freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Gawsh. *blows dust off blog*. Apparently I am not in a blogging space, much, right now, which I attribute to the inevitable fog of exhaustion with which the hell-time of my year enfolds my luckless person. In this particular iteration my post-registration punch-drunkness is manifesting partially as extreme glandularity and frequent nausea, but mainly as my weird insomnia problem, wherein I wake up for no adequately defined reason at anything between 3.30 and 5am, and can't get back to sleep. This is leading to a fair amount of early-hours lying in bed while tea-drinking, fanfic-reading, playing Stardew Valley on the Ipad (not uniformly a seamless port, I have to say, bits of it are wonderful and large tracts of it are annoying me) and haplessly providing a human mattress to my felines, who appear generally to approve of my new hours. It also means I spend a fair amount of time wandering around vaguely and bumping into things, because sleep deprivation.

Last night there actually was a proximate cause, in the form of a pestilential mosquito who managed to get into the net, probably through one of the holes the cats have made in it while climbing unco-ordinatedly up the bed, and who dive-bombed me relentlessly until I woke up, activated light and vision, and stalked and crushed him horribly. The horrible sticky heat of the last few weeks may also, I think, have implicated in the sleep-failure; I hope the current trend of misty, moisty mornings and random gentle precipitation will gradually soothe me into somnia. (I also have to randomly shout-out to whoever it is who writes the weather descriptions on AccuWeather, they clearly become easily bored with "sunny" and "pleasant" and escalate into "agreeable, "delightful" and, by way of gnomic I-Ching style epigram, "after a cloudy start, sun returns".)

Jo pointed out the other day how bad a litany of despair my last few blog post subject lines have been, and registration hell-season notwithstanding, it's a fair cop; today's, of course, replicates the ostensible final words of the Opportunity rover, who ground to halt in a sandstorm a few weeks back after exceeding all lifespan expectations by just under fifteen years. I have empathised to a large extent with the internet's outpouring of anthropomorphising woe over a collection of metal and circuits to whom we attributed not just agency, but character, specifically dedication and gallantry; I particularly like XKCD's take on it. The human tendency to ascribe personhood to the non-human and then pack-bond relentlessly with it, is probably one of the redeeming features of our species. If we could work out how to force certain privileged subsets of us to apply that impulse to certain less privileged subsets of actual humans, we'd be golden.
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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.
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Life feels a bit apocalyptic at the moment, I will probably be having more of those dreams. While it's pleasantly damp and cool in Cape Town and water restrictions have been relaxed a bit, the equal and opposite reaction has been Eskom running out of power - again - and implementing load shedding - again - without warning - again. I mean, they publish it on their website, which no-one ever reads until the lights go out, or at least once the lights have come on again after going out. And they randomly switch between Level 1 and Level 2 - also without warning - which is particularly rife with complication given that the WhatsApp group for my street is prone to excitably and incoherently giving each other conflicting information about which zone we're actually in, which when read off against shifting load shedding statuses can completely obscure all logic and sense for days at a time. Honestly, my immediate environment could probably be serviceably choreographed as French farce right now. I try to plot when the lights are going to die, which they reliably don't when I expect it and do when I'm not expecting it, at which point I sigh, grab a torch and/or the gas stove for tea-making purposes, and hope to hell that the fanfic up on my Ipad at this precise moment is at least one of those 80-000 word epics which will keep me going for a bit.

Load shedding also, of course, happened on campus bang in the middle of our exam committee frantic period, giving us two and a half key hours in which administrators couldn't upload progression codes. Fortunately the essentially reactionary and analogue checking process involves giant printed board schedules and a pencil and the building has large windows, so some aspects of the whole edifice remained functional. But it's an index to the essential insanity of the season that I am, for once, grateful that my annual rant about how this whole process should be done more accurately and less exhaustingly by computers, has never borne fruit. We'd be completely screwed if it had. As it is, I am at the stage of slurring and noun loss which has forced me to reassure three separate colleagues this week that I'm not actually drunk, promise, just extremely fatigued, but the whole thing has been organised with ruthless efficiency and we are on track for final committees tomorrow.

