Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Re-joining the Bodleian

Living close to Oxford, I have, in the past, had a readers ticket to the Bodleian library in the city centre. I had a ticket for 6 years ending in 2005, though it is fair to say that I didn't use the library a lot in that period. On a whim today, but clearly part of my planning for working on my MSc, I rejoined and bought a one year ticket, which works during both term time and vacations.

Soon after, while reading the guidebook to the library, I came across a mention of the Radcliffe Science Library. I have been passed this a couple of times on my way to the Pitt Rivers museum, but hadn't had a look round it alone before. One of the library staff explained the layout of the library and showed me how to work the online resources. Then I had a wander downstairs to the floor that contained history of science, astronomy and physics, etc.

This is a real find - many of the books that I could use on my MSc were on the shelves in the main area (rather than elsewhere on the stakes) and they also had complete sets of various periodicals dealing with history of science. So this could be a fantastic place to work. The library is even open on a Saturday and Sunday. I was really excited about this and am really looking forward to starting work there at some point.

Some recent music

There has been a flurry of articles in the press in the last week about the music industry's attempts to persuade the Government to levy charges through ISPs to compensate it for losses from illegal downloading. This smacks of desperation yet again from an industry that has had a negative public perception for years. So few businesses seem so intent on annoying their customers. I have been thinking about this issue for a number of years and of the new indistry model that this will all lead to. But claims that new talent will not be found are largely nonsense - there has never been a better time for a band to get themselves known - e.g. through myspace, etc.

And more small artists can get some access to the world than ever before. I have been particularly struck by the example of Jason Molina over the past few years. He would never have been able to release the large amount of stuff he has been able to, nor to make some sort of living from music, in the bad old days of limited numbers of big record companies.

The situation is really one in which large blockbuster albums (which were expensive to make) will become a thing of the past, while live performance will become increasingly important. But what can't be denied is that there has never been a better time to be interested in music (and I am pretty fanatical)

This week is my refresh week for my account with emusic.com and I have already downloaded about half of this month's tracks. Mostly tracks by the Japanese slow metal band Boris and some similar bands. Now this is an excellent example of a band that would not have been ever heard by anyone in the band old days before the internet. Beautiful slow heavy power chords, and a good compliment to Sun O))) who I listened to a lot last year.

Also downloaded some examples of African Blues guitar playing and 60 minutes of whale and dolphin sounds. All excellent stuff, I don't doubt.

Randy Pausch

A couple of the newspapers have obituaries for Randy Pausch, who died a few days ago. He is famous for his "last lecture" given following a diagnosis of cancer last year in which he discussed "life, the universe, and everything". Like 10m others, I saw the lecture on Youtube. There is no doubt that it is a powerful performance and one that I found very moving at the time - it joins several other pieces of work that have been important to me since my dad died of cancer a couple of years ago. For instance, Joan Dideon's "Year of Magical Thinking".

I haven't read the book that he also produced in his last few months. But anything that emphasises the power of dreaming, the transcience of material possessions and the fruitlessness of complaining has got to be good. No doubt it would fit in well with my recent re-reading of Tom Hodgkinson's "How to be free"

Some academic reading

I have managed to keep to my planned routine of work for the past few days and have finished a first reading of Reston's "Galileo" moving on to looking at a few of the contributions to "The Cambridge Companion to Galileo". Over the next few days I have to decide how much note taking I expect to take from a book and what form I want this in.

I was particular struck by a piece in the Cambridge Companion on the "God of the astronomers versus the God of the theologions", contrasting Galileo and Bellarmine, and which I will be studying in much more detail soon. A month or so ago I was reading a piece by Adolf Grunsbaum on attempts by theologians to use modern cosmology in support of arguments for God's existence. Some of the books published in response to Dawkin's "The God Delusion" have simply assumed that a creator God would automatically be the God of religion, but this needn't be the case. And the huge variety in religious believes leaves the linkage of a creator God to one religion as a very problematic leap

Some other recent reading including a book on atheism that suggested that the multitude of religious beliefs was actually a real problem for religious believers. Atheists have little trouble explaining why there are so many religious beliefs, but each religion should find other religions problematic. And in an important sense, believers in one religion are atheists about other religions - after all, such beliefs must be wrong if one's own religion is true. These are two arguments that could be developed more fully.

