Monthly Archives: January 2007

Woolf on his formal education

Leonard Woolf spent seven years as a civil servant in Ceylon (1904-1911), seemingly a period of exile after five years (1899-1904) of intense intellectual life as an undergraduate at Cambridge. His explanation for this odd jag of career path offers a model of Education that’s worth consideration as an alternative to the conventional framework of academic success:

Compared with most scholars I did little work at Cambridge, if work means going to lectures, reading, and stuffing your head with what will give you a high place in an examination. I hate lectures and, as at Trinity the authorities did not insist on scholars attending them punctiliously, I went to few. I read voraciously both in Greek and Latin and in English and French, but it was not the kind of diet which wins you very high marks in an examination. I am quite good at exams, but the truth is that I was a really first-class classical scholar when I came up from St. Paul’s to Trinity, but nothing like as good when I took Part I of the Classical Tripos. When I took the Civil Service examination, I could read Greek and Latin fluently, as I still can, but I had forgotten all the paraphernalia of syntax and writing Greek and Latin compositions. The result was that I got poor marks in the classical papers in which I should have amassed most of my marks and so did extremely badly…

I am glad too that I lived the kind of life at Trinity which was mainly the reason why I did not do well in the examinations. It was, I think, a civilized life both intellectually and emotionally. My intellect was kept at full stretch, which is very good for the young, by books and the way I read them and by friends and their incessant and uncompromising conversation. The emotion came from friendship and friends, but also from the place, the material and spiritual place, Trinity and Cambridge. (Sowing, pp 193-195)

This reminds me of a favorite quotation from John Ciardi:

A university is a reading and discussion club. If students knew how to use the library, they wouldn’t need the rest of the buildings. The faculty’s job, in great part, is to teach students how to use a library in a living way. All a student should really need is access to the library and a place to sleep. (from Ciardi Himself, 1989)

So I find myself wondering if this path of voracious reading and conversation, in a setting that offers ‘material and spiritual’ support to the self-propelled Scholar, is still viable as a personal strategy? In retrospect, it seems a pretty good description of my own Education, in that so much of my path in undergraduate and graduate years was influenced by the riches of the locales (and especially by the bookstores of Cambridge MA and Palo Alto CA) and by the remarkable contemporaries with whom I spent so much time. I certainly remember professors and even a few courses that profoundly influenced my own development, but most of the real learning was anchored in people and places, not in curriculum and “training” as provided by institutions. Is that true for EVERYbody… and if so, doesn’t it suggest that all those committee meetings and strategic plans and disciplinary wranglings are mostly wheelspinning?

Rudy’s goggles

Rudy Rucker’s blog is always diverting, which is hardly a surprise: interesting uses of imagery, plenty of SantaCruxian-inflected wondering-out-loud, and the occasional gobsmacking one-liner. Today’s posting carries on a tale of his glasses, lost in an off-trail canyon scramble in Big Basin Redwoods, and staying lost. So he goes looking for new frames, and summarizes his search thus:

Frame styles are finally rebounding from those tiny Benjamin Franklin Urim-and-Thummim type lenses that lamentably have been the fashion for the last ten years. Finally you can get some frames with decent-sized lenses so that you’re not peering at the world through tiny peepholes.

As a longtime connoisseur of the varieties of oracles and scrying media (though not myself a slave to eyeglasses, or a scryer), this characterization delights me.

links for 2007-01-26

  • “…records and images of 868 literary illustrations that were published in or around 1862, providing bibliographical and iconographical details, as well as the ability for users to view images at exceptionally high quality.
  • (with a link to the video) …”this is IT! All of human culture is represented HERE.” It was his research on performance style of which he appeared most proud. Lomax and his team at Columbia University spent years coding thousands of songs and dances from

Hobbits and Bryan and Gardner and brainpicking

J.R.R. Tolkien filled a yawning gap in the Lexicon by rescuing and repurposing the Old English word maðm (see Michael Quinion’s explication):

Anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom. Their dwellings were apt to become rather crowded with mathoms, and many of the presents that passed from hand to hand were of that sort.
(The Fellowship of the Ring, pg ?)