In the middle of the post-apocalyptic whole, it's been particularly surreal to watch the abstract collapse of Tumblr, which has been my fandom and media home, if only in a strictly onlooker capacity, for six or seven years now. The venal and ham-fisted incompetents who contrive to run the site in the teeth of their own unfitness have banned NSFW images, with NSFW being defined in essential heterosexualist, gendered, puritanico-capitalist terms and implemented by an automated algorithm apparently conceived of and executed by actual chimpanzees. They want, of course, to make sure they keep on making money out of the site by selling ads and having the (awful) app in the Apple store. They have shot themselves in the foot with a small tactical nuke, taking out as collateral damage a whole thriving, interconnected and delicate ecosystem of fans, artists, small businesses and social-justice-focused communities who have made Tumblr into a vital living space despite everything the owners (Yahoo) have done to try and sabotage it. Not everyone on Tumblr is into porn or erotica or explicit fanart, but its free expression is a weirdly important thread in the whole ideological identity of the site.

I mean, capitalism is stupid and short-sighted, we know that. It goes for the easy short-term profit in defiance of long-term damage. But what the hell are these idiots even thinking, to alienate their user base like this? They are ejecting, effectively, their actual product. People are making migration plans in droves. (Many of them are coming here to Dreamwidth, which is a silver lining for me because I prefer to blog in this sort of environment and have never quite dared fling myself into the Tumblr stream, it scares me). There is no point in being "safe" for ad sales if the 10 million users have evaporated in shocked distress. Tumblr has its issues, with its community identity as much as with its owners, but its flow and focus and discourse are unique, and they broke it. I am very sad.

(My subject line is New Model Army, because the current state of my personal zeitgeist is tending a bit to the post-punk).
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)
God, but horrible things happen to students. I have just sat in a readmission appeals committee for six hours, giving curriculum input on all these poor kids. Apart from the usual transition shock and the need to struggle through the challenges posed by finance, housing and travel issues and the truly appalling academic grounding provided by all too many of our schools, we have today contemplated the lives of young people suffering date rape, violent rape, assault, theft of laptops and books, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, unplanned pregnancy, serious illness, hospitalisation, AIDs diagnosis, estrangement, the illness and/or death of sometimes multiple family members, bizarre legal wrangles, learning disabilities, social stigmatisation, victimisation, stalkers, and the occasional curse. I can identify what I call a "depression transcript" at a single glance - the horribly revealing slow slide from competence into lower marks, a few fails, and finally the long, telling strings of absences. A day like that, you start wondering if anyone ever succeeds at anything at all before the inevitable nastinesses get them.

I want to have several cups of tea, a good cry, and an evening of vegging out on the sofa in front of something incredibly Hollywood and fluffy. Except I can't, because they stole the TV. It'll have to be the old fallbacks, viz. Skyrim and fanfic. Anything that distracts from the feeling of complete helplessness in the face of evil.

If I meep and tremble at odd stimuli a bit in the near future, please don't hold it against me. I have too high a bloody empathy stat for this job, is all.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
My niece is seven years old. I am sickened and reeling to hear about the elementary school massacre, and I can't even imagine what parents of children must be feeling, let alone the particular parents of those particular kids. I am also moved to admiration of the Harper's Weekly Review response, which is to start their monthly summary paragraph with "At an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, a man carrying three semiautomatic guns fatally shot six women and 20 first-graders" and, after a round-up of recent American shooting incidents and the pro-gun lobby response, to close it with "At an elementary school in Chengping, China, a man carrying a knife wounded one adult and 22 children, killing none." We will always have lunatics among us, but the time for American gun control reform was a decade of massacres ago.