The John Peel show

I started listening to John Peel in about 1976. Punk was just beginning to break out and some people at school said that you could hear this on Peel's show - indeed it was the only place you could hear it. The record shop in my home town actually refused to order in punk records as the owner didn't like them! If one charted, then he had to stock them and the first punk record I bought was Siouxsie and the Banshees, "Hong Kong Garden". My dad was not happy with me playing this on his hi-fi and was convinced that the loudness would damage it.

The other day, as part of my continuing decluttering, I came across two boxes of cassette tapes in the garage, both full of "mix tapes" that I had edited out of the Peel show from 1977 (when I first acquired a cassette recorder) through to about 2003, when I finally stopped editing tapes from the show. Today I transferred half a dozen tapes to digital and am thinking that I may be able to gradually work my way through the two boxes (a huge job, but one ideally suited to the times when I will be studying).

So today's tapes were number 124 to 129 covering the period around 1988. Fantastic tracks that I had long forgotten by bands like the Bhundu Boys, Inca Babies, The Siddleys, I ludicrous, The Farm, Head of David, and so on. Plus tracks I hadn't heard for years by groups such as the Wedding Present, Eric B and Rakim (the fantastic cold-cut remix of "Paid in full"), Grynor, and so on.

I have also invested in a 500GB external hard drive to store what could become a huge amount of stuff over the coming months. I am rather shocked to discover that I actually produced nearly 400 mix tapes from the Peel show over the years.

Peel's death a few years back was actually a really big blow to me at the time - not far off the effect that my dad's death had a year or two later. For someone as fanatical about music as myself, Peel was clear evidence that other people shared this obsession. How great would it be to still be able to hear a show of his now?

Patterns of work

I have always enjoyed the pattern of work that comes with academia. The books to be read, thought about, questioned . . . key points to be picked out ready for future use. Emma and I were watching the movie of "The Paper Chase" the other day, a film from the seventies set in Harvard Law School and which features the "Socratic" method of teaching law, which always seems really tough. I re-read the book a few weeks back - my copy is from 1973 and is now falling apart. Still one of my favourite books and guarateed to raise my excitement about going back to Uni.

In the past, I have realised, I tended to be too uncritical in my reading - not really trying to appraise arguments, more to simply follow them. One of my aims in the MSc course is to really try to boosts my critical appraisal of arguments. I also want to develop a much better academic style of writing.

At present, I am also having to do quite a bit of other work related to preparing for some other work going forward. So each day I am up and working by about 5:30, do three hours related to this other work, have a break and then try to do another four hours related to the MSc. So far I have managed only a couple of days to this routine, but it could be a good pattern for the period to the end of September. It is very possible that I won't be able to do much of the MSc course in the first few months, so anything I can do now would be good.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Science fiction

I have recently been watching some old episodes of series 7 of Star Trek Voyager with daughter Emma. We have always been big Trekkies but haven't seen any episodes for some while. Science fiction is generally dismissed by serious media but I am often struck by the view that this is a mistake. Often the very artificiality of science fiction serves to highlight the human condition so much more clearly. A prime example would be the episode of Star trek Next Gen with Data and his daughter - still one of the saddest things I have ever seen on TV.

Tonight's episode was a major "Seven of Nine" episode. I read somewhere ages ago that the character of Seven of Nine was based on someone with Asperger's syndrome - a form of "higher functioning" autism. Tonight Seven was running holodeck stories to try to and boost her ability to cope with close relationships and it was desperately sad to see her failing yet again. It always strikes me that Asperger's is one of the most tragic of conditions - the desire for close relationships is there, but the ability to create them isn't. The constant disappointment of rejection and failure is very sad. I continue to think that Seven of Nine is one of the greatest characters created in a TV series.

