Thursday, April 9, 2020

Lives of Astronomers

In summer 1997 I went to Oxford to do research on a character I thought should be an astronomer.  I went to the Radcliffe Science Library and began reading journals, increasingly aware of how ill-equipped I was to create a fictional astronomer: I should probably spend several months getting a better understanding of the kind of research he might do.

My agent, Stephanie Cabot, had said in June 1996 that with 6 chapters she could get me money to finish the book; somewhere along the line she seemed to have forgotten this, so it was not easy to know how to do justice to this astronomer.  In the meantime I went on looking at journals in the few days I had managed to take off work.  I came upon the Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, which includes a splendid feature: each issue included a brief autobiography by a distinguished astronomer or astrophysicist.

I don't think any of these were used in the book, but I offer a couple of examples, mainly as a reminder of how much better it would be if all academic journals offered this kind of feature:

Continent cut off

Am writing on my sister's laptop, as mine is on the fritz and I can't even find out whether it can be fixed because Maryland is under lockdown.  Tried to leave a comment on my last post (ON MY OWN BLOG) and Google would not let me do it (despite the fact that I am, as you see, signed in as me and allowed to publish new posts). 

It wasn't much of a comment, but anyway, Andrew! Such a great post! 

It may be some time before I post again, as the Governor of Maryland is having trouble keeping order in class.  He has now announced that if people don't cut down their visits to grocery stores he may keep us inside until September. 

Monday, April 6, 2020

Interview of Hadley Wickham (woot)

The real purpose of this blog, you may not have realised, is to have a place to put things where I can conveniently find them again.  Am in the middle of an interview of Hadley Wickham by Will Chase, an interview in which HW (we are not worthy) says:

So I think for a long time there was this big pool of people that could potentially be contributing, but they were really put off by R-help (note: R-help is a notoriously hostile mailing list and was the only way to get help with R in the early days). And then the timing was lucky enough that there were two significant changes that allowed the community to reinvent itself to some degree.

The first of those was StackOverflow. It seems hard to imagine now, but at the time, StackOverflow was so incredibly welcoming and friendly. And I think part of that was that in contrast to R-help, anything would seem welcoming and friendly, 

This made me laugh, because I had spent countless hours trawling through installments of the R-help mailing list, and the principal contributors of answers (Brian Ripley, Uwe Ligges, Duncan Murdoch, Peter Dalgaard, others I could once have named without thinking) were often very severe. But after one had trawled through HUNDREDS of installments one couldn't help but be struck by the generosity of contributors who kept answering question after question for months, years on end.  To this day I feel an affection for Ripley, Ligges and all (the mere name Uwe Ligges has only to come to mind to make me smile), an affection yet to be inspired by professional contacts who are EXTREMELY friendly and dodge questions like so many bullets. 

The whole thing here (this is, of course, the link I want in a convenient place).

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Jewish, of course

Year ago David Levene (my ex) went to a talk about how you know whether someone mentioned in the Jewish Chronicle is Jewish or not.  I've sometimes picked up Jewish papers in the US, and it's never been clear whether they followed this kind of code, so I can't tell whether this is what I love about Judaism, or whether it's what I love about Anglo-Judaism  (I converted in the UK, and never feel at home going to services in the US). [This is an extract from my diary]

D called. He had been to a talk on linguistic markers in the Jewish Chronicle: how are Jews and non-Jews identified?  Sometimes context is enough: John Smith has been appointed Court Recorder. If the name is Jewish, and the person is Jewish, this need not be specified. If the person is famous, it's assumed readers know - Frankie Vaughan performed at such-and-such a charity event.  What if the person is famous, but not that famous?  "Michael Tilton-Thomas (whose grandfather was the Yiddish scholar Tomashevsky) . . ." Suppose there's a long piece about a woman and her family; at the end it says "Mrs So-and-So, her parents and children are members of the West London Synagogue."  This is to indicate that her husband is not Jewish.  Or this: "Mr Aarons, the pro-Israel writer . . ." -- it would not be specified that a Jew was pro-Israel. Sporting event: "AB came fourth in the tennis singles, losing to CD. EF won the event."  AB is the only Jew (that's why the person who came fourth is mentioned first in the article.)  Oh - one brought up earlier.  A piece about Seinfeld.  Everyone knows Jerry Seinfeld is Jewish.  But what if it mentions Seinfeld and George (Jason Alexander)?  People may not know Jason Alexander is Jewish.  "Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander (born Jason Greenspan) . . ."
(Surely I cannot be alone in being enchanted by the grandfather who was the Yiddish scholar Tomaschevsky. )

I'm really putting up a post, though, because there's a piece in the Guardian about divorce (here), and I wanted to put forward a different point of view, and I thought I'd do this on Twitter and wanted to link to a post HERE about the talk in which the Yiddish scholar Tomashevsky was a case in point.

Perhaps I should write a post later about divorce, but hey.

Interestingly, I was asked for a bio by my editor at PRH a few years back, when they decided to reissue The Last Samurai, and I was initially baffled - what could people possibly want to know?  I then realized that, while most biographical details would be no interest to anyone, the Jewish Chronicle and its readers would DEFINITELY be interested in the conversion to Judaism.  (I have no idea how the Jewish Chronicle would convey the fact that I had merely converted to Reform, in the eye of many Judaism-lite, but this is exactly the kind of thing we suddenly realize we would very much like to know.).  Sadly, my editor thought this was TMI, so, hm, but also wtf?  Are we all not enchanted by the JC?  But OK, OK, OK.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

brave new babies, Glover revisited

Was reading Jonathan Glover's website and came across this video (70s? early 80s?) on genetic engineering, with contributions from his two young sons, enchanting: