Saturday, January 30, 2010

Birmingham language pledge: Learn German while you drive (into or out of the car park)

German spoken with an English accent is bad enough and I don't like to think what Brum-German might sound like. But according to a report by the BBC, this is exactly what we're going to get - until the good people of Birmingham have sorted out their ticket machines. Which are currently spewing German obscenities at unassuming citizens looking for a place to park their Vauxhalls Opels.

You see, vee haff much moar kanning vays of meking you toalk (Tscherman) than by pleing futbol in bleck shörts.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

If a body catch a body coming through the rye

J. D. Salinger has apparently died.

It's difficult to say anything original about The Catcher in the Rye, and there is most likely nothing all too unique about saying that this novel made more of an impression on my teenage brain than just about any other book did.

It's apparently sold something in the range of 60 million copies. So, I suppose I'm far from alone in saying something like that.

I read it probably a dozen times between the ages of...I think...15 and 22. It set me off on a tour of reading anything else of Salinger's I could find. I liked his other texts (especially Franny and Zooey) but nothing ever quite hit me like Catcher.

Maybe it's time I took another look.

So long, J. D.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The game's the thing

Now, I'm clear on the concept that being in prison means not getting to do all the stuff you want to do.

It's part of what incarceration is all about.

And, as a principle, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Still, I'm having some difficulty following the specific reasoning of prison officials in Wisconsin and, more particularly, that of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals: as reported in the New York Times, the latter have upheld a ban imposed by the former on the venerable role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. (Via PZ)

As the Times helpfully explains to those readers who had better things to do with their adolescence:

Dungeons & Dragons players create fictional characters and carry out their adventures, often working together as a group, with the help of complicated rules.

The court rejected the appeal of Kevin Singer, 33, who is serving a life sentence for intentional homicide (he killed his sister's boyfriend with a sledgehammer, the magical properties of which were not specified), against the ban on all D&D materials in the prison.

The D&D ban is based upon security concerns:

Prison officials enacted the ban in 2004 after an inmate sent an anonymous letter expressing concern about Singer and three other inmates forming a ''gang'' focused around playing the game.

Singer was told by prison officials that he could not keep the materials because Dungeons & Dragons ''promotes fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling,'' according to the ruling. The prison later developed a more comprehensive policy against all types of fantasy games, the court said. [Emphasis added.]

That list of negative side effects sounds rather similar to the reproaches I recall being leveled by Concerned Adults against the rather fervid devotion of my own 'gang' to such games during my wayward youth.

However, D&D's well-known advocacy of Satanism is a curious absence on this list of Very Bad Things.

(Source and discussion.)

Maybe they dropped this feature of the game in the third edition, which came out after my gaming activities has subsided. Shame, really: the human sacrifices were always the best part.

In any case, it would be hard to top a fondness for 'addictive escape behaviours' as a summation of my teenage mentality.

And I can see why you wouldn't want to promote that sort of thing to someone actually, you know, living in a dungeon.

But I would think that as long as prison officers stipulate that any party (sorry, 'gang') has to contain at least one lawful good cleric, I'm sure Mr. Singer and his fellow inmates wouldn't get up to too much mischief.

Those guys always were a drag.

Still, if Mr. Singer or other inmates in his position need any encouragement....

I recall that back in the day we managed to invent our own role-playing game, which we referred to as 'insanity in a box'--rather ironically, as there was no box. In fact, there weren't any rule-books and all we needed was a single six-sided die. (Some kind of randomizer is important in these contexts: should prison rules outlaw any kind of dice as well, I suppose one could get away with flipping a coin or drawing a card from a shuffled deck.)

The 'rules', such as they were, were a bit vague (no more than a short set of shared principles) and shifting (the game master had an inordinate amount of discretion to use at his whim). However, the only important thing was the creation of a good basic story in which our creative (and Dr.-Pepper-fuelled) interaction could unfold.

We managed to have a good time, even in spite of all the 'competitive hostility' (not to say Satanism) that resulted.

Die Gedanken, after all, sind frei.

Monday, January 25, 2010

'Are we so sure that there are no floods to come?'

I have finally gotten around to reading an essay by Tony Judt that was referenced in a recent (and rather harrowing) article about the New York University historian's ordeal with motor neurone disease.

The piece, 'What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?' appears in the New York Review of Books.

I think it's well worth reading.

