An introduction

This is a semi-public place to dump text too flimsy to even become a blog post. I wouldn't recommend reading it unless you have a lot of time to waste. You'd be better off at my livejournal. I also have another blog, and write most of the French journal summaries at the Eurozine Review.

Why do I clutter up the internet with this stuff at all? Mainly because I'm trying to get into the habit of displaying as much as possible of what I'm doing in public. Also, Blogger is a decent interface for a notebook

Friday, March 9, 2012

debt and morals

John Holbo on markets and morality:

the Plato I was teaching was, to a surprising extent, about debt, reciprocity and, generally, the convertability of moral into monetary categories, and vice versa. Euthyphro on piety. It’s ‘care of the gods’, which – this is his final suggestion – turns out to be the capacity to enter into healthy exchange relations. Meno on whether being good boils down to getting your hands on the goods. Cephalus, the old man, launches the mighty ship, Republic, with the thought that justice is ‘speaking truth and paying debts’, which morphs into the lex talionis thought that justice is payback – doing good to friends and harm to enemies. Plato, like Graeber, is really really concerned to shred this stuff, if he can.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Penny Gaffs

"Penny Gaffs" were small, informal theatres which became very popular in English slums from the 1820s:

The pieces which would be presented here can be related to several of the dramatic forms which developed mostly outside the patent theatres, and which could evolve and be critical to degrees forbidden to "straight" plays: these included burletta and assorted dramatic pieces presented at the minor theatres and fairgrounds, pantomime, and the entertainments of strolling players.... A penny gaff was usually a shop adapted as a theatre in which an entertainment comprising sketches, songs, farces and drag acts would be presented when enough people were assembled.

Most of the internet is recycling a small set of eyewitness accounts. Here is a trio of full articles:

It was not a commodious building, nor particularly handsome, the only attempt at embellishmentappearing at the stage end, where for the space of a few feet the plaster wall was covered with ordinary wall paper of a grape vine pattern, and further ornamented by coloured and spangled portraits of Mrs. Douglas Fitzbruce in her celebrated characters of "Cupid" and "Lady Godiva."

Here's another overview.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Self-doubt: placed by culture, removed by mad science

Brain manipulation via electricity.
Sally Adee does what makes Wired actually good, underneath the manic trend-jumping and the boosting of dubious shiny gadgets. She takes a cyberpunk-seeming story, explains it is already happening, and points out social implications.

The cyberpunk story goes like this. Putting some electrodes on your brain can double the rate at which you learn. Why? Because it turns off the inner voice that constantly tells you how much a mess you're making of life:

Me without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head; I'eve experienced something close to it during 2-hour Iyengar yoga classes, but the fragile peace in my head would be shattered almost the second I set foot outside the calm of the studio. I had certainly never experienced instant zen in the frustrating middle of something I was terrible at.

And once you realise how much self-doubt drags us back, you can't help but wonder where it comes from:

could school-age girls use the zappy cap while studying math to drown out the voices that tell them they can't do math because they're girls? How many studies have found a link between invasive stereotypes and poor test performance?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Crazy bastard Lyotard

Apparently at some point Lyotard was channeling Warren Ellis:

The English unemployed did not have to become workers to survive, they – hang on tight and spit on me – enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body

Monday, March 5, 2012

Blacklists in the construction industry

Shocking. The UK's major construction firms maintained a blacklist of troublemakers to be denied work -- radicals, trade unionists, or simply workers who pointed out on-site safety issues. According to the investigator at the Information Commissioner's Office:

the relationship between the Consulting Association [which maintained the blacklist] and the police and security services appeared to have been nurtured when the organisation went under an earlier guise as the Economic League, at a time when the state was keen to liaise with major building firms to discover as much as it could about Irish construction workers amid the threat of IRA terrorism.

Of course this stuff just gets easier and easier as time goes by. I'd bet money that some counterpart to the Consulting Association is right now identifying troublemakers from facebook or linkedin, selling their names to one employer or another. Perhaps the police are collaborating, perhaps they aren't -- it maybe matters less than it once did, as police records are only one information source among many.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Community organizing in London

Community Organizing, a system of social campaigining, concentrates attention on linking local residents into a political group, identifying their common interests and turning these into the goals of campaigning.

