Friday, July 31, 2015


I have taken a long time to get around to writing this up, partly I think out of reluctance to contemplate the whole question but also partly because it's much more troublesome to write a blog post with lots of links than to paste in simple text! But it is overdue, I need to send the link to a few people and here goes: these are some of the words I said for my father at the memorial we held at Penn in April.

First, some words a few friends of his sent via email.

Co-worker Chris Mustazza:
I used to stop by his office once per week or so just to chat about the wide range of topics that he knew about, from chemistry through technology through the history of sound recording. I respect him very much as a model of what a person can strive to be: massively knowledgeable, while also being so kind and humble.
Longtime friend and correspondent Paul Gould:
He would come to stay with us on many of his UK trips, tolerating the various futons and sofa beds we had to offer and the varying standards of accommodation, from the cold rooms we rented on the ground floor of a Victorian house in Liverpool (you had to put on additional layers of clothing when going inside in the Summer) to our current house in Halifax. When I was leaving my job at the University of Liverpool and mentioned feeling rather sad as I handed back my office keys, ID card, etc. his response was to send a cheque and tell us to go out and have a really good meal to cheer me up.

As time progressed, the gaps between our emails grew longer for reasons I can’t fathom. Looking back, I don't think we've been in touch since he came over in October 2013. We used to discuss the opera performances we’d attended (I do remember smiling when he dismissed a season at the Met one year as “too Italian”) and I was thinking of him recently when considering whether to book tickets to the Opera North Ring Cycle concert performances next year. Shelley flatly refused to accompany me, and I thought that asking him to make the trip over every Saturday for a month would have been a bit too much! I’m sure he would have enjoyed the idea, though. Coincidentally, Shelley and I were watching a TV programme this morning from the Jodrell Bank radio observatory in Cheshire, which we visited with him one time he was over while we were still living in Liverpool. We were laughing about the fact that he would always zip around museums and exhibitions in what seemed like 5 minutes, and yet still take away everything he wanted from them.
For me, my father was most of all an intellectual interlocutor, a person with whom I shared a great many sensibilities and interests. We were both in some sense more than is usually true "people of the internet": my father had a good deal of early involvement in the world of computing (he worked at HP in the late 1960s), but he really came into his own, I think, in the last ten or fifteen years (think about how Netflix lets you obtain obscure German films...).

For as long as I can remember, my father had captivating ideas and things: the gigantic spool with a mile of thread on it; the stint working on the neutrino detection project at the Homestake Gold Mine (I remember a conversation that must have happened when I was about eight in which my father sketched out the tank and explained why it was filled with dry-cleaning fluid!).

In high school, when I was obsessed with the works of Anthony Burgess and had read every book of his I could get my hands on, my father brought me with him into the stacks at the Penn library (my eyes were like saucers!) so that I could check out the other ones (ever the completist). He was not a great expresser of affection, but during a spell of working near a Pepperidge Farm outlet store, he used to bring home huge hauls of slightly damaged goods (cakes with a nub bitten out of the side, catering-size cartons of goldfish), and I also remember his purchase on the grocery run of the occasional box of Froot Loops as falling under the heading of affection as well!

When I was writing my undergraduate senior thesis on the electric telegraph and theories of language, he explored all sorts of archives and museums in the UK. Ditto when I was researching the life and work of Alfred Nobel for my second novel.

One way to convey something of the relationship is to search my Light Reading blog for all the links my father sent me over the years. It is an amazing catalog! He sent things that fell at the intersection of his interests and my own; he had a keen an eye for what I would find amusing or delightful.

Here are a few of them.

Under the heading of "recreational zoology":

“The faster, fiercer and always surprising sloth”

Urban falconry

A video clip of fisherman in West Flanders riding horses into the ocean to catch shrimp

An amazing Orion Magazine piece about the “deep intellect” of the octopus


Newly digitized images from Scott’s Antarctic expedition

Journalist Ben Fenton’s account of how he exposed a set of forged letters smuggled into the Public Records Office at Kew in an attempt to prove that Winston Churchill commissioned a British intelligence officer to murder Heinrich Himmler

What the Sampson archives revealed about life in the corridors of power


A Wall Street Journal spring stunt in which college presidents were invited to submit college application essays in response to a question their own institution offered to prospective students

Computing and the history of science:

A correspondent’s letter noting that a rebuild of the “Colossus” can now be seen in the museum at Bletchley Park (I was later able to go and see the museum of computing there with my own eyes!)

