Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Matris in Gremio: Ben Wheatley's High Rise (movie, 2016) (R)

I have some experience with the ostensible subject matter of High Rise, the tower blocks of the mid-1970s. I lived in the London Docklands in the late 70s to 80s, a fair proportion of that on the 11th floor. Once, desperate to get a place of my own, I’d visited a friend who lived in Balfron Tower, in Bow, the Erno Goldfinger Brutalist tower block that has been named as Ballard’s inspiration for the block in his 1975 novel High Rise. I remember taking the lift to the relevant floor in the service tower and then, when faced with walking along the connection to the main residential tower block, ending up crawling on my hands and knees, unable to face the view from the (enclosed) walkway. Needless to say, I didn’t take up my friend’s offer of his council flat (apartment), but when I found myself living on the 11th floor of a more normal block on Westferry Road on the Isle of Dogs, a few years later, I had not a trace of acrophobia. It appears to have been Erno-related anxiety. I lived in that tower block as Docklands went from a dumping ground for otherwise un-housables to an expensive gentrified waterfront area, and well recall the building of new, non-council (i.e. non-projects) towers with their differential sale prices – top-earning yuppies in multi-million pound penthouses, normal bankers in fractional-million pound lower floors. I left around the time the derelict Canary Wharf was beginning to be built up. It was an odd time to live in Docklands.  Gentrification, however, was several years after the book was published and the movie is set. Ballard a prophet? Perhaps.

My tower block last year, from Google Maps Street View

View of City of London from my tower block, 1980s

View of what was actually at the foot of my tower block, 1980s

Balfron Tower, picture ganked from this article

Now, the film. It's an R. I'm not sure why - there's a lot of violence and a few rude words in it, along with a little sex. A few of the rude words may make it into the review. The block in the movie is not like the dissected Goldfinger towers of London. It’s described as “like the distal phalanx of an index finger of an open hand”, but it looks to me more like a phallus with a bad case of chordee. There are five of them in various degrees of construction in the movie, all with that crooked top. It may be that the falling tip is ‘overarching’ rather than drooping but it’s hard to tell from internal movie clues.

The movie ostensibly follows Laing, who moves into the new tower block, attracted by its claim to supply all one may need from life, from living space, to gym, to pool, to onsite supermarkets. The new building has some shakeout problems, “settling” as the home-owners are told to think of it. The garbage chute clogs up. The power occasionally goes out. Our protagonist is a middle-class psychiatrist who has just bought an apartment on a middling floor. It has the lovely Brutalist feature of sloping naked concrete beams intruding into the living space, giving Laing a sudden impulse to paint all his belongings the same shade of grey. A straightforward reading of the film is that it tells the tale of a rebellion against the upper floors by the inhabitants of the cheap (but full utilities-paying) lower floors during an extended power cut, mediated by and observed by the middle-floor-dwelling Laing. In the darkness the food-deprived inhabitants blockade their floors, restrict access to outsiders, raid for supplies and, after the supermarkets are emptied, begin to eat their pets. On the surface, this is a typical dystopian movie plot. Who will become the leader of the block? How will he protect his women? And why don't they escape/call the police/go live with their mum?

It’s a little challenging to keep track of all the characters in the film. Even with its extended running time, not everyone gets fleshed out (or their flesh taken off). In addition to Laing, there is a junior psychiatrist Munrow, the designer of the block who is often just called The Architect, his enforcer Simmons, his wife, his mistress, his wife's mistress, Laing's women, and the lower-floors leader, the impulsive and violent Wilder, who "in real life" makes TV documentaries. There is a man who is always on the telly, and several more. They have many affairs, many wives and many children.

You can’t say Wheatley and subtle in the same sentence but the stand-out vignettes include a supermarket check-out conveyor belt converted to a torture-treadmill like the one Snake Plissken is chained to in Escape from LA, and the They Live-esque fist-fight over Laing’s can of grey paint that gave me quite a laugh. It also features a soothing amount of Tom Hiddleston-flesh, ABBA’s SOS performed by a string quartet, Portishead and soundtrack-man Clint Mansell as the running theme, Surrealist treasures in the penthouse, blink-and-you-miss-it allusions to other films and some very pointed, quick fire dialogue. One that stands out is the documentary maker’s wife casually throwing away the line, “he’s lost his focus” and later there’s an extended riff on the whole movie, beginning with the architect saying of one character, “she has quite a tight c*nt” and segueing into a description of his apartment owners having “fitted themselves tightly into their slots” (in society), with Laing immediately referring this back to the structure of the building “slots designed by you”. “I conceived this building,” the architect says as in the background women talk about babies’ bottles. “I offered a means of escape to a new life,” he continues, just as a new baby is born.

I don’t see any reason why this movie was so widely panned when it has more in common with The Matrix than its usual comparator, Snowpiercer. The latter was a one-dimensional allegory with all High Rise’s problems and none of its solutions. If I had to think of a similar film, I’d point to Lindsay Anderson’s If…. and Britannia Hospital. I think High Rise has a wider range of deeper motifs than those, however. In other words, High Rise deserves cult status, but that’s not something one can predict.

I’ve seen the film reviewed as being in some way about a typical seventies fear of high rise living. Just no. Should we also assume that Ballard had a fright about the bits of grass that grow between interchange lanes in complex highways such as freeways (Concrete Island) or was worried that iguanas might colonize London (The Drowned World) or had been in a funk that the angle between two walls might not have a happy ending (the Ambit ad)? There’s obviously allegory going on somewhere. What might it be?

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. The movie makes no secret that it’s ‘about’ the British class structure. If you take the phrase ‘social climber’ and dial the setting to ‘tower block’ you get the basic structure automatically. The film constantly refers to high life, lower orders, Marie Antoinette and power failures (i.e. failures of the powers that be). Laing buys an inexpensive Riesling from the supermarket and attempts to enter a party on the upper floors from whence he is summarily ejected, for wearing the wrong clothes and for being a cheap bastard. The people on the lower floors have lots of loud children, while the upper floors’ dwellers are famous and childless, and the uppermost of all, The Architect – whose name is Royal – has a formal rooftop garden, a horse, goats that his gauzily-dressed wife herds with a Louis XVI-era shepherd’s crook, and a dozen pampered dogs. The chief of the lower floors is called, natch, Wilder. He has a pregnant wife, several children and a poster of Che Guevara. He leads the rebellion against the upper floors.

Our man Laing belongs to neither caste, but is ideally placed as a go-between.

The social order allegory also explains one of people’s biggest moans about the movie: why none of the inhabitants try to leave the building as it breaks down. Wheatley bafflingly leaves the explanation to a voice-over at the very end, long after these people will have given up on the film as unrealistic. We hear Margaret Thatcher’s voice over the radio, “There is only one economic system in the world, and that is capitalism. The difference lies in whether the capital is in the hands of the State or whether the greater part of it is in the hands of people outside of State control. Where there is State capitalism there will never be political freedom.” You must choose one, because there is no other system – there is no ‘outside’ to which to go. And given that you can only choose one, you should choose free enterprise, because freedom. In this analogy, the inhabitants have chosen free enterprise, and Laing, who is chewing on the last roast dog leg and thinking about setting up a private practice, is clearly all for freedom.  (You might argue that the TV personality guy left the block every day for work, but of course as his final scene showed, a man on the telly who is at work is equally in the apartments, inside their TVs, and cannot be said to have left the tower block.)

There’s a second metaphor that overlays the political one. It’s signaled by an early shot of a young medical doctor reading “Psychopathology of Everyday Life” by Sigmund Freud. The building itself is described in the film as a diagram of a psychic event. (This sounded very Ballardian, almost out of place, so I wonder if it’s a phrase from the book that wandered into the script.) The main character is not only a psychiatrist, he’s called R Laing, calling rather obviously to mind RD Laing, the psychiatrist who promulgated the theory that a psychotic episode is a result of a mind being placed in a lose-lose situation, a double bind, and the symptoms of which are an attempt to communicate the untenable situation. The building itself, with its bony ramifications, is a skull. We’re shown several skulls for comparison purposes. At one point, during a medical school dissection, we see the skin literally peeled back from a skull and the doctor hammer-and-chisel his way inside. Wheatley is not a subtle visual director. Laing, us, is the ego. Royal, The Architect, is the superego and the aggressive, rebellious, rapacious Wilder is the Id. The inciting incident leading to Laing's psychotic break is his very unprofessional treatment of a patient that leads to harm, and the film is on this level detailing Laing’s subsequent psychoanalysis. He checks out his own internal state and decides whether he needs the recommended treatment or not.

