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The beginning and the end of the world

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Having moved to St Andrews about five months ago I felt I should try to read up on the town’s rich history. However, I felt that the first book I picked up to read was just too dry to be interesting (it started with the ice age…). What I missed was a story about the people of St Andrews. Surely a 600-year old university town must have some interesting stories to tell from its past?

Therefore I was delighted when I read a review in the Guardian of a recently published book called The Beginning and the End of the World: St Andrews, Scandal, and the Birth of Photography by Robert Crawford, a professor in the School of English at the University of St Andrews.

This fantastic book paints a vivid picture of life within the University of St Andrews in the 19th century. It tells the tale of Sir David Brewster, an extremely distinguished scientist at the time and Principal of the United College in the University of St Andrews. This man, who among his many achievements invented the kaleidoscope, helped start the Literary and Philosophical Society of St Andrews. Despite St Andrews awkward location (it took about a day to travel from Edinburgh to St Andrews at the time), the Lit & Phil managed to attract individuals who went on to have a profound impact on both the British society and the world at large. Among other things, their ability to keep up with the research frontier on photography resulted in St Andrews becoming the first town in the world to be comprehensively photographed.

I very much recommend reading this fascinating book. It was a great pleasure to read this well-written and thoroughly researched account of 19th century St Andrews.

Learning Haskell

Monday, November 8th, 2010

In a previous post I talked about Objective C, probably best known as the primary programming language for Apple’s laptops, desktops and iPhones.

Now I am teaching myself Haskell, a strongly typed functional programming language with type inference. I am reading the book Real World Haskell published by O ‘Reilly (full text also available for free online). I have only read about 50 pages but I am very satisfied with the book so far. It manages to balance the delicate trade-off between introducing concepts so fast that too many details are missing and being so meticulous that the reading becomes too boring. As the book is written now, it is actually quite addictive to read—I want to keep learning more! I love this style of writing a programming language book. However, as a consequence of this (conscious) choice of the authors, parts this book would be very hard to follow for someone who hasn’t taken at least an introductory compiler or functional programming class. However, I regard this as a strength as I wouldn’t want to read a book that assumed no programming experience.

Since I am still at an early learning state it remains to see what I think about Haskell itself. Stay tuned!

Milking the moon

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

I bought a random book about two years ago called “Milking the moon” that I have just finished reading. It tells us the life story of Eugene Walter and is based on extensive interviews with him carried out by Katherine Clark, then a professor of literature.

Eugene grew up in Mobile, Alabama. He had no formal education, yet he quickly became a member of the literary community in the 1940s and 1950s. The book chronicles his life in Mobile, then New York, then Paris, then Rome, and then back to Mobile. Eugene Walter is probably not well known. However, he hanged around with the famous and influential all his life. He won a literature award and made contributions to the Paris Review literary magazine. He also served as an editor for Botteghe Oscure for many years.

I enjoyed the positive message in this back: let’s not worry too much about tomorrow, if you spot a good opportunity then just go for it! By following this advice Eugene got to befriend some of the most interesting people of his time, for instance the Italian film director Fellini. Eugene also had minor roles in some of Fellini’s films. Eugene clearly had a good time, in particular in Rome, where he also wrote the lyrics for the song “What is a youth” in the 1968 film Romeo and Juliet. Yet I think this book is only giving us half the story. The book clinically omits any mention of Eugene’s love life. Did he ever have a family of his own? In one part of the book it suggests his friendships tended to last up to 15 years. So while we get to hear a lot about his views about other people (most of it interesting, and sometimes fascinating), we get to hear very little about Eugene himself. I think it is a shame. The foreword gives me the impression he was quite the character. Despite this, I would recommend reading this book. In particular, the first chapters in the book about his upbringing in Mobile was a vibrant and refreshing read on life in the American south during the first half of the 20th century.