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Maria

A bridge not far enough

by Maria on November 18, 2018

Yesterday I took part in an act of civil disobedience, helping to close off one of five central London bridges as part of Extinction Rebellion. The campaign takes the view of a couple of the books discussed recently here on CT, that at some point the ‘get out of jail free’ clause on principled political disobedience rises to the level of positive moral obligation; the urgency and devastation of climate change are so severe, and normal politics so unable to conceive of what’s needed, let alone do much or any of it, that blocking streets and other forms of nonviolent escalation are now essential.

On one level, it was just the same as every other protest; make a sign for the dog, stuff my pockets with poo-bags, and be sure not to drink too much beforehand. It was clear once I got onto the bridge – which was already blocked to traffic – that if you wanted to risk arrest you should sit in the road; otherwise you could just show support for those being arrested. There were the usual speeches, singing, drumming, chatting, getting Milo to pose for pictures with people, and even a woman playing the cello. It was pretty white, though with a strong Swampy contingent, a couple of whom had several arrests behind them and were looking at a custodial sentence if they were arrested again.

I stayed on the footpath, cheering for those arrested. But I felt uneasy about it and still do. And uneasy that I feel so anxious about rule-breaking – to the point where, when I was going home, I made sure to thank the police. (For some reason, the bridge I was on had six times the arrests of the next most numerous one.) It’s nice on one level, because it was a well-policed event with no aggro I could discern. But it’s also such a middle class white lady protestor thing to want to do, standing around with my cute dog and his cute sign, wanting everyone to be happy, especially in a country where policing is unequal and often vicious. Even this morning I have that emotional hangover from when you’ve gone a bit far in a political argument and, while winning, have squashed the other person a bit too much.

The reasons I went to do mild civil disobedience were what I’d read here from Chris et al on positive obligation, and also having noticed a week or two ago that a senior Church of England churchman was involved. Reading that back, I see I’ve become such an upstanding churchlady goody two shoes that I want to slap myself! Then I think, well, nothing political or structural gets done without massive, unlikely coalitions. So I just need to get over the fact that now, yes, I’m a mid-forties person who’s now on the distinctly establishment end of the rainbow. It’s a good thing – if galling, I’m sure – that the complacents like me are finally starting to get the message, but God knows we don’t deserve any medals for finally turning up.

There were people there who basically live on fracking protest sites or who have been activists for decades. It occurred to me this morning (yes, in church and no, I don’t know why I’m so sheepish about this, either) that those protestors are like the disciples who heard the New Testament firsthand, took it at face value and then did the only thing they could – tore up their lives to go out and re-make the world in the image of what they believed to be true. Success or failure didn’t matter. If you believed it was what it said it was and followed the logic of it through, there was no alternative but to spend the rest of your life proselytising in a hair-shirt, penniless and relying on the hospitality of others.

The same is true for climate change, obviously. Its severity and urgency and the sheer evil of how we are sliding into it demand that we tear our lives up to try to stop or at least slow it down. But in the same way that every religion gets softened because doing what it actually says on the tin is clearly unreasonable (i.e. incompatible with living comfortably), on climate change we’re still acting as if incremental change is a reasonable response to imminent catastrophe. (Or maybe the rationalisation is the implicit belief that the catastrophe will mostly happen to other people?)

The difference between the radicalisms called for by Christianity and climate change is this; the second coming is highly unlikely (at least), but climate catastrophe is both imminent and already here. We know it is coming, but we are still waiting to be forced by immediate circumstance into a radicalism we feel in our bones is essential right now. When the disaster finally comes to us, some part or number of us will finally embrace it with grateful relief. But till then, many are screaming into the void. Stopping a bit of traffic is the very, very, very least we can do. And no, it is not and will never have been enough.

A friend I called into on the way couldn’t come till later, and by then the bridge was blocked off to other protestors. She stood at the barricade explaining to people who wanted to cross Lambeth Bridge what the demonstration was about and asking them if, now they knew, they felt it was justified. Most of them did, once they thought about it. Maybe they won’t join any future ones, and probably it will be too late, but I think my friend certainly did more for the cause than I did, yesterday.

