November 10, 2018

Debating Fascism and Understanding Mogg

Two articles that could be considered related that I wanted to write about at slightly longer length than the usual Sunday Reads.

Aleksandar Hemon : Fascism is Not an Idea to Be Debated, It’s a Set of Actions to Fight

I remember in the early 90s the self published comics of Aleksandar Zograf, a Serbian cartoonist whose autobiographical accounts of the war that divided his country rang out with a warning to those in the rest of Europe. This is not some alien place, he said. This was a modern, European country with a relatively cosmopolitan culture. And within a few short years we are killing each other. This could easily happen to you.

I thought of Zograf’s 25 year old warnings while reading this powerful piece by another Aleksandar, a Serbian writer who moved to American in 1992. Aleksandar Hemon frames the current rise of the far-right in the USA with what happened to his friend Zoka who slowly became a Serbian nationalist, supporting the likes of Radovan Karadzic and eventually joining the military efforts to eradicate Muslims. By the time he realised what was happening, it was too late. His friend was lost to fascism.

I’d not heard the Serbian regime of that time described as “fascist” before, because we like to save that term for Hitler, even though the Nazi’s weren’t the only fascists. But by any definition Slobodan Milosevic’s regime was fascist.

And so it’s in our interests, as the ingredients of fascism appear around us at an unnerving frequency, to listen to those who have suffered the outcomes and try to benefit from their hindsight.

Hemon’s big regret is that he attempted to debate fascism as if it were an idea that could be defeated through reasoned argument. But it is better seen as a collection of actions that will destroy people who are different. The ideology is relatively unimportant. If the ideological discussions we’re used to having under the post-war consensus are a game of chess, fascism is the upending of the board. The game is won by eradicating the game.

You cannot argue with fascism.

The next time you see some charismatic figure espousing nationalist rhetoric about “us” and “them”, be it Farage, Robinson or Bannon, being invited on to some media platform to “debate”, think of Serbia and how that turned out.

How to explain Jacob Rees-Mogg? Start with his father’s books

Jacob Rees-Mogg is many things but he’s probably not a fascist. What is he then? This insightful piece looks at the writing of his father, William, that predicted a chaotic future, accelerated by technology.

For 380 breathless pages, Lord Rees-Mogg and a co-author, James Dale Davidson, an American investment guru and conservative propagandist, predicted that digital technology would make the world hugely more competitive, unequal and unstable. Societies would splinter. Taxes would be evaded. Government would gradually wither away. “By 2010 or thereabouts,” they wrote, welfare states “will simply become unfinanceable”. In such a harsh world, only the most talented, self-reliant, technologically adept person – “the sovereign individual” – would thrive.

While dismissed in the UK as a bit of a crank, his book became one of the texts of libertarian Silicon Valley disruptors and we’re now seeing that “Mystic Mogg” might not have been quite so wrong. We’re also seeing his son pushing the borderless “disaster capitalism” ideology along.

Which might seem weird for a passionate Brexit supporter who appears as a paragon of English pride, and I’m still not sure exactly what Jacob is, other than massively objectionable bundle of seeming contradictions. But one thing’s for certain - his personal investments will only benefit from the hardest, most disruptive of Brexits, because that’s what his daddy taught him.

November 3, 2018

Sunday Reads

Greenhouses in Southern Spain

Exploring the Future Beyond Cyberpunk’s Neon and Noir

by Jay Owens, my go-to for explaining cultural stuff that makes me feel old, and she does it in such a wonderful way. This is a run-down of nine sci-fi genres that feel like cyberpunk did in the 80s, because these days cyberpunk is nostalgia for a future imagined in the past. As we reach one of those “end of history” moment when it seems impossible to see a future beyond iterating the present, new methods of speculation become more urgent.

Climate Change and Technology Define the Rural Future

This is a good example of why a new sci-fi is needed. We’re changing the countryside in ways that make our concepts of “countryside” woefully outdated. The otherwise retro-porn Blade Runner 2049 is mentioned as having a rare-for-sci-fi scene in the countryside, acknowledging that the city of the future cannot be an autarky (great word for a self-sufficient system, that). This article looks the weirdness of the countryside right now, from solar farms and greenhouse fields to structural attempts to fix climate changed landscapes. A fascinating overview with some amazing images.

The Automation Charade

This is turning into quite the speculative fiction newsletter, it seems, as this leftist look at automation is really about the stories about automation which denigrate those who do the actual work making their labour appear worthless because it can be automated away. What’s of note is these stories are becoming less and less effective at covering up the truth that automation, by whatever term it goes by (AI being the current label) is pretty woeful. Maybe capital needs some of those new sci-fi genres?

100 Websites That Shaped the Internet as We Know It

OK, something a bit more light-hearted for those of us enraptured by the early web in the years around the turn of the century. Get ready for some Proustian rushes from these screenshots.

‘Oumuamua, Thin Films and Lightsails

And we’re back with the science speculation. I swear I just dump these links in a document over the week. Any patterns are accidental. This contains the news that ʻOumuamua, that weird asteroid shaped like a baguette that flew by Earth last year, behaved like a Lightsail, designed to capture solar radiation, and could therefore be a remnant of a structure powered by solar radiation, and all that entails. Far fetched, of course, but fascinating none the less.

