July 9th, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

My interactions with German TV have been hindered by the problem that I really don’t like watching crime series. Krimis make up a good 80% of German drama output, and demand for them remains insatiable.

So Blaumacher, the drama I’ve been watching over the weekend, gets some sympathy just by not involving a homicide.

What it does involve is: Frank, middle-aged and dissatisfied, who rediscovers life thanks to his friendship with 21-year old Sasha. You’ll be shocked to hear that Sasha is quirkily intense, dyes her hair, and dresses mostly in bra, miniskirt and not much else.

The Manic-Pixie tropes play out fairly predictably. Frank has a standard mid-life-crisis sampler-pack – sports car and vintage guitars – which are dull until he has a (hot, young) friend to show them off to. Sasha has an in-your-face attitude which, shockingly, turns out to be a cover for her acute vulnerability.

The secondary characters are straight from central casting. Frank’s children squabble, his wife has an affair with her fitness instructor, his job is a meaningless charade.

There are a few good moments, if you can accept the predictability and just go along for the ride. I’m still going to watch to the end – there are only 6 episodes. But I wouldn’t recommend Blaumacher unless you are desperately in need of a manic pixie dream-girl.

October 7th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

A paragraph to make you feel lazy:

Smith, who is 28, decided to become an English-Korean translator when she completed her undergraduate degree at the age of 21, and saw the lack of translators in the field. She had not learned any foreign languages before, but moved to Korea to achieve her dream.

She went on to win the Man Booker International prize for translating Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian.

Hostile Workplace

May 23rd, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

Describing the Trump White House, the Washington Post comes up with a decent description of what life feels like when your workplace is stressfully, chaotically going down in flames:

For many White House staffers, impromptu support groups of friends, confidants and acquaintances have materialized, calling and texting to check in, inquiring about their mental state and urging them to take care of themselves.

This Republican added that any savvy White House staffer should be keeping a diary. “The real question is, how long do you put up with it?” this person said. “Every one of those people could get a better-paying job and work less hours.”

Graffiti of the ’70s

May 16th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

Unusually, here’s a Guardian article with comments worth reading. It’s about Graffiti, so the Guardianistas are out reminiscing about slogans of decades paste:

During Ronald Reagan’s early 80’s anti-Soviet Union sabre rattling era around corner from uni in two foot high lettering with brush in black on bright yellow building site hoarding: MUTATE NOW! AVOID POST BOMB RUSH

Northwick Park roundabout, 1970s – NICHOLAS PARSONS IS THE NEO-OPIATE OF THE PEOPLE. Done by students from Harrow CHE nearby (now Uni Westminster art school or something) around 1972. A suburban masterpiece, it was still there 15 years later, and the source of much local frustration to drivers having to explain what neo-opiate is to their curious kids in the back seat.

I AM THE SCHIZOID OCTOPUS MAN… Wilslow Rd. Manchester, most of the 1970s-4ft high, 50 ft long on a low brick wall in Rusholme.

ART IS A HAMMER, NOT A FUCKING MIRROR on wall opposite Liverpool Art College Foundation Course building, mid 70s.


ALL MEN ARE RAPISTS. DISARM RAPISTS. Coventry 1980 something. always made me shudder.


Classifying Accidents

January 25th, 2017 § 1 comment § permalink

American doctors need to be very careful to classify each treatment they give, to ensure they can claim payment from insurance companies. Looking at the list of possible treatments, though, makes you wonder if they are being slightly more specific than needed. For example:

  • X35XXXD Volcanic eruption, subsequent encounter
  • W5629XA Other contact with orca, initial encounter
  • W2202XA Walked into lamppost, initial encounter
  • X962XXA Assault by letter bomb, initial encounter
  • Z62891 Sibling rivalry
  • X05XXXA Exposure to ignition or melting of nightwear, initial encounter

[props to Hacker News for locating most of these]