I will say, though, that by far the best bit was when I was walking along the Albert Embankment and a young man in a suit, driving a very large Mercedes which had just been turned away from the blocked bridge, was screaming out his opened window. Some tourists turned to see what he was about and he roared at them to “Shower, you cunts!”. Result.

Owning the Peanut Gallery

by Maria on September 23, 2018

https://twitter.com/henryfarrell/status/1043306749854449664

Ted Cruz has been accused of debating Beto O’Rourke in the style of a US college debater, more concerned with winning points than hearts. Twas ever thus.

In the autumn of 1992 I turned up at McGill University, Montreal. I’d wanted to go to France on Erasmus but didn’t qualify. One of my uncles, an economist at UCD, had cast around his desk for a flyer or a phone number, I don’t remember which. He named some other places, then Montreal, which we remembered was in Quebec, where two Belfast cousins had settled some time after my grandmother’s family took them in during the war. One of those cousins, Sean, still lived in Montreal, and was a pathologist at the university. His brother, the novelist Brian Moore, had written a novel about Jesuits in Algonquin that had been made into a film the year before, and featured a scene still etched in my memory of a cute, skinny young priest trying to maintain his dignity as he curled out a shit over the side of a long canoe, to the merriment of the First Nations guys rowing it. That was the clincher, so to speak.

In the first week at McGill, I auditioned for a play and tried out for the debate team. I was cast as a pillar in a Greek drama (no, I don’t know how that would have worked, either), and sent to represent McGill at a novice’s tournament in Bates College, Maine. Debating it was, then.

College debating in Ireland was just free entertainment on a Thursday or Friday night, with speakers prowling the pit of the merely medium-sized Theatre M, throwing out gags and being heckled viciously by what we then called friends, and what I now know were more like colleagues, the hacks in the box at the very top. There were often name-brand invited speakers, usually treated a little more respectfully, but only up to a point and the point was to be either masterful or entertaining, and ideally both. [click to continue…]

Think-tank Fiction

by Maria on September 3, 2018

Reading the intro to what turned out to be Gardner Dozois’ final SF anthology (RIP – his collections were my favourite by a country mile. In memory and thanks, I finally took his beseechings to heart and renewed subscriptions to a couple of SF magazines), I discovered there’s a name for a thing we’ve started to see a lot of and which I’ve also started doing in the last year or so; think-tank fiction.

Apparently, Jonathan Strahan coined the phrase to describe what Dozois said are ‘Futurology anthologies, many of them with corporate or government sponsors”. Henry wrote a nice piece on Philip K. Dick for the Boston Review dystopia one. Wired is at it, Slate, too. MIT, and various tech firms. I’ve even had a chat with the BBC about one. Let’s see what happens.

In a much smaller way, I wrote a bunch of 500-word future newspaper articles on the theme of ‘the Internet in 10 years’ for a report by the Internet Society, last year. The idea was to do three per report theme, I think, and they’d go with those sections, but in the end they were all bundled into a section of their own. I’m writing some again this year, but now the brief is for 1000 – 1500 words, and just three or four of them. So, by way of writing long as I don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to write smart, some observations: [click to continue…]

WTF FT?

by Maria on March 13, 2018

For a couple of days I’ve been tweeting about the Financial Times’ decision to have Steve Bannon as its “keynote interview” in a conference on the future of news in New York, on 22 March.

Fresh from his tour of Europe where Bannon told his rabid fans being called a racist is a “badge of honour”, Bannon has declared himself the “infrastructure” of the world’s far right.

As Bannon spent the last week holed up in luxury hotels one wonders at him being able to afford, and soliciting Europe’s far right ‘politicians, operatives and investors’, he told the New York Times: “…he was weighing whether to buy a name-brand outlet, like Newsweek or United Press International, or to start a new one, or to connect entrepreneurs with capital or invest himself.”

Bannon wants money to start a new, far right media venture. What better place to do that than the world’s financial and media hub?

Enter the FT.

[click to continue…]

Brexit and data protection

by Maria on March 3, 2018

Yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May gave a much-trailed speech purporting to flesh out some ‘detail’ – that most hated and troublesome concept for Brexiteers. On data protection law and institutions, she said:

“But the free flow of data is also critical for both sides in any modern trading relationship too. The UK has exceptionally high standards of data protection. And we want to secure an agreement with the EU that provides the stability and confidence for EU and UK business and individuals to achieve our aims in maintaining and developing the UK’s strong trading and economic links with the EU.

