Posts by author:

Maria

Brad White, a friend of Crooked Timber, was home in Salt Lake City recently. His mother, Jackie White had suddenly died. It was a good death, as they go; Jackie went just as she raised a rather large G&T to her many friends.

As Brad tidied and settled Jackie’s affairs, he found stuffed at the back of a drawer an article she’d written. Going by the other documents it was with, he reckons it was written in the late 1960s or early 1970s. As far as we can tell, it was never published.

Here is some clear-eyed advice advice written for American women in the workplace, not long after the Mad Men era. Almost fifty years on, the gist of it is still relevant to many women in many more places. [click to continue…]

I screen, you screen…

by Maria on June 27, 2017

I can’t be the only person who gets horrible eye-strain and frequent migraines from looking at computer screens for many hours a day. But my job, in the physical sense, is basically reading screens and typing stuff into computers. Like so many of us.

Then there’s the generalised version of the ‘spending too much time reading crap on Twitter’ problem, which is a total time-sink and makes me aggravated and unhappy.

These are two distinct but also connected issues. Stuff I’ve considered/tried includes:

Turning off the router at night and only turning it on again in the morning a couple of hours into actual work. Other household members can find this annoying. (Understatement)

Looking for a word-processing only machine – but they’re all extremely old and have tiny screens.

Reviving an old laptop and making it a non-connected machine. Helps with the Twitter problem, but not with the migraines.

Writing by hand and inputting later. Good for shorter stuff, extremely tedious in longer doses.

Keeping the lightness setting on my laptop squintingly low. Helps with the headaches, not the Twitter.

Using an unconnected machine for long-form. I always crack.

Freedom or other such programmes. I always crack.

Feeling that as kindles and such can be read without eye-strain, there must be some sort of work-devices that also can? But being unable to find one.

And so forth.

I mean, the overall problem is that we have little monkey (ok, ape) brains and love novelty and distraction and tiny yet sustained doses of social feedback, and also live in a wider techno-capitalist superstructure that wants to get and keep us addicted, etc. etc. And also that an inability to think long-ish and against the grain kinds of thoughts is, well, convenient to the maintenance of that type of economic set-up. I get that!

But I will take 100% responsibility for being so distractable if I can find a way to work without getting a fucking migraine at least every ten days that wipes out my ability to produce work for at least two days, each time. And is also no bloody fun.

So, this is clearly a bleg, but I figure many CT people struggle with this sort of thing, and any experiences/suggestions you have may find a grateful reception from many others.

Also, my back is completely banjaxed from it, but there’s yoga for that.

Signal to Noise

by Maria on June 6, 2017

On Saturday night, a couple of hours after the attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market, I was on the Tube carrying a suitcase and backpack, trying to figure out the best route home that avoided the closed stations. A South African guy was sitting nearby. He inveigled an Italian man opposite him into chat. Within two stops, the South African was teaching a British woman some dancing steps while the Italian sang them some weird, sloppy waltz, a couple clapped not quite in time, the woman’s friends recorded it in hope of a viral moment, and the rest of us acted like proper Londoners and looked slightly irritated while also pretending nothing was happening.

It was kind of a nice moment, being light-hearted and international and the kind of thing we all say is so very London. The woman soon gave up in embarrassment and sat down in a trill of supportive giggles from her friends. The Italian got off and reminded us to get the very drunk South African as far as Collier’s Wood. With the state of him, though, he’s probably still sleeping it off at the end of the line in Morden.

On Sunday night, I checked email for the first time in two weeks and responded to a media request on Theresa May’s suspiciously prompt statement that the attacks were due to US tech firms providing “safe spaces” to terrorists. She’s made a career out of cutting police resources while increasing their powers. I guess this makes sense on some collectively sub-conscious level, like an anorexic I once knew who baked endlessly and gave it all away. [click to continue…]

Freedom of the City

by Maria on May 12, 2017

Two nights ago, I got back from a work-dinner, kicked off my heels in the hall and hung up the smart jacket that went with them, pulled on docs and a coat to walk the dog. Which is worse; a half-mile walk in a too-tight dress now, or a long-cold shit on the kitchen floor in the morning? Walk it was.