It is most associated with the civil rights movement in the United States, where the work of Saul Alinksy was crucial in giving it shape, both through his direct involvement in campaigning and through books such as Rules for Radicals. More recently, Barack Obama's involvement gave it greater prominence.

Unlike many USian ideas, this went decades without really taking root in the UK. Perhaps this is a result of it targetting local communities, rather than the free-floating trend-following activist international. Perhaps not.

But now it's starting to change. Citizens UK are pushing community organizing in London and beyond. They've had impressive success in forcing the Living Wage onto the political agenda. There's even a MA Course at Queen Mary.

For me to judge community organizing based on books and the internet seems entirely alien to its principles. Still, I can't deny loving some Alinsky's combination of community-building with tactically-planned attacks on the powers that be. In his words, "The enemy properly goaded and guided in his reaction will be your major strength."

Friday, March 2, 2012

The vampire before Dracula

I had always assumed that Dracula was the first vampire story. I was wrong.
When it was published in 1897, vampires had already spent a half-century or more in the public eye.

Most prominently, there was Varney the Vampire, a penny dreadful in 1847-9. And before that was John Polidori's The Vampyre -- a book written in the same holiday when Mary Shelley dreamt up Frankenstein.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Religion and the decline of concert-hall applause

Old essay by Alex Ross on the sacralization of classical music, particularly the decline of applause after each movement.

I have a rosy image of the hubbub of pre-20th century concert halls as a creative benefit, something which would naturally be appreciated by musicians and composers.

Not so. Many apparently loathed it. Musicians would plant people in the audience to applaud their solo. To prevent this, Gustav Mahler went so far as "hiring detectives to patrol the theater".

But for entirely eliminating applause after each movement, Ross blames conductor Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski dreamt of the concert-hall as a "Temple of Music", where the audience should " listen in spiritual silence and then return home refreshed and strengthened" [not his words]

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Victorian musical DIY porn

This essay by Alan Moore has since been turned into a book. I quoted this segment on LJ years ago, but think it's worth fishing back out of the memory-hole:

Pornographic playlets could be purchased, ranging from two-person dramas through to full ensemble pieces if the neighbours were agreeable. These publications came with sheet-music, so that if one of the participants were musically inclined then he or she could sit at the piano and provide a vigorous accompaniment to whatever activity was taking place upon the hearth-rug or the horsehair sofa

Also, at the end Moore has tacked on a fairly sensible social/feminist argument for better, not less, porn:

Rather than functioning as a release for our quite ordinary sexual imaginings, porn functions as another social tether, as control-leash, lure and lash combined in one, a cattle-prod that looks just like a carrot. Dangling temptingly before us everywhere we look it leads us on. Then, in the guilty aftermath of our indulgences, it converts handily into a rod of shame with which to flog ourselves.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Tree-climbing for cheats

Something which should exist, but (as far as I know) doesn't: parks cultivated specifically to provide trees for climbing.

We have elaborate topiary -- but only with the aim of looking pretty. It would presumably be easy to cultivate trees with convenient bends, branches at arm-height, and all the stuff you'd want to make a nice climbing tree. You'd need many decades for them to grow up. After that, though, you'd have a fantastic and pretty place.

Presumably it would currently be an insurance nightmare to do this. But that wouldn't have been the case 50 or 100 years ago. So why aren't there tree-climbing parks?

[This partly triggered by Aaron Swartz's plea to replace spectacles with experiences:

The world is weirdly disappointing that way. Billions of dollars are spent making and watching people explore mysterious tunnels, chase down alleys, and fly as if by magic, but there’s hardly a single opportunity to actually do any of these things.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

corruption as recession survival tactic

From the B&T comment on a Mail on Sunday investigative report showing the role of McKinsey in both drafting and profiting from the destruction of the NHS: "when the economy enters a long depression, securing lines of revenue from the taxpayer becomes a more important profit strategy for business."

I suspect not only is this true, but there will be some academic economics research trying to put numbers to it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

data-mining at Target

This NY Times feature covers corporate analysis of custonmer data, particularly around identifying times when people are likely to change their shopping habits. Major events like giving birth apparently shake up your shopping habits, with the result that pregnant women are a prime target for advertising:

[a Target statistician] was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a "pregnancy prediction" score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.

Since this is close to my professional life, I'm less shocked than I might be. If anything I'm surprised Target only worked this out in the last decade; I'd thought the big shops had been working in this way since the 90s or before.