That is why we will be seeking more than just an adequacy arrangement and want to see an appropriate ongoing role for the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office. This will ensure UK businesses are effectively represented under the EU’s new ‘one stop shop’ mechanism for resolving data protection disputes.”

This basically summarises the UK’s position since last August:

“After the UK leaves the EU, new arrangements to govern the continued free flow of personal data between the EU and the UK will be needed, as part of the new, deep and special partnership. The UK starts from an unprecedented point of alignment with the EU. In recognition of this, the UK wants to explore a UK-EU model for exchanging and protecting personal data, which could build on the existing adequacy model, by providing sufficient stability for businesses, public authorities and individuals, and enabling the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and partner EU regulators to maintain effective regulatory cooperation and dialogue for the benefit of those living and working in the UK and the EU after the UK’s withdrawal.”

It is pretty straight down the line UK positioning.

So, ‘you need us at least as much as we need you?’ Tick. Though I’d be surprised if the data flow volume is symmetrical.

‘Believe us when we say we’ll have perfect regulatory alignment while also making the UK more innovative and flexible?’ Tick. Despite its dicking around with the GDPR implementation – especially the huge carve-out that slashes data protection for any non-UK citizens – UK will at least start with a more or less guaranteed adequacy finding that says its data protection regime is enough for transfers to continue.

And ‘We will of course leave the EU and all its institutions, but still expect an influential role in determining future policy and EU law.’ Tick. Magnificent cake-ism, really. Entirely consistent with the rest of the UK’s negotiating stance. Theresa May really believes the 27 member states need the UK’s input on data protection so much, that they’ll let its regulator, the ICO, continue to take part in coordination procedures, and also continue to water down data protection for everyone else. [click to continue…]

Books, books, books

by Maria on December 2, 2017

Around November, I declare a ban on any new/borrowed books and try and finish all the books I’ve started that year. Slow-going, this year, as I was for some reason unable to read for much of October and November, and lots of the unread pile is non-fiction. Anyway, some highlights of the year, below. Another post to follow on what’s on the Christmas list.

A book that lingered in mind long after I’d finished it was Laline Paull’s fascinating The Ice (The Bees is still one of my favourite books of the last decade, and I pressed copies of it into two more people’s hands this year.) The Ice is set in the very near future, about the friendship between two men who each want to save the last bit of the Arctic. The chapters begin with excerpts from the memoirs and letters of others who have been obsessed with Arctic exploration, drawing out the historic roots of our drive both to explore and exploit.

Recently I listened to a LRB Cafe event podcast with China Mieville from about 2014. He mentioned something about “…extruded-literary fiction product which is about the calm, chapter by chapter decoding of a never very mysterious metaphor to clarify what life is a bit like, and the book ends with a ‘yes, that’s so true’, that is very wise’.” We all pretty much know what that is, when we see it. I can’t be the only one hungry for novels about politics, money, the environment, the movement of people and surveillance capitalism. Laline Paull’s The Ice grapples with several of these, and the world of work, which is quite rarely found in fiction, and the deals individuals make with themselves and the world they find themselves in, and whether we have any business holding onto hope. [click to continue…]

Saudi, Lebanon, Iran …WTF?

by Maria on November 8, 2017

That’s kind of it, really.

What on earth is this new Saudi prince thinking? That he can enlarge the sphere of the existing proxy war to fight and win a conventional war against Iran..? Despite vast spending, SA barely has an military – and no, buying lots of shiny weapons, equipping a few militias, renting mercenaries, and fighting a partial air-war in Yemen won’t much count against Iran if SA succeeds in picking the war it seems to so badly want. The rhetoric and posturing seem to go significantly beyond sabre-rattling for national unity. What can the game-plan possibly be?

If the Aramco thing isn’t going ahead, soon – clearly – then where will the $$ come from for all this?

And why make Hariri resign on the same day as the Saudi putsch? Was the plot against him real? And is he at liberty? (Slightly more than averagely curious as I very briefly met him, seven or eight years ago, with some Lebanese friends in Washington. Charismatic man.) And, oh gods, WTAF was the son-in-law of the US president doing, sniffing around just before all this?

