Sunday, January 29, 2012

Activity elsewhere

Just as a reminder, a bit of my blogging energy (such as it is) has been going into my other project, a blog related to my forthcoming book on a rather spectacular British murder trial from 1928.

In case you've missed it, there's been a bit of activity there recently, including the start of a new 'timeline' feature, a discussion of inter-war press sensationalism and the posting of a picture of the case's most relevant funeral.

Just the sort of thing you're looking for on a quiet Sunday evening, I'd say.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Another very naughty boy ...

... and a not very smart one to boot.

I used to think that Alain de Botton is merely a pompous git. After reading about his plans to build an Atheist temple in London, I briefly pondered the possibility that he might not be all there.

Now I'm back to the pompousness, because really: The whole thing is just one big campaign for his own deification, isn't it?

Well dig this Alain, self-proclaimed King of the Atheists: First of all, I didn't vote for you. And secondly, us humble humanists don't need a holy house (especially one eerily evocative of those set up by Scientology) "to develop a better perspective on life." Contemplating the noble earthworm will do very nicely, thank you very much. Awesome stuff.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Science fiction triple feature

I've been in a science fiction state of mind recently, which is perhaps why I was particularly struck by a few things I ran across in the last day or so.

First, there was a lot in author Charles Stross's discussion of 'world building' (part of a series) that reminded me of my own efforts at 'past reconstructing': i.e. how closely related efforts to understand the past and predict the future can be. (Even if the problem of 'unknown unknowns' plays a rather different role in each case.) (Thanks to Chris W. for pointing me to Stross's excellent blog!)

Second, another 'future building' track brought me to SF author Bruce Sterling, some of whose novels I've liked for many years now (such as Islands in the Net or Holy Fire).

Sterling downplays both his blog and, by implication, his 'State of the World' discussions at The Well, as being 'rambling, open-ended, eclectic blather'.

Without being utterly inaccurate, however, this description does insufficient justice to Sterling's ability to write things that are well-phrased, insightful and funny all at the same time.

For instance, I like his summary (at the Well discussion) of what he sees as the key society-shaping factors of the coming century, i.e., demographics and climate change. The mid-century world, he quips, is going to be dominated by 'old people in big cities who are afraid of the sky.'

Or put another way: 'Futurity means metropolitan people with small families in a weather crisis.' Also quite good, but not nearly as memorable.

Of course, there are other visions of futurity to be dealt with, such as those of right-wing talk radio hosts, the People's Republic of China and Cyberculture ('Smartphones! They make the Silicon Valley of the 1980s look like the railroads of the 1880s!').

In Sterling's summary of what he sees as the sorry state of 'fringe beliefs about the future', I am embarrassed to discover an apparently well-known fringe group of which I had never heard: the 'chemtrail' conspiracy theorists. (Sterling: ' These guys are pitiable loons, but they're interesting harbingers of a future when even scientific illiterates are deathly afraid of the sky.')

I have to admit more sympathy for two other fringe beliefs that Sterling observes seem to have disappeared a bit:

Space Travel people.  Visible mostly by their absence nowadays.  About the only ones left are nutcase one-percenters of a certain generation, with money to burn on their private space yachts.  This was such a huge narrative of the consensus future, for such a long time, that it's really interesting to see it die in public.   There's no popular understanding of why space cities don't work, though if you told them they'd have to spend the rest of their lives in the fuselage of a 747 at 30,000 feet, they'd be like "Gosh that's terrible."

Transcendant spiritual drug enthusiasts.  People consume unbelievable amounts of narcotics nowadays, but there used to be gentle, unworldly characters who genuinely thought this practice was good for you, and would give you marijuana and psychedelics because they were convinced they were doing you a big, life-changing favor.

You go into one of those medical marijuana dispensaries nowadays, they're like huckster chiropractors, basically.  The whole ethical-free-spirit surround of the psychedelic dreamtime is gone. It's like the tie-dyed guys toking up in the ashram have been replaced by the carcasses of 12,000 slaughtered Mexicans.

Finally, Sterling -- who spends a lot of time in Italy and Serbia -- offers two interesting perspectives of these countries' views of future change based upon his experiences in each.

With regard to the Italians' views of 'Europe':

The Italian version of "Europe" is different from other people's versions of "Europe," mostly because "Europe" is so much better-governed than Italy.  If Italy hadn't founded the European Union, Italy wouldn't be allowed into it now, because Italy's too decadent and ramshackle to live up to the standards.  So, every once in a while some kind of cold European economic/political breeze will ooze over the Alps; and Italians rarely complain; on the contrary, they're grateful for it and hope for better.  Like, maybe "Europe" will somehow dispell the "Crisis" without Italians having to do much of anything, and wow, that would be great.

