Tumblr round-up, September 13th

This is St Peter, by the Master of the Chora, Constantinople, 1320. Click through for a larger version.

A stunning photo of an Atlas moth — an Ocellated Turkey — Ping Pong Tree Sponge Chondrocladia lampadiglobus (a carnivorous deep-sea sponge) — a pair of bleeding heart doves — a Goblin Shark biting a diver’s arm (slightly grotesque, but not as gory as it sounds).

Terracotta jug from Cyprus, ca. 1600–1450 BC — earthenware bowl painted with the arms of Pope Callixtus III (Alfonso Borgia, 1455 – 1458) — an early Christian roundel of glass with gilded decoration, found in the Roman catacombs — intaglio of the adoration of the shepherds; rock crystal with gold and ultramarine on reverse. Giovanni Desiderio Bernardi, 1525-1550.

Stained glass: Apostles and saints (including St Peter) from a Last Judgement. Germany, 16th century — Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Dorothy. Upper Rhine, ca. 1470-1480 — Martyrdom of Saint Peter. Painted by Arnoult de Nimegue, Normandy, ca. 1525-1530.

Mishmarot I by ceramic artist Avital Sheffer (but check out her website for lots more gorgeous work; I rather like the early stuff as well) — coloured pencils by Jonna Pohjalainen — Self-Portrait with Saxophone by Max Beckman — Spring by Ferdinand Hodler.

Nushirwan and the two owls (and two storks) — Spring (with stork) — wind — dust storm — plane — a cook and his wife

And finally, I think the most popular thing I posted this week was one of the images from Scaf le Phoque (Scaf the Seal, 1936) by Rojan, aka Russian illustrator Feodor Rojankovsky (1891–1970).

Afghan Star

Just a quick mention for this documentary, which I’ve owned on DVD for ages but only just got round to watching. It follows season three of Afghan Star, an American Idol type show in Afghanistan. It’s a brilliant idea for a documentary, because the glitz and bombast of those talent shows seem like the very epitome of a certain kind of western consumer culture. And in many ways it seems like the very worst of our culture: vulgar, shallow, manipulative and at least partially fake.

But in a country where quite recently music and television were banned by the Taliban, where people were killed for owning a television, putting on a music talent show — one where women compete against men! — suddenly becomes a powerful thing to do. And its not often that light entertainment gets to take a heroic role, but actually in a country oppressed by dry, moralistic theocrats, I think it is heroic to assert the value of lightness, of entertainment. And it may be the newly democratic Afghanistan, but it’s still the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and there are still plenty of angry, bearded, conservative men in positions of power, and those Taliban are still out there, and they still have guns and bombs. These people are risking their lives to bring people joy.

And yet, despite all the enthusiastic comments from people about the new freedom the show represents, when one of the female contestants does a little bit of very tame dancing on stage while singing, nearly everyone is genuinely and visibly shocked. Not just the beardy imams, but the other young contestants. The whole thing is fascinating on all kinds of levels.

And I watched it directly after watching some of the current British incarnation, X Factor, and it was intriguing to see something with many of the clichés of those shows — the embarrassingly bad early auditions, the queues of people waiting to audition, the dramatic pauses as they announce the results — but put together by people who are inventing a TV industry from scratch and have almost no budget. Although if you visit the show’s website and see some of the more recent videos, the whole outfit now looks a lot more slick.

‘Treasures of Heaven’ at the British Museum

So I went along to see the BM’s exhibition of medieval reliquaries. Which was a pretty amazing display of medieval craftsmanship: rock crystal, enamel, ivory, glass, and lots and lots of gold.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have, though, because by the time I got there I had a bit of a headache. And it really didn’t help to be peering at lots of spotlit, shiny gold, trying to make out all the exquisitely worked detail. When I came out I had to take shelter in a dark quiet pub and nurse a pint of orange and soda for a bit.

I actually think gold is a slightly unrewarding material for this kind of thing. The overall effect is spectacular; particularly, presumably, in a dark church lit only by candles: bright, shiny, warm, glowing. But the very shininess makes it much harder to pick out the fine details of the craftsmanship; it was more rewarding, I think, looking at the fine work in materials like ivory and alabaster.

Apart from the sheer quality of the exhibits, it was anthropologically interesting. The scale is staggering, apart from anything else; there was apparently one church [I think somewhere in central Europe, from memory] which had 19,000 relics. It must have been a huge industry; not just the relics themselves, but the reliquaries, altars, altarpieces. And that was just the start of it. All that religious paraphernalia — the chalices and patens and thuribles — the ecclesiastical robes, the figures of saints, the murals, the stained glass windows; the whole business must have provided employment for thousands and thousands of workers. Goldsmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, painters, embroiderers, all employed primarily to produce religious objects, either for the church or for private devotion. The Reformation must have been economically catastrophic for them: it was effectively a whole economic sector disappearing.

The other striking thing, and I know it’s not exactly an original observation, is how ludicrous the relics often are. The foreskin and umbilical cords of Christ probably win the prize in that respect, although all the other relics directly associated with Christ also tend to strain credulity: fragments of his manger, bits of True Cross, thorns from the crown, the spear that pierced his side, the sweat band, the magic sponge, all of which were claimed as relics. If you don’t believe in miracles, it’s very difficult to get into the mindset of a society that sees them everywhere; but even so, surely people must have been dubious about this stuff? Perhaps the idea was that the genuineness of the prayer was more important than the genuineness of the relic, although they certainly didn’t act that way.

