Thursday, October 17, 2013

Inspirational women

All my Finding Ada blogposts in one place:

Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh, sister of Robert Boyle. She conducted chemistry experiments.

Wendy Hall, computer scientist

Anita Borg, computer scientist

Caroline Arms, metadata pioneer

Hedy Lamarr, inventor

Lisa Barone, SEO expert

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (May 10, 1900 – December 7, 1979) was an English-American astronomer who in 1925 was first to show that the Sun is mainly composed of hydrogen, contradicting accepted wisdom at the time.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The ultimate K-Tel breakup album

If you are of a certain age you will remember those "ultimate love compilation albums" that were advertised on TV, made by K-Tel - a company which still exists!

Well, when I was about 15, I came up with the idea of the ultimate antidote to this: the breakup compilation.

Fifty of the greatest break-up songs of all time: the soundtrack to your divorce or breakup. For every mood from nostalgia to smashing the crockery. This is the compilation you have always wanted... but until now, it was unavailable. You have been waiting thirty years for this, whether you knew it or not.

At last, with the magic of the interwebs, we bring you: Classic Break-up Songs - the Ultimate Compilation.

And these last two for those messy break-ups where there is no hope of reconciliation...

And for when it has all blown over, and there's nothing left but nostalgie de la boue...

It seems like a good time to write this now, when I am happily and madly in love, rather than at the point when I actually needed this album to put on my stereo, when it would be too depressing!

More suggestions welcome!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Report on resistentialism

I reproduce here for your enjoyment one of my favourite pieces of comic writing, by the humourist Paul Jennings. It is of course a send-up of the philosophy of existentialism.
It is the peculiar genius of the French to express their philosophical thought in aphorisms, sayings hard and tight as diamonds, each one the crystal centre of a whole constellation of ideas. Thus, the entire scheme of seventeenth century intellectual rationalism may be said to branch out from that single, pregnant saying of Descartes, ‘Cogito ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Resistentialism, the philosophy which has swept present-day France, runs true to this aphoristic form. Go into any of the little cafés or horlogeries on Paris’s Left Bank (make sure the Seine is flowing away from you, otherwise you’ll be on the Right Bank, where no one is ever seen) and sooner or later you will hear someone say, ‘Les choses sont contre nous.’ ‘Things are against us.’

This is the nearest English translation I can find for the basic concept of Resistentialisin, the grim but enthralling philosophy now identified with bespectacled, betrousered, two-eyed Pierre-Marie Ventre. In transferring the dynamic of philosophy from man to a world of hostile Things,’ Ventre has achieved a major revolution of thought, to which he himself gave the name ‘Resistentialism’. Things (res) resist (résister) man (homme, understood). Ventre makes a complete break with traditional philosophic method. Except for his German precursors, Freidegg and Heidansiecker, all previous thinkers from the Eleatics to Marx have allowed at least some legitimacy to human thought and effort. Some, like Hegel or Berkeley, go so far as to make man’s thought the supreme reality. In the Resistentialist cosmology that is now the intellectual rage of Paris Ventre offers us a grand vision of the Universe as One Thing – the Ultimate Thing (Dernière Chose). And it is against us.

Two world wars have led to a general dissatisfaction with the traditional Western approach to cosmology, that of scientific domination. In Ventre’s view, the World-Thing, to which he sometimes refers impartially as the Thing-World, opposes man’s partial stealing, as it were, of consciousness – of his dividing it into the separate ‘minds’ with which human history has made increasingly fatal attempts to create a separate world of men. Man’s increase in this illusory domination over Things has been matched, pari passu, by the increasing hostility (and greater force) of the Things arrayed against him. Medieval man, for instance, had only a few actual Things to worry about – the lack of satisfactory illumination at night, the primitive hole in the roof blowing the smoke back and letting the rain in, and one or two other small Things like that. Modern, domesticated Western man has far more opportunities for battle-losing against Things – can-openers, collar-studs, chests of drawers, open manholes, shoelaces . . . .