On yet a third level, the Architect is simply a god. Above everyone’s heads, dressed in Morgan-Freeman-God-White clothes, he’s described as the first to arrive in the building and the last to leave, one of the characteristics of Almighty God. “Alpha es et O”, as the hymn In Dulce Jubilo puts it, the alpha and the omega, “I am the first and the last”. He pores over his architectural plans like The Ancient of Days, Urizen, the demiurge of reason, laws and caste-based conventional society in Blake's mythology. He’s a Gnostic God, trapped in this reality, and his creation is, as always, flawed. (But Laing is not our Christ.) He is a Royal who uses a walking stick, the crippled Fisher King. As such, his wound has made him sterile and rendered his land barren and unable to support its people. He is also an alchemist– he says he designed the building as a “crucible for change” but he either put one too many or one too few "elements" in it. (He later comes to terms with his resulting rather leaden “gold”, as Ballard characters tend to do.)

The fourth metaphor I’m not sure was in the novel. The building, it seems, is built along the lines of Ken Reid’s famous and hilarious Nervs from Smash! comic, as well as Malcolm Judge’s earlier Numskulls from Beezer comic. The Numskulls were a collection of idiots who manned the skull of an unfortunate person, “Our Man”, operating his ears, eyes and brain, a little like the small people inside the girl in Inside Out, but less PC. The Nervs, despite their name, were little internal people who operated the entire body and brain of an equally unfortunate person, “Fatty". For example, they control the stomach acid pipeline. If you put the Nervs and the Numskulls together, you get the inhabitants of High Rise. This is not exactly a lofty literary theory, but I for one grew up reading these comics and many people my age, or with children my age, did, and it’s a visualization of the self that is certainly easy to, well, internalize. And let's face it, for every one British person who's read Baudrillard or Houellebecq there must be a dozen who read The Numskulls (and another dozen who've seen Inside Out).

We see this metaphor early on, where the blocked garbage chute (and man do I remember the blocked garbage chutes in the tower block where I lived) symbolizes not only a block in the internal workings of the body politic but also a more earthy block of the type that your grandma worries about, insisting you eat more fiber and drink castor oil to make you regular again. Much later, Lang describes himself as a blood cell, able to travel the arteries of the body by walking through the corridors. The implication is the other inhabitants perform the other functions. Rather than a beckoning finger, or a crooked phallus, the building with its rows of balconies is a human body with a series of compartments, as in the famous Dali paintings.

And the stinger is, the body, the block, appears to me to be female, as Dali depicted her. There are chronological and textual juxtapositions between descriptions of the building and a woman giving birth, for example. (See above for some dialogue.) Wilder ultimately asks Royal why he stole his wife, why he hides behind women’s skirts. He tells the architect to “sit there and think about what you have done”, like a kindergarten teacher. The architect is described as a midwife. There are maenads, nurturers, nymphs at the pool. The whole incident is described as “a children’s party got out of hand”. Despite the ego, superego and id being male-presenting, the block is clearly female. I think of this as scriptwriter Amy Jump’s little joke.

This is going to reward multiple rewatchings.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Last Dance with Marjolaine

Like all* people of British extraction, my current fave is The Great British Bake Off, a TV program in which several ordinary people gather in a stove-equipped tent in a Stately Home’s garden and cook for four hours on Saturday and four hours on Sunday (edited down to an hour, or possibly ninety minutes – I’ve been so enthralled I’ve never actually wondered how much time is passing).  

There are two judges, a little old lady and Gen X man with Gen X Guy Fieri frosted tips and Gen X goatee, and for no reason two presenters who have little to do – maybe ten sentences each per program – but since they seem joined at the hip, I assume if you hire one of them you get the other for free.

The majority of the baking is usual fare – “I used me gran’s recipe” is a common refrain - and the bakers have evidently practiced the thing, even if it’s a completely bizarre thing with quinces and mangoes and gouache (or whatever it’s called).  However, one round is called the “technical” round and in it, all of the contestants are expected to follow a recipe they’ve never seen before, and produce an edible, attractive result. A couple of weeks ago, the recipe was a Marjolaine (which I’d certainly never heard of before) and so I purchased all the ingredients and we had a go ourselves.

I already owned a ‘food processor’ which I’d bought specifically because it said it would whip egg whites, but of course that was just an outright lie – blades don’t whip, they just chop.  I did try it out again to see if I’d just got the wrong eggs or something the first time, and no, it just doesn’t do it. So I bought a proper five-quart KitchenAid mixer and tried again. Successful meringue followed.



Then I bought all the ingredients, as set out on this BBC recipe page, watched the program, read all the tips (as on this page and this page) translated from the British oven temps (as on this page) and we cooked the heck out of a Marjolaine.  It’s four layers of a meringue-based thing called dacquoise (egg whites with roasted ground nuts folded in), with layers of buttercream (not American buttercream frosting, egg-yolk buttercream) also with nuts folded in, a layer of ganache (oh, right, that’s the word) then plastered with buttercream, pebble-dashed with nuts and decorated on top with piped ganache and rows of pistachios and slivered almonds.

It worked. The piping’s a bit wobbly,  but the assembly was flawless.  It tasted very nutty, expensive and fattening.  STB reports that it lasted approximately 3 minutes in the work break room.

Cost: $405. (Possibly a bit cheaper if you don’t have to buy a KitchenAid mixer and a piping set.)

*Well, I didn’t mean you.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


I feel I'm living in a cyberpunk book, but not a sexy, fashionable Japanese AI cat-actress one. More a dusty, cold, Junior Anti-Sex League, Ministry of Truth one.

Esquire article: How Russian pulled off the biggest Election hack in US history

Many Americans don't believe things that are true are actually really real, so the 'real' identity of these hackers, and whether the infodumps are 'real' or altered, and whether Wikileak's Assange has been poised by Pamela Anderson's vegan sandwich or whether your internet-connected garage door opener really did participate in bringing down Twitter last week and why Trump facilitates Putin's attempt to destabilize the US...are all moot, really. (Yes, really.)

As Karl Rove once said: 
"Guys like [the reporter documenting this conversation] were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The article only mentions an old-fashioned mole once, but Arthur Rackham's
illustration of rat and mole is more fun than pictures of Putin. 

In the end leaks are unlikely to matter. Those who don't know there's such a thing as objective reality aren't necessarily going to begin believing in it just because it's in a Wikileaks dump. The overall effect may be for people to stop believing anything they're told, since it doesn't matter.  Unlike in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where out of date news items are disappeared down the memory hole and corrected news items take their place, whether we've always been at war with Eastasia or not is of no consequence, and whether the chocolate ration is increased or decreased can not be determined by the average person, since the bar size is variable inside the same-size wrapper and price is a tag on the shelf, where it is replaced weekly, not on the package where you can compare it to the last one you bought.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Email prophylaxis for dummies: How not to end up trying to explain to a judge what your email really meant

“Give me six lines written by the most honest man, and I will find enough in there to hang him,” said Cardinal Richelieu, back in the 16th century. (Probably.)

We’ve all seen the revelations gleaned from the hacks of Hillary Clinton’s email, John Podesta’s email and General Colin Powell’s email, among others. What has come to light made my jaw drop – not because it reveals wrongdoing or illegality, but because people in those positions should have known email’s cardinal rule: Don’t write anything in email you don’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.