But part of the joy of journalism is a kind of Verfremdungseffect: pointing up things I've placidly accepted, but which in fact are strange or objectionable.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Arab nationalist causes have ceased mattering

Nir Rosen on, among other things, the international connections of rebels and demonstrators in Syria:

"Arabic satellite channels as well as Facebook allow exiled Syrian opposition figures to observe the slogans of demonstrators on the ground so that they can in effect be led by the opposition on the street and reflect their views to the rest of the world. As a result it is safe to say that of the opposition activists and organisers on the ground (those who demonstrate, fight or provide aid to activists), nearly all back the Syrian National Council (SNC) as their representative to the outside world.


Even Islamist leaders of the revolution look to Europe and the US more than they do to Arab or Muslim countries (with the exception of Turkey). Anti-imperialist and Arab nationalist causes have ceased mattering to the opposition on the ground. It is the death of ideology, in a way. It strikes me as the opposite of many Egyptian protesters who reacted to decades of a pro-American and pro-Israeli dictatorship by expressing anti-imperialist slogans. But the Syrian opposition associates notions of resistance and anti-imperialism with the Assad regime and therefore the causes themselves have been discredited and their enemy has been reduced to the regime and the daily struggle for survival.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why I need to see Cassavetes

The BFI is showing John Cassavetes' film Faces, on 19th + 20th February.

I'm somewhat obsessed by the idea of this film. I've never seen it, never seen anything by Cassavetes. Every review I read makes his films seem more urgent and powerful and alive than anything else out there. I've even been avoiding watching them via internet/dvd, for the sake of getting the total trapped immersion of the cinema.

Unfortunately the reviewer who really makes me want to see Faces is just too overwhelmed to even write about it. She keeps on edging up towards discussing him, then retreating because it's too much . But here are some simpler explanations:

John Cassavetes' "Faces" is the sort of film that makes you want to grab people by the neck and drag them into the theater and shout: "Here!"....What Cassavetes has done is astonishing. He has made a film that tenderly, honestly and uncompromisingly examines the way we really live. [Roger Ebert]

What emerges from the series of encounters it depicts is less a narrative than a succession of alternating intensities....Cassavetes films his characters with such deep compassion that even the crudest sally comes off as a gesture of love, a misguided bid for recognition. And when that recognition comes, in brief flashes...there's a shock of emotional truth we rarely get to experience in life, let alone at the movies. [Slate]

Shot in black and white and overflowing with naturalistic, seemingly unscripted dialogue (Cassavetes films only sound improvised), [Faces] was a tour de force so radically different from American movies of the period as to be sui generis....Many critics prefer their art with subtitles or not at all. Cassavetes dared to believe that art and movies were not mutually exclusive, and he never gave up on the movies' capacity to move us, to make us feel, to connect us to the world and to other people.
[New York Times]

Many of his films—as difficult as an abstract canvas—are flush with a primitive intensity that makes them, at times, an ordeal to sit through.

Watching a Cassavetes film, you feel like a witness to a familial intervention, or to an all-night orgy of dysfunctional louts. His characters—over-the-hill, alcoholic, depressed, and desperate—seem to be stabbing at life, trying to find a part of it that still breathes so they can kill it, His camera is never more than an arm's length away from these cocktailhour dysfunctionals, pummeling them until they give in and tell us the truth [Movie Maker]

Monday, February 13, 2012

Attention Economy

I'd quibble with much of this nettime post by Prem Chandavarkar, but I entirely agree with the focus on attention as a scarce resource which is becoming perhaps the main target of capital:

If we are in the information age, the
one thing that information consumes is attention, and consequently
attention becomes a scarce resource. As an economy is substantively
affected by those resources that are scarce and important, our lives
are now being affected by the quest for attention.

The scarcity of attention is exacerbated by the changing nature
of alienation (as defined by Baudrillard). Alienation was earlier
characterized by distance - a separation from the normal routines of
life. But it is now characterized by an overwhelming proximity to
everything. The construction of sheltered spaces for reflection, which
were provided by the regular routines of life, are now difficult to
come by, and require substantive and sustained effort that few are
willing to devote effort to in an attention starved world. Deprived of
space for reflection, we face the challenge of being "reduced to pure
screen: a switching centre for the networks of influence".

