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 6 Comments- Add comment Written on 24-Mar-2009 by patencia

As many researchers, students, scholars and other unlabeled people, I spend a substantial part of my time in libraries. For some of us, they are the closest place to an office, except that we can change locations every now and then—provided one lives in a place where there is more than one library.

Many libraries—especially the oldest and monumental ones—are places where one feels privileged, special, elevated, part of the institution of wisdom (for whatever that means). Probably, that is precisely their aim; just as the height and verticality on the Gothic Cathedrals were intended to make the worshipper feel closer to God, so the monumental libraries make the reader believe that he/she is reaching Plato’s World of Ideas. However, despite the aesthetic and hedonistic pleasure one can find in working in those secular temples, when it comes to doing real work, one would rather go to places designed for real people.

Real researchers and students—at least those of our times, and I believe people haven’t changed that much—are people who sometimes spend the whole day in a library. Yet, they can’t be in a contemplative attitude all the time; they need to move, talk, eat, drink, and eventually sleep or have a nap. They are noisy; they are not concentrated all the time. Like it or not, we are not ideal entities, we are imperfect and sometimes unaesthetic human beings.

When I started my postgraduate studies, I was astonished to see people barefoot in the library, snoring while sleeping on the sofas, eating smelly food in the study rooms, and unashamedly answering their phones. I thought that was the limit of vulgarity; it was unacceptable. Yet, that was an Ivy League University’s library*, so either Americans had gone mad or something really wrong was going on.

As it happens, as the term came to its critical point, I realised that leaving the library to eat (lunch & dinner), have a coffee, or have a walk, meant too much time lost. You really needed to minimise your outdoor excursions. This might sound insane to you—if you’re a normal person—and it is, indeed. But the work of people in some disciplines (such as philosophy) is peculiar: you don’t know when the ideas are going to pop up in your mind; but when they come, you’d better be in front of the computer. And, unless you’re a prodigy of nature, they normally come only—as the spirits in the Ouija board—when you ‘invoke’ them from your desk.  Not surprisingly, I ended up eating, drinking coffees, having naps and even talking a bit louder than I would have otherwise found acceptable in the library. Indeed, the liberal code of behaviour, the design, and the furniture of the library itself, invited such attitudes.
In the end, I learnt, this extreme tolerance, as vulgar as it may appear, has its fruits. In terms of production, you could see it worked (and not only for me). It seems then, that it is better to assume that people are imperfect than making them believe that they are ideal beings.  
Admittedly, this is a bit extreme—Americans are, for good or bad extreme—and probably the virtue, as always, lies somewhere in the middle ground.
A good example of this middle ground, I think, is well exemplified in the British Library. There, you have reading rooms where you go if you want to have a silent environment—although there is reasonable tolerance for noise; but you can also work in other areas designed for more casual work. You don’t need to go out of the building to eat since there is a coffee shop and a restaurant, although you do need to leave momentarily the study rooms. There are also alternative entertaining activities such as small exhibitions that you can visit while having a short break. And you always have the possibility to interact with people because there are open places to work and talk. Finally, there are places to rest, such as stylish sofas and ergonomic chairs. I haven’t seen people sleeping there yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
All in all, monumental libraries are irreplaceable and their charm and beauty will hardly be matched by more functional libraries. However, it might be the case that they are only for those days in which one wants to indulge oneself more than anything else. Or one can be lucky enough to find a library that is monumental and at the same time functional. The two alternatives are not mutually exclusive, although perhaps economically impracticable.
(Whether you care or not about these ruminations, don't miss this Compendium of Beautiful libraries)
*It was not my University
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 5 Comments- Add comment Written on 18-Mar-2009 by patencia

These are the records of Elizabeth Haidle's expedition to her imagined lands. Making visual taxonomy of the fictional beasts inhabiting those misterious latitudes. Enjoy.
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 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 13-Mar-2009 by patencia



It is well known that, after midnight, Cinderella's spell breaks and her couch turns into a pumpkin. But pumpkins, apparently, are mysterious props that fascinate fiction crafters and myth tellers beyond the fairy tale genre. As it turns out, pumpkins are also at the roots of Vampire stories.

Long before Bram Stoker wrote his novel "Dracula", and even before that legendary reunion convened by Lord Byron at Lake Geneva where Byron's physician John Polidori produced his “The Vampyre: A Tale”, Vampires inhabited the imagination--and the nightmares--of Eastern Europeans.

According to Tatomir P. Vukanović, a historian and ethnologist of the Balkans*, there is an old Serbian Gypsy belief that pumpkins, if left outdoors after midnight (especially on Christmas), turn into vampires:
"[T]he gathered pumpkins stir all by themselves and make a sound like 'brrrl, brrrl, brrrl!' and begin to shake themselves (...) sometimes a trace of blood can be seen on the pumpkins [then they ] go round the houses, stables, and rooms at night, all by themselves, and do harm to people."

Of course, this is not quite the idea we have of Vampires today. But then again, what's the idea we really have of them? After all, there are Vampire stories for all tastes and sensibilites. Probably you know by now the existence of Gayracula and Lust for Dracula two pronographic films all-male and all-female respectively (if you do, I wonder why...). But my favorite--if only for its weirdness--is Deafula, a film of a deaf vampire, performed entirely in American Sign Language for the hearing-impaired.

With this variety of identities, no doubt philosophers go mad trying to give an account of how to individuate the referents of fictional names.

Anyway, for more on Vampires, The New Yorker publishes this week a comprehensive article on the topic. Interestigly enough, it is written by Joan Acocella, the magazine's dance critic. Who knows, perhaps she was going to write about Cinderella (the ballet)  but she was driven by the path of the pumpkins.

