Packing and Unpacking

End of the week, and people will have been packing. Most likely Helen will be staring at a pile of suitcases in a holding area in the office, as students cram some last crumbs and souvenirs of English into their mental wardrobes, preparatory to departure.

Travelling Light – Flight into Egypt, Gentile da Fabriano

Travelling Light – Flight into Egypt, Gentile da Fabriano

It was John Locke who conceived of the mind as a sort of wardrobe into which ideas (or was it impressions?) were crammed. It would be nice if it were true. A wardrobe has shelves, perhaps drawers, organisation. Most of us chuck our impressions and ideas down a mineshaft or well where they lie athwart one another, slowly composting.

Some students seem to take more time packing than they do organising their thoughts. Packing is a delicate business, for some people. I’m not so fussy. I once saw my rucksack coming along the carousel at some airport or other preceded for several metres by a procession of my underpants, a pair of trousers, a shirt. It was, if I’m honest, a fair comment on my packing skills. On another occasion I managed to spill a box of powdered milk and a bottle of whisky in my bag on the first day of a holiday, which was a valuable lesson learnt, even if I cannot for the life of me now think what I was doing with a box of powered milk in my luggage.

For all that, I think I would sooner pack than unpack. Sorting through balls of imploded washing and getting the curdled whisky-milk out of the million stitched corners of your rucksack are never inviting. Our students must feel something similar about retrieving mouldy corrupt morsels of vocabulary from their word-hoard on the first day of their return home. But in time all is put in order, and you forget, and you start vaguely to think about going away again. And then you remember that you have to pack.

Up the River

It’s pretty amazing what comes up the river – last week it was a seal, seen disporting in St. Ives; 1200 years ago it was the Vikings in their long boats (I may be using a little imaginative licence here, but there is still a part of Cambridge known as Danish Town).

Rivers are how you get into the land. In the nineteenth century and before, explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley (Congo) and Alexander von Humboldt (Orinoco) pushed inland into great continents along vast river systems.


Humboldt up the Orinoco

In the same way, if less perilously, there are quick routes into languages. A specific need, for example, often professional.

When I was first in Rome my very limited Italian was quickly put to use in the classroom; I had groups of students in my first year with no English whatever, and I was encouraged by my school to use Italian as a support for those students (rightly or wrongly). So I was very quickly able to describe tasks (put the words in the gaps), or talk about grammar (this a noun, this is an irregular verb) or translate tricky words in material that I re-used with different groups. The key was to recycle whatever my students said to me with the next group, and so on, so that I had not only a way of explaining but a range of expression with which to do it. I could talk about absolutely nothing else, of course. I remember going for a pizza with one group at the end of their course and being asked by a student what sort of thing I enjoyed reading; and finding the conversation at the stuttering limit of my competence. But I suppose that conversation itself laid the basis for others I would later have; and the important thing was that the spine of competence could be added to, and strengthened, year on year, encounter on encounter.

There is, however, a cautionary tale. Humboldt, in his progress up the Orinoco in the early nineteenth century, made maps, and, running across small missionary settlements, marked them on his maps. For many years after his death, his maps were the only ones of the area, and formed the basis for all maps until well into the twentieth century. One small settlement, for example, called Esmerelda, appears on editions of the Times Atlas from the 1970s. In the 1980s, Dutch explorers followed his routes, consulting his maps as they went, discovered that many of these cities, Esmerelda included, no longer existed. They had been reclaimed by the jungle decades since.

And so with language. Memory fades. Moments of illumination are swallowed up by virulent and inimical ignorance. Esmerada disappears and the seal swims back out to the sea. Unless, like the Vikings I suppose, we settle down and do a bit of trading. But I appear to have pushed a little far up into this impenetrable metaphor, so will retreat.