Now that Ventre has done it for us, it is easy to see that the reaction against nineteenth-century idealism begun by Martin Freidegg and Martin Heidansiecker was bound eventually to coalesce with the findings of modern physics in a philosophical synthesis for our time. Since much stress has been laid on the ‘scientific’ basis of Resistentialism, it will not be out of place here, before passing on to a more detailed outline of Ventre’s thought, to give a brief account of those recent developments in physical science which have so blurred the line that separates it from metaphysics. It is an account which will surprise those whose acquaintance with Ventre is limited to reading reviews of his plays and who, therefore, are apt to think that –
Resistentialism is largely a matter of sitting inside a wet sack and moaning.

A convenient point of departure is provided by the famous Clark-Trimble experiments of 1935. Clark-Trimble was not primarily a physicist, and his great discovery of the Graduated Hostility of Things was made almost accidentally. During some research into the relation between periods of the day and human bad temper, Clark-Trimble, a leading Cambridge psychologist, came to the conclusion that low human dynamics in the early morning could not sufficiently explain the apparent hostility of Things at the breakfast table – the way honey gets between the fingers, the unfoldability of newspapers, etc. In the experiments which finally confirmed him in this view, and which he demonstrated before the Royal Society in London, Clark-Trimble arranged four hundred pieces of carpet in ascending degrees of quality, from coarse matting to priceless Chinese silk. Pieces of toast and marmalade, graded, weighed, and measured, were then dropped on each piece of carpet, and the marmalade-downwards incidence was statistically analysed. The toast fell right-side-up every time on the cheap carpet, except when the cheap carpet was screened from the rest (in which case the toast didn’t know that Clark-Trimble had other and better carpets), and it fell marmalade-downwards every time on the Chinese silk. Most remarkable of all, the marmalade- downwards incidence for the intermediate grades was found to vary exactly with the quality of carpet.

The success of these experiments naturally switched Clark-Trimble’s attention to further research on resistentia, a fact which was directly responsible for the tragic and sudden end to his career when he trod on a garden rake at the Cambridge School of Agronomy. In the meantime, Noys and Crangenbacker had been doing some notable work in America. Noys carried out literally thousands of experiments, in which subjects of all ages and sexes, sitting in chairs of every conceivable kind, dropped various kinds of pencils. In only three cases did the pencil come to rest within easy reach. Crangenbacker’s work in the social- industrial field, on the relation of human willpower to specific problems such as whether a train or subway will stop with the door opposite you on a crowded platform, or whether there will be a mail box anywhere on your side of the street, was attracting much attention.

Resistentialism, a sombre, post-atomic philosophy of pagan, despairing nobility, advocates complete withdrawal from Things. Now that Ventre has done the thinking for us it is easy to see how the soil was being prepared for Resistentialism in the purely speculative field by the thought of Martin Freidegg (1839- 1904) and Martin Heidansiecker (1850-1910), both well known anti- idealists and anti-intellectualists. It is in the latter’s Werke (Works) published at Tübingen in 1894, that the word Resistentialismus first appears, although it has not the definite meaning assigned to it by Ventre. It is now possible to trace a clear line of development to Ventre from Goethe, who said, with prophetic insight into the hostility of one Thing, at least, ‘Three times has an apple proved fatal. First to the human race in the fall of Adam; secondly to Troy, through the gift of Paris; and last of all, to science through the fall of Newton’s apple’ (Werke, XVI, 17). Later we find Heidansiecker’s concept of Dingenhass, the hatred of Things. But in the confused terminology of this tortured German mystic we are never sure whether it is Things who hate us, or we who hate the Things.
To the disillusioned youth of post-war France there was an immediate appeal in Ventre’s relentlessly logical concept of man’s destiny as a néant, or No-Thing, and it was the aesthetic expression of this that gave Resistentialism such great popular currency outside the philosophical textbooks. Ventre himself is an extraordinarily powerful dramatist; his first play, Puits Clos, concerns three old men who walk ceaselessly round the bottom of a well. There are also some bricks in the well. These symbolize Things, and all the old men hate the bricks as much as they do each other. The play is full of their pitiful attempts to throw the bricks out of the top of the well, but they can, of course, never throw high enough, and the bricks always fall back on them. Puits Clos has only recently been taken off at the little Theatre Jambon to make room for another Resistentialist piece by Blanco del Huevo, called Comment sont les choses? Del Huevo is an ardent young disciple of Ventre, and in this play, which is also running in London under the title The Things That Are Caesar, he makes a very bold step forward in the application of Resistentialist imagery to the theatre. He has made Things the characters, and reduced the human beings to what are known in Resistentialist language as Poussés. The nearest English translation that suggests itself for this philosophical term is ‘pushed- arounds’.
The chief ‘characters’ in Comment sont les choses? are thus a piano and a medicine cabinet; attached to the piano is Poussé Number One – no human beings are given actual names, because names are one of the devices by which man has for so long blinded himself to his fundamental inability to mark himself out from the Universe (Dernière Chose). Poussé Number One is determined to play the piano, and the piano is determined to resist him. For the first twenty minutes of Act I, he plays a Beethoven sonata up to a certain bar, which always defeats him. He stops, and plays this bar over a hundred times, very slowly. He gets it right. He begins the sonata again and when he gets to this bar he makes the very same mistake. He pours petrol on the piano and is just about to set it on fire when he hears a huge crash from the bathroom, also visible to the audience on the other side of a stage partition.

