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With Difficulty

In which FP muses on how hard it is to write something with all the distractions the modern world has to offer


There’s one big problem with computers and pervasive connectivity. The problem is: it’s all at your fingertips. Which means, when you sit down to do some work, it’s all too easy to realise that there are other things you’d rather be doing; and there are a lot that can be done there and then.

In a lot of cases that’s straightforward to solve: disconnect yourself. It’s a bit trickier, though, when it comes to writing blog posts. Particularly, the sort of blog posts that need fact-checking, more information, and so on. Once you have to start doing that, you start getting sidetracked down a line of “research” which is very interesting and distracting, but doesn’t really help you with getting your blog post written. The inspiration fades away amid a mass of non-information.

What I’m going to have to do, I think, in order to get this process going properly again, is to make more notes. Get a notebook, and find a place far away from the internet. Hide my phone. Lie back in bed, maybe, and write my posts with pen and paper first. And after that, put all the links in and do the fact-checking, after the text is already down. It all goes back to something I wrote a long time back, wondering if having a Blog Editor would improve the quality of this blog. An independent Blog Editor is highly unlikely to appear, so I have to fulfil both roles myself; but if I do try to explicitly divide writing time and editing time, then maybe much more will get done.

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Lights And Action

In which we spot some filming going on, so talk about something completely different


On my way home, last night and the night before, I noticed something going on along Ashton Road. Big floodlights, lighting up the whole street: some sort of night filming was going on.

Being intrigued, I went to the internet to try to find out what it might be. And then I checked my website stats, and found that people have been coming to this site, already, to try to find out what was being filmed. They can’t have got an answer, at least not from me. I haven’t been able to find a complete one, either, but I have found that it’s a drama about “the lives of young women who are involved with drugs and prostitution“, and it’s not specifically set in Bedminster, Ashton Gate, or in Bristol in general. Cheerful, then.

It reminded me, though, to say: you’d be able to tell, just by looking at my website stats, that the new series of Being Human has started now, with new extra dark edginess and even dirtier vampires than before. You can tell, because of the number of people who are asking The Interweb where it was filmed. To be honest, the establishing shots in the new series make it even more obvious than previously: most of them clearly show the street name. For new readers: the Being Human house is 1, Windsor Terrace, Totterdown, Bristol.* The pub, going by the exterior shots, appears to be along Henry St. K and I had a debate about the location of the car park in Episode 1: she said Trenchard St, I said Prince St; and the gay vampire’s house in Episode 2 was on Redcliffe Parade – as anyone who’s visited Bristol probably realised. Handily just round the corner from the hospital, in fact, should you have an urgent need to pretend to be dead.**

* Not in Cardiff, as one searcher seemed to think, presumably as the series was commissioned by BBC Cymru/Wales.

** In fact, I’m slightly puzzled now, why he didn’t pop up in the first series? After all, if you’re going through a major crisis and the self-proclaimed Vampire Leader is promising to destroy you, and you have a friend who has helped you in the past and is probably On Your Side … and he lives about 2 minutes walk from where you work, you think you’d probably pop round at least once. Of course, I know the real reason is that he hadn’t been invented at that point, but never mind.

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Art And Sex

In which art gets commercial and sells out


We jaunted off to London the other day, for the “Pop Life” exhibition at Tate Modern. I would link to details; but, well, it closed on Sunday, so you can’t go and see it now. The subtitle was “Art In A Material World” and the concept was to review artists who have embraced commerciality over the past 40 years or so, starting with Warhol and taking things on from there. It followed two strands that Warhol pioneered: on the one hand, the commercialisation of art; on the other, the objectification of the artist. From there it moves on through, on the one hand, Keith Haring, Emin & Lucas, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami; on the other, Martin Kippenberger, Jeff Koons, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Andrea Fraser.