Going to this exhibition soon after going to the Horniman Museum exhibition Bali: dancing for the gods, I was left thinking how ritually impoverished my own life is as a (somewhat culturally protestant) atheist. Apart from the occasional weddings and funerals, just about the only festival I regularly celebrate is Christmas — and that only consists of gift-giving and turkey. I don’t even usually do anything about Guy Fawkes Night or Halloween, let alone Easter or saints’ days or whatever. I can’t say I feel I’m missing out on an important part of life, but maybe I am. It’s hard to tell how often these events were genuinely spiritual in nature, and how much they were a kind of entertainment in a society without novels, TV, cinema and computer games to keep them amused.

» The images are all from the British Museum collection, because those are conveniently online, although the exhibition has many items borrowed from other institutions.

Top is the St Eustace Head Reliquary, German, ca. 1210.

Then a reliquary cross in cloisonné enamel and gold, Constantinople, early C11th. The Virgin is flanked by busts of St Basil and St Gregory Thaumaturgus.

The little bundle is a relic of St Benedict, one of over 30 relics in a single German portable altar from 1190-1200.

Last is the iron bell of St. Cuileáin in a copper alloy shrine, from Ireland, a C7th-C8th bell in a C12th shrine.

Michael S. Hart, RIP

Until this morning I’d never heard of Michael S. Hart, but it turns out he invented the ebook and was the founder of Project Gutenberg. So it was sad to learn of his death.

I remember when Wikipedia appeared, it seemed like this was a great new model which would be applied to all kinds of as-yet unimagined things, that the internet would be full of brilliant resources created communally by volunteers in their spare time.

It turned out not to be quite as easy as that; you can’t just apply the Wikipedia model to everything. But Project Gutenberg is one of the great success stories, as remarkable in its own way as Wikipedia. Tens of thousands of out of copyright books of all kinds, from great literature to obscure C19th pamphlets, available for free to everyone: it really is amazing, and it’s amazing how quickly we come to take these things for granted. And if you’ve ever tried reading one of those ebooks from Google Books which has just been run through text-recognition software and left unedited, you get some sense of how much work must have gone into proofreading the 36000 volumes on Project Gutenberg.

One of the great things about Project Gutenberg is that Michael Hart had the foresight to set it up at a time when ebooks were still a niche idea. Now, as the Kindle and the iPad make the idea mainstream, this incredible resource is already there, ready and waiting.

» The illustration is from the Project Gutenberg EBook of Carpentry for Boys, by J. S. Zerbe.

Heavy heavy books: psychology update!

I was listening to the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast, and I heard Mo Costandi mention that people’s perceptions of what they’re reading are affected by its physical characteristics, including weight. My ears pricked up at that because I was complaining about large-format paperbacks on this blog just the other day.

So I asked him for details over Twitter, and he pointed me to this article he wrote in June. It’s full of odd results, but the most relevant one is this. I’ll quote the whole paragraph, rather than trying to summarise it:

In the first experiment, 54 passersby were asked to evaluate a job candidate on the basis of a CV attached to either a light (0.34 kg) or a heavy (2 kg) clipboard. Those given the CV on the heavier clipboard generally rated the candidate as being better and having a more serious interest in the position than those given the lighter clipboard, even though the CVs used in both cases were identical. Those given the heavy clipboard also rated their accuracy on the task as more important than those given the lighter one, but did not report putting more effort into it. They did not, however, rate the candidate as more likely to get along with co-workers. This suggests that the weight cue affected their impressions of the candidate’s performance and seriousness, but not the irrelevant trait of social likeability, and that the observed effects were not due their perception of their own actions.

So physical weight is apparently makes the reader attribute seriousness and quality to what they’re reading — at least in a CV. You can see why a publisher might want to get some of that action. Particularly a university press publishing a literary novel which they are asserting deserves to be considered a classic.

But it makes you wonder what other effects the extra weight might have: does it make a novel more or less funny? Does it makes the characters more or less likeable? What does it do to the prose style? Or the plotting?

Such speculation aside… I actually wonder whether it’s unambiguously positive to be perceived as more serious, even for a literary novel about important subjects. I mean, I like novels to be more literary rather than less and I’m not intimidated by big fat books, but I still find that serious literature requires a degree of concentration and discipline, even for a book you’re enjoying and reading for pleasure. Anything that emphasises the literature-as-Serious-Business aspect is only going to make it more likely that reading starts to feel like a chore.

Tumblr round-up, September 6th

Not a particularly busy week over on Tumblr.

That’s from the series Stellar by Ignacio Torres, who says

This project began from the theory that humans are made of cosmic matter as a result of a stars death. I created imagery that showcased this cosmic birth through the use of dust and reflective confetti to create galaxies.

I wasn’t so keen on Torres’s other work (too much of a fashion magazine aesthetic for my taste), but I thought these were rather lovely. Worth clicking through and checking out the whole series.

Other C20th art. Scenery with Ocean, 1940 by Kansuke Yamamoto; Untitled from the Mother Goddess series, 2009 by Pinar Yolacan. Some visionary art: Cholera — Hitler — Revelation.

Some broadly medieval stuff: a C15th roof boss in the form of a winged lion, representing St Mark the Evangelist; and another one; stained glass of a woman carrying a shield, and a woman dispensing poison; a painting of the Madonna and child by Jean Fouquet; a fritware jug of a bull from Iran.

Two altered medieval works: the tomb of Pope Clement V in Avignon, with a modern addition by Spanish artist Miquel Barceló; and a Byzantine mosaic that was the subject of a bit of Stalin-style editing to remove any evidence of heretics.