Half way round the walk – which has gradually lengthened from ‘don’t stop walking right after the dog shits because he’ll learn to hold it in to maximise the walk’ to ‘sod it, may as well do the mile’ – the lolloping pace of the docs, the cool and the dark, and a sudden realisation that with a medium to large sized dog I feel somewhat impervious – it came to me. I felt free. Free in a way I haven’t felt since Jerusalem in 1996, I think it was.

Rolling back a little. My first ever holiday alone. The Greek Islands. Black sands of Santorini, a night spent sleeping on the deck of a ferry and waking up with the sun. Actually, that’s all I can remember. After Santorini I couldn’t take any more of all the same and got a flight to Israel to do some real traveling. I got there a day or two after Benjamin Netanyahu had won his first election. I saw him on the street, actually, in the middle of a dozen or two people bowling along the pavement, then careening from the footpath to cross the street and spin back again, like primary school boys in a moving melee around the ball.

I stayed in a youth hostel somewhere central-ish in Jerusalem.

“Hi Mum,” I couldn’t resist calling home. No point being a rebel unless you let the establishment know. “Guess where I am.”

She couldn’t, so I told her. There may have been a sharp intake of breath on the other end, but history doesn’t relate. History does relate that on the out-breath she said; “Oh you must look up Declan Meagher. He delivered you all and he runs the maternity hospital in Bethlehem, now.”
[click to continue…]

Back, Sack and Crack

by Maria on May 12, 2017

This morning, Milo had his third professional grooming session. The first was a disaster. The salon we took him to thought they knew better than the universal wisdom of Samoyed owners, which is to brush first, then shampoo. Reverse the order, and brushing becomes impossible for, oh, about three months, till the matted undercoat grows out. He came home looking like a sheep who’s been too liberal with the Brylcreem, but instead of comely ripples of fur flowing down his back he had a mogul-field made of clumps of three-inch thick dog-felt.

The second time was pretty good. A woman parked outside and ran a power-flex into the house. Milo leapt into the van and sprang out a couple of hours later looking like a pompom. In the meantime, though, his yowling and weeping could be heard through both the van door and the front door and all the way back to the kitchen. When I went to get him, the inside of the van was covered with so much white fluff it looked like a candy floss drum right before the stick goes in.

Third time round, we went with the van-lady again. We have builders in. (Actually, we’ve had them in since January 2016. Work slowed down a LOT in the summer when the best one went home on a family visit and was press-ganged back into the army to go and fight in Donetsk. Allegedly.) When the van arrived and backed into the back-garden, the builders did the whole manly thing of waving it in and holding the gates, issuing a stream of instructions in loud Ukrainian. The Portuguese-speaking groomer found it very helpful.

Then we all had five or so minutes of trying to catch Milo and calm him down as he pinballed around the house and garden, dodging (mostly) power tools and ladders. At one point he stopped suddenly and tiptoed like a Lipizzaner out of the kitchen to hid behind the door, probably on the logic that if he couldn’t see us, etc. etc. Eventually, we got him into the van. The lamenting began and I went back to work upstairs. [click to continue…]

Just meat following rules

by Maria on May 2, 2017

Seminar on Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway

Recently, someone who works in an adjacent field was described by a friend as having been radicalised. It’s an odd verb, that, radicalised; to be made radical. It sounds almost as if it happens without agency. To have all the depth, complexity and contradiction in your understanding of human life boiled away, leaving the saltiest essence, crystallised on the bottom of a burnt saucepan. That would take some extreme heat, you would think.

Here’s what apparently happened to this guy. He published a book about competition. Part of it looked at search engines. Talking about the book soon after it was published, his tone was, by my friend’s account, pretty even-handed; full of ‘on the one hand, we need new ways of thinking about monopolies that aren’t just based on immediate consumer harm’, and ‘on the other hand, we get lots of nice shiny things from this free – to consumers – service’. But things started happening. Pieces got spiked. When he wrote about the issues, the company would complain, or insist on a right of reply, either directly or via proxies. And when he spoke in public, there was usually a paid stooge in the audience. [click to continue…]

UK GE17 Open Thread

by Maria on April 18, 2017

Well in fairness, it hardly feels like summer is coming unless there is a massive, polarising electoral campaign in the UK.