The apparent plan of the Wesboro Baptist Church to picket a post-shooting vigil, on the grounds that the deaths were God's punishment for tolerating gays, would sicken me more except that I think that they've badly underestimated the American and global response to violence against children - or, at least, to violence against the kind of privileged upper-middle-class American children whose characteristic insulation against the hells routinely suffered by Third World kids throws the incident into horrible relief. If anything could close down that passel of insensitive, opportunistic bigots, that particular righteous backlash might.

I have wols and fanfic and more cheerful things about which to babble, but they seem a bit out of place so I'll hold them over.
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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.
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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.
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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.

fearful symmetry

Saturday, 27 November 2010 02:27 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)

This is one of those beautifully neat, elegant and symmetrical compositions by means of which cats attempt to persuade us that they are neat and elegant creatures, and that the catsick on the front step/dismembered bird in the bathroom/live mole released under the Evil Landlord's bed/piles of hair on the furniture are nothing to do with them.

The interaction of dog- and cat-owners with their much-loved pets is one of the things which actually gives me hope for the human race. An animal is not only a member of a totally different species with absolutely different needs, wants and pleasures to ours, it's a member of a totally different species which has only the most minimal ability to communicate with us. Despite this, we cheerfully accept sick on the carpets, dismembered creatures all over the house, clawed furniture, plaintive meeping at mealtimes, and the Hobbit's fixed determination to break my neck by walking in front of me unexpectedly, without diminishing our affection for these creatures one jot. Animals are a huge intrusion into the well-ordered life of the average human; by and large they don't obey the rules worth a damn. And yet we keep them. And love them. And, however much we complain about their foibles, we're fiercely protective of them and devastated when they die. It's about the only thing, apart from intelligent science fiction, which gives me any reason to hope we might actually be capable of the sublimation of ego necessary to get along with extraterrestrial life, should we ever find any.

Golux is on the left, the black blob on the right is Todal. I should add that this is a bi-coloured sofa because it has a throw blanket on it as a vague stop-gap to prevent the grungy piles of cat-hair from irrevocably staining the light fabric. If you visit, the secret is to remove the throw before you sit down.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Today's delirious bit of billboard poetry: SPAIN DEFENDS PSYCHIC OCTOPUS. I love this because it's absolutely, literally true. We live in a world where a psychic octopus has made world headlines because of its apparent ability to predict World Cup match outcomes. This makes me very, very happy because it externalises neatly everything I've ever believed about the frivolously demented nature of human society. As a race, we have no sense of proportion.

I'm on leave for the next week or so, taking time out to write the paper for this conference. There's a giant pile of critical tomes variously and separately on vampires and fairy tales all over my desk; my act of possibly hubristic synthesis is not being materially aided by the Hobbit's characteristically feline need to sprawl all over them. If I try to move them he bites me, lovingly. I assume it's lovingly. He hasn't actually drawn blood yet.

I have also spent large chunks of the last day or so Running Errands, such as collecting my passport from the visa people and applying for forex (this latter because I have a deep and terrifying fear that my credit card will get nicked or decline to work for some reason and I really want back-up cash). In addition, the lovely agent lady in France has found tenants for my house! which means I'm now trying to jump through about a zillion French and South African bureaucratic hoops in order to (a) set up a French bank account, which I didn't have time to do in all the frantic of the French trip, (b) pay the French company which did all the required assessments for woodworm and footrot and what have you (requires official translations of the documents, have spent the morning locating French translators and plaintively emailing them) and (c) pay the nice agent lady, who has seriously earned it. This house-earning lark is costing me a fortune, but hopefully it'll be worth it in the long run.

