Thursday, October 29, 2015

Eating Fish Poem

It is within the nature of mankind
To fear exploring that which is unknown
Whenever I eat fish I fear to find
My teeth exploring unexpected bone

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Niche Jokes With Benjamin: The Niche Joke Rises

What's the difference between eradicating invasive species and my dorm's drying machine?
One is expensive and ineffective and the other involves eradicating invasive species.

What's the similarity between university lectures and withdrawing cash from foreign ATMs?
They both involve taking notes while paying exorbitant fees.

What did the international student say when he saw a jar of Marmite?
I Marmite not eat that.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Writing in the Margins

In today's world, it's often considered impolite to write in books belonging to other people. In the middle ages, however, comments and annotations in the margins were apparently much more acceptable; an aid to future readers.

John Shirley, a scribe for Geoffrey Chaucer, annotated a copy of The Canterbury Tales, sometimes pointing out important parts with the word "Nota" (note), other times explaining obscure references: when Epicurus is mentioned, Shirley writes ".i. deus deliciarum" (that is the god of pleasures). In this case, Shirley was wrong in his identification, but his intent here and elsewhere seems favorable.

In a section of the Knight's tale, Chaucer apparently waxes eloquent on some uninteresting point. Shirley's comment here is, "A Chaucyre pes I prey yowe" (Ah Chaucher, peace I pray you). It's comforting to know that exasperation at the wordiness of medieval literature is such an ancient tradition.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Deep End

I've enjoyed learning about medieval English literature in the past couple years, but when it comes to Old English, I'm still very much in the shallow end of the pool. Some assigned readings this week introduced me to some very serious and detailed criticism focused on The Battle of Maldon.

The Battle of Maldon is a fragment of Old English poetry, seeming to lack beginning and end. It tells a romanticized version of a historical battle near the town of Maldon in 991 AD fought between Vikings and the native Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon earl, Byrhtnoth, dies in battle and his loyal followers fight to the death rather than fleeing once their lord is dead.

The Battle of Maldon as we know it is only 325 lines long, but whole books have been written about it. I read one chapter that detailed the layout of 10th century Maldon and had a map that showed dykes and forests and the specific lands that belonged to Byrhtnoth. In another reading, there was a twenty page discussion over whether a location mentioned in medieval sources as 'Assandun' refers to the town of Ashdon in Essex or Ashingdon, also in Essex.

These essays of criticism on The Battle of Maldon frequently quote Old English and Latin, and sometimes German and Greek, not providing translations afterwards as I've gotten used to in other books. I can only assume that the intended audience of this criticism is other experts in the field; they may be the only people who, in addition to knowing Old English and Latin, care enough about The Battle of Maldon to find an essay on the development of Maldon's minting industry in the 990s AD interesting. J.R.R. Tolkien himself composed a fictional verse epilogue for the poem, an interesting example of fanfiction.

Near the end of a book of essays on The Battle of Maldon, one author says, "The poem that cornered the [Anglo-Saxonist] praise market has never made it into the registers of general culture." Indeed, since Beowulf, a greater poem with similar themes, exists, it seems unlikely that The Battle of Maldon will ever reach mainstream fame. The academic work surrounding it is certainly opaque to me.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Meat, Potatoes and Veg

At St Peters College, meals are served in a dining hall complete with long tables and portraits hanging on the walls. For lunch and dinner, a meal has three main parts: meat, potatoes and vegetables. I was surprised to see so many potatoes; every meal so far has had at least one potato option, usually two. Salads and desserts are available off to the side. I haven't seen any potato salad, though, so I suppose things aren't as potato-intensive as they could be.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


One great thing about studying at Oxford is the tutorial system; once a week, students meet one-on-one or in small groups with a professor and are assigned work (usually reading and an essay) to do by next week's meeting. It's a very flexible system and varies between departments and colleges. For both of my tutorials, I've been given great advice and been able to choose very specifically what to study. These first few weeks of term have involved Beowulf, J.R.R. Tolkien, medicinal plants, and nest-building behaviors in songbirds.

This seems like a pretty good deal; why isn't the tutorial system more common in Universities? Oxford and Cambridge are the main two institutions that use tutorials, and I believe Williams College is one lonely example in the U.S. It could be that holding tutorials is more expensive and difficult to organize than the lectures and classes typical of most universities. I don't know much about the logistics involved.

It is important to note that people go to college to different valid reasons-- the knowledge and skills gained, the relationships gained, the degree at the end. Tutorials may not be the ideal experience for everyone, but I suppose I've already declared which camp I'm in. In the past few years, I've found that after talking to a cynical student with their eye on the finish line, the best thing to cheer me up is listening to someone who really enjoys their work.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Oft Him Anhaga Baguettes Seceth

The Wanderer is an Old English elegy, the thoughts and memories of a solitary wanderer who has lost his lord and kinsmen. The first few lines are powerfully poetic, and I quote them here, inspired by my feelings when I realized the local Sainsbury's was clear out of baguettes:

"Oft him anhaga    are gebideth
metudes miltse,    theah the he modcearig
geond lagulade    longe sceolde
hreran mid hondum    hrimcealde sae
wadan wraeclastas.    Wyrd bith ful araed!"