Pitman, Esperanto, FLOSS

January 16th, 2017 § 0 comments § permalink

This LRB comment on the history of shorthand picks up on the slightly unnerving first wave of enthusiasm around Pitman’s shorthand. It appealed to the same kind of geeky idealists who in other generations would speak Esperanto or write open-source software: men who believed that the road to brotherly love was through mastery of a new, better means of communication:

You can still read every syllable from the first International Shorthand Congress and Jubilee of Phonography, thanks to transcripts produced by ‘an army of phonographers . . . not at all concerned with the economic rewards of shorthand, important as these are, but only with the service – personal, social – even professional – which one Pitmanite can render another in any part of the world.’ One delegate described shorthand as a ‘bond of brotherhood’. Like the open-source movement a century and a half later, Pitmanism was idealistic, distributed and male.

Vote Trepanation!

December 15th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

This must be one of the best election campaign posters of all time.

No, it wasn’t a joke. Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and March, trying in 1979 to become an MP, had at that point had a hole in her head for the best part of a decade.

In 1970 she drilled through her skull with a dentist’s drill. Then she wiped off the blood and went off to a fancy dress party.

Her husband Joey Mellon filmed the procedure — when they showed it at a film festival, they supposedly caused several audience members to faint.
Joey also had a hole in his head. He documented it all in his book Bore Hole
[customers who bought this also bought: Hieronymous Bosch; Hell’s Angels; The Psychopath Test]

More: Christopher Turner, in Cabinet Magazine

Dead languages on Genius

December 15th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

The street may find its own uses for things, but so does the academy.

RapGenius started as a way to comment on rap lyrics. The expansion to other song lyrics — accompanied by dropping ‘Rap’ from the name — was pretty obvious.

Less so is the appeal to the extreme highbrow. Perpetual super-student Chris Aldrich turned me on to the “off-label” uses in a glowing blog post. He mentions a Harvard MOOC on the early Christianity, which sent 20,000 students to Genius to comment on the letters of Paul the Apostle. There’s also a community busily glossing Latin texts. Want to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars? Bang.

Sanskrit is lagging — I was only able to find one item in the language, the Buddhist Heart Sutra. And that, sadly, is as yet unannotated.

Daniel Quinn vs Meditations on Moloch

December 13th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Paul, seeing my post on Howl, pointed me towards a (much) longer essay, Meditations on Moloch, which also takes its start from the poem.

It’s an impressive chain of thoughts by Scott Alexander, stretching from the start of agriculture through to superintelligence. Moloch is the name Alexander plucks from Ginsberg to describe all of them. Moloch is civilization, or the tragedy of the commons, or institutions that drive their members into mutual destruction:

A basic principle unites all of the multipolar traps above. In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out

All this reminds me strongly of Daniel Quinn, a writer you might place somewhere between primitivism, Deep Green environmentalism, or tribalism. Quinn is one of the writers I most treasure, someone who has reshaped much of how I see the world. But he’s not a natural fellow-traveller for Scott Alexander, whose background is in the hyper-rationalist technophile community around Less Wrong.

One of Quinn’s fundamental ideas is opposition to ‘civilization’. What Quinn calls civilization roughly corresponds to, or perhaps contains, Moloch. It’s the set of basic lifestyles and activities we live under — which are the ones that have outcompeted other cultures. This civilization is the outcome of a process of natural selection. It has won not by being better for people, but by being better at growing. Quinn takes this all the way back to when farming won out over hunter-gathering, despite the life of a farmer being much worse than that of a hunter.

Alexander traces the same process as Quinn, and then pushes it forward into the future. Humans become less useful to Moloch as technology progresses, meaning that there is less need for Moloch to make any allowance for their wishes:

the current rulers of the universe – call them what you want, Moloch, Gnon, Azathoth, whatever – want us dead, and with us everything we value. Art, science, love, philosophy, consciousness itself, the entire bundle. And since I’m not down with that plan, I think defeating them and taking their place is a pretty high priority.

Alexander’s way out of this is that we should rush to develop a friendly artficial intelligence that can outcompete Moloch on our behalf, reach a position of absolute universal power and use it to smack down other superintelligences that care less about humans.