In other news, I don't really want to mention that the internets seem to be back in case they immediately fall over again in an attack of petulant self-consciousness. (The squid has been gnawing on them intermittently for several days, but seems to have given up, possibly in favour of predicting World Cup outcomes). This means I have been able to play a reasonable amount of Echo Bazaar, which is a beautifully-designed Twitter game set in a subterranean steampunk Victorian ur-London with vaguely decadent and Cthulhoid properties, and which functions as a cross between a card game, a text adventure and a RPG. I am a Charming and Keen-Eyed Lady with a Sulky Bat. Let me know if you play and we can loiter with intent or have risqué cosy dinners together or something.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Letting people into traffic is a hobby of mine. In rush hour, bumper-to-bumper, cars in side roads won't get into the traffic stream unless you pause a little and give them a space, which you traditionally signal by flashing your lights a couple of times, quickly, and hoping their morning coffee has kicked in. You can also do it a bit later in the day when traffic is still dense but moving more briskly; you need to time it correctly to slow down a bit earlier so you give the person ahead enough room without disrupting the flow too badly. It takes a certain alertness to scan ahead and note the opportunities, and every now and then a potential gap-taker is too asleep to respond in time, but it's still worth the try.

I'm committed enough to this that I have a scoring system; +1 for every car I let in, +1/2 if they immediately let someone else in (legitimate knock-on effect, they probably wouldn't do it if you hadn't just done it for them), -1 if I wasn't awake enough to let someone in when I had the chance. There's a certain amount of internal debate over every marginal case, to make sure the neutral 0 is warranted by the circumstances (driver not looking at me, oncoming traffic screwing up a gap, car has only just arrived at the intersection), and not an attempt to wriggle out of a -1. Game rules and the desire to avoid unwonted traffic dislocation state that you let only one person in if they're going the same way you are, and a maximum of three if they're crossing traffic in front of you. I usually end up the 15-minute drive to work with a score somewhere between 5 and 8; I figure that any more than that I'm probably slowing the flow too badly, and at around 10 the accumulated karma from all the irritated drivers behind me will probably explode all my tyres at once, with a sad little "pop".

I love doing this because it's a tiny, almost meaningless, perfectly tangible way of making people's days just a little bit better. Rush hour traffic is probably in my top 3 of Things I Hate About A 9-5 Job: it's a beautifully encapsulated distillation of all that is wasteful, unplanned, selfish and inefficient about our society, and it's rather pleasing to think that this is in some slight sense redeemable. The reward is in the miraculous change in expression in the waiting drivers: from the tense, anxious, frustrated peering into the traffic to a relieved wave, smile, hoot, flashed lights. The really grateful ones will wave as they pull out, and then blink or hoot as I close up behind them; I should probably add an extra bonus point for the ones who do all three, since I've clearly just improved a really bad day. And a lot of the pleasure is a more macro, organic sense that I'm somehow contributing to a communal system that works, that's about harmony and consideration rather than the relentless individualistic push-push-push our capitalist culture seems to approve.

The most difficult challenge is when traffic is solid but fast in both directions and someone is trying to turn across the traffic stream, a nearly impossible task requiring both streams to simultaneously stop. But occasionally you get the perfect moments like this evening's, when I slow momentarily to check the oncoming traffic, notice that someone else is slowing, we flash our lights at each other and simultaneously stop for all of fifteen seconds, and the three bottlenecked cars in the side road whizz thankfully out into our tiny, spontaneous, perfectly-co-ordinated gap. And when the two paused cars speed up we wave at each other, grinning like loons, and somewhere in the aether between us there's a disembodied high-five.
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A random thought has occurred to me. I have burbled before, in this forum, about my complete love for disaster movies, and for watching large tracts of human civilisation explode, erupt, disintegrate, drown, get swallowed by earthquakes, get blown up by aliens or otherwise interestingly fall apart. However, watching the Na'vi Hometree char and collapse, despite its lavish provision of explosions and giant things going crunch, gave me no enjoyment at all, engendering instead a sort of sickened disgust.

This has been somewhat revelatory. I think I enjoy disaster movies, in the average expression of the genre, because they offer an apocalyptic response to something I feel very strongly about, which is that human civilisation simply doesn't work. On average it's an unreflecting, unintegrated, fundamentally self-destructive society we belong to, one that is probably stuck in a downward spiral to some kind of collapse. Being gleefully destroyed by some imponderably and irresistably enormous external force, whether alien or environmental, operates on some level of my subconscious not just as a lovely externalisation of inherent qualities, but as something we probably deserve. The Na'vi, on the other hand, are a functional society in perfect and harmonious balance with their habitat. They didn't deserve to be destroyed. Hence, no enjoyment.

