freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
This is an absolutely fascinating article which talks about the current decline in sexual activity among young people globally. It's a thoughtful and reflective analysis, rife with stats which are very telling: increase in the average age at which young people first have sex, decline in teen pregnancies, decline in dating and marriage rates. The anecdotal reports of attitudes are also interesting - a sort of general malaise, with respondents, rather than being wildly angst-ridden about not getting laid, merely delivering a resounding "meh". The general feelings seems to be that sex, and sexual relationships, are hard work, and possibly not really worth it, and who has time anyway?

This fascinates me, if for no other reason than for over a decade now I've been teaching a segment on virtual sexuality within a third-year course on the history of the erotic, and despite consistently positive student comments about the course, have watched sign-ups drop to under half of the levels they were at when the course was first offered. I don't know if South African youth follow the same trends they do in the West and Japan, but I suspect they may, at least among the educated middle classes I see in the university context. I think it's a complex set of pressures which is giving rise to the decline, and I would imagine that general anxiety levels under our current terrible geo-political ramifications are probably co-equal causes with the rise of more abstract forms of online sex expression, porn and fanfic among them.

And the prevalence of virtual sex-substitutes is not, I think, a harbinger of doom: if nothing else, it suggests that virtual connection or virtual eroticisim can be sufficiently "real" and satisfying to the participant that they engender a reduced need to seek them out in the flesh. (I can testify to this myself. I have been single for over a decade now, and it's a comfortable state in which friends, internet interactions and fanfic embed me sufficiently in society and culture and a notional erotic that I'm not lonely, I feel connected and I really don't want or need to change anything).

More than that, though, I see this decline as having the potential to be weirdly positive, because the "meh" of relationship reactions outlined in the article must, I think, quite heavily implicate shifting gender norms and the rise of a more enlightened feminism among women. It's a sign of cultural growth, actually, for large swathes of heterosexual women to have reached the conclusion that no relationship is actually a hell of a lot better than a bad relationship. And a bad relationship is very likely to be one with one of the large swathe of male partners who have not contrived to rise above the misogynistic conditioning of their culture in order to offer something like equality of emotional labour. (The article's description of horrendous male expectations of sex learned from porn was chilling). The article mentions at one point that dating and sexual activity levels among lesbians don't, in fact, seem to have dropped in any equal sense, which seems significant.

I mean, I can see the whole post-Freudian landscape having quite healthily undermined bad relationships across the board simply because modern psychology encourages us to seek individual happiness without requiring us, as previous generations were required, to subsume our own needs to the cultural expectation of the relationship. But the fact remains that that kind of emotional self-sacrifice has always, always been more heavily demanded of women. It's almost inevitable, that relationships will decline in the face of women's realisation that by culturally accepted definitions relationships are so often bad and unfair, and particularly unfair to women. We have the tools to realise this now, and we're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it no more. Participation is, at least, something more within our control than actual male behaviour; female cultural capital has risen enough for awareness, and for women to make the decision to abdicate involvement, even if it is not yet high enough to actually change the game.

There is, of course, another level entirely on which a decline in sexual activity in young people feels potentially apocalyptic; if not Bowie's drive-in Saturday future from my subject line, it feels as though we might, in fact, be drifting into Tepper's version in Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Leaving aside genetic manipulation by benevolent-if-marginal Elder Races, a disinclination to procreate makes sense when current evidence suggests that the biosphere may not survive to support our children; our overpopulated and rapaciously destructive culture may be self-sabotaging in sheer self-defence.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Randomly cooler last night, thank FSM, cloud cover came up and the air was very mildly icy. Possibly just in time to save both my mental health and my considerably drooping container garden.This weather, I do not like it. It is not friendly.

Other things I do not like: watching my own lecture videos to critique my lecturing style and quality, on the general grounds that since my teaching existence is this weird marginal thing which is utterly unsupported by my institution, faculty or co-workers and no-one else is going to nurture it, I have to put the work into nurturing it myself. I don't like watching myself on video. (a) My general posture and appearance beat me over the head with how physically unfit I am, even allowing for the inevitable weight-gain effect of the camera. I look terrible. (b) Following the thread of my own lecture inevitably highlights how fatigued I am currently; you can see it in the hesitation and pauses, in the way I lose the thread of what I'm saying and have to grope for coherence. (c) The above two points notwithstanding, these weren't terrible lectures, they just could have been a whole lot better. Two of them were quite good. Students asked interesting questions and seemed engaged. But as my output goes they were under par.

They probably won't get a chance to be better, because I think they may have been the last ones I'll ever offer, I cannot continue to be here, it's clearly very bad for me.

Things I do actually like: it's Friday, thank FSM again. My garden has drooped a bit but is still alive, and pleasingly green. The jasmine is in flower and smells delectable, and the flame lily has sprouted again. Also, this lovely article goes a fair way towards at least partially restoring one's faith in eco-recovery, human ingenuity, rational systems and engaged youth.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I did not expect to wake up this morning to a Trump victory. I also did not expect to have that victory hit me like an actual punch to the gut, since which I have been in on and off in tears. Even before reading Tumblr, with its intimate window into the pain and fear of the very liberal-skewing American bloggers I read, I was wandering around the house mumbling "But how could they do that?" in betrayed disbelief. What does it say about people that vast swathes of American voters can put any kind of stamp of approval onto that man and all he stands for? A ranting, blind, profoundly stupid, narcissistic and sociopathic man-child whose message is all about bigoted, divisive, ultimately venal hatred? Brexit was a faint shadow of this. Beyond any implications of the profoundly broken state of democracy in a media-driven world, I want and need to be able to believe better of people. But I can't.

