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Maria

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.

#asamother

by Maria on July 8, 2016

Andrea Leadsom, the Tory leadership candidate beloved of the people who brought you financial catastrophe and geopolitical Armageddon, has hit on why it is that she, and not chilly securocrat Theresa May, should be crowned the unelected Prime Minister of the UK. It is because Leadsom is a mother and May is not.

Leadsom, who began her every flaccid intervention in the final televised referendum debate – the one where the parties suddenly realised they should wheel out some women, and, ok-fine, one non-white guy – with ‘As a mother’, did yesterday concede in her front page interview with a paper of record wherein she developed the hell out of the theme she’d road-tested on national television, that she didn’t want this to be all “Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t”.

Bless The Times, though. They’ve unreeled all the rope the Dickensianly named candidate needs to hang herself (Leadsom invented hanging, you see. And also the Large Hadron Collider. All while acting as the Chief Investment Officer of Invesco Perpetual. OK, the assistant to him. Sorting out payroll. Same thing, really.) Interspersed with Leadsom’s damning quotes are snippets of May’s dignified sadness at her and her husband’s unwanted childlessness. And also a call, issued before Leadsom’s comments, that the campaign stay within the ‘acceptable’ limits of political debate.

I will draw an unusually capacious veil – a maternity wear issue, naturally – over what may now be imagined to comprise the acceptable limits of Britain’s national discussion.

Tonight, as the cover of tomorrow’s paper does the rounds of Twitter, Leadsom is getting her denial in early. She didn’t say any of that. Or maybe just some of it. Or maybe it was out of context. She must mean the bit where she said May might have nephews and nieces, but she, Leadsom, has children. And anyway, as Loathsome concern-trolled May, it must be ‘very sad’ for her not to have children. Sorry, Leadsom. Don’t know why that keeps happening.

(And hey, it’s not as if May is a friend to families, not to immigrant and asylum-seeking ones, anyway.)

The direct quotes have Leadsom arguing that having her own children gives her more of a stake in the future. And not just in the next one or two years, but the next ten, even. Astonished though many of us may be that someone who campaigned for Brexit was thinking even two weeks ahead, let alone beyond Christmas, let’s take the assertion on its merits.

Do parents have a bigger stake in a nation’s future? [click to continue…]

Summer Reading for a Rainy Day

by Maria on July 2, 2016

If food is the only dependable pleasure, then reading is the one true consolation, offering both immediate escape and a longer narrative arc that suggests how today’s shocks and swerves ultimately become the story. Also, on the whole, fiction has as its meat human characters – or artful approximations of them, anyway – and so little patience for ideas of perfectibility or progress.

That said, I hope to go straight from anger over the referendum to grim acceptance, bypassing grief and sorrow. But here is something from someone with his emotions less defensively expressed, a former infantry officer shocked not just by the result but the depth of his sadness at it:

“Security is not police, soldiers and border checks. It is social cohesion, education and equality – our society is global now and stepping away from that can only be damaging to the things that deliver long-term security.”

Here are some of the books I’ve read in the past six months that I unreservedly recommend for summer-reading. And they’re not even all fiction.

The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig
For those who haven’t already read this classic memoir of a Jewish Viennese intellectual who lost everything – family, home, culture, books, hope – in World War II, it feels like the book of our own historic moment. Zweig describes what it is to grow up comfortable, refined and secure and then be expelled by fascism and war from everything you know and love. Yes, war happens to clever middle class people, too.

Zweig’s father and grandfather “lived their lives in a single, direct way … spent all their days in the same country, the same city, usually even in the same house.” Such wars as they experienced were short or far away. But Zweig’s generation, born at the end of the nineteenth century “lived through everything without ever returning to our former lives, nothing was left of them, nothing was restored. It was for our generation to experience, to the highest degree, events that history usually bestows sparingly on a single land over a whole century.”

History is something we like to read about but would prefer to experience as little as possible of. So it is just a little sickening that we in the still-peaceful countries must now actively coach ourselves to not consign those whose homelands have been incinerated to some frightening, plague-like category of ‘other’.

So be it. If all a book does is hammer into our core the realisation that ‘this could be me’, then it’s almost enough. What it can’t do is direct or encourage what we do with that knowledge. That is up to us. Read Zweig. Then think about what is called for.
[click to continue…]

Making our peace

by Maria on June 17, 2016

On Wednesday, I gave a talk about the Internet of Things in relation to ‘smart cities’, inequality, and high modernism. As a topic, it sounds a bit like the addressing system Mongolia has just decided to implement, where three random nouns – apple.truck.envelope – are used to represent a place instead of, say, a street-name, townland or unmemorable grid reference. (But actually, there is a there, there in my talk. Combining three parts from another naming system is the clue: ‘James’, ‘C’ and ‘Scott’.) In the Q&A, there was a question about how the platforms we design for good are used for evil. How/should we deal with that?

My answer was a hostage to fortune. I said we needed to chill the hell out about bad things happening and understand that the Internet reflects or even amplifies what is still, basically, human nature. That’s the kind of thing you can say between bad things happening, when the horror is ebbing just a little and the next awfulness hasn’t yet occurred. I still think it’s the right answer, but I’d give a lot to erase the hands-upturned shrug I did at the end.

