The Elements of Style!
One of my Christmas presents to myself was a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (inspired, like many things I do, by my relentless workaholism - I saw recently and wanted to read more of the original book).

One bit of it is an attack on linguistic descriptivism. I thought it was great, Verity thought it was great, and so I'm guessing at least half of the people who read this are also language nerds and will like it:

'The use of like for as has its defenders; they argue that any usage that achieves currency becomes valid automatically. This, they say, is the way the language is formed. It is and it isn't. An expression sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does. Like has long been widely misused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming. If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines. For the student, perhaps the most useful thing to know about like is that most carefully edited publications regard its use before phrases and clauses as simple error.'

Other great things about this book are:

  • the somewhat gushing description of "6 April 1988" as  "an excellent way to write a date"

  • the note in the 1979 introduction that Strunk "omitted so many needless words...that he often seemed in the position of having shortchanged himself - a man left with nothing more to say yet with time to fill. Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick: he uttered every sentence three times."

  • the examples of stylistically barbarous sentences like "Wondering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve".

I think it's definitely a keeper.

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(One of my colleagues has tried to get in touch with the Pope over Twitter: littlered2 and I are discussing this.)

Me: The Pope only follows eight people on Twitter, all of which are himself.
V: Oh - does he have different accounts for different -
Me: - different languages, yes. One's his tweets in Spanish, one in Polish, etc.
V: Oh. I was going to say "different personas". Like "grumpy Pope". Or "church history Pope".

V and I spent the last few days in Amsterdam; V's sister is doing a Genocide Studies MA there and we wanted to visit. It was fun!

The apartment was pretty large and, unlike the last time we stayed in Amsterdam, actually had doors. I got to go to the science centre, NEMO, which I'd missed out on last time, and it was as fun as I'd remembered from my school trip aged ~16 - chairs where you could pull yourself up to see how pulleys work! A roof terrace! Sitting on a chair holding a bicycle wheel to demonstrate conservation of angular momentum!

On Sunday we went to Artis Zoo, which was great - we got there in time for the sea lion feeding and I took lots of video ( I also gave €2 to help turn the car park into an expanded elephant sanctuary. (I know zoos are questionable as a concept, but this one is apparently pretty well known for not having restrictive cages? Also they take part in Europe-wide endangered elephant breeding programmes.)

We also went to the Resistance Museum. One of the exhibits was on the wartime experience of the Dutch East Indies, which I knew very little about - it was occupied by Japan and then, after the war, was embroiled in a violent Indonesian nationalist uprising.

One of the few downsides of the trip was that my Macbook screen was damaged in transit - it was a six-year-old model I mostly got to test the software I write (so I can still use it for that, with an external screen), and I have other laptops, but it's still a shame. I've treated myself to a Dell Latitude E7240 to replace it (full HD touchscreen! Only 1.3kg! Carbon fibre body!) and that should arrive tomorrow - I did a double shift of cooking this evening so I have all of tomorrow free to set it up.

science science science
Verity and I spent the day at the Science Museum, which was fantastic.

  • There was a staff member operating a remote-control inflatable Dalek and chasing children with it, which V thought was great.

  • They had some great stuff about computing history - the Jacquard loom (first punch-card machine, from the 1700s), Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2 (never built during his lifetime, but built by the Science Museum between 1980 and 2002 using Victorian techniques, to prove that it was technically possible and Babbage was just too difficult to work with) and an exhibition on Turing.

  • I did not know that J. R. R. Tolkien was invited to do war duty at Bletchley Park as a codebreaker! (He declined.) I guess it makes sense, as a linguist.

  • Verity bought astronaut ice-cream in the gift shop (having read "Packing for Mars"). It's completely dehydrated but apparently your saliva rehydrates it and it tastes just like ordinary ice-cream, so we're going to try it.

Cut for photosCollapse )

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littlered2 and I got a Netflix subscription today. It's very exciting - only £6 a month and it has tons of niche stuff and stuff other people tell me to watch. (Fringe! White Collar! Warehouse 13! Life on Mars! Jonathan Creek! The Doctor Who movie and four classic serials! A documentary about three Dungeons and Dragons DMs!).

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Three things that, in the process of my new domestic partnership with littlered2, I have been told are unreasonable:

  • When purchasing landline phones, it is not reasonable to buy the £45 ones rather than the £20 ones "because they have a colour screen".

  • It is not reasonable to own a towel that is too small to dry myself with, but which has my name stitched onto it and has velcro bits for easy wrapping around my waist.

  • It is completely unreasonable to refuse to post things on a Saturday afternoon "because my dad always told me that people might set the letterbox on fire on Sunday".