And make no mistake, this is not just a crippling blow to values I hold very dear, decency and thoughtfulness and empathy. I am feeling it personally because this is also a particularly cruel and dismissive assault on women. Trump is a joke candidate: it is basically an insult to Hillary Clinton to be considering his "qualifications" in the same breath as hers. She is a mature, hyper-intelligent, accomplished and hard-working politician whose experience and skills have been honed across the entire course of her life to the fine point required by the presidency. If she were male, I think she would have won in a landslide. Her unpopularity, the media play with her "scandals", the characterisation of her as cold, or driven, or ambitious, are all the direct and instrumental result of her gender. If she were a man, her "scandals" would be negligible and her "flaws" would be strengths. It is beyond ridiculous, given her clear competence, that she should be so unpopular. It is sheer misogyny, woven into the fabric of media portrayals and voter responses. And to elect a shameless misogynist instead of her is a slap in the face to women.

Clinton in the White House would have been the rational choice, but also the hopeful one for more than feminism. It would have rejected the vile, destructive and asinine flailings of Trump, and it would have affirmed the idea that society is growing and maturing, that we are addressing racism and sexism and bigotry and unthinking greed, that we have learned. I don't even want to contemplate what it's going to do to our world to have a climate change denier as the American president at a crux point where we have an imperative and fast-closing window for instrumental change. We're fucked in that sense alone, even without the likely regression of American sexual and racial and economic politics and their knock-on effects in the global zeitgeist, and the non-zero chance that he'll nuke someone in a fit of pique because they insulted him on Twitter. Possibly it's a good thing I've been playing all this Fallout, I may yet need the skills.

But we can't have Clinton, because too many people voted in fear and hatred and ignorance. Which brings us to Terry Pratchett, the archetypal humanist, whose sense of humanity's failings is clear-eyed and acute and ultimately more forgiving than mine. He says it all in Night Watch, really. "The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people." Trump is a debased and dangerous idiot, but the wrong kind of people elected him.

One of the drawbacks of over-active empathy is that I need to feel connected to the world. I cannot imagine feeling connected to people capable of deliberately electing Trump, and it hurts. It means I am not part of the world. More than that, if this is what a significant portion of our world does, and wants, I do not wish to be.

a saviour machine

Sunday, 17 April 2016 08:15 am
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
This is a piece of fan-fiction that posits the Avengers taking over the American presidential election, and I love it very, very much. It's acute and funny, but it's also a beautifully-encapsulated demonstration of exactly what fanfic does. Superheroes are already about wish fulfilment, and most importantly about agency - they are a response to the increasing complexity and scale of our lives, in which our own agency is nil in the greater scheme of things. Superheroes are a projection of our desire to make a difference. So this fic externalises that desire and makes it literal by injecting that utopian notion of agency into one of the most obvious and hopeless examples of large-scale dysfunction in our current environment, namely the American political system. Fanfic does for narrative what superheroes do for social evil - it gives us control. It must be a horrible feeling of helplessness, to be American and to feel that there's no way to stop the obvious asinine stupidities of Trump rampaging bullheadedly over the American political landscape. I'd take a Tony Stark puppet government in a heartbeat. Clean energy in three years, socialised medicine in five. Fanfic and superheroes both have power because their ultimate engagement is not with reality, but with utopia.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Well, that was... salutary. Things I never realised about myself, courtesy of not being a sports fan. Which I didn't need to realise, I know I'm not a sports fan, but a by-product of my sublime indifference to organised or team sport of any stamp is that I'm blissfully oblivious to major sports fixtures happening in Cape Town. Which is a problem when Newlands stadium lies directly between campus and home and the South African cricket team is playing Australia.

It took me exactly two hours to get home yesterday, a trip that should take ten minutes and even in rush hour seldom takes longer than 20. I left campus at 4.30pm, and finally pulled up outside my house, wrung, exhausted and hysterical, shortly after 6.30. During that time I had circled repeatedly between Observatory and Wynberg in a desperate, unavailing and increasingly surreal attempt to cross the railway line. Every single route over the line was blocked by congested traffic for a minimum of three blocks, moving a car at a time and generally sitting without moving at all for anything up to five or ten minutes. Not quite a gridlock, but almost, its ground-to-a-halt effect exacerbated materially by the single-minded selfishness of Cape Town drivers, who will fill up an intersection even if they're not able to move out of it, thus blocking it to cross traffic when the light changes.

Normally this sort of traffic congestion is a matter of biting the bullet and inching forward; you'll get there eventually, painfully slowly, and probably having given your road-rage vocabulary a brisk evening constitutional. What this is not apparently compatible with, however, is my borderline crowd phobia which, it transpires, is mostly a desperate terror of being hemmed in. I've always hated rush hour: sitting in traffic is one of my fairly reliable fatigue triggers, and it appears that the exhaustion is actually the result of subliminally suppressing panic attacks if I can't move, can't leave, can't see a way out. (This in retrospect also explains that overly dramatic episode in undergrad when I passed out in the middle of the Zimbabwe border post, which is always heaving crowds).

