Tag Archives: Cambridge University

Book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States

Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States

Succinct, analytical, readable, perfect.
175 pages, ★★★★★

The original text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was very dense, laced with nineteenth-century English and was a nuisance to read—especially the speech from Tom’s wife, Chloe. Here’s an excerpt of the original:

“An’ de Gineral, he knows what cookin’ is. Bery nice man, de Gineral! He comes of one of de bery fustest families in Old Virginny!”

While it’s intelligible, it’s tiring to read.

However, I learned much more from this book, called Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States. It uses the concise, logical English language that as a science student (and as a blogger), I’m much more used to. It not only tells you the story, the author’s background, her reasons for writing, and the book’s influence on the American public, but also includes discussions of the devastating slave trade, the ‘ownership’ of women and the extermination of native Americans that occurred in the same historical period. This book concludes with a chapter on Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘s legacy. I learned much more from this book than from Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself.

Reading derivative works isn’t cheating at all. Nobody was expected to read the original text of On the Origin of Species while I was doing undergraduate science. We were, however, expected to know the gist of what it said by reading books that relate heavily to it (The Third Chimpanzee and Genome come to mind).

Instead of reading the dozens of classics on my reading list, I’m going to hunt for derivative works of all of them. I think I’ve finally found a way to make classic fiction both enjoyable and accessible at the same time… ★★★★★


Book: Ideology and Curriculum

Cambridge, according to Rajesh Koothrappali, is, “wonderful, not only because it’s a good school but [also] because it totally looks like Hogwarts”. How apt.


Theoretical Marxist nonsense. Irrelevant to schools.
264 pages, 

Admittedly, I learned little from this bland, so-called ‘Marxist’ book on education reform. If I could summarise its message in one sentence, though, I’d write:

“School organisers impose curricula on the lower classes to spread their elitist idea of ‘culture’ for self-preservation and thus self-benefit.”

Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I overlooked something important, but that’s the #1 message I’m taking home from this book.

The ‘nonsense’ here applies more to ‘theoretical’ than to ‘Marxist’. I’m a teacher, not a philosopher, so a purely theoretical approach to education reform with no recommendations for what I should do in my school feels completely irrelevant to me. Rallying the masses into a revolutionary frenzy—a key tenet of Marxism—is something this tedious book completely fails to do. Read something else. 

Book: The Fry Chronicles

The Fry Chronicles
Adult Stephen Fry. This book is the sequel to Moab Is My Washpot.

Witty and well-written but largely forgettable.
464 pages, ★★★★

In The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry details his adult life, starting from his leaving prison at age 20. It starts exactly where his last book, Moab Is My Washpot, finished. Within just a few pages, Fry matriculates at Queen’s College, Cambridge University, where he thrives academically and finds a passion for acting.

I’m young, so I’ve only known Fry for his most recent TV work (I am a fan of QI, and am happy that it’s all on YouTube for free). His acting career is something to which I really can’t relate (hence my subtitle—’forgettable’). I’m sure that actors, or avid theatre-goers could find this book much more interesting than I did.

For me, Fry’s writings about Cambridge University were the most interesting. While most of his writing is respectful and upbeat, he does indulge in a page-long witty rant about “Cambridge people”, as I call them, on page 111, starting with sarcasm:

“…Garden parties on every lawn in every college for the two weeks in June that are perversely designated May Week. Dining clubs and societies, dons, clubs and rich individuals serving punch and Pimm’s beer and sangria, cocktails and champagne. Blazers and flannels, self-conscious little snobberies and affectations, flushed youth, pampered youth, privileged youth, happy youth.”

The following paragraph juxtaposes that paragraph beautifully:

“Don’t be too hard on them. Suppress the thought that they are all ghastly tosspots who don’t know they’re born, insufferable poseurs in need of a kick and a slap. Have some pity and understanding. They will get that kick and that slap soon enough. After all, look at them now. They are all in their fifties some of them on their third, forth or fifth marriage. Their children despise them. They are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics. Drugs addicts or recovering drug addicts. Their wrinkles, grey, bald, furrowed and fallen faces look back every morning from the mirror, those folds of dying flesh bearing not a trace of the high, joyful and elastic smiles that once lit them. Their lives have been a ruin and a waste. All that bright promise never quite matured into anything that can be looked back on with pride or pleasure. They took that job in the city, that job with merchant bank, stockbroker, law firm, accountancy firm, chemical company, drama Company, publishing company, any company. The light and energy, the passion, fun and faith were soon snuffed out one by one. In the grind of the demanding world their foolish hopeful dreams evaporated like mist in the cruel glare of the morning sun. Sometimes the dreams return to them at night and they are so ashamed, disappointed that they want to kill themselves. Once they laughed and seduced or were seduced, on ancient lawns, under ancient stones and now they hate the young and their music, they snort with contempt at everything strange and new and they have to catch their breath at the top of the stairs.”

He adds a quick note to reassure the readers that his rant is over, and gets his writing style promptly back on track. I love it.

Thankfully, in this book, there’s no graphic sex. In fact, Fry takes pride in being celibate for many years straight (excuse the pun). It’s a more comfortable read than Moab Is My Washpot, and more witty, too. I give this book four stars, even if the only memorable part for me was his thoughts on stereotypical “Cambridge people”. ★★★★

Book: The Freemasons

The Freemasons

Accidental trade union turned culty turned unpopular.
340 pages, ★★★

Freemasonry emerged by accident. Rough-masons worked rough (harder) stone, while free-masons worked free (softer) stone. Often commissioned by monarchs, Freemasons worked harder and earned more money than non-freemasons, and since they worked for many years, exclusively for the monarch, they became a very closely-knit group.