What does the approaching end-game in Syria have to do with it all? Will Russia stay out of any widening of the Yemen conflict? And is anyone who sold SA its mountains of weaponry and aircraft and the people to operate them – God knows actual Saudis couldn’t be expected to do the heavy-lifting – feeling just a tingle of ‘oops’..?

Should someone leak those Brexit reports?

by Maria on October 29, 2017

Writing isn’t cathartic, though reading can sometimes be. Last week’s post about my disillusionment with the UK, a country wracked by its own wilful austerity and now taking out its pain on its immigrants, was taken to heart by many among the three million other EU citizens living here. I’m glad about that, because many of them felt that few people are expressing their sense of loss and anger. But I am especially struck by one comment; “Yes, but what about the duty of hope?”

The “duty of hope” is a phrase used by some involved in the Northern Ireland peace process to actively remind each other that at many (realistically, almost any) points along the way, it’s all looked disastrous, but that if they’d indulged in the perfectly rational feeling of hopelessness, they would never have gotten anywhere. Life goes on. It has to. So what’s next?

Anyone who has access to some or all of the UK government’s reports analysing the likely effects of Brexit on UK industry should consider doing what they can to get them into the public domain. The reports were commissioned by the government and contain materially important information the UK needs to help it decide what to do next. There is a massive public interest in learning what they say.

The government’s argument is that the information will weaken its negotiating position. I believe that argument is moot. The government’s negotiating position could hardly get any weaker. It has been weakened by the too-early triggering of Article 50, the calling of a disastrous general election, and by putting power over the process into the hands of parochially ignorant and ineffective ministers. If the government cared about the strength of its position, it would have developed a stronger one, and handled it better, tactically. Secondly, if the UK position is, to the few who know the worst, so fatally weakened by this information, then that information is too important for the country to remain ignorant of.

There are efforts already to get the information into the public domain. Freedom of Information requests have been made and denied. Questions have been put in Parliament. A petition by MPs has been submitted. All have been repelled. An attempt to force a judicial review of the compelled secrecy of the documents is ongoing. Occasionally, there are calls for whistle-blowing. [click to continue…]

Working to Rule

by Maria on October 23, 2017

“Not my circus, not my monkeys”.

That’s what I mostly say these days when asked about British politics. Up to about a year ago, I was an active member of a political party and involved in a fair amount of volunteering. I saw myself as being part of things, an enthusiastic party to the social contract. Those days are done.

I’ve been an immigrant in four different countries, and in only one of them did I ever feel at home. I used to tell this story about being a civil liberties lobbyist in the UK in the early 2000s. I’d go and do a briefing over tea and biscuits with some member of the House of Lords. They’d start a little in surprise at my accent, and then the meeting would go on as normal, with me offering talking points about the surveillance and police state as counter-productive in fighting terrorism. Then at the end, when the business of the meeting was finished and everyone relaxed and munched the biscuits, the peer would make a point of telling me how much they liked Ireland, had relatives there, had visited or wanted to, some day. As if they were saying “It’s ok for Irish people to lecture us on human rights and terrorism, now.” My story was about tolerance and civility, and how no way could an Arab have a similar meeting in Paris or Washington D.C.

Maybe it’s just as well we white, well-to-do professionals are getting the same stick other immigrants or minorities always have. The gloves are off. An Italian friend was accosted by two men in the cinema queue in Oxford and told to “go home”, for the crime of speaking Italian. (Because she’s a badass, she bought them popcorn and they didn’t know what to do with themselves.) A woman I met last week was abused in the street for speaking Polish on her phone. I can pass until I open my mouth, and if I try I can sound fairly British. But I don’t want to.

Perhaps the UK only feels significantly nastier because it now treats white, middle class EU people more like how it treats the brown-skinned, less connected, less wealthy, or less likely to be able to kick up a stink people. My kind can still get a Guardian sad-face piece if the Home Office messes us around. We have our liberty and our voice. But can any of us say we know what is going on in, say, Yarl’s Wood detention centre, or that its secrecy, authoritarianism and arms-length contractual deniability are not the perfect conditions for institutional abuse? We’ve all heard that kind of story a dozen times, but can no longer even be arsed to say “never again”. [click to continue…]

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…]