This is what we were always taught in the insanely litigious business of healthcare. We were told: read your email through and picture it in the newspaper with your photograph right above it. We were given training on what could be said by email and what should be said in person or on the phone. Here is some of that advice, as well as lessons I learned the hard way. It’s mostly targeted at work emails, but your personal emails could probably do with a review. For example, have you heard of “divorce”? Sometimes computer contents and emails are discoverable during divorce proceedings. A lot of this advice goes for other written communication as well, be it texts, chats or messaging. (Please note this is not legal advice – I am not a lawyer.)

As you read through your emails prior to sending them, bear in mind that a nosy newspaper reader could the least of your worries. Imagine it is being read out loud by a hostile attorney in court. Emails can be, and often are, subject to subpoena, which means they are read (and interpreted without you present) by someone with an incentive to infer the worst possible meaning in something you thought was innocuous.

People often think of emails as completely informal, a sort of everyday talking that magically goes through office walls. This isn’t the case. Many companies have regulations or consent decrees that require them to keep emails for a number of years, and even ones that don’t have regulations tend to keep them around for months or longer. Deleting them from your inbox or sent mail does not delete them from the sender or recipient’s mailbox, and most likely the company, or your cable provider, will keep a copy on their server, so even if the sender and recipients all collude to delete the email, it’s still there, in cyberspace. And then you will be accused of attempting to destroy evidence on top of everything else.

Generally speaking, your company has the right to read any emails that pass through its server – so if you write your bestie in Warehouse about your pick in soon-to-be-mom Valentina’s due-date pool and you make an off-color remark about pregnant women, bear in mind you’re a) illegally betting *and* b) giving the impression you foster a hostile work environment - and your boss can legally read the email from the company server, if they so choose.

If you get your company emails on your own smartphone, check with your company lawyer and get advice on obtaining a work-only phone, as mixing emails may make your entire device – including your Tinder account among other things – subject to subpoena if the company does something untoward.

Since emails are written records, avoid slang and informal writing. Even if it's not company policy, it’s worth putting a “Dear recipient” up top and a “Best regards” at the bottom, if only to remind yourself that you’ve actually written a letter, not yelled something over the top of your cubicle to your golf buddy. Try to compose whole sentences and read them back to see if they still mean what you thought they meant. Occasionally a missing comma or a missing “not”, a double negative or overnegation will alter the meaning. (For example, “It’s impossible to underestimate the impact Larry has had on the company” means that it’s not possible to say how little Larry is worth. That may not be what you meant. Even a hostile lawyer may not be able to make this stick in court, but it will get you laughed at and Larry may feel you did it on purpose…)

Don’t write things that put you, or your company, in a bad light. “This is the third time Fred has screwed up and nobody ever does anything.” Read what you wrote and imagine it in the first paragraph of a Time Magazine expose. Did you really mean to open your company up to a negligence lawsuit? If not, but Fred really is screwing up, pick up the phone, or walk over, and talk to him instead. Or his boss. Or HR. Whatever. Unless you have exhausted other avenues and really believe you now have to put your frustration in writing, don’t email it. If you are a healthcare boss and you get this email, ask yourself if the writer is genuinely trying to help or if he’s setting himself up for a cool couple of mil in whistleblower awards down the line.

Don’t suggest anything illegal, even if you know, and the recipient knows, you’re just being sarcastic or having fun. “He won employee of the month again. Maybe we should just take Simon out…” What does that mean? Kill him, plot to get him fired? Hostile lawyers don’t know what jokes are. Don’t email jokes.

Bear in mind the structure of emails. They have a header, which you probably never see, but techy types can and they tell lawyers and investigators a lot about the sender, recipients, dates and contents. Emails have a subject line, then the body of the email and, quite often if they’re a reply, a quote of the original email at the bottom. A quote. In plain text. Not an attachment, but just the text of what was originally written.

When the sh1t hits the fan, an email will often start getting replied to, forwarded, and sent to new recipients very rapidly. If something terrible is happening – let’s say, someone has lost a newborn baby’s blood specimen – an email with a subject line like “Baby 19089132 sample missing” starts making the rounds. All the problem solvers receive the email, and they each reply. Some invariably hit “reply all” and everyone who received the first email will know what they found. Some will reply only to the initiator or to coordinators. The coordinators will receive some emails but not others, and reply to them. Each will use "reply all" or reply to their favored list of problem solvers, depending on their whim. This means that a few hours into a crisis there could be several hundred emails with the subject line “Baby 19089132 sample missing”, and some of them will contain an indented chain of the text of every email that was sent with that subject line, some will contain most of it, and some will contain a different selection of most of the emails with that subject line. Now imagine that someone about third way down the list in company importance gets a subpoena and whichever one of these email chains she received is the one that ends up in court. Will it tell the whole story? (No, obviously.)

Bear in mind that also, if Baby 19089132 was from Client 6308, it’s quite likely that the next time someone mislays a sample from Client 6308, in order to stress the importance of why we shouldn’t frak off this client yet again, the initiator/coordinator will simply find the original email - “Baby 19089132 sample missing” – write their new complaint at the top (of whichever version of the chain they received) and send it around again. Even if it’s a year later.

So “Baby 19089132 sample missing” may refer to JSH-20310269’s sample being missing a year later and not contain complete information about either. And to make it more complicated, most email programs allow you to change the subject line, delete included emails, add other emails you think are interesting into the middle of the mélange, and even, should you be so inclined, allow you to change any of the text without marking it as changed.

You may have to defend what it appears you wrote about a missing sample in court. Good luck. Hope you didn’t delete any emails from the chain you thought was too long and rambling, add any you thought were informative, or make any remarks about film stars’ asses or change Baltimore area coordinator Matt Hunt’s first name to Mike halfway down a five-page chain because it was très funny and he’d never see it… for the whole year it was careening between servers.

Also, try not to have a common name. My given first name is common enough that there were 23 of us in our company. I’ve had to sit with “our” attorneys working out whether I’m the person referred to in each one of the discovery emails or whether it was one of the other 22, and that was a lot of fun, too.

Companies often use a technique called “brainstorming” where you put every idea you think of on a whiteboard. The coordinator will say, “There’s no such thing as a bad idea!” That’s true on a whiteboard. In email, don’t write down all your bad ideas, unless they’re labeled “bad ideas”.

Bear in mind a lot of email apps have a "BCC" function. It means blind carbon copy for reasons lost in the mists of time, but what it does is send a copy of the email to a person not on the "to" line or on the "CC" line. When you receive an email you can see who it has been sent to besides yourself - except for any BCC recipients. Only the sender knows who else got it. You think your boss isn't in on the conversation? She might be - she might be being BCC'd.  And your return emails may be being forwarded to her without your knowledge. And even more likely, your emails are being sent to Saks Fifth Avenue credit card help desk, because your recipient just tried to forward it to the warehouse guy, whose name is Saxon, Andrew, from their email address list, got it nearly right and didn't read it before sending, due to not having read my helpful advice.

Your company may have a way of classifying private or secure emails. If they do, follow it. In may involve putting a (c) in the subject line and a long thing in the footer of an email (sometimes called the signature file) that states the email was confidential, intended only for the person named in the “to” line and if you are some random guy who got hold of it by accident, you should contact the company and delete the email. I refer you to your company attorney about what to use and whether it is actually binding. You should be aware, however, that if you and RivalCo have a sanctioned, legal email conversation back and forth, the footer of the email could fill up with two, four, six, eight iterations of your and their confidentiality notice as the thread progresses. What might this mean? Your attorney will be happy to discuss this question. And remember that no matter how many confidential notices may have stacked up at the bottom there, it won’t stop Jeff in Purchasing from forwarding the whole five-page long shebang to RivalCo’s entire hundred-strong accounts payable department by accident, while trying to find and attach a recipe for eel pie and send it to his wife.

Lastly, attorney-client privilege. Discussions between you and your attorney are private, and can’t be used in court. Your attorney, or your company attorney, can give you some wording to put in the subject line and in the body of your email that privileges the email in this way. It will be something like, “Attorney-Client Privileged Communication”.

