Sunday, March 31, 2013

Nature and nurturing tolerance

David George Haskell considers the sex lives of various living things within a short walk near the Supreme Court, and concludes:

A wide, living rainbow arcs across the natural world. Diversity rules in sexuality, just as it does in the rest of biology. This natural variety does not provide ready-made moral guidance. But to claim that the only natural forms of sex and pair bonding occur between unambiguous males and females is to ignore the facts of human biology. Let those who wish for marriage to be “founded in nature” take note: the view outside the Supreme Court is full of life’s beautiful sexual variegation.


Friday, March 29, 2013

Rock-and-roll hostage taking is pretty cool. Actual hostage taking, of course, is not.

The Thermals have a new album, and this is the video for the first single, 'Born to Kill'.

I like it a lot, as I do most of the stuff that The Thermals produce.

But as you might tell from the title, it's not the most gentle song, either musically or lyrically.

Or, for that matter, in terms of the video.

While watching it I couldn't help but think of a video for one of my favourite songs, 'This Year' by The Mountain Goats.

It also features a hostage taking as its main visual theme, which can be seen as a metaphor for the song's actual topic, which revolves around stepfather-stepson tensions in an abusive household.

But The Mountain Goats certainly use less blood.

I'm still trying to work out whether this makes their video better or inferior. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Waiting for my man

In a very fine LRB review of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and the first two series of the related television show Game of Thrones, John Lanchester refers to -- and then questions -- the resistance that many people have to reading fantasy literature:

When you ask people why they don’t read fantasy, they usually say something along the lines of, ‘because elves don’t exist’. This makes no sense as an objection. Huge swathes of imaginative literature concern things that don’t exist, and as it happens, things that don’t exist feature particularly prominently in the English literary tradition. We’re very good at things that don’t exist. The fantastic is central not just to the English canon – Spenser, Shakespeare, even Dickens – but also to our amazing parallel tradition of para-literary works, from Carroll to Conan Doyle to Stoker to Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, Pullman. There’s no other body of literature quite like it: just consider the comparative absence of fantasy from the French and Russian traditions. And yet it’s perfectly normal for widely literate general readers to admit that they read no fantasy at all. I know, because I often ask. It’s as if there is some mysterious fantasy-reading switch that in many people is set to ‘off’. And it’s this that leads to the mayor of Des Moines syndrome, because part of the point of Stephenson’s remark isn’t just that people who don’t live there don’t know who the mayor is, they couldn’t care less. The information is of no use to them.

He also describes his own activities as a 'drug pusher' with regard to Martin's fabulous series of books (which I've read through twice, now):

This sense of unsafety and instability is at the heart of the books. I’ve been acting as a kind of low level pusher or drug dealer for the series, shoving recommendations and occasionally box sets in the direction of friends. I tell them to forge past their elves-don’t-exist resistance at least until the end of the first episode. And that, generally, is all it takes. After that initial act of drug-pushing, I follow up on my new clients to ask how they have got on with the series. Everyone is addicted, and everyone reports the same moment as being the one that got them hooked.  

I have to admit that I've played this role myself a couple of times.

And like the other addicts, I'm pretty eagerly waiting for The Winds of Winter.

I need a fix, man.

Another area in which Europe has definitely fallen behind

Blood and Treasure brings our attention to the formidable talents of Peng Liyuan, China's new 'first lady'.

She can, indeed, belt out a jaunty tune:

(Note: the visuals really get going at about 1:25.)

The B&T comment:

Yes, it’s a bit militaristic. But it still beats the hell out of Samantha Cameron and her mimsy little boutique jewellery business type thing.
It is, definitely, more...stirring.

And it's made me aware of how vast the massed-ranks-scary-patriotic-musical gap between Europe and China has become.

Someone may have to look into this.

I mean: this is something we used to do well.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Er ist ein Roboter...

The current issue of Die Zeit has a very worthwhile article on the musician Karl Bartos, who was, among other things, a former member of Kraftwerk.

Alongside interviews with Bartos, the article also profiles Bartos's latest album, Off the Record, which contains re-worked sounds and musical elements he developed during his time with Kraftwerk.