Which probably just shows what a geek I am!!

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

More alternatives to rat racing

Of all things, "The Great Outdoors" magazine has a feature on a woman who, three years ago, gave up her journalist job on radio to take up the life of adventure! Renting out her house, she now travels the world climbing mountains. As an attempt to diversify her finances, she has written a book called "Meetings on the Edge - a high-level escape from Office routine". An essential purchase I would say. Over the past week or so I have been examining various brochures from treking companies and am very taken with Mackean's story

I am, at this moment, at rather a crossroads. There is tremendous pressure on me to take some time and earn what is taken to be decent money and this will inevitably impact badly on other ideas for living. Different philosophies of life are in sharp relief and are, of course, wholly incommensurable.

As part of my continuing de-cluttering, I have come across a box of print outs of Robert Fripp's diary from 2001 to 2005 (http://www.dgmlive.com/). This is the model for what I am trying to do with this blog. Reading six months worth today, I was struck by the universality of the issues being addressed.

And six more carrier bags of books went to Oxfam in Oxford this morning bringing the total to 16 in the last couple of weeks.

Fish, fishing and the meaning of life . . . .

Jeremy Paxman edited an anthology of fishing literature with the above title some years ago. And pretty good it was from what I remember. What always strikes me as odd about my fishing is that I don't go for ages, putting trips off for poor reasons, yet when I do finally go, the reasons why I love fishing so much come flooding back.

This afternoon I visiting Bushyleaze, a local trout lake. The other anglers seemed to be really struggling to after a quick review of what they were doing (mostly stripping buzzers and weighted nymphs) it was off to the far side of the lake (rule one - always walk the furthest distance from the car park to choose a spot to fish) and set up with a red hopper and a small Dwal Bach nymph fished close to the surface. It is rare that things pay off so quickly but within 20 minutes I had a fish of about 3.5lbs on the nymph.

The sun blazed down most of the rest of the afternoon and, sadly, as the sun set, so the wind dropped. So fish started to rise but presentation was very hard in the calm conditions. Fishing two hoppers, I did have a second fish about 8:30pm.

As always, I feel revitalised by a day out fishing. I really should think about having a good go after barbel and chub in September when we are back from our next trip abroad.

More on Concentration . . . .

The Sunday Times has an article this week by Bryan Appleyard entitled "Stoooopid - why the Google generation isn't as smart as it thinks". This covers the same area as the article from the Independent a few days ago.

This tends to focus more on the idea of "distractions". It also notes that one way to consider the problem is to say that today we "go outside of ourselves to make all the connections that we used to make inside of ourselves"

And as "big money" is on the side of distracting us, the situation will not improve.

At a more general level, there is a quote from the ecologist, Bill McKibben

"The next generation will not grieve because they will not know what they have lost"

This is true more generally than just in respect of learning and the internet. It is the reason why no action will be taken on long-term climate change - each generation does not miss what the previous generation things of as a loss.

Spent much of the afternoon watching the Tour de France on tv and reading the first couple of chapters of James Reston's biography of Galileo. I am reading it more critically and, interestingly, more from the point of view of my MSc and the sort of scholarly attention to themes that I might not otherwise have brought to the book.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

A list of goals

One of the reasons to start this blog was to provide me with a basis for thinking about my life and what I want to achieve in the future - hence the Blog's title. So here is a short list of some of the things I would like to do over the next couple of years - just to get me started.

In the shorter term (around two years out);

1. To successfully complete my MSc

2. To climb Mera peak in the Himalayas - I currently have November 2010 pencilled in for this

3. To catch a barbel over 10lbs from my local River Windrush or to catch a 5 1/2lb chub from the Evenlode

4. To travel to some interesting places with my wife, Linda - Finland is a possibility for this Christmas

Longer term (more than 2 years out);

5. To develop a pattern of work in which 6 to 9 months of each year is free

6. To make a long visit to India (at least a month)

7. To go on a one month retreat (ideally at the farm connected with the San Francisco Zen Centre)

8. To create a high-quality portfolio of photographs

So this is a decent list to get me started on thinking seriously about things.

