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29 July 2004

Yesterday was a pretty amazing day!

While I had a ton of people at office hours, Barb and the kids got a guided tour of Christ Church College. Ben Hill, one of our faculty here, met a faculty member in Engineering at Christ Church who offered to provide a personal, behind-the-scenes tour–for three hours. They saw things that we never saw on the regular tour:
  • First edition copies of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica in the amazing College library.
  • The kids got to climb the tree that Lewis Carroll based the Cheshire Cat on.
  • They visited Dodgson's (Carroll's) office, where there were tiles around the fireplace showing the Dodo and the Mock Turtle. The tiles were there long before Dodgson, so it made it pretty clear that he was writing about the figures around him.
  • They saw the Dean's Garden which was Alice's "Wonderland" – the forbidden garden where there were fancy parties that she could rarely attend but could only watch through the keyhole. (Barb said that Jenny was very confused by this - that she was in Wonderland now?)
  • They saw the office of Albert Einstein, when he was a visitor to Christ Church, but didn't get a post and so went on to Princeton.
  • They learned about how the Colleges manage their wealth, and about tutorials and how they work, and how few students are in these Colleges!

I heard that Jenny became quite taken with Liza, and informed her that she had to marry Matthew so that Liza could be Jenny's sister. I heard that Matthew tried to ignore all of it, and Liza tried to convince Jenny that they could just be special friends. Jenny wouldn't hear of it – she wanted Liza to be her sister!

Matthew peering through Alice's keyhole

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Christ Church Meadow, where Alice played

And walking on the "sacred" grass!
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Malcom (of Christ Church, left) and Jim Craig with Principia Mathematica

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Climbing the Cheshire Cat Tree

The knots in the tree looked (at a point a hundred years ago :-) like a smile with two ears on it.
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That evening, Philip and Liza came over to have Papa John's pizza with our kids, and the rest of us went to the Provost's Faculty Dinner at 7:30. What a dinner!

We were met at the door by a butler who led us out to the garden for champagne. They have a beautiful rose garden (with purple roses!), and a statue of an emperor's head that "some undergrad stole some 80 or 90 years ago as a prank" from the Sheldonian and it's been in the garden ever since. The Provost's house was built in 1776! The Provost is an economist and his wife is a theologian – he quipped that "We both use small observations to make grand predictions." She's working on a book on how the Psalms have been received by different groups over the centuries.

At 8:00, we went up to the dining room, where we each had cards indicating our seats. I sat next to Helen Russell, the conference coordinator, who's had an amazing life. She worked on the first computer programs that Oxford University Press ever built, then joined her husband in Abu-Dhabi and elsewhere in the middle east for several years. Her son now lives in Australia with two of her grandchildren, and her daughter lives in London with two others.

Dinner started with a fish course with white wine, then a chicken course with red wine, and ended with a "Summer Pudding" (all kinds of great berries) with a "Sauterne" dessert wine. It was a completely unique experience for almost all of us! Afterward, we retired to the study for coffee and truffles.

We had an interesting discussion about how, even at Oxford, the pressure to do more research is increasing, while the teaching load is not decreasing. Sue, the Provost's wife, lectures 2-3 times a week, and has 15 or more hours of tutorials to do every week. That's a lot! There's an increasing tension between the Universities, which want the intellectual property rights on the research, and the Colleges, which want to uphold the teaching tradition. The Provost couldn't believe that I get away with releasing my software as open source...

The house alone is amazing. There's a huge painting of him in his study over his (modern – 1997) harpsichord! (He let me play around with the harpsichord some which has a wonderful sound.) Each Provost has his painting done, and his will hang in the great hall when he's retired. He has a painting in the dining room worth $5-6M that's about to go on tour to various museums.

He's a really interesting character and quite humorous. He gave a little speech where he mentioned that our students come in to College "tabula rasa" – knowing almost nothing! (It seems our high schools are quite a joke around the world, as I've learned from talking to folks from here and Australia.) But our students aren't bored yet. Worcester students arrive knowing a lot, but already quite bored. Therefore, Georgia Tech faculty have much more value added – there's much more to teach and they're more receptive! He also mentioned our children. It turns out that Worcester is doing a risk management exercise this Summer, and they'd recently decided that the risk of someone falling into the lake was very small–until he'd heard that both of our daughters had! He mentioned that he'd heard my class outside Memorial Hall and had paused to listen, but he's rather antagonistic (his word) towards technology so he wasn't too interested.

I got to ask him about the green belt legislation. He asked me why I was surprised at it – Britain is the last great socialist country, now that USSR has fallen, he said. The green belt legislation was passed after World War II, and it's been a great hindrance to the Colleges. Worcester owns some land just north of the Oxford city limits that they'd like to develop, but they can't find a way around the green belt laws. Barb asked, "How long have you been trying?" He replied, "A mere 50 years."

He also mentioned that the College owns a house along Beaumont Street that they believe has a back wall that was once part of Beaumont Palace where Richard the Lion Hearted was born. They believe that because the wall is constantly damp and they can't seem to fix it – a wall from 1200's might have such problems.

We finally got back around 10:30, tucked all the kids to bed, then took a stroll at night around this beautiful campus and lake that we'll soon have to leave.

Last modified 5 August 2004 at 8:15 am by Mark Guzdial