When I have time to kill, I like to sacrifice it in a bookshop. I always rather thought that this was an active choice on my part: I’m a reader, and unexpectedly upturning a joyous title can make my day. One recent acquisition, Ben Macintyre’s Josiah the Great is just so promising that I dare not read it for fear of spoiling its current bookshelf perfection. I’ve come to believe, though, that killing time in the bookshop is not a simple desire: it’s a practical response to the problem that ten minutes in a bookshop is wasted time. It requires at least half an hour to puncture the gaudy surface of bestsellers and find the meats within.
In fact, I suspect that my bookshelves are just a bookshop manqué. I am more than happy to buy books in the knowledge that they will sit on the shelves for years before being read. I am frequently surprised to find books I’d forgotten I’d acquired on my shelves, providing that authentic moment of bookshop discovery right at home.
Conversely, like any book-lover, I can confidently put my hand on almost any book I know I possess, making redundant any need for a cataloguing system. Books are grouped possibly by size, cover or indeed colour, but rarely by any kind of librarian logic. Book lovers will recognise too the seamlessness with which an hour can slip past just browsing your own bookshelves. My eyes tickle over the spines of a hundred titles on my way to doing some petty, important task. I am constantly refamiliarising myself with them, opening them, tending them with my attention like a gardener stroking the leaves of his plants. No wonder I can find them all. They are, in the argot, part of an ongoing conversation in myself, as objective and sensible as friends in orienting the world around me.
There is also here, I suppose, the idea of reading by osmosis. There are books with which you settle onto a cushion of some type and read. Then there are titles that float around you for so long, fall under your fingers so many times, are browsed, ruffled, index raided, delved into, that they become effectively read. At that, they are read in a less trustworthy, more insinuating way; read without an opportunity ever to formally reject them. There is no putting these books down, because you are always putting them down, and picking them up. They are replaced in the bookshelves so many times that they will never be thrown into the corner of the room in digust, no matter how deserving.
Anyway, anyway. My bookshelves inform my feelings towards bookshops so deeply and perversely that I am foolishly disappointed when I spend time in a real bookshop. As I indicated before, ten minutes in a bookshop is wasted time, because there is barely time to browse past the rubbish and start seeing what is really there.
So, today, I had a thunderstruck few minutes when I entered the bookshop, comprehending just how much chaff has been created by Dan Brown’s bloody book. This takes the form of four types of book:
- The (unacknowledged) inspiration
- The laborious commentary
- deathly parody (and if it requires the subtitle “A Parody”, you know there’s trouble)
- Other books by the author that nobody bought the first time round
- Last, and certainly least, books with a similar cover
I ran, ran past the bestsellers and spent my time in the shop keeping out of beady eyeline of the pile-em-high tables at the front. This meant I was in the gloomy lowlands of the history, science and art sections, but I was happy enough.
Remind me, next time, to outline my theory that books can be chosen according to a careful analysis of their cover against strict criteria. It is a little like card-counting, but altogether less likely to get you kneecapped in Las Vegas.
I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of
sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on
this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them
equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn
about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following
way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these
being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my
greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and
putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my
greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I
replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had
finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my
four pockets, but not quite the same stones.
And so on, and on. This is, of course, Beckett’s Molloy speaking, from the Trilogy. I’ve been doing a lot of geeky snooping around sites dealing with so-called Lifehacks, and rather marvellously, I noticed someone linking to the stone-sucking sequencein ‘Molloy’, labelling it as a ‘lifehack’.
Let’s hope not, eh?
By the by, I always supposed that this sequence reflects Beckett’s cricketing youth (second time I’ve linked to that information). I imagine young S. Beckett standing in the field watching the umpire moving a stone from right pocket to left after each delivery, thinking “There’s got to be something in that.”
There have been some curious nocturnal activities recently chez Rogue Semiotics. No, not that sort. This is not that kind of journal.
The night before last saw me up a ladder, in the dark, at 2am, troubleshooting a squeaking alarm. Suspended above the stairwell, half asleep, the stairs fading into the gloom below, it reminded me of nothing more than swimming at night in clear water. It was I suppose something to do with that terrible half-light of cities, the orange buzz that persists on the edge of your vision no matter how deep into the night you are.
It is, I suppose, a sorry electric version of the deep northern summer so heartbreakingly described in The Idea of North. The chapter on Northern summer brought such a gentle tear to my eye that I immediately reread it.
I was, of course, too sleepy while up the ladder to call up such Elysian thoughts. I limited myself to not pressing the ‘Deafen me please’ button and not stepping off the ladder for a swim.
Last night, I had to address the cause of the darkness. The landing lights had blown in a pretty comprehensive way, In replacing the whole messy unit, I made some tiny discoveries. First, wires look the same colour in the dark. Second, holding a torch in your teeth is only possible for about a minute at a time. Third, there is no such thing as a quick job when you’re starting late in the evening.
I haven’t been alone in getting up to annoying and potentially dangerous activities at night. The Southwark foxes have reappeared. I found one sleeping on the shed roof. She had the decency to scarper as though frightened, but I know it’s a pretence. These are South London foxes; tall, rangy, cocky looking beasts. An hour later she was back on the shed, asleep again. Our cats took the entirely sensible precaution of hiding under the bedclothes.
Later, I saw the pair of them with their noses pressed up against the back door of our neighbours. I’m hoping that they are not interested in working out the mechanism of cat flaps, or at least are put off by the smell of human emanating from the house. I don’t wish to be up a ladder in the orange-black night some night only to notice a pair of sharp red ears trot out of the darkness and beneath me. I’d be stuck up there all night.
