Preferences, re: ponderings

The sky over Woodstock

A comment was posted earlier that has a certain resonance. While there is no greater online sin than blogging about blogging, I will trespass for a moment – always with the aim of pleasing you better, dear spectators. The comment:

You know, if you took the amount of time you spend on a week’s worth of these mediocre mumblings and used it to write one thing, it might be good?

This is a possibility I have wondered about myself. I feel a constant urge to write, but it may be better directed in a less haphazard direction. At the same time, about 100 people a day read the blog; I am willing to bet that is more people than will read my thesis, in total, between now and the end of humanity.

The issue, then, is not the medium, but the message. What would it be more socially useful to write? Before seeing that comment, I was going to write tonight’s post about metallurgy and the possibility that we are living in a ‘composite age.’ Hardly my area of expertise, and hardly an area of interest of most people who I know to be reading the blog.

The format of this blog is intentionally somewhat experimental, as well as somewhat scatterbrained. All told, I am skeptical about whether I can impose a pattern upon something as ephemeral as daily posts, but constructive criticism and suggestions about profitable directions to take would be most appreciated.

PS. We had our 30,000th visit today.

Sulfate injection to stop global warming?

Apparently, Paul Crutzen, an environmental scientist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1995 for his work on the role of CFCs in ozone layer depletion, thinks we should correct for global warming by injecting two million tonnes per year of sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere. According to Wikipedia: “sulfates occur as microscopic particles (aerosols) resulting from fossil fuel and biomass combustion. They increase the acidity of the atmosphere and form acid rain.” He predicts that the process of injecting them into the upper atmosphere using balloons or artillery would cost between $25 and $50 billion a year, but would save more by mitigating the effects of global warming.

While I am no environmental scientist, what strikes me as most interesting about this is the ‘technical fix’ mindset that it embodies: a bit like those who decided to stabilize dune formation on parts of the Oregon coast by importing Spanish beach grass, or those who have sought to kill off one accidentally imported pest with an intentionally imported predator. Often, such schemes don’t work at all. When they do, they risk working much too well. Thanks to Spanish beach grass, the Oregon dunes will be a thing of the past in a few decades. The point is simply that, at a stage when we really don’t know the consequences of climate change or their magnitude, it seems awfully bold to predict that such a scheme will both work and do more good than harm.

As is so often the case, the most trenchant criticism of such schemes was expressed humorously on The Simpsons:

SKINNER: Well, I was wrong. The lizards are a godsend.

LISA: But isn’t that a bit short-sighted? What happens when we’re overrun by lizards?

SKINNER: No problem. We simply unleash wave after wave of Chinese needle snakes. They’ll wipe out the lizards.

LISA: But aren’t the snakes even worse?

SKINNER: Yes, but we’re prepared for that. We’ve lined up a fabulous type of gorilla that thrives on snake meat.

LISA: But then we’re stuck with gorillas!

SKINNER: No, that’s the beautiful part. When wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death.

The comparison between atmospheric science and ecology is less dubious than one might think. Both systems are complex and dynamic – they feed back upon themselves in ways which are both powerful and difficult to predict. Furthermore, both atmospheric and ecological systems both affect and are affected by other complex systems with which they are integrated. Consider, for instance, how the construction of the Aswan High Dam (the product of political and economic changes, above all) altered the salinity in the eastern Mediterranean, allowing for the migration of species from the Red Sea.

What would the consequences of blasting artillery shells full of sulfates into the upper atmosphere? Far be it for me to speculate. The intentional modification of atmospheric chemistry and physics is something we have never done as a species, though we have done a lot of unintentional tinkering. What I would venture is that it is likely to have unpredictable effects and that it is a particularly curious way of trying to deal with the problem of global warming.

George Monbiot, who I met at a short conference at the Environmental Change Centre, has his own objections.

A Scanner Darkly

Green College, Oxford

Antonia invited me to see the film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s book this evening and, despite having watched the first twenty minutes as a free online trailer, I found it well worth paying for. Based on our discussion afterwards, I have tentatively concluded that it is a film unusually subject to people taking away more or less what they expected to find. While it will appall traditionalists to hear, I didn’t feel as though I got much out of the book, when I read it a few years ago. As such, I had modest expectations for the film which were not disappointed.

The film is odd insofar as it combines a society of total electronic surveillance with the complexities of informants and undercover agents. The combination of knowledge and secrecy that results is sometimes more perplexing than Orwellian, though it does effectively highlight the corrupting nature infiltration strategies of crime fighting can have on police forces. You are, however, frequently left wondering why any state or police force with such power would devote such attention to a group that seems pretty obviously hopeless, when it comes to posing any real danger.