Yesterday the non-moving traffic endured long enough, repeatedly, that I could no longer suppress the panic response. I kept trying to turn away from build-ups, feeling my control slipping, my hands shaking, my hysteria mounting, and only ended up spiralling myself tighter and tighter into congested roads, with my options narrowing inexorably. At one point I ended up stuck in a byroad in Claremont near the station, hemmed in by taxis, shaking and crying hysterically, with concerned passers-by offering me water and otherwise mostly exacerbating the problem by looming at me. When I finally wriggled free I'd circle round to find another route, only to run into further rows and rows of bumper-to-bumper cars. It was like one of those repetitive nightmares where you can't get out, you keep coming back to the same spot, you're trapped. After a while the repetition becomes a sort of hellish hallucination. You feel as though you'll be doing this forever, over and over, trying to get through, always blocked, home and tranquillity and a door to exclude the world a sort of faint, mirage-like image which clearly doesn't exist in any real way.

Halfway through this process I gave up and tried to go back to campus to sit in my office for a bit (trial and error having established that sitting by the side of the road in the car didn't help at all). This wasn't the best move, because (a) going back to campus after you've left for the day is a nasty déjà vu feeling that itself feels like a nightmare entrapment, and (b) there was some sort of student activity - protest, demonstration, march, flash mob, who the fuck knows - filling up the roads, inevitably triggering further phobic reactions. I turned round and re-entered the hellscape. I finally wriggled through via Kenilworth, it now being late enough that the booms were up, took a tranquilliser, ate something, I forget what, it didn't seem to object so probably wasn't one of the cats, and fell into bed by 9, more or less shattered. It was, all in all, a horrible experience - made worse, I think, because heavy traffic is also a prime example of non-working, irrational, eco-unfriendly civilisation and we should damned well do better than this.

I am enlightened, however. I have identified a trigger. My tendency to arrange my work life to avoid rush hour, which I've always treated like a preference, becomes an imperative. I shall espouse the religion of the long way round if it looks for a microsecond as though build-up is happening. I shall also become au fait with major sports fixtures and arrange, preferably, to leave the country for them. For a nice, open desert full of absolutely nothing, but especially not people or cars.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
This is an utterly simple, somewhat perverse, ridiculously absorbing mini-game. I think its appeal is a sort of transference: as a cat owner, there's something weirdly seductive in projecting yourself into the persona of the #(*&$*)! feline who wakes you up in the morning by meeping, kneading and knocking things onto the floor. It'll take you five minutes to play and will content some weird, vindictive corner of your soul. Unless that's just me.

In other news, last night we watched Interstellar. While I darkly suspect that I shouldn't be thinking about it too hard, because its manifest plot holes would infallibly present themselves (inevitably, with black holes and time at the heart of it), I very much enjoyed it, and in particular its vision of the creeping, dust-laden, inexorable death of the Earth. But it pushed my annoyed buttons a little in its uncritical adherence to the tired old sf trope of "we stuffed up the Earth, let's leave and find another planet."

Because, see, here's the thing. It's not even about my inner Victorian governess who believes that destructive children should bloody well deal with the consequences of their actions, although she definitely believes that. It's actually a logical problem. We live in a biosphere into which we have evolved over ridiculous amounts of time, and to whose atmosphere and organisms and substances and what have you we are absolutely adapted. Even so, people die every day from anaphlyactic shock as a result of an allergy, a systemic and cataclysmic disagreement with our very own environmental niche, suggesting that we are, evolution notwithstanding, somewhat fragile. However badly we crowd and poison and superheat our Earth, how logical is it that we'll find a completely unrelated planet somewhere the hell out there where the environmental challenges of an alien biosphere are somehow more welcoming than the screwed-up versions of the one we've evolved in? In terms purely of economies of effort and resource, surely it's going to be cheaper and easier and less potentially fatal to simply sort out our own planet? Honestly, I don't get it. I have the same problem with giant artificial environments in space. Earth may be a mess, but there's more to work with than the interplanetary or interstellar void offers, and it's less likely to kill you on the turn if you accidentally break a window.

My subject line, incidentally, is Death Cab for Cutie, since Narrow Stairs is playing in the car at the moment - from "Grapevine Fires", which seems thematically appropriate to all this destruction.

a tangled web we weave

Saturday, 5 April 2014 09:06 am
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)

Trophic cascade, people. Wolves in Yellowstone Park. A striking example of the incredible interconnectedness of everything in our environment, and why our thoughtless, damaging lives as humans have consequences on the ecosystem we have not bothered to predict and, in many cases, cannot at this late stage reverse as simply as they have done in Yellowstone's closed environment. This video made me cry. It's an amazing and positive story, but it's in an artificially tiny corner of the world. All I can think about is how exponentially many more examples exist in the other direction, where we have casually destroyed links in a chain whose consequences we haven't thought about at all. Things we are about to lose: bees, bananas, the Arctic sea ice. How can this not have unimaginably huge impact on our human civilisation, our food chains, our habitat?