Going back even further in time: a remarkable photo of a Chinese archeological dig; and an ancient Greek grave marker.

And some sciencey/naturey stuff to end with:

A nice post at Cabinet of Curiosities about a spider which built its web downwind of a large patch of rosebay willowherb.

At the New York Times, the need to revise the procedures for police line-ups in the light of psychological research.

A frozen lake — an Ethiopian volcano — a moth from Papua New Guinea — converting Conan to 3D.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate by Stewart Lee

For those of you who don’t know, Stewart Lee is a stand-up comedian. This book is built around the transcripts of three of his shows, each heavily footnoted with his own technical comments: why he thinks things are funny, notes on delivery, where jokes came from, his comedic influences and so on. Preceding each transcript is a chapter explaining that show’s genesis which inevitably involves a lot of stuff about his personal life and the state of his career. The result is a book which combines autobiography with a lot of thoughtful commentary about the art of stand-up.

I was going to say that the book serves as a record of the stand-up routines, but perhaps that’s not right. To quote one of the footnotes, on the subject of the video embedded above:

The chiselling here, where I tapped the mic stand with the mic, went on at some length, sometimes uninterrupted for minutes at a time, with me varying the rhythm and intensity of the tapping. This doesn’t work on the page, and ideally, my ambition is to get to a point where none of my stand-up works on the page. I don’t think stand-up should work on the page, so the very existence of this book is an indication of my ultimate failure as a comedian. The text of a stand-up set should be so dependent on performance and tone that it can’t really work on the page, otherwise it’s just funny writing. You don’t have to have spent too long thinking about stand-up to realise that even though critics and TV commissioners always talk about our art form in terms of its content, it is the rhythm, pitch, tone and pace of what we do — the non-verbal cues — that are arguably more important, if less easy to identify and define.

So the DVDs are the record of the performance; the book is a critical commentary on the DVDs.

It’s certainly a slightly odd experience reading the routines on the page. They have relatively few clearly defined jokes in them, and although you can see where the humour is, they feel anaemic and formless without a performance to hold them together. And I’ve only seen some parts of the routines, on YouTube, and I know that they’re funny, but it’s hard to recapture that on the page. Even more so for the bits I haven’t seen before.

It’s a fascinating form, stand-up. Lee draws a comparison with fooling and clowning traditions, like the pueblo clowns of the southwestern US, who are given special licence to behave in disruptive, socially transgressive ways. And I can entirely see the strength of that comparison. The comparison that occurred to me, though, was with oral traditions, whether the verse traditions of Homer and Beowulf or non-verse oral storytelling traditions. You have one man standing up in front of a crowd and entertaining them by performing long stories from memory, but with a degree of flexibility and improvisation, varying from performance to performance. And one reason that stories from oral cultures often seem slightly odd when you read them may be the lack of performance. Of course in many cases, not only do we have a recording of the actual performance, we don’t even have a verbatim transcript of one particular telling of a story; instead we have some well-meaning anthropologist’s version of what the story is about.

Anyway, I have wandered off topic. It’s a good book.

Tumblr round-up, August 30th

I think my favourite thing I posted to Tumblr this week was this Minoan coin from Knossos. It has a minotaur on it!

I thought this article about the dropping of the case against Dominique Strauss Kahn and the differences between the French and US legal systems and legal cultures was interesting.

A flapjack octopus — a spiny flower mantis — some cephalopodsanatomy — crystals of gypsum and kapellasite — Shoebill skull

The Grindelwald Glacier — a Californian canyon — the Grand CanyonChartreuse Arch

Shoe warehouse trade card — Mexican film posterstained glass in India — natural historyinfrared Congo

Thesaurian spam

The spam filter caught this reply to my post with the title ‘The stupidity of big books (and the joy of cheap paperbacks)‘:

wooow, take a fancy to your things concerning Heraclitean The stake » The vapidness of swollen books (and the felicity of of small account paperbacks

Yup, the spambot has just run the post title through a thesaurus.

The idea of course is to generate fake comments which are genuine-sounding enough to avoid being deleted. It’s an ingenious idea, even if the results are a bit peculiar. I guess it might have worked better if the original post title was something shorter and less elaborate.

If nothing else, ‘the vapidness of swollen books’ is quite a nice line of iambic tetrameter.

The stupidity of big books (and the joy of cheap paperbacks)

I’m currently reading Only Yesterday, S.Y. Agnon’s novel about Jewish settlers in Israel before the first world war. And so far I’m enjoying it, apart from one thing. It’s in a handsomely made edition published by Princeton University Press, on high-quality paper, with large type, set with a generous amount of leading and plenty of white space. In other words: it’s fucking enormous.

There it is with my old Penguin Classics edition of Tristram Shandy for comparison.

Ah, but, I can hear you saying, you’ve used the wide-angle effect of the camera to exaggerate the difference in size! And there’s a degree of truth to that, so here’s a different angle:

The Agnon is 5.2cm longer, 4.2cm wider and 1.6cm thicker. The result is that it is nearly three times the volume, and over three times the weight (930g; i.e. over two pounds).

Ah but, I hear you say, you are still being unfair! Clearly the Agnon is a much longer novel!

You might think so, but no, it isn’t (thank heavens; Tristram Shandy isn’t exactly a pamphlet). It’s hard to compare exact word counts, but Tristram Shandy has 659 pages; Only Yesterday has 652. And they have the same number of lines per page and at least roughly the same number of words per line. I counted.

