Open City by Teju Cole

I ordered this novel because I’d read and enjoyed various bits of Cole’s writing around the internet. I’ll keep this short because I’ve been getting pins and needles in my hands which I suspect is down to spending too much time typing, so I’m trying to rest them a bit.

So suffice to say it’s a delicately written, nuanced novel set mainly in New York which is about, among other things, migration and identity. I really liked it.

Tumblr round-up, July 25th

A selection of the stuff I’ve posted to Tumblr in the past week.My favourite thing from the past week is this, mainly because it looks like a Death Star:

Actually it’s a round clay tablet from Ur which dates back to 2039BC. It records areas of fields and barley yield. I also posted a picture of an even older tablet from Uruk, 3300BC-3100BC, which uses a symbol for barley that looks like, well, an ear of barley.

Some decorative woodcuts by Fernand Chalandre, from about 1919: Peasant girl carrying pail — poplars near water — a bowl of flowers — the town of Nevers. And some aquatints by the Australian artist Fred Williams: Road and Saplings, CottlesbridgeTrapezeThe Can CanBurning Log.

A great photograph of Lucian Freud from the 60s. RIP.

There are some interesting photographs of Greek shadow-puppet shows in the British Museum. My favourite is Karagiosis the Astronaut, above, but Karagiosis can also be seen ‘In the Claws of the Gestapo‘ and shooting the head off a Turk.

Some links: why people are better at paper-scissors-stone if they are blindfolded.

The problems with software patents.

The perils of trusting your data to the cloud (or in this case, to Google).

Neptune’s heart, zipperback and the gangly lancer are among 10 new names that have been given to British plant and animal species, thanks to Natural England’s “Name a Species” competition.

An interesting new approach to designing wind farms.

Decorated initials: P — Q — E — B. Satellite photographs, via NASA: AlaskaAustraliaIowaBahamas.

Some odds and sods: baby millipedes — a weird caterpillar — a Brooklyn stoop, 1976 — Japanese iris plate — Gisèle à “La Boule Blanche”, Montparnasse, 1932 — an ingenious crossword — woman with garlic.

Out of sync

It’s always odd when you find yourself out of sync with public opinion. Specifically at the moment it’s the phone-hacking thing… there is a growing strand of opinion that the reaction is overblown and hysterical, that the media is only obsessed with it because it is a story about the media, that we should really be focussing on Very Serious stories like famine in East Africa and the possibility of a European sovereign debt crisis or a US default. And that the worldly, sophisticated reaction is to tut a bit over the bad behaviour of the tabloids but say t’was ever thus.

And there is some truth to it, of course. There is a touch of the feeding frenzy in the way that the story has completely consumed all news and politics for the past week or so. After all, the latest phase of the phone-hacking investigation had been rolling on for months; Andy Coulson resigned back in January. And there were already plenty of reports of large scale criminality at the New of the World, including payments to the police as well as blagging and phone-hacking, none of which seemed to get a lot of political traction.

And then the story of them hacking Milly Dowler’s phone came out and suddenly the world went mad. Yesterday, for example, BBC radio broadcast live, continuous, almost uninterrupted audio from parliamentary select committees for about seven hours straight. And it made a rather wonderful change, to get current events live and unmediated without all the usual commentary, analysis and gossip: but it’s still extraordinary, the way it pushed everything else out of the news altogether.

So I think you can argue that there is something disproportionate about that sudden ramping up in intensity, even if much of it was fuelled by events: arrests, resignations, the closing the of the News of the World. Either the media and politicians are overreacting now, or they have been underreacting for months.

But the reason I talk about feeling out of sync with public opinion is that I never understood why everyone wasn’t already horrified. Even when it was ‘just’ celebrities and politicians; I know people don’t necessarily empathise very strongly with film stars and footballers, but the idea that it’s not a big deal if journalists to casually listen in to their private messages, not as part of some kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism, but on the off-chance that they might hear something which will titillate the public enough to sell a few newspapers… I just don’t know what to say. The idea of it makes my skin crawl. And apart from the fact that it’s creepy and sordid, even if you had no personal sympathy for the victims, what about the fact that they were accused of hacking the voicemails of cabinet ministers. I mean, politicians are even less likely to get public sympathy than footballers, but doesn’t it imply something pretty terrifying about press overreach that they would do something like that?

However. Sometimes you just realise that other people are not outraged by the same things you are. And if they don’t share that emotional response, well, you’re probably not going to argue them into it.

» Tiger Shark! is © Miusam CK and used under a CC Attribution licence.