The most immediately obvious thing about the film is the modification of the video stock and the addition of animated elements. The posterized faces with their bold, exaggerated edges, in particular, contribute to an ongoing visual effect with some thematic merit. All told, the visuals and the story were complementary and well integrated. Neither was simply a crutch for the other, as is so often the case in visually unusual pieces of film. As Antonia pointed out, it probably detracted from the film to have recognizable actors in the roles. There is just too much written into Keanu Reaves, for instance, for him to really be able to take on a new role.

My thanks to Antonia for a worthwhile suggestion.

One more Oxford week

In less than a week, I will be in Vancouver. This astonishing thought has partially provoked the cascade of attempted task completion that my life should turn into between now and then. I have even been wandering around inside the insane labyrinth that is the OUSSG website. Frankly, I am scared of it. I have never seen so much machinery for doing so little. Far from being a cavernous mass of idle equipment, however, it seems more like a mechanical elephant trying to balance on a ball. If the beast manages it, everyone cheers. As the supposed ringmaster, you have better make sure not to do and prodding of either beast or ball, if you want to keep all upright.

Once I get my bike back tomorrow, many of these tasks should be sped up. I could have had it back today, but there were unresolved issues regarding the seat. I’ve finally decided to replace the one transferred from a derelict after the original was stolen with a proper one. Hopefully, this one will last the year without being stolen. Once you add up the seat, bits and bobs, and the cost of installation (I don’t have the tools) it ends up being more than $50.

Inventing a system for sorting printed materials related to the thesis is another project. I got a big plastic box and some hanging file folders. The current mixture of notebooks and loose documents in binders does not lead itself to the easy access of any one item. There is also a certain expectation bound up in the box, which remains nearly empty. With less than a year left, it is time to start the great bulk of the task in earnest.

Timeline for Oxford withdrawal?

Another situation that certain strategic planners would understand well relates to the Vancouver trip. One the one hand, I could use this opportunity to ship over either things that I already own in Vancouver and have wanted all year (like my 50mm f/1.8 lens) or newly purchased items of a necessary sort. The trouble with this is that I have no viable exit strategy for even the items I already have here. I lack the strategic lift capability to shift back items accumulated here: especially books. While dishes and other necessities of life can be sold or given to friends who are staying on, books and papers are the kind of thing that I should bring back with me – especially if I am to subsequently do a PhD in a related area.

The other option, then, is to begin the process of re-locating back to Vancouver. I could use any extra space in my luggage to start bringing back things that I do not really need but want to keep (like books that have already been read, or hard copies of photos). A complicating factor is uncertainty about whether I will even be in Vancouver for a substantial period of time during the next half decade or so. It could just be a case of touching base there before heading outwards again: to work, travel, or go to school.

A bit on Oxford’s canals

Bridge over the Oxford Canal

Oxford’s canal system is one of the more interesting parts of the county to explore. They certainly look as though they harken from a departed era of red brick and steam powered industry. Nonetheless, they have a good modern role as walking paths, cycling routes, and waterways for the longboats that seem to form a curious sub-culture of British life. There are a great many of these artificial waterways, criss-crossing the countryside and sometimes meeting with the Isis, but I have only traveled the length of a few. I mean to learn more about the canals and the longboat culture before I leave here; can anyone recommend a book?

There is an ongoing controversy about one stretch of the Oxford Canal that is owned by a company called British Waterways. I really don’t know enough about it to comment, but I have seem some pretty bold statements spray-painted on the plywood with which the former boatyard has been fenced around.

As I mentioned before, the primary danger relating to the canals, if you are a cyclist, is the probability of kamikaze insects blinding you for long enough to send you careening over the edge. This has nearly happened to me quite a number of times. As when boating, this is a case where the wise wear sunglasses.

PS. Despite being in Oxford all summer, I have yet to go punting. I hope once people from the program start returning en masse both the weather and the enthusiasm will be in place for a late summer bout.

On being a cyborg

Today’s bi-hourly deluges precipitated the purchase of an umbrella: not for my own sake, but on account of the constellation of electronic gadgets that now follow me about as I walk a broken bicycle to Cowley, or carry groceries back from Sainsbury’s to Church Walk.

There is a lot of talk these days about combining all the gizmos a person is likely to carry around into one all-purpose device. Sometimes, people term this amalgamation an ‘iPod killer.’ Personally, I don’t think it will ever fly, except with the nerdiest of the nerds. As it stands, there is a very solid chance that at least one among my digital camera, music player, or mobile phone will be broken at any particular time. If I had to mail all three to Stoke-on-Trent for three weeks every time one failed, I would soon be living a quiet and pictureless life.