If this track--'Without a Trace of Emotion'--is representative, I think this something I need to get.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The 'hacker superiority complex'

A couple of questions from an interview with Jaron Lanier in the Spectator, to which he provides interesting answers.

You criticize the culture of the tech world several times throughout this book, but you are also part of it: can you explain this paradox?
There are a lot of very positive things about the tech world. It’s remarkably unprejudiced and I’ve never encountered racism in it. There are a lot of good qualities, so I don’t want to criticize it too much. I remain in it, and I enjoy it. However, there is a smugness, or a kind of religious aspect to it. There is a sensibility that says: we have skills that other people don’t, therefore we are supermen and we deserve more. You run into this attitude, that if ordinary people cannot set their Facebook privacy settings, then they deserve what is coming to them. There is a hacker superiority complex to this.

Do you think this culture of superiority in the tech world is making society less democratic?
Well I think this culture really undermines our discipline because to me the only proper way to describe the profession of engineering is to serve people, otherwise it’s not a sensible activity. There is no rational basis without people as the beneficiaries. Just in order for me to function sensibly I need to believe in people, not robots. When we don’t put people at the centre of the world, I think we create rather bizarre technologies that don’t tend to make sense.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

On putting houses in order

I noticed the trailer for Ken Loach's new film The Spirit of '45 the other day, which I'm looking forward to seeing.

I had to think of it just now when, while doing some research for my new project, I ran across an editorial from The Times titled 'The New Europe' that seems to fit well with it and that has not, I think, lost any of its power.

Agreeing with Churchill's comment that Britain's only war aim was 'victory', The Times argued that it was necessary that 'victory for our arms will point the way to a new social and international order in Europe'.

It was important that the values defining that order not be defined 'in purely nineteenth-century terms':

If we speak of democracy, we do not mean a democracy which maintains the right to vote but forgets the right to work and the right to live. If we speak of freedom, we do not mean a rugged individualism which excludes social organisation and economic planning. If we speak of equality, we do not mean a political equality nullified by social and economic privilege. If we speak of economic reconstruction, we think less of maximum production (though this too will be required) than of equitable distribution. … The European house cannot be put in order unless we put our own house in order first. The new order cannot be based on the preservation of privilege, whether the privilege be that of a country, of a class, or of an individual. (The Times, 1 July 1940, 5)

Well said.

Gloom and doom?

As someone who had indeed spent a fair amount of time researching and writing about the darker side of human life, I thought there was much to think about in Mark Mazower's FT review of David Cannadine's new book. (Though I've not read the book yet and can't say whether Mazower is fair to it or not.)

Such as this:

It is true that many historians will find themselves occasionally pondering why they spend so much time describing human nastiness and so little on virtue or beauty. Yet the best example we have of a genuinely cosmopolitan history with an ameliorist agenda – Unesco’s History of Humanity – hardly constitutes strong evidence of its intellectual viability. On the contrary, it was way back in 1965 that historian Jack Plumb described one of the volumes in that series as having the effect of “an encyclopaedia gone berserk, or re-sorted by a deficient computer”. As for the European Union’s own efforts to fund cheerleading histories in the spirit of e pluribus unum, they have been a complete waste of money and certainly don’t seem to have furthered the cause of integration.

The Plumb quote alone is worth the price of admission; however, the rest is definitely worth reading as well, even if there is a substantial amount of history being written that emphasises 'virtue and beauty' and stresses some (at least long-term) good news about the human race.

Historians aren't really all that grim a bunch.


Monday, March 18, 2013

'The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out'

New Vampire Weekend!

I've listened to this three times in a row and am still in awe of it.

Very nice.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Alfie (and Jasper) turn 80

Today is Michael Caine's 80th birthday. As Robbie Collin notes, Caine's career has definitely had its ups and downs in terms of quality, though the late 1960s were certainly a time when he established his iconic status.

But the film I had to think of immediately when I saw the article was a more recent one, the dystopian Children of Men (2006), in which Caine has a brief but important few appearances as 'Jasper', an old-school lefty and marijuana entrepreneur.

Happy Birthday, Sir Michael!

