Wednesday, December 17, 2008

There is a taxidermist’s shop near my office. It’s a funny little place near Essex Road station with every animal from a wolf to a guinea pig (really) posed in dusty, glassy-eyed silence in the window. I don’t think I’ve ever told many people this before – it’s not the sort of thing that often comes up in conversation – but I really don’t like stuffed animals. They freak me out. Not in a screaming, panicky, and uncouth sort of way but in a hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck, quietly shuddering gross-out sort of way.

When I was at university I read an essay called “The Uncanny” by Sigmund Freud. I didn’t get on with most of the rambling psychoanalytic stuff in the essay, but I liked the core concept (which wasn’t Freud’s) which stated that a key component of what people find scary – the uncanny – is “doubt whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate”. It’s a simple idea, but it is true of many scary things: ghosts, zombies, creepy dolls, mannequins, the statues in Blink, and – to get back to what I was saying just now – stuffed animals. They look like they’re alive, but they aren’t – or vice versa. It’s weird. It blurs the line between a living creature and a dead creature.

Today, when I walked past the taxidermist, however, there was no such thing. I stood in front of the window, staring in bafflement for a good few seconds before I started to laugh like a drain. The poor ghoulish soul that runs the place obviously felt that it was a little bit dour given the season, and so he decorated his shop. The thing is; the stuffed animals are pretty much the only thing in the shop, so they were all he had to decorate. Which made the whole thing go from creepy to really surreal.

The deer’s head with gold, sparkly tinsel wound around its antlers is an image that will stay with me for a long time. Nearly as long as the deceased albino guinea pig sitting in the middle of a holly wreath, in fact.

-Ben

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Inside my head

I found this on my computer this evening. I think it's from the summer, I vaguely remember writing it then. I think it was a blog post that got horribly out of control and was subsequently abandoned. As my babblings go it's not bad, although the voice switches about a bit, probably because I hadn't figured out what I was writing while I was writing it.

The incident boards were still up around the pedestrian crossing when I walked home today. ‘Fatal Accident’ written in black on yellow. They wanted information, but I knew that I had none to offer. Like thousands of other people, I passed by the crossing on Monday lunchtime and saw the tire marks leading to the stopped and empty truck; the police cars in planned formations; and the walking stick lying in the middle of the road. There was no blood, no gory details to gape at, it all seemed like a sterile tableau to me, as if arranged by an artist trying to make a social statement.

On the other side of the road I saw a smiling young woman, which lightened my mood. She looked happy, sitting near the big open windows at the front of the pub. I looked at her for perhaps longer than was really polite, but she didn’t notice, so I felt safe in my indiscretion. She was pretty, but in a slightly strange way. There was a quality to her face -- the slightly angular lines, the large dark irises of her eyes -- that seemed to me like an amateurish drawing of some great beauty. It was not that she wasn’t beautiful, just that there was a simplicity to her features that made me think that she’d come from the imagination of an enthusiastic draughtsman, rather than an artist. As I walked down Upper Street I composed this little descriptive phrase in my head, rearranged it, and smiled, momentarily pleased with my idea.

I turned my attention back to the street in front of me, and was preoccupied dodging the wayward metal spines of women’s umbrellas after that. protecting them against the rain which had now passed. The rain had been heavy while it lasted, and the street steamed; the damp cotton of my sweater was mingling with the sweat patches that I could feel on forming on my t-shirt already, making me shift my bag around uncomfortably. For once, my headphones weren’t in and I was listening intently to the sounds of the city, hoping to feel some poetic pleasure in the sensory experience. I didn’t. I was just struck by how quiet commuters are, they are all focused and tired, not interested in talk. I clutched the reassuring weight of my tatty backpack and weaved my way through the gradually thickening crowds as I approached the station.

Inside the floor was slick with water from the downpour, and neat brown swirls of liquefied dirt were covering the tiles. I dodged past the leaflets and free papers, not making eye contact, not even bothering to look aside far enough to connect the proffering hand with a person. The barriers passed me by in brief clatter of machinery, and my hands returned my travelcard to my wallet without me having to look down at what I was doing.

After walking cautiously down the escalator -- conscious of the long descent, and the hard edged steps glistening with water -- I found myself standing on the platform watching the train leaving without me. The train shot out of sight, and the suction flicked at my hair and clothes for a moment. My hands moved, unseen and unconscious into my backpack for my book, which was curved and warped by mistreatment and damp. As I brought it to my face I realised something: All the way from my office I had been moving, with ears unblocked and eyes raised, and I had felt no more a part of my environment as I did when I walked through the crowds with music loud and eyes on my feet.

I remembered when I was younger; reading about the King’s cross fire, about all those men who died because a fire wasn’t part of their routine. When faced with a station worker blocking the escalators they just ducked past, without breaking their stride, and walked purposefully into the suffocating smoke. When I started working in the city I deliberately took different routes, different lines through each space; I was determined to not get automated like that. It clearly hadn’t worked; familiarity had made me move more swiftly and unthinkingly through stations with each month, entirely detached from the whole process. One day, I thought, I’ll probably squeeze onto a train with a twitchy man with a big bag, smelling of cordite, because I don’t want to miss my train. But for now I seem to be getting away with it, I decide. I’m willing to trust in whatever part of my subconscious is controlling me on my way home. I step onto the train and start reading my book.

-Ben

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I'm currently doing commissioning work for a textbook at work, contacting academics and asking them if they'd be willing to write for us. This means that I spend a considerable amount of time, well, googling people essentially. I have no idea how on earth this sort of work was conducted in the days before the internet and faculty profile pages.

The thing with googling people is that you often turn up relevant results other then faculty pages or personal websites. Things like mentions of the person in question on blogs, news websites, bookstores, etc. You often find yourself getting odd glimpses of people's personal lives through these little details, funny little personal pursuits or interests, relationships and collaborations with other names you know. It can be very interesting, and sometimes a little odd.

Today, for example, I was looking for the email address of an academic who has become estranged from a project without handing over the text. I found their faculty page fairly quickly, which contained all the information I needed. I also turned up a news story, which was mostly about their other half, but mentioned the writer's name in passing as well. It's not significant what the story was about, but it contained a link to the personal website of his wife, whom they mentioned in an earlier email (they work in the same industry). I saw that she attended the same university BA program as him, at the same time, that they shared a lot of academic interests, and, oddly, that they apparently live on opposite sides of the country. One of them in Buffalo, NY, the other in Irvine, CA.

A curious situation, but alas, one doomed to remain so. There is no further information to be had, and I'm not going to ask a writer intrusive questions about their personal life. This got me thinking about how the information acquired from google searches seems to be generally inadmissible in social situations. Despite the fact that this information is all stuff that people have voluntarily placed in the public domain, admitting to a person that you have looked for it makes you instantly weird.

I think one of the aspects of the internet that people don't think of is that with google, all information is interconnected. Someone can volunteer information about their career to a person they are working with, a brief mention of their personal life can come up in a blog post, and their other half can have a profile page which gives his contact details. That all of these pieces of information are online would not be considered creepy by the person I'm working with. If I were to connect all the information I've gathered from ten minutes of reading, however, and use it -- by, say, emailing his wife asking her to tell him to check his damn email once in a while -- it would be a considered a creepy invasion of privacy.