All this time the medicine cabinet has been resisting the attempts of Poussé Number Two to fix it on the wall, and it has now fallen into the bath. Poussé Number One who is in love, naturally, with Poussé Number Two’s wife, Poussée, mimes his derision at the woeful lack of manhood of one who cannot even dominate Things to the extent of fixing a medicine cabinet. While he does so, the piano, with the tragic irony of a Greek chorus, speaks of Poussé Number One’s own hubris and insolence in imagining that he can master the piano. Poussé Number Two is too busy to retaliate, as he is sweeping up the mess of camphorated oil, essence of peppermint, hair cream, calamine lotion, and broken glass towards the plug end of the bath, meaning to swill them out with hot water. He is desperately anxious to get this done before Poussée arrives home. She comes, however, while he is still trying ignominiously to get the bits of glass off one sticky hand with the other sticky hand, the glass then sticking to the other sticky hand and having to be got off with the first sticky hand (a good example of choses co-rélatives in the Resistentialist sense). Poussée expresses her scorn and asks her husband, all in mime, why he can’t play the piano like Poussé Number One (who has persuaded her that he can). Eventually she goes out with Poussé Number One, and Poussé Number Two, exhausted by his labours at the bath, falls into it and into a deep coma.

Act II is extremely unconventional, and although some critics have hailed it as a great attempt to break down the modern separation between players and audience it seems to me to be the weakest part of the play, the nearest to a mere philosophical treatise. The curtain simply goes up on a Resistentialist exhibition, and the audience are invited to walk round. While they are examining the exhibits, which contain not only Resistentialist paintings but also what Ventre as well as Del Huevo calls objets de vie (chests of drawers, toothpaste caps, collar buttons, etc.), the stage manager comes on in his shirt sleeves and reads the chapter on sex from Ventre’s Résistentialisme. Ventre takes a tragic view, of sex, concerned as it is with the body, by which the World-Thing obtains its mastery over human territory. In so far as man is not merely a body he is only a pseudo-Thing (pseudo-chose), a logical ‘monster’. Ventre sees woman, with her capacity for reproduction indefinitely prolonging this state of affairs, as the chief cause of humanity’s present dilemma of Thing-separation and therefore Thing-warfare. Love between humans, i.e. between Man (Not-woman) and Woman (Notman), perpetuates bodies as Things, because a man, in being a Not-woman, shows the capacity of all things for being only one Thing (it is all much clearer in the French, of course). Just as a man is a Not- woman, he is also a Not-sideboard, a Not-airplane. But this is as far as man can go in Thing-ness, and if it were not for women we could all die and be merged comfortably in the Universe or Ultimate Thing.
In Act III, the action, if one can call it that, is resumed. When the curtain goes up Poussé Number Two is discovered still lying in the bath. The tragedy of man’s futile struggle against the power of Things begins to draw towards its fatal climax as we hear a conversation between the piano and the medicine cabinet in which the piano suggests an exchange of their respective Poussés. The piano, realizing that Poussée doesn’t know anything about music anyway and will probably accept Poussé Number One’s word that he can play, queering the pitch for Things, with this ambivalent concept of love, wishes to lure Number Two on instead. (In Ventre’s system, Things are quite capable of emanations and influences by reason of their affinity with man’s Thing-Body or Not-other.) Accordingly, when Poussé Number Two wakes up in the bath he feels a compulsive desire to play the piano, forgetting that his fingers are still sticky – and of course it is not his piano anyway. The piano, biding its time, lets him play quite well. (In Resistentialist jargon, which unashamedly borrows from the terminology of Gonk and others when necessary, the resistance of the I-Thing is infinite and that of the Thou-Thing is zero – it is always my bootlaces that break and of course Poussé Number Two thinks he is playing Poussé Number One’s piano.) Number Two only leaves the instrument when he hears the others coming back. He goes to the bathroom and listens through the partition with a knowing smile as Poussé Number One begins to play for Poussée. Naturally, his fingers stick to the keys, the piano being an I-Thing for him, or so he thinks. This makes Poussé Number Two feel so good that he actually manages to fix the medicine cabinet. Poussée, returning to him disillusioned from the pseudo-pianist, flings herself into his arms, but it is too late. He has cut an artery on a piece of the broken glass sticking out of the medicine cabinet. In despair she rushes back to the music room, where Poussé Number One has just lit a cigarette to console himself and think out the next move. (‘As if that mattered,’ says the piano scornfully.) As she comes in there is a great explosion. Poussé Number One has forgotten the petrol he had poured on the piano in Act 1.

