Hot Pod

May 14th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Quick plug for Nick Quah’s Hot Pod, an excellent newsletter on podcasts. It has an acknowledged bias towards emotionally-driven, story-based non-fiction podcasts — the archipelago that has formed around This American Life, Radiolab and the like. But even though that’s not really my thing, I’ve found a number of interesting podcasts through it.

Two Medieval Monks Invent Bestiaries

May 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I hope by now we all accept that Mallory Ortberg is the funniest person on the internet. Or at the very least, the funniest writer whose schtick involves heavy doses of art history.

Latest case in point: Two Medieval Monks Invent Bestiaries:

MONK #1: do birds have meetings
MONK #2: absolutely
they have a Meeting Hat and everything
MONK #1: what do they have meetings about
MONK #2: mostly who gets to wear the meeting hat

The Doors of Perception

May 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

On this day in 1953, Aldous Huxley opened the Doors of Perception. By taking mescaline he loosened the perceptual filters that separated him from the world around him, an experience he recorded on one of the most precise and inspiring descriptions of the hallucinogenic experience:

I took my pill at eleven. An hour and a half later, I was sitting in my study, looking intently at a small glass vase. The vase contained only three flowers….At breakfast that morning I had been struck by the lively dissonance of its colors. But that was no longer the point. I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement. I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation-the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.

Huxley was one of the most intellectual and serious of the mid-century psychonauts. He combined the erudite sensibility of the Bloomsbury Set with a long interest in comparative religion and the nature of mysticism.

Ken Kesey saw acid as a tool to build the counterculture. Hunter S Thompson treated it as fuel for the determined hedonist. But Huxley is a child of the Enlightenment, drawn to reason even in the search for creativity and spirituality:

We must learn how to handle words effectively; but at the same time we must preserve and, if necessary, intensify our ability to look at the world directly and not through that half opaque medium of concepts, which distorts every given fact into the all too familiar likeness of some generic label or explanatory abstraction.

Literary or scientific, liberal or specialist, all our education is predominantly verbal and therefore fails to accomplish what it is supposed to do. Instead of transforming children into fully developed adults, it turns out students of the natural sciences who are completely unaware of Nature as the primary fact of experience, it inflicts upon the world students of the humanities who know nothing of humanity, their own or anyone else’s.


How many philosophers, how many theologians, how many professional educators have had the curiosity to open this Door in the Wall? The answer, for all practical purposes, is, None.

Training spies in Switzerland

April 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The Aargauer Zeitung reports on foreign spies being trained in Switzerland.

Wavecom advertises its products in the USA as a “COMINT solution” for military intelligence services, telecoms authorities and other government agencies…

I do not learn where the customers come from. Wavecom has, though, put a list of its branches on the internet. Besides countries such as the USA, Germany and France, the company also advertises its business in totalitarian states like Russia, China and Vietnam.

Piranesi, and de Quincey’s architectural pipe-dreams

April 26th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Do you dream of architecture?

Thomas de Quincey did, although he blamed it on dope. The original English Opium Eater, de Quincey found his drug-induced dreams were of elaborate buildings:

In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye unless in the clouds.

de Quincey then makes an extraordinary leap, linking his fantasies to the only artwork that adequately described them. Extraordinary, because he hadn’t even seen the pictures in question:

Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by [Piranesi], called his Dreams [actually, Carceri d’Invenzione, “Imaginary Prisons“] and which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever

The sensation which de Quincey imagined in Piranesi was one of “endless growth and self-reproduction”, buildings growing to giddy heights, full of immense machinery and with a menacing air of entrapment.

In describing Piranesi, de Quincey was bang on the money. The Imaginary Prisons are something like a gothic-industrial Escher avant la lettre.

The visions are, as de Quincey suggests, something from an intense dreamscape. Not benign, but not quite nighmarish. There’s even a faint echo of this architectural reverie in the work of Coleridge, de Quincey’s counterpart in drugs as in art appreciation. Kubla Khan, the most famous product of his opium-induced dreams, operates mostly in a mode of pastoral mysticism. But even here there are occasional irruptions of architecture — the pleasure-dome, the walls and towers enclosing its twice five miles of gardens.

What’s more, Coleridge makes explicit something implied by Piranesi and de Quincey. These buildings have not been, could not be, built by humans. Only nature and gods operate on these rules of unstoppable, incomprehensible self-replication. To build the pleasure-dome, Coleridge’s dreamer must transcend humanity, become a god who inspires in others the dread which de Quincey found in Piranesi:

I would build that dome in air, 
That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! 
And all who heard should see them there, 
And all should cry, Beware! Beware! 
His flashing eyes! His floating hair! 
Weave a circle round him thrice, 
And close your eyes with holy dread, 
For he on honey-dew hath fed, 
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Coleridge, de Quincey, Piranesi: all are approaching some kind of architectural analog to the Uncanny Valley. Buildings in themselves are not frightening, nor is nature. But buildings behaving as nature — that is a source of ecstatic, hallucinatory horror.

Piranesi’s work all but transposes Kafka into architectural fantasy. “Imaginary Prisons” are by their nature part Metamorphosis, part Castle. They turn civilisation into cancer — rudderless, irrational, merciless and self-perpetuating. And, as with Kafka, reality echoes fantasy well enough to give it extra propulsion.

Piranesi brought into three dimensions — an animation by Gregoire Dupond.