Douglas Hofstadter’s quest to build computational models of human intelligence

Random things he knew I would like:

A record-breaking chocolate bar (6 tons, if you are interested, manufactured by Thornton’s with dimension of 4m x 4m)

The amazing cakes featured on the website of Philadelphia’s “Night Kitchen” bakery (he’d been to a birthday party featuring one)


Wardrobe choices of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher character

Morbid things:

The exhumation of the remains of Cardinal Newman

A rather fantastic Wikipedia biography of British doctor and mass-murderer John Bodkin Adams (convicted, among other things, of the wonderfully named offense "lying on cremation forms"!) (this came to his eyes as a consequence of reading D. R. Thorpe's Harold Macmillan biography and delighting in the way Macmillan's life seemed to intersect with all sorts of unexpected figures)

Kebabs made as corpse lay nearby:
Flies were landing on food in the shop and there was an "awful smell."
A fast food shop owner was found preparing food while an employee's corpse lay nearby.
Police called to the Pappu Sweet Centre in Wolverhampton in August discovered the man's body on a sofa near the kitchen, magistrates in the city heard.
The business, owned by Jaswinder Singh, 45, was shut down immediately.
The council said it was one of the worst cases environmental health officers had seen. Mr Singh has been banned from running any food business.
The man's death was not suspicious, police said.

A promotional video for a fundraising 5K race organized by a public library that combined 2 of my favorite things (as I noted on my blog) – libraries and the Vibram five-finger “toe shoes”

The private lives of public bathrooms

The difficulty of building a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark in modern-day Netherlands in compliance with EU fire safety standards

Madeleine Albright's fondness for "symbolic brooches":
A poem appeared in the papers in Baghdad comparing me to many things but, among them, “an unparalleled serpent”. So I decided to wear an antique snake brooch when I talked about Iraq. Some camera zeroed in, and the press asked, “Why are you wearing that snake brooch?” I said, “Because Saddam Hussein compared me to an unparalleled serpent.”
A first-person account of a Portuguese citizen who bought a small island and founded his own country:
I have both a Portuguese passport and a passport for Pontinha (where my passport number is 0001). There are four citizens: me, my wife, my son and my daughter. I am the police, the gardener, everything. I am whatever I want to be – that’s the dream, isn’t it? If I decide I want to have a national song, I can choose it, and I can change it any time. The same with my flag – it could be blue today, red tomorrow. Of course, my power is only absolute here, where I am the true sovereign.

The Portuguese gastronomic speciality is bacalhau. But we are running out of cod in our oceans now, and we buy it from another country. So my gastronomy, my country’s speciality, is takeaway.
We both particularly enjoyed the Lunch with the FT feature, most of all when there is also some sort of drama concerning the food! (Gideon Rachman Here's a good example, in which Gideon Rachman interviewed the Prime Minister of Thailand in a "jollied-up" basement room at the Davos resort where the World Economic Forum is held: "Abhisit, immaculately dressed in a grey suit and waistcoat, with a pale blue shirt and black tie with white stripes, looks slightly doubtful at the array of lurid pastries and curled sandwiches placed before him. I explain that our conversation is meant to take place against a background of eating and drinking. “OK. I will comply,” he says. But he makes no movement towards the food.")

Things my father liked: sushi, oysters, rare beef. Wagner! Cars.

He followed very closely all sorts of things I was involved with: the artist Tino Seghal’s “situations” (this was another link he sent me), my friend and former student Nico Muhly’s career as a composer.

We often saw a film together: the last one we saw before he died was the Russian film Leviathan; other memorable excursions featured Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, the Jackie Stewart documentary Weekend of a Champion and the Robert Downey, Jr. Iron Man.

He had a stint in hospital last spring, and it was a great relief to me and to him that he was able to regain enough mobility to get back to work, and even to get to New York earlier this year for food and culture.

Work was his lifeline. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at home, and though I miss him acutely, I am glad for his sake that he didn't live a diminished life in his final years. Let us now eat and drink in his memory!

