Book Review: The Boss, by Abigail Barnett. 50 Shades with less abuse, more fun

February 23rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

We all understand the reasons to hate 50 shades of grey, right? It idolizes a relationship that is abusive to a mind-blowing extent, both physically and emotionally, and does so under cover of BDSM. The fact that Christian Grey’s behaviour can be seen as socially acceptable, even romantic, deeply unsettles both the kinkster and the feminist in me.

Many people have said the same, more eloquently, and at greater length. My favourite is by Cliff of Pervocracy, whose on-blog readthrough began with humour, but turned into sheer horror as she realised the depth of abuse in 50 shades.

Abigail Barnett has taken a different tack. Her novel The Boss is, among other things, a riposte to the nightmare that is 50 shades. She has taken the same setup: a young woman starts a kinky relationship with an older man, powerful and unimaginably rich. But in Barnett’s hands this is a sane, consensual relationship. They talk. They negotiate. They deal with the power imbalance in their lives, with their commitments to other people, with their plans for the future. And — anathema to EL James — they actually enjoy each other’s company, joking and chatting and generally having fun. It’s a rare romance — let alone a kinky romance — that you can read without constantly running up against misogynist assumptions. The Boss manages it, though, and it’s a joy to sink into comfort reading without the constant need to mentally rewrite the rapey bits.

Ian Bicking leaves python

February 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

One of the big beasts of Python has left the building. Ian Bicking created pip (an installer), virtualenv (an environment manager) and WebOb (an HTTP library at the core of Pyramid and several other web frameworks). Besides that, he’s been a major community presence. I, like many others, have long looked to his code as an example of solid principles combined with a focus on getting stuff built.

But now he has announced something that has been coming for a while: he has moved away from python, and will be focusing on Javascript from now on.

The announcement is full of the kind of incidental insight you would expect from Ian. Some of it is about personal process — and this is a pattern I can certainly identify with:

Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly excited about an idea, like really excited, I have to take a break. I need to calm down. Try to wrap my head around the ideas, because I know if I push forward directly that I’ll just muddle things up and feel disappointed. No, I don’t know that is true: maybe I don’t want to have to confront, in that moment, that the idea is not as cool as I think it is, or as possible as I think it is. But often I do step back into the problem, with ideas that are more mature for having thought more deeply about them.

He also talks about the development of libraries, from avant-garde to mainstream. You start with a groundbreaking idea. Nobody quite understands it, even the creator, so the thing ends up not quite working. It is only when another developer builds a second generation that the idea can bloom and reach wide acceptance. So pip was the second generation for easy_install and eggs, which, and SQLObject laid the ground for SQLAlchemy:

SQLObject explored a lot of metaprogramming concepts that were quite novel in the Python world at that time. At the same time maintaining it felt like a terrible burden. It took me far too long to resolve that, and only once interest had died down (in no small part due to my lack of attention) did I hand it over to Oleg who has been a far more steady hand. This would be a pattern I would unfortunately repeat. But if SQLObject helped the next generation be better that’s good enough for me.

Bicking is now at Mozilla, working with Javascript. He’s building togetherjs, a real-time collaboration library that’s one of the most exciting things happening at Mozilla. I know I’m itching for a chance to try it out, and my faith in the library is doubled by the knowledge that Ian Bicking’s wisdom is going into it.

Book Review: Redshirts (John Scalzi)

February 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Scalzi’s Star Trek spoof is a superficial romp, but a very enjoyable one. The crew of the starship Intrepid have come to realise that something is seriously wrong on their vessel. Crew assigned to expeditions alongside senior officers are liable to die in unexpected ways, while the Captain manages some risky and implausible escape. Officer Kerensky is hideously injured every other week, only to find himself fully recovered a few days later. On-ship technicians rely on a device called “The Box”, miraculously able to almost-solve a problem in the nick of time, but always requiring some obscure detail to be put right by the Intrepid‘s chief scientist. Officers have a tendency to speak rousing monologues while staring into the middle distance, and suffer strange compulsions to indulge in stupid — but dramatic — behaviour.