The drama is not the only art to have been revivified in France (and therefore everywhere) by Resistentialism. This remorseless modern philosophy has been reflected in the work of all the important younger composers and painters in Paris. Resistentialist music, based on acceptance of the tragic Thing-ness, and therefore limitation, of musical instruments, makes use of a new scale based on the Absolute Mathematical Reluctance of each instrument. The A.M.R. of the violin, for instance, is the critical speed beyond which it is impossible to play it because of the strings’ melting. The new scale is conceived, says Dufay, as ‘a geometric rather than a tonic progression. Each note is seen as a point on the circumference of a circle of which the centre is the A.M.R. The circle must then be conceived as inside-out’.

Dufay has expressed in mathematical terms that cosmic dissatisfaction of the artist with the physical medium in which he is forced to work. Kodak, approaching the problem from a different angle, has taken more positive steps to limit the ‘cosmic offence-power’ of the conventional scale by reducing the number of notes available. His first concerto, for solo tympanum and thirty conductors, is an extension of the argument put forward some years ago, in remarkable anticipation of Resistentialism, by Ernest Newman, music critic of the London Sunday Times, who said that the highest musical pleasure was to be derived much more from score-reading than from actual performance. Kodak is now believed to be working on a piece for conductors only.
I have left Resistentialism in painting to the end because it is over the quarrel between Ventre and Agfa, at one time his chief adherent among the artists, that the little cafes and bistros of the Quartier Latin are seething today. When Agfa first came under Ventre’s influence he accepted the latter’s detachment, not so much Franciscan as Olympic, from Things. His method was to sit for hours in front of a canvas brooding over disasters, particularly earthquakes, in which Things are hostile in the biggest and most obvious way. Sometimes he would discover that the canvas had been covered during his abstraction, sometimes not. At any rate, Agfa enjoyed a succès fou as a painter of earthquakes and recently he has shown himself impatient of the thoroughgoing néantisme (no-thingery) of Ventre, who insists relentlessly that to conform completely to the pure Resistentialist ideal a picture should not only have no paint but should be without canvas and without frame, since, as he irrefutably points out, these Things are all Things (ces choses sont toutes des choses).
The defection of Agfa and of other ‘moderates’ among the Resistentialists has been brought to a head by the formation, under a thinker named Qwertyuiop, of a neo-Resistentialist group. The enthusiasm with which medieval students brawled in the streets of Paris over the Categories of Being has lost none of its keenness today, and the recent pitched battle between Ventristes and followers of Qwertyuiop outside the Café aux Fines Herbes, by now famous as Ventre’s headquarters, has, if nothing else, demonstrated that Paris still maintains her position as the world’s intellectual centre. It is rather difficult to state the terms of the problem without using some of the Resistentialists’ phraseology, so I hope I may be pardoned for briefly introducing it.

