Old boots, new adventures

February 19, 2016 1 comment

IMAG0555My old walking boots have given up. The uppers have finally split from the soles in a couple of places. I’m not surprised. I bought them in the late 1980s for about £10, a price I thought at the time was exorbitant. Over a quarter of a century they’ve taken me thousands of miles through South-east Asia, the US, Europe – and just down the road to the shops when it’s been snowing. So while they’ve been good and faithful footwear for much of my adult life, now I need some new boots. I’ll miss the old ones because they fit really well and were comfortable over all kinds of terrain, and a lot of good memories are attached to them. But I’ll still have those memories and I guess, when I buy new boots, I’ll have new adventures and start making good memories in those too.  

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Doing e-learning – six rules

January 12, 2016 Leave a comment

As you may know, I spend a lot of my time working on e-learning materials and tutoring distance learning students. And it strikes me that if you’re going to start an e-learning course, especially a degree course that’s likely to keep you occupied for several years, there are several habits you need to cultivate.

  1. Read compulsively. Unlike students in traditional higher educational institutions, you don’t get the advantage of face-to-face lectures, seminars, the ability to have a conversation with your lecturer after class and so on. You may have a ‘group learning space’ (a bulletin-board type of thing), tutors you can email and occasionally phone, and so on. But believe me, it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face. Instead, you have access to electronic libraries and (of course) the internet. And second-hand bookshops. And newspapers. Read everything. Try to understand how the world works. No one ever got that from reading a single textbook.
  2. Understand that in everything you read, knowledge has a price and that price is ‘spin’ – newspapers, media sources and everyone else is writing to persuade you of the truth of their views. Develop ways to understand what’s reliable and what’s bullshit. Develop that elusive thing we call ‘critical awareness’ that enables you to sense when you’re only being told half a story, and if you had the other half things would look a little, or a lot, different.
  3. Be compulsively curious. Curiosity is a great habit. If you’re not curious about your chosen topic, why are you even studying it? Being curious and asking questions about what you’re taught, going back to original sources, and searching out information to fill in the gaps is always worthwhile.
  4. You may not have much electronic contact with tutors but you live in the real world, among real people, in a community. That community is a microcosm of the problems in wider society. Pay attention to local issues. Understand your local community.
  5. Write. Develop the habit that says ‘I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it’. If you think you have a good explanation, argument, or whatever, write it down. Then leave it a day and re-read it. I’d bet that when you do that, you read what you wrote and then start thinking things like ‘I can express this in a better way’ – and ‘I didn’t explain the logical steps’, and ‘I forgot to mention X, Y and Z which are also important factors’. The way you get better at expressing your thoughts is through writing.
  6. Remember that the aim isn’t just to get a qualification, it’s to get the knowledge that justifies the qualification. And knowledge is a slippery thing, because you really start to understand something, you realise it doesn’t stand still. It’s not just a set of facts. It’s more like a roomful of people, all having conversations about different aspects of some subject. Of course there are certain basic agreed points – until someone comes up with a convincing reason why we shouldn’t rely on those points and rely on something else instead, which might happen once every few decades. Beyond that, there’s a lot of stuff where different views need to be weighed on the basis of evidence, and sometimes on the basis of the ‘best we can do with the evidence that’s available’. In short, by studying a subject you’re not just ‘learning the facts’, you’re engaging in a long, slow, drawn-out conversation with a bunch of strangers.

Just a few thoughts. I hope they’re helpful, but I bet you could add more ‘rules’ (or argue with mine) if you thought about these issues for a couple of minutes. 

Playing catch-up

August 5, 2015 Leave a comment

It’s been a long time. I’ve had a period of several months of dealing with death and illness – not my death (as far as I know) and other people being ill – along with a busy schedule of writing educational materials and suchlike.

Along the way I’ve rekindled some of my long-time interests in narrative and narrative theory, and I just thought I’d share this with you. The ‘Proppian Fairytale Generator’, which used to be on the Brown University website, is still alive and well at the Wayback Machine and it still works. For those of you who don’t know it, Vladimir Propp was an early-1900s exponent of narrative analysis, identifying 7 main character types and 31 specific types of narrative elements in his analysis of fairytales. The characters incuded the hero, the villain, the prize (e.g. the princess the hero intended to marry – sexist but remember we’re dealing with fairytales here that have often been around in one form or another for centuries), and the ‘dispacher’ who sends the hero off on their quest. The narrative elements include someone leaving home (‘absentation’) or being told not to do a certain thing or visit a certain place (‘interdiction’), and the plot is developed by the person doing the interdicted thing (‘violation of interdiction’), or by a ‘villain’ setting out to find and capture something or someone for their own purposes (‘reconnaissance’) and gaining what they want (‘delivery’ – which may be carried out as the result of ‘trickery’). As a result of the delivery or trickery, the hero may need to violate an interdiction to stop the villain, and so on.