Freemasonry later developed into the élite fraternity. Many great explorers and tycoons were Freemasons. Now, however, Freemasonry is in decline, and is even greeted with suspicion and ridicule by non-members.

This book discusses some famous members. We learn about John Wilkes, William Dodd and Louis d’Éon, none of whose stories would be at all interesting if they weren’t Freemasons. Their stories are not scandalous—and sometimes not even interesting—despite this book describing them as such. This book dispels the myths surrounding Freemasonry by proving that they’re actually incredibly boring cult.

Freemasonry was never as intimidating as its reputation would suggest. In fact, the descriptions in this book rank it level with Cambridge University in terms of exclusivity and eccentricity (two defining aspects of a cult).

I don’t recommend reading this book. It was less informative than Cults (see my review here), and more of a chore, too. All this book taught me is that Freemasonry is incredibly dull—a fact so surprising that I award this book very generously with three stars. ★★★

Little Planets Gallery 小地球

Little Planet 小地球 Cambridge River Cam

Little Planet Chongwenmen City Wall

Above: Take Subway Line 2 or Line 5 to Chongwenmen Station (Chinese: 崇文门 English: Gate of Dignified Culture) and walk east (not south: that’s gaudy malls) towards the old City Wall. There’s a tranquil teahouse by the Wall, which, as demonstrated by the comment-plastered notice-board, is clearly loved by its patrons. At night, the wall is lit with pale coloured lights, which make for a pleasant walk/run around the park that runs parallel to it.

Follow the City Wall to Chang’an Jie (长安街 Avenue of Eternal Peace), leading to Tian’an’men Square.

Little Planet 小地球 Peking University

I created this Little Planet on an iPhone with the free Photosynth app from the App Store. The process is incredibly quick and fun to do. The only limitation with the iPhone’s camera here is the apparent dark sky around the sun. More clouds would reduce the contrast and solve this problem.

This is the lawn toward the famous West Gate of Beida (the one tourists pose by). It’s the best place to study in summer, and is usually populated with frisbees, foreigners, a rabbit, lost property and people who read textbooks standing up. Enjoy 😉

Little Planet 小地球 Peking University 100th Anniversary Hall

Panorama: Behind Tian'an'men Gate

Little Planet Xisi Temple 小地球

Above: Take Subway Line 4 to Xisi Station (Chinese: 西四 English: “West 4th”). Walk 100m west of Exit A to find this Buddhist temple. Recitals begin at around 3:50pm each day (during which I took this photo). Buddhists are allowed into the main building to chant; while visitors are allowed to stand outside and watch from a few meters away.

Being in a temple is a very soothing experience, especially during a recital. Afterwards, walk 50 meters south to find a Christian Church, then 300m further south to find excellent black sesame bao’zi 黑芝麻包子 from A’chunjia Bao’zi Shop (阿春家包子店).

Little Planet 小地球 Cambridge University Library

Little Planet 小地球 Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge Univeristy

Little Planet 小地球 Between the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, Beijing

Little Planet 小地球 Downing Site, Cambridge University


Recipe for Little Planet pictures

1 camera
1 sunny day
1 pretty place
Software (PTGui Pro and Photoshop with the Flexify 2 plug-in)

1) Choose a beautiful location. This is the hardest part. Good Little Planet pictures have a balance of colours, shapes and structures. 50:50 trees:buildings looks great. I found myself cycling around Cambridge looking in all directions, checking for potential “Little Planet” hotspots. By searching high and low for Little Planet opportunities everywhere I went, I realised the the world was much more beautiful than Al Gore told us in his movie(e.g. Downing Site looks like a butterfly).

2) Take lots of photos of the surroundings. Set the camera up perfectly (fastest shutter, highest ISO without noise, high-speed SD card, no flash, zoom right out). After lots of practice, this step can be done in less than 60 seconds. Photograph everything (360° both horizontally and vertically) and make sure the pictures overlap by at least 50%. Do the ground in great detail. Pause at the mid-levels to avoid (moving) people and wind. Rush the sky to capture moving clouds. Each photo should be about 1 megapixel with no flash. About 80–150 photos will be enough to cover absolutely everything you can see, including the ground and the sky (nadir & zenith). The bending process requires more photos of the ground than the sky (so photograph your feet, even if doing so makes you look like a lemon). Important: Don’t move and remember to photograph your feet (they’re your fixed, detailed ‘nadir’).

3) Blend them into a spherical/equirectangular panorama using PTGui Pro. The resulting picture is distorted, like a projection map of the world, and will be about 9 megapixels (HD versions are possible but they have to be stitched overnight; 9 MP is high-res enough for most purposes).

4) Export as a high-quality JPEG and open in Photoshop.

5) Open the Flexify 2 plug-in and set: Latitude=minus 90; Input=”equirectangular”; Output=”stereographic”. Then play with the zoom/ spin/ longitude settings until the surroundings are balanced on all sides. Keep your feet (your ‘nadir’) exactly in the centre, then use the photo-overlaps to edit them out completely with a cropping tool (as in the picture above).

6) Print Big.

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Creative Commons License
Little Planets Method (text) by James Kennedy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.