I can’t say I find that prospect much more reassuring than Quinn’s nods towards neo-tribalism. I’d rather run with a tribe than be subjected to the benevolant dictatorship of an all-conquering machine of loving grace.

Why I love Howl

December 13th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is permanently associated for me with winter in Berlin.

It fixed itself there in the winter of 2009-10. I’d fallen in love, in a way that I’d not believed myself still capable of, and my emotions had burst open into areas I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager. It was also one of the coldest winters, and cold has always energised me. I’d go out the door in the morning, onto uncleared month-old snow, be jolted awake by the cold air, and only restrain myself from running with the knowledge that I’d slip over if I did.

Howl was the constant mental soundtrack when I was outside — as I paced through a park eating carrots on my lunch-break, or earned scathing looks for muttering to myself in the u-bahn. It was the perfect accompaniment for my manic, convoluted rush of half-forgotten emotions — extreme states and rootless poverty, bursts of arrogant passion just a whisker away from despair or self-destruction.

Since then, Howl has always been somewhere in my head. Especially at a time like now, when the cold loosens up my head and I can recover an echo of how it once felt. There’s a miniature revelation as the poem becomes physical rather than intellectual, as the ecstatic intensity briefly becomes comprehensible. I tap fingers, twirl pens; the body fidgets and the mind free-associates.

All this has happened again these past few days. It’s always half a surprise — no more, no less. There’s a strange interplay between my past and my present and Allen Ginsberg, and some point where Howl suddenly bursts into colour. So rather than dissect it I’ll just repeat some of the lines which — for no obvious reason — shine most brightly to me:

      who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in 
              Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their 
              torsos night after night 
       with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, al- 
              cohol and cock and endless balls, 
       incomparable blind; streets of shuddering cloud and 
              lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of 
              Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the mo- 
              tionless world of Time between, 
       Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery 
              dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, 
              storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon 
              blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree 
              vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brook- 
              lyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind, 

You can (should!) read the full poem here

The Unknown Citizen: WH Auden on the limits of data

December 11th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

As the best and the brightest pour their brilliance into chasing our data-trails, WH Auden’s take still feels fully applicable:

The Unknown Citizen

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Link dump

December 2nd, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

  • Dystopian investment fiction: what nightmares is Vanguard leading us into? [for those not subjected to financial news: people are increasingly giving up on sharp-suited stock-pickers, and instead just buying a bit of everything. This has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth among said sharp-suited stock-pickers, many of whom are about to lose their meal ticket]
  • A browser game relying on knowlege of vim, the cryptic text editor with a hardcore cult following among programmers
  • Of many articles I’ve read about Leonard Cohen, this one gets closest to my feeligs about him
  • And in processed sugar, Buzzfeed collects some actually-funny tweets.

Faith and Terror

November 14th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Last week I finally grokked a little of what performance art can do, having been left cold by most of my previous encounters with it. I’d gone to the Faith and Terror festival almost by accident, and was pleasantly surprised by how much it touched me.

On the Faith side of things, Sara Zaltash spent perhaps an hour repeating a modified call to prayer. Modified partly in being sung by a woman, but also by entirely removing Mohammed. Is this a personal preference, an attempt at non-sectarian prayer, or part of some tradition I don’t know of? Zaltash’s multilingual translation and commentary doesn’t explicitly explain.

At first her fervour and the beauty of her voice held the room rapt. Then as time passed people mentally disengaged, fidgeted, left the room. At first, I counted it as the unfortunate side-effect of a long performance after a long evening after a long festival.

But then: repetition to the point of irritation is one of the basic, near-essential, building blocks of religion. When I lived in Bosnia the call to prayer was a soothing piece of background, semi-consciously absorbed through its identical presence every day. In my time at a Christian school I was constantly frustrated by the repetitive pattern of hymn and prayer. Yet, like it or not, the prayers are permanently burned into my brain. Repetition works. More than that: it’s obvious from inside any religion, but rarely experienced from the outside. So it’s a perfect thing to bring to a festival about faith.

