Trenchant Lemmings
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The weblog description is a misquotation from Steve Aylett's Indicted to a Party: What to Do, Who to Blame.
The weblog title links to the "No Country Redirect" version, for whatever that might be worth.
October 26, 2010

The Paris Review has posted its archive of author interviews online, 1953 to now, Achebe to Yourcenar.

Teachable Moment Fail

I just took a look at Larry "Vote for Dukakis and This Scary Black Man Will Rape Your Children" McCarthy's ad explaining how finance sector bail-outs and health care reform will enslave Americans to the heathen Chinee.

Opening line:

Why do great nations fail? The Ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire, the British Empire...
/me holds breath
... and the United States of America.
Ah well. Self-knowledge is always a hard ask.

October 22, 2010
Deep Dish Ones

Some things just make the world a better place.

Tentacle Potpie from Not Martha via Laughing Squid.

October 21, 2010

Another matured cite:

From this practice of making notes on separate slips of paper there emerged what became the historian’s indispensable tool until the electronic age: the card index. By using cards of uniform size, punching holes in the margin and assigning different categories to each hole, it became possible, with the aid of a knitting needle, to locate all cards containing material related to any particular category.

These various techniques were codified in the guides to research which proliferated with the rise of academic history-writing. In one of the most influential, ...the authors warn that history is more encumbered with detail than any other form of academic writing and that those who write it must have those details under control. The best way of proceeding, they say, is to collect material on separate slips of paper (fiches), each furnished with a precise indication of their origin; a separate record should be kept of the sources consulted and the abbreviations used to identify them on the slips. If a passage is interesting from several different points of view, then it should be copied out several times on different slips...

Prescriptions of this kind reached their apotheosis in the little essay on "The Art of Note-Taking" which Beatrice Webb included in My Apprenticeship (1926). It propounded the famous doctrine of 'only one fact on one piece of paper'. ... [T]he late John Burrow records his perplexities when this injunction was conveyed to him by his graduate supervisor, George Kitson Clark: 'I brooded on this. What was a fact? And what made it one fact? Surely most facts were compound. How would I know when I had reached bedrock, the ultimate, unsplittable atomic fact?'
From Keith Thomas' essay on research methods at the LRB.

October 20, 2010

From George Russell's review of Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox:

In her final chapter Brox relates that due to electric light pollution, "two-thirds of all Americans and half of all Europeans can no longer see the Milky Way, our own galaxy, in the nighttime sky." According to her the sight of it has become so unfamiliar to people that during the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles, "emergency organizations [...] received hundreds of phone calls from people wondering whether the sudden brightening of the stars and the appearance of a 'silver cloud' (the Milky Way) had caused the quake."
(Mr Russell seems to like it but, judging by the peanut gallery at Amazon, Brilliant appears, unfortunately, not remotely as good a book as its subject matter deserves.)

October 19, 2010

This is lovely - a Stephen Fry podcast re-made as a typographical animation:

Via Language Log.


China Miéville interviewed at Crikey! blog Literary Minded:

I think the early 20th Century was the high point of absolutely explosive creation in the monstrous. But I would say, at the moment – particularly at the level of vampires and zombies – it’s very tired.

I think probably the ’20s was the anomaly rather than now; I think it was more of a question of that being a particularly fecund time than this being a particularly degraded one. And I think there’s probably more teratological innovation going on now than there was in the 1880s for example. I think it’s very culturally specific and at various moments there’s a kind of upsurge of creativity and others there’s not, so I think at the moment things are roughly sort of in balance, you know - we have a lot of very, very tired stuff, there’s still some things that are interesting, but most of the time monsters disappoint... why there is such an obsession with sparkly vampires, or whatever it might be, I mean that’s a whole other question – then you have to get into the specifics of each case. And these things are very fashion driven, so, angels are something they’re trying to do at the moment. Angels are very trendy. So overall I think this day and age is kind of middling, in terms of monster creation.
Crossposted, for those of you who prefer your interviews in an article form, all proper, like, at Socialist Alternative.