That is,

"Often the wanderer prays for honor, the mercy of the Creator, though he, weary at heart, must needs stir the ice-cold sea with his hands through the water-routes and ramble the paths of exiles. Fate is fully determined!"

Working out which Old English lines correspond with which modern English words is always interesting-- I'm pretty sure that "hreran mid hondum hrimcealde sae" is the part about stirring the sea with hands. "Metudes" is "God," and guessing at a few other words breaks the lines into manageable chunks. The punctuation is helpful, and is an addition by the editor, not present in the original text. The arrangement of lines is also editorial, emphasizing alliteration.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Vehicle Control

In order for data from experiments to be useful, there need to be experimental controls-- test conditions that make sure significant results are due to the factor you're testing, not anything else.

A 'vehicle control' is important because it makes sure a treatment, not its vehicle, is responsible for an effect. If a chemical dissolved in water is placed in a bacteria culture, for example, the vehicle control would be placing water without the chemical in another bacteria culture. Some vehicle controls are more interesting than others; in an experiment where plant fragments were added to bird nests, the vehicle control was going around and touching all the bird nests that didn't have fragments added, since the vehicle in this case was a human hand.

Does eating a balanced breakfast result in more alertness during the day? I looked at a few research papers on the topic and didn't find any with a good vehicle control, i.e. having people repeatedly place a metal spoon in their mouth. The awakening effects of oral contact with metal utensils could be a legitimate factor. Probably not, though.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Baguette Icebreaker

When people find out I've just been in England for two weeks, the inevitable next question is, "Well, what do you think of it?" I have a few generic answers ready-- "The public transportation is nice," "It rains just as much as I thought it would," and if I don't feel like talking, "It's been very exciting."

None of these answers are very good; I haven't met anyone interested in talking about public transportation and talking about the weather is usually a fifteen second conversation. Because of this, I've been trying to think of new things to say, and the next on my list is "I give the baguettes five out of five stars." I'm guessing this might be too French to be actually used, but cheap and tasty baguettes are in the top ten list of things I'm enjoying in England that I didn't get in the US.

Snacking with loaf sandwiches is tedious because if you have to keep making new sandwiches; I can make half a baguette into one big sandwich and be set for the next twenty minutes. The crust is much better as well. I've gotten a vague idea that English culture distances itself from mainland Europe but I'm happy to see that the genius design of the baguette straddles these boundaries.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Tolkien Fans

One of the great things about Tolkien's Middle Earth is the depth of the fiction. A person might watch the Lord of the Rings movies and want to experience more Middle-Earthy goodness-- there's a huge depth of material to look into; reading the books is one thing, but you could go the full distance and learn Elvish as well.

One consequence of this depth is a fractured fandom. Factions of fans occur for all fiction, but to different extents. A group of people who like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are generally in the same boat; the media they appreciate is distinctly movie (disregarding those who argue that the ride is better and they don't watch the movies so as not to ruin the ride). Harry Potter fans may compare and disagree about both books and movies, but I feel that Lord of the Rings fandom is even more layered than that.

I went to a meeting of the Tolkien society today and in conversations about Lord of the Rings, a few careful questions calculated the level of another fan's fanaticism.
Did you watch the movies? Extended edition? Multiple times? ... to shreds, you say?
Did you read the books? And The Hobbit? Do you actually read the songs and landscape descriptions?
Have you read The Silmarillion? How about Tolkien's other work?
Do you actually think Tom Bombadil's poetry is good?
Can you read Elvish? All three major dialects? Can you speak and write Elvish?

The ability to write flowing Sindarin poetry is about the peak of fan dedication, and it's telling that the final fan milestone is languages, the very basis of Tolkien's work. I probably fit in this scale right after reading The Silmarillion and just before enjoying the Tom Bombadil poetry.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Rules and Regulations

The rules and regulations governing student activity in St Peter's College are, in general, nothing to write home about. Most rules enforce common decency and the respectful treatment of the college and the people in it.

Rule number one, however, stands out as a work of logical and rhetorical genius:
"Students are required to make themselves familiar with these regulations."

In this way, ignorance of regulations is not a valid excuse for rule-breaking; it is, in fact, a breach of regulation in itself. The college dean explained this to new students in a much more poetic manner than I use here, and I was greatly impressed at the deftness with which this rule silences potential appeals.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wytham Woods

I had the opportunity today to work in Wytham Woods, a heavily researched patch of woodland near Oxford. Continuous biology research and monitoring has been going on in Wytham Woods for more than sixty years, which allows for study of (relatively) long-term trends.

The variety of research done in Wytham Woods also means that the part of the woods that my class was working in was already spotted with data collection points, research shelters, and flagged trees. We added a few research markers of our own, and over the next few weeks, we'll be analyzing the biodiversity of various 25m by 25m plots of woodland. Eventually, it may be that every major organism in the woods is involved in one or more research projects. It's quite a site to see.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Medieval Book Preservation

Richard de Bury was an English cleric who lived in the 14th century and wrote in Latin a book called Philobiblon; the love of books. In one segment, he describes the carelessness with which some students treat books:

"You may happen to see some headstrong youth lazily lounging over his studies ... He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth ... Aye, and then hastily folding his arms he leans forward on the book, and by a brief spell of study invites a prolonged nap; and then, by way of mending the wrinkles, he folds back the margin of the leaves, to no small injury of the book.