I've believed for years that I'm going to see large-scale global starvation and economic breakdown in my lifetime as a result of human overpopulation, global warming and ecological destruction. I am seeing more and more evidence to support this as time goes by. It makes the day-to-day business of my life feel curiously provisional.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I am not, alas, of the cellphone generation. My phone is not a prosthetic limb, it's an occasionally useful communication device on which I probably receive more spam/sales calls than social ones. I am capable of, as I did this weekend, turning it off for a meeting on Friday morning, and suddenly and vaguely recollecting its existence on Sunday afternoon, at which point it had accumulated about eight texts and missed calls, and had caused me to leave hanging several people who were trying to visit. For which, my apologies. Note to readers: I am very firmly of the internet generation, and will infallibly read email way before I'll remember to look at my phone.

It also has a camera. I occasionally remember this, and occasionally take photos with it, and then completely forget that I've done so, until the guilt at not looking at the damned thing for three days prompts me to dig around in its innards in a spirit of enquiry and reveals all sorts of images going back months.

This was taken at the Kingston-on-Thames conference, and is a rather conflicted combination of a truly beautiful river-surmounting evening sky rendered generally exquisite by London's insane and terrifying density of aircraft vapour trails, the contemplation of which invariably gives me a punch to the solar plexus with eco-fear.

This is a stitched composite which has a chunk missing as I apparently didn't take any photo which covered that patch of sky; however, it gives a much better sense of that amazing repeated bow effect than the better but narrower stitch which is also on my Flickr.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I've just trotted over to the Arts block to make some photocopies for my class, and have returned in giggles because of encountering a small, rather well-behaved herd of data cable rolls, trundling down the avenue under the guidance and motive power of a couple of cabling-guy herdsmen. Three rolls to a guy, and a process of judicious, well-timed kicks to keep the herd on track. The whole effect was curiously adorable.

I was an hour late for work today, on account of getting caught up in the Curiosity landing, which I am still kicking myself I missed in real time. I thought it was much later this morning. Phooey. Nontheless wonderful - textbook touchdown, photo of shadow, jubilant geeks. I'm still all weepy. But, as my mother commented, it's a weird sort of index of the fundamental brokenness of the human race that we can put a ton of survey equipment with the utmost accuracy and delicacy on a spot 563 million kilometres away, and still can't get it together to give people on the actual Earth oh, I dunno, food, or housing, or education, or an economy built on anything other than blinkered self-interest. However, my favourite tweets of the morning:

@tomscott: "Humanity just dropped a NUCLEAR-POWERED CAR, intact, onto ANOTHER PLANET with a SKY CRANE and it’s SENDING US STUFF. BRING IT ON UNIVERSE."

@bdolman: "Gold medal for NASA in the 563 billion meters."

Once again, I confidently predict that there's absolutely no-one else in this building who shares my science-geeky joy. Sigh. I'm a lonely little petunia in a very arty onion patch.
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There is a peculiar trait of students and their parents which (among, alas, many) is beginning to seriously annoy me. Sometimes I receive queries about applying as a transfer student. These emails usually ask, in broad, general terms, how one sets about applying as a transfer student, and whether or not credits from another institution will be transferred. I am not an admissions consultant: I know damned well that the only actual place my direct email address is available on the web is on the sidebar of the long, detailed page on which I outline the exact process for applying as a transfer student and transferring credits. This means that they've found the page, completely ignored the information it contains, fixated on the email address, and emailed me directly for, effectively, a personalised digest of all the TL;DR they can't be bothered to assimilate.

Since I put the damned page up precisely so that I don't have to repeat myself umpteen times in emails, this narks me off more than somewhat. I am becoming very good at a terse, pseudo-polite reply which pretends that they've never seen the page in question and directs them to it with an invitation to email me with any specific questions which are not answered by that page. I devoutly hope this annoys them no end. But I'm not sure if the whole little charade says sad and derogatory things about the nature of students, the nature of media society and its short attention span, or about human nature in general. I am dismally inclined to suspect the latter.

I am in Week 3 of The 'Flu Bug From Hell, which laughs off anti-biotics (I knew we'd start seeing resistant strains sooner or later. We're all doomed.) and which is in its particularly disgusting snuffly stage, this morning with a side order of pounding sinus headache. Words cannot express how boring this whole thing is. Fortunately it's Friday and I'm working at home; also, I console myself, as is traditional, with linkery.

  • This is an excessively beautiful series of designs for ballgowns based on the superhero costumes from the Avengers, circa the recent movie. Inventive, sensitive, wholly appealing.

  • This is a particularly cogent, intelligent and well-balanced analysis of the status of reproduction in our society, and the conceptual problems it presents. It's written by a philosopher, so has that lovely incisiveness of argument. I find it very sane.

  • This is Ursula Le Guin talking about the illusionary nature of genre and the stupid status differences accorded "genre" and "literary" texts. She's a wise lady.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Movie club! By age-old (i.e. approximately year-long) tradition this entails two movies linked by a theme. I've owned and been wanting to watch the original Godzilla for a while, but kept on coming up blank on something to pair it with. (Re-make? Aargh. Other daikaijū films? eek! Cloverfield would have been ideal, but everyone else had seen it. I wanted Akira for a "Destroy Tokyo!" theme, but Stv had seen it already.) Finally, as despair set in, I remembered that I also had a copy of Rango which I hadn't got around to watching. Perfect! the theme: LIZARDS!

