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When I first had a web site, and wrote “open letters” on it that were a kind of blog, nobody else I knew did the same, and people thought it was kind of weird. Obviously I ignored them and carried on doing it in my own way just for fun. This is my 10th year online with an unbroken history of blogging and blogging-by-other-names, and I just noticed that a whole bunch of other people from where I work have web pages and blogs (it’s so easy nowadays!). Looking around their pages, I started to think that they put mine to shame. Theirs are so… plein de poissons: so full of stuff. They have real content. Ian’s is full of rocks and seismic profiles and information and detail. Katherine’s is full of chemistry. Rob’s has so many opinions on so many interesting things. Partly because mine has grown up in a bit of a vacuum and never been out much, a bit like Kaspar Hauser it has ended up, well, different from other people’s. By coincidence, I think I may have met a dog called Kaspar today, which may be why I thought of Kaspar Hauser just now. As usual, I’m not entirely sure. I’m also not sure that meeting a dog called Kaspar would get a mention on my colleagues’ blogs. In the grand scheme of things my encounter with Kaspar should probably have been entirely ephemeral.

Ian’s rocks are of great moment. They are clearly important to a great many people who follow his blog, and are probably what Antoine de Saint-Exupery might have referred to as “matters of consequence”. Just as Saint-Exupery’s Geographer declines to record The Little Prince’s flower because it is ephemeral, perhaps I should be more thoughtful about what deserves to go into my blog. Perhaps I should confine myself to matters of consequence and stop recording ephemeral flowers. My problem is that ephemeral flowers seem to me to be matters of consequence. ephemeral flower
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Irredeemably Online

I used to carry a notebook in my pocket and keep lots of files of paper at home and in my office at work. I used a pen a lot, and showed 35mm slides in lectures. Now I have a website, which I use as a kind of library, archive and canvas all at once. I have this blog, which is more like a notebook. I have a Twitter page which is for announcements so people who need to know if I am around can keep track of me. I have an airset.com online “cloud” calendar that syncs with my iPhone and is my main record of all forthcoming appointments. I have a Facebook page, which is for nattering and playing games. I have an official work web page with links to a whole raft of teaching-related web pages that I maintain for the different courses I run. Each of these courses also has a set of online Virtual Learning Environment (Blackboard) pages.  I have a YouTube site where I put videos of some of my lecture material, and  I put some of those materials together online using prezi.com and screenr.com .  How am I supposed to remember all this? I need a notebook to write them all down in.

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I asked a group of Geography students this week about climbing mountains. Most of them said that they did it for the view from the top, that they wouldn’t bother doing it in the fog, and that if there was a choice between an easy path and a hard path they would take the easy path. I was surprised.  I climb a mountain for the activity of climbing the mountain.  To “engage with” the mountain. If the mountain is foggy, that’s fine, we’ll enjoy the mountain in fog. If there’s a challenging path probably it will give me more, so I’m happy to check that one out. The Road Less Travelled. A  mountain in the fog is still a  mountain. I was thinking later about what they’d said, and  about our motivations for other things.  Using their logic I guess they’d assume I was writing this blog so people could read it. Well I don’t think that’s so, either.  As far as I know probably nobody but me reads this. I write it to engage with the material, not for the outcome of it being there to be read.  Why do I put it online then? Writing something that might be read by somebody else, even if that’s not terribly likely, makes you write differently, just as being forced into rules writing a poem in a particular style forces you to write differently. There is some kind of inspirational constraint at work.  So it being there to be read does make a difference, but it’s not the point. The fact that there may be a view from the top does make a difference, but it’s not the point.

I remember Richard Feynman talking about sending off a letter, and he referred to sending it off “into the void”. That’s a bit what this is like,  sending stuff out into the void.

So I’m sitting here on the shore, or on the mountain top, in the fog, looking out into the void. Ideas float in, and if you don’t catch them they’re gone again. If you do catch them they change shape as soon as they come out of the fog and into your hand. You can’t catch them. So you sit in the fog feeling them slip through your fingers. The students didn’t ask (they weren’t that kind of group), but if they had done, that would be a fair answer to “So, why do you climb mountains?” Perhaps I climb them to feel them slip away through my fingers.

Of course it’s not true. But that is one of the constraints of writing online.

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Thoughts from the road

We’re always on the road. Sometimes there are things to say. Sometimes it’s clear that what you have to say should go into a notebook, or into a conversation, or onto a postcard. Perhaps just to yourself. Perhaps not. Sometimes the best place just seems to be here, so that’s what this blog is for. Just for when this feels like the place to put whatever it is, while we are on the road.

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