Lord of the Flies

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like bananas
Groucho Marx

Last week, cycling home, I swallowed a fly. This happens. Not long ago, one of our students (Nicole, I think) asked rhetorically during her presentation on the future of food whether anyone had tried eating insects, and someone else (John M., it may have been, or James perhaps) heckled that he had swallowed a few flies down the years. Cambridge is not a particularly fly-blown city, but this is the season of flies. – Portrait of a Woman of the Hofe Family Swabian Artist

…fly-blown – Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family, Swabian Artist

From time to time we even get a fly in the classroom. A fly does not cause consternation like a wasp, but perhaps it should: it is mildly ironic that while the verb to fly is a vehicle of energy and inspiration (we wish out students to take flight, not literally of course; we tell them you’re flying; we fly through material with them etc.) the fly itself is such an unambitious flyer. They dosh their heads against window panes, or content themselves with drowsy geometrical evolutions in shady spots; they have a surprising line in vertical take-off, but then they go nowhere.

No wonder, given that, and given other aspects of their lifestyle, that they are an emblem of decay, of melancholia, of futility. Here then, by way of antidote, is Rolf of the Muppets, singing Winnie The Pooh’s Cottleston Pie, in which, of course, a fly can’t bird but a bird can fly.

 Eat Bread, Eat Cambridge

Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.
Isaiah 55:2

May is nearly over, and so is Eat Cambridge. The Eat Cambridge festival bills itself as a showcase for our ‘fabulous local independent producers’, with street-food stalls and market-stalls popping up here and there.

On Friday, for example, cycling up to the station, I noticed a handful of stalls and a gaggle of moderately excited office-workers, released from the tedium of their daily grind for a few minutes, enjoying the sun and the possibility to eat something for lunch that isn’t a chilled sandwich.

Or, for that matter, a Gregg’s pastry of some sort. Gregg’s ‘the baker’s’ recently announced that it would no longer be selling bread from some of its outlets. People seem not to buy it much any more. I am stunned, not by the idea that people don’t go to Gregg’s for their bread (they go for the sausage rolls, obviously); but that bread sales, interest in bread, might be in any way in decline.

Still Life with a lot of Bread – Albert Samuel Anker

Still Life with a lot of Bread – Albert Samuel Anker

Bread is not just a staple, but the staple. Only water is more essential to life. And tea, of course. I have noted elsewhere that a sandwich is not a sandwich without some proper bread.

And yet over the years we have had to accustom ourselves to the fact that bread is pretty horrible in Britain. You can buy what looks like a loaf in supermarkets, but it crumbles to ashes under a bread knife within hours of being bought. And while there have been some good bakers on and off in Cambridge, they seem to close down with alarming rapidity: one on Rose Crescent closed only last year. I suppose the margins on bread are not enormous, unless you are selling artisanal loaves at the market for a fiver a piece.

The great solace is, first, that elsewhere in the world, nice bread is still going on; and second, that you can make your own without too much fuss.

If you fancy some nice artisanal bread from one of the many exotic Eat Cambridge stands, you’re too late, you’ll have to wait until next year. 

Cambridge Bird News

Further to my post a couple of weeks ago about dead hawks and stupid owls (for which, incidentally, I received a reprimand from the colleague of a student, who has, it seems, a fondness for owls), I notice that Cambridge City Council has taken the death of the hawk rather seriously, and has replaced the glass in the bus shelter which the hawk had impacted with appropriately patterned glass. For visibility, I must assume.


I suppose they must know what they are doing. At first glance, it seems rather owl-like judgement, if I may take the liberty, since placing images of birds on the glass might imply birds flying in free air. But who knows what is passing through the minds of predatory hawks, let alone the minds of the Council; for all I know, the glass is there not to ward off hawks (or blackbirds, for that matter), but as a sort of trophy, much in the manner of Battle of Britain pilots adorning their spitfires with the silhouettes of downed victims.


The silhouettes on the bus shelter would in fact appear to be swifts, not hawks. It is about time the swifts returned from the skies of Africa, if they haven’t already. The Cambridge Swift Tower is now inhabited, I read, and it could be that the bus shelter is a celebration of epic journeying, in line with the epic adventure that taking a stagecoach bus in Cambridge represents.

