and you can't go wrong with a town with a canal (though upon reflection it seems to me that almost all English towns have canals - something to do with the Industrial Revolution? - so maybe possession of a canal is not a sufficient condition on its own to endear a place to me), and a very cool modern/contemporary art museum (Thanks N for telling me about it!) which had just opened a fantastic exhibtion on the Soviet space race and art (oh those posters!), and had a great cafe downstairs to boot. That seemed to me an even more positive and encouraging trait that even the canal. Sometimes I ashamed by how little of non-touristy England I have seen in all these years...

So, congratulations and thank you for making it all the way through, and here's hoping that the next blog post will be brought to you by a less feverish (though by no means less manic, no, never!) and better computeristically-equipped Ra!

[1] This is sad, but not unexpected, so I am fully backed up and kinda glad to be moving on from Windows XP since it's a bit ridiculous to be still using an operating system that is, like, 8 years old, and at least I have the other laptop to tide me over, or I would go completely crazy!

[2] So, yes, I actually missed out on experiencing my first ever Real Blizzard. I was a little disappointed, but in the main, preferred being away from the mayhem and the having-to-shovel-things (not that I didn't have to shovel my car out anyway in the end).