And, of course, conceptual whiplash of the more neck-bracey variety. Godzilla is a black-and-white Japanese monster film hailing from 1954; Rango just won the Best Animated Film Oscar. And I don't think a chameleon is technically a lizard, anyway1. However! they were both thoroughly enjoyable for very different reasons, and mature reflection suggests that the common theme could have been Fire And Water, or The Corruption Of Water, or even Water And Control.

The 2010 Hugo ballot contained a novella by James Morrow called "Shambling Towards Hiroshima", which featured Hollywood history, rubber monster suits and plots against the Japanese, and if I loved the story at the time (which I did), I love it even more having actually seen the film. Godzilla is one of those wonderful cinematic archives which makes you realise from moment to moment exactly how far film-making has come in half a century, at the same time as it ineradically demonstrates the power and precision with which the older tropes, conventions and special effects draw you into the film. (And how frequently black-and-white frames are starkly poetic). It was slow, clunky, alienating as much in terms of Japanese body language as the different pacing and storytelling, but it's a thoroughly worthwhile watch if only because it's one of the few examples I've met of unabashed allegory that isn't actually annoying. You have to realise quite how terrifying atomic bombs and their implications actually are when they're enacted on three levels simultaneously, two of them metaphorical. Also, it's enormously refreshing to watch scientists being respected and instantly credited instead of being silenced in the name of politics. And the special effects are surprisingly effective. The slow, inexorable, stumbling advance of the monster is somehow more terrifying than anything fast-moving, and Tokyo burns.

I could babble enthusiastically about Rango's extended pastiche of Westerns which is also a devoted love-letter, its pitch-perfect musical score (the music is genius), its brilliant voice cast, its frequently extremely beautiful visuals, its rapid-fire humour and continual film reference (the recreation of bits of the X-wing assault on the Death Star is extremely happy-making), its plethora of beautifully eccentric desert-creature characters, its ecological message, and the extent to which its animators were clearly having a blast. But I don't need to. I can sum up the film, and the indecent amount of pleasure it gave me, in two words. Mariachi owls. The chorus and commentary of the mariachi owl group caused me to lie on the sofa and giggle hysterically until jo&stv became quite concerned. No, really. Mariachi owls. Go and see it. Also, it's incredibly self-concious about narrative construction. Basically I was doomed.

1 Edited to add: no, wait, Wikipedia says they totally are lizards. And have "parrot-like zygodactylous feet", which is a curiously wonderful phrase. I love chameleon feet. Like little alien paws.


Thursday, 19 January 2012 11:20 am
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
It is a strange and disturbing thing, to live in an age where corporate lobbyists in another country have the power to potentially restrict net freedoms across the world. You can't say that SOPA won't affect us on the tip of Africa if it's passed. The blogs I read, the information sources I use, even the hosting of some of my own sites, is in the US. Globalisation means we're all interconnected. The activists and net-heads and ordinary people who are doing protest blackouts and phoning their representatives and trying to stop this, are striking a blow for me. I just wish I could do more than simply watch helplessly, and hope.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
You know, this planet is fundamentally screwed. It's the middle of December. (And, in related news, how the hell did that happen? I've wandered around for the last two weeks firmly convinced that it was around the 3rd of the month, and here we are with a totally unexpected public holiday to the side of the head on Friday, and Christmas itself leering just around the corner. Also, I forgot [ profile] friendly_shrink's birthday, by dint of not realising the month had progressed that far. Fatigue does the weirdest things to one's perception of time.)

Anyway. It's the middle of December. We have had solid, heavy rain all morning, with a truly marvellous episode of actual hail for about fifteen minutes in the middle of it. We are supposed to be a Mediterranean climate, i.e. all about the winter rain, not the summer (see High Veld Summer Thunderstorms, Lack Of, Tragic, for the use of). If we have stuffed with this climate to the extent of hail on the 14th December, it's pretty bad. Put it together with the merry billboards advertising the US/China hijack of the climate change summit to try and weasel out of emissions accords, and it's perfectly obvious why we're doomed.

This wouldn't happen if we were all orang-utans. I bet orang-utans wouldn't feel the need to get all protective of their bloody oil-based economy.

I should point out that all of the above did not in any way prevent me from spending ten minutes this morning with my third-floor office window flung open all the way while I stuck my head out into the rain, laughing like a loon, and tried to catch the hailstones out of the air. Bits of thing falling from the sky apparently regress me to the joyous age of 8, or thereabouts. My morning was materially improved by having to comb the hailstones out of my hair before I could deal with the next dose of student angst. Strange but true.

The inexorable advance of December towards Merry Festive Wossnames reminds me that I did, in fact, send out the Great Boxing Day Braai invite a couple of days ago. If you're in Cape Town and didn't receive it but would like to attend, please leave plaintive meepings in the comments. I probably only left you out owing to cheesebrain, which I have a lot of just at the moment.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
The auto-repair business of Ray, magical mechanic, has a bunch of youngish and very beautiful plane trees in its parking lot. They probably have about a quarter of the girth of the one in our garden, but they're lovely trees - well-shaped, healthy, full of green and those fascinating hedgehog bobbles which plane trees produce. Absolutely all of them, though, have weird protrusions from their trunks - bits of plastic string, barbed wire, that sort of thing, embedded in the bark and with bits sticking out rather incongruously. Obviously the young trees were staked when they were planted, and over time have gradually grown to absorb the material which tied them up.