Even so, if you and your attorney are working on a document and you attach the draft to the email, it isn’t covered by an email subject line privilege statement, and it should contain its own wording, along the lines of “Attorney-Client Privileged Work Product” as a header inside the document. Check with your attorney what wording you should use.

If you fail to privilege a communication properly, expect it to be read out in court. On the other hand, if you’re just spit-balling some stuff that might not pass legal muster and sending it to your boss, don’t think that putting your company attorney on the “cc” line and adding “Attorney-Client Privilege” to the subject line will protect you. For obvious reasons, the law requires you to be actually communicating with the lawyer before you claim attorney-client privilege. You should maybe ask them before you start with the cc’ing. 

Sometimes, emails and/or attachments sent to government agencies will be sent out to anyone requesting to see them through the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act.) If your emails and their attachments are confidential, discuss this with the agency over the phone and find out what confidentiality wording will prevent them doing this. You don't want to lose a patent because you emailed your invention at their request to the government, and RivalCo got hold of it.

Here’s some examples of problematic statements.

Jim says his team is behind schedule because Tanya is acting like a child again and not freeing up IT resources.

What you meant: The status report is being sent to Tanya’s ex and you wanted to curry favor with him by pointedly wording your status report. How this reads: Your company is dysfunctional and its processes are broken. If your customer sues you, this isn’t going to go well.

Nightbat, Inc. are developing the same sort of device Jim and Dave are working on.

What you meant: You read something on a Reddit Ask Me Anything and put two and two together. How this reads: You are performing industrial espionage and you’ll be lucky to find employment in future.

If Jack does that again, I’ll get mad. These things put patients at risk!

What you meant: You should tell Jack how important his role is in patient safety. How this reads: Jack has already put a patient at risk and looks like nobody did anything about it at the time. Please sue my company for negligence.

Remember: Would it look good on the front page of the New York Times with your picture above it?


Here is an article by Micah Lee on email security, passwords and that type of thing. Useful for personal emails, but may not be possible for work emails.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Searching for a perfect search function

Financial Times Magazine article: There’s magic in mess: why you should embrace a disorderly desk

This article on how to organize information-slugs (like emails or documents) reads like a nightmare dreamwalk through the past 25 years of my working for one company. After describing Borges' classification system in the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, the writer, Tim Harford, says:

Borges’s joke has a point: categories are difficult. Distinctions that seem practically useful — who owns what, who did what, what might make a tasty supper — are utterly unusable when taken as a whole. The problem is harder still when we must file many incoming emails an hour, building folder structures that need to make sense months or years down the line. Borgesian email folders might include: a) coming from the boss, b) tedious, c) containing appointments, d) sent to the entire company, e) urgent, f) sexually explicit, g) complaints, h) personal, i) pertaining to the year-end review, and j) about to exceed the memory allocation on the server.

For what it's worth, although I'd never previously heard of Noguchi or those who improved on his method, for paper documents I used a similar method I called Mulching. I put the document I last used on the top of my pile. Every quarter or so, I'd throw away the bottom of the pile, as it had mulched. This works perfectly, and I recommend it. It also has the advantage that if you are hacked, subpoena'ed, or merely cornered and questioned, you can honestly say you don't still have the document because it wasn't important. (For documents other people also used, I would file them using their own version of the Borgesian systems described in the article.)

I never found a good way to organize emails, and Outlook's search function was useless. I used to chew my minions out for leaving everything in their inbox and not sorting everything into folders with jolly useful titles like "Mikes project" or "Human Resources guff" but for the reasons given in the quoted article, that barely works and eventually I began to simply bung emails I'd already acted upon into a folder labeled with the month and the word 'read'. I couldn't find anything easily but neither could they, so I felt justified. Now I've retired, Outlook's search is much better, so simply leaving everything in the inbox would work very well, corporate server mailbox size limitations permitting. (And, obvs, subpoena-danger permitting.) I gather Gmail is just as good. (I hear heads around me exploding as they work through "Just as good! It's a bajillion times better. Why I oughta...")

My current problem is organizing links. There used to be a Google function that remembered every word you'd ever read on the web as well as every word on your computer, in order that you could search both at once in the Google query box - Google Desktop Search. That was phenomenally useful, but it went away for totally spurious reasons a few years ago. For a while I saved all the text on every page I thought would come in useful so I could search it, but that took forever, took up disk space and I often found that a page I thought I'd never need again became vitally important in a "someone is wrong on the internet!" episode shortly afterwards. So I've given up grabbing and saving every web page I like (which has led to problems after the links break, which they often do). I've programmed a Chrome extension to search history or bookmarks with a single keystroke, which helps, but like many people (or is it only people who were brought up on physical books?) my memory doesn't retain many keywords or titles, but rather the layout of information on the page, its spatial location, which is impossible to search for. (Get on it, Google!) Chrome also refuses to put bookmarks in two or more folders, even though, as the article mentions, many documents do not sort neatly into a single named bin.

The article doesn't really have any answers, but it'll save you the 25 year info-sorting journey I had at work.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Anne Briggs (BBC Radio Doco, September 2016)

The Voices of Annie Briggshttp://bbc.in/2bQMRsb

Folk singer and legendary walked-away-from-famer Anne Briggs, here mysteriously called Annie Briggs, in her own words. 

You may know her from such songs as Led Zeppelin's Black Mountainside. (It's a long story.)

Like some other folk singers - Donovan and Vashti Bunyan spring to mind - she moved away to live on the land, as if her tie to the rocks and streams of the British Isles was stronger than her tie to people and society. This has always intrigued me, this nationalism, not the Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land chanting football hooliganism nationalism, but this sense of springing from the soil rather than descending from the family. 

Not that I've ever spoken to any of them, and they probably spend their time on Facebook or filling in hire-purchase forms or dealing with flat tires like normal human beings. But they *sound* otherworldly, and Anne Briggs certainly talks a lot about streams and plants and birds in this little piece.

It's on iPlayer but seems to play ok in the US. It'll be rebroadcast on October 6th, but I don't know how long after that it will be archived.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ten Year Anniversary

This post marks the ten year anniversary of this blog.

When I started, in 2006, blogging was already past its peak, and social media was beginning to make inroads into society. As you can tell from the drastic fall-off in posting on this blog, it began to make inroads into my life as well.

I spend far longer each day on Facebook than is strictly healthy, and it gains me very little. I assume its addictiveness is carefully engineered into it. In terms of personal writing, it's worse than useless as each post there appears (or may not appear) on a friend's wall for a few minutes or hours, and then pretty much disappears. You have to take special measures to find a post you once liked. If you forget about it for an hour, it's buried under an avalanche of newness, many of which are memes, shares, and photographs of text. (The latter is a way to get around the lack of fonts, colors, italics, bold and strikethrough on Facebook; simply write it in Word, take a screenshot and post it as a picture.)

Facebook postings benefit Mr. Zuckerberg (and the missus and Little Zuckerberg) by providing content that keeps people coming back and reading ads and sponsored posts between the updates. The benefit to the individual is small, but obviously must be of some net positivity or we wouldn't keep doing it.  Blogspot and Wordpress missed the boat on that one - here we write what we like and it doesn't make a cent for the website owner. The downside being that, unless you are one of the blogosphere's superstars, no-one reads it, either.  This blog has sixteen followers, most of whom probably haven't checked their RSS Feeds (their what?) in five years. Quite a few people get here through a Google search for an interesting topic, but, as I have done thousands of times in the past myself, they read that article and move on, and have no intention of following or checking back in later. (Nor should they.)

But this is plainly the place to continue to write long-form essays and articles that stay visible, and searchable on the internet. More to come in the next ten years.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Mike Pence, would-be Vice President, and Evolution

I keep seeing this Patheos article come up in my feed, so here’s my thoughts on Vice President nominee Mike Pence’s speech to Congress regarding the origins of man. A video of his speech is at that link.