I think I should make that a personal rule to not use internet searches to create the impression that you are omniscient, or that you can read minds.

-Ben

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hijack

I was aimlessly internet-loafing earlier and I came across the wiki page for D. B. Cooper. I've read about this geezer before, but it's still got to be one of the coolest, weirdest events that has never been made into a decent film.

-Ben

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fraternities

I came across this when doing some research the other day. It's hardly a shocking finding, but interesting for its thoroughness. I give you this interesting little paper --

Fraternity membership, the display of degrading sexual images of women, and rape myth acceptance

I think the same is probably true of a lot of university sports teams over here. Well, judging from how they act in public, and the songs they sing when they're drunk -- I've never been in their rooms.

-Ben

Flying Boat

I have a great affection for examples of people bravely continuing to bark up the wrong tree, long after the correct tree has become apparent. It's most interesting in the world of technology, where you get people plugging away, pushing the boundaries, and engineering to perfection something that looks, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been obsolete from the start. The products of this misguided enthusiasm are often masterpieces in their way though, just not particularly practical ones.

Today I found a fine example of this whilst cruising the internets. It was this bulbous beast, the Saunders-Roe Princess.


It was a giant propeller driven flying boat, completed a few months after the de Havilland Comet entered service and Boeing announced the design that would become the Boeing 707. It flew well enough, and was by all accounts a quite nice plane, but many saw the writing was on the wall for flying boats long before it was completed. No-one ever bought one. The company continued to take their flying prototype to airshows around the world though, seemingly in the hope that people would come round to the idea of a giant flying boat, and warm to its snub nosed charm.

Interestingly there are still plenty of people out there who see this plane as having been unfairly snubbed by the British Government and tragically ignored by an aviation industry to lazy to give it a fair hearing. I don't really see the point in such discussions though. Whilst they are pretty, and pleasing in a nautical sort of way, being able to land in almost all weathers - and not having your plane corrode like a boat - are good things too.

Mind you, If I was an evil genius, I'd definitely fly around in one of those.

oh, and this is an amazing bit of technical drawing, showing all its inside gubbins.
-Ben







Flagstones around the war memorial in Islington. I thought they were pretty.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Here's another 'what I do all day' post. The writer's proofs vs the editor's red biro. I wouldn't take any satisfaction from dealing such an editorial mauling if it wasn't for the fact that I wrote the article in question, and there's always a certain contentment that comes from picking up your mistakes before anyone else does.

The headings are covered up because I'm paranoid and I don't want angry writers poking me with sticks.

-Ben

Monday, November 10, 2008

eek

Dreams are funny things. I think it was Freud who said that, or words to that effect anyway. For various reasons I've been getting very little sleep of late - mostly just running on coffee and tea. I don't know whether this is in anyway related, but I've also not been dreaming much recently either. At least, not that I remember.

Don't worry, this post isn't going to be a tedious account of my dreams. Most of the time dreams are really not worth mentioning to anyone, and nine times out of ten if they can't be explained in a single sentence then they're just going to bore people. The other week, for example -- after working on a project about westerns for for a few weeks -- I had a dream that John Wayne came up to me in the pub and called me a 'dirty commie'. See - one sentence. It's not interesting, but at least it's over quickly. It's a subtle difference but it's definitely better than someone sitting there saying "well. I was in this house, right, and there was a butler following me around with a tray of those funny biscuits. You know, the ones with the cow imprinted on them that tasted sort of, er, malty. Anyway, this butler looked like that Russian guy who was in The Man from Uncle, but it was actually my granddad in disguise...etc."

Every now and then though your subconscious throws you such a horrific unexpected curveball that you have to tell someone. This evening, as a result of one of these dreams, it took me about three minutes to pluck up the courage to go out to the shed and get my washing out of the dryer. It wasn't because of something I dreamed, or even something dreamed by someone I know, but the dream of a person I've never met.

This person -- a colleague of my mother's -- is moving into a new flat soon. She's bought the place, and has most of her furniture in the place, but she's not actually living there yet. It sounds like a nice place, on the ground floor of a new housing block built on the site of the old swimming pool in Bexleyheath (not a place I have fond memories of. It always smelled bad, even for a swimming pool, and it had a really deep diving area at the far end of the pool that I was a bit scared of.) Anyway. Last night she dreamt that she was sitting around in her new flat one evening, curtains drawn, when she heard a knock on the window-glass. In the dream she drew back the curtains and came face to face with a pallid boy of about ten, standing outside the window in swimming trunks, his hair dripping wet. He looked at her and said "Can I come in? I'm all wet and cold." He wouldn't go away -- even when she closed the curtains she could still hear him knocking and calling to her. In the dream she ran out of the house hid in her neighbour's flat.

Needless to say, she is now terrified of her new place.

That sort of thing makes me less bothered about the fact that I haven't dreamt much recently.

-Ben

Friday, November 07, 2008

They Call Me Mister President

I'm still happy about the US election result, I'm not sure whether it will translate into any sort of improvement in the world -- but a lot of people are certain it will, and I think that confidence probably has considerable power on its own. Sorry about the rather inappropriate In the Heat of the Night reference, although the contrast between then and now is fascinating. I was surprised that none of the english papers used it as a headline. It was nice to see the headlines in the paper on wednesday, things like "One Giant Leap for Mankind", "GOBAMA!" and so on -- a nice change from four years ago when one major national paper in the UK ran with "How can 58 million people be so dumb?". The Obama campaign flickr page has some interesting shots from election night.

In other news, Field Music are awesome. I'm sure this is old news to a lot of people, but I'm a bit slow on the uptake and not very hip.



-Ben

Thursday, November 06, 2008

I’ve been writing an article about sex in literature for the last few days, which is a rather big subject to condense down to a single 2800 word article. I’ve managed to get the sections on ancient literature, medieval literature, renaissance and early modern literature, and modern literature done but I just can’t get the 19th century bit down right.

The reason for this is that unlike the other historical periods, I’ve not read a great deal of the great canon novels out there. Ultimately, what it comes down to is that--despite my years of reading everything I could get my hands on, earning a first in English Literature, and somehow ending up in a job that requires me to read and write all day--I really don’t like 19th century realist novels. The glowing esteem that those brick-thick books are held in by literary types meant that I’ve had to suffer a lot in the course of my studies.

In the first year I had to read Hard Times by Charles Dickens. I can honestly say that it was the single most tedious book I’ve ever read. It led me to devise a method of rating literature which, whilst highly subjective, nonetheless proved invaluable in my assessment of different books.

The system is this—how many pages can you read before you fall asleep? Bearing in mind your bedroom is generally the only place in a student house that you can get any peace, and the bed is usually the only piece of furniture in your bedroom, it’s pretty easy to doze off.

I started thinking about this system when I was sitting in a very dull seminar (it was in the middle of winter, in a very cold room and it started at 4pm-- which meant it was dark the whole time) thumbing through the copy of Hard Times that I had only managed to get a bit more than halfway through. The rest of the class were silent and sheepish – none of them had managed to finish it either (I asked before the tutor came in) and this was leading to long and uncomfortable silences. Not one to let a room full of people suffer under the claws of the awkward turtle like that, I bravely stepped in and started responding to the tutor’s questions with my finest freestyle academic bullshit, backed up by quotes taken pretty much at random from whatever page happened to fall open while I was speaking.