Now the rain is over and gone, and the flowers have appeared in our land. Then the scholar we are speaking of, a neglecter rather than an inspector of books, will stuff his volume with violets, and primroses, with roses and quatrefoil. Then he will use his wet and perspiring hands to turn over the volumes; then he will thump the white vellum with gloves covered with all kinds of dust, and with his finger clad in long-used leather will hunt line by line through the page; then at the sting of the biting flea the sacred book is flung aside, and is hardly shut for another month, until it is so full of dust that has found its way within, that it resists the effort to close it."

The above paragraphs are a generously abbreviated version of de Bury's rant on misuse of books. It's an amusingly artistic treatment of the subject, and I can imagine a library putting up some of these sentences as illustrated posters.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Better Never Than Late

In general, I don't like being late to things-- I'm much more likely to be the person sitting there ten minutes early for some reason. Today, however, one thing led to another and I found myself running late for much of my schedule.

At what point when late is it best to just not show up at all? Nobody would look twice at someone arriving in class twenty seconds late, but thirty minutes in, most people would say it's not worth showing up at all. My personal scale is based on the importance of the event and the publicity of the entrance. Ten minutes late to an one-time-only talk? Go for it, especially if you can just slip in the back. Ten minutes late to a concert with only one entrance near the stage? Maybe another day.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Origins of Taper

'Taper,' to become thinner, seems to come from the shape of candles, which used to be called 'tapers,' a word which apparently comes from 'papyrus' because candles had wicks made of papyrus. 'Paper' also comes from 'papyrus,' so I suppose it makes some sense.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Freshers' Fair

One goal I have during my year in England is to experience all the university activities portrayed in the movie Chariots of Fire. Today was the Freshers' Fair, where dozens of clubs and societies advertised themselves for new students to join. There was everything from a Communist Society to a Bridge Club to an Underwater Hockey Team. Perfect for the bridge-playing underwater revolutionary.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Pedestrians and horses

If Atlanta is a city for cars, Oxford seems to be a city for pedestrians and maybe buses. Parking lots are few and far between. Today, I saw two policemen on horses. Maybe they can get places more quickly than their car-bound counterparts.

Some research on mounted police revealed that the sight of horsed patrols "boosts levels of public confidence in police." When it comes to displaying a police presence at public demonstrations during times of unrest, "a trained Mounted Officer on a trained horse can be as effective as a dozen officers on foot."

Monday, October 5, 2015


Prices in England are a bit daunting-- a pound is worth about $1.50 but it seems like things cost the same number of pounds as they do dollars in the US. I stopped worrying, however, when I went to Tesco. I don't know much about this store (besides that it's the biggest retailer in the UK), but it certainly is cheap.

A 500 gram box of cereal cost 31p. Two toothbrushes were 18p and toothpaste was 25p. I splurged on a bar of 'Coal Tar' soap (80p). I thought that it was just a brand name at first, but this soap is specifically designed to make you smell like coal tar. It's a great new world.


I was travelling with Iceland Air this weekend and had a stop in Reykjavik. I was a bit disappointed that my layover was too short to see what Iceland was like, but I did get to experience some of the weather-- instead of a boarding tunnel, passengers walked down airplane stairs and across the pavement to get to the gate. It was cold and rainy and a strong wind made it hard to walk. On the good side, this brief experience made the cold and rainy weather I encountered upon arriving in England much more bearable.

The Icelandic language was great to read and listen to, with letters like þ (soft 'th' like in 'theme') and  ð (hard 'th' like in 'with'). As I went þrough security I tried to read out loud all ðe signs I saw.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Singing Limerick

There once was a singer called Biddle
Who was quiet e'er since he was liddle
He used when he sung
Not the top of his lungs
But a volume nearer the middle

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Talking to Strangers

I rarely talk to strangers in public. This might be a social norm, but I personally don't talk to strangers because I assume they don't want to talk to me. There are exceptions, of course; I'll greet a bus driver or a cashier at a store. Most other stranger interactions are one of two things.

First is people asking for money. You can tell it's going to happen about five seconds in advance, since nobody else (that I've come across) maintains eye contact at the same time as almost bumping into you. The 20 second walk between the Greyhound station and the MARTA station is a good spot for this.

The other stranger conversations are much more subtle in their beginnings and are based on shared experiences. Two pedestrians at a crosswalk might see a driver speed through where passengers should have right of way-- they then share a look, as if to say, "I saw and disapprove of that, how about you?" If, at first glance, they agree, one person might say, "crazy, huh?" to reaffirm this social contract. Remarkable things bring strangers together through the action of remarking.

Now that I think about it, the third reason for me to talk to strangers is them telling me that my backpack is unzipped. It happens more often than I'd like, and it's nice of them to point it out.