Seriously, though, whose idea was it to inflict these ludicrously big books on us? I spent a large chunk of my youth with one Penguin Classic or another tucked in my jacket pocket; the Agnon isn’t just too big to fit in a pocket, it’s close to being too big to read comfortably at home on a sofa.

The pointlessly large paperback seems to be a particular weakness of American publishers — insert your own joke about obesity or steroid abuse here — but I think it’s part of a general trend. I have a load of old Penguin Classics from the 80s and 90s, and at some point they changed the format. Inevitably they got bigger, by about 2cm in each direction. That’s not as gargantuan as the Agnon, and thankfully they’re still printed on nice thin paper so they’re not any fatter, but it’s probably too big to fit in a pocket.

And if you’re wondering, yes I do dislike hardbacks for exactly the same reason. They’re less comfortable to read, and they take up too much room in your bag or on your shelves.

I think I understand the logic for the publishers, mind you; they need to charge a lot of money for these books, particularly if they’re not expecting to shift a lot of copies. And physically making the book is a fairly small part of the overall costs, so why not spend a little extra producing an object which feels substantial and high quality; that way people feel more like they are getting their money’s worth. The list price for Only Yesterday is $32.50; at that price perhaps people want a lot of paperback for their money.

But it’s madness. Why can’t publishing learn from the tech industry? A book is nothing if not a mobile device; and just as each generation of the iPhone is advertised as thinner and lighter than the one before, why aren’t publishers advertising ultraportable novels?

It’s a silly time to be making this argument, of course, because the decision is being taken out of publishers’ hands. There is an ultraportable format of books: it’s called digital. I don’t often carry books around with me any more; instead I have books on my phone. It isn’t the ideal way to read, but it’s zero extra bulk to carry.

But if ink and wood pulp are going the way of the horse-drawn carriage, I just want to say: what I will miss is not big glossy hardbacks, however beautifully designed and printed, but small format mass-market paperbacks printed on flimsy paper. If the invention of the printing press changed the world by democratising knowledge, then the paperback was the apotheosis of that project; the cheapest, most convenient, most accessible way of communicating ideas and literature ever devised.

Tumblr round-up, August 23rd

I spent a while this week roaming through the British Museum’s various C19th Indian paintings; many of them, like this one, painted for European patrons or the European market. And many of them, like this one, painted on thin sheets of mica. This is a gourd of some kind:

 

Also painted on mica were an eagle, an LBJ, and an orchid.

Some more romantic scenes: a lady playing a musical instrument to a gazelle watched by an attendant; two lovers playing with fireworks; a girl waiting for her lover under a tree on a stormy night.

Some religion: a foot decorated with auspicious symbols; Krishna standing on the hood of the serpent Kaliya; Shiva pursues his Enemy –and although he assumed the shape of an Elephant yet Shiva crushed him to death.

Miscellanea: a pretty cakea multicoloured tree — a spectacular snowstormSoviet architecture — a Tahitian mourner’s costume — a tiger with an elephant’s head — a salt landscapeparsnipchameleon anatomy — Swedish book covers (1, 2)

Daily Life in Victorian London by Lee Jackson

This is an anthology for the Kindle compiled by Lee Jackson, proprietor of the website The Victorian Dictionary, which anyone who has some interest in either Victoriana or London will surely have stumbled on at some time or another.

If you have visited the website, you’ll know what a great resource it is, and you won’t be surprised to hear that Jackson has compiled an anthology full of curious and interesting snippets about such subjects as a ‘B’ meeting, a baby show, a balloon ride, bar-maids, bathing, bazaars, bed bugs, beggars, bicycle races, Billingsgate Market, black eyes, blackmail, the Blind-School, Bloomerism and burglars. And that’s just the Bs.

It’s a bargain at £1.84 or $2.99.

Mama Lily and the Dead by Nicolette Bethel

Mama Lily and the Dead is my book from the Bahamas for the Read The World challenge. It’s a collection of poems which tell Lily’s life story, running from ‘The Scotsman Gives Lily Her Name (1904)’ to ‘The Granddaughter Sings Lily Home (1994)’. I know Nico a bit via the world of internet poetry, and I’d read some of the poems before, or earlier drafts of them, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but it’s still rather different to have them in actual printed paper form and read the whole lot in order.

Incidentally, if you’ll excuse a slight detour, it still seems weird to me to say I ‘know’ someone when I’ve never met or talked to them. Even if I have interacted with them online over a period of years. I feel like we need a new verb for it. Like: “Do you know Bob?” “Well, I knowontheinternet him.” Or: “I’ve had a couple of Twitter exchanges with George Michael, but I wouldn’t say I knowontheinternet him.

Anyway. As I was saying, I’d never read the whole sequence of Lily poems together before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. At their best they have a sharp in-the-moment-ness, a vivid sense of being a particular point in time. And that brings with it a sense of place, emphasised by the use of Caribbean-inflected grammar.

One thing which struck me as interesting, reading them, is as much a point about me as about the poems. Nico* has a particular stylistic quirk of using neologistic compounds — like, for example, using ‘bonechill’ as a verb — which just slightly makes my critical self uneasy; not because I object to neologising, but precisely the opposite: I have exactly the same tendency myself when I write poetry [perhaps I should say when I wrote poetry]. All the times I have come up with compounds and then cast a jaundiced eye on them trying to decide if I was being self-indulgent have apparently programmed a warning flag into my brain which pings up whenever I see them.

I was going to type out an extract but actually there’s no need, because various of the poems have been published in internet poetry journals; so if you want to read some, just put Nicolette Bethel Lily into Google and it will offer you a variety to choose from. You could start with ‘The Preacher Man Saves Lily’s Soul (1914)’, for example.