First, it’s only fair to Mike Pence to drag you back to 2002 when the news of the Toumai skull hit.  Paleoanthropologists are a singularly noisy bunch and the newspapers act like sugar-overdosed toddlers when it comes to human origins. Discovery after discovery is routinely touted as THE MOST AMAZING THING THAT HAS EVER BEEN DISCOVERED EVER.  The Toumai skull (Sahelanthropus) was one of those finds.  It was dated by looking at the features of the abundance of fossils with which it was found and was pronounced the oldest find on the direct line between ancient apes and humans. The original paper is as dry as a bone (no pun intended) but Nature ran articles with it that described it in the usual excitable terms.

Photo: Oryctes

Part of the scientific paper reads as follows:

“Sahelanthropus is the oldest and most primitive known member of the hominid clade, close to the divergence of hominids and chimpanzees. Further analysis will be necessary to make reliable inferences about the phylogenetic position of Sahelanthropus relative to known hominids. One possibility is that Sahelanthropus is a sister group of more recent hominids, including Ardipithecus. […]The discoveries of Sahelanthropus along with Ardipithecus 6, 7 and Orrorin 8 indicate that early hominids in the late Miocene were geographically more widespread than previously thought.”

Nature’s introductory blurb on the issue that contains the paper was not quite as reserved:

“… the new find will galvanize the field of human origins like no other in living memory — perhaps not since 1925, when Raymond Dart described the first 'ape-man',Australopithecus africanus, transforming our ideas about human origins forever. A lifetime later, Toumaï raises the stakes once again and the consequences cannot yet be guessed.”

Nature’s concurrent article on the find manages to introduce some confusing imagery that suggests Evolutionary Theory used to be ‘linear’ and ups the ante on the hyperbole:

“Toumaï is thought to be the oldest fossil from a member of the human family. It's a dispatch from the time when humans and chimpanzee were going their separate evolutionary ways. A thrilling, but confusing dispatch.
Sahelanthropus tchadensis - Toumaï's scientific name - was probably one of many similar species living in Africa at that time. "There must have been a group of apes knocking around between 5 and 8 million years ago for which there's a very poor fossil record," says anthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University in Washington DC.
Toumaï is the tip of that iceberg - one that could sink our current ideas about human evolution. "Anybody who thinks this isn't going to get more complex isn't learning from history," says Wood [an anthropologist Nature interviewed, not the finder of the fossil].
"When I went to medical school in 1963, human evolution looked like a ladder," he says. The ladder stepped from monkey to man through a progression of intermediates, each slightly less ape-like than the last.
Now human evolution looks like a bush. We have a menagerie of fossil hominids - the group containing everything thought more closely related to humans than chimps. How they are related to each other and which, if any of them, are human forebears is still debated.””

By the time all of this wawarara got to the newspapers, it was once again bigger than the biggest thing ever. So when Mike Pence, as a newish member of the House of Representatives, picks Toumai up as something worth proselytizing about to his insufficiently Creationist colleagues, it’s not as random an act as it might seem at first.

The rest of the story is less flattering to Mike Pence. First, he’s a Creationist, specifically of the Intelligent Design brand. That in itself is sufficient to make me hope he stays well away from the Executive Branch. I don’t mind creationists in their own houses, or their own churches, but when they get into government and start legislating what my body is and isn’t allowed to do (as Mike Pence already has), they can go pound sand. The Intelligent Design brand is the worst kind, as they have no intention of limiting their belief to the realm of faith, where it belongs, and insist it is a kind of science. It isn’t, unless ‘science’ means believing what you want and trying to find bits of evidence to support it, while discarding the mountains of evidence that refute it. (Hint: it doesn’t.)

Secondly, he’s not a very good creationist. His arguments are weak, misleading and incorrect in the details. Even if I shared his worldview, which I don’t, it would be wrong to support a half-baked thinker as the de facto president. (You know he would be; Trump would get bored with presidenting within a couple of months and leave it to him. He’s already said as much.)

Here’s a few of the problems with his impromptu Sermon on the Hill.

In 1859, a sincere biologist returned from the Galapagos
Islands and wrote a book entitled ``The Origins of Species,'' in which
Charles Darwin offered a theory of the origin of species which we have
come to know as evolution. 

No, Charles Darwin returned from the Galapagos in 1836 and wrote about the voyage shortly afterwards. He did not publish anything on evolution, or origin of species, until Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the same theory independently of Darwin, prompting the latter to publish The Origin (singular) Of Species in 1859. Pence is a lawyer and says he studies this sort of thing as his “avocation”. Eliding the facts makes him look sleazy and partisan.

Charles Darwin never thought of evolution as
anything other than a theory. He hoped that someday it would be proven
by the fossil record but did not live to see that, nor have we.

The last clause is just not true; there are mountains of fossils in the record and all of them support evolution. I think he’s confused the fossil record of the human line with the whole fossil record and thinks it’s fairly sparse - I'll touch on that later on. It’s not sparse, but abundant. Or maybe he just wanted to slip a lie into the speech and hope it went down unremarked upon.

In addition to the fossils, since Darwin’s time, thousands of researchers have studied the developmental and molecular biology of tens of thousands of organisms and everything so far supports the theory of evolution and nothing disproves it. There are, of course, always arguments about what something means and whether it’s been correctly characterized, but there is literally nothing where knowledgeable scientists have shaken their heads and thought, “That shouldn’t be here. It can’t be fitted in to Evolutionary Theory.”

At the same time, we have Pence misusing the word ‘theory’. As many other people have noted, ‘theory’ does not mean ‘a just-so story I thought up that seems about right’. Relativity isn’t anything other than a theory either. A theory, as used by scientists, is a statement, or a model, that explains the evidence gathered so far, makes predictions about what may be discovered in future, and has been tested and confirmed.

In 1925 in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, this theory made its way
through litigation into the classrooms of America, and we have all seen
the consequences over the last 77 years: evolution not taught as a
sincere theory of a biologist, but rather, Mr. Speaker, taught as fact.

This is not true. Or rather, it's a classic piece of obfuscation. Teaching evolution was against the law. Scopes taught the theory of evolution in a school. He was prosecuted and LOST. Teaching evolution remained illegal and it was not introduced until the 1960s. (The verdict against Scopes was later overturned on a technicality but the law stayed on the books.)

Also, something can be both a theory and a fact. Do teachers tell kids that Malaria is caused by bad air? Why not? The Germ Theory of Disease is just a sincere theory!

Note how the official record phrases it as, “the sincere theory of a biologist”. Pence actually appears to say “sincere theory of biologists” on the video, but officially it’s been recorded as a little dig at evolution, since it was apparently only sincerely believed by one man.

I’m not sure what the ominous “we have all seen the consequences” means. I assume it’s the noisy kids with the saggy pants and the hippy-hoppity music who should get off our lawns.

Unless anyone listening in would doubt that, we can all see in our
mind's eye that grade school classroom that we all grew up in with the
linear depiction of evolution just above the chalkboard. There is the
monkey crawling on the grass. There is the Neanderthal dragging his
knuckles and then there is Mel Gibson standing in all of his glory.
It is what we have been taught, that man proceeded and evolved along
linear lines. 

This is a clever move, drawing such a vivid picture of simplicity that we all begin to see it in our mind’s eye, and then – bait and switch – tell us that this is what we’ve been taught. For a second we believe it. Then I recall I’ve only ever seen that ape-to-caveman-to-nice-modern-white-man picture in cartoons that lampoon it. And I’m old.

But…it’s the sensationalist write-up in Nature that gave him the ammo to say this. Nature said, 
"When I went to medical school in 1963, human evolution looked like a ladder," [Wood, an anthropologist Nature talked to] says. “The ladder stepped from monkey to man through a progression of intermediates, each slightly less ape-like than the last.” 
Wood doesn’t actually mean the cartoon version, but you can step, uh, through a progression of intermediate simplifications and come up with the drivel Pence does without significantly twisting Wood’s words.

Wood’s next words are, remarkably, “Now human evolution looks like a bush”.

It’s looked like a bush for as long as I’ve been around, and that’s a fair amount of time. How often do you hear “the tree of life has many branches” or similar? Who knows why Wood (or the journalist) stressed this as a change in thinking. It doesn’t help.

