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Friday, October 28

Giving back to society

I have just made my first contribution to human knowledge. I added the word gormless to the Wikipedia page about British slang not used in America. Why do I get the feeling this will be of greater use to humanity than my PhD?
posted @ 3:52 PM -

Monday, October 17

Halloween

One of the surprisingly big cultural differences between the US and UK is that over here people pay much more attention to the changes of the seasons. It perplexed me at first, because I tend to think of observation of season changes as basically a Pagan thing—and of course the US is much more overwhelmingly Christian than the UK—but really that just shows how disconnected urban Brits are from both religion and rural life. Several major Christian (and even Jewish) festivals are at least partly related to harvests (Succoth) or planting (Easter, Pesach), but Britain is so urbanised that we forget this, while rural ways still hold some sort of distal influence over Americans, so even in big cities people still observe some seasonal rituals.

I've been noticeably more attuned to this since getting to Seattle, because now a large proportion of our household shopping is done at one of two weekly farmers' markets, where the food is all kind-of local (from within a couple of hundred miles) and fresh. The seasons get naturally marked out by the progression, just in the few months I've been here, from cherries to apricots to apples, and from okra and courgettes (zucchini to some weird people) to mushrooms to pumpkins and other hard-skinned squash. But I digress.

What I set out to write about was Halloween. I am used to Halloween being one evening of having to choose between going to a fancy dress party that I don't feel like going to or staying at home and pretending not to be in when the local brats come round trick-or-treating. It's... um... bigger here.

People decorate their houses and front yards, sometimes in quite extravagant ways, though I haven't seen anything in Seattle to rival That House at Bellfield & North Park in Cleveland Heights (I bet at least half of the Clevelanders I know will recognise which place I'm talking about). Even in our place, Melinda recently put out a pumpkin-shaped lantern, and switched the placemats to ones with pumpkin designs on them; things it would never have occured to me to do.

There are also many more events in relation to Halloween than just the customary party on the night. So much so that it starts a few weeks before. Conveniently for me, a lot of them also don't require dressing up.

In the previous couple of years, I've been to a 'haunted house' (which was very silly, if admittedly amusing), one fancy dress party (from which I will never forget Vinay's ingenious use of a pilfered political campaign placard as a costume), pumpkin carving at Jennifer's place (which was great, and almost made me feel artistic), and living in apartment buildings has allowed me to escape the trick-or-treaters. This past weekend has already outdone all of those things, for sheer silliness and actually scaring me too.

A few weeks ago, Metroblogging Seattle (I must at some other occasion rave about how great it is to have a resource like a city blog when in a place I don't know where I know few people) drew my attention to the planned Zombie Walks through Ballard, Fremont and Capitol Hill. The idea is simple enough: people should dress up as zombies, meet at a pre-determined point, and then wander listlessly along a roughly prescribed route. The result is both hilarious and highly photogenic. The Ballard one was last Saturday, and from it I have a Flickr album of my own zombie photos, and many peoples' photos are aggregated under the Ballard Zombie Walk tag.

Melinda & I went to that, and from there we went on to Bastyr University, where Joanie studies, to meet her and John and go to the Haunted Trails event. This was in the same vein as the haunted house I went to a couple of years ago, but much better done. Obviously it helps that Bastyr is set in a big wooded park so there are some dark woods right by its buildings, and these were used to good effect. The idea is basically that you queue up and pay some money to get led through the woods in small groups and scared by a bunch of volunteers who take great delight in hiding in the darkness and jumping out at you. It's a lot better than that makes it sound, because they set the trail up really well with plenty of distractions and changes of scene so that in some places the volunteers could hide in plain sight. It's really a lot more frightening when that scarecrow I was already looking at suddenly jumps towards me then when someone just appears from the shadows.

I have no pictures from the trail itself, because there was no good way to take them, but there were a lot of kids playing with glowsticks while their parents queued, so I got some interesting long exposure shots from that.

And finally, last night we went to The Triple Door downtown to watch Nosferatu with a live soundtrack from the Devil Music Ensemble. Nosferatu is one of those early films that is so obviously an example of people learning how to make a film that it's not very good on its own, however important it was as a milestone. However, the music was fantastic and would have been a great gig in its own right, but it was also perfect for the film. The live component managed to turn the film from something that's kind of laughable through modern eyes back into something genuinely dramatic and macabre. My only complaint is that the Central Cinema went and picked the same night to have a different band performing a soundtrack to the same film, and had they been different nights I would have loved to go to both.

Update: The zombie walk was covered by the Seattle PI.
posted @ 11:40 PM -

Sunday, October 9

And on the seventh day...

One of the common complaints of students is that the combination of a high workload with a lack of natural structure to their working week eradicates weekends. I was hit particularly badly by this in my first 4 semesters at Case, because I so often felt like I was barely keeping up with the demands made of me. Work would fill every available hour, even if sometimes my actual rate of productivity was horribly low because I couldn't stop thinking about all the things I'd rather be doing (sleep often being high on the list). The drawbacks of this situation are too obvious to spell out, and it renewed my determination to never accept a job that would make it permanent.

At the same time, I took two classes co-taught by a professor who, being an orthodox Jew, left early on a Friday so that he could observe the Shabbat properly. Though I am not religious, and don't much care which day I use for this purpose, it was an ongoing reminder that really having one day a week to not think about work is a Very Good Thing, and as soon as I get the chance I should do the same.