Put like that, these sound like rather disparate threads; but they’re two sides of the celebrity artist. After all, when an artist’s name becomes bigger than their work, then their life is their biggest work of all. In the show, though, they did seem rather disparate, moving on from artist to artist between rooms with no firm connections between them. It took a few day’s reflection for me to tease together the themes. Arguably, of course, this is a Good Thing: an art show that doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to be seeing but lets you work the themes out for yourself. You might, after all, always spot something the curators didn’t.

We were expecting the Big Famous Art Names like Warhol and Hirst, as advertised, and we were expecting their most reproduced and commercialised images. What we weren’t expecting was for the show to be so, well, pornographic. Particularly, the Jeff Koons room: essentially, floor-to-ceiling pornography in an almost-empty, behind-closed-doors space. Most of the visitors seemed to not even notice it was there: in a busy exhibition, it was the one room we had to ourselves. From Jeff Koons’ porn stills repackaged as art, the show moved on to Throbbing Gristle member Cosey Fanni Tutti, and the scandal that her pornography-as-art shows caused in the 1970s. That artwork was, as far as I could tell, far, far tamer than Koons’ hardcore sex: it shows just how much society has changed in 35 years or so. And neither Koons nor C-F-T were disturbing, in the way that Andrea Turner’s prostitution-as-video-art piece was disturbing: a bare room housing a barely-styled video, showing Turner having sex with the art collector she had sold the piece to. Shot by a single fixed camera, it was cold, clinical, unemotional, the business relationship removing any passion.

That work of art was, you could argue, a culmination. As far as an artist can go in their own self-objectification.* It was followed by a room devoted to Takashi Murakami, at the extreme end of art commercialisation, two separated strands starting out from Warhol. Interesting to see how far they had diverged; and was Warhol really a clear starting point, or just a place where two trends intersected? For some artists, art can be a business; for others, it can be life. It can be martyrdom. It left me thinking, secondly, that maybe money and devotion don’t have to be that far apart.

The first thing it leaves me thinking of, though, is the genitals of Mr and Mrs Koons, blown up to wall size whilst hard at work. And the thought: “I’m glad I didn’t invite The Mother.”

* Going back to Jeff Koons, the show’s notes deliberately stressed that Koons had been objectifying his own body, and not just his wife’s; not having the porn-star physique early in his career, he had to buff his muscles up a bit.

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Photo Post Of The Weekend

In which we remember Latvia


All that snowy weather we’ve been having – almost all gone now, apart from the enormous pile of snow cleared from the office car park – reminded me of the holiday we took a couple of years back, to Rīga, Latvia. “Make sure you wrap up warmly,” said The Mother. “Get proper thermals. Lots and lots of layers.” “You’ll need to take sunglasses, too,” said Dad, “or you’ll get snow-blindness.”

All of which we ignored, fortunately, because we’d have looked bloody silly. Rīga in February was not too dissimilar from Britain in February, being grey, damp, and largely snow-free; it shouldn’t really have been surprising, because it’s on about the same latitude as Dundee. We took plenty of photos; but for some reason they never appeared on here.*

Baltic Revolution Memorial, 11. novembra krastmela, Rīga

View of Rīga

Museum Of The Occupation, Rīga

Latvijas Zin?tņu akadēmija (Latvian Academy of Sciences), Turgeņeva iela, Rīga

Daugava river and railway bridge, Rīga

* Unlike the above anecdote about the snow-blindness, etc, which definitely has.

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Ubiquity

In which there’s a band you can’t avoid


If there’s one band that was ubiquitous in everyone’s best-of-2009 lists the other months, it must have been Florence And The Machine. Everyone, pretty much, loved their debut album, Lungs, and every review couldn’t stop raving about it. We got a copy; and it was, I have to say, pretty decent. I was impressed.

This post isn’t a review of the album, though. This post is a complaint that now, if you turn the telly on, you can’t get away from that album. Over and over again, tracks from that Florence And The Machine album are being used as background music on trailer after trailer. I’ve heard it used to advertise everything from Slumdog Millionaire to The Hairy Bikers to Lard Rise To Candleford,* and more than once I’ve heard successive trailers, back-to-back, with songs from that same album in the background.