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Flag of Convenience was born out of altruism

Adam Curtis, in an intriguing post about cruise ships, explains why so many ships sail under flags of convenience:

All this happens because of The Flag of Convenience. It was an idea that the Americans came up with in the early days of the second world war to allow them to send help to Britain. Roosevelt was worried that Hitler might declare war on the US - so a law was passed that allowed American ships to be registered either in Panama or in Liberia.

The Flag of Convenience was born out of altruism, but it is now used for purely selfish reasons. Many of the cruise companies register their ships in countries such as Panama and Liberia, this mean they do not have to pay corporate taxes in the US and aren't bound by many labour regulations.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Libraries and the cuts

Charles Stross reports on the destruction of British libraries. As an author, he earns a few pence whenever a British library lends one of his books. Judging by this, his income has fallen by 27% in the past year:

Libraries are substantially but not exclusively used by children, the unemployed, and pensioners: mostly people without the discretionary spending power to shrug and go to a bookshop instead.

And note the first group I mentioned. I'm not a children/young adult author, but if the drop in my PLR loans reflects library closures, then we have just slammed the door in the face of a new generation of readers. I got my start reading fiction from my local library; the voracious reading habits of a bookish child aren't easily supported from a family budget under strain from elsewhere during a time of cuts. I hate to think what the long term outcome of this short-term policy is going to be, but I don't believe any good will come of it.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Text-mining in science

Academic publishers' restrictions on usage are one of those things that wind up both outrageous and commonly accepted. Here, a Cambridge academic describes his project of mining the Chemistry literature and extracting structured information on the chemicals and reactions involved. This kind of work has big potential to improve research -- but it also harms the short-term business model of Elsevier. Hence, it remains forbidden.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

What kind of pervert are you

At the New Yorker, Anthony Lane reviews two films filled with sex.
Shame depicts the life of sex-obsessed Brandon, a New Yorker who fills every free moment with fucking. And in Sleeping Beauty, student Lucy earns cash by taking a sleeping pill and making her unconscious body available for the use of paying customers.

Though neither film is explicitly about fantasy, each describes a kind of fantasy. That of Sleeping Beauty -- from the viewpoint of the client -- is of easy control, availability. That of Shame is about extremes of emotion. It's Apollo and Dionysius, transposed to a world where Apollo is getting in on sex.

Sex, here, isn't necessarily sex -- it's a McGuffin which could stand for any activity which is coveted, or extreme, or intense. Anything which becomes an object of desire, which is fixated on and fantasized about, becomes twisted in a similar way. One kind of mind layers on organized parades of passive partners; another craves extremes of expressed emotion.

Nothing is so neat, of course. For a start, the taming of emotion has an apepal all of its own. Lane, coincidentally, suggests this of Shame director Steve McQueen. His earlier film Hunger:

was imperilled by the coolness of its own gaze. The wall of a jail cell, smeared with excrement as an act of protest, was filmed with such compositional care that it became, in effect, a work of abstract art, allowing us to forget what it actually was: human waste, applied with human rage, and surely unbearable to the human nose. McQueen could hardly be hipper, yet he remains, to an extent, an old-fashioned aesthete, drawn to extreme behavior in his characters not because of any trials of spirit that they undergo but because he is challenging himself to unleash the wildest material that he, wielding his camera, can then possess and tame.

And if the more you think about it, the convoluted all this gets. Not a breakdown, so much as epicycles upon epicycles, an Apollonian OCD trying to leave its grip on the chaos of human passion.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sleepy Berlin subcultures

Momus argues that Berlin doesn't even have the money for its subcultures to sell out:

Berlin sometimes seems like a museum of youth culture styles we invented in Britain: punk, goth, Spiral Tribe crusty. In Britain there's a perpetual dialectic between alternative lifestyles and the money system, which means that within a couple of years any given subcultural style will have been turned into a big business club scene, and then, shortly after that, will be the soundtrack and the style of a bank commercial, and, just after that, will be utterly naff, dead and unmentionable. But in Berlin it seems that punk, goth, industrial and rave looks are adopted for life by people who live them as permanent subcultural styles, entirely apart from the money system. Nobody hypes them up, buys them out, and flogs them dead. The styles are "timeless and eternal", the visual corollary of a life of protest and tolerated companionable deviance. Their adepts resemble post-protestant monks and nuns who've taken lifetime vows ("I will own two big dogs and make sculpture out of junk"). It's touching but also somewhat appalling.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Protestant values and the spirit of rebellion