Moreover, all three devices are designed to become obsolete as quickly as possible. Or, at least obsolete enough to make you buy a snazzier new model. Given that the development cycles in telephones, cameras, and music players are unlikely to sync up, you are assured of either having at least one device well behind the times, or being bankrupted by the need to constantly upgrade your all-singing whatsit.

Really, I do my mobile phone an injustice in lumping it together with the sometimes problematic camera and perpetually fault-prone iPod. Since Claire gave it to me, I haven’t had the slightest difficulty with it. Some might consider it a staid sort of item, with capabilities that do not extend beyond sending text messages and making the very occasional telephone call, but perhaps therein lies the secret of its durability. In contrast to my Palm Pilot – which is languishing in a box in Vancouver, bedeviled by problems of all varieties – my Moleskine paper-based day planner has performed flawlessly since purchased.

Desert Island Discs

A friend of mine challenged me to come up with the collection of items that I would submit to ‘Desert Island Discs’ – a British radio show in which interview subjects are questioned about what they would bring along to soften the experience of being stranded on a desert island:

“Created by Roy Plomley in 1942, the format is simple: each week a guest is invited by Sue Lawley to choose the eight records they would take with them to a desert island.

The discussion of their choice is a device for them to review their life. They also choose a favourite book (excluding the Bible or other religious work and Shakespeare – these already await the “castaway”) and a luxury which must be inanimate and have no practical use.”

First off, I must complement the erudite Gideons who have already stocked the world’s islands not only with Bibles, but also with Shakespeare’s works. Am I allowed to bring Paradise Lost or a book with spiritual importance for me as my “Bible or other religious work?”

Music

Starting with the choice of musical albums, this is no easy matter of selection. I have 667 albums in iTunes alone, and this is a time at which the term ‘album’ is rapidly losing meaning. Thinking about, for instance, how often artists have taken to re-organizing, re-mixing, and re-combining their tracks, the medium of album is becoming more like that of the playlist, of which I have only a few dozen. Of course, each of those is rather too long to fit on a CD (even as data files) and would most definitely not fit on a record, so I am back to the contemplation of albums.

One natural way to proceed would be to choose eight critical artists and then simply select either their best work, or the work that you think would stand up best to very frequent re-listening. In the interests of fairness, I will treat two-disc albums (such at Tori Amos’ To Venus and Back or the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie) as two albums, if chosen.

I have long treated music partly as a mechanism for altering moods. Given the dire desert scenario, it seems wise to think that way when planning.

In no particular order, then, my albums would be:

  1. Jason Mraz – Live at Java Joe
    This quirkly live album has an unusual ability to cheer me up, despite the fact that I have heard it so many times I know not only the words, but the timing of all the instruments, by heart. I expect this will be true of all the selections. This is a somewhat difficult thing to choose, because I think five of the thirteen songs are no better than mediocre, but I am going to stick with it for the moment.
  2. Spirit of the West – Save this House
    When going mad in the heat, it seems to me that it would be important to have some record of where you came from. Since Spirit of the West is from Vancouver, they get one such point. Given that they are a band and a style of music introduced to my brothers and I by my father when we were children, they get another. The fact that it’s an excellent album in and of itself cements the choice.
  3. The Doors – The Doors
    Choosing which Doors album to bring is awfully difficult. This is one of those situations where playlists are superior to albums. Likewise, it seems inappropriate to choose one of their many ‘best of’ collections. Despite the absence of some of their best songs, I would have to go with their 1967 debut album.
  4. Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge over Troubled Water
    Choosing a S&G album is even harder than selecting from among those of The Doors. Practically each has a song or two I would put on my own custom desert island disc. Choosing from among their original albums, this would be the one.
  5. Idan Raichel – Mimamakayim
    Bringing at least one album that isn’t in English seems well advised, and this is probably the best one I have heard. While I may not be able to speak a word of Hebrew at the moment, perhaps hundreds of hours of desert island listening would elevate my consciousness – or my imagination – to the point where I think I know what it is about. Even if such a thing doesn’t happen, it can be treated as a piece of classical music with an unusually versatile and emotionally engaging instrument.
  6. Led Zeppelin – IV
    This is an album that I feel myself growing into, to some extent. When I first got it, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was the only song I could stand, and then only the relatively melodic bits. I would bring it in hopes that my steadily growing appreciation for the album as a whole would mature. I am almost tempted to bring an album that I flat-out do not like, but which friends rave about, but unfortunately haven’t the space for such an experiment.
  7. Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
    Not their longest or most celebrated language, I think it is their most sophisticated and intriguing. There is no denying that one would have time to sort out all the complexities given days and weeks.
  8. Tori Amos – To Venus and Back (Live Disc)
    All my friends will have seen this one a mile off. While I maintain that Tori Amos is a musical genius in general, she is especially capable as a live performer. While a recording cannot capture the energy of a concert, this one does an appreciable job.