October 18, 2010
For the Record

Your required daily dose of the blindingly obvious:

Despite Gates' ongoing assertion that "the initial assessment in no way discounts the risk to national security" and that "there is still concern Afghans named in the published documents could be retaliated against by the Taliban," even the DoD and NATO admit that the WikiLeaks release "did not disclose any sensitive intelligence sources or methods" and that "there has not been a single case of Afghans needing protection or to be moved because of the leak." Nonetheless, the accusation that WikiLeaks and Assange have "blood on their hands" was -- as intended -- trumpeted around the world for weeks without much question or challenge.
Courtesy of Mr Greenwald.

October 13, 2010
A Sad Pack of Dogs

A tad old, this Bruce Page article still pertains:

Today [May 2009] the Sun (three million) and Mirror together sell about four million, as against the Mirror’s 1960s five-million peak: a secular decline of 25 per cent (continuing still), while Britain’s population grew 25 per cent. The News of the World, finding no parasite-host in its Sunday marketplace, has declined more simply, sales having halved under Murdoch control. Rupert the circulation mastermind is a myth as frail as Keith the upright war reporter.

Mostly, his newspapers are a sad pack of dogs, especially the New York Post and The Times of London – absurd vanity sheets by any defensible rules, much as Newscorp’s accounts veil their losses...

But dogs have their functions. First, even in decline, the British tabloids generate vast cash flow, essential to Newscorp’s financial vitality. Second, all the papers, profitable or not, are business accessories of a unique type. They have always been politically deliverable: enabling Murdoch to extract from governments in Australia, America and Britain free passes against regulation, designed to sustain media diversity and independence — printed and electronic. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were his best-known playmates, but leaders of the Australian Labor Party (specially inclined to fancy that they were exploiting Murdoch) must not be forgotten.

Newscorp’s rise to television power was a major subplot in the four-decade deregulation epic, now tardily recognized as an unshackling of Caliban. Its dynamics explain Murdoch’s unremitting circulation losses. To be deliverable, a newspaper (or TV show) must be predictable. Then you may manage (even stabilize) its decline, but you mustn’t expect organic growth. If you’re doing fealty to a bunch of politicians, nothing sucks worse than your staff exposing their misdemeanors – even accidentally – however beguiling for the readers. There are some rib-tickling instances in Harry Evans’ account of editing The Times while Boss Rupert courted the Thatcher administration. Papers actually were selling fast – but numerous editions agonized Downing Street. Agony communicated itself to Rupert, and firing Harry was the only cure.

The extent to which the powerful could rely on other media bosses predictably to deliver their assets is often exaggerated. Certainly, the old monsters like Hearst, Northcliffe and Beaverbrook were driven by unpredictable – indeed, barmy – passions of their own. But Rupert is the supreme pragmatist. Barking right is the default state of his own politics: however, these can be readily overwritten any time there’s a deal to do. It may be worth discussing whether he really likes running moribund newspapers. But the commercial point is that politicians love them.
This represents an important qualification of the "newspapers make a profit by selling readers to advertisers" rule: sometimes it really is only about (perceived) political influence. See also this FAIR article, also a tardy citation, reporting on Murdoch's sale of right-wing fanzine The Weekly Standard.

October 12, 2010
Prohibited Degrees of Affinity

Something else from the pile:

Religious belief, campaigns and causes might also produce tightly knit coteries and a preference for marrying within the circle. The Evangelicals of the Clapham Sect, inspired by William Wilberforce, lived almost as a commune. They mimicked kinship bonds, called each other brother, and bequeathed the idea of intermarriage to succeeding generations. ... Competition for pious daughters was intense. Sisters were in demand too, although this raised problems. When a wife died, her sister was often the preferred replacement, except that canon law forbade marriage with a deceased wife’s sister on the grounds that man and wife were one, so a sister-in-law was a sister, hence marriage would constitute incest. This logic gave rise to one of the great Victorian public debates. To begin with, nobody was quite sure what incest was. In 1847, a Royal Commission was set up to investigate "prohibited degrees of affinity", and for the next six decades the argument raged. The radical John Bright appealed to common sense: on every "natural" ground, he urged, the marriage of first cousins was more objectionable than marriage to a sister-in-law. (On the evidence here there was a good chance the deceased wife’s sister was a first or second cousin anyway.) The Bible gave contradictory guidance. Leviticus seemed to ban sisters-in-law, but then there was Jacob, married to two sisters, Rachel and Leah, who were also his cousins. It was not until 1907 that a Bill was passed permitting a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister (although not until 1949 his divorced wife’s sister). Meanwhile, natural scientists and medical men raised questions about inbreeding, and by the 1920s eugenicists routinely condemned cousin marriage. By then, families had shrunk and the First World War had wiped out a generation of male cousins.
Norma Clarke reviews Adam Kuper's book on the Victorian bourgeoisie's habit of marrying their cousins.