On watching the PM call the election, issuing the death knell for Labour – a sentence the party is only to happy to carry out on itself – I had the same grim satisfaction I remember from boarding school, when the head-nun blasted apart a girl we all knew was innocent. We all stood in a semi-circle around the weeping victim of the precision tongue-lashing and watched as we’d been instructed to, sympathetic, appalled but also weirdly thrilled. Not by the spectacle itself, but by a grim gladness that even the pretence of even-handedness had finally been dropped. The bully in a habit was no longer acting otherwise. There’s always a next victim, and a next one, and in that place, the subsequent victim was me (public verbal demolition AND a face-slapping – from a great height, you fall a long way), but I can’t deny there was satisfaction, then, too.

Let’s watch this nasty show play out as what it really is.

World Poetry Day Redux

by Maria on March 21, 2017

Five years ago, Ingrid wrote a post here for World Poetry Day. Many of CT’s commenters took her up on the invitation to “post poems, with or without translations, of our own making or borrowed from someone else.” The thread was one of the most remarkable we’ve ever had, including people’s favourite poems, own poems and own translations, and in several different languages. Here it is: Poems to Celebrate World Poetry Day.

Poetry can be so nationally-bounded, it’s always good, and quite revealing, to find other people’s geniuses. It often seems to travel abroad with a delay of a few decades, even between quite closely aligned cultures. For example, I’ve only seen Mary Oliver sold prominently in the UK in the past few years. Well known to many Americans, this one of hers is a jewel box of image and emotion, and continues to be both revelation and consolation to me.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

In Good Hands

by Maria on March 16, 2017

You know that feeling about fifty pages into a novel you can tell you’re going to get along with? When you’re confident the various elements – character, plot, style – are going to be handled well, and the material is the right mix of familiar and challenging. When it’s about things you just find interesting. It’s quite a rare feeling, as an adult reader. It’s a call back to the cocooned and all-encompassing stimulation in the embrace of the books William Gibson calls a person’s native literary culture. That mix of feeling held and also working quite hard at it, but happily so. I had it recently, reading Becky Chambers’ The long way to a small, angry planet*. It was such a strong feeling that I took a pencil to write ‘in good hands’ in the margin.

I had the ‘in good hands’ feeling by page three of Too Like the Lightning (TltL). It begins at a brilliantly chosen moment of crisis that introduces great characters on the horns of a dilemma that underpins the story; how does a studiedly irreligious society cope with a miracle? TLtL also has a sweet boy, both old and young for his age, with an utterly magical power. Bridger can make objects or drawings real, be it into living creatures with all the characteristics of ensoulment, or horrifying abstract concepts with the ability to end the world. [click to continue…]

{ 15 comments }

One fine day

by Maria on January 21, 2017

Women's March London, 21 January 2017

Your opponents would like you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons.

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the uncertainty of both optimists and pessimists.

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Darkness, 2005/2016

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. Hope gets you there; work gets you through.” James Baldwin (quoted in Solnit).

Fellowship carries many through the long years when faith is in doubt. A political struggle like the one many now face needs equal parts work, hope and fellowship. Hope and fellowship alone won’t suffice, but oh, how badly we needed them. The worst (yet) has happened. Now we can begin.

Happy Christmas, Timberteers

by Maria on December 25, 2016

milo-xmas-2

Milo sends best wishes from London to all the CT gang. OK, whatever, he’s a dog. He’s only eaten three or four baubles and so far today is more or less continent.

Wishing everyone who’s part of CT a great Christmas, Hannukah, holidays and all the rest of it.

Bit of a weird one, this. I can’t quite find it in myself to write ‘happy New Year’ on everyone’s cards as who knows what’s in store, and the very things that made 2016 so disastrous will make 2017 … oh, well.

Here’s another dog picture.

milo-xmas-3

Be more dog, guys. Be more dog.

Here, gentle reader, is a guest-post from, Andrew Brown, Guardian writer and friend of CT.

At a conference on Serious Matters of Internet Governance last month, some of the participants kept bringing up science fictional references as a guide to the future; others never did. A straw poll revealed that about half of us had never read any science fiction, while the other half read huge amounts. The non sf-readers asked for some pointers.