It's a very strange image, encapuslating human obliviousness to nature at the same time as a sort of half-arsed, unthinking care - back when they were planted, someone clearly cared enough about the young trees to prop them up, but didn't care enough, or stick around long enough, to remove the supports when they were no longer necessary. And, in that slow, imponderable, organic way nature has, she simply engulfed the problem, incorporated it, and allowed growth and strength to happen regardless.

There was a moment, while I was waiting for my lift and pondering the odd bit of blue plastic string sticking out of the bark, when I found myself wishing that the world on a more macro level was capable of absorbing our damage in that way. Coal-based power stations, for example, folded gently into the earth. Giant forests slowly reducing to rubble our uglier cities. Four-by-fours engulfed by elephant herds which patiently, inexorably flatten them into a thin, quickly-rusting metallic film. The problem is that in the destructive stakes the human race as a whole is really a lot more far-reaching than a few bits of blue plastic string.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
One of the things that book club has taught me is to read non-fiction. Which sounds ridiculous, I'm an academic, I read non-fiction all the time. But, mark you, it's non-fiction about fiction. What I never read before joining the book club, despite being really rather a science and culture geek, was the cultural history and popular science stuff that several of our members are into. It's taken me a while to work up an appetite for it; I've toyed with things like Freakonomics and Jeremy Legget's Half Gone on the oil crisis, but in the last few exhausted months I've found non-fiction particularly easy to read where some kinds of fiction simply aren't.

A lot of the reason why I enjoy this kind of writing, is, I think, because it confirms in pitiless detail everything I ever believed about the blindness, self-destructiveness and addiction to bad stuff (advertising, capitalism, religion, oil, media spin, ignorance) of the human race, particularly the Western cultural bits of it. There would be no need for this sort of book if we were all orang-utans, but since we aren't, there's a grim satisfaction in cataloguing our manifest stupidities. Here's a brief round-up of recent discoveries.

  • Ben Goldacre, Bad Science. I adore Ben Goldacre. It's the calm, rational, urbane and slightly ironic way in which he socks the deserving savagely in the eye. He is ruthlessly rude about all sorts of things in this book - bad journalism, high-profile quacks, snake oil products, poor scientific method. As a crash course in evidence-based scientific enquiry it's highly illuminating. I shall love him forever, however, for his beautifully rational dissection of homeopathy and exactly why it's a load of bollocks, and for the trenchant, succint and damning account he gives of the culpable homicide perpetrated by Mattias Rath in South Africa in the name of curing AIDS with vitamins.

  • Malcom Gladwell, What the Dog Saw. This is more traditional journalism than Goldacre, in that Gladwell investigates odd topics in some depth, including a lot of interviews with interesting people. The collection of essays is only really loosely connected by the idea of digging beneath things we take for granted to explore how and why they work. I loved the chapters on kitchen gadget salesmen, the development of the birth control pill, and the Dog Whisperer guy; the later, more conceptual sections - data analysis in mammography and air crashes, the mechanics of panic, the value of interview techniques - are also interesting, although not quite as colourful. This is a thoughtful book, and far less polemical than Goldacre - quite often the upshot of the detailed exploration is a sort of equable shrug.

  • Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good For You: Why popular culture is making us smarter. This wasn't a book club book, Jo lent it to me. It offers the popular version of quite heavy media theory, people like Fiske and Henry Jenkins who espouse the cultural value and active appeal to intelligence of popular forms. Johnson is entertaining and persuasive on topics such as video games and why they don't cause violence, and modern television and why it requires a brain. It's an interesting read.

  • James Fergusson, The Vitamin Murders. Fascinating piece of investigation and cultural history: stumbling over the 1952 murder of Jack Drummond and his family in France leads the author off into an exploration of British nutrition during the world wars, the decline of healthy eating in contemporary Britain, and the presence of pesticides in food. Another of these books which demonstrates in pitiless detail just how badly and culpably our lives are affected by the marketing drives of big business.
Now I have to persuade myself to read Wuthering Heights by Monday for a tut, and five Steven Erikson fantasy tomes in the next few weeks so I can mark a Masters dissertation. Instead I shall read Phryne Fisher, a quartet of which arrive from Loot this afternoon. Frivolity rules! particularly decadent Australian 1920s detective frivolity. Memo to self: also blog about Lilian Jackson Braun.
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As New York sort of quails beneath Hurricane Irene, I note for posterity that there were two hadeda ibisis on the lawn this morning. (Ibissis? Ibisisisis? Ibi? It's a word like banana, in that it's difficult to stop spelling it). Hurricanes and hadedas are not, in fact, completely unrelated, at least in the wayward meanderings of what pass for my train of thought. We've had the hadedas go over every evening for a couple of years now, with that characteristic loud, mournful, cacophonous, slightly self-satisfied call which characterises them - not a shriek, really, more a sort of a bellow. (I don't know where they're heading to, although it's towards the mountain: either an unspecified roosting destination, or a night on the town).