I digress. I was playing with the fairytale generator, which automatically creates a story based on a ticklist of characters and narrative elements, and got the following. I just thought it was interesting and had some nice touches I might re-use at some point when I get back into writing fiction properly again – ‘properly’ meaning being when I have the time to do more than add a sentence a day to one of my ongoing story projects.

Here’s the story:

I forget sometimes what people tell me to do or not do. What they tell me slips away into the backwaters of my memory where it drowns in all other memories forgotten.

I gave him my satchel and shoes as he asked me, then I shed my clothes as he advised me to do. “Wear this,” he said, and he shed his own skin. It fell off in a pile on the soil floor looking like a tablecloth used in my home. When I clothed myself in his skin I no longer smelled like my home or the valley. Instead I became like the men on the mountain. I smelled distinctly foreign. I thanked the man and watched as he dressed himself in my own clothes. He said he would wear them until new skin grew on his back.

The silver fish leapt from the water from his gurgling mouth came a bubble that solidified and dropped into my lap. Just as quickly as he had emerged, the fish plopped back into the water, leaving me to puzzle over this mysterious orb.

Burned marks of fire and hot metal left my body colored red with pain.

People began to move away from the other person, who now shook his head and his hands. He kneeled to the floor and placed his head there in mercy.

The soil on my skin turned into sprinkles of gold dust. The people proclaimed me some kind of god.

Categories: fiction Tags: , , ,

Obscenity is in the ear of the listener

April 29, 2015 Leave a comment

I caught a BBC news report today that Jack Ely, lead singer of The Kingsmen in the 1960s, had died at the age of 71. The Kingsmen were best known for their song ‘Louie Louie’ – though I confess the song never registered with me until I heard a version of it by punk band Clash. I caught them at a gig sometime in the mid-80s so I’m guessing that’s where I first heard it.

One notable thing about the original version of the song was that the lyrics were sung fairly incoherently, apparently because the sound engineer wanted to create a ‘live’ atmosphere and put the mic above the singer, not in front of him. I guess that allowed for more of the guitars and drums to get picked up on the vocal mic and perhaps added a bit to echo and distortion?

At any rate, the other notable thing was that the song was fairly quickly reported to the FBI for ‘obscene’ lyrics, and a lengthy investigation followed. We probably shouldn’t be too surprised at that. Despite the advent of hippy and alternative culture in the 60s, it was still a time of rather conservative religious and political (or at least anti-communist) views and conservative individuals and groups seem to have regarded the odd investigation and prosecution for obscenity as a way of arresting the moral decline of the nation.

We’ve had other prosecutions since, both in the US and UK, for obscenity and other charges. They range from Lenny Bruce in the 1960s to 2 Live Crew in the 1990s (in the US), to the unsuccessful prosecution in 1990 of a Cincinnati museum for displaying a Robert Mapplethorpe photographic exhibition  and the 1997/8 investigation in the UK of whether a book containing those same photographs, in a UK university library, could be ruled obscene. In the UK, there have been more recent attempts to prosecute bloggers and social media users for a variety of offences including issuing ‘terrorist threats’ that turned out to be irate individuals whose planes were cancelled (e.g. the ‘Twitter joke trial’) and of course the older, 1982 attempt to prosecute a London play for obscenity.

We shouldn’t, I guess, be surprised that there are still people out there looking at social media, music and other areas of culture with a view to prosecuting what they regard as obscene – and of course increasingly to make accusations of terrorism. I could rant on about all this at some length, including the way prosecution decisions based on social media are apparently made and whether the current legal provisions really help people who are the victims of social media hate campaigns. But that would be a digression too far.

So, back to ‘Louie Louie’. The FBI carried out extensive tests on the record. The lyrics are, these days, available at places like Lyrics On Demand and the verses (I’ve omitted the chorus and some other bits) are in the left-hand column below. According to material in the now-published FBI file, the there were several complainants who believed they heard obscene lyrics and one example is the verses in the right-hand column below.