Rumours and wild theories abound on board, and everybody has some plan to make somebody else serve as the captain’s expendable sidekick. But a few raw recruits have the smarts to go further, and delve into the mystery of what is really happening on the Intrepid.

It’s a pitch-perfect take on the Space Opera. It’s entertaining enough even for a reader like me, who is far from steeped in the genre. The plot is fairly predictable, but that doesn’t stop the journey being great fun, and it’s short enough that you don’t mind.

60 million children left behind

February 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

A fifth of Chinese children — that’s 60 million kids — are living in villages, while their parents are in the city. According to the Washington Post:

the city workers are so squeezed by high costs and long hours that many send their children to live with elderly relatives in the countryside.

The BBC claims these children are disproportionately victims of sexual abuse:

School children in rural areas are particularly vulnerable if their parents happen to be migrant workers who spend a long time working away from home. They often don’t get to visit regularly and the children are left to be looked after by relatives, such as grandparents.

Release the Bats!

February 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The US once tried to firebomb Japan with bats. The surreal plan was the brainchild of an American dentist, who had enough sway on Eleanor Roosevelt to get his plan trialled by the US.

The bat-bomb would explode mid-air. It would scatter dozens of bats, each individually packed, and tied to a small incendiary charge on a timer. The idea was that the bats would scatter to roost in the wooden rafters of Japanese buildings. After a while the charge would alight itself, and the building would burn down — bat and all.

The concept, which gloried in the name of Project X-Ray, was abandoned after some test bats got loose and burned down an Air Force hangar.

More: Wikipedia, The Atlantic, American Psychological Association

Pakistan and Kautilya

February 12th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m currently reading Ahmed Rashid’s Pakistan on the Brink, a depressing political survey of the last few years of the country’s history. It’s grim how much of Pakistan government policy is determined by a very crude geopolitical version of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

The Pakistan army’s main concern is India. A strong, independent Afghanistan would be a potential ally for India, allowing Pakistan to be attacked from two sides. So Afghanistan should be kept as a subservient hinterland, unthreatening and potentially even providing space (“strategic depth”) for the Pakistani army. And that weak government should be Pashtun, like the powers-that-be in Pakistan, even if it means preferring the Taliban over the Northern Alliance.

Everything is abstract, geographical, military, with a dash of ethnic favoritism. There’s absolutely no idea that people might be defined by more than tribe and location.

It all reminds me a bit of the Arthashastra, the book in which Kautilya (“India’s Machiavelli”) laid down the rules of statecraft around 300BC. Kautilya looks at international relations geographically; location is what matters:

The king who is situated anywhere immediately on the circumference of the conqueror’s territory is termed the enemy.
The king who is likewise situated close to the enemy, but separated from the conqueror only by the enemy, is termed the friend (of the conqueror).

That pretty much sums up Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. Kautily then spins off into one of those overly systematic arrangements so common in Sanskrit texts:

In front of the conqueror and close to his enemy, there happen to be situated kings such as the conqueror’s friend, next to him, the enemy’s friend, and next to the last, the conqueror’s friend’s friend, and next, the enemy’s friend’s friend.

In the rear of the conqueror, there happen to be situated a rearward enemy (párshnigráha), a rearward friend (ákranda), an ally of the rearward enemy (párshnigráhásárá), and an ally of the rearward friend (ákrandására)

By the time he’s finished we have “four primary Circles of States, twelve kings, sixty elements of sovereignty, and seventy-two elements of states”. Phew! But sometimes it seems there is more nuance and insight in Kautilya than among his epigones in the Pakistan Army.