Tumblr round-up, July 18th

I may try to find a way, later, of incorporating the stuff I’ve posted to Tumblr more closely into this site, but until then I think I’ll start with a weekly round-up. The idea is to post a summary of the previous week, but since I’ve got a backlog, I’ll start by ranging a bit more widely. So here’s a selection of stuff from the past month or two.

That’s a Persian priest, by the C16th Danish/German artist Melchior Lorck. In the 1550s he was part of a diplomatic mission to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople, and he was working on a book of woodcuts from his travels when he died in 1583. I stumbled across them when browsing through the British Museum collection. There are a lot more where that came from: just search for ‘Print made by Melchior Lorck‘. Apart from the historical interest, he has a real graphic designer’s eye.

Parrots have names. Or at least they have ‘signature calls that are used to recognise individuals’, and birds imitate the signatures of others to get their attention. And researchers have found that these names are given to the chicks by their mothers before they are old enough to call for themselves.

Of all the thousands of words I’ve read about the News of the World hacking scandal, I thought this Reuters article about the culture of the newsroom at the NotW under Rebekah Brooks was one of the most striking.

Some ceramics: a delftware wine bottle from C17th London; a Chinese wine-cup; another Chinese wine-cup, this one decorated with auspicious fruits; one of my favourites, a stoneware jug from C12th Korea. And I think this is gorgeous, a tin-glazed earthenware jug from Fez, ca. 1870:

A snail tongue; an amazing mineral; the head of a honey bee; some octopus tattoos; an extraordinary fish; a poisonous newt; a spotty squid [I think]; the newly-discovered world’s smallest orchid.

An icon of St George; a portable figure of Jagannatha (‘Lord of the World’); a guardian figure from Cameroon; a stamp; a watercolour of a stormy landscape by Penry Williams; a Chinese Francis Bacon; a C15th Swiss wild man and wild woman in stained glass.

Blogging, Google+ and tangled networks

Dave Bonta’s post about Google+ had me thinking about my relationships with various social networks.

I remember being rather resentful of Facebook because I had carefully carved out a space on the web: this blog. I liked being able to change the way it looked, and to fiddle with the internal workings; and above all I liked being able to post to my own space, without someone else’s corporate logo at the top of it, and someone else’s advertising running down the side.

And having gone to that trouble, it annoyed me to have to set up a new, separate web presence in Facebook’s walled garden, where my stuff would be presented the way Facebook thought was best. At least it wasn’t as bad as MySpace, but it still had a shitty user interface, and a cavalier approach to privacy, and I had to jump through hoops to get the material I was posting to my blog mirrored inside Facebook, and it never quite worked the way I felt it should.

But, that was where my friends were. So that was where I needed to be. And since RSS feeds never quite broke through as a mainstream technology, if I did want any of them to read my blog, there had to be some way to let them know when I posted something. And over time I’ve got used to it and it doesn’t bother me much anymore… until I need to change a setting somewhere, when it drives me nuts.

So that’s Facebook: whatever its other faults, it’s the social network which actually has my friends on it. Perhaps they could use that as a slogan.

Then there’s Twitter. In some ways, Twitter is Facebook with all the crap taken out; no stupid games, no ads, just a string of status updates. Which I like. And I like the fact that the relationships are asymmetrical; you can read their updates without being their ‘friends’. It makes it sort of semi-social in quite a nice way.

But not many people I know are really active on Twitter. The people I follow are mainly a mixture of celebrities, journalists, science writers, nature bloggers and so on. So for me, it’s not actually a social network at all; it’s just an RSS reader with ADHD.

I don’t have a Google+ account yet, but from what I’ve seen it seems like a nice balance between Facebook and Twitter: it has less accumulated cruft than Facebook (so far at least), better privacy controls, and asymmetrical relationships. It’s somewhere between a streamlined Facebook and a beefed-up Twitter. Which sounds like it might be a perfect replacement for both. Except unless the whole world agrees at once to ditch Facebook and Twitter, it won’t actually replace either of them: it will just be another endless stream of stuff to distract us.

Which brings me on to Tumblr. I didn’t actually join Tumblr for its social networking; I was posting lots of links on this blog and wanted to spin those off into a separate site and leave this blog for longer pieces. And rather than create yet another WordPress installation, joining Tumblr seemed an easy way of doing it. But in fact I got sucked into the ‘social’ aspects of looking through other people’s posts, and liking and reblogging them. Not that it feels remotely like a genuinely sociable activity — there’s not much personal connection there — but scanning through other people’s posts is fun, and when they like or reblog my own posts there’s a little hit of positive reinforcement, so it’s quite addictive and a complete timesuck.