Many are they who have appropriated the term for their own use, for the very good reason that it’s an efficient descriptor for a universal household problem –indeed, for an information management quandary that is an inescapable facet of ubicomp. A lovely instance of hackerspeak exemplifies:

This file contains mathoms, various binary artifacts from previous versions of Perl. For binary or source compatibility reasons, though, we cannot completely remove them from the core code. (Rafael Garcia-Suarez).

Gardner’s Dispatch from EDUCAUSE has been echoing in the halls of my mind all day:

There is indeed a “delight in social archiving.” A very fine phrase from Dr. Alexander. My reflection: we can all make not only civilization’s library, but civilization’s magic attic, the place where the intimate, uncanny cabinet of wonders stands in the corner, awaiting our exploration.

…but it was a chance encounter with an article in the November 1962 issue of Popular Mechanics
that nudged me to realize how mathoms fit into the picture. The article is a real hoot of clumsy technologies, which I remember all too well:

Micro-images could also be used to revolutionize libraries as we know them today. With micro-images, an entire library could be reduced to a single filing cabinet of three-by-five cards. These cards are expected to be so inexpensive to reproduce that the reader could afford to keep them. (pp. 109-110)

and I can’t resist quoting the penultimate paragraph for its oystery Cold War ethos:

A good many thoughtful Americans are wondering whether or not we still have the prerogative of proceeding slowly in the area of data storage and retrieval. Allen Kent, associate director of the Center for Documentation and Communication at Western Reserve University, said recently, “The Soviet Union has mounted a massive effort to ‘brainpick’ the world’s recorded literature in order to assure a more effective scientific and technical effort on their part. We, too, must go in this direction, and our ‘brainpicking’ efforts have been desultory.” (pg. 224)

…and how can I possibly resist adding this illustration?

So hobbits and Bryan and Gardner and brainpicking. Where is all this headed? We are, in our fumbling and semi-conscious ways, building that “intimate, uncanny cabinet of wonders” and figuring out what its uses might be. For me this is an adventure in sorting out a lifetime’s accumulation of STUFF, of THINGS that need to be arrayed, identified, glossed, indexed, tagged, narrated, contextualized, interpreted, juxtaposed …in short, Made Accessible. The tools seem to be at my fingertips, though the overall Scheme still eludes me –or perhaps there doesn’t need to be a Scheme for the Mathom House. And I can’t help but wonder: is there any reason to think that our efforts won’t look just as silly 45 years hence?

links for 2007-01-22

Fragments from the archives

It’s surely true that stuff heard at early ages can influence life’s trajectory. Today I’ve been digitizing some vinyl, and I find myself dipping back into a slough of memories and associations that I’ve not visited in a long time. I found two LPs from my parents’ record collection that were part of my life since they first got them, in (!!) 1949: Pleasure Dome [Columbia ML4259], a record of poets (Eliot, cummings, Moore, Ogden Nash…) reading their own work, and Edith Sitwell’s Façade [Columbia ML2047]. On the former, it was Ogden Nash that I fastened upon at an early age, and these two were especially formative:
The Outcome of Mr. McLeod’s Gratitude [1:11] and
So, Penseroso [1:52](see the text, complete with the parallel to Milton).

I listened to the Edith Sitwell record so many times that I memorized all of the pieces, and it was a great pleasure to discover (as I listened to the record while digitizing) that those bits are still in wetware. Two particularly choice fragments:
from “En Famille” [0:47] and
When Sir Beelzebub [0:48].

Come to think of it, without these I surely wouldn’t be or have become myself…

Another bit, from much later in my personal development, is a wonderful Andy Statman mandolin break [0:54], from Wretched Refuse String Band’s 1978 recording of “Those Wheels of Karma”. My (vain) attempt to find (and so not have to transcribe…) the lyrics to the tune led me to a story from NPR on Citizen Kafka (All Things Considered, April 17, 2001). The Citizen (Richard Shulberg) is co-host of WMFU’s Secret Museum of the Air, one of my most favoritist archives/podcasts.