Two little projects for today. To do a couple of hours sorting out in the garage followed by a trip to the local dump with a car full of stuff and to do an hour's clearing at our allotment (which has been rather neglected over the past year)

Some major news

A package arrived in the post this morning to say that I have been accepted onto the Msc course I had applied for and will be starting this October. This is really great news and will be the focus of my intellectual efforts over the next couple of years.

I will be studying "Philosophy and History of Science" at the London School of Economics as a part time student. It is over 20 years since I graduated from the LSE and I am very excited about returning there after such a long break.

There are, of course, all sorts of issues that this raises. Will it fit round the work I am planning to do? Will I feel silly being so much older than the other students? Are my intellectual powers in such steep decline that I will really struggle? Can I write a dissertation? Will I feel embarrassed if I meet my daughter's best friend who is an undergraduate at LSE at the moment?

It took about four months for my application to be processed and I have rather forgotten much of the course details. So I have been skimming through the department handbook and am back thinking about which course options I would most like to do and what reading should I try and do over the summer before I start. I have fished out my old copy of Arthur Koestler's "The Sleepwalkers", his account of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, and maybe that would be a good one to have a look at first?

Very exciting news!!

A day out in London

There is a long article in today's paper suggesting that use of the internet is causing people to lose their ability to concentrate on reading long articles or complex books. It suggests that knowledge might become wider and shallower, with less depth.

Over the last year or so, I have noticed that my own ability to just sit and read to long periods has definitely diminished but I had not attributed it to use of the internet. I don't feel a constant need to check my emails, I don't spend much time just flitting between web pages and I don't suffer anxiety if I don't have internet access. None the less, until recently, it had been a long time since I had been able to just read something for several hours.

By contrast, my daughter, 19 years old and very much in the thick of current trends in internet usage, is able to read for hours at a time. Indeed, after years of this, she is now tremendously well read. Most days she manages 50 to 100 pages of pretty serious stuff. Her current reading is Richard Dawkin's "The Ancestor's Tale", the 600 page hardback edition from a few year's ago.

A few weeks ago, we were in France and didn't have internet on demand. It was swelteringly hot and so there was little excuse not to read a lot. And for the first time in years, I found I could do several hours a day. What a treat. And perhaps a sign that the newspaper article is on to something.

Since France I have definitely done better. I read eight books while in France and have managed four more in the two weeks since we got back. Current reading is a collection of essays on Isaac Newton called "Let Newton be!" and the Oxford Very Short Introduction to Mathematics. I currently manage about an hour a day. As always, I'd like to read more, but this is definite progress.

My London trip covers a couple of meetings related to possible work going forward and the purchase of fresh pasta and sauce from our favourite Italian deli in Soho.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Some introductory thoughts

For many years I kept a diary, there are at least fifteen years on the bookcase beside me, going back to 1979. But for the last couple of years I haven't been able to. This is the longest gap I have had from not writing. But some events over the last few years were too difficult to describe and the act of trying made me feel worse rather than better.

However a couple of weeks ago I was talking with a woman who was looking to make a number of really significant changes in her life and she had decided that part of this process would be to write a Blog, not so much as a diary, but just to record things that interested her each day and to provide a little bit of focus to think about things. Inspired by this example, I am going to do the same.

So what will I be talking about?

Probably things I've been reading about - science, philosophy, religion, art, etc. Things I've been doing - fishing, mountaineering, photography, etc. And probably anything else I fancy. The internet is filling up with blogs that no one reads. I will add mine to this, but as long as I enjoy writing it, I'm not bothered. It will hopefully provide me with a base for jotting down some of the things that I'd like to remember.

At the moment, I have no intention of telling anyone about this. It is just for me.