It's quite a lengthy excursion across the subject suggested by the title, and--among other topics--Judt considers differences between the political language of western Europe and the United States, the lingering relevance of nearly century-old economic debates and the difficult necessity of recovering a sense of common social purpose and belonging.

Much of it is not really earth-shattering, and there are some bits where I'm not really convinced.

But I was most struck positively by the parts of his essay in which he discusses, first, the past accomplishments of social democracy and, second, the need for it--if it wishes to maintain its success in the future--of reminding people about the reasons it emerged in the first place.

As to the past:

The welfare state had remarkable achievements to its credit. [...] The common theme and universal accomplishment of the neo-Keynesian governments of the postwar era was their remarkable success in curbing inequality. If you compare the gap separating rich and poor, whether by income or assets, in all continental European countries along with Great Britain and the US, you will see that it shrinks dramatically in the generation following 1945.

With greater equality there came other benefits. Over time, the fear of a return to extremist politics—the politics of desperation, the politics of envy, the politics of insecurity—abated. The Western industrialized world entered a halcyon era of prosperous security: a bubble, perhaps, but a comforting bubble in which most people did far better than they could ever have hoped in the past and had good reason to anticipate the future with confidence.

The paradox of the welfare state, and indeed of all the social democratic (and Christian Democratic) states of Europe, was quite simply that their success would over time undermine their appeal. The generation that remembered the 1930s was understandably the most committed to preserving institutions and systems of taxation, social service, and public provision that they saw as bulwarks against a return to the horrors of the past. But their successors—even in Sweden—began to forget why they had sought such security in the first place.

As to the future:

The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

That these accomplishments were no more than partial should not trouble us. If we have learned nothing else from the twentieth century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences. Imperfect improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek. Others have spent the last three decades methodically unraveling and destabilizing those same improvements: this should make us much angrier than we are. It ought also to worry us, if only on prudential grounds: Why have we been in such a hurry to tear down the dikes laboriously set in place by our predecessors? Are we so sure that there are no floods to come?

Well, are we?

I've spent a certain amount of time over recent years trying to figure out the processes that have made relatively decent societies and those that have seen them unravel.

I'm still not entirely sure; however, I think that being very aware that they can unravel is a healthy corrective to complacency.

And that's, perhaps, a start.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Poco on ice

Whoopee!!! Neo Post-colonialism has finally arrived in Russia!

Who knows, they might be organising conferences on the New English Literatures next.

UPDATE: Really, I don't know what the whole fuss is about. Pretenders to Aboriginal identity don't seem to be that rare. The notorious case of Mudrooroo springs to mind, who - without having the least bit of Aboriginal heritage - nevertheless managed to found Australian Aboriginal literature with his "first-hand accounts" of indigenous life.

This ethnic charade is, of course, a nice illustration of the entirely hypothetical "theoretical" concept of mise en abyme, but I really don't think that it is entirely koscher to employ neo-colonial acts of symbolic exploitation to justify the claims of deconstruction.

Then, of course, there are all the white guys who pretend to be James Brown. Jason Mraz is a particularly grating example:

"You make my slacks a little tight", my arse!

And then there are tour operators in New Zealand hiring Europeans and Israelis to play at being Maori for the delectation of tourists. Says Terina Puriri, director of The Discovery Heritage Group responsible for these ... events, defensively:
Some of our Maori are too slack to promote themselves. Some of our Maori are too lazy to get out of bed to do that.
Ms Puriri may say that, because Ms Puriri is part Maori herself.

Still, I wonder whether the term "heritage" still applies in such a case (and whether the gullible tourists who bought the heritage ticket will get their cash back for this sad carnival). Or is heritage a moveable feast in this day and age of self-invention? I've come across academics who would claim just that.

In any case, I'd suggest Ms Puriri read Julian Barnes's England, England - which lampoons exactly the kind of fakery that she is engaging in. Or rather, lampooned it already 10 years ago. Which leads me to the question: Did Julian Barnes know that Terina Puriri would be ripping off ageing tourist on their one holiday of a lifetime on a grand scale in 2009/10? Or is life imitating bloody art yet again?

The Cameron Variations

Even if the Internet never comes up with another Fun Thing as good as the David Cameron poster creation machine, then it's nevertheless established its Daseinsberechtigung.

I mean, the original is humourous enough.

But the variations....

