sawyl: (A self portrait)
I'd been meaning to post Jasper Fforde's delightfully snarky comment on modern university courses for a while now. It's actually a quote from The Bumper Book of Berkshire Records, 2004 edition; a fictional tome whose epigraphs grace several chapters in Fforde's Nursery Crime series of novels:

Gone are the days when only traditional academic disciplines were offered for further study. A quick trawl of UK prospectuses reveals that Faringdon University offers a three-year BA in 'Carrot husbandry', a course that is only mildly stranger than Nuffield's 'Correct use of furniture' or Durham's 'Advanced blinking'. Our favourite is the BA offered by the University of Slough in 'Whatever you want' in which you spend three years doing... whatever you want. Slough has reported, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the success rate is 100 per cent.

Fforde, J., (2007), The Fourth Bear, Hodder, 317

sawyl: (A self portrait)
Not the best news to wake up to this morning but at least I've got an apposite Jasper Fforde quote to cover it:

"Shows how desperate [Yorick Kaine] is, doesn't it? As a nation, we've been blaming the Welsh and the French for far too long, and with the Russians out of the frame he's come up with Denmark as public enemy number one. He's using the Viking raids of AD 800 and the Danish Rule of England in the eleventh century as an excuse to whip up some misinformed xenophobia"

Fforde, J., (2005), Something Rotten, Hodder, 47

sawyl: (A self portrait)
I've quoted this before and I'm doing so again because it seems to capture something about the current political situation:

"...What about Waverley? You'd like that. Walter Scott."
"What's it about?"
"Masculinity and national identity, mostly. Whether it's better to be Scottish and Romantic or English and reasonable."
Nothing out to sea, either. The only thing that moves here now is the grass and the water. "No, what's it about really? What happens?"
She raised an eyebrow.

Moss, S., (2010), Cold Earth, Granta, 238

To give it a bit of context the conversation between Nina, a neurotic literature post-grad, and Jim, an American archaeologist, takes place on an expedition to investigate a liminal settlement on the coast of Greenland. The expedition leader hasn't done much preparation and the group soon lose communication with the outside world. At the same time Nina becomes convinced that they are being haunted by the ghosts of the dead Greenlanders and refuses to leave her tent, choosing instead to remain in bed reading classic novels and fantasising about the food she is going to cook when she gets home. (For a more complete overview, see my review of Sarah Moss' novel Cold Earth from 2010)

sawyl: (A self portrait)
From Nicola Upson's The Death of Lucy Kyte, Josephine and Marta attend harvest festival at the Polstead parish church:

"Trust us to get stuck with a warbler," she whispered as the woman in the pew behind found her stride. Marta's snort earned them a glare from a couple on the other side of the aisle and a nervous smile from Hilary, and as they reached the chorus Josephine marvelled at the number of syllables that the word "love" could have in the wrong hands. The singer built to a crescendo and the hymn struggled to keep up, and Josephine could feel the muscles in her own throat straining in sympathy. She tried to control her laughter by imagining a face to go with the voice, but the tears ran helplessly down onto her hymn book, smudging the worlds that she did not trust herself to sing. Next to her, she could feel Marta's shoulders heaving but she dared not meet her eye.

Which almost precisely mirrors my church-going experiences, with my great aunt standing in for the warbler and pater standing in for the friend who can't keep a straight face...

ETA: On consideration I can't help but think that the Warbler, whose face Josephine fails to see, is going to turn out to be a Significant Player in the drama.

sawyl: (A self portrait)
Why, precisely, should MPs get an 11% pay rise at a time when other public servants have been offered a 1% increases? And why do we even need IPSA? Wouldn't it be better / fairer / less politically difficult to tie parliamentary salaries increases to median public sector wages?

If, as in some of our colonies, there are scarcely any fit persons who can afford to attend to an unpaid occupation, the payment should be an indemnity for loss of time or money, not a salary. The greater latitude of choice which a salary would give is an illusory advantage. No remuneration which any one would think of attaching to the post would attract to it those who were seriously engaged in other lucrative professions, with a prospect of succeeding in them. The occupation of a member of Parliament would therefore become an occupation in itself, carried on, like other professions, with a view chiefly to its pecuniary returns, and under the demoralizing influences of an occupation essentially precarious. It would become an object of desire to adventurers of a low class; and persons in possession, with ten or twenty times as many in expectancy, would be incessantly bidding to attract or retain the suffrages of the electors, by promising all things, honest or dishonest, possible or impossible, and rivaling each other in pandering to the meanest feelings and most ignorant prejudices of the vulgarest part of the crowd.