How do we make our peace with the fact that yesterday an MP was savagely assassinated outside her constituency clinic? It would be hard at the best of times, but at a historical moment when violent ill-feeling is being stoked by right-wing politicians and newspapers, we can’t just shrug, as I did, and say this is a regrettable and awful cost of doing democratic business. [click to continue…]

Post-Democracy

by Maria on May 20, 2016

I’ve been reading and re-reading Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy on and off for about eighteen months, and just spotted a nice precis of it on OpenDemocracy in a piece by Kit de Waal about celebrity activism:

The term ‘post-democracy’ was coined by Colin Crouch to refer to the fusion of corporate power with government, generating an elite politics based on a political-financial cycle in which money buys power and power rewards money. Post-democracy is a plausible imitation of democracy. It has a popular, consultative appearance, while the real politics of power and money consists of a continuing round of inter-personal transactions among elites.”

What makes Post-Democracy hard for me to digest more than a dozen pages at a time is not, I think, its relentless rightness, which I personally find more or less inarguable, but how little there appears we can do about it. My experience of reading it is basically ‘yes, this is better researched and thought through than I’d ever manage, and I agree; we’re basically fucked.’

I get that I’m experiencing nothing more than the cognitive dissonance of a social democrat who knows capitalism is awful and probably tending towards disaster – but more the chronic debilitating disease kind of disaster of, say, a slow-boiled lobster, than the explosive, revolutionary and strangely psycho-sexual climax of sudden foment and change – but who has neither the temperament nor the constitution for either ripping it up or walking away. (Hello Rosa Luxembourg. Like my hero Virginia Woolf, you would despise me, too.) But simply knowing this doesn’t help.

About a decade ago I was at a weekend conference in New York on what was then called ‘the new philanthropy’. The impeccably well-educated and well-spoken man who’d been Angelina Jolie’s fixer in the world of Davos and the UN system was there to say how great it was that celebrities were now getting down into development issues and doing things that governments didn’t have the will for. At the Q&A, I made myself a bit awkward by asking how democratic it was that those people could re-order policy priorities on a whim, and wouldn’t it be better if they just voted and paid their taxes like the little people. The guy got a bit irate and basically said how we needed celebrities and millionaires to improve the system and should be grateful to have them. I’m being unfair to him, I’m sure – memory is pretty self-serving. The session was being chaired by a friend who unexpectedly broke with protocol and came back to me for a response to the response, but I wasn’t expecting it and flubbed. I suppose you dwell on the things you get wrong, and the whole philanthropist – corporate – state nexus has bugged me since then even more than it would otherwise.

But we’re still all basically fucked, right?

UK elections open thread

by Maria on May 6, 2016

After last year’s horror I can barely turn on the computer, let alone the radio or TV. Oh, we don’t have a telly. Anyway. Some titbits of info are still filtering through.

Scotland. Seriously? You lot are dead to me. OK, I can see that you are now just voting pro or anti Union, but it’s a rum day to see the Conservatives in second place. And yes, Blair and post-Blair Labour gave you the middle finger way back when, but let’s pin it on the guy who got the job last summer.

Wales. You do know UKIP is for English people? They don’t like you, either.

Norn. Irn. I don’t blame you. Not one bit. If I had to choose between SF and the DUP, I’d emigrate.

London. I get that Sadiq – the man the Conservatives changed from a dull, machine politician into a racy radical – is winning. But who-TAF are all those people voting for Goldsmith? Do they live on my street? Did I smile at them in the polling station? Or is it just the combined forces of Kensington, Wandsworth and Richmond who think it’s a good idea to vote for the shouting-like-a-mofo-at-your-dog-Linton-in-a-public-place-and-then-kicking-the-bejaysus-out-of-him-when-he-comes guy?

Dudley. I don’t know what to say to you.

The rest of England. Whatever. Carry on.

National Hero

by Maria on March 25, 2016

This weekend we celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Easter 1916 Rising, the rebellion that gave the Republic of Ireland its foundation myth. As an origin story, Easter 1916 can be hard to live with. Its egalitarian and revolutionary ideals were quickly brushed aside by a deeply conservative political class intent on pushing anyone feminist or left-wing out of Irish politics. And the bumps and inconsistencies in how the leaders of the rising behaved were ironed out till the whole thing looks like one of those over-embroidered altar cloths with starched creases in all the wrong places. The whole enterprise fell victim, for many decades, to a pietistic impulse to canonise the leaders of armed rebellion, making them seem weirdly inhuman. But they were never distantly inhuman to me, despite what I learnt in school. When I first came across Benjamin’s now over-used expression, ‘rubbing history against the grain’, I knew exactly what he meant.

In 1916, my great-grand father, Eoin MacNeill, was the head of a dissident army, the Irish Volunteers. At its height, before many left and volunteered to fight in World War I, the Irish Volunteers numbered about eighty thousand men. (To put it in context, that’s within a few thousand of the British Army’s post-austerity total, today.) Eoin MacNeill was one of the most unlikely rebel leaders you can imagine. He was a scholarship boy from a small town in Antrim. He devoured Latin, history and Ancient Greek, and as a scholar opened up new areas of research in Irish language and laws. With Douglas Hyde, he co-founded the Gaelic League, a countrywide movement that was part of Europe’s late nineteenth century surge in cultural nationalism and also a great way to meet young people of the opposite sex. In pictures, MacNeill looks pale and fine-boned. He wears the fastidious little glasses everyone did who spent most nights reading in poor light. He is as far from a soldier as anyone can be. [click to continue…]