Mediterranean cultures—and I'd include that whole tranche of peninsulas from Greece to France—tend to avoid the extremities of subcultural style, and I think it's because these tend to originate in Protestant and Post-Protestant cultures (the US, UK, Holland, Germany) and be an expression of "protest" values, a permanent "reformation". French, Portugese, Spanish, Italians, Greeks tend to be much more family-oriented and, as you say, conformist, either Catholic or Greek Orthodox culturally, Classical-Catholic rather than Romantic-Protestant.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

during the past 12 months a black person was 29.7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person. That figure was 26.6 the previous year.

In 2009, black people were 10.7 times more likely to be stopped than whites under the controversial "exceptional" power

-- from the Guardian -- which, typically, doesn't link to it's sources. As far as I can see it's from a campaign group backed by the LSE and Soros' Open Society Justice Initiative

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A medium to embrace in

Part of the glory of Norman Rush's novel Mating is that it's about loving by doing:

"Supposing we had met in the eighteen nineties, say, when there was nothing ambiguous about socialism being the answer to everything. It would have been obvious that the collective ownership fo the means of production was all that was needed to make us happy. That would have been a medium for us to embrace in. We would have been perfect militants"

Monday, January 23, 2012

Where Sady Doyle is hiding

Over the last few months, I've repeatedly headed to Tiger Beatdown, hoping to find something new from Sady Doyle. There never was.

I'd worried that she had stopped writing for some reason -- job, depression, burnout, any of the usual downers. Gladly, it turns out the opposite is true -- she's found places to pay her for words.

In These Times, Rookie. Sady links these and others on twitter.

My favourite of her recent articles is about women in comedy:

They’re comedians; being pretty and nice is not their job.

What makes comedians transgressive, from Lucille Ball to Ken Jeong, is their willingness to look bad in public. Women have never been encouraged to cultivate this fearlessness. There are exceptions – Ball or Joan Rivers come to mind – but they tend to prove the rule. Lady Loser Comedy opens up the game. Women who have the profane deadpan of McCarthy, or the cool prickliness of Fey or the off-rhythm intensity of Wiig: They’re not excluded any more. They embarrass themselves, they’re completely inappropriate, and that’s fine; it’s comedy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Chinese reaction to SOPA

At the New Yorker, Evan Osnos has an entertaining round-up of how the online wags of China have responded to SOPA. Mostly, it seems, with humor:

At last, the planet is becoming unified: We are ahead of the whole world, and the ‘American imperialists’ are racing to catch up.”

“I’ve come up with a perfect solution: You can come to China to download all your pirated media, and we’ll go to America to discuss politically sensitive subjects.”

Saturday, January 21, 2012

When Hitchens was useful

The significance of Hitchens passing may have more to do with the fact that he was the last of a dying (no pun intended) breed -- the erudite, iconoclast commentator who kept up with current events so you wouldn't have to. It's not that iconoclasm or erudition as such has disappeared. Instead, it has become generalized, through blogging, and in the process has been deprived of its exchange value.


Friday, January 20, 2012

The Economist on state capitalism

Since 2008, I've been repeatedly amused by the contrast between coverage in the Economist and the Financial Times, compared to the mainstream centre-left. The bastions of liberalism see capitalism under threat; the

The social democrats rarely even mention capitalism by name, let alone predict its alteration or demise. They're too cowed, too nervous -- and, I suspect, too insecure in their understanding of economics and finance.

This week Lenin is on the cover of Economist, introducing a feature on state capitalism. By this they mean the rise of state-run companies, including from the developing world, as the new behemoths of the economy. They're not ashamed to put it into historical terms:

The era of free-market triumphalism has come to a juddering halt, and the crisis that destroyed Lehman Brothers in 2008 is now engulfing much of the rich world. The weakest countries, such as Greece, have already been plunged into chaos....
The crisis of liberal capitalism has been rendered more serious by the rise of a potent alternative: state capitalism, which tries to meld the powers of the state with the powers of capitalism. It depends on government to pick winners and promote economic growth. But it also uses capitalist tools such as listing state-owned companies on the stockmarket and embracing globalisation.