With regard to the Serbians' views of Russia:

Serbia's fantasy version of Russia is like nobody else's conception of Russia; most everybody else thinks of Russia as some half-blind, yellow-fanged ursine creature bristling with rusty nuclear weapons, while for Serbia, Russia is a fluffy angelic-winged flying bear to be depicted in stained-glass windows in a cloud of Orthodox incense. Tremendous emotional energy is invested in imagining that Russia will somehow show up and set everything to rights someday,even though Russia has never really done that anywhere for anybody.

Third, and finally, at 21C magazine there is quite a good discussion of J. G. Ballard among Sterling, V. Vale and (our friend) Simon Sellars. (Who also has an essay in the Ballard collection I noted here recently.)

This is by no means new, but I failed to mention it at the time and ran across it quite by chance again yesterday. 

Sterling again:

You’re not suicidal if you understand J.G. Ballard. On the contrary,this guy’s a consummate survivor. Burroughs and his friends and the beatnik movement had a tremendous casualty list, whereas Ballard and his friends in the British New Wave movement and the Pop Art scene were actually fairly solid, well-balanced if unconventional individuals – people with jobs and children, they were not reedy figures. This is a towering oak tree of a writer, who wrote many volumes of consistently good, accomplished work.
This reminded me a little bit of some similar comments on this blog that we offered a few years ago now on the occasion of Ballard's death.

OK, enough 'open-ended eclectic blather for one evening, methinks.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What do they know of England...

Hard to believe, but apparently true: a British army veteran has been thrown out of a pub for the unspeakable crime of...wait for it...speaking German.
Tom Sharp, 71, said he was talking to his half-German daughter in the Packhorse pub in the Peterborough village of Northborough when their conversation slipped into German. Mr Sharp, who also served with the Royal Signals for 26 years during which he met his wife Anni in Germany, said the pub's landlady flew into a rage when she heard the language being used on Wednesday evening. He claims she told him: "We are white, you are English so you speak English in my pub otherwise get out." Other drinkers who witnessed the row and spoke up for Mr Sharp and his 49-year-old daughter Nichole Falconer were also ejected, he said.

All our best wishes go out to Mr. Sharp, his daughter and those fellow drinkers who showed enough Zivilcourage (and what I would hope to be genuine British cosmopolitanism) to stand up for him.

I imagine there are other, more hospitable places in Northborough to quench one's thirst (though I've not been there).

(I am reminded of Rick Blaine's comment when asked his nationality: 'I am a drunkard.') 

Exploring the high frontier

One of the things I'm slowly working my way though is a gift that made it from my wishlist into my home last Christmas: the 'Cosmos' television series hosted (and co-written) by Carl Sagan.

I've mentioned Sagan here before, in 2006, in the context of the tenth anniversary of his death.  

I remember watching the series when it was first broadcast -- in 1980 -- though I'm struck by the fact that I remembered it less for the content and more for the atmosphere (the gentle ambient music, Sagan's soothing and distinctive voice and the walk-through model of the solar system) and the look of the thing (the now primitive-looking 'spaceship' set or Sagan's trademark red turtleneck and beige corduroy blazer).

He seemed a ubiquitous figure in my youth, in many ways the most visible public face of popular science (or is there someone else I'm forgetting?). He was also, though, always just that slight bit odd and dreamy, hardly the voice of cold reason and more a scientific romantic ('We are all starstuff', etc.).

Anyway, quite by chance today I ran across a list at Io9 on '10 Scientific and Technological Visionaries Who Experimented With Drugs' and who should I find there but...Carl Sagan!

It may be that this is a generally known fact, but I have to admit that it was new to me. 

It turns out he was not only an experimenter with but, indeed, a regular smoker (and advocate) of cannabis. He even wrote an essay in 1969 (under a pseudonym) on his own experiences, which, indeed, sound more productive than those of your average stoner:

I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for. I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. Because of problems of space, I can’t go into the details of these essays, but from all external signs, such as public reactions and expert commentary, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.
This is something I'll have to keep in mind when dealing with my next bout of writer's block.

He concludes:

I hope that time [the legalisation of cannabis] isn’t too distant; the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.
I knew that there was a reason why there was something so inexplicably groovy about 'Cosmos'.

Incidentally, Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan (one of the co-writers of 'Cosmos'), I also discovered, is on the board of directors at NORML, an organisation whose goals I have long supported.