Building for the web checklist

January 31st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Here is a good checklist of what to think about when designing for the web. Some highlights:

  • Assume that people won’t read the instructions.
  • Redundancy is a useful design technique. Labels+icons, color+width, etc.
  • Use loading indicators for XHR requests, even if they’re likely to be very fast. You never know how slow or broken it might be for a user. They should know if something is missing.
  • Don’t give someone 20 equally interesting things to do right off the bat. Give them a more focused presentation upfront before turning them loose.
  • Get live data into your visualization early. If you can’t, use historical data or something else a little bit representative. Visualizing random test data will lead you astray.
  • Clean and transform your raw data stepwise. Make it a repeatable process. Use Makefiles or shell scripts if you can.
  • Assume your page will be one of user’s dozen open tabs. Use short, descriptive page titles and a favicon.
  • Have a recovery plan, and test it.

France is distrustful, suspicious and xenophobic (IPSOS poll)

January 30th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

France, according to an IPSOS poll, is not in a good mood:

  • 73% lack confidence in the Senate, 72% in the National Assembly, 77% in the media
  • 63% think Islam is incompatible with the values of French society
  • 66% think there are too many foreigners in France

The only institutions which are trusted are the Army (79%) and the Police (73%)

[via Art Goldhammer]

The end of the 60s dream

January 29th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Within the US counterculture, the comedown from the 60s high was debilitating. Sheila quotes the teenage Lester Bangs in 1968, coming to terms with the shootings of Warhol and Robert Kennedy:

America, which is essentially our universe, is having earthquake-sized convulsions, choking, spitting up blood, reeling dizzily into some crumpling limp falldown of terminal disease, weaving back and forth on its knees moaning and clutching itself tightly in one wounded area after another, raving like a wood-grain-alcoholic crashing in the Bowery on his Last Go-Round, and I don’t have any answers, or even very many opinions right now

It’s a beautiful speed-freak preview of the despair which would, over the next 4 years, overcome much of the counterculture. I’ve mentioned it before in the context of Hunter S Thompson. His best writing is shot through with bewilderment and disappointed hope, all sublimated into rage and excess.

We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. Uppers are going out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “con sciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meathook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously

If Hunter and Lester’s intensity is unusual, the pattern of gloom is pretty evident.

Much of the world is in a similar position now. The difference is that we’re not coming down from a quick hippie high, but slogging through many years of featureless gloom. Here’s how Bruce Sterling opened his annual State of the World comment thread:

An extraordinary atmosphere of sullen, baffled evil, as the year opens. I don’t know what to compare 2014 to — except for many other glum post-revolutionary situations, when the zealots succeeded in toppling the status quo, then failed to install a just and decent form of civil order. The world in 2014 is like a globalized Twitter Egypt.

As Bruce suggests, the same gloom is present in the Middle East. Still, it was expected — every Arab activist I heard from in 2011 realised the “Arab Spring” was just the beginning of a long struggle with many setbacks. It was only the Europeans and North Americans who looked at the first wave of change and thought Mission Accomplished. Still, there’s plenty of gloom here: Europe, North America, the Middle East are all having a rough time, while the Balkans remains in its perennial stew of unhappiness.

Changing views on marijuana

January 28th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Despite the growing push for legalization of marijuana in the US, I had never realised the speed at which public opinion had changed. This graphy from the Pew Center is striking:

In 1969, 12% of the population supported legalization. By 1991 it was only 17%. But from the early 90s attitudes softened massively, until by this year 52% of Americans wanted marijuana legal.

I have no idea what changed in the 90s, and Pew don’t give many hints. I’d be intrigued to find out, though, and also to see whether attitudes in Europe have changed along similar lines.

Tory Britain, you make me despair

January 27th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Stories like this make it seem that the UK has flipped 150 years back through a time warp.

A pregnant woman isn’t paid the benefits she is entitled to. Desperate, she steals food worth £13.94. She is caught, and sentenced to 10 months in jail.

The jail she is sent to is privately-run. There she suffered a miscarriage, at which point she says the foetus was left with her afterwards and that she had to clean up the blood

Her barrister, Philip Gibbs, told Leicester Crown Court: “There was blood everywhere and she was made to clean it up.