Writers have often taken a leaf at the tip of the twig – let’s say a race horse - and traced it backwards down to the main branch - let’s say to Eohippus, the Dawn Horse - and written, ‘Little Eohippus is the ancestor of Seabiscuit’. It makes a good cartoon, and it’s a tidy story. There are plenty of other leaves and twigs, and this isn’t their story. Seabiscuit’s story doesn’t violate the principles of evolution but it does simplify it as linear. That’s because, if you first select the end point of your discussion, that makes each subsequent step after the origin look inevitable and pre-ordained. But Seabiscuit was not the only pinnacle of Eohippus’s journey. You could select a zebra’s twig as the end point and go back down to the Dawn Horse; you could select a quagga; you could select a Przewalski's horse. Eohippus would apparently lead inevitably to each of them. In other words, it looks like a bush, like the hominids.

But now comes a new find by paleontologists. In the
newspapers all across America, a new study in ``Nature'' magazine, 6-
to 7-million-year-old skull has been unearthed, the Toumai skull and it suggests that human evolution was actually, according to a new theory,
human evolution was taking place, and I am quoting now, ``all across
Africa and [on] the Earth,'' and the Earth was once truly, and I quote, ``a
planet of the apes on which nature was experimenting with many human-
like creatures.''

Pence isn't lying. He actually is quoting. But what is Pence quoting? The paleoanthropologist who found the skull? Nope. A prominent scientist? Nope. Well, then, that PR puff article in Nature quoting that guy Wood, surely? Nope. The quote is from the newspaper USA Today, which had pounced on the story in delight and introduced its own set of simplifications. Pence then deleted a word to make it appear that whoever he was quoting had said human evolution was taking place all across the Earth.

USA Today: “Paleontologists are hailing the discovery, reported in today's Nature, as the most significant in 75 years. The "Toumai" skull, found by a team led by Michel Brunet of the University of Poitiers in France is the oldest ever found and the first found outside of eastern or southern Africa. It suggests that human evolution was taking place all across Africa and that Earth once truly was a planet of the apes on which nature was experimenting with many humanlike creatures.”

“[A]ll across Africa” ends one thought. “[A]nd that Earth” begins another. It’s not same as the phrase “all across Africa and the Earth” describing a location.

USA Today’s wording was already simplified from what was said in Nature:
“On the bright side, Toumaï's discovery suggests that, even if they were rarely fossilized, ancient apes and hominids roamed right across Africa. "Finding hominids in the Sahara was a bit of a long shot," says Wood. “So far, most fossil hominids have turned up in the east, with a few further south.”
Back to Pence:
Paleontologists are excited about this, Mr. Speaker. But no one is
pointing out that the textbooks will need to be changed because the old
theory of evolution taught for 77 years in the classrooms of America as
fact is suddenly replaced by a new theory, or I hasten to add, I am
sure we will be told a new fact.

Here’s where we start to get into either massive confusion or perhaps just an attempt to massively confuse. He’s still insisting on this 77 years (1925, Scopes, to 2002, the date of the speech) even though we’ve seen that is not the correct start date. He’s missed out the part of the article that might have helped him suggest that the text books be changed. After his “linear lines” remark, he could have reinforced that he believed it to be “a new theory” with a mention of the bush-shaped thing replacing the Mel Gibson-topped evolutionary line-shaped thing. I don’t know why he didn’t, but it strikes me as poor debating technique.

The Theory of Evolution and the family tree of humanity are related, but not the same thing. One is a tiny story taking place in a giant, ancient world.  A young fossil of 7 million years or so is not going to make much difference to the theory of evolution, and the change in textbooks, if it was ever made, would be the addition of one line to note the older fossil in the record, of unknown significance. Pence’s confusion seems to go back to the introductory remark where he mentions The Origin of Species, which does not discuss mankind. The origins of man are discussed in a later book, The Descent of Man, 1871. It might explain why Pence thinks the fossil record can’t be used to prove evolution; he conflates the descent of man with the whole edifice of evolution. He may even have read this in yet another article in Nature at the same time:
“Ten million years ago, the world was full of apes; five million years ago, the first good records of hominids appear. Between these two benchmarks, the human lineage diverged from that leading to chimpanzees. And yet the entire record of human evolution in this interval is frustratingly sparse - a few fragments remain, all of which can be fitted into a shoebox.”
Fit in a shoebox. The fragments on the human line between ten million years ago and five million years ago. Not the whole human line; and certainly not the whole fossil record.

Adding another bone – which is of course a fact, not a theory; there isn’t much that’s more factual than a skull – to the shoebox doesn’t change the theory. It’s the same theory, with another fact added.

The truth is it always was a theory, Mr. Speaker. And now that we
have recognized evolution as a theory, 

No, Pence has declared it to be a theory, a word he doesn’t understand. He doesn’t get to declare something is something else by fiat and then a sentence later say, “now that we have recognized it as such….” That’s cheating.  It's the definition of the logical fallacy called "begging the question".

I would simply and humbly ask,
can we teach it as such and can we also consider teaching other
theories of the origin of species? Like the theory that was believed in
by every signer of the Declaration of Independence. 

This is the “two sides to every story” gambit. If the “theory” of evolution is taught, then the “theory” the Founding Fathers espoused must be taught. They deserve equal time. But do they? If we teach these two theories, then we should also teach the theory that man was licked out of the ice of nonexistence by the cow, Audhumla, or the theory that the white race was created by an evil scientist called Yakub, or the theory that Lord Vishnu told Brahma to create the world out of a Lotus flower, or….

This has all been through the courts, too. As a lawyer, Pence must know that. You can’t refight this one.

Every signer of the Declaration of Independence believed that men and women were created and were endowed by that same Creator with certain unalienable rights.
The Bible tells us that God created man in his own imagine, male and female. He created them. And I believe that, Mr. Speaker. I believe that God created the known universe, the Earth and everything in it, including man.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Scientologists believe that Xenu brought millions of cold-storage humans to Earth 75 million years ago and stacked them around volcanoes, which were then blown up, releasing Thetans. Does that make it a good “theory”?

And I also believe that someday scientists will come to see

i.e. One day you’ll all find out I was right!

that only the theory of intelligent design provides even a remotely rationale explanation for the known universe. 

Scientists aren’t going to suddenly decide Intelligent Design is a scientific theory, either. It doesn’t explain the known facts and doesn’t predict any new ones. It certainly isn’t falsifiable. All its meager arguments have other possible explanations that fit in with Evolutionary Theory.

All the facts are already on the ground. All Intelligent Design would do is postulate an intelligent designer who made every living thing in the whole world look as though it had been bred through descent with modification, i.e. evolution.

Then you’d have to explain both how the Intelligent Designer got here and why he designed everything to look as though it hadn’t been designed. 

Researching this affair taught me two things:
1. Someone who spends his time trying to prove God Did It instead of studying the world as it exists might be a fine monk, but is less likely to be a good lawmaker
2. Anthropologists (and scientists in general) should recognize that every time they pop up with a quote along the lines of “My paper changes everything and everybody who came before me was wrong!”, there are people listening who will use that phrasing as ammunition to bring down both the abject rivals AND the boasting scientists. Stick to the science and we’ll all be better off.


Yer Blues

The Smithsonian magazine has an article on The Blues.

“Some of these fans were musicians themselves, and they turned the stripped-down music into arena rock, complete with extended guitar solos. This raised new questions: When Led Zeppelin sings “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” or Jack White plays a resonator guitar, can it be called the blues?


As a Jack White superfan pointed out to me this morning, Jack White has only once been seen playing a resonator, and that was on a fan-only paid website. And Babe I’m Gonna Leave You isn’t a blues song. It doesn’t pretend to be a blues song, doesn’t sound like a blues song, and wasn’t written as a blues song. 

