Cambridge Days

Remaindered: Kings of Convenience, etc.

I found a note scribbled in the margins of my spiral-bound notebook, “lifetime pizza customer value 10K”. Now, whether I was skeptical, impressed, or just a tad peckish when scratching those words, I no longer remember. But I did just bother to look up the pizza bit on the ‘Net.

Turns out the lifetime revenue stream generated by a loyal pizza customer is actually $8,000. Give or take a slice.

Anyhow, my point is that it’s these things neat, small, and clever which are most easily forgot, if not written down. Thusly follows a quick list of not-blogged events from the last month at B-school, which I’d always intended to jot down, somewhere:

Kings of Convenience + Call & Response, at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Ooh, what a show – girl-fronted S.F. rock band opening for a Norwegian duo whose crooning gets compared, constantly and aptly, to Mssrs. Simon and Garfunkel; the entire shindig rocking a converted corn warehouse/market facility left over from some bygone era here in England. I did the college-student thing, and bought a concert T-shirt, even.

Hedgehog, in natural habitat. Right, so there’s a hedgehog living in our garden. Frustratingly, I’ve only glimpsed the creature once so far, when I was up late in the conservatory, studying Finance.

The Master’s Lodge. The lushest accommodations in Cambridge are the Masters’ Lodges of various colleges. And since the Master at Magdalene also happens to be director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, his pad hangs plenty of name-brand artwork, to boot. A few times each year, he kindly opens his home to all the grad students; on this particular occasion, we got treated to wine from the cellars along with some medieval motets from the Magdalene choir. ‘Twas all an eminently civilized affair, and, yah, I’m grinning as I say that.

Clare Formal Hall. One of the friendlier traditions at the Cambridge colleges are the formal hall exchanges – play your cards right and you can wine and dine in the great hall of every college. Azure and I hopped over to Clare for a bite on a Friday night (no gown required), and couldn’t help but be amused at being seated opposite a looming portrait of Gen. Cornwallis, a.k.a. the old arch-nemesis of George Washington & Co. Cornwallis looked just like he did in my elementary-school history books, red coat and all. What I wondered about, most of the meal, was what went through Cornwallis’ mind, sitting for that portrait: Did he fathom, then, how many future generations might dine beneath, and still recognize, his picture?

Evensong. Still on the college kick, I attended Evensong at Magdalene’s diminutive chapel the other Sunday. Not as glorious as King’s College, maybe, but what’s remarkable is how little space there is in the church – the choir numbers roughly 15 students, and I’d wager the additional seating hardly holds twice that. So it’s an intimate service, and personal, and really quite lovely.

And now it’s November, already.


Cambridge Days Technology

Geo metadata,, and Cambridge cats

A year and a half ago, I wrote a Webmonkey article asking where metadata might be headed next. What hidden information should we add to web pages to make them more searchable? For example, G.P.S. coordinates (longitude & latitude) would be an obvious boon for smartphone / mobile surfers – imagine standing on any street corner, and searching for all restaurants within walking distance.

The question remains unresolved, but it’s increasingly visible. Notable in the last few weeks were Jeff Bezos’ talk at the Web 2.0 conference, along with this ’Metadata for the Masses’ essay over at Adaptive Path. And, as anybody with a few thousand digi-cam snapshots knows, the metadata issue applies just as well to individual photos as it does to web pages.

I like the small ideas, though, always have. That’s why I was a fan of super-simple GeoURL; ‘twas a great trend, at least until the site went kaput. Finally, though, I’ve found a replacement: – another location-based search engine which parses a variety of geographical markup, including old GeoURL tags.

On an entirely different note, we just learned our new row house came with a one-way cat door. Kitty-cats can come in, but can’t leave. And that explains why, yesterday, upon arriving home after a long afternoon stroll through Trinity and St. John’s, a heretofore unknown black-and-white tabby was lounging on our sofa. Meow!

Cambridge Days

Magdalene formal hall

Friday marked my first formal hall at Magdalene. It’s a tricky event to describe without dipping into Harry Potter comparisons – I mean, where else do you find long rows of gown-bedecked students, dining by candlelight? Sure, the hefty silver candlesticks at Magdalene don’t exactly levitate in mid-air, but there are still enough of them to serve as the only light source in the stretching hall.

I realize, of course, that Harry Potter is a cheap cliché for describing Cambridge. It’s like bringing up Blade Runner when talking about Tokyo – the simile feels spot-on, but all too easy, more atmosphere than reality. Nevertheless, I’ve found Harry Potter remains the finest template for describing how the whole University – College relationship functions. For graduates, at least.

For instance: I got strange looks when I first told friends I was studying at the University of Cambridge, and then explained I’d be at Magdalene College. (And the Judge Institute for Management, as well.) How could I attend three schools at once? Now I tell folks it’s like attending Hogwarts School for Magic, but having the Sorting Hat stick you in Gryffindor House on your first day. (Or Slytherin, as some have slandered.) Harry Potter’s school has just four Houses; Cambridge has 30-odd colleges. But you get the gist of how it works.