The party line is what you'd expect. To the Economist state-run companies are better than pure socialism, but far inferior to private corporations.

I also can't help noticing how many of their criticisms of state-run companies could equally apply to Britain's PFIs:

Studies show that state companies use capital less efficiently than private ones, and grow more slowly. In many countries the coddled state giants are pouring money into fancy towers at a time when entrepreneurs are struggling to raise capital....everywhere state capitalism favours well-connected insiders over innovative outsiders

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Five years ago today, Armenian-Turkish editor Hrant Dink was murdered. Today 20,000 people have demonstration in Istanbul to mark his death.

Many are also angry at the outcome of a court case, involving 19 people suspected of being linked to the murder. Three were jailed for incitement to murder.

I'm often sceptical of court cases which become political causes. Some, though, genuinely do rise above the facts of the individual case to be debates about the injustices buried within the political system. Stephen Lawrence, Mumia Abu Jamal.

Hrant Dink fits among them. For a start, his killing was beyond doubt political. The trial just finished revolved around a nationalist group, whose members were

There may have been connections between them and the security services. There were certainly connections between their ideology and that of the rest of Turkish society. They were closer to the mainstream than Dink himself, who had been prosecuted for "insulting the Turkish identity".

There's been a fair amount of coverage of Dink today. I'm a little disappointed, though, that the Streisand effect hasn't really kicked in, at least in the anglophone parts of the internet which I notice. It's a shame, because the articles I've found by Dink are really rather good. Here he is in an article which connects Turkeys relations with the EU to the treatment of minorities within Turkish society:

the EU finds nearly all elements of Turkish society and its institutions divided against itself on the issue. Political left and right, secular and religious, nationalist and liberal, state bureaucracy and military -- the situation is the same in that everywhere there are internal conflicts over Europe at least as much as conflicts between the camps.

Since no part of Turkish society is homogeneously "for" or "against" the European Union, the EU process has had a singular effect: dissolving Turkey's existing polarisations and becoming itself the main inner dynamic of Turkish development.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Critique and innovation

Are critique and innovation the same thing?

On Nettime, Prem Chandavarkar argues they are different, but co-existing:

The avant-garde are (to use a term from Thomas Kuhn) paradigm
shifters. Their work consists of two facets that operate
simultaneously. One is a deep critique of current paradigms of
cultural production. And the other is production of artistic work
that demonstrates a new paradigm and a new set of possibilities. One
cannot privilege either of these facets saying it is primary, and
the other derives from it - the relationship between the two is far
more complex. However the two always go together

Momus thinks, in a weaker version, that they can be:

Sometimes satire and innovation are the same thing. Everything is chugging along just fine in a discipline — pop music, design, whatever. There are norms, habits, maxims. It all looks like common sense, although in fact it's just repetition and conformity. Then — bang! — out jump these jokers who mock the whole thing, send it up because they're not really invested in it, terribly bored by it, and have no jobs and nothing to lose...They want to change the paradigms and put themselves at the centre of a new way of doing things. And on their mockery they build something good, against all the odds. You have to knock something down before you can build something new.

You'll often find hints of a stronger argument from those who work through the form of criticism, or who praise it (these two unsurprisingly tend to coexist). But I'm not sure many quite cross the chasm -- they may convince me that critique is a Good Thing, or that it creates conditions which favour change. But a gulf remains between that and making the change happen.

So in drama, Brecht gives us the Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect. This argues that critical drama should shun the euphoric escapism on offer from purely entertainment-oriented theatre. Rather, jolt the audience awake by showing them the weirdness of the present. We watch Charlie Chaplin eating a boot, for example, with great concern for his table manners. Thus we see the artificiality and the limits of, for example, our customs around eating.

Or take the cluster of thinkers around Critical Theory -- anybody from Adorno through to Judith Butler. Here the focus is on the politics of words, on laying bare the hidden meaning of the present. Again, this can demonstrate what is wrong with the present -- the operation of power, the closed-off areas of the unsayable. Perhaps it opens up new possibilities of expression. But does it force them?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Drug-resistant TB in India

Very Not Good, to quote somebody on Facebook.

Drug-resistant TB has now emerged in India; it had already been found in Italy and Iran.