Life-Hacking and the Tomato

There’s an interview with the deputy editor of the Economist on LifeHacker in which he remembers with amusement that in 2006 Danny and Merlin Mann, two expert ‘life-hackers’ had been asked to write a book on ‘life-hacking’ as a means to improve productivity, but after some considerable period of time, still had not got around to it.

Still life with pomodoro - Meléndez

Still life with pomodoro technique – Meléndez

That sounds pretty typical to me. Actually doing stuff, as opposed to talking about how best to do it, is hard. However, undaunted, I spent a part of yesterday morning learning from one of my students about the pomodoro technique of time-management. The pomodoro technique, so-named for the tomato-form kitchen timer used by Francesco Cirillo, its inventor, requires its practitioners to work in uninterrupted blocks of 25 minutes. You set your timer to 25 minutes and work on whatever task you have to hand without allowing yourself to be sidetracked or distracted. After 25 minutes you have a short break (3-5 minutes) and then crack on with a fresh pomodoro.

In the course of working your way through all these pomodori, you are supposed to monitor your performance, count the number of times you have to abandon a pomodoro, for example, and adjust your pomodori accordingly, perhaps moving to a different room, or putting up a do-not-disturb sign, etc.

You can both buy a pomodoro timer on the pomodoro site, and in time and with study become a Certified Pomodoro Master.

Of course you can. Which petty despot doesn’t want to codify and package their practices? Someone I know once showed me how to put marmite on my toast, according to his tried-and-tested practice. He started by grabbing my knife.

But there you go. The point, in essence, is to achieve what psychologists call flow, the state of uber-productivity in which you forget to eat, drink, or reset your pomodoro timer, so easily and fluently does your work come. Flow is something that cannot be achieved without uninterrupted blocks of time. Some people manage themselves and their environment naturally, in order to make this possible. Some people don’t. Those that don’t presumably require repeatable techniques in order to drill the practice, but the point, in the end, is to internalise the discipline, and just get on with it. Ironically, there are now so many life-hacker sites and techniques, you could spend a lifetime reading about how to maximise your productivity.

Technology and Liveability 

...surprised in Amsterdam – Rembrandt van Rijn Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul

…surprised in Amsterdam – Rembrandt van Rijn Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul

One of my students was in Amsterdam for the weekend, and was surprised to find that the taxi which took him to his hotel was a Tesla electric car.

Surprised, in other words, by the proximity of the future.

But the future is always with us. I remember being struck by the sight of people wired into their futuristic scooters in Milan, over twenty years ago now.

Cambridge is a city of the future, of course, if its own publicity is anything to go by. It is all Shanghai cranes on the skyline and biotech and 3D printers. And yet the key to its liveability is the bicycle. The bicycle is a technology that History noticed, regarded almost immediately as quaint, superseded, nearly obliterated with the automobile, then double-took, went back, and reinstated as the technology of tomorrow. Bicycles, in short, are the future.

As it happens, Cambridge does not feature on lists of the world’s most liveable cities. It is too small, I suppose. Otherwise it might do quite well. But the fact that we need to define liveability as a concept would suggest that it is not a given in the modern city. Most cities are not ‘liveable’; perhaps they never have been; but a great many current difficulties can be laid square at the wheels of the automobile. Busy roads in cities no longer function as conduits, but as barriers. When in Bogota a few years ago they started an extensive programme of investment in cycle paths and public transport, and took to banning cars from the city on selected days, the murder rate fell by half in a few years, which may be coincidence, but may also have something to do with the reemergence of people on to the streets.

Which brings us back to the electric car. I would hazard that the solution to the automobile is not an automobile, however slick and silent. Electric cars will not allow us to drop our liveability indices. We will still sit in jams, clog up the highways, and knock honest-to-god, technophilic, liveable cyclists off their bikes. But the proliferation of electric cars, and the development of technologies that make them suddenly possible, is perhaps reason for a little optimism, and a little surprise as well.

In this short interview on TED, Elon Musk, C.E.O of Tesla and SpaceX, among other things, explains the rationale and business model of the electric car.