So Maria and I, with some suggestions from Henry, have tried to draw up a List of Science Fiction for People Who Don’t Read SF. There might be some overlap there—I think Riddley Walker is definitely a book that gets read for its considerable literary merit by many people who would never dream of filing it as a post-apocalyptic fantasy, even though that’s what it also is. Margaret Atwood may be another author whose books are read in that way.

Note: this is a starter package for adult readers who feel curious as to what is the attraction of sf, and it is intended to introduce them to some of the distinct pleasures of the genre as well as to good books. Almost everyone (hi, Henry) will have different and possibly better ideas for this list. Fire away in comments. But the criterion for success is not whether you know the field better than we do—you do—but whether anyone who has been wondering what is the distinct pleasure of sf as a genre becomes able, through some of these books, to discover it.

Hors d’oeuvre—short stories available for free or cheap download

If you don’t like any of these, you won’t appreciate anything that follows

E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops – Dystopia perfectly imagined, in 1909.

William Tenn, The Liberation of Earth – All you need know about war

James Blish, Surface Tension – What imagination can do

Frederik Pohl, The tunnel under the world – Life inside Facebook

[click to continue…]

The UK in 2016

by Maria on October 5, 2016

… should perhaps listen to Stefan Zweig in 1942:

“The Russians, the Germans, the Spanish, none of them know how much freedom and joy that heartless, voracious ogre the State has sucked from the marrow of their souls. The people of all nations feel only that an alien shadow, broad and heavy, looms over their lives. But we who knew the world of individual liberties in our time can bear witness that a carefree Europe once rejoiced in a kaleidoscopic play of variegated colours. We tremble to see how clouded, darkened, enslaved and imprisoned the world has now become in its suicidal rage.”

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I love it when two ideas come together. At lunchtime, I was talking about Roger Taylor’s new book on open data, public policy and how to grab back some little part of our human agency from the maw of big data. Last night, already three hours delayed by that corporate gaslighter Ryanair, I was shuffling through the endemically slow passport queue at Stansted, soon to brave even further delayed luggage, and wondering why an airport that has just had millions spent on it is so utterly crap.

This morning, as I stood in a District/Circle line caterpillar train– the ones whose lack of carriage dividers always makes me guesstimate the unimpeded range of a bomb blast (I’m cheerful, that way) – it came to me. Facebook/Google/WhatsApp are bad for consumers in just the same way Stansted is.

Bear with me.

I wanted to go to Girona, a city in Catalunya, to spend a few days with a group of women brought together by an old army-wife friend to do running, cycling and general fitness. All good. The only way to get there from London was with Ryanair. So already, I felt a bit let down by capitalism. Where was all the market choice and innovation to translate my myriad human desires into a competitive range of options for me to choose from and pay for? Then it turned out that Ryanair would only leave from Stansted, which I dislike, so I had to satisfice like some too-lazy-to-compare consumer or a half-arsed social democrat.

So that’s the first similarity. Any colour as long as it’s black. Any social media, search or advertising platform as long as it’s Google or Facebook. (Before anyone starts, I use DuckDuckGo for search, subscribe to an actual hard copy newspaper as an alternative business model to PPC advertising, and have been on Ello for two years, making it just under two years since I’ve interacted with anyone on Ello.)

By now we all know the saying, ‘if you’re not the customer, you’re the product’. If you are a passenger in Stansted Airport, you are most definitely the product. It is said the RAF calls soldiers ‘self-loading freight’. Well, I’ve been in Brize Norton and it’s a lot nicer and better run than Stansted.

Passengers in Stansted are not people who have paid for a service (except of course they have paid for it, but in a disintermediated way that means the service provider doesn’t give a stuff about them). They are not even freight that needs efficient through-put. If you delay them, they will spend money, topping up those useless five euro vouchers only good for MacDonalds. What you want to do, if you run Stansted Airport, is extract every further penny you can from them. This is why once you stagger out of security with your shoes half-tied and your still belt in your hand, you have to run the gauntlet of a curving shopping mall hard-selling perfume, booze, sweets and cigarettes. [click to continue…]

The Facts of Life

by Maria on September 5, 2016

Mind your own beeswax

Today’s lunchtime irritation; the password re-set questionnaire.