Since finishing courses and such, I've had a lot more control over my workload, but even less externally imposed structure. It's very easy in this situation to both let work sprawl across the entire week and get nothing at all done. I'm working on the latter part of that—each week my productivity improves a little and I figure out some new way of supporting that, but it's certainly not an easy problem to solve—but the former has been easy. I think if I lived with someone else who worked from home with little external pressure we'd both worsen each others' behaviour, but as Melinda goes to a separate workplace and does so on fairly regular hours, her habits are a great help to me in keeping good ones. For the most part I work when she's at work, and sometimes into the evening on a weekday, but I've been taking weekends off and loving having that decompression time back.

This weekend was a little different. For various reasons, we both decided to work on Saturday. Today remained a proper day off work though, and I'm glad it did. Not only did we have a lovely day, incorporating the nearest thing I've had here to the traditional British Sunday lunch in a pub, with Monk & Stef, but it seems to have been enough for decompression. It's not that a day can really go by without me thinking about work—I wonder if the experiments I left on the lab cluster are going anyway? I wonder how I can speed the process up? Can I really make this conference submission deadline 4 weeks away?—but that it's without pressure, because at lunch I realised I could have that second beer knowing that I had no intention of getting any work done the rest of the day.

The tradition of having a day off in a week is ubiquitous for a reason, and I'm much better off now that I'm managing to observe it.
posted @ 11:21 PM -

Wednesday, October 5

What to read next? (or OMFG!!!!!!!1111!!)

I've always had a good-sized pile of novels I own and have as yet to read, and a much larger list of things I haven't even got around to getting a copy of yet because the first pile is so big. Now that Melinda's books are also in my apartment, I'm really spoiled for choice. However, this time the choice is easy:

Paul Ford has a novel out. It's called Gary Benchley, Rock Star, it started as a set of hoax letters in The Morning News, and I can't wait to read it. It sounds like the protagonist has a lot in common with Indy Pete from Diesel Sweeties, but more importantly Ford is responsible for some of the most engaging blog writing I have ever encountered (quickly chosen sample here) and the letters in The Morning News which have ended up being a serialisation of half of the book are hilarious.
posted @ 9:26 AM -

The wine that moves you

One of the marks of how excessively I was under pressure for the first 4 semesters of my PhD was that I didn't manage to read a single novel. I started reading Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red at least twice, but both times found myself forced by coursework to go long enough without picking the book up that I had to start from the beginning.

It's always rather depressing when I don't have time to read anything other than my immense academic to-read list, so I'm glad things have changed. Since finishing with courses in May, I've had a little more time on my hands, and a lot more control over exactly how I spend my time. It's taken me months to get even remotely efficient now that I don't have a succession of short-term deadlines hanging over me, and I'm still figuring this out, but I'm getting better at both getting work done and keeping the proportion of hours taken up by work under control. It also helps a lot that Melinda has somewhat more of an externally-imposed routine than I do; since she started work in July I've found it much easier to keep evenings and weekends free for things other than work. The upshot is that I actually have time to read fiction again.

My Name Is Red is a book I had been looking forward to reading for several years, partly because it was so well-reviewed by both journalists and people I know, and partly because I had heard it painted a very vivid picture of old Istanbul. It didn't disappoint. I think my difficulty getting stuck into the book when I was busier was compounded by its rather idiosyncratic form—each chapter switches voice and point of view, and most chapters are short, rather like Iain M. Banks' Feersum Endjinn—but once I had the chance to get absorbed in it the form worked wonderfully. It makes the depiction of Istanbul much richer because each character sees different things in the same street, and it makes the character depictions far more compelling. Every character is flawed, and they are far better at damning themselves than a detached narrator would be, let alone if all the characters had been painted through one's eyes.

The plot itself is probably the least satisfying part of the book. It's a murder mystery in which the identity of the killer is not terribly important, together with a contorted love story and an investigation that proceeds on utterly implausible terms. However, the plot is really just a vehicle for the cast of characters to interact, and thereby to bring life to both the portrayal of the city and the cultural clash that is not only central to this book but also to making any sense of modern Turkey (5 centuries after the setting of the book; plus ça change...). The city breathes through the characters' interactions with it, and it's probably the most vivid portrayal of a place I've ever read in a work of fiction.

The book's finest moment, however, is not as specifically Turkish as the broad themes. My favourite scene was the chapter told by Master Osman, while he's in the Royal treasury in rapture over these fabled old manuscripts with which he has finally managed to scheme his way into getting some quality time. His total absorption in the moment, and intense love for his art, are entirely contagious and reminiscent of Sufi poetry. It's a wonderful reminder of the importance of drinking the wine that moves you.

Finally, I feel the need to point out that the Faber edition has one of the finest cover illustrations of any book I have read. It's not that it's necessarily more beautiful than the US edition, but that the significance of the cover gradually becomes clear in the course of reading the book. I remember one of my high school English teachers being infuriated by cover art that showed that the artists hadn't really read the book, and it's a rare privilege seeing the opposite extreme: cover art that shows the artist has not only read the book but though hard about how to depict important themes from the book in a single image. Fitting, for a book that revolves around the adventures and passions of a group of manuscript illustrators.
posted @ 12:03 AM -

Saturday, October 1

A sign! He left us a sign!

The face of Darwin in my wasabi. Well Stef's wasabi, but anyway. It was clearly a sign.
posted @ 5:25 PM -
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