You’d be surprised how often that method worked. Once, in my final year, I did a presentation which got 73 (that’s a very high mark at an English uni) on a book I hadn’t even read using exactly that technique. It’s all about pretending to be forgetful rather than unprepared--doing a Boris, essentially.

On this particular occasion though, my method was encountering a snag. You see, it had taken me so much effort to read the two-thirds that I’d managed to plough through that my book was half stuck together with drool. (yes, I drool in my sleep. I’m like an unusually articulate spaniel). When someone else finally started talking--and I was able to relax for a while--I sat there, slouched in my corner of the room, and counted how many pages there were between each group of stuck ones. I wasn’t being hugely scientific, but I found that in the case of hard times I managed to read around 15 pages on average in each sitting, before falling asleep.

Now 15 pages isn’t too bad, it’s only 288 pages long so you’d get there eventually. The big problem--and probably why I’ve never been able to see the genius in these books that everyone else sees—is that whilst 15 pages passed before I actually conked out, my brain generally shut down after about 10 pages. I was reading, but the words weren’t reaching my mind.

My impressions of most of the most of the big 19th century novels that sit on the top of all the ‘best books ever’ lists that people publish from time to time (I suspect with the intention of making people feel intellectually inferior) are pretty much the same. For some reason, realist fiction has an amazing soporific effect on me. I managed to read Middlemarch and some Henry James once, although I wouldn’t say I enjoyed them much. But yes, to meander drunkenly back to my original point (if I ever had one) it’s hard to write about sex in 19th century literature when you’ve never read Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Perhaps one day I’ll become addicted to amphetamines or something and finally be able to understand what all the fuss is about.

I wrote this in one huge blaze of typing, so it probably doesn’t make much sense. I’ll come back and check it later. Oh, and the irritating mixture of double-hyphens and Em dashes are the fault of Microsoft word, and are really making me wish I had a mac.

-Ben

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

neato


The Unfinished Swan - Tech Demo 9/2008 from Ian Dallas on Vimeo.

I saw this on 'Why, That's Delightful' a few days ago and was rather impressed. I'm really happy whenever I see games like this (the only other example I can think of is Portal, but there are plenty of others). When I saw how close games were getting to photorealism I really hoped that we'd get some sort of gaming equivalent of impressionism and abstraction. Because, as any 19th century artist will tell you, photorealism is boring. I am pretty sure that in about five years Twilight Princess will look really badly dated, whilst The Wind Waker will still look stylistically amazing. The fact that developers are doing things like this provides a satisfying counterbalance to the ongoing efforts to render team sports, cars, and brutal violence in ever more colorful detail.

Not that I have anything against violent games, or games where I crash cars, it's just that sometimes I like to feel like games should at least try and punch their weight in a cultural or aesthetic sense.

-Ben

I was going to link a load of other things I've read and seen recently, but most of them are in some way political and really, I think that anyone reading this doesn't need to be told that Sarah Palin is a moron again.

Oh, but I should link this fine example of what must, surely, be genius trolling. That, or an idiot of truly magnificent proportions.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"That's just perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the universe has that"

I’m watching a BBC documentary about the collapse (and alleged demolition) of World Trade Center tower 7. Conspiracy theories like these are always fascinating examples of the many different biases which people bring to the analysis of evidence.

[I was going to write more on this stuff, and I might at some point, but I’m tired now.]

Firstly there is always the way that most people are far more willing to take didactic statements of truth from figures of authority than they are willing to assess evidence on their own. This creates big problems for people trying to debunk conspiracy theories, because they are often started, or prominently backed up, by people with seemingly solid credentials. What is most effective is when a person with an apparently informed background (in the case of the WTC7 conspiracies he’s an architect*) states—without giving any evidence to support his claim—that the scenario he suggests is ‘obvious’ and that ‘anyone can see it’. I’m sure there’s a name for this effect in the study of rhetoric, but I don’t know what it is, either way it is very effective -- it makes people who go along with his arguments feel superior; everyone else, the subconscious logic goes, are idiotic and easily led. The statement that I thought was particularly interesting in this documentary is when the 911 truthman says ‘even a child can see that that isn’t a natural collapse’

Which is just dumb. It’s like saying ‘any child can tell that lightning is caused by fighting sky monsters’ because you think that meteorologists are a sinister cabal who don’t want anyone to learn how they ‘really’ predict the weather. Hypotheses are not given credibility on a first-come-first-serve basis, they have to make sense, and be possible. Generally underpinning all of these things is the anti-intellectualism that seems to be becoming increasingly common in American society in particular. The fact that those who support the official line are world leading authorities on the subject of demolition and structural collapse is seen as irrelevant. Just as the fact that Sarah Palin doesn't seem to know the first thing about the job she's running for, or the sort of issues she'd be expected to deal with, is seen as irrelevant by many.

Even if you disregard the fact that rigging a building for demolition involves tearing out internal walls, drilling holes in columns, and laying miles and miles of cables everywhere (which is hard to do in a busy office building without anyone noticing), this conspiracy theory is no more possible than any of the other unorthodox theories that have surfaced over the years. The reason for this is fairly simple: with each successive counter to their arguments conspiracy theorists add more people to the list of people who would have to be in on the conspiracy. What this amounts to, in effect, is that these people are accusing thousands of people of being accessories to mass murder. A list that includes all of the structural engineers that testified at the enquiry, the FDNY and NYPD witnesses who testified that they heard no demolition explosions, as well as thousands of ordinary men and women in the area at the time.

When people come up with these theories they generally envisage them as being masterminded by some devilish incarnation of ‘the man’ and don’t seem to realise what it is that they are, in reality, suggesting. Even if you accept the idea that thousands of people who pledged to help their fellow citizens, who have risked their lives in the course of that vocation, lied and conspired to kill thousands of innocent people, there is an insoluble problem with all this: people are shit at keeping secrets.

Just think, Nixon couldn’t keep a break-in at an office in the Watergate building secret – and that only involved a handful of people. Do they really think that of the thousands who would have to be involved in a scheme like this, none of them would sell their stories, or have a crisis of conscience?

I've always felt that Hanlon's Razor is one of the best principles to live by, or, in the words of Sir Bernard Ingham, "cock-up before conspiracy".

-Ben

*This is a irrelevant anecdotal slur, but I’ve heard my share of ‘dumb architect’ stories: structural engineers like to tell stories of the many architects they have dealt with who displayed ignorance of construction methods, structural tolerances, and even really basic physics.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

It’s been said many times, by people much more intelligent and articulate than myself, but the internet has really changed the way that people access and interact with information. My job requires me to do a fair amount of research and calls on me to have at least a passing knowledge of pretty much everything, ever.

Now, if you want a fairly shallow understanding of pretty much everything, ever, then the internet is your man – or, more specifically, Wikipedia. When I need to know something for a specific reason then I get my information from somewhere authoritative, but for just a quick orientation on a subject wiki is king.

The problem with it, and its great strength, is the amazing way that information is endlessly interlinked and cross-referenced. It brings out a little known principle of information gathering, sort of like thermodynamics of thought – when reading about something important, your mind will always tend to drift towards information that is less important, but more interesting. This is best demonstrated by this XKCD comic:


Today, for example, I started by reading about a John Wayne film called ‘The Cowboys’ – this was for work, I needed to get a vague idea of the story before I wrote something. Through various strange diversions -- which included articles on Bruce Dern, Yakima Canutt, and Non-Fiction Novels -- I ended up on a website devoted to a little known sideshow freak/magician called Johnny Eck.