Domesticity is otherwise going well. We get a desk and a bookcase and a DVD tower and more oven shelves delivered tomorrow; I've already replaced three lightbulbs and repressurised the boiler; I'm adapting well to leaving the house at 8:30 to catch the train; we have a tablecloth and a shoe-rack; we really should buy a microwave at some point, but haven't needed one yet.

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I have just listened to Season 4 of Cabin Pressure (I'm at 39,978ft above sea level, using the Emirates Airways onboard wifi; Verity made me save Cabin Pressure until we were actually flying). Martin! Martin! I'm so glad he has a nice girlfriend and a £22k pay rise and the approval of his mother and I can't wait for the Christmas special.

V: Since the last episode started with a Y, the next episode will be a Z - and what starts with a Z?
Me: ...zoo?
V: ZURICH! ZURICH! The city they were just talking about! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU! *quiet, withering scorn*

(Verity made me append the bit about quiet, withering scorn after I asked whether I'd represented her accurately.)

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I'm currently reading 'Coders at Work', which includes an interview with Brad Fitzpatrick, founder of LiveJournal.

'Commenting on LiveJournal was a practical joke. I was checking my LiveJournal right before I ran into class. We had just introduced friend pages and I saw something my friend wrote and it was really stupid and I wanted to make fun of him. "Oh, but I can't reply." ... I had a two-hour break between classes, so I add commenting and I reply something smartass and sarcastic and go to my other class. When I came back from my second class, he's like "What the fuck? We can comment now?'

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V and I are playing "replace a word in a play title with 'dragon'".

V: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dragons! I would watch it.
Me: Dragons!
V: Is that just Hamlet or something?
Me: Equus. But...I guess you couldn't really tell.
V: *laughs hysterically*

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So, I graduated yesterday! It was a pretty expensive process - probably near on £200 between the hotel, gown hire, getting to Oxford and eating out - but really worth it. We had tea and biscuits in Hall with our guests, then got whisked off at 10.15am to have the Dean of Degrees (who's grown a beard since I last saw him at matriculation, and reminds me a bit of David Mitchell) explain the day's events to us over glasses of port or orange juice. There are only two things to remember, he said - first, nothing can technically go wrong, because as long as he gets us to the Sheldonian in one piece, we will graduate. However, outside that narrow and technical sense of "nothing can go wrong", there is plenty of scope for looking like an idiot, so please would we abdicate our free will and do exactly what we are told for the next three hours. Then we had a run-through of the ceremony, in which the Dean predicted that the Vice-Chancellor would make "the same speech he made last time, except perhaps with a different comment on the weather". Finally, a lesson in competitive bowing - the Dean got told by the last Vice-Chancellor that Merton's bowing was the best in the University, so to keep up this proud tradition, we must bow from the hips, not the neck, and not look at the person you're bowing to.

After that, we were cowed enough that the ceremony ran pretty smoothly - or at least, the mishaps weren't Mertonian ones. When going through the doctoral degrees, the Registrar used the formula "the dean and graduands of College A, the dean and graduands of College B, etc." - but when doing the MAs, the formula used is just "College A, the Dean". So the graduands just sat in their chairs, presuming they hadn't been called and not wanting to mess up the whole process, and after an awkward silence the Registrar had to add "...and the graduands?". Also, at one point, the Registrar walked behind the Senior Proctor and sorted his hood out, which is competing with "the time the Proctor had an inflatable cutlass while supervising trashings" for my favourite Proctorial anecdote.

I'm not convinced I upheld Merton's bowing record, though - we bow when the Vice-Chancellor or Proctor doffs his caps to us, but during the actual "Ego admitto te" bit the graduands are in such a crowd that you can't actually see them, and so packed together that bowing is difficult, which means you have to guess when to bow based on everyone else leaning slightly forward.

The aftermath was good - Merton held a buffet lunch, the hall staff encouraged me to have seconds (and I did), which as V pointed out, was a testimony to how well they know me and my appetite, V and I went back to our hotel room and took photos of me with my BA hood up and looking like a cross between Father Christmas and an Auditor of Reality, and then we all decamped to the pub until people drifted back to their various homes. V and I then de-gowned, got takeaway pizza from Cowley Road, and watched two episodes of Dollhouse to round the evening off. (POOR TOPHER).

So, now I can put BA (Hons) (Oxon) after my name, I got to see friends I haven't seen for a while, and Oxford in the snow (for it snowed today, while V and I were heading down Woodstock Road for a belated anniversary pub lunch). A good weekend, all told.


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