And a quick note on the actual physical book, which is rather lovely. It’s a numbered edition; my copy is 35 of 200. As you can see above, the cover is letterpress printed† on handmade Indian paper with bits of flowers in it. What you can’t see above is that it has endpapers, also handmade paper, in a sort of translucent acid yellow with thready bits running through it; or that the pages themselves are printed on high quality cotton paper.

It struck me, when I opened the parcel and saw the book for the first time, that this is one future for printed books in a world of e-readers: to celebrate the physicality of them, to make them into covetable objects in their own right. Although, nice as it is to imagine a flowering of artisanal, boutique publishers producing books which are exquisitely designed and made, I guess it’s a red herring really. The point of books is the words, not the packaging. Any defence of printed books purely on the basis of their appearance is straying into the territory of interior designers who buy leather-bound books by the metre because they make a room look cosy.

And actually I don’t think small publishers would be the winners in a world where books were bought for their beauty. I’ve read a lot of books from all kinds of small presses as part of the Read The World challenge, and Poinciana Paper Press is an admirable exception; much more often the books are rather badly designed. Which is understandable; a small press on a shoestring budget has to focus on what they’re good at, which is hopefully choosing, translating and editing texts.

* And this is where the fact I knowontheinternet her comes in again, combined with the generally informal tone of blogging: ‘Nico’ sounds a bit offhand and casual, in the circumstances, but ‘Bethel’ would sound weirdly formal. Especially since I have actually mostly known her over the years by an internet pseudonym. Ah, netiquette.

† Letterpress printed in, of all places, Camberwell. Not that I have anything against Camberwell; my sister lives there. And I think I had some art classes there as a child, though I don’t remember much about them except making some kind of collage out of bits of magazines, and eating pear drops. It’s just a long way from the Bahamas.

Tumblr round-up, August 15th

The London riots have been on my mind a lot this week, and I posted various links to pieces which I thought were interesting: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Perhaps indirectly related, an article about poverty in the US; and one about extreme wealth in the US which serves as a companion piece.

That’s a C19th robe from Central Asia. I also posted a couple of others (1, 2), all from the Smithsonian’s collections, but this one’s my favourite. That slightly fuzzy appearance comes from ikat weaving, where the thread itself is dyed in patterns before weaving. I also posted a rather lovely woven raffia mat from Benin made using the same technique.

Oddities: an iPad cover made from Bernie Madoff’s trousers — jugs with lipssycamore goblets — an axe with a spinemelon bowls — a guinea pig masquerading as a hippo.

The geometry of butterflies, drawn by Nabokov  — a ladybird spider —  an Audubon swan — some elegant kelp.

I found an online copy of Illustrations of Himalayan Plants from 1855 and I thought the illustrations were particularly beautiful even by the standards of botanical illustration. I posted the title page and several of the plates, but rather than see them on Tumblr, check it out on archive.org.

The cup that cheers but does not inebriate

I can’t tell you how much it cheers me up to know that coffee has never been convincingly linked to any terrible long term health risk. Unlike booze and salt and fat and all the other little indulgences. It’s a shame I don’t seem to be able to drink it after about 3pm if I want to be able to sleep, but you can’t have everything.

And yes, I know, ‘the cup that cheers but does not inebriate’ was originally applied to tea. But despite all my other reflexive Englishnesses, I’ve always been a coffee drinker, really.

Riots, again

There was a story on the front of the Times today (I’d link to it, but it’s behind a paywall), about a young woman, recently graduated from university, who was passing a looted store on the way to get some McDonald’s, and on impulse went and stole a TV. And then three days later, unable to live with the guilt, she went and turned herself into the police. So she had a degree, she was planning to be a social worker, she didn’t even need a TV… and yet in that moment she couldn’t resist a bit of looting.

I find it a very intriguing story, and the lesson I am tentatively inclined to draw from it is this: the stuff that happened over the weekend in London, the mob craziness; these are not normal events. And if you assume you can understand people’s behaviour according to your normal, everyday expectations — if you apply ‘common sense’ — you are likely to mislead yourself.

But perhaps that’s not surprising. If there’s one thing that experimental psychology has demonstrated over the years, it’s that our intuitions about human behaviour are surprisingly rubbish at the best of times. Our intuitions about behaviour in the middle of a mob are sure to be even worse.

Not that you even need that much of a mob, really; there’s always what you might call the Bullingdon effect. David Cameron would no doubt say it was cheap political point-scoring to draw a parallel between smashing up a restaurant in the course of a riotous evening out with the Bullingdon, and smashing the window of JD Sports in the middle of an outbreak of looting; but it’s not exactly radical to point out that young people under the influence of alcohol, adrenaline and peer pressure will do things — stupid, reckless, anti-social, criminal things — which in the calm, sober light of day, they would like to think were completely out of character.

I don’t know what point I’m trying to make, really. I guess I’m still irritated by David Cameron’s line ‘this is criminality, pure and simple’. When has human behaviour ever been pure or simple?

London riots

I suppose I ought to make some kind of comment about the fact that London seems to have suddenly gone nuts. But I don’t know what the fuck to say. I certainly didn’t see this coming, so I can hardly claim any insight into the causes.