All you can see in that picture is all there was to him – he was developmentally normal, except for the fact that his body stopped just below his ribcage, giving him the appearance of a half person. He nonetheless lived a long and varied life, managing to use his bizarre deformity to his advantage. I especially like the anecdote I read about the time when he performed in a travelling magic show with a magician and a dwarf: The dwarf would wear a specially designed pair of giant trousers that came up over his head, and would hold Johnny Eck over the waist so that – in a dark theatre at least – they looked like one person. The magician would pick them out of the audience for the obligatory sawing-in-half trick, and when the boxes were separated the ‘legs’ would get up and run around the stage, with Johnny Eck chasing them around on his hands, angrily demanding that they come back. The cast and crew always found the show hilarious, and once the people who had fainted, or thrown up, had recovered they were pretty impressed too.

-Ben

Monday, October 20, 2008

At 2am last night I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. I'd managed to put down the book I was reading about 20 minutes previously, having grown too distracted by my own thoughts to for it to hold my attention. After a few minutes spent watching a confused moth (the only kind, as far as I can tell) I found myself, once again, considering the worth of my weekend's activities on the basis of how much laundry I'd managed to get done. At this point it became apparent that something had gone badly wrong. I don't want to be misunderstood here, I'm not saying that I was once some great centre-of-attention party animal -- a quick look through the archives of this blog would quickly rubbish that thought -- but you know, I used to have a slightly more interesting life than I do now. I sat around thinking on this subject, and many others, for a few hours before I finally conked out at about half past four in the morning.

The result of this night's intense self-evaluation wasn't any sense of purpose, mental clarity, or some hardened resolve. No. Instead the result was me waking up late, having to run for a late train, and spending the day in a state somewhere south of sensible. I managed to get a reasonable amount of work done -- with the help of rancid-goat's-arse instant coffee -- but towards the end of the day my head was getting a little swimmy.

In the afternoon I was reading through a book on Ancient Mesopotamia, noting down material that could be reused and checking maps and suchlike. At about five in the afternoon the caffeine, sleeplessness and boredom all conspired to turn me into a uncontrollably giggling wreck. I was staring at a map of the Kingdom of Hammurabi which had the ancient cities marked on it, and which ritual and cultural landmarks they contained. The names and labels were starting to drift in and out of focus as I tried to keep my eyes open, and I found myself reading them out loud (very quietly) to myself. After a few minutes the following sequence of words came out of my mouth:

Akshak...Ziggurat...Babylon...Kish!

I said it again, with a funny sort of metric rhythm to it. It made me smile. I liked the way it sounded. I ended up sitting at my desk sort of reciting 'Akshak...Ziggurat...Babylon...Kish' every few minutes and giggling to myself like a man possessed. Even now it makes me smile.

I think I've either come across an extremely pleasing set of words, or I'm starting to go completely bonkers.

-Ben

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Mr Ben Digs

Like many middle class white boys, I have a furtive love for old school hip hop (Oh yes, I don't even spell it with a K, that's how uncool I am). Take a peek through a gap in the curtains on an average evening and you'll quite likely see me dancing around my house to Brand Nubian, Jurassic 5, A tribe Called Quest, or Del tha Funky Homosapien like Henry Kissinger on cocaine. Bearing that in mind imagine my glee when I heard DJ Format+Abdominal on the Adam and Joe show.


That video and the one below this little bit of text are good examples, and feature excellent nerdy computer games references, but essentially everything I've found by DJ Format and Abdominal is face meltingly good.


Other sounds that I've been listening to recently include the sadly no longer active Nic Jones, the strange jazz guitar-tuba-tapdancers combo that are the Born Again Floozies, and Chatham County Line who make some good hillbilly music.

-Ben

Thursday, October 16, 2008

treadmilltreadmilltreadmilltreadmill

I went to the gym today, an event which happens rather more often than even I'm sure I believe. When I was there I was thinking about something that my cousin (who is super ultra fit) said about a good bit of exercise. She mentioned how it made her feel better afterwards, and how she found it invigorating - and she said it in a way that suggested that this was a universal reaction to running, cycling, running, etc. This is a line that I've heard many times from various different people, and it's a line which I think may well be the reason why a lot of people like me give up on this particular aspect of a healthy lifestyle.

Allow me to explain. I hate exercise. I don't feel invigorated, I feel pain and misery. I've learned to expect this, but I worry that a lot of people give up when they realise that the promised moment when it stops being torture isn't ever going to arrive for them; I worry that they feel awkward and out-of-place when others talk about how good it makes them feel and start lying to fit in with the others. I know I did for a while. It took me a long while before I realised the actual reason why I feel good when I get home from the gym. It isn't endorphins or whatever, but simply because that point marks the furthest I can get from the time when I'll feel obliged to go to the gym again.

I just want to make this clear. I go to the gym because I eat a lot, I'm quite vain, and I have a vague sense of concern for my long-term health. Not because I enjoy inflicting that stuff on myself. I think if more people said that they exercise because they think it's a good idea, rather than because it makes them love life, then more people would be willing to keep up.

-Ben

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Buh?

I came across this caption when looking through a book at work. I feel it is necessary to point out that this book isn't one of ours, and I don't think it's in print any more. I was reading the chapter on the chinese economy when I saw this:

Below: An industrial complex at Anshan in Manchuria. Like most industrial installations in this part of china it was begun in the late 1930s by the japanese and symbolises china's continuing debt to the period of occupation.

Now I'm no expert on the Japanese occupation of China, but I've never heard any Chinese officials talking about how grateful they are for what the Japanese did there. Generally historians just focus on the horrifying war crimes and ignore the, er, valuable industrial development I suppose. That or this writer really liked Japan.

-Ben

Sunday, October 12, 2008

I came across this poster at work -- it's for a John Wayne B-movie from the mid-thirties. I think it may well be the strangest poster I've ever seen.

The IMDB summary gives the plot of the film as this:
Sheriff John Higgins quits his job and goes into prospecting after he thinks he has killed his best friend whilst shooting it out with robbers. He encounters his dead buddy's sister and helps her run her ranch. Then she finds out about his past.


I can't figure out what the poster has to do with the film, nor can I discern what on earth the strange waxlike figures are supposed to be doing. Whether this makes more sense if you've seen the film, I don't know, but none of those people look like John Wayne, and I think they're wearing rather more rouge and lipstick than the average cowboy.

Oh, and I think the guy on the far left has just shit his pants.

-Ben

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

PETA

This is interesting. I have always found it odd the way that some animal rights organisations express their desire for humanitarian treatment of animals through campaigns that show a sickening disregard for the humanity of anyone other than themselves. The campaign linked there is a good example, they disapprove of the well being and feelings of animals being compromised in the name of some grand cause (medical research) but have no compunction with heaping even more stigma and distress on autistic children and their families to further their own cause.

Incidentally, since reading Bad Science, I've not been able to take statements like this on face value. Whilst I don't doubt this is a good thing, it took me ages to read through all the meta analysis abstracts to check the blogger's assertions that PETA's claims were wrong, which is a pain. There has been almost no credible research on this subject, and the results of that were inconclusive at best (the most scientifically rigorous of the studies only had 4 participants, which renders it pretty meaningless).