Briefly, the issue is between Ventre, the pessimist, and Qwertyuiop, the optimist. Ventre, in elaborating on his central aphorism, les choses sont contre nous, distinguishes carefully between what he calls chose-en-soi, the Thing in itself, and chose-pour-soi, the Thing for itself. Chose-en-soi is his phrase for Things existing in their own right, sublimely and tragically independent of man. In so far as Ventre’s pregnant terminology can be related to traditional western categories, chose-en-soi stands for the Aristotelean outlook, which tends to ascribe a certain measure of reality to Things without reference to any objective Form in any mind, human or divine. There are even closer parallels with the later, medieval philosophy of Nominalism, which says, roughly that there are as many Things as we can find names for; Ventre has an interesting passage about what he calls inversion (inversion) in which he exploits to the full the contrast between the multiplicity of actions which Things can perform against us from a slightly overhanging tray falling off a table when the removal of one lump of sugar over-balances it, to the atomic bomb and the paucity of our vocabulary of names on such occasions.

The third great concept of Ventre is le néant (the No- Thing). Man is ultimately, as I have said, a No-Thing, a metaphysical monster doomed to battle, with increasing non-success, against real Things. Resistentialism, with what Ventre’s followers admire as stark, pagan courage, bids man abandon his hopeless struggle.
Into the dignified, tragic, Olympian detachment of Ventre’s ‘primitive’ Resistentialism the swarthy, flamboyant Qwertyuiop, has made a startling, meteoric irruption. Denounced scornfully by the Ventristes as a plagiarist, Qwertyuiop was, indeed, at one time a pupil of Ventre. He also asserts the hostility of Things to man – but he sees grounds for hope in the concept of chose-pour soi (the Thing for itself) with which it is at least possible to enter into relationship. But he is more a dramatist than a philosopher, and what enrages the Ventristes is the bouncing optimism of his plays and also the curious symbolic figure of the géant or giant which appears in them all. This giant is a kind of Resistentialist version of Nietzsche’s superman, a buskined, moustachioed figure who intervenes, often with great comic effect, just when the characters in the play are about to jump down a well (the well is, of course, a frequent Resistentialist symbol – cf. Ventre’s own Puits Clos).

The Ventristes point out acidly that in the first edition of Résistentialisme the word géant appears throughout as a misprint for néant. Friction between the two groups was brought to a head by Qwertyuiop’s new play Messieurs, les choses sont terribles, (loosely, Gentlemen, Things are Terrible). On the first night at the Théatre des Somnambules, the Ventristes in the gallery created an uproar and had to be expelled when, at the end of the second act, the inevitable giant had stepped in to prevent three torturings, seven betrayals, and two suicides. The battle was renewed later with brickbats and bottles when Qwertyuiop and his followers interrupted one of Ventre’s choseries, or Thing- talks, at the Café aux Fines Herbes. Five of the moderates and two Ventristes were arrested by the gendarmerie and later released on bail. All Paris is speculating on the outcome of the trial, at which many important literary figures are expected to give evidence.
It is, however, not in the law courts that the influence of Resistentialism on our time will be decided. It is in the little charcuteries and épiceries of the Left Bank. It is in the stimulating mental climate of Paris that the artists and dramatists will decide for themselves whether there is any future for art in the refined philosophical atmosphere to which Ventre’s remorseless logic would have them penetrate. Although Qwertyuiop has succeeded in attracting many of Ventre’s more lukewarm followers among the arts, who had begun to rebel against the Master’s uncompromising insistence on pictures without paint and music without instruments, without any Things at all, there seems no doubt that Ventre is the greater thinker, and it is an open question whether he will achieve his object of persuading the world to abandon Things without the indispensable help of the artistic confraternity in moulding public opinion.