Mill, J.S., (1861), Considerations on Representative Government

sawyl: (A self portrait)
The news that Google rejected a whole range of different activation phrases for Glass puts me in mind of John Perry's initial attempt to customise his built-in AI:

Many BrainPal™ users find it useful to give their BrainPal™ a name other than BrainPal™. Would you like to name your BrainPal™ at this time?
"Yes," I said.
Please speak the name you would like to give your BrainPal™.
"'Asshole'," I said.
You have selected "Asshole," the BrainPal wrote, and to its credit it spelled the word correctly. Be aware that many recruits have selected this name for their BrainPal™. Would you like to choose a different name?
"No," I said, and was proud that so many of my fellow recruits also felt this way about their BrainPal.
Your BrainPal™ is now Asshole, the BrainPal wrote. You may change this name in future if you like. Now you must choose an access phrase to activate Asshole. While Asshole is active at all times it will only respond to commands after it has been activated. Please choose a short phrase. Asshole suggests "Activate Asshole" but you may choose another phrase. Please say your activation phrase now.
"'Hey, Asshole'", I said.
You have chosen "Hey, Asshole." Please say it again to confirm. I did. Then it asked me to choose a deactivation phrase. I chose (of course) "Go away, Asshole"

Scalzi, J., (2005), Old Man's War, Tor, 89

sawyl: (A self portrait)
From Scott Lynch's excellent, impassioned introduction to Elizabeth Bear's Locus award-winning Shoggoths in Bloom:

Bear's universe isn't a simple inheritance, waiting tamely for our pleasure. But gods and powers and entropy be damned, that's no excuse for not flinging ourselves at it anyway. To be smashed, and disappointed, and discarded, and then to stand up and do it all over again.

Elizabeth Bear stories can be uncomfortable in the same way that life itself can be uncomfortable.

You're geting older. You're losing things. The strength you have now can never last, now matter how hard you work to sustain it. It seems like there's less room for the air in your lungs all the damn time. You might as well breathe deep even if it hurts. You might as well run, even if it makes your feet sore. You might as well throw parties. You might as well make mistakes. You might as well heave yourself gamely onto the altar of the universe and see what happens, even if you're bound to get smashed. The alternative is to be dead. So you might as well.

You might as well, so long as you're here.

sawyl: (A self portrait)
Catching up on my backlog I noticed Jo Walton had a fine piece on Tor entitled What is Reading for?, positively brimming with sage advice:

I do believe there are things everyone ought to do: big things like defending civilization, building the future, making art, and mending the world. I do try to do my share of those. And there are little chores everyone has to do like laundry and flossing and taking vitamins. Again, I do my best with this. There are things everyone has to do to earn money. Then there’s the rest of it, the things one does just for fun.

Yet another reminder that I need to have more fun: that I need to sort myself out some part-time academic thing to keep my mind active; that I ought to commit to doing a distance race or take a climbing course or go to a triathlon boot camp or something...

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Todays insightful quote on the nature of bureaucracy comes via Charlie Stross' excellent The Apocalpse Codex:

Bureaucracies excel at performing tasks that must be done consistently whether the people assigned to them are brilliant performers or bumbling fools. You can't always count on having Albert Einstein in the patent office, so you design its procedures to work even if you hire Mr. Bean by accident... Wizards and visionaries are all very good but you cannot count on them for legwork and form-filling. Which is why there is tail-chasing and make-work and so many committee meetings and reports to read and checklists to fill out, to keep the low achievers preoccupied.

Stross, C., (2012), The Apocalypse Codex, Orbit, 281


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I'm currently reading my way through the novellas on this year's Hugos shortlist and I've just finished Ken Liu's The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary, a fictional contemplation of the horrors of Unit 731. Using the conceit of form of time travel that allows an watch an historical event at the cost of never being able to view the event again, the story considers how past guilt can embarrass and colour the present, and how matters of interpretation and epistemology can spill over and cause real emotional harm to the people involved.