Sunday, July 26, 2015


At the New York Times, Oliver Sacks on the consolations of the physical sciences:
Next to the circle of lead on my table is the land of bismuth: naturally occurring bismuth from Australia; little limousine-shaped ingots of bismuth from a mine in Bolivia; bismuth slowly cooled from a melt to form beautiful iridescent crystals terraced like a Hopi village; and, in a nod to Euclid and the beauty of geometry, a cylinder and a sphere made of bismuth.

Bismuth is element 83. I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having "83" around. Moreover, I have a soft spot for bismuth, a modest gray metal, often unregarded, ignored, even by metal lovers. My feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized extends into the inorganic world and finds a parallel in my feeling for bismuth.
And another nice recent piece: "My letter from Oliver Sacks." (Links courtesy of Dave Lull.)

Fever dreams

Tim Adams on Hanya Yanahihara, at the Guardian (via Geoff Chadsey):
“I knew when I started it would be about 1,000 manuscript pages,” Yanagihara says, with the true novelist’s sense of fate. “I’d had the characters in my head for a long time. I was writing every single night and all weekend and it is not something I necessarily recommend. Though it was an exhilarating experience it was also an alienating one. In the first part of the book, JB [one of the four friends, an artist] is talking about painting and about how it becomes more real than life itself. That process, which I experienced, is absorbing and dangerous. It is probably one I will never have again, and one I never want again.”

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Closing some tabs

And with unusual finality - I was finally due for a new computer from Columbia (we're on a four-year cycle), it arrived yesterday and I had an emergency meeting this morning at 9:30 with a faculty desktop support guy who set it up all up for me - I'm leaving tomorrow morning for a lovely but complicated trip to Cayman, England and Iceland, and it is a boon to have this new tiny computer to travel with rather than the current BEHEMOTH!

(Which I will now leave in my office so that I have a computer permanently there, and it may be the source of future blog postings, but it will no longer be the main device....)


Neglected books still neglected, including a very funny one noted by Anthony Burgess (clearly a major source for his own somewhat neglected novel The Wanting Seed). (Via.)

Listen to all ten of August Wilson's plays for free between now and the end of August!

What would Daniel Kahnemann eliminate if he had a magic wand?

Jane Goodall on 55 years at Gombe.

Sarah Waters' ten rules for writing fiction.

A delightful roundup at the TLS on four recent books about the history of British cooking and Steven Shapin at the LRB on the history of tea (subscriber-only I think).

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


I need an amanuensis to come and type up these notes for me!

My mood has picked up quite a bit, to my relief - in fact, when I look through past summers of blog posting, I begin to suspect that I always spend June and the first half of July in a state of mild grumpiness (consequence of overwork during the school year plus need to clear minor external writing tasks). I was training a lot more last summer but I don't think I was really feeling good about stuff until round about now, it may just be a structural cost of balancing the workload so unevenly over the academic year.

I have a lot to do before I leave on Friday, including thinking about packing for three totally different climates and sets of activities. Will still be writing Oxford talk next week in Cayman, not optimal but inevitable....

A minor bright spot the other day: my brother found our father's SSA-1099 in a bag of papers that had become separated from the other stuff he took from his apartment, which will let me file his 2014 taxes WITHOUT having to go in person to the local Social Security office and wait in line with complicated paperwork to beg a new copy! This is huge: it might be that the SS office is not as heinous a place as I imagine, but I have built this up into absolutely most-dreaded job, and having the form in hand will save me half a day of high irk and a good deal of dread in the anticipation. PROCRASTINATION WAS REWARDED - my brother was almost afraid to tell me he'd found it in case I'd already spent a horrible day obtaining a new one!

This year brought me several bad things I really wasn't expecting, and I am still pretty much just scrambling through from day to day, but I'm looking forward to the coming school year and an interesting committee-chairing assignment, and after that I will have a full year of sabbatical! I have not made enough writing time in the last year or so, and am looking forward to getting the chance to remedy the omission.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


An appealing extract from Ed Caesar's new book on endurance sport at the FT (site registration required). Hahahahaha, I had a wave of grumpiness that the book is available as of today in the UK but not till October in the US - then I remembered that in two weeks I will be in England and can purchase it in a bookstore! (Or, indeed, order it immediately from the Book Depository....)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Closing tabs

A long-overdue closing tabs post. (Alas, the combination of Facebook and a general lack of exuberance is making my blog much less active than usual - the era of the blog is largely over, I am afraid, though I am hoping I will be posting more often again once I'm through the slump.)