I didn’t actually request Magdalene. It’s old (576 years), small (a few hundred students), and home to the likes of C.S. Lewis and proto-blogger Pepys. But I knew its reputation from tour books – the college is still notorious for being the last to admit women, in the 80’s. (That would be the 1980s, not the 1880s.) Sounded suspiciously crusty, a Porterhouse Blue kind of place.

It’s not anymore, not for the grad-school crowd, at least. Magdalene these days is like anywhere else in Cambridge – which makes sense, considering that most graduate students are placed there by chance, like me. If anything, Magdalene’s old stubbornness in clinging to its other customs, like the anachronistic formal hall, is considered charming and special, now.

So what about dinner, you ask? Well, it’s supposed to take a while to get to it, you see. To begin with, there’s the dressing up – black tux or suit and tie, plus a gown on top of that. Post-arrival, sherry might be served (in another hall, mind, not the main one), and then, once you’ve finally meandered into the dining area, there’s a grumbling period of waiting until the High Table (Fellows, professors, etc.) finds their seats. The buildup continues with a large gong being rung (swear, I’m not making this up) to signal the start of the Grace being recited… all in Latin, of course.

formal hall 2004

And then (only then) you get dinner. First course, white wine, Main course, red wine, Dessert, Savoury trifle, right on to petit fours and port or coffee. Last of all, another Latin benediction. Just like home, non?

Yeah. Having both dined and worked in the U.C. Berkeley cafeteria system, I gots to say dinner here is a serious step up. (I’d say the same about the schoolwork, too, and would catalog all that in detail, but that’s not nearly as fun to write about…)

Cambridge Days

Grantchester punt, Roland’s Dark Tower

Punting is tougher than it looks. It’s certainly harder than the guides ferrying tourists up and down The Backs make it seem.

Arrive in Cambridge on a warm, sunny weekend (happens every few years, I hear) and you’ll see punting’s gnarlier side: the ‘self-hire’ crowd. Once these all-too-literal boatloads of amateurs take to the water, the whole British notion of a ‘jolly riverboat jaunt’ is replaced by a tourist blood-sport that’s more akin to log-rolling or demolition derby. It’s best to watch from the shores of The Backs, I think – you might wince occasionally, but between the crashing, splashing, and multi-lingual shouting, you’ll at least remain dry.

My own punting skills are no better, likely worse. But last weekend, I managed to elude the rent-a-boat crowd, at least, by punting away from Cambridge, towards Grantchester. (Actually, I rode down, then punted the way back.) It’s a 90-minute push either way – plenty long enough to leave me cold, soaked, and pretty well tired. I lost the pole twice (the river bottom is like clay, in parts), and then got rained upon, to boot. Happy I went, of course, but I’m done punting ’til summer returns.

on the Cam

I completed another journey this week, and one which took me far longer – sixteen years, if I count correctly: I finished Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, the very week the last installment was published.

Can’t complain about the time – after all, it’s taken King 30 years to write those books, and he’s said this final volume heralds the end of his massive writing career. I can believe that – almost every book he’s written ties, somehow, into the nexus of The Dark Tower, and now that it’s done… where can he go?

So how good was it, at the end? Tough to say – his yarn was obviously good enough for me to read one after the other, and year after year; I’d also agree with the author’s own conclusion that the tale was ‘not entirely successful’. The big concern, of course, was the ending, including the author’s sudden, interjectory warning not to read it. (I’ve read a lot of books, and never have I seen an author pop into the narrative and lecture me against turning the page.)

King was right, of course. I should’ve closed the book. The journey is the reward, etc. – and any ending would have to be more bitter than sweet. This ending, though – man, after thousands of pages, a decade and a half… it just left me crushed. King says endings are heartless, and so this was. Almost.

No spoilers, here. All I can say is that choice facing the reader and Roland were one and the same – dare you enter the Tower, to finally see and know what lies inside? Or would you sit on the doorstep, deep in that field of roses, knowing there that the quest is good and true, and already complete?

Cambridge Days


I’m entering B-school with one eye open.

See, Mod gave me a Daruma on our last visit to Oakland. It’s a Japanese thing, Daruma, a paper-mache figurine of the monk Bodhidharma. He’s a round, roly-poly guy, the backstory being that Bodhidharma’s arms and legs fell off after he meditated for seven years straight.

Daruma dolls have no eyes – it’s up to you to paint them in, yourself. One eye gets painted when you start working towards a goal, and the other eye can only be painted if and when you complete that goal. Unsurprisingly, it’s mostly a New Year’s thing, though I’ve heard Japanese politicians make a big show of drawing Daruma eyes during political campaigns.

School’s started. Which means our once-blind Daruma now sits winking by the telly, and I vaguely suspect he’s watching more BBC than he should.

* * *

Update, Sept 2005:

…and a baby, to boot!