Although on quite another track, I'm currently about half way through Robert Shea's and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy, in which the convergence between drugs, science, cosmic weirdness and creativity is also a prominent theme (though with the addition of a great deal more sex, violence and conspiracy theorising than I have seen so far in 'Cosmos').

Which brings back recollections of many happy hours spent playing Illuminati in the context of my high school wargaming club. (Experiences I remembered here in commenting on the death of E. Gary Gygax.)

Taken together, all of the above adds up to an interesting...trip...down memory lane.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Outrage by the numbers

You may have noted a bit of outrage regarding the revelation that London's Metropolitan Police spent £35,000 on calls to the 'speaking clock' (a telephone service to provide callers with the precise time) in the last two years.

(Well, you may have noticed it if you read the Daily Mail, and I know that not all of you indulge in that particular pleasure.)

Not that I always necessarily feel like standing up for the boys in blue, but I thought I would point out James Ball's interesting article at the Guardian today, where he takes a closer look at this expense, finding:

So what does the spend on the speaking clock represent? The force spent £16,879 on calls to the service in 2010/11. At 31p per call, that's just under 54,500 calls over the year.

That works out as 1.5 calls to the speaking clock for each officer, or in other words represents each officer in the force using the service just once or twice each year.

Is that unreasonable? Accurate time is occasionally important to police, when noting chronologies in reports or ahead of operations.

It's not hard to imagine police officers needing to sync their watches (or phones) on particular operations on occasion, or perhaps occasionally mistrusting their computer's clock when trying to timestamp a report.

The rest is worth reading as well.

I would admit to finding it a bit odd that a such a clunky seeming technology as the speaking clock would still be in semi-regular usage, and for this reason I probably would have smirked as well on first seeing this kind of headline.

Still, as Ball points out, the Met has a budget of four billion pounds a year, and with an enormous staff, small costs per officer add up quickly.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

(Part of) The story behind the story

On my other blog (related to my forthcoming book The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace) I give a little bit of the inside story to how the book was written.

And I also show a couple of never-before published family photos.

Come on, take a look: Wikipedia's closed, you have some time on your hands.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

On marked foreignness and the inability to go home again

I experienced more than a bit of self-recognition in this passage from a Prospect article ('Outsiders Everywhere' by E. J. Graff) quoting a German historian who has relocated to the US (quoted in a post by our friend Andrew).

My own Atlantic crossing, of course, went in the opposite direction, but I can nonetheless identify with one of her responses to the article's author about why she has decided to stay in her adopted home:

The first [answer] was that, having been an expat for more than a decade, she would never again be fully at home in Germany; she was Americanized now, to some degree, and would be out of place there. I've heard that before from Americans who've lived abroad for some extended period. ... So I wasn't surprised by the historian's answer. But why would that keep her here? Because, she explained, here her accent marks her as foreign; it reveals her reason for being a little different, a little unfamiliar with ordinary cultural habits. But in Germany, where she is unmarked as a foreigner, her different-ness irritates people.

I am still often frustrated about my all-too-visible marks of foreignness here in Germany (my accent, my use of expressions that are not quite right, my ability to form an orderly queue, my unwillingness to publicly scold complete strangers, etc.).

I think I feel encouraged now to be a bit more relaxed about my status as a marked man.

(The article also contains an interesting discussion of social mobility -- and its limits -- in the US and elsewhere.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A brief note on literary violence and shady politics

We're just recently back from a week in snowy, snowy Davos (long story, largely very enjoyable*) and have been making the jarring transition from the holidays back to the workaday world.

But, two things made me very happy today.

First, my contributor copy of J. G. Ballard: Visions and Revisions was there waiting for me when I arrived at my office. It looks fabulous and is full of interesting essays on a wonderful and much-missed author. My own contribution (the only effort, as far as I know, that anyone has ever made to analyse Ballard's work from the perspective of Norbert Elias's 'civilising process') can be perused in draft form here. Some comments on the conference that spawned it are here and here.

Second, I learned a new and useful German word, halbseiden, which means 'dubious' or 'shady' (and, apparently, in older usage, 'homosexual'). I ran across it in the context of a story about the German president, Christian Wulff, who has gotten into a spot of bother about some (allegedly) questionable loans from friends and a couple of (allegedly) threatening phone calls to the press which has been eagerly reporting on them. (Any possible homosexuality has, so far as I know, remained unrevealed.)

Quite a profitable day, if I do say so myself.


* We can, for example, very much recommend the sauna at this place. And if you feel up to it, a jog around the Davosersee can be very invigorating. And the Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Museum has a small but very worthwhile collection. Skiing, you might have noted, is not really our thing....