As a thoroughly uninteresting little side note, it's the association with that sort of crap that stopped me from ever describing myself as a 'liberal' on facebook.

-Ben

Monday, October 06, 2008

Hmm

Some serious political analysis here. A valuble work I think.

Oh, and this adage is brilliant. (it's not what you think from a quick glance at the URL)

-Ben

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Bookshelf


I've always had a problem containing my book population. They tend to multiply when I'm not looking--before I know it, I have heaps of books piled haphazardly around my bed and shelves sagging under still more volumes. Between my degree in English Literature and my morning rail commute, I've felt the need to buy a lot of books over the last few years. This is only one of my bookshelves, my anthologies are buckling the shelves in the other room.

Underneath that picture, and just out of shot, is my other population control problem--my guitars and basses.

-Ben

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Antichrist

Ah, I love the Ship of Fools. The other day they had a look at the state of religious political debate in the US and found it, er, rather odd.

I think this might explain why there's such a high chance of rapture right now (although, to be honest, I've never seen the rapture-o-meter drop below 70%)

-Ben

Monday, September 22, 2008

The West

This is shop related, but not shop. I just thought I'd add to my collection of 'great shitheads from history' (some mentioned towards the end of this post) with the following character.

Without further ado, I give you Colonel John Milton Chivington - Methodist minister, Abolitionist, and mass-murdering war criminal. Only read that if you think you have a strong stomach.

I came across an article on the Sand Creek Massacre when reading up on Native American history (I know that no-one outside of textbooks ever uses the term, but hey, I'm a middle class white liberal--I can't resist over-sensitive PC terminology). After I read it, I was so disgusted I spent the next half an hour struggling to keep my lunch down, and so angry that I couldn't concentrate on anything for hours. Which really, is a shamefully mild reaction to what I read.

At least I also learned of one person to add to the good people list, Captain Silas Soule. I know it's not considered intelligent to see people in terms of good or bad, and in general I don't. But I believe there are exceptions, and I'll cling to the romantic hope that there is such a thing as a heroic person, even if they only manage to be heroic for a while. When you read the accounts of the massacre you see the horrifying malleability of normal people. A person with a position of authority can just say the word and otherwise normal people will commit atrocities that you wouldn't believe even the lowest, most monstrous person to be capable of. Conversely, Silas Soule refuses to fight and, for the men he leads, the spell is broken and they see what the others are doing for what it is.

On a lighter note, have a read of this article. Hahaha, sigh... mormons.

-Ben

Vintage Shop


Printing a Book, Old School Via Badscience

This video is an interesting cultural artefact for two reasons, the first is because it shows the olden days of publishing (hot metal type and linotype machines--ETAOIN SHRDLU and all that, no digital presses there) the second is because it's really quite astoundingly dull. A fine quality of dull that you just don't get these days.

One thing I noticed though, was the way that they missed out the entire stage of making books that I'm involved in. Back then, the manuscript would have been typed up, then the editor would have marked up the typed text with his arcane proofreading shorthand (I can do that, which is satisfying) this then went to the printer who would have typeset the text following the changes that the editor had annotated. Unlike the video, it would have been sent back to the editor after the galley proofs had been made from the hot metal type, where it would have been checked again (probably by a few different people) and sent back to the typesetter with any changes marked. After that it went to the machine.

At least, that's how I understand it. By contrast for me the process is more like this: The text arrives as an attachment on an email. The text is flowed into the layout--it is then checked, rewritten and edited as necessary. After that it is passed onto another group of editors. These editors mark their corrections and changes and send them back to the first editor, who incorporates them. He then links hi-res versions of the images to those in the layout, gets the fonts onto his machine, and converts the layout into a hi-res PDF and sends it by FTP to the printing company. Who press some buttons on a machine, I think (it's not my concern).

Yes, I know this is a monstrously boring post, but at least you know what I do for a living now.

-Ben

Sunday, September 21, 2008

New York (second half)

And here’s some more ramblings about my travels. I think this will probably be my last, as if you keep going on about foreign lands too much you start to sound like a boring gap year student (there’s one at every party).


The reason, incidentally, for the sprawling tone of these posts is that that is how it’s arranged in my head—I really can’t remember what happened on what day. I didn’t have time to sit and write down my day’s experiences at the end of each day; I took some paper, but generally I was either doing something fun or passed out asleep, so I never got time to write any notes. Without them, it’s all blurred together. An effect which the 24 hour cityness of New York exacerbates*--after a few days which go on for more than a day you completely lose track of time. Anyway, on with the rambling.


The Staten Island Ferry was the source of both good and bad experiences in our time staying in NY. The first time we got on it was an impressive experience—we arrived on Staten Island over the bridge from New Jersey in a cab** so we hadn’t yet seen the harbour and Manhattan island properly. It was at around sunset when the ferry set off from St. George ferry terminal when we got on it on the first day. The sunlight was a vibrant orange colour, bathing one side of the boat in a lovely glow. It was at that height where it reflects off shiny surfaces all over the place, you get shimmering lines of orange on the curved glass of the downtown skyscrapers and little crests of glowing sunlight on the top of the waves around the boat. That first evening, we watched—slightly dazed with the time difference (we’d all been up for about 20 hours)—as the sun lowered and dimmed, silhouetting the Statue of Liberty as we chugged past. We were all left a bit speechless by that, we weren’t expecting New York to announce itself quite so dramatically.


Due to our lack of knowledge of the timetable we probably spent a good few hours sitting around in either the Manhattan or Staten Island ferry terminals waiting for our boat to turn up. Most of the time this was fine, it was good to have some time to sit and talk, just to pause and mull over the day’s activities, or to plan what would come next. The ferry trips served the same purpose too, once the initial awe had worn off—they became a time to talk and plan. There were two particular occasions though, when the time spent in the ferry terminal wasn’t welcome.


The first came when we missed our 3am ferry home by a few minutes, having all had completely knackering days--walking miles, eating loads, and going to the top of the Empire State Building—we were all just too tired to have patience for it, and just huddled in a corner of the terminal like refugees listening to the endlessly looped Staten Island tourist promotional video and thinking longingly about bed. The second occasion was on the weekend, me and Kristen had been enjoying the company of hurricane Hannah, who got me the wettest I’ve ever been. I think more completely soaked than you get when you jump in a pool. When we were running from awning to awning and hiding out in hip caf├ęs in the village it wasn’t too bad—despite the rain it was still warm, and there was a sort of mad hilarity to the whole thing. Once we were stationary in the chill, air-conditioned air of the ferry terminal, however, it went from fun to really fucking cold. There was water literally sloshing around in my shoes, my pockets actually had little pools in them, and everything in my pockets, bag, and internal organs was completely saturated. My headphones were annihilated and the book in my bag became very, very soft and bendy.


