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?

No. 

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.



[1]

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. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Brush fire season has started

...even though we still have heavy June Gloom.

We had a bit of a fire in San Juan Capistrano, between the megachurch-that-has-the-100-foot-Three-Wise-Men-at-Christmas and the creek. Perhaps that's Laguna Niguel, who could possibly know? At the time I passed it, there was a little bit of remaining smoke to the north and an open fire to the south.

Apparently it's out now and no Wise Men were damaged.



(There's a slide show in OC Register article here.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

George Berger: The Story of Crass (2008 book, review)



This was an easy read, a mostly linear story of a relatively uncomplicated band.

Crass were the archetypal anarcho-punks of the late seventies and early 80s, representing in my opinion, the forces that developed punks from Bowie-inspired teens to angry, anti-Thatcher, pro-union adults.

If the book is correct, Crass managed to incorporate a few problematic elements. They were founded by an upper-middle class hippie, introducing the sort of snake-in-Eden auto-schismatic effect that seems to occur in the origin stories of so many otherwise benignant movements. They pissed off the ordinary London squat-dwelling punks by attempting to placate skinheads. They were of the opinion that you could raise consciousnesses by one-on-one post-gig talking sessions that, as you can imagine, used up one Crass member per person targeted for hours on end.

Their hearts (and dogma) were in the right place, however, and the book quotes long passages from Penny Rimbaud's pamphlets that really brought back to me the anger and despair of those early Thatcher days. Remember the Falklands War? This book does! The marches, the strikes, the atmosphere that lead to Rock Against Racism?

It doesn't discuss the music much, and when it does, it makes it sound borderline unlistenable, which is doing it a major disservice. Because, obviously, Crass's music is TOTALLY unlistenable.

This passage resonated with me.

It's not hard to see how this could happen: Britain still harboured a macho culture wherein 'queer bashing' was still a socially acceptable pastime in many areas. For every kid that was enlightened when David Bowie put his arm around Mick Ronson whilst performing on Top Of The Pops, there was a whole gang who denounced him as a 'poof'.


Punk itself had gone from being a decidedly non-macho, gay and woman friendly movement to a place where men strutted around in big boots, leather jackets and Mohicans in a barely related parody of what they thought punk was originally about.

I bought tickets to see The Clash three times. The first time, they cancelled. The second, I forget. (Probably cancelled.) The third time, they played, but I was behind a wall of giant guys in leathers and boots and all I could see was their logos painted on the backs of their leather jackets. So in point of fact I've never actually 'seen The Clash live' even though I have been in the venue when they were playing. I feel I've lived this part of the punk story, at least.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Star Wars Ring Theory (Mike Klimo)

LYLE HOPWOOD·SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 2016











Well, this is a hell of a theory. I used to hear all the Star Wars theories because I was on all the Star Wars theorizers' groups - but they are on Yahoo, and nobody goes there any more. (And not because it's too crowded.) So I came to Star Wars Ring Theory a little late. 

You have to read it to really get the full impact of it, and it's 8 chapters long. I had to put it aside until I had an hour to read it, and even so I was getting punchy by the end and will have to read it again. But in a nutshell, he says that the prequels match the original series almost scene by scene, but not in a straightforward order. They form a ring, with the middle two inverted against each other. (It's called a chiasmus, which I'm familiar with from genetics - and it's fascinatingly so!) All those points where you think, hang on, hasn't someone else had a hand chopped off? Or, wait, is that the third time somebody's had a bad feeling about this? Or, didn't the last one open on a shot of a giant space vehicle approaching a planet from above, not below? And so on, and so on... They all fit together in a complex pattern, which he explains and illustrates with screen shots that make you wonder why you didn't think of this yourself. 

One of my theories (what is mine) is every sufficiently large text is like the Bible, by which I mean that if you have a big enough corpus - Lord of the Rings, or Shakespeare, or Harry Potter - there is enough STUFF in there to make any random theory sound good because you can always find something that matches your thesis. I mean, I’ve read Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. I’ve read The White Goddess. I’ve read the Golden Bough. I started reading this in the same light, but he managed to convince me that there’s a single path through all of the films that makes sense as a ring/crossing over structure. 