The development of some kind of resistance is pretty much inevitable. The speed of that development really isn't. Nature:

Although the WHO describes TB as a “disease of poverty”, drug-resistant varieties might best be understood as resulting from poor treatment. According to a 2011 WHO report, fewer than 5% of newly diagnosed or previously treated patients are tested for drug resistance. And it is estimated that just 16% of patients with drug-resistant TB are receiving appropriate treatment.

"The cases are a story of mismanagement,” says Migliori. “Resistance is man-made, caused by exposure to the wrong treatment, the wrong regimen, the wrong treatment duration."

In the management of TB, many factors affect whether the disease is cured or becomes resistant to treatment. Drug misuse or mismanagement can result if a patient does not follow a full course of treatment, or if the correct drugs are not available or patients with undiagnosed resistant TB receive inappropriate therapies.

And then there's the usual economics behind it:

Tuberculosis trails behind only HIV as the world's leading cause of death from infectious disease. But in spite of its impact on human health and economic growth, it has not ranked among the pharmaceutical industry's priorities.

"The pharmaceutical industry had scant interest in TB for decades," says Richard Chaisson, director of the Center for TB Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. "The industry pretty much concluded it wasn't an attractive market, there was not enough potential profit."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dividends of Crime

Good news of the week: the Serious Fraud Office has grown some teeth. For the first time, they've confiscated dividends paid out by a fraudulant company.

This has been possible for many years -- the Proceeds of Crime Act enables confiscation of money earned through criminal behaviour, even if it has since changed hands.

And it makes complete moral sense. Investing in a company means (partially) owning it, which means being responsible for its behaviour.

The FT has some charmingly outraged reactions from the City. The Efficient Markets Hypothesis goes straight out of the window, the moment inefficiency is bad for financial institutions.
And so they fall back to the last front of financial scaremongering: pension-fund FUD. "Intellectually it’s unassailable", says one barrister, "but if it happened on a large scale it could undermine people’s pension funds".

Nonsense. Nobody argues you should fund your retirement by mugging old ladies. So why should you be entitled to fund it by investing in Muggers, Inc?

Besides, investors -- especially huge pension funds -- have a duty to investigate the companies in which they invest. Otherwise, you have to assume they're defrauding not just their customers, but also the shareholders.

Besides, isn't this why we have markets? To distribute risk? Presumably some innovative broker could concoct a scheme "Proceeds of Crime Insurance", and allow those poor pension funds to protect themselves.

Actually, I'd love for this to happen more than it already does. The price of fraud insurance would be a public indicator of how corrupt investors believe a company to be. It might even make public some of the due-diligence work done in parallel and in secret by analysts.

To some extent this already happens with, for instance, Directors and Officers Liability Insurance or Fidelity Bonds. It would surely only take the smallest of tweaks to make these explicitly cover the proceeds of crime.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thatcher on the bus

Rhian Jones is always great, doubly so when it gets to feminism and culture and politics:

[Thatcher's image on The Iron Lady adverts is] like being repeatedly sideswiped by the 1980s, which is something the last UK election had already made me thoroughly sick of.

Thatcher, according to an article Jones links, "had what it takes to become a modern icon: big hair, high foreheads and a face that would allow you to project your own fears and desires on to it"

And while the image of Thatcher as Liberty Leading the People makes my skin crawl, I can't disagree with this:

the images of both women are used in a cultural tradition in which the female figure in particular becomes a canvas for the expression of abstract ideas (think justice, liberty, victory). The abstract embodiment of multiple meanings, and the strategic performance of traditional ideas of femininity, constitute sources of power which Thatcher and her political and media allies exploited to the hilt in their harnessing of support for the policies she promoted.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nostalgia for British industry

Owen Hatherley picks up on the veneration of industry over services, as a political cliche which unites Labour and the Conservatives:

For Ed Miliband, it's a question of rewarding the 'producers' in industry rather than the 'predators' of finance capitalism; for George Osborne, 'we need to start making things again'....What does it mean, this apparent divide between producer and predator, industrialist and speculator, this apparent desire to turn the long-defunct workshop of the world back into a workshop of some sort?

Despite appearances, this is not a modernist argument. It's romantic nostalgia. Industry is old-fashioned, honest, straightforward, comprehensible. It's what gave Britain the identity it has lost in these confusing times.