The only thing worse than visibility is invisibility

So there I was this morning on my way to work, waiting at a coffee shop in the Hauptbahnhof for my order to arrive when I realised I was surrounded by a group of people who were all staring down intently at little portable glowing rectangles.

Nothing unusual there, of course.

But for whatever reasons (and they're probably partly irrational, I admit) this flashy ubiquity of 'devices'--and the frantic tappey, swipey, scrunchey finger movements that accompany it--somehow gets on my nerves.

I've often thought that if there were some way to make this stuff all'd be a meaningful improvement in our everyday lives.

A few days ago, appropriately enough, I ran across a blog post (via Bruce Sterling's Wired blog) by Timo Arnall on what I discovered was an actual trend: 'invisible design'.

‘The best design is invisible’ is the interaction design phrase of the moment. The images above are from my ever-expanding collection of quotes about how design and technology will ‘disappear’, become ‘invisible’ or how the ‘best interface is no interface’. 

Taking off from my comments at the beginning, this would seem just my kind of thing; however, what is interesting in Arnall's fascinating and informative post are the various doubts he raises about this trendy idealisation of the invisible.

For example:

1. Invisible design propagates the myth of immateriality

We already have plenty of thinking that celebrates the invisibility and seamlessness of technology. We are overloaded with childish mythologies like ‘the cloud’; a soft, fuzzy metaphor for enormous infrastructural projects of undersea cables and power-hungry data farms. This mythology can be harmful and is often just plain wrong. Networks go down, hard disks fail, sensors fail to sense, processors overheat and batteries die. 

The idea that the internet embodies some kind of transcendence of the material (and of all the messy limitations it brings with it) is one of the most enduring and irksome myths that has accompanied it from the beginning, and it's nice to see it get a gentle kicking here.

(In a similar vein, Die Zeit currently has a nicely sceptical take on the naive evangelism of a new internet-driven 'sharing economy' as a viable alternative to Kapitalismus.) 

And, Arnall observes:

2. Invisible design falls into the natural/intuitive trap

The movement tells us to ‘embrace natural processes’ and talks about the ‘incredibly intuitive’ Mercedes car interface. This language is a trap (we should ban the use of natural and intuitive btw) that doesn’t give us any insight into how complex products might actually become simple or familiar.
Invisible design leads us towards the horrors of Reality Clippy. Does my refrigerator light really go off? Why was my car unlocked this morning? How did my phone go silent all of a sudden? Without highly legible systems for managing and understanding all of this ‘smartness’ we are going to get very lost and highly frustrated. The tricky business of push notifications and the Facebook privacy train wreck is just the tip of the iceberg.

There's a lot more of interest in Arnall's post, which I recommend highly.

I hope Arnall is an influential guy in design circles.

At the very least, anything, in my view, which will reduce the frequency with which I have to encounter excited burbling involving words like 'cloud' and 'intuitive'--which probably annoy me even more than the omnipresent glowing rectangles, to be honest--is a good thing.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

RIP Peter Banks

Founding member of Yes and subsequently influential prog-rock guitarist, Peter Banks (1947-2013).

Fishers of, er, men (or even of bears)

As noted by the Independent, the papal conclave is meeting is taking place in close, curious (and one is tempted to say convenient) proximity to what is purported to be Europe's largest gay sauna.

The sauna’s website promotes one of its special “bear nights”, with a video in which a rotund, hairy man strips down before changing into a priest’s outfit. It says Bruno, “a hairy, overweight pastor of souls, is free to the music of his clergyman, remaining in a thong, because he wants to expose body and soul”. 

Offered without further comment, as anything that occurs to me would be far too obvious to mention.

(Link via Umberto via Facebook)

Making the saving throw against inauthenticity

I know, I know, I know: there are few things more tiresome (and many things more important) than the debate about whether someone is a 'genuine' geek or not.

And I'm certainly not one of those people who wants their special little cultural obsessions to remain obscure: indeed, I like the fact that several things that tended to lead to social marginalisation in my youth (computer programming, comic books, fantasy novels, role-playing games) have become fairly solidly mainstream pastimes, not least since this means that young people who are interested in them don't have to quite risk their social standing among their peers in the way that once tended to be the case.