There is no doubt, either, that Ventre’s thought strikes a deep chord in everyone daring these sombre, post-atomic times. Ventre has, I think, liberated the vast flood of creative hatred which makes modern civilization possible. My body, says Ventre, is chose-en-soi for me, a Thing which I cannot control, a Thing which uses me. But it is chose-pour-soi for the Other. I am thus a Hostile Thing to the Other, and so is he to me. At the same time it follows (or it does in the French) that I am a No-Thing to the world. But I cannot be united or merged with the WorldThing because my Thing-Body, or Not-Other, gives me an illicit and tragically deceptive claim on existence and ‘happiness’. I am thus tragically committed to extending the area of my always illusory control over the Thing-body – and as the ‘mind’ associated with my Thing-body is merely the storing up of recollected struggles with Things, it follows that I cannot know the Other except as one of the weapons with which the World-Thing has increased its area of hostile action.

Resistentialism thus formalizes hatred both in the cosmological and in the psychological sphere. It is becoming generally realized that the complex apparatus of our modern life – the hurried meals, the dashing for trains, the constant meeting of people who are seen only as ‘functions’: the barman, the wife, etc. – could not operate if our behaviour were truly dictated by the old, reactionary categories of human love and reason. This is where Ventre’s true greatness lies. He has transformed, indeed reversed the traditional mechanism of thought, steered it away from the old dogmatic assumption that we could use Things, and cleared the decks for the evolution of the Thing-process without futile human opposition. Ventre’s work brings us a great deal nearer to the realization of the Resistentialist goal summed up in the words, ‘Every Thing out of Control.’

Paul Jennings, The Jenguin Pennings, 1963, reprinted from Town & Country (USA).

Monday, January 14, 2013

Pitt Rivers Museum

I went to the Pitt Rivers Museum on Saturday, and noticed two things about their displays that I like.

They group objects together by function (e.g. musical instruments, writing and communication, clothing, sympathetic magic, religious iconography, etc) and include items from Europe among items from other cultures. This allows the museum audience to see how things have a similar function and morphology across all cultures (instead of marveling at the so-called "primitive" Other), and sets objects in a different context than if they were arranged by separate cultures, as they are in most other museums.

The labels are next to the exhibits, which means you don't have to cross-reference from a number next to the object to a list of numbers on a panel at the bottom of the case. (Sadly the Ashmolean has gone for the numbered labels system, which makes it very tiring to view objects there. The only exceptions are the galleries of paintings.)

Friday, September 14, 2012

I want to eat with the common people

I saw this interesting article by Ashley Miller posted on Facebook: The food of my childhood, the food of Southern poor white trash. At the end of the article, the author gives a list of foods that are considered lower class. And many of them sound yummy, though I have no idea what some of them are.

It's sad but true that what you eat is often construed as a class marker, as much as what you wear. Posh people eat caviar, poor people eat chips (allegedly).

Remember when Edwina Currie was rude about working-class eating habits?

However, I think we should celebrate regional food, and food that is considered "lower-class". It's often fun, cheap to eat, quick to make, and comforting.

Here are a few delicacies that are probably considered "not quite the thing" but are wonderful.
  • Chip butties
  • Crisp sandwiches
  • Black pudding (why hasn't someone invented a vegetarian version of black pudding?)
  • Mushy peas
And then there are the "posh" foods that are also yummy, like olive tapenade. Now there's a thought, how about olive tapenade on chips?

Ooh and does anyone else roll white bread into balls of dough?

Please add more examples in the comments and say where they are from.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Anna Karenina

Went to see Anna Karenina last night - very interesting (though not particularly emotionally engaging - but perhaps that was the intention). The whole thing had this theatre motif running through it, with sliding sage sets and views panning out to reveal that they are framed by theatre sets, and people walking through wings and flies of theatres to get from one scene to another. Most peculiar. It was rather Brechtian in the way it emphasised the unreality and made you think about the themes.

The acting was OK - Keira Knightley as Anna, Jude Law as Karenin (her husband) and a guy I didn't recognise as Anna's lover. Actually didn't recognise Jude Law with a beard! The script was excellent and was by Tom Stoppard (playwright who has also adapted Parade's End for TV, which is on at the moment).

The sets, scenery and so on were stunning in spite of the annoying theatre set thing.