So far I may have given the impression that I spent my time in NY being super cool and hip--hanging out in Greenwich Village, wandering off the beaten track, etc--but that’s not really what we were about most of the time. We spent a lot of time on Broadway and wandering around Times Square. Rather more time wandering around times square than I think I ever want to do again come to think of it—it’s like oxford street, but with fewer Hare Krishnas and more ticket touts. I appreciated the fact that everything was cheaper in New York than it is in London, but I don't like shopping—which rather kills the fun of times square. On the second day (I think) we spent our time wandering around in the melting hot sunshine in Central Park. I think we went there just to tick it off the list, but I feel like if I had someone to lay around in the shade with and to talk to, I could easily have spent the whole holiday there. It was just so green and landscaped; no less man-made and artificial and planned than the rest of the city, but with more of a sense of fun and whimsy. I expect we only saw a fraction of the strange and interesting things that there are to see inside the park, but there was a sneaky feeling that we’d be sort of wasting our time if we spent our visit to NY in the bit of the city where you can almost forget that you’re in the city at all.


I haven’t really mentioned much about the people I was with, because I feel like that would be impolite. They were probably the most fun aspect of the holiday though, or certainly the factor that made it fun. I did write considerably more about the trip, but looking at it a few days later, it all seems pretty dull. I think I’ll keep the rest to myself.


-Ben


*Not a word I would have even attempted without a spell checker.

**well, limousine actually – it would seem that there’s not much work going for limo drivers during the day on a Monday.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

And now, a mess

I'm afraid this post is just going to be a giant linksplooge, sorry.

Firstly this song by elbow, it's a freakin' masterpiece. Sit down, turn it up, and listen to the words intently. It's one of the most evocative pieces of poetry I've encountered in ages - and one that I think everyone can identify with. Hard. I had to go and sit down in a corner and stare into space for a while after hearing it, my dad linked it to me after having the exact same reaction.

On a completely different--but no less awesome--note* have a watch of this, very short video by Adam Buxton. It made me laugh until my face hurt. Adam Buxton is very cool in general, but especially when combined with Joe Cornish. The show they do on sixmusic is a good example, it's so funny I actually get up early on saturdays to listen to it.

From now on I'm afraid it's just pure dorky links.

When I'm at work i have a slight tendency to go off on tangents -- my job often requires me to look things up on the internet, and the first port of call is often wiki (usually for the websites and books cited). Unfortunately it is notoriously easy for the curious to get distracted by odd lines of thought and end up somewhere a long way from what you were supposed to be writing about.

Yesterday, for example, I looked up the film How the West Was Won for some basic information about who made it. I noticed that the screenshots of the film had funny join lines, which led me to the article about the interesting tehnological dead-end that was the Cinerama process. From there I got to a stub article about the Cooper Cinerama cinema -- which took me off wiki for a while -- and then on to the most interesting thing, and the reason for the preceeding string of tedious links: Googie Architecture.

I'd never realised that the style of wonderful roadside weirdness that you get out west had a name. Although I have to say that I much prefer the alternative name given to it by another architect: "Raygun Gothic". Just looking at those buildings makes me want to drive a large car with fins, and eat greasy food in neon lit diners.

The other interesting thing I came accross whilst doing some work related wikisurfing was the very good article on Yakima Canutt. I'd always sort of wondered how exactly the professional stuntman came into being-- just where on earth did hollywood find people who were willing to injure themselves for money, but sufficiently skilled not to die? Ah. The rodeo, of course. He lived an interesting life, certainly an impressive live for a man who never bothered to go to middle school.

But yes, if you've not heard it before listen to the Elbow Song.

-Ben

*The ability to type an en dash without fucking around with unicode is the most compelling reason I've yet encountered for getting a Mac, double hyphens just don't cut it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

NY

I went to New York at the beginning of the month, I should probably write something about that, seeing as it’s pretty damn rare that anything that interesting happens to me. I seem to be oddly reluctant to do so though. One of the reasons is that the part of the holiday that is most vividly embedded in my memory is well, personal, but the rest of my reluctance comes from fear of writing about something so big. I’ve tried to do this before – when I returned from the US in 2006 I attempted to write a sort of record of what I did, what I saw, and how this made me feel. I seem to remember that it ran to about 5000 words before I’d even started to talk about things that happened on the second day I was there. University work then took over, and by the time I had the time to resume the story I’d become unsure of the memories I had of events – not that I’d forgotten anything, I don’t think -- just that I wasn’t entirely sure if I’d be able to give the right emphasis to what I’d seen.


Anyway. Yes. New York. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I loved New York, but I certainly liked it a lot – unfortunately you can’t get t-shirts with ‘I really quite like NY’ written on them, so I had to go without. I got one for my little sister though, because she’s a kid, and therefore loves New York even though she’s never been there. Nonetheless, it has joined London and Berkeley, CA as places that I’d be happy to live in (London has the lead at the moment on account of the convenience factor, as I already live there). The things that put me off the place were the subtle feeling that you’re standing at the bottom of a very deep valley (which comes from all those massive buildings), and the really icky state of the Subway system.


I could probably write a whole post about the New York subway. The first reaction was “wow this is so much cheaper than the tube, and it runs all night!” but after a while of moving about in the sweaty-balls-hot, rusting-oozing, and generally disgusting stations, I realised what happens if you don’t allow much money, or time, for maintenance and cleaning. The trains were spacious, air conditioned (often to the point of being really cold), and much, much cleaner than the stations they passed through, but their pleasantness was pissed on by their infrequentness* (the tube runs about three trains for every one that arrives on the subway), and the fact that their air-conditioning vents hot air into the already sweaty stations. The other thing that seems odd for such an ordered and sensibly laid out city is that the subway is utterly baffling, with a unhelpful map, confusing routes, and a color coding system that seems largely meaningless. I find it odd that the New York City subway map is geographic rather than diagrammatic like the tube map. I suppose that the regular logical layout that the tube map pretends London has is a sort of antidote to the complete lack of any form of coherence above ground.


The city above the pavements though, is just lovely. Take a structural engineer there, or an architect, and watch them walk awkwardly, trying to hide their serious geek boner over the prettiness and towering ambition of all the buildings there. The Guggenheim museum is probably my favourite thing. It’s a museum built to celebrate pure expression of art, -- not representational or functional in the conventional sense -- and that’s just what the building is. It’s a swirly-curly masterpiece of a building, all the more elegant for being explained by my engineer brother, who was impressed by the way that the architect had made all the important structural and functional parts of the building blend seamlessly into his vision. Very cool, and it’s rare for Ed to speak of architects in a complimentary way. There was some art in it too, but other than the Kandinsky and the precisionist stuff, I wasn’t hugely impressed by that.


We went to a baseball game on our second (I think) night, which was a very odd experience. Baseball is, as I had expected, a very dull game – although seeing as I’m not really a big fan of sports in general this view is hardly surprising. The thing that impressed me about it was the whole experience of a baseball game – the sport itself feels incidental at best. There is loud music, constant crowd participation, mascot-based activities after each inning, as well as lots of booze. I drank some light beer, for the same reason that visitors to the outback sometimes eat bugs – pure anthropological curiosity. It’s definitely not something I’d subject myself to deliberately again.


There is something that I wasn’t prepared for in my trip to the city, which was how welcoming and friendly the locals were. We were staying in Staten Island, which felt familiar to me, like the south east London of New York – the big difference being that no American would ever be given as friendly a welcome as we got there. On the first night we found a bar just a few minutes walk from our house, and close to the Staten Island ferry called Jimmie Steiny’s** which had an atmosphere unlike any bar I’ve been to before. In the UK (or in London at least) pubs are either places where people come and drink with their friends, interacting with no-one else, or they are places where a small group of locals drink and hang out, but subject any newcomers to the most intimidating silence and hostility until they leave. The idea of a pub where everyone knew everyone else, and was friendly and welcoming to new people was a strange discovery.