And I’ve been enjoying it, but I can’t help feeling that the result has been to weaken this blog and to fragment my online presence even further. I’ve even thought of posting a weekly Tumblr roundup here, of some of the more interesting stuff… which might work quite well but just brings me back to doing a manual version of the automated links which Tumblr was supposed to replace.

In some ways I do want to try Google+; partially because it’s a new toy but also because they seem to have learnt from the mistakes and successes of previous networks. It looks genuinely well-thought-out. But another part of me thinks it’s just madness. I’ve already got an RSS reader, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr on the go, not to mention Goodreads and Flickr: surely I have enough information streams to keep me busy.

And this continuing fragmentation brings me back to my initial objection to social networks: I already have a bit of the internet, thank you, one which I set up years ago and I administer. And I want to be able to put my own website at the centre of my online identity: not my Google profile, not my Facebook page, not my Twitter stream. I know it’s a terribly retro idea, but I like the idea of my own website being my ‘homepage’.

However. That personal preference of mine is hardly the point. I’m sure the last sad users of MySpace had a strong personal preference as well, but in the end they just turned out to be a load of Cnuts. And the number of visitors to this site has been slowly but steadily declining. That is no doubt mainly my own fault for not being interesting enough, but whatever the reason: it’s depressing.

So where does all that leave me? I don’t know, really. Dissatisfied with the status quo but without any good ideas for how to change it.

» The spiderface image is a combination of Hendrik Goltzius’s woodcut portrait of Gillis van Breen from 1588, and The spider, a lithograph by Lily Blatherwick from 1927. Both via the British Museum.

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The madness of commercial fishing

via Ed Yong, an interesting piece in New York magazine: ‘Bycatch 22 — As a twisted consequence of overfishing regulations, commercial fishermen have no choice but to catch sea bass, flounder, monkfish, and tuna—and throw them dead back into the sea.’

Basically the problem is that, since you can’t precisely target a particular species, fishermen end up throwing back a lot of marketable fish which they don’t have the quotas for — so the fish are just as dead, but no one gets to sell them or eat them.

I have sympathy with the fishermen, and throwing back lots of edible fish which are already dead does seem like madness: but the commercial fishing industry hasn’t exactly proved itself a trustworthy steward of marine ecosystems over the years. They continually campaign against the kind of quotas that would actually protect fish stocks, and they campaign against no-fishing zones, and the situation gets worse and worse.

The really interesting experiment would be to ban commercial fishing around the UK altogether for perhaps ten to fifteen years, and see what the seas looked like after having a chance to recover from 150 years of industrial onslaught.

But then I’m increasingly freaked out by the extent of environmental degradation I see around us, and too much of the time we seem to be doing ‘conservation’ — conserving what’s left — which in practice often just means slowing the rate it disappears at, whereas what we really ought to be doing is restoration. Trying to create more space for wildlife, more opportunities for wild things to scrape a living.

» By-Catch at South Beach 2005 is © mmwm and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

A palate cleanser

OK, enough with the all the Murdoch-ery. Time for something a bit more wholesome.

Summer isn’t a great time for birding; you can tell when summer is well and truly here because bird bloggers start posting pictures of moths. Moths are like birdwatcher methadone.

So it seemed like a good time of year to check out a dragonfly sanctuary. 23 species have been recorded there — half the British list — although to be honest, there are a fairly limited number I would have any chance of identifying. In the event I only saw a handful of species; some small blue damselflies, plus Banded Demoiselle, Emperor Dragonfly and Brown Hawker. But Banded Demoiselle and Brown Hawker are particularly gorgeous, so it’s always nice to see them. The Brown Hawker has a bronze-brown tint to its wings which looks amazing when it catches the light: like a warm halo around the insect.

And there were lots of butterflies around, too: Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Large Heath, Small Skipper. Nothing very remarkable, but nice to see. The best butterfly was Small Tortoiseshell, a species which used to be common as muck but which is depressingly scarce in the south of England these days.

And lots of flowers. I can’t identify most of them down to the species level, and didn’t try, but for example: loosestrife, willowherb, vetch, yarrow, mallow, bedstraw, deadnettle, teasels and thistles. What fabulous names they have.

The photo, incidentally, is of cinnabar moth caterpillars and soldier beetles on ragwort flowers. One of the beetles is Rhagonycha fulva; the other looks like it has darker wingcases, in which case it’s probably Cantharis rustica. But I’m relying on a pocket guide to the insects of Britain and Western Europe, so anything I say should be taken with a pinch of salt.