[plot spoiler alert]

So the main point of the story seems to be a reflection on marriage and fidelity. Konstantin (possibly a clue in the name there) loves Kitty - but she is infatuated with Bronsky. Konstantin proposes, but too soon, and has to try again later. At the opening of the story, Steba has been unfaithful to his wife, and Anna goes to persuade the wife to forgive him, which she does. We also see Anna and Karenin together, and it's clear their marriage is solid and virtuous. Then she meets Bronsky and they fall in love, and gradually her resolve not to poach the bloke that Kitty wants, and to remain faithful to her husband, is eroded. But her husband finds it much harder to forgive than Steba's wife does.

When the affair becomes generally known, Anna is shunned by everyone in Society except Steba's wife Dolly, who says she wishes she had done the same.

The fate of Anna is perhaps meant as a warning, or perhaps as a protest against the way women are blamed for adultery (because women's desires were seen as "unnatural"), whereas men's desires were just seen as peccadilloes - "it's what they do". To some extent this is still the case. The 'slut-shaming' of Anna still has contemporary resonance, and her fate is clearly part of the warning. Perhaps Tolstoy had been reading Thomas Hardy... The other question I feel compelled to ask is, why was this film made now, right in the middle of an anti-feminist backlash?

However, I didn't have a lot of sympathy for Anna really; I couldn't see what she saw in Bronsky - the characters I liked were Konstantin and Kitty, and Steba and Dolly, and the wife of Konstantin's revolutionary friend. But then Tolstoy clearly meant Konstantin and Kitty as illustrations of Tolstoyan virtue and simplicity and getting back to the land, so I fell for a trope, dammit. More reviews at Rotten Tomatoes - the consensus appears to be that it's a mixed bag and the artificiality of the theatrical settings detract from it rather than enhancing it.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Theatre of unreality

Last night I went to see Hysteria at the Oxford Playhouse, written and directed by Terry Johnson. It was a slightly odd mixture of farce and serious drama about the origins of trauma in childhood abuse. Possibly without the farcical elements, it might have been harder to watch, because more painful. It was a good counterpoint to the film A Dangerous Method, about Jung, Spielrein and Freud. Anthony Sher was brilliant as Freud (better than Viggo Mortensen by quite a long chalk). The play hinged around a case history where Freud had initially concluded that the patient had been abused as a child, and then changed his mind when it became apparent to him that most of the upper echelons of Viennese society were child-molesters. I seem to remember something along those lines in the history of psychoanalysis. Dalí also made an appearance and there was a bit when the whole set turned into a Dalí painting, including a melting clock (I don't know how they did that, but it was very clever). So, all in all, a brilliant production, very thought-provoking.

Last week, I went to see A Midsummer Night's Dream in the gardens of Wadham College, performed by the Oxford Shakespeare Company. It was an utterly, utterly brilliant and magical performance. A really beautiful production. The actors were very physical in their performance, they put life into the lines, the costumes were great, the space was magical, the lighting was magical. I thought the extra bridging dialogue that they had inserted was a little unnecessary, but funny all the same.

Both plays dealt with reality not being quite what it seems, but in very different ways.

Down with school uniform

Suzanne Moore, writing in The Guardian, has condemned school uniform.