*with this name he couldn't have had another profession, I guess

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 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 06-Mar-2009 by patencia



Children (if it Please God)

Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one,

Object to be beloved & played with. Better than a dog anyhow.

Home, & someone to take care of house — Charms of music & female chit-chat. — These things for one's health. —

Forced to visit & receive relations but terrible loss of time.

W My God, it is intolerable to think of spending ones whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all. — No, no won't do. — Imagine living all one's day solitarily in smoky dirty London House. — Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps

Compare this vision with the dingy reality of Grt. Marlbro' St.


Not Marry

No children, (no second life), no one to care for one in old age.

What is the use of working 'in' without sympathy from near & dear friends—who are near & dear friends to the old, except relatives

Freedom to go where one liked — choice of Society & little of it.  — Conversation of clever men at clubs — Not forced to visit relatives, & to bend in every trifle.

To have the expense & anxiety of children — perhaps quarelling — Loss of time. — cannot read in the Evenings.

Fatness & idleness

Anxiety & responsibility

Less money for books &c — if many children forced to gain one's bread. — (But then it is very bad for ones health to work too much)

Perhaps my wife wont like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool —


This is Charles Darwin's checklist about the pros and cons of marriage.  Finally Darwin got married one year after and had... 10 children (seems that he wasn't very persuaded by the right side of the list. Although it is a bit longer. Or who knows, with powerful and convincing reasons pro marriage as "Object to be beloved & played with. Better than a dog anyhow", no surprise he went for marriage).

*  Darwin's notes on marriage are transcribed and annotated in Correspondence vol. 2, appendix iv. 

(more here)

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 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 01-Mar-2009 by patencia


 James Gillray - Fashionable Contrasts

Sometimes one finds surprising that the Monarchy in Britain still survives . Particularly, after all the public ridicule to which they have been subjected by the media (and which they undoubtedly provoke)*. But of course, a good explanation is that the British are pretty used to. The tradition of making (public) fun of the royal family is probably as old as the Monarchy itself. A good example are the satiric prints and drawings by the "golden age" British caricaturists, such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, and George Cruikshank (XVII-XIX century).

Take A Voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion, for instance (I love the name of the print, btw). If you can't get the full meaning of the picture just by looking at it, read this description:

Here Gillray portrays George, Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent and George IV (reigned 1820-1830), picking his teeth with a table fork, having demolished a heavy meal and a considerable quantity of wine. The Prince was notoriously dissolute and spendthrift. His room is littered with empty bottles, pills and unpaid bills. His passion for gambling is indicated by dice, lists of forthcoming horse races at Newmarket and accounts of his losses at cards.

True, making fun of the monarchy is nothing new, and the questionable reputation of royals hasn't changed. Unfortunatelly, though, the images of the media nowadays are far less refined and subtle than these prints. It would have been good if we were also used to being exposed to good taste.

*This is specially puzzling if one comes from a country like Spain, where the press treatment of the royal family is tremendously controlled and paternalistic.

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 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 24-Feb-2009 by patencia

 Art for nonart's sake. And, pace the Modernists, so good. Here's United Airlines' advertising campaign created by the great Black Heart Gang
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 11 Comments- Add comment Written on 20-Feb-2009 by patencia


Try to manufacture your own God. Choose the features that you think a God that deserves to be called as such must have. Then, the methaphysical engineers will tell you how plausible she is.

Also, you may also want to test how consistent your beliefs about religion are, trying The Battleground God. This game is a bit more complicated, yet more entertaining.

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 4 Comments- Add comment Written on 17-Feb-2009 by patencia

A brief History of Art

 and The Standard of Correctness 



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 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 13-Feb-2009 by patencia

Scientific labs as museums and art galleries, are places where things are not always exactly what they look like. This means that in these contexts certain rules that you have learnt by heart as a good citizen (as the one illustrated above) may not be applicable, at the risk of getting you or others into serious trouble.

This is what happened at the University of Leeds, where the cleaning personnel threw away what they took to be just 35Kg of shit. Yet, it turned out that it was a unique collection of a very rare lizard's excrement that represented seven years of work of PhD canditate Daniel Bennett.
"Whether it was the largest collection of lizard shit in the world is uncertain, but it certainly contained the only dietary sample from that little-known species Varanus olivaceus, and probably the most complete dietary record of any single population of animals in South East Asia. Its loss left me reeling and altered the course of my life forever."
The University offered Daniel £500 as compensation, which he obviously refused.

This seemed to be a perfect story for a Friday 13th. Good luck Daniel.

Another well known tragic story of confussion: when John Stuart Mill's maid mistook the only available manuscript of an unpublished work of Thomas Carlyle for trash and lit the fire with it.

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 7 Comments- Add comment Written on 10-Feb-2009 by patencia

Some months ago I read about a software that could guess the age of a person just by analysing her/his picture. I was puzzled among other things, because I thought that's something not even me--supposedly a human being--could do accurately. Since then, I usually find myself walking and watching people trying to guess their age. But of course, there's no way I can check whether I am wrong or right.
These days, though, I found a game in which you have to look at pictures of some people and try to guess their ages. Then, the program lets you know your level of accuracy (the best part). To my surprise, I'm not so bad at it (except for that poor 17 year old I took for a woman of 56)... oh well.
 Oh. And you can also send your picture if curiosity kills you or you're trying to kill your cat.
More interesting links related to age: 

- Look at what your age would be in other planets (I haven't been born in some of them)

- If you didn't know about Goldberg family, look at their interesting project.

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