October 11, 2010
Already Existing Leftism

Kim Stanley Robinson on science, democracy and capitalism:

[W]ithin capitalist society, science has struggled from its beginning as an alterity, an already existing utopian community, because its distinctive power in the real world has managed to create a counter-hegemony to capitalism itself. Science is a praxis - it’s what theory or the humanities always call for, sometimes as if it is entirely absent. But it’s already being enacted, in inevitably compromised ways, because of the overarching structure of capitalism within which science has always moved. Science has always had to seek funding, and capitalism has always tried to buy science and to own the results of science - to aim science’s creation of ability and capital in certain easily owned directions, and to own that capital...

Why is this ideology, the scientific method, so different, and so powerful in its real world effects? ... [I]ts constant efforts to test its assertions against perceived reality ... in order to see whether the assertions actually hold up to tests of various kinds. The move to quantification came from an effort to ask questions that were amenable to this kind of test. But the method can range beyond the quantifiable, and often does. There is a utopian underpinning to these underlying questions of value that science attempts to answer along with the more obviously physical and quantifiable questions. Who are we? What might make us happy? Does this or that method work in making us healthier? These too have become scientific questions, with distinctive answers born of science’s desire to create testable assertions and tweak them in repeated reiterations and revisions.

They’re not the same answers created by capitalism to these same questions, where desires and habits are encouraged that lead to profits for a certain portion of society, but deteriorating health and happiness for most people, and for the biosphere.


How do we liberate science from capital? We believe what science tells us, as our strongest method and ideology, instead of believing advertising and the consumption habits of our culture and our time. That in itself would make a huge difference. It might move us to support democratically a government that became increasingly scientific, and the utopian project would then proceed on a collective basis. Science would be aimed at different goals and technologies than it is now, and the public would own the resulting capital, with life’s necessities all conceptualized and legalized as “public utilities” and private capital finding its power reduced to something like a kind of superstructural efflorescence, a playground for the space beyond the necessities. If that change could be made nonviolently it would be an amazing accomplishment, and yet because of the existence of democratic governments and the supposed rule of law, it is theoretically possible. But it takes a different view of science than the one ... that one sees expressed pretty frequently in left and progressive circles. What if science and democratic government are both leftist praxis itself, both “already existing leftism,” struggling with capitalism as best they can? I think it helps to think of them this way, and I think the evidence is there to support the notion.
From an interview in Polygraph extracted at Gerry Canavan's weblog.

October 08, 2010
The Germans Have a Word for Everything

It's "alles". *snickers evilly*

Tom: You know, Bart, the whale isn't really a fish, it's a mammal.

Pepi: (overhearing) Is that true, Uncle Homer?

Homer: Pffft. No.
Apparently, here Homer is exercising his umwelt, the human tendency for instinctive taxonomy. OK, so that's a reductio ad absurdem. This isn't. See also.

You Ain't Seen Me, Right?

In the wake of the outing of Grog, there's been a bit of chat about the principles of anonymous sourcing. As usual, this debate is framed by the mythology that commercial media journalists have the job of informing their readers and viewers, rather than to provide the content that attracts the kind of people their customers want to advertise to. Fairly obviously, keeping the actual business model in sight makes the real world behaviour of journalists much more explicable than in the comforting fairy story about fact-hungry newshounds, and leads us back to recognising that the Australian's lack of interest in Grog's anonymity is hypocritical when contrasted with their concern for preserving the anonymity of their sources, and the two are not distinguishable by the importance of the latter.