I'm quite fond of Cthulhu, Absorbency

The following isn't nearly as funny, but it was the first thing that occurred to me.

Thanks to the Ranter for bringing this to my attention and for discussing it so (expectedly) well.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


While taking a short mental break from research in the British Library, I ran across a couple of interesting articles at the New York Times.

One is on changes in family life and motherhood in Germany as more women enter the labour market.

This is hardly a new topic, of course, but there are elements in the article that touch upon what I've found to be a distinctive mixture of modernity and traditionalism in my adopted homeland.

Much of it focuses on Bavaria, where these tendencies are, in my experience, more marked than usual.

As is kind of summed up in this passage:

Even five years ago, all-day schooling in Neuötting seemed unthinkable, Mayor Peter Haugeneder said. There is a crucifix in his office, in every classroom of the Max Fellermeier school and even in the Spanish-themed restaurant run by the gay butcher.

Also related in some way is an article on the increasing tendency for men to marry women who earn more and are better educated than they are.

There are, apparently, men who have a problem with this, causing some frustration in the world of dating.

Ms. Zielinski, the fashion stylist, said her best friend, a man, told her once: “ ‘You are confident, have good credit, own your own business, travel around the world and are self-sufficient. What man is going to want you?’ He laughed, but I found that pretty depressing.”

If true, it is.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Making new friends

We have a new addition to our household.

Well, maybe not new, as we're not sure exactly how long she's been here.

In any case, a few days ago we spotted her lurking terrifyingly casually hanging around in our front hall.

Folks, meet Erika:

Erika, perched above a doorway in the front hall where she can more
easily launch a surprise attack partake in the warm familial atmosphere.

I admit, we're just guessing on the gender and as for the name itself, it just...kind of occurred to one of us and has stuck. It has no specific significance.

But, just possibly, personalising our new eight-legged friend helps one of us to cope better with an almost paralyzing fear of arachnids (we won't mention which one of us it is, other than to note that he remains convinced that said phobia does not in any way serve to undermine his otherwise virile masculinity).

And it also occurs to me that our practice of naming the critters that wander around (and, far more rarely, into) our house allows us to feel a similar sense of animal companionship enjoyed by actual pet owners without...well, all the hassle of actually being a pet owner.


Erika, by the way, is no longer in the front hall.

She was seen later hanging around in the corner where the wine lives in the Wohnzimmer.

She has since set off for parts unknown.

"She's probably moved into your coat", said The Wife, helpfully.

I'm not sure, but I think this may explain why I've not been out of the house for three days.

Monday, January 11, 2010

French teen flick

Granted, the trailer to Éric Rohmer's Conte d'Été might lead one to believe that this film is just a slightly downbeat teenage romcom (minus the make-up artist):

But let me assure you: it's a very sweet movie, to which I attach very fond memories. The same goes for numerous other films by Rohmer, who has just died. How sad: We only watched Signe du Lion over Christmas (in fact, it was a Christmas gift). I have a penchant for films where nothing much seems to happen until suddenly characters burst into passionate philosophical arguments over the tarte aux pommes!

In one of the YouTube comments to the above video Rohmer is called the French Woody Allen, which might well be true. We also watched plenty of Woody Allen over Christmas. Stuff like that calms me down like nothing else, which is why I'm so nostalgic about these films.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

An Englishwoman's home...

I'd never heard of Myleene Klass before about...oh, fifteen minutes ago. It appears that she's one of that very common breed of British celebrity mainly known for getting her kit off.

Which is all well and good and is, in any case, not what brought her to my attention; rather, it was an article about her having been warned by police for doing...well, something rather sensible, I'd have thought:

Klass was in the kitchen with her daughter upstairs when she spotted the youths in her garden just after midnight on Friday. She grabbed a knife and banged the windows before they ran away.

Hertfordshire police warned her she should not have used a knife to scare off the youths because carrying an "offensive weapon", even in her own home, was illegal.

I admit that my verdict on the Hertfordshire police view of the matter--which runs something along the lines of 'fucking nonsense'--may be the result of having grown up in a country with, shall we say, a more relaxed attitude toward home defence.

But self-defence--even with 'offensive weapons'--is a fundamental right.

And it seems that the British police have a bit of a problem when it comes to recognising the important role of context when it comes to the use of weapons.