The one very odd thing that one of my friends noticed about the citizens of New York City was the strange number of people with amputated or otherwise missing limbs. I’m not suggesting that amputation is a fashion thing over there, but it certainly seems to be a much more common occurrence than it is over here. Possible causes I was given included wars and military service, and poor healthcare (if you can’t afford health insurance it’s quite possible that diabetes could get to the leg-amputation stage pretty quickly.)


Well, I’ve rambled long enough for now. I’ll write more about this when it occurs to me – there’s still the Empire state Building, Central Park, the food (oh the food!) and many other things that I can’t think of right now to talk about


-Ben


*probably not a word, but you get the idea.

**Their comments about having the best Jukebox may well be true; it was certainly very well stocked. Also their beer selection rocks, lots of good American beer, and a couple of very unusual European beers as well.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Odd

I was editing an article on transvestitism today. I managed to get a big picture of Eddie Izzard in, although I ended up having to leave out the part in the caption about him being an 'executive transvestite' because I needed the space.

For various reasons I won't go into (rather secretive publisher) I had a copy of this DVD cover sitting on my desk all day today.

In Harm's Way is your bog standard 1960's second world war movie. It follows various semi-heroic characters (mostly in the navy, I think) as they fight their way across the south pacific.

Now as you can see, the cover isn't exactly a work of art, some pretty grievous photoshop work and poor composition. I kept looking at it out of the corner of my eye all day and right towards the end I figured out what was weird about it.

Look at the ship on the front cover, the big one. Notice anything out of place, for a film that was made in 1965, and set entirely in the Second World War? Like, I don't know, the microwave transmitters; the anti-aircraft missile launchers; the automated gun turret?

I asked one of my co-workers (who is a military historian) and he confirmed what was bothering me; that isn't a second world war battleship. It's not even close, they looked like this. He informed me that it was a spruance-class destroyer, and a little Wikiwork (helped by the fact that its number is clearly visible on the side) informed me that this ship is in fact the USS Deyo - an anti-submarine destroyer built in 1980.

So the person who designed this cover used a picture of a boat that wasn't built until 15 years after the film was made, and about 40 years after the boats used in the film were built.

Yes, I know its nerdy, and I know that I have a rather strange knowledge of military hardware for a generally peaceful person, but come on, that's pretty shoddy.

I'll write something at least vaguely interesting soon, I promise.

-Ben

SCIENCE

Cows tend to align north-south

I expect the researchers got some odd looks from their labmates, but hey, it's interesting.

I'll think of something to say here soon, probably. I've just had a bit of a numb brain week.

-Ben

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Misc

In general I'm a pretty squeamish person. I'm not generally one to fearlessly expose me to stuff that I don't like, whether it's people, ideologies, or music. For some reason though, this doesn't extent to every area of my life. Because, whilst I abhor the rantings of bigots and idiots, I always find there to be something strangely fascinating about them when I encounter these rantings in written form.

In the past my compulsion to read the views of idiots has led me to read page after page of moronic ranting on the 'have your say' section of the BBC website, even, on the worst days, to deliberately subject myself to the comments underneath youtube videos. At the moment though, it takes a slightly (but not greatly) more sane form. I've been reading a lot of reviews on Amazon-US recently, for reasons to do with work, and I've found myself gravitating towards the one star reviews.

I've found that regardless of whether they are saying things I agree with or not, the negative ones always seem more passionate than the positive. I relish it when I find a book with 10 reviews and an average customer rating of 2 stars.

Today though, I started to go that little bit further. I'd find reviewers whose output appeared to be particularly hateful or stupid, then I'd go to their profile page and read all the reviews they'd written. Sometimes this led to amusing little snippets of life, such as the woman who wrote a disparaging review of a self-help book on erectile dysfunction, but then a glowing positive review of a vibrator a few weeks later (yes, Amazon sell pretty much anything). Other times though it provides you with a fascinating character study.

Take, for example, this person - whose reviews display a charming mixture of strongly conservative views, and hints of just about every flavour of bigotry you can name. All coupled with a tendency to make things up, exaggerate, and launch off-topic personal attacks. I'm pretty sure that the books he writes positive reviews of are ones that he's actually read, but I'm not sure whether his vast number of reviews of books that he finds disgusting indicate that he's good at creative reviewing, or that he's a masochist.

I'm assuming it's a he. It seems like a fair thing to assume, when you read the reviews.

---

On an entirely unrelated note, Man Man are rather good. Certainly the creepiest use of xylophone I'd heard in a long time. And "It Overtakes Me" by the Flaming Lips has one of the coolest bass riffs I've heard in a while (cool partly for the riff itself, and partly for the crunchy and delicious bass sound). The video there is a little weird, but the recording is sound.

-Ben

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Musicalness


Anna Ternheim makes pleasing noises, she's another one of those ethereal yet catchy singer-songwriters that seem to make up a significant proportion of the Swedish export economy these days.

Also, this tour lineup actually made me squeal with glee - Future of the left and Ted Leo, joy! - but alas, in order to see it, I would have to emigrate or hide in someone's cupboard for a month.

One other thing. Not musical; shop, I'm afraid.

I was reading a lot of stuff about the American reproductive law controversy, and I was looking through lists of bestselling sex education books that actually boast that they contain no anatomical diagrams or safe sex advice. Between that, and a load of Christian advice books which all seemed to be based around the idea that women only ever have sex because men pressure them into it, I was seething at my desk for most of the morning. The safe-sex thing I can sort of understand the logic behind, although I don't agree with it, but what possible advantage is leaving out the anatomical diagrams going to have?

My dad's suggestion was "well, I suppose if you don't know where the vagina is, it would make sex rather difficult... Perhaps it's a sort of abstinence thing"

-Ben

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Victoria Sponge Cock

Today, in my work-related researches I came across the following abstract. I'd been reading a lot of po-faced postmodernist gender theory that morning and this reminded me of the interesting, and sometimes a little bizarre, possibilities of academic study. It also made me laugh, because I'm juvenile like that.

"Getting a Piece: An Ethnographic Look at Erotic Cake Purchase"

Emily Wentzell
The Johns Hopkins University,
Program for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality
and The Johns Hopkins Department of Anthropology

This paper uses ethnographic data gathered from a Philadelphia erotic bakery to explore individuals’, particularly African American women’s, use of erotic cakes. People often understand “traditional” identity and morality as sexually and emotionally repressive, and use the cakes to assert “nontraditional” selves in which sexuality is joyfully integrated into life. Many American rituals, like birthday parties, involve cake and can be understood to inscribe “traditional” mores via celebration in traditional forms. Erotic cakes function not simply as humorous party centerpieces, but also as vehicles through which individuals revise the structure of these rituals, breaking perceived taboos and pushing social boundaries. Through this revision, individuals craft rituals that assert, support, and re-inscribe participants’ “non-traditional” identities. Erotic cakes, like humor and erotica/pornography in general, exist within interlocking and mutually dependent forces of perceived repression and transgression, providing pleasure through their challenge to what individuals view as the repressive force of “tradition.” Because cake purchasers are enculterated individuals, erotic cakes sometimes serve as sites for the support of certain “traditional” social standards such as heteronormativity, yet simultaneously provide a powerful tool for individuals to target and alter certain ill-fitting norms. Erotic cakes are particularly well suited to African American women’s needs, since their form matches that of the “textured” joke prevalent in black humor and women’s subversive humor, and speaks to a particularly damaging “traditional” association of black women with food preparation and lack of sexual control. However, individuals from multiple racial, sex, and sexuality groups use erotic cakes as an indirect vehicle for social redefinition.