Sunday Listens

Divide And Dissolve
Do you like doom? I like doom. This is some Australian neoclassical ambient doom from a duo called Divide and Dissolve. I came across them on Jay Springett’s blog-roundup which often has nice things.

Marika Hackman
If that’s a bit much for a Sunday morning, I’m quite liking Marika Hackman who cropped up on my Spotify Discover algo. The song Time’s Been Reckless reminds me of lots of things.

October 25, 2018

Bunny Butt Master

So I continue to go to the Fat Fluffs rabbit sanctuary on a Wednesday morning when I can, which is about 3-4 times a month. Officially Fi and I take it in turns so I don’t have to go every week, but I like to. This is quite something as it involves voluntarily getting up at 8:30 on what is now one of my days off from work. I try to avoid rising during single-digit hours, but I’ll do it for those buns.

Our motivation for going in the first place, beyond wanting to help, was to learn how to look after our own rabbits more effectively, so we specifically go when the health checks happen. Each rabbit there gets a thorough look over at least once a week, starting with the eyes, nose, teeth, ears, feet and bottom. A few of the permanent residents have front-end issues but mostly it bright eyes and clean noses. The back-ends are another issue.

Problems mostly arise in rabbits that, for some reason, can’t clean themselves. Some are old and arthritic, some are stupid and don’t realise they shouldn’t sit in their wee, some are overweight and can’t reach the nether regions (these are mostly new arrivals who’ve been loved a bit too much). And when this happens they need some help.

I’ve found that not only am I very good at cleaning a rabbit’s bottom, I really enjoy it. Which is not something I thought I’d ever type.

Here I am with Walt, a white rabbit who should not be that yellow underneath. He will be joining the permanent residents soon but for now is on his own. He had quite the mucky bum.

My hands are in this position because the fur on Walt’s back legs has matted hard. This is effectively the palms of his feet and the fur is needed to protect his skin as he walks around, so we can’t just cut off the matted bits as you might elsewhere. They gunk needs to be worked free by rubbing it between my fingers before combing it out.

It’s quite slow work and I need both hands so the rabbit needs to be fixed in place. Unfortunately the best way to do this is to “trance” the rabbit by putting it on its back. This puts them into panic mode where they “play dead”, so while Walt looks all snuggled up here, he’s actually terrified. Ideally I should have him sitting upright in my lap, but he’d kick and wriggle too much and this job is more important. With the rabbits that need extra care it’s a bit of a trade-off and trancing is usually the only way to go.

They do get their revenge sometimes though. You’ll notice this hoodie has lots of holes. These were mostly made this morning by blind Sweep who had a particularly pooey bottom which needed extra work from which he kept wriggling free from and biting the shite out of my clothes. Later on Rupert, a very grumpy 11 year old rabbit, bit my bicep through three layers leaving a little red welt. And, of course, I still have the awesome face scratch from Bert last month.

But it’s worth it. Last week there was a shortage of volunteers and I found myself health checking about 30 rabbits, and what’s great is my diagnoses are getting better and better. I check everything with the staff, obviously, but more and more my assumptions are correct. And that’s really reassuring.

Back home, Bunminster has been getting a bit arthritic. It’s nothing major and he’s still running around the garden but we’ve noticed he sits funny, or doesn’t lift himself fully when he doesn’t really need to. As with the older rabbits at Fat Fluffs, he’s been getting a mucky bum. Sometimes it a wet tail, sometimes it’s mud from the garden that he can’t clean, rarely it’s a full-on poo fest. So after work I’ve been heading down to the shed, wedging him on my lap and gently teasing his fur clean with my fingers and an increasing collection of specialist brushes.

He hates it, of course, but I find it oddly relaxing.

October 21, 2018

Sunday Reads

Usually every fortnight, but this one’s a week late because, yes, new job but also my mum came to visit and, hey, priorities people.

Ron Regé’s Spider-Man story from Coober Skeber

Rege’s style is a bit of an acquired taste (I vividly remember suddenly “getting” him on an overnight train through Wales circa 1999 after years of being bemused) but this is one of his more accessible pieces, where Peter Parker is a furious and bitter 90’s high school nerd. It still stands up.

Software disenchantment

If, like me, you’ve noticed that despite your computers and phones getting more and more powerful they seem to be running at the same speed, or slower, you’re not alone. The programming industry has some serious bloat issues and is totally doing nothing about them, really. This evisceration from a programmer is like the kid pointing out the emperor has no clothes.

If the Point of Capitalism is to Escape Capitalism, Then What’s the Point of Capitalism?

The title says it all and it’s an amusing read, but for once the real interest in the comments. For this is on Medium, home of the Silicon Valley thinkpiece, not known for attracting the Marxist audience, and to question one of the great myths of modern America is just not on.

On Theresa May, Danny DeVito and ‘other people’s money’.