The end-of-year lists might well be at fault. After all, the album was released back in the summer, but this wasn’t happening back in October or November. All at once, though, at some point in December, every sound-editing person across the entire TV world seems to have picked up a copy of Lungs and started plastering its tracks all over their output. All channels seem to have had the same idea, all at the same time. It was a good album, but now, you can’t get away from it. Sometimes too much is too much.

* I prefer the typo there to the actual programme.

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Books I Haven’t Read (part the tenth, maybe)

In which we criticise a Great Writer, at least by volume


With such a big pile of books each for Christmas, there was bound to be something that I wouldn’t be able to make it through. The ironic thing, though, is that this Book I Haven’t Read is probably, in one sense, the easiest read on the pile. Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett.

Back when I was a teenager, I read an awful lot of Pratchett. I must have read every Discworld book at some point by now, and I’ve got copies still of most. The Parents, being unusually observant, picked up on this: and at some stage they started buying me a copy of his latest book every Christmas. As he’s kept on producing books, this kept on happening.

Now, at one time, I did enjoy Pratchett’s books. Back when I was a teenager. He’d published about ten, fifteen or so; so there were plenty to get through without it seeming too daunting. Moreover, he hadn’t run out of ideas, and the Discworld series hadn’t started to reach critical mass. Back then, Pratchett didn’t worry too much about making his world consistant, and presumably his readers didn’t worry about it too much either.

It’s something to do with that sort of fan, though, the sort that tends to be a fan of Pratchett, that they crave consistancy and reliability. They want the world to be as solidly-built as our own, even when the fraying at the edges is fairly obvious; even when its development over time is extremely obvious.* Even if the author doesn’t worry about tying up loose edges and gluing bits of geography together, assiduous and energetic readers will start doing it for him. And they did. A lot of effort started to be put into making the whole thing “make sense” in some way, to the extent that Pratchett ended up writing entire books apparently just to make incoherency a coherent part of his universe.** That should, really, be the point where you realise that a good idea’s been taken too far.***

All of that, though, is by-the-by compared to why I didn’t manage to read this specific book. I gave up on Unseen Academicals because, well, it generally isn’t very good. It’s not a book that gave me any sort of urge to keep reading at all. The characters are rather flat and lifeless, and the Deliberate Air Of Mystery surrounding the Mysterious Characters seems, well, all too deliberate, as if someone had written it all according to the How To Write A Discworld Novel manual. If I was a fan, I might have managed to finish it. Not being, I didn’t.

All novels, as you know, like to have review quotes in their blurb. For writers starting out, it may well be from a better-known writer who has taken a shine to this novel. For better-known writers, it will be an impressive quote from a review in a Top Newspaper. You can tell a writer who’s gone too far, though. They have what Unseen Academicals has: a quote from the writer themselves, about how great their own book is.**** It’s not a good sign, when you think you’re your own biggest fan.

* Note for non-Discworld readers: the Discworld started off as a parody of swords-and-sorcery fantasy. With the sixth book it started to expand to cover parodies of other literature, and by now has covered just about every aspect of Real Life of the past 200 years or so. As a result, it’s not actually a “fantasy” world any more, apart from magic used for comedic effect.

** Well, at least one. I’ve read it, and it does read like it’s largely filler.

*** And, yes, I know I complain about consistancy in Doctor Who. But the annoyance there is more the selective consistancy; the have-your-cake-and-eat-it grab-stuff-from-anywhere approach that Russell T Davies tended to take with the programme’s backstory.

**** Douglas Adams, I have to admit, did manage to get away with this once, by not sounding serious about it.

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So bad, it’s … well

In which we consider the history of kings


Last Thursday’s post, I mentioned Gödel, Escher, Bach, the long, complex and self-referential book by Douglas Hofstadter which features a tortoise, Achilles, a crab, Alan Turing and Douglas Hofstadter trying to find the links between self-referentiality, consciousness, and the works of the three titular men.