This basically suggests that somewhere in my subconsious is a sort of stern Victorian governess with a very large ruler, saying over her pince-nez, with steely determination, "If you break one more thing there will be trouble." I'm OK with that. I'm also going to stop talking about Avatar now, I seem to have mostly expelled the fury by blogging.
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Shopping this morning, I put four bags of pecan nuts1 onto the till counter, and noticed that the woman had only rung up three of them. When I gently pointed out that in fact I owed her another R18.50 (and, ye gods, when did pecan nuts shoot up in price? memo to self, plant tree) she looked at me as though I was a particularly insane three-headed alien waving my twelve arms and spouting gibberish in Esperanto. She then rang up the extra item after triple- and quadruple-checking that this was actually what I meant, as though she couldn't quite believe it. When I'd paid she handed over my receipt with a sort of grudgingly suspicious thank-you for pointing out the error.

This weirds me out. We live in a world where greed and chicanery, on a scale from petty to epic and world-destroying, are the norm - to the extent where a moment's deliberate honesty actually brings the system grinding momentarily to a halt while the act is checked for hidden pitfalls, since if it's not a scam in itself, it's a self-destructive weakness worthy only of contempt. The newspaper billboards this morning were full of a new phishing scam targeting South Africans and based around World Cup tickets. Last week in the supermarket they'd just caught some poor woman attempting to shoplift an entire bag of cheese, twenty or thirty items. They caught her because the shoplifting is enough of an endemic problem that they have undercover security people pretending to be shoppers wandering around the store.

I don't actually like most of the human race very much just now. I think we've lost the plot. Capitalism and its ethos of it's-actually-virtuous-to-grab-for-yourself-now has apparently identified altruism as a foolish weakness which needs to be eradicated from the herd by sheer Darwinian principles. I don't know how the hell the inventors of the system expected it to self-regulate so that rampant greed doesn't grind up everything in its path, but grind it has. And I don't see how you re-introduce the old-fashioned virtues back to this post-capitalist world once you've opened Pandora's box, short of sending the world to moral boot camp with floggings and stern teachers. The system doesn't work any more. Maybe it never did. Maybe humanity isn't actually capable of rising above its own base nature. Maybe I've been reading altogether too much China Mieville and am turning into a socialist. Maybe it's just Christmas getting to me.

I'm going to bed now, my head hurts. On the upside, the new Kelly Link is dynamite, and makes me realise there may be an excuse for the human race after all.

1 Promised jo&stv carrot cake.
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Gawsh. This is the first time I've travelled in Europe since I started blogging. It feels very odd to be posting from Dorset, not the least because mother's computer uses Explorer (ritual ptooey) and has the quote key in the wrong place. Think of this as the cracking of a champagne bottle across the bows of the perambulation tag, whose outings have hitherto been entirely local. Also, I think you may be in for infrequent, giant posts rather than my usual inconsequential fragments. Brace yourselves.

Cape Town airport is undergoing a massive overhaul for 2010, when we host the (cower) World Cup1. In practical terms this has two main upshots: (1) ongoing and total chaos with parking at the airport, since they've basically been constructing the dimensional folds necessary to fit in new parking garages for upwards of two years; and (b) a rather gaudy simulation of the new terminal in giant screens as you queue at passport control. Said sims employ computer graphics circa approximately Wolfenstein 3D, and feature giddy James-Cameronesque camera passes through enormous and seductive vistas of glittering chrome, glass and other media likely to suggest slick and efficient passing of passengers like so much suspect Tex-Mex. Unfortunately the animation of the virtual people who inhabit the sim is extremely dodgy: they lurch about the environment, suggesting not The Airport Of The Future so much as The Airport Of The Future Under Zombie Attack. Fortunately the Undead Denizens are also perfectly equipped to represent my actual limping stumble, bumping into things, after a thirteen-hour plane flight.