One sticking point for me was the discussion of good versus evil in the Star Wars universe as I'd gotten used to thinking of evil as a privation of good, a la St. Augustine, rather than a thing in itself. This theory seems to involve evil as a separate and equal force in the...er, Force. But if so, why does bringing balance to the Force involve the death of ALL the Sith but only SOME of the Jedi? That was always my sticking point with it, but he brings out several quotes from Lucas that not only support this view but actually state it in so many words. Yeah, I have to read it again.
What do you think?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

David Bowie: The Prettiest Star

I was tagged by my friend Dan to post a Bowie song a day for seven days. This is day seven. Unfortunately for the chain letter effect, I don’t know any more Bowie fans to pass this on to for the next seven days. Anyone want to step up?

Ok, you knew this was coming.
This track isn’t *about* Marc Bolan – it just features him on guitar. According to standard Bowie lore, the “Prettiest Star” herself is Angie Bowie, back in those halcyon days when Angie was his girlfriend and both Bowie and Bolan were graduating from being hippies – fabulous clothes from Granny Takes a Trip, all the right friends in Ladbroke Grove, all the right gigs at UFO and Middle Earth – to full-fledged swans, all the satin and tat and cool visible to all but paddling like motherfuckers out of sight below the water, trying to get ahead.


The track was released as a single, a follow up to Space Oddity and it appears Bowie thought it would soar away. In fact it fell back to earth with a thud, selling (it says on Wikipedia) 800 copies. It’s remarkable that people we regard as natural stars like David Bowie struggled so hard for so long. The old adage attributed to Edison that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” certainly applies to popular music, though I’m sure Bowie would never perspire. “Glow”, perhaps, but not perspire.
Bowie redid the track shortly afterwards with Mick Ronson on guitar, though Marc’s chiming Beard-of-Stars guitar figures were deemed matchless and were re-played as is. The video above obviously isn’t that one, because I have my biases. It’s the original 1970 single cut. (I hope.)

David Bowie: Queen Bitch

In case I don't get round to Day seven of Seven Days of Bowie for a while, Dan, here's a stopgap. I came across it in Suzi Ronson's feed.
I have a theory about Rock and Roll. Here it is, the theory what is mine.
All rock and roll is by and about four men who have 10,000 watts of amplification,150,000 watts of lighting, 6 ex-con roadies-cum-heavies led a manager with ties to the Mafia, 5,000,000 record-buying fans supporting them from behind and 5,000 screaming, fanatical fans in front of them...and they're belting out a song putting down a nameless 16 year old girl who dissed them after school like ten years ago.
Many kudos for Bowie for riffing on that trope and seriously subverting it in Queen Bitch.

(I have to link to the Facebook post as the specific video is not available outside Facebook. If you don't like Facebook, and many don't, there are other versions available on YouTube.)

Video link
Posted by The Crazy Ones: The Mad Rock&Roll History on Wednesday, August 26, 2015

David Bowie: Memory of a Free Festival

I was tagged by my Facebook friend Dan to post a Bowie song a day for seven days. It's after midnight, but pretending for a moment it isn't, this is day six. 
I wanted to pick one of the singer-songwriter early songs and had a furious argument with myself over which one. David Bowie is probably the only person who fits the late-sixties/ early-seventies singer-songwriter mold that I can stand. I can cheerfully hate all the others, whether they're critically acclaimed or otherwise. From Giblets O'Sullivan through Joni Mitchell to Fat Reg from Pinner, I've switched them all off in mid-spate and walked out dreaming of proper music. Music with metal in it. 

But David Bowie, despite the lack of feedback and stratospherically-high stacks of Marshall amps on the backline, manages to hold my attention.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Web bloat woes

Reading the interwebs on a laptop is a miserable experience anymore.

I assume the pages have been optimized for reading on a phone screen (portrait orientation) which along with the gigantic amounts of cruft each page loads means there's almost no actual
information per page.