Fine little girl waits for me Catch a ship across the sea Sail that ship about, all alone Never know if I make it home Three nights and days I sail the sea Think of girl, constantly On that ship, I dream she’s there I smell the rose in her hair See Jamaica, the moon above It won’t be long, me see me love Take her in my arms again Tell her I’ll never leave again There is a fine little girl waiting for me She is just a girl across the way Then I take her all alone She’s never the girl I lay at home Tonight at ten I’ll lay her again We’ll fuck your girl and by the way And on the chair I’ll lay her there I felt my bone in her hair She had a ring on, I moved above It won’t be long, she’ll slip it off I held her in my arms and then I told her I’d rather lay her again

The FBI concluded that the lyrics weren’t understandable words when played at any speed, because they were too mumbled to make sense from them. They had a point, if you listen to the track without having any kind of crib sheet to tell you what lyrics to expect.

That said, the complainant’s version does seem weak, with ‘Tonight at ten’ versus ‘Three days and nights’, ‘She had a ring on’ versus ‘See Jamaica’ and so on. Later on in the file, in fact, there are other transcriptions of the lyrics by other people, some of whom had also played the vinyl single (normally designed for play at 45 rpm) at the vinyl album speed of 33 1/3 rpm, and they’d come up with different but still allegedly obscene versions.

Conclusion: it appears almost anything can be interpreted as obscene if the listener (or viewer, or whatever) has it in mind that it might be, and there is any room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. On the other hand, someone with a more surrealist cast of mind might come up with a different set of misheard lyrics.

None of this is particularly surprising, I guess. Just have a listen and see if you, like the surrealist version I’ve linked to, come up with lyrics concerning wigs and goats. The one surprising thing is probably that no artist has yet re-recorded the song with clearer vocals and using one or other version of the ‘explicit’ lyrics.

EDITED to add: after I originally posted this I stumbled across a version that did indeed have, if not ‘obscene’ lyrics, then explicit anti-capitalist ones. It’s by Iggy Pop and the Stooges. I guess it’s a deliberate nod at the original controversy, though it contains lines like: ‘the communist world is fallin apart / the capitalists are just breakin hearts / money is the reason to be / it makes me just wanna sing louie louie’ and, later, ‘life after bush & gorbachev / the wall is down but something is lost / turn on the news it looks like a movie / it makes me wanna sing louie louie’. See all the lyrics of this version at AZ lyrics.

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The truck that couldn’t be unloaded

April 3, 2015 Leave a comment

I’m sure if you work in the construction industry this will be a familiar story. But it happened yesterday and I’m still slightly bemused by it.

We’re changing some of the back garden around and part of the process is installing a new path. This involved ordering 3 tons of gravel (well, technically not gravel but Cotswold stone chippings) for the path itself. When it arrived, it was loaded into large 850kg bags on pallets.

Previously we’ve had this kind of stuff delivered by a lorry with a crane, and it’s just craned over the front garden wall and onto the front garden. This time it was a curtain-sided lorry and one guy with a pallet trolley, the kind that slots into the pallet and has a handle you pump to raise the pallet off the ground. Whoever loaded the pallets, presumably with a regular forklift, had placed the edge of one pallet onto the corner of another. One couldn’t be moved because of the additional weight and the other couldn’t be moved because the pallet trolley couldn’t be slotted into it and jacked up to raise it.

Oh, and another bag was a problem because it was loaded on one edge of the pallet.  It was almost impossible to shift because whichever side you approached from, you were lifting an uneven load that just tipped the pallet trolley over. It was considerably more difficult than, say, transporting a coffin on a bicycle (which I have done: don’t ask). The fourth bag – the pallet itself had broken and the pallet trolley wouldn’t fit under it until we’d done a quick and dirty fix with hammer and nails.

Solutions could have included shovelling the gravel off the lorry into a pile outside the house (would have taken at least an hour, possibly two); splitting the bags and sweeping the mess off the side of the lorry; and probably a few others. We’d then have needed to get the gravel off the road and pavement. The driver called his firm, who weren’t very interested. Presumably they figured this would empower him by encouraging him to use his initiative. The solution, though, was just to refuse the load as undeliverable and ask them to bring it again, properly loaded, this morning.

That happened. Unbelievably (to me anyway) the load arrived back this morning in another truck – but the tailgate lift wasn’t working properly. A segment of it was out of line with the rest, and raised up enough to stop the loads being trollied onto it. Again, it was almost an hour of messing with the equipment to get the stuff off the lorry.