As for terror: Openspace Performunion gave us a quasi-military march around the theme Every Flag is a Border, and Borders Kill.

It could have been menacing, but wasn’t — and in its way, the lack of menace was more unsettling. We see the soldiers stop for a smoking break — regulated, but gentle. We see them strip and dress and carefully paint each other’s faces. We see them each briefly break away from the group — always alone, as though if two got away together they might never come back. Unnervingly, it’s a platoon you could imagine wanting to join.

The flags are another matter. White they may be, but certainly ont peaceful. They mutate from flag to weapon to phallus to baton to fence and back to flag, but never stop being the enemy of the piece.

With Ritournelle, Anais Héraud and Till Baumann managed to nudge me from peace to nightmare and back again. Sheets of paper flutter through the air, telling us to inhale and exhale. In the back a plastic pole circles horizontally on what looks like a modified record player, while a metronome ticks in the front. Ticking, circling, breathing — the three rhythms don’t align, but they lull me into a meditative peace. Then, slowly, the logic becomes darker, Héraud loses herself in the repetition of a phrase, pulling other words out of it as anagrams. It’s not quite terror, but it does have something of the inescapable self-reference of a dream.

Why did I like all this so much? Partly through encountering it after a while without seeing any performance art, so that even the clichés seemed fresh.

Mostly, though, because of the relationship between the artists and the audience. This was a small and close-knit group, many performers themselves. They skipped past the two usual, frustrating reactions to contemporary art — either unthinking dismissal, or blind acceptance of anything the artist presents. Instead there was healthy, informed criticism, which seemed to get us a lot closer to understanding and communication.

European languages still dominate online

November 13th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Which language is used more online, Italian or Chinese? According to this survey, Italian is present on 2.2% of websites, vs. ‘Chinese’ on 2.0%.

The overall pattern is so surprisingly old-world that I’m not sure whether to believe it. The top languages, and the percentage of websites they are found on, are:

  • English: 52.7%
  • Russian: 6.4%
  • Japanese: 5.6%
  • German: 5.5%
  • French: 4.0%

Chinese comes in at 9%, while Hindi (at <0.1%) is less popular online than Serbian or Estonian.

The Island of Doctor Thiel

October 10th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Peter Thiel and friends are supposedly planning a seasteading project off French polynesia.

This idea, I suspect, will never die among a certain libertarian geek contingent, especially those with a national ideology of the frontier and the new world. Besides, you can trace it back to both Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, which is the cyberpunk equivalent of finding it scribbled down by Da Vinci. So what if prior experiments (Sealand) have down in entertaining flames, all the more reason to keep trying.

But the techno-utopians seem to miss another model for settlement: the company town. This despite its starring role in Snow Crash (‘burbclaves’), and the trend for the stacks’ “campuses” to become deliberately enclosed ecoonmies.

You want to create a tech-friendly community far from goverment interference? A place where the wild fiber flows, and the streets are paved with Pokemon? Why not take over an old mining town? The company shop and the semi-benevolent paternalism would be entirely familiar to googlers and the like. The churches could be repurposed for TED talks and yoga classes, and there must be a few sysadmins ready to embrace a troglodyte existence in the mine shafts.

Mainly, you get to keep your workers isolated and inward-looking, dependent on their work psychologically as well as financially.

What do you think? Can we propose this to some south Welsh community? Or maybe even to Centralia — just cosider living on a fume-billowing hellmouth to be a feature, not a bug

A few spare links

September 20th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Some more quick links:

Brett Scott points out that ‘Cashless society’ is a euphemism for the “ask-your-banks-for-permission-to-pay society”.

The millennial whoop, the wah-oh-wah-oh sound that has become ubiquitous in the charts. If TV Tropes had a music section, this would take pride of place.

Rhizomatica: a project to build community cellphone infrastructure in places where commercial providers fear to tread.

Dataset: databases for lazy people

September 3rd, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

Friedrich is getting some much-deserved Reddit love for Dataset, his python library providing “databases for lazy people“. The idea is to allow you to build an SQL table from Python, with columns being auto-created as needed. It gives you all the power of SQL for free, without having to think about your data until you’ve got it in place.