I can't sleep while sitting upright, which means I can't sleep on planes. Intercontinental flights are thus strange Twilight Zone experiences, in which the basic shrinkage of one's universe to a tiny, claustrophobic vista of adjacent seats and cramped muscles becomes inextricably involved with all the movies I watch, so I'm subsequently unable to separate my own experiences (this time round, quite epic and unlikely nausea from a minor gastric bug plus travel-sickness) from the 3am absorption of, say, Mama Mia. It is also a necessary corollary that any cinema I watch must be either light and fluffy or pre-digested, as otherwise it makes no sense whatsoever to my shrinking, befuddled brain.

In the former category, re-watching Quantum of Solace offered, in fact, a quantum of solace. In the latter, the cheesy antics of Mama Mia (a movie redeemed solely and marginally by Meryl Streep, who's fabulous, and by my own addiction to spontaneous giant dance numbers) were in good company with the latest Wallace and Grommit (dough! a theme for claymation that has been inevitable since time began!) and with Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, a thoroughly heartwarming little flick with endearing leads and an inevitably lovely soundtrack, although there's one cellphone-in-toilet scene midway that should be avoided by anyone already fighting the gag reflex. Fragments of watching for the sake of argument were also useful - the first half-hour of The Day The Earth Stood Still revealed enough giant plot holes for me to be able to mock it significantly in future, and 45 minutes of Twilight were, if anything, slightly worse than the completely imbecile teen dreck I'd been led to expect. I lasted all of ten minutes of Hancock.

However strong my impulse which still finds the moment of actual surging uplift from terra firma incredibly sexy, the flight was, unfortunately, the one which tipped my flying experience from "Whee! Clouds! no hands! Magic!" to "aargh! get me off this plane! orang-utans wouldn't put up with this, it's stupid." We sat on the tarmac in Cape Town for half an hour after our scheduled departure time, while the crew warbled apologetically about "outstanding paperwork". What with being unable to eat from nausea and consequently light-headed from more than sleep dep, I swear there was a twenty-minute stretch somewhere over Central Africa where we entered a möbius state that endured for about seven hours while Mama Mia! recycled plot points, before we eventually blundered loose. Then Heathrow kept us sitting on the tarmac for forty minutes before they'd let us park, while I suppressed not only the gag reflex but the desire to slay six and make for the exits.

On the upside, England is strangely beautiful, with drifts of daffodils all over the show. The country is still doing that gut-tearing, tear-jerking thing it does of randomly embodying bits of my childhood reading, so we pass a rookery, or hawthorn in bloom, or a magpie in a field, and suddenly I'm in tears.

We leave for the France flight at 3am tomorrow. I'm going to bed now. Wish me luck.

1. Non-football-fans among Capetonians are obliged by charter to insert the (cower) parenthesis before the event name.

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This damned insomnia is causing me to lie awake for hours, doing that small-hours-of-the-morning thing where one's thoughts fall into a groove and circle endlessly, fretting. Last night: my eternal pre-occupation, overpopulation.

This has been sparked by two internet currents recently, the Obama administration's possibly politic but worrying backpedal on family planning in the stimulus package, and the bloody Duggar family, who have just produced their 18th child to the general approbation of their peers, viz. low-income, uneducated fundamentalists and fans of reality TV.