Nonetheless, I thought Tim Wu's discussion at Slate of the new film Zero Charisma -- the plot of which features a tabletop role-playing game as a central element -- was insightful with regard to one of the central issues in this (fairly marginal but for me still personally relevant) little culture war.

The plot of the film seems to revolve around a group of gamers -- in particular the DM, Scott -- whose regular dungeon-diving sessions are thrown into chaos (and Scott into an apparent existential crisis) when one group member's departure leads to his replacement by a 'hipster' figure named Miles.

As Wu describes:

Scott, to put things mildly, does not deal well with changes to his routine, and he cannot handle the arrival of Miles. The great injustice is that Miles, while he has never paid his dues, is actually a very talented gamer. He threatens everything Scott stands for, and indeed the very idea that you need suffer for art (or nerd cred), the idea that paying dues matters.

You may or may not take seriously the idea that 'paying dues' might have any meaning when it simply means having spent a lot of time around tables while rolling dice and discussing with great seriousness the respective merits of different magical weapons and thereby suffering some degree of social ostracism.

Still, I couldn't help but think that Wu was on to something in his conclusion:

A debate has raged online for a while about the meeting of coolness and nerdiness, with the “fake geek girl” meme and Portlandia’s “nerd council” sketch notable recent entries in that discussion. But Zero Charisma asks bigger questions than whether hipsters are ruining perfectly good subcultures with their version of poverty chic. Buried here among the saving throws is something deeper. Scott suffers for his obsession, while Miles takes the path of detached imitation. We want Scott to win, and for all his suffering to be worth something. But the slightly depressing insight in this film is that sometimes suffering doesn’t make you better. As co-director Andrew Matthews says, it’s about his “greatest fear … that someone else is doing exactly what you do, but is just better.”

Here is the trailer for the film, which I look forward to seeing someday when the DVD finally becomes available in Germany (though the film arguably perpetuates the stereotype of gamers as overgrown man-children who can't cope with real life...which is, you know, only half true).


Lost at sea

Charlie Stross considers some of the likely results should Britain decide to actually leave the EU.

It's not a pretty thought.

The overall picture, then, is dismal: a flight by the investment banking sector, probable currency speculation directed against the (isolated and vulnerable) sterling market, re-emergence of tariff barriers hampering UK exports to Europe, a collapse in trade with the Commonwealth (at least, on terms favourable to the UK), and the final collapse of UK diplomatic/military power to second- or even third-rank status on a global scale.

But, on the upside I suppose, at last their cucumbers could be a crooked as they wanted them to be.

I can almost taste the liberty already. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Off to the Forest

Last weekend I spent a few days in Gloucester and the Forest of Dean for events related to my new book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England: Poison, Celebrity and the Trials of Beatrice Pace.

This was, in a sense, bringing the case back home to where it started: the curious death of Harry Pace that was the beginning of the whole mystery occurred at his home in Fetter Hill, in the Forest of Dean, and the trial of his widow Beatrice on a charge of having murdered him was held at the Shire Hall in Gloucester.

As some of you who have been following the matter might know, the book has been well-received, but it meant a lot to me to be able to present something about the case in such a local context.

On Friday, I gave an interview to BBC Radio Gloucestershire host Anna King. The interview ended up being a full quarter of an hour, and can be heard online till, I believe the end of the week. Info, links and an accompanying photo are available at the book-related blog.

On Saturday, I spent some time in Gloucester at the Waterstones on Eastgate Street, just down the street from the trial venue (the Shire Hall).

After that, I headed off to the Forest itself to give a talk to the Forest of Dean Local History Society (FODLHS) at its meeting in Bream.

I hadn't been quite sure what to expect from the FODLHS, but I went away being utterly impressed not only by their commitment to local history but to their organisational skills. Partly due to good promotion, there were nearly ninety people in attendance, and I spent a very enjoyable afternoon fielding questions from locals who were very interested in a sensational murder case that had had happened in their backyard.

Some more details on those events a (as well as a few photos) can also be found at the book-related blog.

To find out what people have been saying about The Most Remarkable Woman in England, see this page.