I mean, it’s possible to step back and paint a broad picture which makes rioting seem inevitable: the third year of a shitty economy, a financial system bailout paid for by cutting benefits and services, a country with terrible social mobility where the gap between rich and poor has been increasing for decades, the most unequal city in the western world, where we help Russian oligarchs to avoid tax while cutting spending on homeless shelters and youth clubs, the rightward shift of the Labour party leaving the poor with even less of a mainstream voice in British politics, an Old Etonian prime minister from a family of bankers… these seem like the kinds of things that create the conditions for social unrest.

But all that was true last week, and I certainly didn’t expect to see London in flames. And maybe it isn’t all that stuff anyway. Smashing in the windows of Curry’s and nicking a TV isn’t exactly an overtly political gesture. It’s just too easy to spin a narrative and think it’s an explanation.

Maybe it’s better understood as a failure of policing, whether community policing before the event or the response once it started. Maybe new-fangled communications really are important, at least in terms of how it spread and gained momentum. Maybe the country really is in a moral decline. Maybe it’s just some random confluence of events, the flap of a butterfly wing in China. The hardest thing to do in situations like this is to try and remain open-minded, to hold on to the fact that actually you just don’t know.

» Ealing riots – the aftermath is © Erik Hartberg and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Tumblr round-up, August 8th

It’s that time of the week again. Let’s start with what might be my favourite image of the year, a long-exposure shot of star trails with fireflies. Go to NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day to see it larger or super-big.

Two ancient Persian drinking horns: shaped like a wild cat — shaped like a wild goat [maybe a Nubian Ibex?]. A Greek wine-cooler decorated with soldiers riding dolphins. A medieval Russian church gate. A C14th painting of a Tibetan abbot.

Acrobatic weaver birdstunicatesshark with lionfish — a flashy bustard.

Articles: Sperm whales have culture. Fish form shoals the size of Manhattan.

Beautiful corsets: C18th SpanishC19th American. A Jean-Paul Gaultier jacket. American typography: Lectures on Ventilationlibrary pastered stamping ink. Curious buildings: LaosMaliPortugal.

All at Sea, Claire Partington 2011. Egon Schiele’s bedroom, 1911. Aurora Borealis, Frederic Edwin Church 1865. Île-Saint-Denis, Willy Ronis 1956. Allegory of the Planets and Continents, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo 1752.

C19th email scams & adulterated booze

Some less political stuff from P.T. Barnum’s The Humbugs of the World. This is one of several mail scams:

The six letters all tell the same story. They are each the second letter; the first one having been sent to the same person, and having contained a lottery-ticket, as a gift of love or free charity. This second letter is the one which is expected to “fetch.” It says in substance: “Your ticket has drawn a prize of $200,”—the letters all name the same amount—“but you didn’t pay for it; and therefore are not entitled to it. Now send me $10 and I will cheat the lottery-man by altering the post-mark of your letter so that the money shall seem to have been sent before the lottery was drawn. This forgery will enable me to get the $200, which I will send you.”

And Barnum on booze:

It is a London proverb, that if you want genuine port-wine, you have got to go to Oporto and make your own wine, and then ride on the barrel all the way home. It is perhaps possible to get pure wine in France by buying it at the vineyard; but if any dealer has had it, give up the idea!

As for what is done this side of the water, now for it. I do not rely upon the old work of Mr. “Death-in-the-pot Accum,” printed some thirty years ago, in England. My statements come mostly from a New York book put forth within a few years by a New York man, whose name is now in the Directory, and whose business is said to consist to a great extent in furnishing one kind or another of the queer stuff he talks about, to brewers, or distillers, or wine and brandy merchants.

This gentleman, in a sweet alphabetical miscellany of drugs, herbs, minerals, and groceries commonly used in manufacturing our best Old Bourbon whisky, Swan gin, Madeira wine, pale ale, London brown stout, Heidsieck, Clicquot, Lafitte, and other nice drinks; names the chief of such ingredients as follows:

Aloes, alum, calamus (flag-root) capsicum, cocculus indicus, copperas, coriander-seed, gentian-root, ginger, grains-of-paradise, honey, liquorice, logwood, molasses, onions, opium, orange-peel, quassia, salt, stramonium-seed (deadly nightshade), sugar of lead, sulphite of soda, sulphuric acid, tobacco, turpentine, vitriol, yarrow. I have left strychnine out of the list, as some persons have doubts about this poison ever being used in adulterating liquors. A wholesale liquor-dealer in New York city, however, assures me that more than one-half the so-called whisky is poisoned with it.

Besides these twenty-seven kinds of rum, here come twenty-three more articles, used to put the right color to it when it is made; by making a soup of one or another, and stirring it in at the right time. I alphabet these, too: alkanet-root, annatto, barwood, blackberry, blue-vitriol, brazil-wood, burnt sugar, cochineal, elderberry, garancine (an extract of madder), indigo, Nicaragua-wood, orchil, pokeberry, potash, quercitron, red beet, red cabbage, red carrots, saffron, sanders-wood, turmeric, whortleberry.

In all, in both lists, just fifty. There are more, however. But that’s enough. Now then, my friend, what did you drink this morning? You called it Bourbon, or Cognac, or Old Otard, very likely, but what was it? The “glorious uncertainty” of drinking liquor under these circumstances is enough to make a man’s head swim without his getting drunk at all.

Actually the list is quite interesting, because although some of those are definitely scary things to have in your food, like sulphuric acid, lead, turpentine and tobacco, others are still used as food additives, like annatto, burnt sugar, and cochineal. Although there shouldn’t actually be any need to add extra colour to things like bourbon and stout. And some of the additives are normal ingredients in gin, like orange peel, coriander, liquorice, and grains of paradise.

» The beetle is a caricature of P.T. Barnum.