Screen capture from today

In the screen capture, there are 79 - seventy-nine - words of news story and about an acre of other stuff. It's not that most of the real estate is taken over by pointless stock photos (a problem on many other sites). In this case there's part of a real photo, two or three sidebars of other available content, a social media sharing widget that I can't work out how to minimize, a pop-up link to the video I skipped watching in case I want to share it with others (I don't, and I don't know how to get rid of the pop-up) and a banner along the top advertising yet more content, but this time in categories instead of titles. 

And I dread to think what it'd look like without AdBlocker switched on!

79 words per page. I think I was doing better than that with Compuserve in 1989.  Simply scrolling down enough screens to get the gist of the news story is wearing out my left-click mouse button. 

Update: 

Eh, this one's even worse. 


No words in the news article visible for three screens down. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

David Bowie: Lady Stardust



LYLE HOPWOOD·FRIDAY, MARCH 18, 2016

I was tagged by my friend Dan on Facebook to post a David Bowie song a day for seven days. This is day five.
 
It's difficult to recommend a track from Ziggy Stardust. The album has reached such a saturation level that everyone has heard it, and worse, for the majority of Pop Pickers today, the album has literally always existed. It was released in 1972, and so for anyone under 43, it's part of the bedrock of society along with Mickey Mouse and the internal combustion engine. Some albums can escape this fate by being obscure - if I recommended J’ai Mal Au Dents from The Faust Tapes (1973), I could assume the vast majority of people have not heard it. But Ziggy Stardust is not a diamond from the hot and dark mine tunnels of ancient rock, a la Nuggets. It’s more like a large city limits sign on the Highway to Hell.

But it was once new. No punter had ever heard it before. Albums back then dropped with a couple of weeks notice, signaled only by hyperbolic wodges of text in the inkies (the weekly rock papers in England) either calling them out as better than the best thing ever or useless slabs of ruined wax by no-hopers who should just give up and go home. Yes, Bowie had played a few Ziggy gigs here and there, but you couldn’t watch them on YouTube, nor where there video cameras that could fit in your satin split-knee loon pants.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that when it was released, I had heard it was good (no one knew it was revolutionary until later) but I didn’t have the faintest idea what, exactly, was good about it. I’d be here all day if I gave an account of my reactions to it, so lets just concentrate on this one track. Lady Stardust. 



I don’t recall previously ever hearing a songwriter sing about himself in the third person. Star, the following track, is in the first person (“I could make a wild transformation as a rock and roll star.”) Lady Stardust is sung from the point of view a watcher. “Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and dismay.”

(It didn’t help that I assumed Lady Stardust was Ziggy’s girlfriend. Don’t laugh. I had *heard* of gay people and I knew rather more gay slang than most of my cohort, but for some reason the (no pun intended) straight reading fixed itself firmly in my brain and I imagined Lady Stardust (a combination of Elkie Brooks and Tina Turner) on the stage belting out Ziggy’s lyrics. (Ziggy himself being, obvs, the guitarist.))

It’s impossible to not believe the narrator is actually at the show and recounting what he’s seeing in real time - as though he was a video camera in loon pants. Even once I’d put two and two together and made one, so that the people who are staring “at the makeup on his face” are staring at Lady Stardust, not at her guitarist, the picture remains clear. I can almost remember seeing the boy in the bright blue jeans jump up on the stage, because the image is so bright it might as well be one of my own memories. And the way the narrator’s singing, it’s almost a lament. You surmise that something bad has already happened and Lady Stardust is not going to enjoy his fame for long, even if, as the narrator exaggerates for effect, the song seemed to go on forever. And that’s what special about this track. The words are plain and photorealistically descriptive; the melody is disconsolate and dejected, superficially because he cannot admit his love of the singer, but underneath it seems to be because the man he sees on stage does not really exist. He’s a projected image that will shortly disappear, perhaps lingering a while like the phosphor dot in the center of old TV screens as they were turned off.

Or not. There are other interpretations. One popular theory is that the song is about Marc Bolan (and you know how I love Marc Bolan). I can imagine Bowie thinking of Marc as a queen, but it doesn’t quite fit. His songs aren’t about darkness and disgrace, for one. For another, I don’t see Bowie looking at Bolan and thinking “animal grace”. If it is about Marc, the prediction still came true eventually, a little while after Ziggy’s own demise.

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