The evening chorus didn't used to happen when we moved into this house, which was, gawsh, getting on for thirteen years ago now. Back then the hadedas could be found pottering around on lawns in the leafier, more verdant suburbs like Constantia, but over the last decade they've gradually migrated into the more built-up areas. I think the two who were with us this morning have actually claimed the area as a territory, over the last couple of months I've started to hear them yelling at each other/passers by/neighbourhood cats/other birds at odd intervals during the day.

So, hadeda ranges are changing. Something is happening to make the population expand, or to make hitherto unpalatable areas suddenly desirable. Their food sources must somehow be affected. I blame global warming in a vague, undirected sort of way (hence the link with hurricanes), but I'd love to know what the actual mechanism is.

Right, it must be 6pm. I know this because I've just said to Hobbit, "Your butt is ringing. This is what happens when you sit on my cellphone." He looked horribly offended. It's my daily Warfarin alarm, so I dash off now to imbibe pink pills and blue pills and giant purple capsules, O my. (The latter are various vitamin and herbal remedies to attempt to address the psychotic PMT, which I am amazed to say seems to be working. Also, in the interests of good taste and TMI I shall not talk about the effect of Warfarin, compounded by the absence of contraceptives because they Increase The Chance Of Blood Clots, on the Monthly Girl Troubles, other than to say Ouch).

chilling out

Wednesday, 22 December 2010 01:36 pm
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Oh, my, heatwave. It's mercifully clouded and windy today, but it's been ungodly out there. Every time I come home I realise anew why it is that the pagans got into tree-worshipping: I want to fall down at the plane tree's shady feet and adore. Stepping into the shade from the griddle of the road outside is practically a religious experience. The tree shades the whole side of the house, which is blissfully cool as a result; I hate to think what life would be like if supernatural tree-thieves spirited away the plane tree overnight.

As a result, possibly, of all the heat, and the side-effect that it's a positive pleasure to wander around the garden with a hosepipe de-wilting all the vegetation, my vegetables and herbs are going gangbusters. My small but enthusiastic chilli bush, in particular, is dementedly producing a completely unlikely quantity of chillis, far more than I could possibly use even if I cooked insane thai, Indian and Mexican cuisine for the next six weeks.

This is the result of ten minutes of picking: I've had to throw out another twenty or so which I got to too late and which have shrivelled, and I missed a few full-sized ones on the bush. The mad thing will certainly procuce a second crop, it did last year.

Fired with enthusiasm, I pickled them.

It's curiously satisfying. Apart from the fact that I love pickled chillis and find the vinegar fumes all bracing, there's a sort of back-to-the-land self-sufficiency in pickling your own (albeit miniature) crop. Even if it's a tiny, token gesture, it brings me just one step closer to surviving the zombie apocalypse. Although, to be fair, while the South African crime-rate means most of our homes are fairly zombie-proof, the overall defensibility of this house is badly compromised by the dining-room window.
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This post should have a really-random-analysis red flag. You have been warned.

Trees generally are a locus of all sorts of things: beauty, dignity, age, a sort of massive calm. Tolkien's Ents are simply a vivid externalisation of the kind of awe a tree should properly engender. But more than that, a tree is a text, a solid confluence of history and context and identity as well as aesthetics.

The plane tree in our garden is an excellent example of its genre, a lovely tree in its own right - it grows tall and straight and huge, unslanted by the fierce Cape winds which push lesser trees over into tilted growth. It's our saviour in summer, shading the entire side of the house, and making the interior blissfully cool on the hottest days. The deep shade severely limits the kinds of plants I can grow in the front garden, but I consider it to be worth it. In winter the plane tree usefully loses all its leaves as well as the fuzzy bobbles of its seed heads, allowing the sunlight in to the house and grass. I am happy to allow it even that, and will cheerfully rake up the brown autumn drifts.

Trees, of course, are also about history. I have no idea how long this one has been here, but even with the relatively fast plane tree growth, it's probably a minimum of fifty or sixty years. I don't know who planted it in the corner of the garden, to provide its peaceable shade in the February heatwaves, but they were clearly a respecter of trees. I find it odd to think of these unidentified individuals experiencing the same summer heat we do, and planting a tree whose welcome dappled cool they will never actually experience. I hope they would be happy to think that we do experience it, and are grateful.

I love this tree, but it's problematical. It's an alien, not native to the Cape; while it's not the water-hog a eucalypt is, nor invasively prone to scatter its offspring everywhere, it shouldn't really be here. The plane tree originates in the northern hemisphere; ours, a stranger to the tip of Africa, is also as far as I can work out a hybrid, a London Plane, which is a cross between the oriental and American strains. I'd never want to remove it, it's a beautiful tree, but if I were to plant something now for shade and beauty, it wouldn't be a plane. Not even trees are exempt from the re-judgements of the New South Africa and the re-assessment of colonial legacies and aesthetics which make a nonsense of local ecologies. I can't look at the plane tree, or touch its strangely smooth grey bark, without feeling a complex constellation of love and guilt and unease.