‘The Miscegenation Hoax’

I was browsing around Project Gutenberg and stumbled on a book with this magnificent title: The Humbugs of the  World. An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in all Ages. And it’s by none other than P. T. Barnum.

So I thought, that could be interesting. And one of the things that caught my eye from the contents was ‘The Miscegenation Hoax‘. Barnum explains:

the history of Ancient and Modern Humbugs would not be complete without a record of the last and one of the most successful of known literary hoaxes. This is the pamphlet entitled “Miscegenation,” which advocates the blending of the white and black races upon this continent, as a result not only inevitable from the freeing of the negro, but desirable as a means of creating a more perfect race of men than any now existing. This pamphlet is a clever political quiz; and was written by three young gentlemen of the “World” newspaper, namely. D. G. Croly, George Wakeman, and E. C. Howell.

The design of “Miscegenation” was exceedingly ambitious, and the machinery employed was probably among the most ingenious and audacious ever put into operation to procure the indorsement of absurd theories, and give the subject the widest notoriety. The object was to so make use of the prevailing ideas of the extremists of the Anti-Slavery party, as to induce them accept doctrines which would be obnoxious to the great mass of the community, and which would, of course, be used in the political canvass which was to ensue. It was equally important that the “Democrats” should be made to believe that the pamphlet in question emanated from a “Republican” source.

This is in 1864, during the Civil War, so of course the Republicans are the abolitionist party. It carries on a bit later:

The first stumbling-block was the name “amalgamation,” by which this fraternizing of the races had been always known. It was evident that a book advocating amalgamation would fall still-born, and hence some new and novel word had to be discovered, with the same meaning, but not so objectionable. Such a word was coined by the combination of the Latin miscere, to mix, and genus, race: from these, miscegenation—a mingling of the races. […] Next, it was necessary to give the book an erudite appearance, and arguments from ethnology must form no unimportant part of this matter. Neither of the authors being versed in this science, they were compelled to depend entirely on encyclopedias and books of reference. This obstacle to a New York editor or reporter was not so great as it might seem. The public are often favored in our journals with dissertations upon various abstruse matters by men who are entirely ignorant of what they are writing about. It was said of Cuvier that he could restore the skeleton of an extinct animal if he were only given one of its teeth, and so a competent editor or reporter of a city journal can get up an article of any length on any given subject, if he is only furnished one word or name to start with.

I won’t quote the whole thing, intriguing though it is, but I can’t resist this bit:

Although, of course, the mass of the Republican leaders entirely ignored the book, yet a considerable number of Anti-Slavery men, with more transcendental ideas, were decidedly “sold.” The machinery employed was exceedingly ingenious. Before the book was published, proof-copies were furnished to every prominent abolitionist in the country, and also to prominent spiritual mediums, to ladies known to wear Bloomers, and to all that portion of our population who are supposed to be a little “soft” on the subject of reform.

Apparently spiritual mediums and ladies known to wear bloomers were the 1860s equivalents of latte-drinking tree-hugging Volvo drivers.

Anyway, archive.org has the original pamphlet online: Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. It’s hard to recapture the sense of shock apparently provoked at the time, although I suppose even now it would be fairly radical to suggest that we should be actively working to eliminate black and white as distinct entities. In fact far from being shocking, a lot of it is frankly boring, especially all the C19th racial pseudoscience; but it has its moments, like this bit of mischief:

THE SECRET OF SOUTHERN SUCCESS

The North is wondering — the world is wondering — at the marvelous success of the Southern people in statesmanship and war. The discretion, endurance, energy, and heroism they have shown in sustaining for so long a time a rebellion supposed to be feeble and short-lived, have elicited the admiration even of their enemies […] The truth may as well be understood, that the superiority of the slaveholding classes of the South arises from their intimate communication, from birth to death, with the colored race. Like Anteus, sent to his mother earth, they have risen reinvigorated. […]

On this point we might quote many pro and anti-slavery authorities, but the extracts would scarcely be fit for general reading. It is a notorious fact, however, that, for three generations back, the wealthy, educated, governing class of the South have mingled their blood with the enslaved race. These illicit unions, though sanctioned neither by law nor conscience, and which, therefore, are degrading morally, have helped to strengthen the vitality and add to the mental force of the Southerner. The emotional power, fervid oratory and intensity which distinguishes all thoroughbred slaveholders, is due to their intimate association with the most charming and intelligent of their slave girls. The local history of New Orleans, since its occupation by the Union army, proves what has often been suspected, that unions between the slaveholders and their slaves have often had, in the eyes of the parties themselves, all the sanctities of marriage. These facts give us an inkling of some of the sources of Southern power.

If you can ignore, just for a moment, the high stakes of the political issue at hand, and the many decades of overwhelming human misery caused by the slavery and segregation which the pamphlet was surreptitiously supporting… well, you almost have to admire bits of it as an example of proper, old fashioned trolling. These guys would feel right at home on the internet.

AN OMEN.

The statue of Liberty which has just crowned the capitol at Washington, stands as a symbol of the future American of this continent. It was meet and proper that while slavery exercised its baneful sway at the seat of Government, that the great dome of the capitol should have been unfinished, and that the figure of Liberty should not have unveiled its awful form upon the topmost summit. The maker of that statue has “builded better than he knew.” In order to insure it against the storms and variable temperature of a Virginia atmosphere, it has been washed with an acid which has caused a slight oxidation, producing a rich and uniform bronze tint, which no rains can discolor and no sun bleach. When the traveler approaches the city of magnificent distances, the seat of what is destined to be the greatest and most beneficent power on earth, the first object that will strike his eye will be the figure of Liberty surmounting the capitol ; not white, symbolising but one race, nor black typifying another, but a statue representing the composite race, whose sway will extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, from the Equator to the North Pole—the Miscegens of the Future.

