Saturday, April 21, 2007

Aylwin Abroad

This weekend has seen the SSCP off to the valley of his dreams for a well-deserved holiday – I mean workshop. Where there is research to be done in the name of education, particularly if there is money involved, I am not slow to answer the call. The publishers seem to be united in their efforts these days to get us techno-challenged academics to adopt some form of on-line homework system. Prentice Hall has its MasteringGeneralChem; McGraw Hill has its Aris; and here comes Thomson (P-less in this case) with its little OWL. Neither spotted nor endangered so far as I could tell. Whoever conjured up that acronym deserves to spend their remaining days tethered to a screen of raw html code. I am not immune to the knowledge that publishers live to make a buck, and I certainly share their modest ambitions in that regard. However, the skeptical chemist, as Robert Boyle would say, should surely harbour some reservation when the publisher is extolling the benefits to the students of these things, particularly when they stand to profit at about $25 a head. This skeptical chemist is nothing if not completely dedicated to enhancing his darling students’ lives and if that meant spending a weekend in the ascetic confines of a Sofitel Hotel in the San Francisco Bay Area the sacrifice was willingly paid.

Part of the sacrifice entailed the SSCP arising untimely from his bed at 3:45. Many of the customary early morning rituals were waived in order to join the snaking columns of humanity shuffling in Auschwitz-like incomprehension through the “security” at ORD. As I was undergoing reassembly in the post-security zone, a broadcast cheerfully reminded us, as it must constantly remind us for otherwise would we not have revolted as one against the whole stupidity and colossal wastefulness of it, that the alert level was “orange.” Whatever that means, I have no idea; but of course it is all done to maintain the culture of fear that justifies our war on (of) terror. I have yet to discern any noticeable effect of the color du jour on one’s treatment at the hands of the TSA.

But let us not get weighed down by gloomy thoughts. My airborne chariot bore me swiftly to SF International Airport, where the cold and gloom of Chicago was immediately cast aside by yet another perfect Californian day of warm sunshine. Things just seem to be different out there. It appeared that Stanford University had gone to the trouble of putting on a regatta to entertain us, which seemed like an awful lot of trouble for just a few old chemistry professors. Nonetheless, our hotel was quite pullulating with lusty young men and women, undoubtedly terrifyingly fit, nautically attired in jackets with crossed oars and so on, and sporting themselves in boats in a strip of water adjacent to the hotel. I strained my eye to catch a glimpse of the COD crew but alas, there did not seem to be one. It all seemed a very far cry from those Pimms-soaked days in Oxford during Eights Week, the creaking wooden college boat houses replaced by concrete office blocks on a man-made strip of water a stone’s throw from the highway in the shadow of the (many) Oracle towers. Boatloads of parents were also in attendance. One entered the elevator as I was descending and greeted me. Desperate to make conversation I enquired as to whether she was one of the boating fraternity. Looking somewhat indignant, she responded that, no she was with the rowing. I didn’t say anything.

Our hosts were more than generous, the thinking being I suppose that online homework systems look a lot better after a lot of drink. As such, I was able to enjoy an evening at a well-appointed, though somewhat noisy and sterile, winebar in San Francisco. I had not visited the city in many years, and it seems to have evolved into a gigantic outdoor mall and condominium emporium. All very nice, but largely devoid of character.

My return journey found me seated next to a cleric in full regalia. I was treated to the rather incongruous sight of this gentleman studiously interrogating his Blackberry. The text appeared to be in Latin. Il Pape texting from the Vatican I mused.

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