Hard to believe, but Led Zeppelin recorded it 48 years ago. If you take ‘pre-war’ as a blues landmark, it’s from much closer to 1940 than it is to the present day. Similarly, “When Led Zeppelin sings” is a daft statement, since they haven’t sung it since the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig in June 1969. And given all that, it’s a much older song still, first known to be performed by the folk singer Anne Bredon in the 1950s. She taught it to her friend Janet Smith, who continued to perform it at Hootenannies, until it was picked up by folkie Joan Baez and recorded in 1962. When introducing the song to singer Robert Plant, Jimmy Page only knew of Joan Baez's version, which at that time was credited to Trad. Arr. (traditional-arranged-by). He assumed it was traditional folk music and took credit for it. Bredon's writing credit was added to the Led Zeppelin track in the 80's. Since then, she’s received half the royalties for the song. 

There's no available recording of Anne Bredon, but Joan Baez’s version from 1964 is widely available. It’s folk music. Greenwich Village, Great Folk Scare folk music, as is Barbara Muller’s 1964 version from her album Double Premiere. There’s no it-sounds-Appalachian-we-could-assume-slaves-incorporated-it-into-their-field-hollers ambiguity about it; it’s an ordinary folk song that otherwise-normal New Yorkers sang. Led Zeppelin’s version is folk music, with added Spanish flamenco-style guitar and rasgueado-like flourishes. The odd version out is the you-could-call-it-R&B version by The Plebs from 1964, who also credited it as Trad. Arr. 

If you were going to pick an early Led Zeppelin song to point at and say “Is this really authentic blues music?” wouldn’t you pick Since I’ve Been Loving You? Or the us-versus-them (grinning)-in-your-face dirt of Bring It On Home? Or any of half a dozen other tracks? Personally, I wouldn't have picked Led Zeppelin at all. I would have picked a band that’s actually performed some music in the last thirty years. (O2 doesn’t count – not the original members.) 

The article reminds me of the one everyone was up in arms about yesterday. An Omni article promising ten under-rated Science Fiction authors we should look out for, it comprised ten of the most lauded, most well-known, most awarded and long-time-ago science fiction authors around. Journalists these days!
Led Zeppelin official video:

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Road to Park Hill Bridge

This Grauniad article on love and disappointment the northern steel-making city of Sheffield - not far from where I was born - is heart-wrenching. I think it sufficiently details the reasons why I don't live there right now.

The remark about brides who live on the upper floors of the high-rise apartment blocks taking the freight elevator on their wedding day so as not to crush their "frocks" in the cramped passenger elevator made me wince with recognition - and a strong memory of those elevators, with stinking stains down the walls from crotch height and the dull, cobwebby fluorescent light in the ceiling behind its vandal-proof (but not graffiti-proof) plastic panel.
The overall tone of the article was a bit too "it's grim up north" for me. I'm used to being from the Kentucky or Alabama of the UK but after 12 years living in London where people assumed I keep coal in the bath and gave me all the respect that stereotype engenders, it was eye-opening to move to the US where suddenly I'm in the top tier because I have a "British" accent. It isn't *that* grim. We have Hebden Bridge. And the Dales.
Why do Southerners assume Northerners keep coal in the bath? I've never known. Orwell mentions it in The Road To Wigan Pier. 
"Moreover the pithead baths, where they exist, are paid for wholly or partly by the miners themselves, out of the Miners’ Welfare Fund. Sometimes the colliery company subscribes, sometimes the Fund bears the whole cost. But doubtless even at this late date the old ladies in Brighton boarding-houses are saying that ‘if you give those miners baths they only use them to keep coal in’."

The Daily Telegraph was still giggling about it in 2008 in a book review. 
"Jenni Murray would like you to know that she keeps a very clean toilet - you could eat your dinner off it. Eating your dinner off toilets seems to be one of those strange northern customs, like keeping coal in the bath, that has never caught on down south."
Fuck off, Torygraph. 
The Guardian's story about Sheffield's Park Hill Bridge at least is grounded in reality, even if the reality is as gritty as the ash-heaps behind the steel mills.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Trolls, Trawling and Usenet

On Facebook we were talking about trolls, and trolling. As far as I can tell, the definition of "troll" today is "person I disagree with on the internet". As an example, if someone says, "I can't vote for Hillary because she'll get us into WWIII," it's likely to attract the simple dismissal, "Go away, troll." 

But it wasn't always thus.

Before the Netscape browser was released in December 1994 - call it 1995 - the World Wide Web (the www that often appears at the beginning of website's URLs, like this one above your screen right now: www.blogger. com) didn't actually exist in any meaningful fashion. I know, it's unthinkable, but it's true. So what did people do without Facebook?

We actually had something that was at least as good, though it was without graphics (pictures) except in certain cordoned-off areas. (Just as well, since we were all on Dial-Up and downloading pictures (binaries) could take all night.)

This was a text-based network called Usenet.

I'm not going to write a scholarly appraisal of Usenet, mostly because if I do, thousands of oldbies will pour out of the woodwork to say why I'm wrong. So this is a personal memoir. In a nutshell, Usenet was a hierarchy of messageboards that you read and posted to with a type of proto-browser called a newsreader. If you were lucky, you had a "threaded" newsreader. Academics had their own superior (in their eyes) newsreaders and other people normally obtained a "news client" to be their newsreader. With your newsreader, you would "subscribe" to a "newsgroup" and it would show you the messages that were there already in a "threaded" fashion. This meant that they didn't come out in chronological order, but in a hierarchy.


If you're wondering how, prior to the WWW existing, and without using email, the newsgroup messages got from where they were written all the way to your computer and back, all I can say is it's clever and complicated but can be done, just as the ancients obviously did build pyramids, even if they didn't have JCBs.

The overall organization of the newsgroups was hierarchical, and you specified what you wanted to "subscribe" to by calling out to its sort-of-Linnean full name. There were, according to Wikipedia, 20,000 active newsgroups and over 100,000 created groups. One of my favorites was alt.folklore.urban, which was "alt" (i.e. alternative, not centrally organized), concerned with folklore; and the sort of folklore it was concerned with was urban, as in the Jan Harold Brunvand books. Talk.origins was another, a talk group (i.e. heated discussion) about evolution, which spent many a long hour talking with those who held other views.

I joined well after Usenet had escaped the confines of Academe and become popular (after an upheaval called The Great Renaming) in 1987, and just before the world-shaking judder called The September That Never Ended in 1993. I was a happy poster in those days, using my real name and real email address in messages and never really seeing any trouble or even any animosity, not even in the group about evolution. (Ah, the good old days.) But one day someone on alt.folklore.urban told me I'd been "trolled". I'd never heard the word. He (I assume it was a he) replied that the word meant someone had been trolling to see if he could catch someone, like a fish, and I'd been caught. I'd never heard of that either. "You mean, trawling?" No, he said, trolling, and he explained how fishermen troll for fish. After that the scales (sorry) fell from my eyes, and I could see the trolling going on in front of me. The full phrase was "trolling for newbies" as the Old Hats were too experienced to rise to the bait, but new people were more eager to teach people the ropes and took a lot longer to realize they were on a hook. A troll who could signal to the Old Hats that he (usually a he) was trolling by some subtle wording in the inquiry (or in the headers), and yet still catch a newbie, was a hero. People then told the newbie, "YHBT" which the latter would have to tediously work out (no Googling then) meant You Have Been Trolled. They'd often add, "HTH" - Hope This Helps and "HAND" - Have a Nice Day. There is literally no limit to the number of times it raises a laugh when someone introduces themselves and says they're from Austria and a troll asks them whether the koalas are cuddly there. The first person then tries to tell the clueless American (who already knows full well) that Austria and Australia are two different countries. The clueless American appears to be confused and asks follow up questions. Hilarity ensues.

AFU developed and perfected the art of trolling. Snopes, a valued Old Hat of the group, certainly did his fair share, which may seem odd as Snopes' website now is a fortress of fact in a battlefield of lies. It all seemed like such a good idea at the time.