I mention all this as a prelude to quoting one of the principal characters on the subject of history, narrative, truth and morality:

[I]t is not true that just because all narratives are constructed, that they are equally far from the truth. The Earth is neither a perfect sphere nor a flat disk, but the model of the sphere is much closer to the truth. Similarly, there are some narratives that are closer to the truth than others, and we must always try to tell a story that comes as close to the truth as is humanly possible.

The fact that we can never have complete, perfect knowledge does not absolve us of the moral duty to judge and to take a stand against evil.

Not an original sentiment, but nicely expressed nonetheless...

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Via SciAm, I've discovered what might just be the greatest science quote ever. When asked why the US government should spend money on a particle accelerator without any strategic value Robert R. Wilson replied:

It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.


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Following on from my recent realisation about application versus focus, I find, as ever, that Montaigne has gone before me:

As we see some grounds that have long lain idle and untilled, when grown rich and fertile by rest, to abound with and spend their virtue in the product of innumerable sorts of weeds and wild herbs that are unprofitable, and that to make them perform their true office, we are to cultivate and prepare them for such seeds as are proper for our service; and as we see women that, without knowledge of man, do sometimes of themselves bring forth inanimate and formless lumps of flesh, but that to cause a natural and perfect generation they are to be husbanded with another kind of seed: even so it is with minds, which if not applied to some certain study that may fix and restrain them, run into a thousand extravagances, eternally roving here and there in the vague expanse of the imagination—

              "Sicut aqua tremulum labris ubi lumen ahenis,
               Sole repercussum, aut radiantis imagine lunae,
               Omnia pervolitat late loca; jamque sub auras
               Erigitur, summique ferit laquearia tecti."

     ["As when in brazen vats of water the trembling beams of light,
     reflected from the sun, or from the image of the radiant moon,
     swiftly float over every place around, and now are darted up on
     high, and strike the ceilings of the upmost roof."—
     AEneid, viii. 22.]

—in which wild agitation there is no folly, nor idle fancy they do not light upon:—

                    "Velut aegri somnia, vanae
               Finguntur species."

     ["As a sick man's dreams, creating vain phantasms."—
     Hor., De Arte Poetica, 7.]

The soul that has no established aim loses itself, for, as it is said—

          "Quisquis ubique habitat, Maxime, nusquam habitat."

     ["He who lives everywhere, lives nowhere."—Martial, vii.  73.]

(I note that in Michael Screech's more modern translation he prefers the word semen to seed and includes a footnote on the quite peculiar 16th century idea of reproduction to which Montaigne alludes, giving the opening paragraph a wonderfully screwball feel).

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Two salient quotes from Ross Anderson on social engineering and default passwords:

Passwords are often extracted by false pretext phone calls. A harrassed system administrator is called once or twice on trivial matters by someone who claims to be a very senior manager’s personal assistant; once he has accepted the caller’s story, she calls and urgently demands a high-level password on some plausible pretext. Unless an organization has well-thought-out policies, attacks of this kind are very likely to work.

Anderson, R., (2001), Security Engineering, 1st edition, Wiley, 37


A failure to think through the sort of rules that organizations should make, and enforce, to support the password mechanisms they have implemented has led to some really spectacular cases... Failure to change default passwords as supplied by the equipment vendor has affected many kinds of computer, some cryptographic equipment, and even mobile phones (where many users never bother to change an installed PIN of 0000).

ibid. 40

Plus ça change...

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In honour of the late, great Joanna Russ, here's a delightful quote from The Female Man.

It's a report, courtesy of Joanna (who is also responsible for the parenthetical asides), of a television interview between Janet Evason (an interloper from a world 900 years in the future were there are no men) and a rather condescending male interviewer (who is probably just as representative of modern mores as those of the 1970s, if the Prime Minister's tendency to quote Michael Winner is anything to go by). Needless to say, Janet makes mincemeat of her interlocutor:

MC: I — Miss Evason — we — well, we know you form what you call marriages, Miss Evason, that you reckon the decent of of your children through both partners and that you even have "tribes" — I'm calling them what Sir —— calls them; I know the translation isn't perfect — and we know that these marriages or tribes form very good institutions for the economic support of the children and for some sort of genetic mixing, though I confess you're way beyond us in the biological sciences. But, Miss Evason, I am not talking about economic institutions or even affectionate ones. Of course the mothers of Whileaway love their children; nobody doubts that, either. But there is more, much, much more — I am talking about sexual love.
JE: (enlightened): Oh! You mean copulation.
JE: And you say we don't have that?
JE: How foolish of you. Of course we do.
MC: Ah? (He wants to say, 'Don't tell me.')
JE: With each other. Allow me to explain.