They may not fling themselves spontaneously far and wide, but plane trees invade in a more conceptual sense: we plant a lot of them. There are new rows all down the road around the corner from our house, and along the main avenue on campus. This picture was taken outside my office today. When I started my undergrad here, I don't think those plane trees had been planted yet; they were put in, as spindly metre-high things, in my first couple of years of study, and my earliest sense of the avenue is as a blisteringly and uncompromisingly open, sunny space. Now we have the start of a shady, tree-lined stretch which is an enormous relief in the summer. The historicity of trees, above anything else in my life, makes me realise that I've been on this campus for over 20 years. It also makes me realise how far, even in this particularly self-consciously political space, the Afrocentric on campus is capable of being undermined by convenience. Plane trees grow quickly and look lovely, but in their leafy green between the ivy-covered stone of the buildings, we ape the English or American university rather than forging an identity of our own.

I cannot regret a tree: their presence and character, once established, make me both respectful and protective, and I will always mourn their destruction. But in this, as in all things, the fatal tendency to think means that love is never simple.
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I hate London with an H because it is Hot and Humid. Honestly, I don't expect this from these far northern climes: my clothes stick to me, and the underground is worse than Durban, it's like soup. It seems to be raining this morning, which has cooled things down a bit, but I confidently expeect the soup factor to rise sharply.

I hate London with an H because its H2O is Hard. A bath doesn't leave me feeling clean, it leaves me feeling subtly covered in scales.

I also hate London with an H because it is Horribly Haunted by Hordes. I worry about overpopulation. In London, overpopulation is sitting in your lap. The streams of people are endless, and during rush hour they're shoulder-to-shoulder. Flying into Heathrow always scares me slightly, not just because the city stretches so endlessly beneath you, but because so much of it is so concentrated. Forty-two million little boxes, all tightly packed. I'm not sure people are designed to live like this. But, conversely, I love London with an H because it's Heterogenous - I love the incredible variety of race and culture, the mishmash of accents and languages you'll hear on the tube, or passing you in the street. The announcer on the Waterloo public address system last night had a black South African accent. Creative decontextualisation ftw.

I also love London with an H because it is Happily Historical. I went in to visit [ profile] bumpycat at work yesterday, work being University College London, which is a perfectly familiar university environment plonked down in the middle of the city, weirding me out slightly but conversely also making me feel strangely at home. That area of town is a mishmash of modern and ancient buildings; the bus goes round a corner and there's an eighteenth-century theatre, or Victorian facade, or corner shop with its 1920s front preserved intact. You can see why so many writers write alternative Londons, because they're there, overlaid on each other in these cross-hatched strata which peek through when you're not expecting it. I love it. I was also charmed beyond belief to discover that the founder of UCL had left instructions for his embalmed corpse to be left to the university, posed in suitable garments and on display for lectures and casual passers-by. And there it is, in its little wooden glass-fronted box - minus, apparently, the head, which is fake. Only the Victorians. Only in London.

I am forced to admit that I love London completely without an H for its first-world bandwidth and for shops such as Forbidden Planet, to which Bumpy dragged me having discovered, horrified, that I'd never been there. I now possess Munchkin, and the Ranger expansion (turns monsters into steeds!) in honour of my first D&D character, which should possibly read "my first D&D cliché". I was going to do Foyles this morning, but that was my self-indulgence budget for the trip. I find it strangely appropriate that I spent it on Munchkin instead of the suitable critical tomes I meant to acquire. I Am A Sad Geek and London makes me ambivalent. I love so much of it, but I don't know if I could live here.

whups, fellover

Wednesday, 28 April 2010 01:41 pm
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It's been a maddening few days for Teh Internets: the current state of the bandwidth is intermittent and horrible owing to the fact that they've dug up the Seacom undersea cable for repairs, and everything is consequently being re-routed via a slow boat to China and the New World. Web pages thus fail to load, or load very slowly, or occasionally pretend there's nothing wrong and load very fast just to confuse me and give me false hope, and loud are the lamentations in the land every time the bloody thing falls over. After a couple of days of random internet deprivation I become very grumpy indeed. About the only way I can come to terms with the whole situation is to imagine that the undersea cable has broken because a giant squid is gnawing on it, or Deep Ones have stolen bits of it to make jewellery from, or Eric Linklater's undersea pirates have knobbled it and the repairmen. Or, as [ profile] first_fallen says, grindylows.

In one of the bandwidth's Up moments I followed a Felicia Day tweet to a remarkably sane, thoughtful and beautifully written reflection on, if not quite Life, certainly Earth, the Universe and Everything, specifically the fact that we live on a planet that's halfway to being ruined, perhaps irreparably. This is, as you are all too painfully aware, a recurring preoccupation of mine; I am chastened and abashed in my despair before the contextualisation provided by the writer, and his exceptionally good case made for claiming rather than writing off the future. This bit in particular got me, possibly because I think it was utterly true of my dad:

The people most deeply traumatized of all in our society may be the older men who've devoted their entire lives, in grinding hard work and out of love for the people around them, to building companies and communities and systems they thought represented a pinnacle of human endeavor and free enterprise, but which instead -- they would now find, if they could bring themselves to admit the possibility -- have become components of what is quite possibly the most destructive way of life ever made by human beings.
I generally don't buy beef, because I think large-scale beef production is a horrible and illegitimate resource-consumer. My dad was in beef cattle research all his working life. It must have felt like a betrayal of his achievements for his daughter to refuse to consume the result, and to know that she might even have had a point.


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