It is not surprising that the declared ethical rules with regard to anonymous sourcing are so often ignored; the value of the source's anonymity to both the source and the journalist is too great. Before we start, though, let's draw a line between genuine whistle-blowers and dissenters facing significant sanction for leaking information to the press, and the self-serving individuals not facing such sanctions who make up the bulk of people you'll find the media granting the boon of anonymity. Journalists stressing the importance of protecting their sources tend to be careful to avoid making the distinction. The origin of the legitimate concern both a whistleblower and the relevant journalist will have to preserve the whistleblower's anonymity is obvious; the problem is that those who face a meaningful risk from exposure make up a tiny fraction of the anonymous sources you'll see cited in mainstream journalism.

So who are the more usual anonymous sources? Generalising slightly you have two basic types: there's the anonymous government official or corporate flack who provides information in agreement with a position already taken publicly by his superiors (think of Judith Miller's sources from Dick Cheney's office whose anonymous briefings validating the claims made by the Bush administration to justify their war could be used as independent verification of those claims, as Cheney himself did on one occasion on Meet the Press with no comment issuing from Ms Miller as to why the apparent verification was spurious), and then there's the political player pursuing a strategy of massaging press coverage in a way that will further his career, say, by whispering about party room dissatisfaction with the current leader to his favourite spear-carrier in the commentariat.

These people crave anonymity for only two possible reasons: they don't want to be publicly associated with a lie, and they don't want the public to be able to assess the credibility of the information being provided by knowing its source. That's the sum of their motivation, and journalists must be able to recognise that, at the least, a request for anonymity in these cases is prima facie evidence that the information provided will not be true and that maintaining anonymity gives the information credibility it does not deserve.

Now, journalists have an obvious incentive to acquiesce: if they refuse to pass on the information anonymously, the leaker will just go and whisper to someone else. The journalist will lose access to the source, probably permanently, and be left nothing of use to help fill those yawning blank spaces between the ads. Of course, if the point of journalism was to be accurate and informative, that motivation would make no sense, as what use is maintaining access to a source of falsehoods? But under the "providing audiences to advertisers" business model, accuracy, like relevance, is a very low priority.

That said, what's often forgotten is the other motivation journalists have to act to protect the anonymity of their source: the protection of the news values of the story itself. "Man on VP's Staff Confirms VP's Story" is not news; "Anonymous Intelligence Sources Back Up Administration Claims" is. "Leadership Aspirant Bad Mouths Current Leader" isn't much of a story either; well, he would, wouldn't he? "Leaks Allege Party Room Rebellion" is the story you want, much better than the alternative above or the even more accurate possibility "Politician and Pet Journo Meet for Lunch." It's almost never mentioned, but the desire to create news where none would otherwise exist is probably the most compelling motive journalists have to allow their informants to stay in the shadows.

Back before The National Enquirer became a slightly sleazier version of People magazine, swapping its alien abduction and cryptozoology stories for more mainstream chaff about the illicit affairs and pregnancies of celebrities, and the occasional "political story", the rather odd phrase the current editor uses to describe illicit affair and pregnancy stories about celebrities who happen to be politicians, it was an established joke that the Enquirer's fantasies were, in fact, technically true, because they never printed, say, "a woman gave birth to Elvis's clone after being impregnated by Reticulan Greys" without adding the qualifier "claimed Brandine Clontarf of Fugue, Idaho". Which, if you'll forgive the windy set-up, made the Enquirer a more accurate news source than pretty much anything in what we call the mainstream media because at least their sources weren't anonymous.

October 07, 2010
Fighting Words

At Overland, Chris Flynn posts on current US military slang, mostly gleaned from the Sebastian Junger documentary Restropo. It's interesting to see that apparently American soldiers are still using World War 2 slang FUBAR and SNAFU, and the similar FUGAZI - "Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In (as in, zipped into a body bag)" - dating from the Vietnam War. More recent slang includes a few SF references:

Ackbar defines a person who acts heroically in a trying situation, keeping their head to organise others. (This is based on the character of Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi, who leads the Rebel Alliance in an assault against the Death Star.)... Death Blossom is used to describe how Afghani Army forces react in combat, by shooting their weapons randomly in all directions rather than aiming at a specific target, often resulting in friendly fire casualties. (This expression has its provenance in the 1984 science fiction movie The Last Starfighter, in which a video game expert is recruited into an alien space fleet to fight an invading armada. ‘Death Blossom’ is his last resort weapon used to take out as many of the enemy as possible.)
I'm reminded of the scene in Ian McDonald's Kirinya where the protagonists observe American troops communicating in a guttural language they can't quite place until someone realises it's Klingon.