In defence of tabloid journalism (sort of)

The irony of the current situation is that at a time of much hand-wringing about the future of journalism, the News of the World was one newspaper that was actually making plenty of money. Unlike, for example, the Guardian, who exposed them. Or the Times.

And I like living in a country which has a strong, vibrant newspaper culture. Even if sales have been in long term decline, and the pressure to maintain profitability has probably led to a decline in standards over the past few years, we still have nine national daily newspapers and at least four of them are reasonably serious publications.

And it’s good that they have a certain ferocity and ruthlessness to them: better that than being instinctively deferential to the rich and powerful. I always thought there was something deeply wrongheaded about the American idea that you should ‘respect the office of the President, even if you don’t respect the man’. That’s one mistake you can’t imagine the British press making.

And I don’t particularly object to the popular press being driven as much by celebrity gossip as hard news, if that’s what sells papers. I’m certainly wary of a strong legal right to privacy if the result is simply that it hands the rich and powerful another tool to deflect criticism.

And I think that it is defensible for a journalist to use illegal means to get information in the service of a greater good. If the phone hacking and blagging and email hacking had been used to expose corporate fraud, or government corruption, or some other kind of criminal or highly unethical behaviour from a public body, I would be the first to defend it. Famously, the Telegraph paid for stolen information to break the parliamentary expenses scandal.

But. The trouble is, even leaving aside the most extreme cases, the British papers have spent the past thirty years undermining their own credibility. Celebrity gossip may be defensible. Phone hacking may be defensible in some circumstances. Combining the two is fucking insane. I don’t particularly care about Sienna Miller one way or the other, but illegally listening to her phone messages on the off-chance that you might learn something about her sex life which would help sell papers… it undermines the whole idea of investigative journalism. At this point, any tabloid journalist who stands up and makes a perfectly reasonable defence of the valuable role of journalism in a democratic society immediately comes across as hypocritical and self-serving.

Twombly, Poussin, Emin and Hungarian Photographers

A bit of an exhibition round up. This is not, as you might think, four exhibitions, because at Dulwich Picture Gallery at the moment they have a combined Cy Twombly/Nicolas Poussin exhibition. Which might seem like a rather odd choice at first glance, since they lived 330 years apart and one of them painted highly controlled classical paintings and the other did scrawly abstracts.

But there is a kind of logic to it. Both of them moved to Rome at the age of about 30, both use lots of classical references in their work, and Twombly specifically referenced Poussin in several paintings, most notably by painting a large group of four paintings called the Four Seasons, a subject Poussin painted 300 years earlier.

And while I don’t think it was exactly revelatory to see them together, it’s always interesting to explore these kind of comparisons, as an intellectual parlour game if nothing else. I guess you could argue that the Poussins brought out a controlled, restrained quality in the Twombly, for example, but it’s rather an elaborate way to make such a straightforward point. I did find myself warming to Poussin more than usual, though. Clearly he’s a great painter, but generally I find his work a bit sterile. But being displayed among modern paintings did at least make the paintings seem a bit fresher.

Meanwhile the Hayward is holding a retrospective of Tracey Emin. I went into it with mixed feelings. She has attracted so much bone-headed mockery from the media over the years that I’ve always felt the need to stick up for her… despite not actually liking her work that much. But seeing it all together it does hold up pretty well. The caricature is that she just splurges her personal life uncontrollably into her work for shock value; and that’s not completely unfair. But of course the execution is what matters, just as a confessional memoir could be good or bad could be good or bad depending on who wrote it. And at her best — some of the appliqué blankets, the video work — Emin’s work is sensitive and intelligent. On the other hand, by the time I had gone all the way round the exhibition, it was also starting to feel a bit repetitive. So she’s still not exactly my favourite artist, but I enjoyed the show well enough.

And at the Royal Academy is an exhibition of C20th Hungarian photography. Why Hungarian photography? Well, because five of the most notable photographers of the C20th — Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi — were all Hungarian. So they provide the core of the exhibition, but other, less famous people are included as well. In some ways the exhibition is about Hungary, with striking photographs recording the various wars political upheavals that engulfed the country, but it also includes many taken in other countries: Brassaï photographs of Paris nightlife, or Kertész shots of New York.

