Friday, 29 October 2010

Juvenal Urbino's hat

Two things happened at the beginning of last week. First, I visited the library and reacquired two books that I'd borrowed but not finished earlier in the year. Secondly, fresh in the realisation that last week's wedding (which merits its own post) was to be held on a Queensland beach in a Queensland summer, I resolved to buy a hat.

Hats are back, or so the story goes, and I was fortunate to have a friend who I knew had bought a hat not that long ago, so I leant on him to give me a lead on where I might find a hat that could be worn with a suit. He supplied me with such, and on the Wednesday I swung by said vendor, knowing that my unrefined requirements would be insufficient but hoping for the grace of a helpful salesman. I found one, who directed me not towards the trilbies and fedoras that I expected, but towards a bewildering range of panamas. After a lengthy discussion of the why, which and how much of his selection, I walked away with a black-banded white number, which time would paint as either dapper-cool, or gangster-pretentious.

So what on earth does all this have to do with books? Well, one of the neglected-but-revisited borrowings from earlier in the year was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. The story, vividly painted by presumably both the author and his very adept translator, is set on the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Its three characters are Dr Juvenal Urbino, a very civilised and socially elevated type, Florentino Ariza, a socially awkward romantic who flickers between unrequited love and wild promiscuity, and Fermina Daza, a sketchily drawn parvenue who is pursued by Ariza as a girl, but finds social respectability by marrying Urbino.

As far as the story itself goes, I could take it or leave it. What I did like was the romantic combination of the place and time, which came through so vividly for me. This was most true, I think, in the early part of the book, with Dr Urbino tripping around the city dressed up to the nines with his suits and carriage. And, in my mind anyway, in his hat. My hat. Whenever I get dressed up and wear it, I shall think of myself of Juvenal Urbino. At some point, I may get myself a cane. Of course, he's also a devout catholic who dies falling out of a mango tree, but we get to pick and choose what we like in a character.

Talking with friends, its probable that the book has, in the relationships between its central characters, symbolism for the nature of love in changing times, with Florentino the romantic impractical and Urbino the stable and practical, but I really didn't feel the need to break down the prose to extract drier meaning. I focussed on hats.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Heart of Darkness

I just finished a book, for the first time in what seems ages.

When I got my iPad, one of the things I was looking forward to was trying it as an e-reader. I had tried this briefly on my laptop years ago (I read some Cory Doctorow, and Kipling's Kim), but it didn't really stick, and I went back to paper (aided by the added adventure of having my reading guided by whatever was available in Rennes' bouquineries). The iPad's screen, and Apple's iBooks app, represents an opportunity to re-explore the medium. For now, iBooks only has copyright-free books available (I am taking this up with Apple as we speak, actually), but given my sketchy experience with the english-language "canon", this leaves plenty of scope. I grabbed a bunch of books, by Dickens, Defoe, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and Conrad (as well as some "big" french names, although I expect to struggle mightily with those, and might wait until Apple add a french dictionary to the iBooks app). My first attempt was Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

My experience with Conrad has been limited. I think it was last year (ed: 2 years; time flies) I bought and read Lord Jim. I enjoyed it (and find myself relating to it from time to time), perhaps more in hindsight than at the time; it took a long time to read. That story was about a young man's journey to Sulawesi (not explicitly, but I like to think of it as Sulawesi) in order to seek redemption, and for me was a lot about the difference between a person's intrinsic character or potential as perceived by others, and a person's actions, and how one influences the other.

Heart of Darkness, again from my perspective, was also a lot about intrinsic character and how it interacts with one's environment. The story is told by an old seaman, about his trip on a steamer up a river in the Congo (I believe; again, never made clear), to retrieve ivory from a colonial trader named Kurtz, who has been left alone deep in the wild for, apparently, too long. When the steamer reaches Kurtz' camp, they find him at death's door, and driven by overlong exposure to the wildnerness into a kind of madness. The book does a lovely job of building anticipation of Kurtz; he probably only features in person for a dozen pages. The other 100 pages (this is a novella, not a novel), though, all revolve around him, and his relationships with and effects on others, as a man of immense charisma and promise, but stripped raw from living too long away from civilisastion.

The book at times comes across perhaps not as racist per se, but with a note in its discussion of the native tribes that would not be palatable from a modern author. Even the central theme, that a white man in this "heart of darkness" cannot sustain without losing his sanity, has an overtone that today perhaps isn't a widely accepted view. (Having said that, I suspect one could write a very interesting book today about the Congo as a heart of a very different kind of darkness).