Both the Republicans who blocked the family planning and the Duggans themselves demonstrate the inherent problem in the overpopulation scenario, which is that having children is an emotional and religious hot button which, when jumped up and down on repeatedly as these idiots tend to do, overrides all actual common sense. As a purportedly thinking species we are incredibly mixed-up and disfunctional in our attitudes to sex: between the post-Freudian pleasure principle and the inner Victorian Judaeo-Christian prude, rational sexual function doesn't stand a chance. In the moral and social morass which results, logical consequence goes out of the window. Dear gods, can't these people do basic arithmetic? The world is a finite resource, its capacity even further reduced by humanity's joyous stuffing up of its climate with carbon emissions and other crud. Do the Duggans think that an America in which every family has 18 children is ultimately going to leave anyone anywhere to stand, let alone anything to eat or breathe? Or are they, like the dimwitted fundamentalist Republicans, content to cling to impractical Quiverful codes in the expectation that the Lord will provide? Because I have to say, He's doing a pretty shoddy job to date.

The population control issue brings out my inner jackbooted fascist because I honestly can't see any way in which we're going to reduce our teeming human numbers to anything like rational proportions without the intervention of either dictatorship or apocalypse, and while the apocalypse currently seems more likely I'm not vindictive enough actually to prefer it. The human impulse to breed has become an inalienable right when it really can't afford to be. If the bulk of humanity lacks the basic common sense, education, self-restraint or maturity to limit its own reproduction to suit its environment, then the minority who possesses those qualities has to damned well impose them on the rest in sheer self-defense.

I do believe in democracy, honestly I do, but the 2 a.m. wall against which I continually beat my head is the fact that right now democracy is a luxury for which we do not have the time. China can impose a one-child system successfully because they're a socialist dictatorship, but the outcry if almost any other country were to try it would be intense: our political systems across the world are too fundamentally broken to allow it. In a weird sort of way the current economic crisis is actually hopeful, because it's causing everyone to have to rethink their previous uncritical allegiance to the constant, unchecked growth on which capitalism is predicated. In an ideal world a sea-change in global consciousness would be the ideal way to adapt our population sensibly to our resources, but this is a pipe-dream: it's never going to happen in a short enough time-frame to prevent the consequences of population explosion over the last century. Basically, we're screwed.

As I keep saying, this sort of thing wouldn't happen if we were all orang-utans, who have that sensible tendency for their females to produce only one offspring every six or seven years. It worked quite fine for them until they came into conflict with our ridiculously overproductive species, who nicked all the resources. It's not much of a consolation to think that we're destroying ourselves as well as the orang-utans in the process.

we can has

Wednesday, 5 November 2008 11:20 am
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Reading Obama's acceptance speech is making me cry. McCain's concession speech (linked from that page) is also surprisingly graceful.

I've carefully ignored local politics recently, both the South African and the despair-inducing Zimbabwe version - I certainly don't follow them in the way I've been following the American presidential race. America's fundamentally crazy system is much better theatre, for a start. But I think my comparative disinterest also comes down to two things:

  1. In a weird sort of way, disenfranchisement. I'm a white person in black Africa. Zimbabwe is insoluble, South Africa is not my country even though I've adopted it, and in any case it feels as though, as part of a postcolonial discredited minority, these struggles are not about me. I freely admit that this is illogical and probably defeatist, but there you have it.

  2. I don't actually like any of the people involved in local politics. I'd support them for what they say they stand for, rather than who they are. Kerry/Edwards left me lukewarm, but I like Al Gore a lot, and it is a happy astonishment to me that someone who projects integrity as Obama does should have made it through a corrupt political system focused, at least in the last four years, on narcissistic venality.
In a way it doesn't even matter if Obama's aura of thoughtfulness, integrity and reason turns out to be a carefully-crafted political façade. Current African politics only really echoes the tendency the world over, to take for granted the politician as corrupt, money-grubbing and fundamentally uncaring about the health of the polity. (The Onion is not far wrong). Obama is politician as emblem in the same way that Mandela was, and it's hugely hopeful that America, an influential society whose cultural choices tend to ripple out into the world, should have started to recognise the need for him.

unspeakably offended

Saturday, 18 October 2008 10:37 am
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Last night, by way of celebration at having my life back and having vaguely enjoyed the AD&D cheese of the first game, I installed Neverwinter Nights II on my computer. The installation process also installed the .net framework version 2.0. (without, may I add, asking permission or giving me a chance to abort the install). Said framework clearly rifled through my hard drive, discovered my Age of Wonders install, decided it was illegitimate, deleted all the save files, and password protected it so I couldn't load it. It also, for no adequately defined reason, uninstalled Windows Media Player. Then, by way of an encore, it declined to load Neverwinter Nights on the grounds that the version was bundled with drivers for the Evil Landlord's graphics card, which I don't have.