Maybe I wasn't the only person who'd never fished, because often the trollers were often referred to as trolls, and people talked about them as trolls, not fishermen; that they lived under bridges, ate goats and so forth. Since the one thing a troll craved was a reaction, "Don't feed the trolls" was a mantra; it was quite in your power to simply ignore them. A troll might (and often did) post a message to alt.folklore.urban saying that glass in old windows was thicker at the bottom because "glass is a liquid and flows" and the afu folk would have to bite their collective lips not to respond, because they felt they'd proved this was not true to everyone's satisfaction and rising to the bait would just waste everybody's time as they went through the whole rigmarole of trying to convince someone who was probably just an alumni with a fake name trying to rile people up anyway. The oldbies might find themselves rising to the bait rather than let others assume they did not have a satisfactory come-back. The newbies would obviously rise to the bait because they were in the happy fog of the newly-converted. "Glass Flows" threads could go on for months.

And that's where things could turn ugly. Clever trolls who know what the facts are but feign obtuseness are irritating after a while, and a preponderance of them can easily tilt the conversation into dark waters. But worse than that, mean and abusive trolls soon appeared, and were far more destructive, as they didn't just feed on innocents rising to the bait; they enjoyed driving people away from otherwise happy groups. Some of the techniques that arose around the beginning of the World Wide Web in 95 necessitated pretty much every public space to have moderators, and by the time Twitter rolled around, people being driven off the internet, doxxed, or even driven to attempt suicide, became a commonplace. Asking fake-clueless follow-up questions became the marginally-hostile sealioning.

Troll these days has a very nasty connotation. Wikipedia says,

"Two studies published in 2013 and 2014 have found that people who are identified as trolls tend to have dark personality traits and show signs of sadism, antisocial behavior,psychopathy, and machiavellianism. The 2013 study suggested that there are a number of similarities between anti-social and flame trolling activities and the 2014 study suggested that the noxious personality characteristics known as the "dark triad of personality" should be investigated in the analysis of trolling, and concluded that trolling appears "to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism."

Among a lot of other stuff.

But it started when people on newsgroups like alt.folklore.urban would post something like, "According to Gene Roddenberry, Captain James T. Kirk's middle name is Timothy," crosspost it to the entire rec.arts.startrek newsgroup hierarchy, then sit back and watch the feathers fly. 

They were better days.

[1] That's not Usenet, it's SFF.net. But I don't have a threaded newsreader to display the former. It's a good illustration of what threading looks like.
[2] Usenet still exists. I refer to it in the past tense, but it's still there and doing its thing.

Friday, June 17, 2016

I'm not a prepper, but...

...you know that thing where they say that we're all three days away from complete loss of civilization?

It's more like 45 minutes.

My water has been out since Tuesday - burst pipe in the slab, so I've only been switching the water on at the mains for an hour a day, to shower and do the dishes and so forth.

My electric went out for no good reason at about four pm today. (The reason given is that they can't keep the lights on when it's hot because they've run out of gas because they had that big gas leak that put a hundred thousand tons of methane into the air early this year, and apparently they need gas to make electricity, but they don't actually care enough about either to ensure the supply to customers.) On the radio today, they said, ominously, "Rolling blackouts are coming if you don't conserve the 'letrit!" but there was a clear implication they meant Sunday and Monday, not "in the next two hours".

With the electric went the wifi, fairly obviously, but less obviously it also took out the mobile network. DON'T ASK ME WHY*

I imagine the gas was still on - they're not THAT short - but it only powers the heater and the water heater, and the water's off, and it's 95 degrees today. (It's the start of a heatwave; 110 expected in the next few days, which is unheard of in these parts.) And I do have a barbecue grill, assuming I want to eat grilled ground beef, grilled brussels sprouts and grilled sugar snap peas, which is all I have in the fridge, which I couldn't open because I didn't want to let the 95 degrees into it and risk ruining all the food.

I'm currently binge-watching Supernatural, but obviously I couldn't continue doing that. I knew I should have gotten a Spectral TV that runs on ectoplasm and demon blood, but alas mine's electric. And anyway, Netflix is on the Interwebs, which is on the other side of the non-functioning wifi.
The picture I was going to use as a reference. It's Jack White as an extra in a movie called The Rosary Murders.

I couldn't spend time painting the picture I wanted to paint, because the reference picture is on my One Drive, which is also on the other side of the wifi from my laptop. And even if it wasn't, the printer doesn't run on demon blood either, and I obv can't keep the screen lit for too long as the battery won't last long enough. And eventually the daylight will go on the painting, as well.

I couldn't continue to write the story I'm in the middle of. The notes are on One Note, which is - surprise! - on the laptop, but the actual words of the story are on another machine, which is on a UPS, but computers today being what they are (greedhogs) the UPS was already out of power by the time I thought of it and went to get a flash drive.

I could have read a book - it's almost the longest day, so technically I could read until 8pm. In practice, I didn't want to. One other thing I actually could have done is practice a PowerPoint presentation I need to give next week, but as you can imagine, buckling down to actual work was not on the cards. (Now that the power's back on I'm thinking of all the things I could have done with it and planning to put those improvements off until about five minutes before I'm due to give the talk.)

After about 15 minutes I couldn't stand it any longer and decided to go to the gym for a shower. The last time I drove in a power outage, every traffic light in Orange County was off and I got trapped in Mission Viejo (nasty!) and spent five hours in a traffic jam.  I forgot about that, and forged ahead. I spent a few minutes trying to remember how to get out of a garage door when the power's out. Then had to try to remember how to set the alarm when the power's out.  It's over 100 degrees in the garage. No insulation in there.

Anyway, got to the gym in good time. Only half the traffic lights were out this time! Unfortunately, the gym also has no power. My one chance of a shower today recedes. Off to Vons, which does have power. And plenty of ice. I buy ice. The last time the power was out it was for eleven hours, and both freezers got to the slushy stage. I'm not a picky eater but I don't want to do that too often. And I buy ice cream, because. As I leave, the person-wanting-money-of-the-day at the exit wishes me a happy Friday. I can't think of an answer in time. (I suppose "Thank You!" would have done, but it wasn't coming to me at that moment.) At the car, I remember what's at home - 95 degrees, no aircon, smoke in the air from the recent brush fire, no wifi, no mobile, no printer, no Netflix, no Facebook. I turn round, go back into Vons and buy a HUGE bottle of wine. "Forgot the most important thing, eh?" says the checker. I mumble something about planning for the power to be out all evening. The line behind me gasps. They have no idea the power's out over half the town. How could they? You can't even phone out of the black hole it's become.

The PWMOTD wishes me a happy Friday as I walk back to the car, and offers me an opportunity to help the homeless, which I decline to take as I never know if these guys are legit or not.  I get home and try the garage door opener. No dice; the power is still out. I begin heaving the two giant bags of ice - one for the chest freezer, one to keep the kitchen fridge cold, into the house, followed by the ice cream and wine.

As I lift the surprisingly large ice to the surprisingly tiny gap between the jammed-in foods in the ice box and wrench it from side to side to clear a space, there comes that shaking-a-dewar musical rattle that fridges make when the compressor comes on. It gets lighter in the kitchen. Yes, the power is back on.  The UPS says "beep, beep", the computer says "bingly bong!" The fifty decibel background hum of the house reasserts itself.

Oh good. Maybe I should have waited instead of assuming this would last all night.

I will still drink the wine.

Tomorrow I will back up all files to each computer and write a Plan to keep only the latest version on each one and ...oh gods no I won't. That's beyond the power of mortal men and I'm sure nobody has come up with an app for it yet. I'll keep old magazines on hand with interesting pictures in them for reference pictures. I'll practice opening the garage door, find out where the candles are while it's still light, and maybe buy matches. (Lighting candles off a barbecue grill is difficult; I did it once.) I'll fill the tank - they always suggest you keep it full - and maybe even check the tires. I'll keep all my devices charged 100% so they're ready for bug out.

At least I've got plenty of ice.

*According to a nexpert, the phone takes a few minutes to stop trying the wifi network and go it alone. A power cycle would speed it up. 


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