One of my reasons for choosing this, of all Conrad's short stories, was because it was returned to prominence through its adaptation by Coppola from a British ivory trader in colonial central Africa to an American commando in war-torn Indochina, in Apocalypse Now. It's been a long time since I watched the film, and less than 24 hours since I finished reading the book, but it actually feels to me like the adaptation was remarkably faithful. The same air of mystique, the same suspense by talking about but never meeting Kurtz, the same almost indifferent relationship between narrator and Kurtz. My appreciation for the film has grown.

I'm not sure what my next book will be. I've started reading A Thousand Plateaus, by Deleuze and Guattari, based on a recommendation from someone at work, but after a few pages, I'm already getting a little fed up by the pretentious prose style, so I'm not sure if I'll get through it.

Monday, 11 October 2010

papering over cracks

My academic publication record in recent years has not been what I would have liked it to be. Still, last week was a good week. Our paper "Model Interoperability in Building Information Modeling" went up on the SoSyM journal web site. It had been almost 3 years since my previous journal paper. I don't normally blog about work stuff here (I have another rarely-used blog for that), but its something that made me happy, and assuaged, however fleetingly, my concerns about my job.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

nostalgia again

My last blog post was long, so here's a short one.

When I was in France, my stories always seemed to start with "In Australia...".

Now I'm back in Australia, my stories always seem to start with "When I was in France..."

What's up with that? This isn't a rhetorical question - the comments section is there for a reason :)

Trying CityCycle

While I was living in Rennes (a lot of my stories seem to start this way nowadays), the local council had a city-wide bicycle hire scheme, called Velo a la Carte, run by a large advertising company (Clear Channel). I never used it, but the parking stations were everywhere, and I saw people riding the clunky bikes around town fairly often, and trucks moving them around balancing load across stations. It turns out (and perhaps someone will correct me on this) that this was one of the first cities to have such a scheme in recent times, in many cases bankrolled by advertising companies. Since it launched in 1998, there have been dozens of cities, among them Paris, Dublin, Vienna, and this year Melbourne, the first in Australia. Last week, Brisbane joined them.

Australia offers some challenges for this kind of system, as does Brisbane. Australian cities are much, much sparser than European cities, where apartment living is much more common. Our climate is much warmer. Most significantly, we are the first country to implement this kind of system in conjunction with mandatory helmet laws. I've read that Melbourne has had significant teething problems. In Brisbane, which has the additional problem of being much hillier than Melbourne, the city council and JC Decaux (the French company running the scheme) have gone in boots and all. Walking around the city and my neighbourhood, there are bike ranks every block or two, and construction sites for more springing up all the time. If it fails here, its going to fail spectacularly.

I mostly live and circulate in the inner suburbs of Brisbane to which the scheme presently limits itself, presumably for reasons of population density and demographics. I'm not, however, its idea target. I already own a bike, and I already use it for commuting (albeit not as much as I should) and for getting around to visit friends. However, I can see situations - one way or mixed mode trips - where it would be nice to not have to find somewhere to park a bike. So, although I didn't sign up at launch, I did sign up pretty quickly (actually, the only thing that stopped me signing up at launch was probably that the parking station nearest me wasn't open at launch).

I tried it this morning to get into work. The machine to hire a bike is a little clunky; it took me two attempts to get the bike (timeout), and there were some vestiges of french language on the machine, which was cute. Once I did get the bike I was struck by how heavy it was - at a guess at least 3 or 4 times the weight of my bike. I adjusted the seat up as high as it would go, but it was still a bit too short for me. The basket got me some looks as I was riding, but not having a backpack sweating onto my back was worth it.

My route was problematic. I have two routes I can cycle to work. The first is 7km, and flat, but has a few traffic lights, and takes me about 20 minutes on my normal bike. The second is 5km but quite hilly, and takes me about 15 minutes on my bike, but is more tiring. With CityCycle, journeys over 30 minutes cost money so, being worried that a 20 minute trip could well turn out longer, I opted for the hilly route. I regretted it almost immediately. Having three gears instead of 18 is fine, until you need to up a hill (Kent street, in my case). Being in the wrong gear, combined with the great weight of the bike, meant I was pretty tired after the first hill. Still, I got to work (there is a station about 50m from my building) in about 20 minutes, and returning the bike was pretty easy.

I'm not sure how much I'll end up using the scheme. The 30 minute limit is a real nuisance - if I'm visiting friends in West End, then it will probably take me more than 30 minutes on those bikes, depending on traffic. At $2.20 for the second half hour, I'm better off on a bus. I'll probably try it for popping down the shops though, where I don't want to take my bike because I'm coming back loaded up with groceries.