Have had some good sessions at the rare book library with Johnson's Shakespeare, Bentley, Theobald and various other eighteenth-century stuff. I have my work cut out for me, only two more weeks in New York with library access - better start pulling some of this stuff together....

Have seen a few really wonderful plays written and performed by friends: first of all, Winsome Brown's immensely touching and funny This is Mary Brown; second of all, Abby Rosebrock's equally touching and funny but ALTOGETHER different (I was laughing out loud, it really is a play to make you laugh and cry) Singles in Agriculture. Both of these just had short runs for now but will be seen again in future in NYC and elsewhere, I'm sure. Abby is a comic genius!

Reading a lot for work is my only excuse that light reading has been so thoroughly brain-rotting (really it is like living on Pringles, Cheetos and SweeTarts!).

Three rather appealing urban fantasy novels by Jaye Wells, the Prospero's War trilogy; five novels of variable quality in a co-authored series by Edward Fallon and others (there are some wild implausibilities in three and four in particular, but the books are readable), the Linger books (strongly reminiscent of F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack books, and more like television episodes than full-length novels, but I applaud these experiments in publishing - I would certainly read more books like this if people were writing them); a novella by Mira Grant called Rolling in the Deep (she is always very good, but it's more appealing when you see glimpses of a world or characters you care about from the novels - I still think very regularly about the excellent The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell!); Charlie Stross's new Laundry novel The Annihilation Score (harder for Stross to capture Mo's voice than Bob's, inevitably, though these books are always delightful); then a funny and disconcerting urban fantasy series by a MAN - there is of course no reason that urban fantasy shouldn't be written by men, Charles de Lint is one of its great pioneers, but I suppose the genre collided with romance/erotica in a way that makes it tend to be strongly female-dominated in terms of the writing, Kevin Hearne's "Iron Druid" books. Have read the first four and am happy that there are more. Also, an Amazon First giveaway, Sam Reaves' Cold Black Earth, which I thought was extremely good, particularly in the writing: will definitely seek out his others.

Massive number of tabs to close, in the order from left to right across the browser (sometimes I organize according to internal logic, but I don't think I have the energy!):

Marie Curie's work is still radioactive.

A new swim stroke - the fastest yet?

I am slightly horrified by the idea that Dune is the most important novel in the science fiction canon, but Hari Kunzru makes me consider a reread.

Warhol's cover illustration for The Red and the Black.

Lion facial recognition. (Reminded me of this.)

Donald Judd at 101 Spring Street.

Creepy but fascinating: the art of preserving tattooed skin after death.

A conversation with Mike Watt.

Lauren Klein on the carework and codework of the digital humanities. (Lauren is in NYC now for some weeks and we happily had a very good spin-swim session yesterday at Chelsea Piers - good for mood and morale!)

Wallace Kalkin on Deep Springs College, a place I've always had a fascination with ever since doing a Telluride Association summer program at Williams College before my senior year of high school.

I MUST DO THIS ONE OF THESE YEARS. It can be done, it's not a heroic exploit (contra Byron), but I will need to pay some attention to the logistics (this I think is the best option).

I wrote a short thing for the new Aeon Ideas site: is artistic talent innate?

The Amazing Acro-Cats! My mother and I had a funny conversation on the phone about this piece last night - I am overbooked until I am leaving NYC, and surely tickets are sold out already, but I might have to see if I can get some.... (Will pursue this as soon as I finish writing this post.) (Also, from Jane Yeh, list of cats!)

At the TLS, Peter Stothard on Antonia Fraser.

I am still sore about having to cancel my epic triathlon for September, but it made me think about this piece I liked very much - I think we could make up something similar for reading and writing, i.e. what you need to do in the way of writing during non-serious stretches to be ready to start up again hard and get a lot done in a span of some weeks.

I want this book!

Canadian slang terms (courtesy of B.). Over many years of fraternizing with Canadians, most of these terms were already familiar to me, but I still find them strange and frequently enchanting (double double!)....

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Work TBR

New "tower" approach to organizing work TBR in bedroom (I think best lying in bed!). I have another one of these in a box waiting to be assembled, but it must be said that the screwholes were so badly bored that the person helping me assemble the first one had to take the pieces to the hardware store and get them to help her ream them out so that the screws would actually go through!

KindRED spirits?

Via Amy Klein!