She was cut off instantly by a commercial poetically describing the joys of unsliced bread. They shrugged (out of camera range). It wouldn't have got that far if Janet had not insisted on attaching a touch-me-not to the replay system. It was a live broadcast, four seconds' lag. I began to like her more and more. She said, 'If you expect me to observe your taboos, I think you will have to be more precise as too exactly what they are.'

I, too, began to like her more and more.

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Today's quote of the day comes from part of Cordelia Fine's discussion of gender inequalities in the home:

But the data from a study of the faculty at the University of California are telling. Female faculty with children report working fifty-one hours a week at their jobs and another fifty-one hours a week doing housework and child care — truly the second shift... Faculty fathers, by contrast, put in only thirty-two unpaid work hours a week... Behind every great academic man there is a woman, but behind every great academic woman is an unpeeled potato and child who needs some attention.

Fine, C., (2010), Delusions of Gender, Icon Books, 93

(For completeness, I'll note that the sentences I've excised — nothing sinister, I'm just too lazy to transcribe them — only serve to add further details to the size of the difference between the two groups).

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Scalzi explains why he doesn't use his vasty powers to crush up and coming writers. Short answer: he's too busy and if he tried to mobilise his mighty internet hordes, they'd just decide that he was being an arse and ignore him:

Look, when you’re an asshole to people, then other people know it. And while people generally will not stop you from being an asshole, if such is your joy, they’re also not going to go out of their way to help you. Humans see assholes as damage and route around them.

Truly a maxim by which to live...

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From Hari Kunzru's interview with Michael Moorecock in Saturday's Guardian:

Violent second world war stories were a mainstay of Fleetway's output, featuring square-jawed Tommies bayoneting craven Germans while snarling xenophobic insults. When Moorcock refused to write for these titles, "they decided I was a communist. But the boss of my department wouldn't fire me, because he was convinced the Red Army was going to come marching up Fleet Street any minute, and there I'd be with my Makarov pistol and my rimless glasses, lining people up to be shot. They kept me on as a kind of insurance."

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I'm very washed out at the moment — too much doing, not enough sleeping — so instead of anything particularly profound, here's an amusing quote from chapter 54 of Daniel Deronda:

A lady was obliged to respond to these things suitably; and even if she had not shrunk from quarrelling on other grounds, quarreling with Grandcourt was impossible; she might as well have made angry remarks to a dangerous serpent ornamentally coiled in her cabin without invitation. And what sort of dispute could a woman of any pride and dignity begin on a yacht?

I'll have to remember to pass that on to my parents...

sawyl: (A self portrait)
I like recommending books. I'm evangelical about it. I love the challenge of tuning suggestions to particular sensibilities, of persuading someone to read something they wouldn't otherwise consider.

I especially loved this exchange, from Sarah Moss' excellent Cold Earth, in which Nina tries to get Jim to read a 19th century novel in an attempt to take his mind off the arrival or non-arrival of the plane to return them to civilisation:

"...What about Waverley? You'd like that. Walter Scott."
"What's it about?"
"Masculinity and national identity, mostly. Whether it's better to be Scottish and Romantic or English and reasonable."
Nothing out to sea, either. The only thing that moves here now is the grass and the water.
"No, what's it about really? What happens?"
She raised an eyebrow.

Moss, S., (2010), Cold Earth, Granta, 238

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I've been dawdling over John Crowley's astonishingly wonderful Little, Big for a couple of weeks now, and loving every minute of it. Here's a striking description of Ariel Hawksquill, a modern disciple of Giordano Bruno, preparing herself for work:

Already she felt her thoughts becoming ordered as the undifferentiated light of heaven was ordered by the colors and marked degrees of the Cosmo-Opticon; she felt her own Theatrum Mundi within open its doors, and the stage manager strike the stage three times with his staff to signal the curtain rising. The enormous engine, star-founded, of her Artificial Memory began to lay out for her once again the parts of the problem of Russell Eigenblick. And she felt, sharp-set for the work, that there had not ever been among all the strange tasks her powers had been bent upon a task a strange as this one, or one which was more important to her herself; or one that would require her to go as far, dive as deep, see a widely, or think as hard.

My God, but the man can write.


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