Apparently most people don’t understand how money actually works, which sounds reasonable because I barely have a grasp on it beyond my personal accounts, which bear no relation to how national banks manage a country’s currency. Basically, they make it up and it becomes borrowing, then they tax the profits made by the people who borrow it to pay for making it up in the first place. Or something. Christ, I dunno. But the main message from this explainer is taxes do not fund government expenditure. Which doesn’t make sense. But there you go. Money is weird.

This Is The Real Reason We Haven’t Directly Detected Dark Matter

The story of Dark Matter, the stuff that makes up most of the universe that we can’t see but we know must be there, is fascinating. This is a fun explainer (punctuated with graphs I can’t begin to understand, but that’s cool, the writing makes sense).

Digital Art and the Alt Right. Can you fight fire with fire?

There’s a lot going on here, but my hot take would be that abstractions lend themselves to being filled with easy answers, which is what a lot of populist stuff purports to offer, so we shouldn’t be surprised when methods of strengthening ideas through simplification get co-opted by ideologies that attract lazy thinkers. Or something.

Some of the most remarkable lost artefacts from the ancient world were the titanic wrecks of the Nemi ships.

The Nemi ships were absurdly large pleasure-boats built by mad emperor Caligula on a tiny land-locked lake, because he was mad. In 1929 the fascist dictator Mussolini insisted the lake be drained and boats raised to restore the glory of ancient Rome. It didn’t end well. A fascinating bit of lost history.

Sandscript: A Beachwalker’s Guide to Ripples, Trails, Dimples, and Other Curious Markings

“A beach is a text written by wind, wave, current, and creature. To read it we need to learn its hybrid language.” This breakdown of how shapes in the sand are formed is amazing and needs to be a proper article, or even a book. But we’ll have to make do with this Twitter thread for now.

October 20, 2018

Mental Labour Scars

During a presentation by Michael Lightborne I tonight I was struck by a couple of things he mentioned to illustrate a broader point he was making about his work, but which made me think of something else. He was talking about The Projection Project, run by Warwick University to capture the last days of the commercial 35mm film cinema projector. Michael mentioned two things.

The first, during an off-hand digression, was that the projectionists often had calloused fingers and thumbs from handling rough celluloid during the splicing process. He also alluded to sound editors whose fingers would be locked in a hook shape after decades of operating mixing desk sliders. This notion of human bodies being physically changed by industry is nothing new - it arguably started with the invention of farming circa 6,000 BCE and continues today with my neck ache after too much typing. But these physical changes are often seen as a negative thing, a bending of the natural form by unnatural activity.

The second thing was that professional projectionists could diagnose a technical fault with their equipment by the sounds it made which would be imperceptible to anyone else. Again, this is nothing new. Car mechanics often listen to an engine before looking in it, and so on.

But I wonder why this bending of the brain to work more efficiently is always seen as a good thing, while the physical stuff isn’t. Or maybe it’s that the physical stuff is demonstrably limiting - once your fingers are locked into that position you might be an awesome sound mixer but you’re never going to play the piano. A mental optimisation to hear one thing really well, meanwhile, doesn’t mean you can’t use that resource for other things. Or does it?

Does repeated mental activity cause us to think in specific ways? Can you mentally programme a population through the work you give them to do? Or am I mixing apples and oranges.

Still, I like think a shift towards thinking of the mind and body as equally malleable by outside forces is necessary as we move from the notion of free-will to something more programmable.

Pic from Richard Nicholson’s related photographic project, The Projectionists.

October 20, 2018

The Revolution will be Laminated

The other day I was making signs at Loaf and Nancy asked if I wanted to laminate them. God, no, I said. Of course not. These are “proper” signs, and you don’t laminate proper signs.

The laminated sign is a curious thing. The fact that it is laminated indicates it is designed to be permanent, to protect it from wear and tear and prevent alteration. It encases a statement for now and the future in wipe-clean plastic.

But the laminated sign is also a transgression. In the hierarchy of the sorts of organisations where persons have access to a laminator, they are produced by those at the bottom, not the top. Those at the top can influence the professional sign making strategy and implement their wishes without having to use the laminator.

Those at the bottom, who have to work within a corporate system which cannot scale down to appreciate the nuance of their day to day existence, will use whatever they can to make their job easier, to get things done. The laminator, along with the desktop printer, is a vital tool in this guerrilla war against a system which prioritises design visions above practicality.

The laminated sign is a correction employed by the powerless in defiance of the powerful. It is never on brand, its vernacular design an offence to the values of head office. For this reason it is regularly hunted down and destroyed whenever higher-ups deign to visit their domains up close. The laminated sign tells the king he is wrong, and no-one can tell the king he is wrong because the king is god.

The laminated sign epitomises the utopian / dystopian dichotomy. The more one seeks efficiency and order, the more one attempts to smooth the rough edges, the more laminated signs will be produced by those who have to deal with the reality of inefficient chaos.

The laminated sign shows your ideology has failed. Your authoritarian dictatorship cannot suppress the anarchy of people’s desire and your under-paid, under-appreciated, under-consulted underlings have admitted defeat. They are re-writing your policy, one laminated sign at a time.

The revolution will be laminated, and the revolution will succeed only when the laminators have gathered dust.