If there is anything distinctively Hungarian about the work, I couldn’t particularly see it. It did feel very European, somehow, and it reminded me again how much my idea of Europe was shaped by the Iron Curtain growing up. Austria ended up on one side of it and was therefore a ‘real’ European country; Hungary was on the wrong side and was part of some shadowy other Europe. And 20 years after the fall of communism, that sense of them not being part of the European mainstream still lingers. I don’t know how much that’s just me showing my age; people just out of university now, who were two three when the Berlin Wall came down, hopefully see the continent rather differently.

Anyway, geopolitics aside, the exhibition is definitely worth going to because it has some very fine photographs in it.

» The Triumph of Pan is by Nicolas Poussin; Hotel International, 1993, © Tracey Emin; Greenwich Village, New York, 30 May 1962 is by André Kertész.

Read The World: new country shock!

I’m actually surprised that I’ve spent three years trying to read a book from every country in the world without any new countries being created… but it looks like that’s about to change. Kosovo seemed like the favourite to join the list, but it looks like South Sudan have beaten them to it.

They’re not quite members of the UN yet, but they’ve been recognised by Sudan and the UN, so presumably it’ll be a relatively quick process.

Given the appallingly brutal recent history of Sudan, I’m not about to begrudge them a peaceful separation, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy to find a South Sudanese author to read. Ho hum.

» The flag of South Sudan is taken from Wikipedia.

The news of the News of the World

It has been an extraordinary run of events at the News of the World over the past week. The analogy that sprang to mind when I was lying in bed last night was, of all things, the fall of the Berlin Wall. I know that must seem like a ludicrously overblown analogy, particularly to my non-British readers; but it’s that sense of a power structure which has become so entrenched, so calcified, that it comes to seem inevitable and permanent.

Rupert Murdoch’s place at the centre of the British press has made him a power in the land for decades; he has been as much a fixture of the establishment as the Prime Minister, or the Director-General of the BBC, or the archbishop of Canterbury. Except we’ve been through a lot of prime ministers and archbishops in the past 40 years, and there has only been one Rupert.

We haven’t seen the back of him yet, of course. But still: to see News International in such disarray, and the poetic justice of seeing them at the mercy of a news agenda driven by someone else… it is extraordinary, and just raises the possibility that the whole edifice might come a-tumbling down.

But it’s not just Rupert, or the Murdoch empire: it is the whole brutal culture of the British tabloid press. And the relationship between politicians, the press and the police; the incestuous stew of money and power and fear. Because, after all, we have had decades of newspapers behaving badly. It’s certainly not news that they are willing to invade people’s privacy, trample on the vulnerable, display jaw-dropping hypocrisy and just make stuff up if they think they can get away with it. And it’s not really news that they will break the law to do it: anyone who has been paying attention already knew that they hacked phones and bribed the police, and knows that’s just the start of it.

But in the past it just never seemed to matter what they did: they always basically got away with it. It was easier for everyone to let sleeping dogs lie. The surprise really is that they managed to find something to do which was so repulsive that it still had the power to shock. But for now, at least, they have captured the attention of the British public. And they are running scared.

It’s early days, of course. In a few years, we may be looking back and realising that nothing really changed. A couple of years ago, when the world economic system almost collapsed, it looked like we might finally claw back the dangerous excesses of the financial industry… but the moment came and went.

But we can hope.  Perhaps the collapse of a 168-year-old newspaper and a few editors going to prison will be enough to scare Fleet Street straight. For a while. The real fun, though, would be for the investigation to spread to other papers. Apparently the police raided the offices of the Daily Star today, which is a start; but the real prizes are the Mirror, the Sun, and above all the Daily fucking Mail. This is not just about the News of the World, it’s about a journalistic culture which has poisoned British life for decades. We need big, serious changes, and this is a very rare opportunity to make them happen.

Oxford commas and other peevery

You may have noticed there was a bit of kerfuffle around th’internet [400 comments on Metafilter, for example] about the news that Oxford University Press were dropping their support for the Oxford comma (which they aren’t).

I’m always intrigued by the passion that people bring to this stuff. My feeling about the Oxford comma goes something like this: if a publisher as respectable as the OUP uses it, it’s probably acceptable. And since other equally respectable institutions like the Cambridge University Press prefer not to use it, that must also be acceptable. And since these two competing schools of thought have managed to co-exist for at least a century without doing any apparent damage to literature, journalism or anything else… well, it clearly doesn’t matter very much.

So where does all the anger come from? Why the fierce sense that, if there are two possible variants, one of them must be right, and, even more importantly, the other one must be terribly, terribly wrong?

» Comma (Polygonia c-album) is © Eco Heathen and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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