Hip to be square

I've had a fair amount of post-colonial baloney already this year - young though 2010 might still be - and somehow this enforced exposure to stuff I can no longer believe in has caused my poor brain to play the same, seemingly related track by The Flaming Lips on an endless mental loop:

Yes, I know - it's all only by analogy, but it might well be my own little hymn for the past year and the years to come.

Unfortunately, there's no decent video to be found, only the typical sad mobile phone recordings of open-air festivals. So I've gone for the sound quality rather than the visuals.

And here for the holistic experience:

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

What's all this then?

Ah, yes: I think we can rest easy that all is well with the implementation of anti-terrorism legislation in Britain:

They [a series of stupid, plodding efforts by the police to bother law-abiding citizens] stem from section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, which designates particular areas as vulnerable, and within those places the police can stop and search whomever they want, even without what is legally termed "suspicion". As the Metropolitan Police's website helpfully explains: "Officers have the power to stop and search a person who they reasonably suspect to be a terrorist."

Thus, last year, police officers must presumably have thought they had reason to suspect that Alex Turner, taking pictures of a fish and chip shop in Chatham called Mick's Plaice, was in fact a terrorist. Chatham no longer has its dockyard, or indeed any army barracks... but that didn't stop two officers from stopping him taking his fishy snaps; and when Mr Turner – quite rightly, in my view – questioned their authority to stop him, he was arrested, held handcuffed in a police van, searched and interviewed by two plain-clothes officers.

(Observant readers will note that the act that has led to such things was passed before that fateful Date That Supposedly Changed Everything.)

And these are the people that will soon have new powers to root around in our pants.

I'm...hmm...yes, I think reassured is the word.

On the other had, think of the positive side of this: you'll be able to tell future generations of a time when airline travel was not a grim, dehumanising torture. (Even though, by some counts, things have rarely been better, safety-wise.)

I already feel nostalgic for...what, a couple of weeks ago?

An exercise in interfaith dialogue

From an article in yesterday's Guardian:

"May you burn in hell!" one of the men shouted at Westergaard.

"Can we talk about it?" the cartoonist asked.

"May you burn in hell," the man repeated.

"Well, I guess we'll have to talk about it in hell, then," Westergaard finally said.

And more on this topic.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Yesterday's tomorrow today

Which magazine--that your humble narrator used to read avidly--had a penchant for making the following kind of predictions?

"By 2000...Sweden will have a largely automated robot society."

Paul Collins remembers Omni.

On the importance of not always looking on the bright side of life

As someone with more personal experience than I'd like to have with watching (and listening to) people deal with cancer, I was rather interested in the excerpt from Barbara Ehrenreich's forthcoming Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World published in the Guardian.

In it, she describes (and laments) what she refers to as the 'tyranny of positive thinking' that surrounds American cancer treatment and patient support (one to which, it seems, many patients actively contribute).

This extends to the view expressed by at least a few people that cancer might best be seen as a 'gift'.

Now, I'm thinking hard here, and to be honest I can't think of a single example of a person I know whose life has been improved by this particular experience, although I've seen a lot of impressive bravery and even dark humour emerge in response to the illness.

Facing the likelihood of reasonably imminent mortality can bring forth all kinds of complicated emotions, and I'd be the last person to tell others how they should react.

But I share Ehrenreich's doubts:

But rather than providing emotional sustenance, the sugar-coating of cancer can exact a dreadful cost. First, it requires the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer. This is a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining, but it is not so easy on the afflicted. One 2004 study even found, in complete contradiction to the tenets of positive thinking, that women who perceive more benefits from their cancer "tend to face a poorer quality of life – including worse mental functioning – compared with women who do not perceive benefits from their diagnoses."

I don't read Ehrenreich as arguing for meek, passive acceptance of cancer: quite the contrary. There are a lot of unpleasant and horrible things in life that have to be faced with grim determination or an active, even combative, spirit of resistance. Seeking encouragement of whatever kind, finding reasons to laugh and making plans beyond the disease is all to the good; however, there does seem to be something deeply imbalanced in the cancer-culture Ehrenreich describes:

Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a "gift", was a very personal, agonising encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.
And that doesn't sound very positive at all.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

In the bleak midwinter

There is something strikingly poetic, spare and lovely--but also gloomy and foreboding--in George Orwell's diary entry from 2 January 1940:

No thaw. Fallen ash-boughs all stripped & gnawed by rabbits. Pan of water left out all day is thickly frozen by evening.

6 eggs.

Winter. Can it end already?