“The baby was not removed from the cell. It was quite appalling. It was very traumatic. She only received health care three days later, after the governor intervened.”

How many American men get arrested

January 26th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Wow. The headline news from this survey is that 49% of black American men have been arrested by age 23. I’m also pretty shocked by the figures for other groups:

By the time they reached 23 years old, 49 percent of black males, 44 percent of Hispanic males, and 38 percent of white males had been arrested for something other than a minor traffic violation.

Africa without Colonization

January 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

 

What would Africa look like if it had not been colonized? This maps attempts to show African political units around 1840.

alkebu-lan-1260

Rachel Strohm speculates how this might have developed, in the absence of European intervention:

The most densely populated areas in west and central Africa might have grown into something approaching Westphalian sovereignty, controlling clearly defined territories (as per Jeffrey Herbst’s thesis on state formation in States and Power in Africa). Coastal and riverine areas may have done well off of trade, encouraging the development of stronger local authorities. Places rich in natural resources would have had to fend off various external claimants to their territories, if not from Europe (or India) then perhaps from neighboring kingdoms, and might have developed into stronger states if successful or faced the imposition of external institutions if not.

Babek Zanjani

January 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

While oil-for-gold allegations are convulsing Turkey, there seems to be a counterpart on the other side of the border

Reports from Iran indicate that it has initiated a campaign to reign in its profiteering PEPs [Politically Exposed Persons]. Arrested this week was billionaire Babak Zanjani, for “financial crimes.” Zanjani, who engineered the sale of Iranian oil in global markets, notwithstanding international sanctions, is accused of failing to pay the government $1.9bn, that it is owed on the transactions. He alleges that international sanctions, in place against the Central Bank, and government-owned financial institutions, have prevented him from remitting payment.

RFE/RL gives some background:

Zanjani, who mainly resides in Dubai and Turkey, has insisted in the past he is not involved in politics, saying, “I just do business.” However, in December last year the European Union named Zanjani “a key facilitator for Iranian oil deals and transferring oil-related money.”

In April, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on Zanjani, along with several companies, accusing them of trying to evade the sanctions by moving billions of dollars on behalf of the government in Tehran.

I’m not sure how this many-pronged international scandal is going to develop, but I’m sure it will be fun to watch.

Be mutual. Be loud. Be clumsy

January 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

When sex becomes a production or performance that is when it loses its value. Be mutual. Be loud. Be clumsy. Make noises, be quiet, and make a mess. Bite, scratch, push, pull, hold, thrust. Remove pressure from the moment. Love the moment. Embrace it. Enjoy your body; enjoy your partners’ body. Produce sweat, be natural, entice your senses, give into pleasure. Bump heads, miss when you kiss, laugh when it happens. Speak words, speak with your body, speak to their soul. Touch their skin, kiss their goose bumps, and play with their hair. Scream, beg, whimper, sigh, let your toes curl, lose yourself. Chase your breath; keep the lights on, watch their eyes when they explode. Forget worrying about extra skin, sizes of parts and things that are meaningless. Save the expectations, take each second as it comes. Smear your make up, mess up your hair, rid your masculinity, and lose your ego. Detonate together, collapse together, and melt into each other.

— taken from tumblr

What divorce means

January 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Something I never imagined could end up in court. A woman sues her lawyers because they didn’t tell her that getting a divorce would end her marriage:

Much the most striking of Mrs. Mulcahy’s many allegations of negligence against her solicitors was that, having regard to her Roman Catholic faith, Mrs. Boots had failed to give her the advice which was requisite in view of her firmly held belief in the sanctity of marriage, either in terms of the alternative of judicial separation, or about the impossibility of pursuing divorce proceedings to a clean break settlement, without thereby inevitably bringing about the final termination of her marriage, which she wished to avoid.