October 06, 2010

Crikey's reposting of Ingrid Piller's piece about this ABCNews report on dodgy translators in Afghanistan reminded me of this quote from Clive Stafford-Smith's book over at Antipope:

Early in his captivity the US agents questioned him with the assistance of a translator who used a dialect of Arabic in which the word zalat means money; in Yusuf's Saudi dialect it means salad, or tomato. Yusuf reconstructed the interrogation as best he could remember it.

"When you left Saudi Arabia for Pakistan, what zalat did you take with you?" demanded the translator, suspecting that the money must have come from al-Qaeda sources.

"What? I didn't have any zalat when I went to Pakistan." The 14 year-old was confused. He had been through a difficult time since his seizure by the Pakistanis. He was prepared for any trick the Americans might spring on him, but all this talk about tomatoes was beyond him.

"Of course you had zalat. What do you take me for? An idiot!" The translator flared into hostility.

"I didn't! Why would I?"

"Of course you did. Now tell me, where did you get the zalat you took with you?"

"I didn't take any zalat with me. I didn't!"

"Aha! So you got zalat in Pakistan when you arrived?"

"Well, yes, what zalat I wanted, I could get there. That's natural." Yusuf was trying to be conciliatory, though the conversation continued along this strange line.

The translator seemed suddenly excited. "Where could you get zalat in Pakistan, then? I want a list of places. Details. Descriptions, places. Details."

Yusuf wanted to keep him in a good humour. Trying to remember Karachi, he began to discuss places in the market where one might buy salad. With each description of a market stall the translator turned to the American interrogator, who took careful notes.

That evening Yusuf ... talked through his bizarre interrogation with other prisoners, turning over each of his recollections.

Finally one of the older prisoners solved the puzzle: "You were talking about tomatoes. They were talking about money. That's what it must have been."
A Christian Science Monitor report, also cited by Ms Piller, mentions cut-price interpreting that lead to misdirected mortar rounds, making Mr Stross's line about the possibility of Yusuf's 'intelligence' resulting in drone attacks on greengrocers seem decidedly unfanciful.

October 05, 2010

From Thomas Jones at the LRB:

One of the reasons breaking up with someone by text message or on Facebook may not be a good idea is the difficulty of judging tone. Take the sad case of Halle and Doug (‘Halle’ is the pseudonym of one of Gershon’s interviewees). While they were going out, they had a running joke, conducted largely by text message, based on the apparently laughable notion that Doug secretly fancied Rianna, one of their classmates whom Halle, for no very clear reason, especially disliked (it perhaps wouldn’t have been hard for anyone apart from Halle, and possibly Doug at first, to see where this was going). So when Doug texted Halle to say that he wanted to break up with her because he was in love in Rianna, she assumed he was joking. It took several more texts to convince her he wasn’t. Once she was convinced, however, ‘That was it. I haven’t talked to him since.’ It was the texting as much as the fancying of Rianna that she couldn’t forgive him.

By sending a serious message using a medium they’d always previously used for joking around, Doug was breaking his and Halle’s personal set of unspoken rules – transgressing their shared ‘media ideology’.
It seems I'm wrong when I describe the internet as the place irony goes to die: you can be ironic in a purely text-based medium, as long as you are never anything but.


Mr Rundle being interesting:

The right has become increasingly hardened against voluntary euthanasia over the last two decades, as it has become increasingly addicted to the notion that a state-enforced social conservatism can put some limits on the nihilistic processes of the market, and the disarray that creates.

By enforcing ‘traditional’ values — even when they’ve ceased to be values held by a majority — you can then go hell for leather in uprooting every other aspect of people’s lives. That allegedly creates a stable society. I think it creates an asocial nightmare, red-bull-vodka-CCTV and tasers world, but there you go.