Well, I’ve finished reading it now. This post isn’t about that, though, but about a TV documentary I watched some months ago, which was one of the worst I’ve ever managed to see. At the time, it was so bad, I thought: I should start the blog up again so I can talk about how awful it is. On the other hand, it was so, so bad, it really didn’t deserve the effort.* That programme was: Britain’s Real Monarch, by everyone’s favourite let’s-popularise-history presenter, Tony Robinson.

Towards the end of GEB, there’s an interesting segment on counterfactuality. I think it was Umberto Eco who said “anything counterfactual is true”,** but Hofstadter points out that we’re always far more likely to consider some counterfactuals than others. Some counterfactuals are intrinsically more plausible than others. I suspect, myself, that some of this is culturally determined: “but what if it had been raining?” is much more likely to occur to someone brought up in England to someone brought up in, say, Algeria. “But what would have happened if Henry V had been a woman?” isn’t likely to occur to anyone’s mind, though, even if they happen to be thinking about counterfactuals in medieval history at the time, and even though it’s almost a toss-of-the-coin event.

The premise of Robinson’s documentary, essentially, was that back in the fifteenth century there was some dodginess going on in the English line of descent, and that Edward IV was not his father’s son. Hence, he Wasn’t Royal. Henry VII also Wasn’t Properly Royal, but from an illegitimate branch of the family; so his son, Henry VIII, relied on his mother’s royal descent: from Edward IV. Ergo, all our kings and queens since haven’t really been Royal at all, but are just pretending. Our real monarch is an ordinary Australian chap, living in obscurity and unawareness in New South Wales, called Mike.

Now Mike, to be honest, came out of the whole thing rather well, as one of the most sensible people in the programme. Far from being unaware, he was well aware that he’s actually an aristocrat, knows he has a title and everything, and knows exactly who he’s descended from. He was probably also well-aware of his claim to the throne, going by his response to Tony R taking him through his family tree. Being a republican, he was probably also rather bored with the idea.

What annoyed me, though, was the whole concept of the programme: that, if things had been slightly different back in fourteen-mumble-mumble, This Man would now be Michael, By The Grace of God, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Defender of the Faith and Head of the Commonwealth. If things had been slightly different back in fourteen-mumble-mumble, Mike wouldn’t even exist. He’d never have been born. Neither would his father, his father’s father, and so on. His 19th-century ancestor who gambled the family inheritance away? None of it, none at all, would have happened. It was perfectly possible for Tony R to contemplate that some past uprising would have pushed a Tudor off the throne and replaced them with someone else with True Royal Blood; but not possible for him to contemplate that the family tree of that branch would have changed in any way at all. Even though, of course, their circumstances would have been radically different, they would have socialised in different circles, had different obligations, this documentary relied on the theory that they would still all have married exactly the same people.

The other part of the concept was also, well, rather silly. To my mind, at least, but lots of people still do seriously believe it. That there is, indeed, something in your blood that makes you Magically Royal. Whatever Something it is, it’s very clever, because it disappears if you’re not properly married. I doubt that Tony Robinson seriously believes in that himself.*** It also, somehow, never dilutes, however many prince and princess siblings a king or queen has. If it didn’t, of course, we’d all be very much Royal. The people who still seriously believe in that sort of Royalty tend not to think about where it starts from in the first place: we worship the Queen because she is directly descended from our god, Woden.****

For a long time, as you probably know, there have been disputes in historiography between those who see history as a series of events created by great people and as a series of trends driven by economics, climate and technology. The truth is somewhere in between, but the two styles are as hard to marry as, in the science world, quantum physics and relativity, because they focus on entirely disparate scales. Great People theory is the quantum theory of history: it explains the world by focusing on the tiniest of scales, but at its heart you have to accept randomness as a primary cause of events. Socioeconomic history is relativity: you look at the wide scale of changes in, say, crop yields, and from that explain how society changes just as you can explain a planet’s orbit. An individual invention doesn’t even matter, because someone else would have invented it. Both of these are entirely acceptable ways of looking at history, and both are true, even though they can seem to be incompatible on the surface. Where you go wrong, though, is to base your history from a Great People perspective whilst assuming its events are as fixed and predictable as the onset of the Little Ice Age. That’s the mistake that Tony Robinson made, and all the other writers who have followed the “God Save King Mike!” line of reasoning. History doesn’t necessarily follow iron rails.***** Mike The Friendly Australian isn’t the real King of Britain, despite what his bloodline might be, because kingship in the real world is a little more complicated than that.