You will recall that academic spam inviting lowly researchers to robot conferences in handily pleasant locations.
Now we see the researchers fighting back, with SCIGen, a tool for creating random research papers. See examples (in PDF form) here and here.
Sadly, in the way of computer science japes, the tool currently only covers papers in the Computer Science field. I would love to see the equivalent tool let loose on critical theory. I recall one conference I attended where a paper allegedly on Pynchon and Baudrillard (yes, you can see this coming, can’t you?) consisted of a half-hour cut-up of Gravity’s Rainbow with some pop lyrics.
Anyway, the delightful thing about SCIgen (found via Kevan is that the builders have managed to get a paper accepted to WMSCI2005. After a quick fund-raising exercise, they to attend in July and deliver a completely randomly generated talk.
It is traditional to end here with a comment like “You couldn’t make it up”, a sentiment clearly inappropriate in this instance. Perhaps, instead, I’ll settle for the rather less folksy “You wouldn’t wish it to have been made up”.
Yesterday I cautiously embarked upon that most worrisome of expeditions into the past: listening to an old favourite album.
First things first. I returned alive. The natives were restless; their incessant drumming was more foursquare than the old reports had suggested, and a great deal seemed a little repetitive, but no serious harm was done and nobody ended up in a pot.
Of more interest, why was this a dangerous expedition?
I’m tempted to think that it’s something to do with the time travel involved. By my best guess, it must be nearly 15 years since I last listened to this music (terrifyingly, the album itself is getting on for 20 years old). The past as a foreign country: I did things differently there. Perhaps listening to the soundtrack of me 15 years past I would be bringing back events, people, problems from the past. Endless hours locked into meaningless journeys with only a cheap blue plastic Walkman to provide a pretend overlay of meaning. A lanker, paler version of me occupying a lanker, paler world.
Alternatively, perhaps I would be overwhelmed by a sense of loss at those 15 years having whipped past like the tail of a kite, lively in the breeze, impossible to hold fast. Those old songs should bring back a younger, wiser me, less cluttered by the bricabrac of living, merrily cluttered with possibilities.
Was either of these true? Almost certainly both of them. And yet, and yet.
I think there’s something more visceral, something more universal to the listening of music once intimately known. I would rarely feel the same way rereading an old favourite book, or watching again one of the movies that meant so much to me in my film-a-day youth. These stand identifiably separate from you, no matter how closely you identify with them. They stand before your eyes. It does make a difference.
Music, that either most bastard or most perfected of the arts, insinuates itself in always from the sides. How can you trust it? It does not occupy your field of vision, it sits on your shoulder, passing constant comment on the world as it passes by. Devil and angel whispering in your ears, it colours everything, tints the very sky in its favoured colours.
Clever music, insinuating music, walks with you pretending to be your friend. As when re-opening an old friendship, you find yourself approaching cautiously, wondering silently just why it fell into abeyance in the first place.
The sensation of hearing those songs again is disruptive. It’s both familiar and strange. This is the excitement, and the fear.
I think there’s a pretty simple explanation. Much of musicality is prediction; like comedy, music satisfies by fulfilling expectations in often unexpected ways. The perfection of Bach is best appreciated when the listener is teetering on the edge of fully understanding the pattern. Things are clear without being obvious.
Old songs are obvious without being clear. You know moments perfectly, but can’t recall how the patterns go together. The moment one song finishes I know the opening of the next, but I don’t recognise the song itself for a while after. Everything is backwards. Songs are shorter than I recall, but the album longer. Worse. The songs are the same in their finest detail, but utterly different to their memory. It’s like waking up having fallen asleep on your arm. There is something there completely of you, but totally alien.
There’s something strange going on tonight. But I feel fine.
Everything you need to know about the upcoming election in fewer than 20 words:
The Tories have dropped their “Vote Blair, Get Brown” slogan for fear it would prove too popular.
Tremendous stuff. Stick with it, only four weeks to go.
I received a particularly curious spam email:
Dear potential Speaker:
On behalf of the organizing committee, I would like to extend a cordial invitation for you to attend one of the upcoming IPSI BgD multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary conferences.
The first one will take place in Loreto Aprutino, Italy:
All IPSI BgD conferences are non-profit. They bring together the elite of the world science; so far, we have had seven Nobel Laureates speaking at the opening ceremonies. The conferences always take place in some of the most attractive places of the world. All those who come to IPSI conferences once, always love to come back (because of the unique professional quality and the extremely creative atmosphere); lists of past participants are on the web, as well as details of future conferences.
If you would like more information on either conference, please reply to this e-mail message.
If you plan to submit an abstract and paper, please let us know immediately for planning purposes. Note that you can submit your paper also to the IPSI Transactions journal.
Prof. V. Milutinovic, Chairman,
IPSI BgD Conference
My best guess is that this is a particularly sophisticated scam. There is a website , but it looks chaotic and oddly pitched halfway between appeals to vanity and tourism (IPSI-2006 Montreal “With Visits to Jazz and Laughs Festivals”).
Special emphasis is dedicated to hospitality! We like that
attendees and their accompanying persons feel good.
The Advisory Board, with three business advisers sharing a surname and listing only Private Universities in Serbia, also rings false. On the other hand, Prof. Milutinovic does have a (perhaps authentically) rum home page apparently on a university domain.
But what, dear reader, is the story here? Perhaps it is an opportunity for scientists in unfashionable areas to get a foreign jolly. Perhaps it’s an opportunistic Serbian business capitalising as much on some baroque fund allocation as the heaving desire of academics to lecture abroad. And how important in all this is the reader’s expectation that academic life in post-Soviet countries is rather slapdash and very money-grubbing?
As ever, your votes are welcome.