Naturally, lots of albums were very close to making the cut. It is not necessarily that I think these are my eight best albums – the circumstances of where they are to be enjoyed have been taken into consideration. I have intentionally not considered classical or opera albums, because that would make the selection too daunting.

Book

This is a tough one indeed. The first obvious choice is between taking something you have read and enjoyed or bringing something new. I would opt for the former. Chances are, you will read this book many times. As such, however many times you read it before arriving will soon be trivial. Out the window goes Ulysses, then, which I have tried to read four times but never managed to progress more than fifty pages into.

I am fairly sure attempts to bring something like The Encyclopedia Britannica would defeat the purpose of this exercise, but if I could bring a really massive reference book on scientific, literary, and historical themes, I would definitely do so. I have always wanted an undisturbed chance to brush up on classical and art history, music, botany, and the many other topics about which I know little or nothing.

Given the length of time, the book should be a thick and complicated one. Much as I adore Lolita, it really doesn’t have the kind of physical bulk a person would want for a desert island book. In the end, I think I would go with Anna Karenina. I’ve only read it twice, so there is plenty of depth into which I could yet descend. Also, there might be a good market for an autobiography of someone who slowly went mad reading Anna Karenina, provided he is at some point rescued in a condition sane enough to write subsequently.

Luxury

To me, this is by far the least important. Luxuries are not useless items, but useful ones that are unusually fine. A fancy pen is a comprehensible luxury, as is a fine meal or expensive audio equipment. I assume, if I am being allowed to bring albums, that the audio gear is provided and acceptable.

Ultimately, I think I would choose a musical instrument. I have never learned to play one, and have long wanted to. Naturally, doing so alone on a desert island is not ideal. I would have no scores, no instruction, and no audience. Nonetheless, it would certainly help pass the time – and perhaps express the many longings and madnesses that are certain to arise in such a place. As for which one, the relevant considerations would be resistance to sun and sand, and a low need for maintenance. Anything that needs tuning or new parts is out. Given that I cannot think of any instrument that I would trust to survive the conditions and trust myself to learn, I am abandoning this idea in mid stride. The idea of myself stranded with a clarinet that I have no idea how to play is actually quite heartbreaking.

No musical instruments, then. Writing materials are both useful and not a luxury (at least in this day and age). A fruit tree would be both useful and animate, while the same goes for an olive bush.

Perhaps the thing to bring along is a corrosion resistant razor of a variety that will not dull for many years. In the first instance, it would provide a daily ritual that would help in the recording of the passing of time. In the second, imagine the surprise of your rescuers when they find you clean-shaven and very well versed in Shakespeare!

[Update: 25 February 2007] Since so many people were looking for them, some Idal Raichel lyrics translated into English have been added.

Banville’s The Sea

Bike racks near Balliol Sports Ground

I bought John Banville’s The Sea in Dublin because I so enjoyed Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire: the last Man Booker Prize winning novel I had read. Actually, I note with some surprise that, upon looking it up, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty won the Booker Prize, while Hazzard’s book did not. Nonetheless, from the moment I bought Banville’s book to the instant I checked the list a moment ago, I believed the converse. As such, my expectations for this book were established by Hazzard’s work and not Hollinghurst’s, with which I have very different associations. Primarily, those had to do with arriving in Oxford not expecting it to have moved beyond the Thatcherite era.

I hadn’t known that Banville was Irish, or that the book was set in Ireland, so it ended up being rather more appropriate than reading Hazzard’s account of Asia after the second world war in the break room of the West Vancouver Staples location. Despite the appropriateness of the setting, this book did not quite live up to the expectations I had of it.

Told as a kind of layered story with a less than entirely sympathetic narrator, Banville‘s novel describes the life of a man who experienced a strange and tragic series of events as a child, followed by the sickness and death of his wife, and then a troubled relationship with his daughter. While some of the writing is undoubtedly fine, it is not a story that particularly resonated with me.

At a few points, in tantalizing fashion, the narrative voice breaks down in order to reveal the way in which it is an artificial abstraction on the part of the narrator. At one point, it does so in proper dramatic, provocative Joycean style. While these glimpses are certainly exciting, they are never followed up. We are left with proof that we are having a hollow tale spun around us, but no hope of seeing anything more solid.