If anyone wants to know what’s wrong with British industry, I guess this is one clue (no doubt there are many others). Give your workers the equipment they need, preferably in functioning order and without the need to spend stupid amounts of time doing ad hoc fixes to make it work.

Science fiction, nostalgia and dystopia

February 23, 2015 Leave a comment

This post is prompted by a question that was posed in a Linkin group I follow. The question was basically about the way ‘robots’ have developed in the last half-century or so and whether it’s been a good thing. The term ‘robots’ was meant in a pretty generic way to include all kinds of cybernetics, but the question was largely directed at industrial production and its effects on employment.

Now this was of interest to me for a couple of reasons. One was to do with SF magazines in the 1960s when I was growing up, along with films such as 2001: A Space Odyssy and the ultimately-flawed HAL computer that pretty much ran the spaceship. the other was a series of seminar discussions and informal stuff when I was taking my degree, which revolved around the idea ‘what are we all going to do when robots do all the work?’ Even though cybernetics was in its infancy at that point, it as pretty clear it was going to become a huge part of life.

You’ll have to forgive me for not remembering all the names and all the stuff we read, though it included people like Buckminster Fuller, Alvin Toffler, Ivan Illich, and a small blue book with white writing and a diagram on the cover, the title of which I can’t now remember and I can’t spot the book on my shelves.

Among the predictions were that:

1. Robots would mean the same goods could be produced by massively fewer people, so we’d all be on five-hour weeks (or something like that) for the same real wages we were on before the robots were used (that wasn’t an option I mentioned in my Linkedin reply and I don’t think many people thought that was a realistic scenario)

2. We would necessarily live in a socialist society because cybernetics would mean unemployment for 90% of more of people. Unemployed people would nonetheless receive state benefits as a reward for acquiescing to this mode of production, and nonetheless live productive lives through following creative pursuits largely for their own and others’ pleasure. Alternatively, given the way the demographics were going, the majority of human jobs would be in  care for the elderly.

3. There would be a two-tier society where a proportion of the population would cease to live in a robot-centric money economy. Instead we’d learn skills in informal Ivan Illich style free universities (he founded such an institution, CIDOC, in 1961 though it subsequently turned out to be quite a complex little place, as the Wikipedia article in the link makes clear). Or there would be free forms of education provided through labour unions (if anyone remembers what they were) or the workers’ education movement, or places like seminars run in pubs (which have happened at times) plus the Cafe Culturel and Cafe Scientifique setups (these tend to be regionally organised: examples include the UK North-east CC and the American CS main website). Some people might also use redundant, hand-me-down or military surplus equipment repurposed for their own needs to make specialist stuff to distribute in a barter-style economy. That just made me think of the kind of performance art created by people like Survival Research Laboratories, but a more mundane example would be the way some vintage car clubs have bought the original production machinery from the car factories when they were closed, so they can continue to produce original components for vintage cars. And I’ll just mention we’ve recently had a gear linkage component for our ageing campervan replaced by a semi-retired guy who works out of a small workshop and specialises in manufacturing gear linkage components for campervans – the kind of thing that’s a niche market no big business would want to touch, but literally keeps the wheels moving.

4. We’d all move to a Chinese-style economy circa 1980, in which large numbers of people would be allocated to work groups from which they’d draw a salary even though their job was a sinecure. There’s another book somewhere on my shelves about this but I can’t find it; it was written by a Western manager sent to China in the 1980s to run a Western/Chinese joint enterprise making cast-iron goods. Suggestions for what it might have been called are welcome and as another clus, my copy had a brownish cover.  The Chinese economy as a whole has, if I understand it correctly, moved away from this kind of model since that time.

5. There would be a new type of feudalism in which most of us would use robot-made goods while the rich would have the rest of us on retainers or as servants, producing handmade and bespoke craft goods and carrying out roles that robots could not fulfil or that some people preferred to have done by a person.

6. The rise of robots would reach some sort of plateau because we would discover a point at which it would be uneconomic or unfeasible to use robots for a range of tasks, and where for some purposes people actually prefer to be served by other humans.

Coupled with neoliberalism since the 1980s, and the increasing number of people living on low wages and supplemented by benefits of various types (in the UK, for example, tax credits) we seem to be moving towards a society that has characteristics of models 2 and 6 above – at the cost of producing, by this point, at least two and possibly three generations of people who are ‘surplus to labour requirements’ and for whom there isn’t an alternative workable social model that looks remotely like the other models I mentioned.