Cambridge Days

Shaun of the Dead, Ian Brown Solarized

We just rented ‘Shaun of the Dead’, which proudly bills itself as ‘a romantic comedy, with zombies’. Unlike most movies, it actually delivers on that promise. Az laughed, I found it romantic, and yes, the walking undead get their screen time.

The kid at Blockbuster tried warning us off it, after hearing my American accent. “This is quite good,” he said, then hesitantly added “but very English”. Fair enough. But so then are Wallace and Gromit, Flying Circuses, and The Office – and they export just fine. (In truth, if ‘Warning: Very English!’ labels existed, I’d slap ’em on Walker’s “Roast-Lamb-and-Mint-Jelly flavour” potato chips, first thing. But I digress…)

Actually, there is one joke in ‘Shaun of The Dead’ that hit me as tragically, tearfully hilarious – largely because it is doomed to go unnoticed by most Americans. It happens like this:

Shaun and Ed, urgently needing weapons for zombie-head-removal, stumble across Shaun’s old record collection, at which point they frantically start tossing discs (Frisbee-style) at the neck of a nearby zombie. However, (and here’s the British comedy for ya) they can’t help but bicker and argue over which LP’s are too precious to be thrown at the zombie onslaught.

Ed [holding up a record]: Stone Roses?
Shaun: Noooo!
Ed: But it’s ‘Second Coming’.
Shaun [pauses]: I liked it!

Thing is, the Stone Roses hardly made a dent in American pop culture, and remain relatively unknown in the U.S. despite having been massive chart-toppers in the UK. The band released only two albums in their ten years, the first being hailed as the album of the decade, and the second (coming) widely trashed as… well, I liked it.

Sure, you’ll still find a few hopeless Roses fans (is there any other kind?) Stateside, and I proudly count myself amongst their number.

For Roses fans like me, it’s been a good week, and not just because they’ve written in-jokes for us into ‘Shaun of the Dead’. On September 13th, former Stone Roses lead singer Ian Brown released his fourth solo album, ‘Solarized’. I was personally excited because it was the first time I could buy one of his albums without an ‘Import’ sticker and 30-dollar price tag on the cover.

And how is it? Not half-bad, in fact.

A few tracks shine: the surprisingly sweet ‘Time is My Everything’ stands out as my initial favorite. (Respectably, ‘Time’ achieves the highly-improbable feat of substituting John Squire’s legendary guitar licks with latin horns, of all things.) ‘Longsight M13’ and ‘Keep What Ya Got’ (w/ Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher) also display the craftsmanship you’d expect for radio singles. Whether this ‘approachable’ sound was a production decision, or the result of Ian Brown recording this album sober (so he claims), I can’t say. But it’s better than the last one.

There’s still a fair shake of the less-listenable, self-indulgent stuff. (Not exactly uncommon with lead singers who’ve ‘gone solo’, now is it?) But c’mon – it’s hard not to spot the warning signs for that, right on the cover – the album artwork/branding consists primarily of Ian’s name written in various fonts, and the highlight of the liner notes is a juvenile photo-collage of you-know-who’s simian face, striking various poses. Anybody who buys this album should expect as much.

At the moment, though, it’s the only CD we own. (We hauled our MP3 and AAC collection with us, but left the good speakers behind.) So, for better or worse, Solarized is getting heavy rotation hereabouts.

Cambridge Days

Battleship Potemkin Remixed

I steeled myself for my upcoming capitalist indoctrination (B-school starts next week) by watching ‘Battleship Potemkin’ on Sunday. The movie, in fine socialist form, was free for the masses – it played in a drizzly Trafalgar Square, and featured a thumpin’ new soundtrack composed and performed live by the Pet Shop Boys.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t so much a big spectacle, as a good show. I’d expected a double-dose of high camp; that the synthetic techno bombast of Mssrs. Tenant and Lowe would serve only to make Potemkin seem anachronistic and crude by comparison, probably send the whole thing up as a terribly naive work – technologically, artistically, politically, historically, whatever.

Instead, it was engaging. The music was surprisingly complementary, at times almost natural, and if anything, made the film seem more contemporary, not less. Given, I actually like the music of the Pet Shop Boys (hence my trek from Cambridge to London), so my opinion may be suspect to some, but I call it a success, and an artistic one at that.

No, it wasn’t perfect: some passages delved too long and deep in the club sound (IMO, the words “Da!” and “Nyet” do not a natural bass line make), some slower strains went on just a bit (imagine Phillip Glass pumped full of Red Bull). But pacing, I suppose, is one thing the revisionist soundtrack composer can’t completely control, and one of the more obvious aspects where early cinema shows its age.

Standing in the rain surrounded by umbrellas wasn’t the best screening venue, but it was memorable. The best seats in the house, alas, were on a red double-decker bus snarled in Trafalgar’s traffic – we watched passengers wind their way to the top deck, sitting high and dry, until a traffic cop finally cleared ’em out.