Aldous Huxley managed to pin down some of that beautiful, bureaucratic horror, in terms that could almost come from a back-to-nature critique of industrial civilisation:

The most disquietingly obvious fact about all these dungeons is the perfect pointlessness which reigns throughout. Their architecture is colossal and magnificent…. on the floor stand great machines incapable of doing anything in particular, and from the arches overhead hang ropes that carry nothing except a sickening suggestion of torture. Some of the Prisons are lighted only by narrow windows. Others are half open to the sky, with hints of yet other vaults and walls in the distance. But even where the enclosure is more or less complete, Piranesi always contrives to give the impression that this colossal pointlessness goes on indefinitely, and is co-extensive with the universe.

Piranesi is now somewhat less striking now than he must have been two hundred years ago. He was working one hundred years before Kafka, two hundred before Escher, developing a style that somehow anticipates not just the artistic but also the economic currents that would come generations after his death. And yet his prisons seem as though they could appear in my dreams, just as easily in the dreams that once touched de Quincey.

Maid in London

April 19th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Maid in London is a blog by a cleaner in a London hotel, about work conditions and her efforts to form a union. It’s excellent, if depressing, reading.

A recent study by a major UK union found that out of 100 housekeepers they surveyed, 84 said they used painkillers every day before coming to work.

Nipping downstairs to the locker room, I realise why so much of the linen is marked or lacking altogether. There’s one guy on the laundry chute. One guy dealing with what a former Linen Porter told me is about four tons of laundry hurtling down a single metal chute from five floors into a massive pile every day. He wears a dust mask.

There used to be two porters on the job, but now there’s just one. The guy struggling with it all is from Romania. His eyes are spritely behind his white mask. He must be about 21. We smile and say hi to each other.

Unwillingly footloose entrepreneurs

April 18th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Via Daniel Davies, a side-effect of the UK housing crisis I hadn’t thought of: it’s screwing small business startups.

Business loans in the UK have, apparently, tended to be secured by re-mortgaging the founders house. That kluge has worked moderately well — entrepreneurs have typically been white men in the forties, often with professional experience. These are people who, in the past, have been likely to have bought their own house and largely paid down the mortgage.

Not any more. Even the professional classes can no longer afford their own homes, at least in London and the South-East. So there is no equity to secure a business loan. So businesses which require capital just don’t get started…

And if you have a generation of businesspeople who don’t own houses, and who therefore can’t be fit into the historic template of British small business lending, then you’ve got the impetus for a total reinvention of small business finance in the UK. The banks which realise this first will do best, and if the incumbents don’t then entrants will. Arguments of the form “this problem has to be made worse to heighten the contradictions so that real change will come” always sound a bit Leninist, and have a pretty bad track record as either predictions or policy advice. But in this case, all of the contradictions have already been heightened, as the result of other policy choices made which had very little to do with industrial policy at all. Nobody has really given much serious priority to the need to re-engineer business finance in the UK, but we’ve now reached a point at which the old way of doing things is no longer possible.

Reclaiming Pretty

April 12th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

My friend Sasha spent the last month guest-blogging at the F-word. It’s all worth reading (although inconveniently not all linked in one place). I particularly like her defence of using the word pretty:

When I describe someone or something as pretty – particularly when it’s not someone young and female, which is mostly the case – it feels in some way like a fuck you, a reclamation and repurposing of a word that has dogged me and my gender my whole life….
It feels like some small attempt to redress the balance, to reinvent ‘pretty’ as a universally applicable term of approbation, to bring feminisation into aspiration instead of disparagement. I like its slightly offhand, flippant tone, which completely fails to disguise how heartfelt it really is….
I would also rather live in a world where feminisation and aestheticism wasn’t used to reduce or control or belittle, and reclaiming ‘pretty’ is my (inadequate and imperfect) attempt to build that world.

Kompromat as business card

April 10th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Profile of Russian hacker group “Humpty Dumpty”. It starts out looking like an idealistic hacktivist network, the “Anonymous International”.

Shaltai’s stated mission is “to change the world for the better, helping to bring greater freedom and social awareness.”

One of the group’s members even quoted the 2009 film Watchmen, saying, “We don’t do this thing because it’s permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we’re compelled. Once a man has seen society’s black underbelly, he can never turn his back on it.”

But in the end, hacktivism turns out to be a publicity-grabbing loss-leader to drum up paid hacking work:

Shaltai Boltai, if Lewis is to be believed, is only a “side project.” The group’s main work is getting hired to dig up information about private and public individuals. The whole company consists of a dozen people.

We’re hired by private individuals and groups within the state, and we never work with anyone tied to the drug trade. But we maintain that we’re an independent team. It’s just that it’s often impossible to tell who our clients are. Sometimes we hand over information to intermediaries, without ever knowing the client.

Do modernist kids dream of bureaucratic fairies?

April 9th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Once upon a time, fairy tales were unspeakably brutal. The Brothers Grimm often take the flak for this, but undeservedly. They didn’t create the aura of homicide and senseless injustice, merely absorbed it from the existing oral traditions. Other European folklore collectors got much the same vibe, as did those from further afield. For much of human history, the stories we told to kids were downright nasty.

Today’s children’s literature is, relatively speaking, all sweetness and light. So what changed?

Perhaps it’s about changing attitudes to childhood. Start off with a Romantic idea of the innocence and grace of children. This one was already well underway in the early eighteenth century, and is in the background of some early criticism of Grimms Tales as corrupting. This strand of ideology turns into the Victorian desire to shelter children from the evils of the wider world — a rare chunk of ideology from that time which has only grown stronger in the intervening years.

Or you can take the approach that popular fiction is psychology writ large. Stories, like other forms of play, are about making sense of the world, and particularly learning to deal with its dangers. They may not directly depict the experience of their audience, but some emotional or thematic parallel exists.

The most direct, extreme case is in the games played by children in concentration camps. These might involve imitating guards, or learning