I commented:
Suzanne, thank you, thank you, thank you for saying this. 
At my [comprehensive] school, which I attended from 1980 to 1984, the "uniform" was that you had to wear a green jumper, white blouse, and grey or black skirt or trousers. Ties were not enforced (not even for the boys as far as I can recall) and if anyone had turned up in a blazer, we would have laughed uproariously.  Later, the uniform was changed to anything grey - a grey jumper instead of bottle green. Any shade of grey would do (oh dear, one can't use that phrase any more, eh?) We didn't go to a special shop to buy our uniform - there wasn't one. And no-one was persecuted for having naff clothes, despite the variations in style. The only time I can remember being ridiculed for what I wore was when we had a non-uniform day and I turned up in flares. 
Our school had the most Oxbridge candidates for the area - even more than the posh private schools. 
When I was a trainee teacher, the best uniform I saw (and the one most likely to survive the rigours of being worn by a child) was a choice of blue, red, or black sweatshirt - which could have the school's logo ironed on as a patch if you couldn't afford the official sweatshirt - with blue, red or white polo shirt, also with the school's logo; and black trousers or skirt. This uniform was comfortable, practical and hard-wearing.
Other schools in the area had blazers and all that nonsense, and these quickly looked absolutely knackered. The boys would wear their ties as short as possible in order to show defiance (and I don't blame them, but it looked silly) and the girls would get a skirt in year 7, when it was knee-length, and wear it till year 11, when it was merely a small pelmet about their assets. 
Researchers into school life have done various studies on uniform, all of which bear out the points made in this article. Uniform is conformist. It needs reform, not the imposition of more stupid blazers.
I then started looking at other comments on the article and realised there were people defending uniforms, so I posted another comment:
To all the other commenters who have defended school uniform: yes, adult clothing choices are sometimes constrained by circumstances - but you can still choose what colour suit, shirt, tie etc you wear. For the last decade, I have worked in an environment which did not require "smart" clothing. In the last few years of my old job, though, the managers started wearing suit trousers, smart shirts and ties. I thought this was silly. My current manager wears a T-shirt and jeans, and I respect him for his knowledge, not because he is wearing a stupid uniform.

For goodness' sake, this is The Guardian! If you like uniforms, go and comment onThe Telegraph or something.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Endless Knot

Paperback, 49 Pages
Price: £5.99 
Ships in 3–5 business days
Poetry of place, experience, the seasons, and the sacred. 
Written over many years, these poems are the distillation of experiences of ritual, landscape and mythology. 
Lovers of landscape and nature will enjoy this collection. 
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Also available as an eBook (suitable for Kindle and other formats)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Learning Python painlessly

I have tried to learn programming before, and it hurt my brain. OK so I was trying to learn Java, and that hurts a lot of people's brains.

The problem with most programming courses is that they assume three things:
  • that you already know how to program in another language
  • that you have an A-level in maths or even a degree in computer science
  • that your primary mode of intelligence is mathematical-logical
My primary mode of intelligence is linguistic. I can do maths, but logic is not my strong point, and neither is solving a problem by breaking it down into steps. I see problems as an overview, and solve them more intuitively and heuristically than incrementally or algorithmically.

I can do HTML, CSS, XML, XSLT and XSD because they are ontological / taxonomical, with nested hierarchies of information, and semantic labels. This makes sense to me. They are more linguistically-oriented. Similarly, I am good at information architecture because it involves taxonomical and linguistic skills. But I've never been able to get my head around programming.

So, imagine my joy when I discovered a site that helps people like me to learn to program in Python. It doesn't assume any of the three things I listed above. And its major exercise is designing a game, whose parameters are largely linguistic. It takes you very very gently through the building blocks of Python. And the author has a great sense of humour.

Thank you so much, Zed Shaw. You have helped me to overcome a major mental block.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

office folklore

An old friend has just emailed me my favourite piece of office humour... or is it office folklore? I think people really do half-believe this one.
Notice spotted near more than one printer or photocopier in the past (or at least, it should have been...!)


This machine is liable to break down when you need it most.

A special sensor has been fitted to this machine enabling it to detect when it is being used for critical operations of supreme importance to the operator. It then waits for a random period of time and breaks down for no apparent reason.

Nobody knows how this is done. It just knows.

Under no circumstances:
  • whistle carelessly as you approach the machine: this is a dead give-away
  • threaten the machine with violence: this merely aggravates the situation and can lead to personal injury to you when the breakdown finally happens
  • try to use another machine: they can communicate with one another, so this could lead to mass breakdowns throughout the building
  • let anything electronic know you are in a hurry.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

original sin

I'm all for originality in sinning, but for the most part no-one seems to have invented a new sin for centuries.

Then of course there's the rare ones like accidie (sloth, laziness, boredom, spiritual weariness), particularly experienced by monks.

So, I charge you to invent some unusual sins, with appropriate names - use of word verification terms is permitted.

Mine is hesive - this is a much-disputed sin, which sometimes meant removing your hair-shirt before the term of the penance was up; also the premeditation before committing a sin; also, in rare cases, sex with bees.