The discussions I had in the 1970s didn’t really take a global view because at that point the globalisation processes of the 1970s were only just beginning (though I guess we’d seen them before, during the era of colonial and empire trading in the 1800s!). So at that point we didn’t take account of the fact that robots could manufacture but not assemble electronic items (as in mobile phone components) and the assembly work would be done by an army of cheap labour in China. Nor did we take account of the argument that using robots would be economically viable with some goods but not others, which would be too cheap to warrant anything other than low-paid human labour (or high-priced enough to command handcrafted work such as setting diamonds in watch faces). But the idea that you’d have a dual economy in one country or city was part of the discussion, because again, we could all see even then that it was staring to happen with sweatshops using imported labour in the UK and so on.

I don’t have a real conclusion to this post, other than to say that the more I’ve seen Blade Runner the more it looks like it describes the way we’re headed: many people unemployed or on low pay or in casual work, all of the kind that it’s not economic to automate for one of two reasons – people are cheaper, or the goods and services are sold at a premium as handcrafted or individualised things. The more I look at our current economic ills the more it looks to me like the juggernaut of international capitalism is running on flat tyres and with a missing cylinder, and though it will go on in some form it may actually become less relevant to the way we lead our lives. And it doesn’t surprise me that the government has a lot of issues with legalising cannabis because (remembering I’m a criminologist and study these things) I’m aware of small subcultures in the UK and where for the last 20 or so years the basic unit of currency hasn’t been the pound but the teenth, ten-wrap, or ounce. I once met a career criminal who sold stuff he’d stolen in exchange for cannabis, in quantities that meant he either resold it for cash or traded it for many of the things he needed on a more everyday basis. That’s the more dystopian take on the multi-tier society I guess. But as to robots – in many respects we had opportunities to use them positively and in many respects we have used them positively; but we’ve done it in the context of an almost 19th-century attitude to industry and economics, a fixation on consumer society and without any long-term planning for their multiple social impacts. Which, I guess, is something we could have predicted back in the seventies. But we were a little more optimistic back then.

Novel-writing and thought-forms

January 7, 2015 2 comments

Happy Christmas, New Year, etc. etc. Yes, I know I haven’t posted for a couple of months and it’s well past that time now but I’ve been distracted by writing criminology teaching materials (and entertaining friends and celebrating the holidays myself and so on – real life sometimes takes me away from blogging).

In between times I’ve also been playing with a story that involves thought-forms. Wikipedia tells me these have been part of Tibetan Buddhist belief for a very long time, where they’re called ‘tulpa’, but came to the attention of Western mystics, occultists and so on in the 1920s. There is however an interesting book (well, I thought it was interesting) from the Theosophical Society: Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, Thought-forms, published in 1901 by The Theosophical Publishing House Ltd. in London. If you’re sufficiently motivated to read it, it’s available via the Gutenberg Project or indeed as a free PDF from the Theosophical Society itself, which appears to continue to be quite active.

I won’t bore you with a detailed explanation of what thought-forms ‘are’, because any number of sources will give to imaginative and conflicting descriptions and explanations. I should also point out that I read an awful lot of stuff without actually believing it, and have a healthy scepticism about mystical topics. That said, thought-forms struck me as a useful plot device and I may or may not find a reasonable way to finish off the story. However, along the way, I was somewhat amused by the following description in Besant and Leadbeater, in the section of the book on ‘Three Class of Thought-forms’, of how novelists create and are affected by thought forms:

‘The novelist in the same way [i.e. the same way as painters or other artists] builds images of his character in mental matter, and by the exercise of his will moves these puppets from one position or grouping to another, so that the plot of his story is literally acted out before him. With our curiously inverted conceptions of reality it is hard for us to understand that these mental images actually exist, and are so entirely objective that they may readily be seen by the clairvoyant, and can even be rearranged by some one other than their creator. Some novelists have been dimly aware of such a process, and have testified that their characters when once created developed a will of their own, and insisted on carrying the plot of the story along lines quite different from those originally intended by the author. This has actually happened, sometimes because the thought-forms were ensouled by playful nature-spirits, or more often because some ‘dead’ novelist, watching on the astral plane the development of the plan of his fellow-author, thought that he could improve upon it, and chose this method of putting forward his suggestions.
Well, yes, I think most people who write stories do find their characters can be almost like ‘imaginary friends’ who have some sort of independent life, at least in the writer’s head. But should I be amused at the recursive nature of my story, thought-forms discussing thought-forms, or be more concerned that I could be subconsiously channelling some dead novelist?
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