Survey of muslim views on appropriate dress

January 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Here’s a survey across 7 muslim-majority countries, asking what form of dress is most appropriate for women in public:

mideast_values

More here. The ultimate source is apparently the Middle Eastern Values Study at the University of Michegan, but I’ve not been able to track down fuller details. I’d love to see breakdowns by gender and age, and changes over time.

A domestic dispute over space aliens

January 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Somebody had fun writing this news report about Cormac McCarthy’s ex-wife:

A domestic dispute over space aliens escalated Saturday morning when a lingerie-clad New Mexico woman allegedly pointed a silver handgun at her boyfriend, a weapon she retrieved from her vagina, where it had been placed while the accused was performing a sex act, police allege.

While using the gat as a sex toy, McCarthy reportedly asked her boyfriend, “Who is crazy, you or me?” The probable cause statement, drafted by Deputy Chris Zook, does not indicate whether McCarthy’s boyfriend dared to answer that query.

If nothing else, the story makes this customs report from Jordan more understandable:

Jordan Customs Department (JCD) staff in Aqaba on Wednesday foiled an attempt to smuggle 69,000 pills of Viagra sexual enhancement, as well as 18,984 toy pistols.

Cory Doctorow: 2014 is the year we lose the Web

January 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Cory Doctorow is as pessimistic as can be about the web in 2014. He thinks a netflix-driven drive from DRM is going to turn most HTML5 interfaces unseeable and unmodifiable:

Try as I might, I can’t shake the feeling that 2014 is the year we lose the Web. The W3C push for DRM in all browsers is going to ensure that all interfaces built in HTML5 (which will be pretty much everything) will be opaque to users, and it will be illegal to report on security flaws in them (because reporting a security flaw in DRM exposes you to risk of prosecution for making a circumvention device), so they will be riddled with holes that creeps, RATters, spooks, authoritarians and crooks will be able to use to take over your computer and fuck you in every possible way.

As near as I can work out, there’s no one poised to do anything about this. Google, Apple and Microsoft have all built proprietary DRM silos that backed the WC3 into accepting standardization work on DRM

Ecology for Hackers

January 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

My friend Sam is a remarkable hacker-activist, and one of the most aware people I have encountered. He listens deeply to the people around him, and opens himself to the spirit as well as the practicalities of what they are creating. Schooled first by electrical engineering and then by the occupy movement, he has now entwined those threads by developing into a nomadic technical contributer to all kinds of projects.

Thus I’m watching with interest his growing interest in permaculture, Open Source Ecology and related ideas.

Until now, I hadn’t paid much attention to these ideas. I’m temperamentally unsuited to living in a farming commune. Most discussion of permaculture seemed to come from people with a very different makeup to me: enraptured by the natural world, seeking a life of quiet stability in a small community.

So Sam’s approach caught my attention, if only for the superficial reason that he makes farming into slightly less of an impossible lifestyle choice:

You…start to tend the land by using natural processes to get the land to become ‘regenerated’ and then a productive living system gradually over your lifetime and transformed from dead soil or useless land into living soil and a forest garden in which you have planted trees that take 15 or 20 years to grow and can then sustain / feed you

All the while you continue on with your normal life elsewhere in the city or travelling or whatever… but through well timed purposeful, organised planting, sowing, watching and community building it can yield food and fuel. Then your land has more value over time and you then kind of inherit it later in your own life as a living system that will support you and others with fuel and food….

The way I would see it, I would attend the site at various points during my life to gently shape and guide the process but, for the most part, nature would take its course and the land and the system that would be developing there would be largely auto-catalytic and autonomous.

The full post is well worth reading. It steps much further back, linking agriculture to design and to some of the ideas of Buckminster Fuller:

I started to think about how I could use design to change the environment around me in such a way that would extend my internal functions and reorganise my environment so that it would work for me… so that it would, in the fullness of time, support me… as I think of my own future, I would like to eventually create a living system, by which I probably mean a forest garden, which I had designed after much studying and having made the tools to make the tools to make the tools.