Machines

June 28th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

Alex has an uncanny ability to find things that grab my emotions. Most recently, this poem, about which I can’t say anything other than that I love it:

Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsichord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

The machinery of grace is always simple.
This chrome trapezoid, one wheel connected
To another of concentric gears,
Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,
Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle, steers.
And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.

So this talk, or touch if I were there,
Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,
Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.

If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove

Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.

Michael Donaghy

Nevada, Imogen Binnie (book review)

June 25th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Nevada is a novel that’s psychological in a delightfully straightforward way. No need to reconstruct a character’s psyche from meaningful silences and Freudian cliches. Just swoop in with first-person brain-dumps, stream of consciousness that has been tidied up and wrangled into coherent paragraphs.

This does require fairly introspective characters, but we are in a world where oblivious stoicism would be bafflingly strange. Maria, our protagonist, is self-aware to a fault. She’s a web-nerdy, book-nerdy transwoman, a transplant to New York from nowhereville. Working a deadening bookstore job, not quite able to leave a girlfriend she doesn’t love, twitching for something to shake up her bad-but-bearable life. The secondary characters — the girlfriend, the buddy, the ingenue — are drawn slightly less convincingly than Maria, but still highly self-aware.

Reading Nevada feels like reading Livejournal, and I mean that in an entirely positive way. It’s somebody showing you their head in the most straightforward way possible, within a lightweight road-trip framework that’s only really there to keep the self-analysis trudging along.

Other reviews: one, two, three. Author’s website

How to make a Parisian intellectual stop talking

June 22nd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, a tour of the twitter-fuelled renaissance in public shamings by a self-righteous mob.

Along the way there are, as you’d expect from Ronson, some wonderfully bizarre historical excursions. One looks at Gustave le Bon, grandfather of the study of “crowd psychology”. Le Bon was a wannabe intellectul in late 19th-century France who, after his previous works were deemed too racist and sexist by the Parisian elite (!), finally made his name with a diatribe about the madness of crowds. Then success got to his head…

The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind was, on publication, a runaway success. It was translated into twenty-six languages and gave Le Bon what he’d always wanted – a place at the heart of Parisian society, a place he immediately abused in a weird way. He hosted a series of lunches – Les Dejeuners de Gustave Le Bon – for politicians and prominent society people. He’d sit at the head of the table with a bell by his side. If one of his guests said something he disagreed with he’d pick up the bell and ring it relentlessly until the person stopped talking.

There’s something horrifyingly believable about this. You’ve finally made your way into the elite, and the immortals are begging to join you for dinner. What a power trip to be lord and master of the entire assembly, free to silence anyone who displeases you.

[there’s more here, in the unlikely event of anyone wanting to delve into the sordid history]

The Talented Mr. Ripley, Snail Smuggler

June 21st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

…or if not Mr. Ripley himself, at least his creator.

Patricia Highsmith, creator of fictional con-man The Talented Mr. Ripley, preferred animals to people. In particular she loved snails.

This caused her problems when she moved to France. Aside from the coals to Newcastle aspect, snail trafficking was illegal. This is what dragged the crime author into sins worthy of her characters:

When she later moved to France, Highsmith had to get around the prohibition against bringing live snails into the country. So she smuggled them in, making multiple trips across the border with six to ten of the creatures hidden under each breast

[from Mason Currey, Daily Rituals]

Camelot’s sneakiness

June 20th, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

State-promoted gambling is a grim idea at the best of times. But the UK national lottery is scraping the barrel of dishonest promotion.

They’ve just announced some changes. Take a look at that page and see if you can work out what’s going on.

The important bit is in the smaller print, under “Other Changes”:

More numbers to choose from

You will now be able to choose 6 numbers from a total of 59 rather than 49.

Yep, that’s their way of saying “we’ve just dramatically reduced your chances of picking the winning numbers“. Each ticket now has a 1 in 45 million chance at the jackpot, rather than the oh-so-reasonable 1 in 14 million chance beforehand.

They’ve tried to muddy the waters by adding a free ticket prize tier, so they can offer “a better chance of winning a prize“.

All in all, it just makes lotto look like an even more underhanded way to con people out of their money.

June 17th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

In the early 80s, some 35% of Computer Science students in the US were women. Today, that figure is under 20%.

This graph, from NPR’s Planet Money, shows the turning point when women, when gender equality in computer science programmes stopped improving and took a nosedive.

Until the mid-80s, female students had been forming an ever-increasing percentage of CS classes, as in other disciplines. For a while, CS was less male-dominated than medicine or the hard sciences.

Then computers entered the home, and around it grew a male-dominated geek culture, along with an attitude that computers were toys for boys:

In the 1990s, researcher Jane Margolis interviewed hundreds of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, which had one of the top programs in the country. She found that families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls — even when their girls were really interested in computers.

Strange Coin Denominations

June 15th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Belgium has been getting attention for its snub to France, in the form of a €2.5 coin commemorating the battle of Waterloo.

Belgium 2.5 Euro Coin

It’s a brilliantly snarky piece of coinage. But there are plenty of other odd denomination coins floating around. Portugal already has several €2.50 pieces, though they stick to fairly harmless topics like football.

Then there’s Jersey. The island had previously layered its own oddness on top of the already baroque British currency system, leading to coins worth one thirteenth of a shilling.

Then came decimalisation — the introduction of some form of sanity into the British currency. Out went shillings, but Jersey managed to keep a little strangeness. The Queen’s silver wedding anniversary fell in 1972, giving Jersey an excuse to mint a commemorative coin. A commemorative £2.50 coin. Then, obviously fearing things were still too straightforward, they stuck a crab on the back. Go Jersey!

A final shout-out, though, goes to Argentina, for its utterly baffling 36 centavo note:

Argentina

Some entirely unsurprising tech-world sexism

June 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

A while back, The Toast published a list of sexist comments aimed inflcited on women working in technology. What I find really sad is how utterly unsurprising this is. If anything, I would have expected it to be even worse:

“How did you learn to do all this?!” The ancient Spider-Goddess Llorothaag came to me in a harrowing blood-soaked vision. In exchange for perpetual servitude as her handmaiden, she imparted knowledge of IP subnetting.

“It’s not ‘P.C.’ to say this, but…” Thank you for this helpful preface alerting me to the fact that I can spend the next thirty seconds fantasizing about Star Trek without missing anything important.

“It’s got to be a girlfriend-proof system.” I picture an unruly mob of murderous girlfriends descending upon your Brooklyn apartment, seeking to sate their dark desire for living flesh. They scream and gibber as they prepare to devour all that lies within. You block the door with your home theater system. Thank god: it is girlfriend-proof.

“No, when I complain about ‘geek girls,’ I don’t mean you. You’re a real geek.” All attend! The Arbiter is speaking. In his wisdom, he can tell who is a real geek and who is fake, and especially who is a bitch.

“But—you’re way too nice to be a lesbian!” If the other lesbians that you’ve met have seemed like they were being assholes to you, I might have a theory as to why.

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