It’s one of my favourite tools in the under-appreciated world of “small data”. I use it for exploratory data analysis, small scripts, and proof-of-concept applications. Most of the time I’m dealing with no more than a few million records, so I don’t need to think about optimizations. But I like the power and simplicity of SQL, and I’d much rather have my data in postgres than mongodb. Not least because I know that if I ever need to improve performance, I can easily add a few indexes and change some column types, and I’ll near-immediately be at a decently-performing database for most applications.



Chairs and Opium

September 2nd, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

An essay on the history of the chair finds devices on the borderline between deportment and torture:

During the nineteenth century, when primary education became obligatory and children spent more and more time sitting in the classroom, researchers proposed a variety of chair-desk combinations intended to improve posture. Some of the designs included seat belts, forehead restraints, and face rests, although it is hard to imagine that such Draconian devices were ever actually used.

And possibly the most hipster form of addiction: getting hooked on opium as a side-effect of collecting antique opium pipes:

I had this bright idea—bright at the time, I thought. I said to him, “Well, you’ve got this high-quality opium for smoking, the type that isn’t even being produced anymore. You’re the only one that’s got it, and I’ve got all this great, old paraphernalia, some of it in pristine condition.” So I asked him if he’d be interested in combining the two.

Situationism, and why I like it

September 1st, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

I had a conversation earlier about Situationism earlier. I tried and failed to explain why Situationist ideas still get me high. They weren’t unique in theorizing a post-scarcity society. That was common at the end of the Trente Glorieuses. It seemed that the economy was on an ever-upward trajectory, and we hadn’t yet reached the society-wide application of Parkinson’s law, as increasingly obscure work expanded to fill the labour power available.

It’s the situationists, though, who will always stand out for me in their fervid, semi-coherent optimism. Also because their ideas resemble those bubbling through the collective unconscious of the most delightfully fun communities I’ve encountered.

So at the risk  of posting Yet.Another.Manifesto, here’s a call to creativity:

Against the spectacle, the realized situationist culture introduces total participation.

Against preserved art, it is the organization of the directly lived moment.

Against unilateral art, situationist culture will be an art of dialogue, an art of interaction.

At a higher stage, everyone will become an artist, i.e., inseparably a producer-consumer of total culture creation, which will help the rapid dissolution of the linear criteria of novelty. Everyone will be a situationist so to speak, with a multidimensional inflation of tendencies, experiences, or radically different “schools” — not successively, but simultaneously.


If anybody is groping towards a manifesto for their life, you could do much worse that dedicating  yourself towards becoming a total participant in the organization of the directly lived moment




The nerdiest burglar

August 24th, 2016 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m reading with delight Geoff Manaugh‘s Burglar’s Guide to the City.

It’s a trek through urban design and crime, based on the conceit of burglary as a form of architectural criticism. So you have criminals like “Roofman”, who broke through the identical roofs of identical McDonalds franchises, relying on their identical layouts and shift patterns to empty the cash registers and go. Or George Leonidas Leslie, the 19th-century architect turned criminal mastermind — who would build replicas of bank vaults, then train his team to rob them against a stopwatch.

Or my favourite: the gloriously nerdy Jack Dakswin, champion of the fire code:

A retired burglar based in Toronto, Dakswin amazed me with tales of his extensive, homeschooled expertise in the city’s fire code, explaining how the city’s own regulations can be read from the outside-in by astute burglars, turning Toronto’s fire code into a kind of targeting system. Simply by looking at the regulated placement of fire escapes on the sides of residential high-rises, Dakswin could deduce which floors had fewer apartments (fewer would mean larger, more expensive apartments, more likely to be filled with luxury goods) and even where, on each floor, you might expect to find elevator shafts and apartment entrances. He could thus build up a surprisingly accurate mental map of a building’s interior simply by looking at its fire escapes, a virtuoso act of anticipatory architectural interpretation that most architects today would be hard-pressed to replicate.