I cannot adequately express how angry this makes me. It's intrusive, insulting and unbelievably rude; it says I'm buying a product which then dictates not only how I may use it in my own personal context, but which other products I may use with it. It's like buying a sofa and placing it in your living room only to have it open a hitherto unsuspected, giant, carnivorous maw and eat the carpet because it's decided it doesn't match.

It is also the apotheosis of the delusional belief held by software producers that their products aren't actually sold to you so much as lent, grudgingly, in a contract hedged about with conditions, limitations and the most narcissistic set of assumptions about being able to have a hissy fit at any moment and take it all back. More than that, they rely on your lack of ability to control them, so that you can neither discern nor prevent the processes by which they act unilaterally on your computer. Our society is predicated on a system which defines itself by the value of products to the corporations who produce and control them, rather than on the notion of creating things which are actually of value to the people who buy them.

I swear, if someone gave me Magrat's fairy godmother wand, but set to orang-utans rather than pumpkins, I would spend the rest of my life waving the bloody thing until our useless so-called "civilisation" actually started making some sense. (Come to think of it, I might actually get with the waving even if it was still set to pumpkins.)

Last Night I Dreamed: an interesting and frenetic post-apocalyptic adventure in which I dodged through exploding cities, underground complexes, hospitals and mansions in the company of Agent Doggett and, for some reason, [ profile] wytchfynder, trying to avoid equal quantities of X-files supersoldiers and the alien race who actually had the nasty military tech to take them down.
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Outside it's windy and bucketing with rain, and I'm as happy as a duck in a puddle. Personally, I welcome our new wintry overlords. But I'm odd that way.

I have one thing to say this morning, which is that everyone should read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, on the grounds that it's essential subversive propaganda for the age of Bush, spreading via Creative Commons like a particularly lively meme. I just read it in a giant gollup - it moves fast and is a rather beguiling adolescent coming-of-age story as well as a call to arms and an indoctrination to hack.

I shall now head off to introduce oblivious third-year Humanities students to the joys of Internet sex, feeling, for some reason, extra subversive.
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Pshaw. The nice encyclopedia press sent me a cheque for $250 for my entry-writing efforts, although given said efforts entailed 30 000 words or so, researched and polished to the back teeth, I suspect I've been swizzed. Now all that remains is to fight my way into Claremont, present the cheque to the foreign exchange desk of the main Absa branch, fill in 23 forms and present 96 bits of documentation, have them send the cheque back to America for endorsement, checking, suspicion, scrutiny with an intense scroot and inscription with mystic runes presumably proof against terrorism and assaults on the American Way of Life, after which the American bank will grudgingly convert it back into electronic monies, and send it back here by torturous virtual routes. I leave here a significant pause into which you are please to insert my usual rantings about human inefficiency and orang-utan civilisation. Also, memo to self: overseas writing gigs may not be worth the red tape they're tied up in.

On a more positive note, however, Making Light have reported on this interesting development, which I cautiously hope may have the potential to strike a blow to fundamentalist wossnames of the more pernicious sort. Turkey has instituted an enquiry into Islam, with a view to a sort of reformation of the religion along more modern and enlightened lines which attempt to excise hundreds of years of closed-minded interpretation of the Prophet's basic common sense. Words cannot express how much I both approve of this, and fear the kind of backlash it might generate among the aforementioned fundamentalists. The Making Light discussion is worth a read. (So is their next post, the Fascist Octopus one, which records for a disbelieving posterity the most unbelievably mixed metaphor known to modern politics).


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