In such a culture — where any notion of the human, inviolable or genuinely conserved is traded on the open market — abstract notions of traditional value must be instituted. One of them is the idea of ‘life’. Whether applied to abortion, euthanasia, disability or a hundred other issues, ‘life’ becomes this abstract quality detached from the process of living by actual beings.

The US is the home of this, and the Tea Party is its ideal political expression — along with the junk laws whereby an embryo acquires full human rights, standard discontinuation of care becomes murder and so on. A fanatical commitment to ‘life’ becomes a way of affirming it, where every other social process — work, consumption, media — treats people as objects rather than subjects.
I suppose this differs from the more traditional association of "free" market philosophy and authoritarianism; the merely mechanical relationship between implementing policies that heighten social deprivation and consequent social unrest and criminality, and responding to those with increased state repression (or, as they said about Thatcherism, taking money away from social welfare and giving it to the police). What Rundle describes seems more of a rhetorical sleight of hand, a more robust version of the nanny-police statism of New Labour, where ASBOs and ubiquitous surveillance went hand-in-hand with a relaxed attitude to economic inequality, as the Blairites decided that enforcing pro-social attitudes by law was a meaningful alternative to government itself ever acting in society's interest - not a particularly innovative ruling class grift, and in any case merely a subset of the eternal preference of politicians to appear to be solving problems while avoiding the danger of actually solving any.

October 03, 2010

Rudy Rucker posts quotes from Andrew Hodges' biography of Alan Turing (well, he did a month ago). My favourite:

1942, age 30. Turing joined the Home Guard so he could learn to shoot. "[Turing] had to complete a form, and one of the questions on this form was: ‘Do you understand that by enrolling in the Home Guard you place yourself liable to military law?’ Well, Turing, absolutely characteristically, said: There can be no conceivable advantage in answering this question ‘Yes’ and therefore he answered it 'No.' ... And ... he was duly enrolled, because people only look to see that these things are signed at the bottom. ... He learned to shoot, but he refused to attend parades, and the apoplectic chief officer confronted him, and Turing said, "You know, I rather thought this sort of situation could arise... If you look at my form you will see that I protected myself against this situation."


Morgan Meis in The Smart Set via 3QD:

You are walking down the street and there, at your feet, are two cobblestones that have been replaced with tiny memorials to people once living there, who were shipped off to Auschwitz and killed. Here's a memorial to Peter Fechter, the East German kid who tried to get over the Wall and was shot dead by border guards. Here are bullet holes in the side of a building from street-to-street fighting that doesn't seem all that long ago. Here's the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church far in the former West of the city, bombed to smithereens by an Allied air raid and left that way as a memorial. See the empty hole where the rose window once stood? Is there an emptier hole, a more desolate monument to destruction, in any city on the planet?

Every street in Berlin is ghosted. Every memorial is plastered in 20 layers of tragedy, heroism, and shame.


Behind a badly kept fence is a chunk of the Berlin Wall standing alone in the middle of an unused parking lot. Covered in the graffiti of its time, it is slowly being worn away by the elements there, in its final resting place with the weeds, amongst the ruins of a dying neighborhood. How can any work of sculpture, how can any installation ... compete with that?
Which would not be what we speak of when we speak of augmented reality.

October 01, 2010
Further Uses for Dogs

From Jeremy Hardy on bedbugs at the LRB Blog:

The latest four-legged remedy is dogs: certified canine bug detectors. They can case a room with greater accuracy than a two-legged pest inspector... A stricken hotelier or rolling stock owner[*] can then hire an exterminator ‘for only those spaces in which the bed bugs (or their offspring) have been found’. The organisation also promises not to let the cat out of the bag, or even the dog:
When you have a bedbug problem in your home or business you want quick, discreet service. Certified Bedbug Dogs of New England will arrive at the scheduled time in an unmarked vehicle. We will even park several parking lots away from your establishment if you would like. We carry the dog in a rolling dog bag, so no questions arise from guests.
"A rolling dog bag"?


I certainly have an itchy feeling at the moment, but perhaps that's because I'm trying to stop myself snarling at the "biological 'imperatives' trump moral reasoning" crowd at this 3QD thread.

Must... maintain... focus on the doggies...

*Mr Hardy was bitten on a train. By bedbugs, not dogs.

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