* Yes, it really was less well-thought-out than this chap’s documentary work.

** At least, Umberto Eco’s translator, who I think is usually William Weaver, in Foucault’s Pendulum.

*** He was a member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party for a few years last decade; given that political background it’s unlikely.

**** I’m not the sort of person who hangs around genealogical websites, but I do seem to remember, a few years back, seeing a Mormon-driven one that displayed family trees for everyone it knew about. Moreover, “everyone it knew about” included quite a few of the ancient pagan gods of Europe. If you looked up someone linked to the British royal family, then it would, entirely serious and deadpan, give you their family tree right back to Woden/Odin, as their ancestors had claimed was the case.

***** Bear in mind, too, that Way Back In The Mists Of Time the succession wasn’t fixed in any case. It could be willed, or a king could be chosen. William I wasn’t followed by his firstborn son, at least not as King of England; and kings before him were picked by a council from the eligible aristocrats.

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Photo Post Of The Week

In which we ignore the weather


Everywhere at the moment, of course, is full of photos of thick winter snow. Sometimes, though, it’s good to be contrary.

Freeland Place, Hotwells

Hotwell Road, Hotwells

Slipway, Underfall Yard, Bristol

Boats, Underfall Yard, Bristol

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Subtlety

In which something is hard to understand


Both K and I now have big stacks of books we collected over Christmas. As there are some books I had last Christmas that I haven’t read, yet, there’s plenty now to keep us both going for a few months.

As mentioned the other day, one of the books I received this year was Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas R Hofstadter. I asked for it specifically, but in doing so, I was already aware that it may well end up on the “Books I Haven’t Read” review list. Because, after all, its reputation precedes it. It’s a long book, a complex book, and it deals with some complex and subtle ideas.

Luckily, though, it’s also a very readable book. With its detours and its playfulness, it reads almost like a more complex, grown-up version of a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series. It’s definitely not going onto the Books I Haven’t Read pile, because I’ve almost finished the whole thing. However, I might have to start a new pile specially for it: the Books I Don’t Think I’ve Properly Understood pile. Many of its arguments are rather gentle and subtle, others are brutally subtle, and others I admit to having to skim over. This may well, according to some of its arguments, prove that I am indeed conscious and intelligent. Either that, or I’m slightly tortoise-like in my thinking. I’m not, as yet, sure which.

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Talking of time travellers…

In which we analyse a police suggestion


Ah, snow. You can’t beat it for sending people a bit mad and panicked. Yesterday the roads were gridlocked for half an hour at lunch time, because of the number of people who rushed home at the fall of the first flake. Last night, the news was full of dire warnings. Don’t travel if you don’t have to. Stock up your car. Make sure you take a shovel, blankets, a flask of tea, a flask of soup, sandwiches, cakes, a propane stove,* three woolly jumpers and the complete works of Proust, because you never know when you might get stuck.

I was particularly impressed, though, by the words of one of the local police spokesmen interviewed on last night’s news. “If you wake up in the morning and your car’s all frosted up,” I’m fairly sure he said, “you should get up 30 or 45 minutes early and make sure it’s completely defrosted before you set off.” It took me a minute to spot the flaw in the statement – assuming I’m not misremembering what he actually said. I think it’s a pretty good plan, though.

* Not a butane stove, because – as hardy campers will know – its boiling point at standard pressure is just below freezing. In cold weather, butane stoves get sluggish, give up and go to sleep. To cope with chills you need propane.

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