Anyway, I just thought it was a fascinating little historical detour, not least the origin of the word ‘miscegenation’ as a faux-politically correct euphemism for ‘amalgamation’. It’s striking that ‘miscegenation’ is still a very loaded term, while ‘amalgamation’ has, as far as I know, lost any association with racial mixing at all. And also: isn’t it amazing how much stuff you can find on the internet these days.

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

Voices from Chernobyl was written in 1996, ten years after the reactor meltdown. It is an oral history of the disaster; that is, it’s presented as a series of ‘monologues’ by people who were involved in some way, with titles like ‘Monologue about War Movies’, ‘Monologue about the Shovel and the Atom’, ‘Monologue about Expensive Salami’. I’m actually a bit curious about exactly how they were collected; they are presented as verbatim transcripts, although I’m sure they’ve been tidied up somewhat. What you don’t get is any idea of what questions or prompting came from the interviewer. It’s quite an effective device, keeping the journalist out of the spotlight and letting the voices speak for themselves, but I assume there’s an element of artifice to it. I don’t think it detracted from the book, I’m just curious about the process.

The result is, anyway, an extraordinary book. The stories come from all kinds of perspectives: local farmers, soldiers, scientists, officials, construction workers, wives, children. And the material is fascinating: people’s accounts of being evacuated, of working on the reactor site, of nursing dying relatives. There are people who refused to leave, and people who came back because it was home, and people who, having fled conflicts elsewhere, moved to the area because there were houses lying empty. And overlying it all is the extraordinarily inept and chaotic government response, which included, for example, failing to distribute iodine or breathing masks because they thought doing so might cause panic.

And as well as the material being so interesting, it has a very literary quality; bleak and fatalistic, but laced with dark humour and absurdity, sometimes earthy, sometimes poetic. That poetry comes both from the real poignancy of the human situations and the surreal quality of many things that happened: the soldiers sent into the Zone to kill all the cats and dogs; the people whose job it was to dig up soil and bury it in pits; the fact that they were told that drinking vodka would help fight radiation poisoning, so everyone seems to have been rolling around in an alcoholic haze.

It really is a fabulous book. Here’s a little excerpt, from a man who has moved to live in the evacuated zone:

It’s easy to find books here. Now, an empty clay pitcher, or a spoon or fork, that you won’t find, but books are all over. The other day I found a volume of Pushkin. “And the thought of death is sweet to my soul.” I remember that. Yes: “The thought of death.” I am here alone. I think about death. I’ve come to like thinking. And silence helps you to prepare yourself. Man lives with death, but he doesn’t understand what it is. But I’m here alone. Yesterday I chased a wolf and a she-wolf out of the school, they were living there.

Question: Is the world as it’s depicted in words the real world? Words stand between the person and his soul.

And I’ll say this: birds, and trees, and ants, they’re closer to me now  than they were. I think about them, too. Man is frightening. And strange. But I don’t want to kill anyone here. I fish here, I have a rod. Yes. But I don’t shoot animals. And I don’t set traps. You don’t feel like killing anyone here.

And here’s a bit by someone else, who moved back:

Sometimes I turn on the radio. They scare us and scare us with the radiation. But our lives have gotten better since the radiation came. I swear! Look around: they brought oranges, three kinds of salami, whatever you want. And to the village! My grandchildren have been all over the world. The littlest just came back from France, that’s where Napoleon attacked from once—”Grandma, I saw a pineapple!” My nephew, her brother, they took him to Berlin for the doctors. That’s where Hitler started from on his tanks. It’s a new world. Everything’s different. Is that the radiation’s fault, or what?

Voices from Chernobyl is my book from Belarus for the Read The World challenge. If you’re thinking ‘hang on, Belarus, that doesn’t sound right’, well, you’re right, the plant itself is in Ukraine, but it’s just by the border with Belarus and so Belarus was one of the worst affected places.

A quick namecheck for the translator, Keith Gessen, who I’m sure deserves a lot of credit for how well the book reads in English; and just to reiterate, I think this is a really good book and I strongly recommend it.

» There’s a whole load of photos around the web taken by tourists to the contaminated zone. Lots of pictures of the deserted town of Pripyat, particularly of peeling, empty schoolrooms. But after reading the book, they just seem too unpleasantly voyeuristic, so instead I grabbed a map of the contaminated area from Wikipedia.

Tumblr round-up, August 1st

I haven’t posted that much to Tumblr this week for the same reason I haven’t been posting to the blog: possible incipient RSI. But here’s some of my favourite things from this week.

Sagra buqueti, a beetle so extraordinary I resorted to Google to check it wasn’t photoshopped:

A gruesome squid dish — a cactus pouffe — an outfit by Alexander McQueen — a good joke — a Madonna by Lorenzo Lotto — Wulfenite with Mimetite and Barite — a painting of Halley’s comet

The Cuban vine Marcgravia evenia uses a specially shaped sonar reflector to attract pollinating bats.

Penguins use bubbles to give themselves a speed boost underwater.

Dolphins use what used to be whiskers to detect electric fields.

Canadian cod numbers are finally starting to recover nearly 20 years after fishing them was banned.

EDIT. Whoops, nearly forgot:

Spitalfields Life has a great post about an annual east London coracle race.

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.

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