In other words, industry is taking on the role you would expect to see played by the countryside. And, as with today's industrial nostalgia, rural nostalgia came from both left and right. Hatherley again:

Whether ostensibly conservative, like the Gothic architect Augustus Welsby Pugin, or Marxist, like William Morris, opinion formers in the second half of the nineteenth century agreed that industry had deformed the United Kingdom, that its cities and its architecture were horrifying, that its factories were infernal, and that it should be replaced with a return to older, preferably medieval certainties.

It's a neat step through sectors of the economy: the prisoner of finance pines for industry; the prisoner of industry pines for farming. Go back far enough, and I'm sure you'd find Mercian villagers longing for the good old days of nomadic hunting

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rural architecture

Rem Koolhaas claims to now be more interested in countryside than in cities. As he says, rural areas are "changing more radically than our cities":

Millions have moved to cities from the countryside. They have left behind a weird territory for genetic experimentation, intermittent immigration [and] vast property transactions. It’s truly amazing when you look closely.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Kuwaitis in Guantanamo

A typically nasty tale from Guantanamo. As usual, the sheer incompetence is almost as horrific as the abuse:

“The Government believed for over three years that Al Mutairi manned an anti-aircraft weapon in Afghanistan based on a typographical error in an interrogation report.” (See this report.)

And there's the enduring tragicomedy of the Casio F-91W

Al Kandari went to Afghanistan for charity work as well. He was married with four young children, one who was born when he was locked up by the Americans. Al Kandari was captured wearing a Casio watch, model F-91W — that was evidence against him. The US said the watch was a common watch used by Al Qaeda to detonate improvised explosive devices.

“We have two watches in Kuwait, Fossil and Casio. The watch shows the direction of Mecca,” Al Kandari said according to Guantanamo tribunal transcripts. It also had a compass. “I go all over the world. I am Muslim and pray five times a day. I need it. Many people in Kuwait have this watch. It's not tied to an Al-Qaeda company is it? I swear I don't know if terrorist use it or if they make explosives with it. If I had known that, I would have thrown it away. I'm not stupid. We have four chaplains [at Guantanamo] all of them wear this watch. I am not Taliban or Al-Qaeda.”

Monday, January 9, 2012

It can be entertaining, if grim, to see which bits of cultural history get adopted by extremists. The Larouche followers are my favourite case, with their mishmash of Leibnitz, and with being relatively harmless. But there's this case of a racist murderer, part of a group passionate about Ezra Pound.

architectural preservation by landmine

via bldgblog, the grim idea that the best way of preserving natural landscapes might be through making them too dangerous for humans to venture into.

The post carries pictures of beautiful landscapes -- and of the landmines which were once buried there. Remove the mines, and will the landscape in turn be destroyed?

It's not dissimilar to the allure of the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. Again, a certain deadliness suits nature just as it keeps us out.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Good Ancestors

Laurie Penny is now, annoyingly, writing good things in print that aren't available on the internet:

youth services are the first to go when cuts are imposed, because they have few measurable outcomes -- by the time the damage done can be tallied, the political careers of the current administration will be beyond scrutiny

Nobody is investing in young people, in the environment, in frastructure, in education, in any of the things that might make us - to use an adddictive little phrase I picked up at Occupy Wall Street - "good ancestors".

Instead, allt he current crop of politicians seems to be able to do is beg and bullyu the young and disenfranchised into giving them respect...I can think of few historical moments when respect for our elders has been less appropriate

Friday, January 6, 2012

Nashi don't look after their districts

B&T has an interesting point on the differences between officially-sponsored political movements in Russia vs. China. Briefly: only in China do the local candidates put in the work:

Your pan-democrat is the fellow with the big words about democracy; your DAB candidate is known in the neighbourhood for spending years ladling soup into grannies and talking 'common sense'. That's not how Nashi rolls.

I do wonder, though, why Nashi don't do more of the local service provision. It's the most reliable route to political support, and United Russia have the cash. Maybe they just don't feel they need to put in that much effort.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Spy vs. Spy at ISS World

There's no huge revelation in this BusinessWeek account of the ISS World surveillance-technology conference, but they go to town on the atmosphere:

Employees of Munich-based Trovicor are easy to pick out: each is dressed identically, in a dark suit and a red necktie, which is custom made, marketing director Birgitt Fischer-Harrow says.

“It is a Trovicor corporate identity. The company colors are black, white and Pantone 202c red,” she says, referring to the precise shade of burgundy.