1 The second school I went to? I don’t know. I was FIVE. It was for a year, somewhere in the north of England. I was terribly unhappy and it was dark all the time. When Mum and Dad could afford a roast chicken, we’d call it a party and invite the neighbours. They’d have a great time but the next day it would be back to distant nods and hellos. At that point we were moving around a lot. See ‘Employment figures, Ireland, 1970s’, also ‘economic migrants, bloody Irish’.

2 The first person I kissed? Are you fking kidding me? This is information I need to a) share and b) regurgitate (I chose the verb carefully) at will? Actually, the first person I kissed, i.e. necked/shifted/snogged, was an Iraqi soldier and I was 11. Consent wasn’t really on the agenda.On the plus side, I finally understood the expression “I wanted to wash my mouth out with soap.” And no, I didn’t catch his name. The second one was fully consensual and later that same summer, and, oddly enough, made me puke. But sure, I’ll offer it up for access to a crummy user interface that can’t be arsed investing in two-factor authentication.

3 It turns out I have no idea what ‘town’ my father was born in. (It was Ireland in the 1950s. AFAIK he was born at home or in a nursing home down the road from the farm. He was about the fifth child and the fourth son, so no one was really paying attention.)

4 The first band I saw live was kind of big in Ireland in the 1980s, but their name only has two characters.

5 It is a matter of both principle and policy with me that my favourite film is Point Break. But this system disagreed. Maybe my punctuation was out or I wasn’t allowed a space? Or perhaps, as Lori Petty so memorably told those beautiful, testosterone-poisoned boys, I just wasn’t doing it right.

6 My first primary/elementary (Elementary? Really? Are we just giving up already and going to use American spelling, too? Dizaztrouz.) school was called after a saint. Who is to say, a year after I typed in this information, that I’ll get the right combination of Saint / St / St. correct? The possessive apostrophe, no problem, though. But was that really my first primary school? Or was it just a nursery? It was the loveliest Montessori place that ever cherished a small, pathologically shy child. I spent the rest of childhood wishing I could go back. What about the school I had to start Senior Infants in? (In Ireland, being a Senior and also an Infant was a real thing.) I remember as clear as day being forced to memorise (memorize!) the alphabet, a concept that seemed pointless, alien and far less interesting than reading my older brother’s books through. I sat at my tiny desk and counted up the number of years of school remaining. Fourteen. People say small children don’t understand time. Not necessarily true. And something inside hid itself away, probably for good. But the official name of the school which changed according to who was principal in the course of my life sentence? Not a clue.

7, 9, 10 Favourite subject? When? Sometimes English. Often History. For the last stretch, Biology. I also did Social and Scientific Home Economics, which clever girls were supposed to avoid, and loved it more than probably anything. This question would get firmer answers, i.e. ones that don’t change according to the vagaries of memory and taste, if it asked for the least favourite subject. The subject I spent years biting my lip to keep the tears at bay, glancing around to wonder at others who seemed to just know how it worked, endless grinds and the edict that whatever I said and however badly I did at it, I must remain in the top stream. Because. The one I buy popular books about to this day, to prove, oh, I don’t know what it is to prove. But yes, I remember that one. Ask that. I’ll get 100% this time. It’ll be very emotionally cleansing, at last.
Favourite teacher? It varied then and it varies now. Women, most of them nuns, I owe a debt to that I can never pay back, only forward. For all the damage corporal punishment was said to do, I didn’t and still don’t feel badly about the ones who gave us the odd thump, or ‘puck’ as it was called. The one where the dull metal Sacred Heart ring would deaden your arm but leave the tiniest bruise – tant pis, it was different times, then. But the one who did cold-blood humiliation and masochistic mind games? Dead to me.

And what I wanted to be when I grew up? No fucking clue. Still don’t.

9 Favourite childhood holiday? OK, this one I can answer because it’s where I still go. I’m not sure I want to offer it up to Big Data, though, seeing as it handles the rest of my memories so callously.

These are not authenticable factoids to be fed into the maw of some crappy insecurity system. I will not harvest my childhood memories for the convenience of NetSuite or Microsoft or whoever the hell. They are not fixed data-points, ready for commodification and re-use. My memories are just as irreplaceable as a fingerprint biometric, and turning them into smooth, round interchangeable tokens exhausts them in a way I despise.

Also, if I could remember half of this &%$%$, I could probably also remember my password.