PDF here.


One of the reasons why I'm not hugely enthusiastic about doing postgraduate study at the moment is because I fear that as a humanities man I'd never be able to pursue ideas like this. I worry that I'd just end up being prodded by my advisor into writing something indistinguishable from the output of the postmodernism generator.

-Ben

Monday, August 11, 2008

Tube

I was displeased with my fellow commuters today, I feel a line was crossed. I'm fine with commuters being unpleasant to each other - pretending that all the other people aren't there, or at least aren't real people, is an important way of keeping your composure when shoved into a sweaty fat man's armpit - but I don't like it when innocent bystanders get caught up in it.

I'd just got off the train at London Bridge - music on and loud, marking the page in my big book of Chekov with my finger, lost in my own thoughts - when I saw the following sight on the flight of stairs up from the platform. There were two women on one side of the staircase at the point where it turns into the tunnel that leads to the escalator, they looked really agitated and were looking at something on the other side of the stairs. On the rest of the stairs was the cattle-pen-thick river of commuters stomping up the stairs. Hmm. I thought, tourists, and I directed myself towards the other side of the stairs when the people were flowing faster. As I got to the bottom of the stairs, however, I saw what they were looking at. There was a small child, a boy of about 4 or 5, no taller than my waist, crying his eyes out and occasionally trying to penetrate the crowd of people and cross the 12 foot wide staircase. No-one who walked past seemed to be paying the slightest bit of attention to this, men or women. When I got level with the kid I stopped, tried to smile in the friendliest way I could manage, and hoped that the people to my left would stop too and let him cross (three people walked head first into my back in these few seconds). Unfortunately, I'm a big scary bear, even if this kid wasn't scared already, so he just looked at me, terrified, and didn't move an inch. Luckily a woman of about my mum's age stopped next to me, said something in a soothing tone of voice and led this him across to his mother.

The whole thing probably took about six seconds from start to finish but it left me in a bad mood for the rest of the journey home. I don't understand how people could just look at that kid and think to themselves (if they thought anything at all) "it's OK, the stairs will be clear in a minute or so, if no trains arrive on the other platform". I'm really not a cuddly child-friendly person, probably given another second of being shoved in the back I would have walked away from the kid out of embarrassment, but I can remember the feeling of being small and lost in a public place, if only for a few seconds, and wouldn't just ignore a child in that situation.

I am disappointed with my fellow unthinking automatons, and hugely grateful to the kind woman who saved me from ending up hating myself all the way home for walking away.

-Ben

Friday, August 01, 2008

Holiday


As I mentioned last night, I’m now back from my trip to Wales and I suppose I better write something about it. I went, with my family and some extras, to a place called the Gower peninsula, in south Wales, staying in a campsite near the village of Rhossili. The Gower is a strange place, all rolling hills and sheep, lots and lots of sheep. As far as I can tell, the Gower was a horrific backwater that remained rustic and rural when the rest of Wales launched themselves into the industrial revolution with great enthusiasm. The only innovation that they seemed interested in taking from the world around them at this time was Methodism, which they took to with the same vigour as every other part of Wales.

The religious denomination favoured in an area wouldn’t seem to be that important at first glance, but it seems to have had a substantial effect on the landscape of the land, long after most of the chapels have been boarded up and forgotten. The most important legacy is, of course, the chapel.


They are small, squat buildings, architecturally unadorned; they vary from being pretty in their simplicity, to being plain boxes grotesquely spattered with neoclassical decorations, like stone pillars on the side of a warehouse. They manage to be beautiful, however, by always being put in amazing places. I don’t know whether this was motivated by a desire to make people really work for their church, or something, but they are almost always in elevated positions, high on hills and mountains above the towns they serve. It means that their plain austerity acts as a counterpoint to vistas and landscapes more beautiful than anything that would be allowed in a protestant church. It made me think of this poem by Wallace Stevens -- which I’ve never really understood, and still don’t think I do, but it seems apt.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Wallace Stevens Anecdote of the Jar

I think it’s because I’m from a big city, one where the buildings are often pretty, but the landscape as a whole generally isn’t, but this opposition always makes me happy, like a kind of deference on the part of the locals to the world around them. Sadly I don’t have a picture of the most striking example of this; a utterly dull grey box of a chapel that sat on the top of a hill next to a shimmering, cascading waterfall. I do have a picture of the waterfall though.


The thing that makes the Gower remarkable is that in 1956 it was designated to be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (mostly because it was such a pristine backwater) which means that planning regulations are extremely tight there, and very little new building goes on. Between the Methodism and the planning department, the Gower is left, tragically, with a dearth of decent pubs, or any pubs at all.

It has no shortage of nice beaches, however, beloved by English surfers (we’re not talking Hawaii-grade surf here, but it’s enough to work with apparently, and closer to home). I didn’t surf, obviously, because I have no sense of balance and wouldn’t look good in a wetsuit, but I did swim in the sea quite a lot. It has to be said, however, that quite often my swims were cut short by the feeling of hypothermia setting in (there’s nothing like swimming away and then being struck by the thought ‘my kidneys are cold… that’s not good’).


I like swimming, I’m like a seal in that I’m slow and ungainly on land, but can more with a little more grace when gravity is no longer an issue. I’m unlike a seal in that I can’t breathe through my ears, which is another one of the ways in which I feel that evolution has short-changed humanity -- along with our absence of tails, and independently movable ears.

There’s loads more to say, but this is all I’ve managed to say before I got distracted by shiny things (well, shiny thing – my new bass is still awesome) I might write some more on the subject when I remember - I feel I should write something about the peculiar delights of camping - but it won’t be for a few days as I’m heading up to my brother’s this weekend for a weekend of computer games, loud music, and drinking – to recover from all that nature and rustic living.

-Ben

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Jim Radford



I'm back from Wales, it was fun, I'll write about it later. I came across this when I was doing my 'back in the 21st century' celebratory internet surfing. He's someone I've seen and heard many times in various folk clubs around south east london. Have a listen, he's got an amazing voice and a seemingly infinite repertoire of shanties, songs of the sea, and folk ballads.

This is a good example of the sort of song he performs - songs that describe recent history with the timelessness of really old folk songs. This particular one is about the Battle of Gallipoli, one of the bigger bloodbaths of the first world war. It isn't very well known in the UK because the losses were mostly Australians, Kiwis, Canadians, and Indians* -- soldiers from the colonies always seem to get left out of popular conceptions of 20th century warfare.

-Ben

*As well as the Turks, of course, whose losses were no less horrific for the fact that they were the nominal victors

Monday, July 21, 2008

vanity

I took this picture with the intention of shaming the people who keep persuading me not to cut my hair (kristen and sarah, I'm looking at you) by demonstrating just how stupid they'd made me look. When I actually put the picture up on the computer, however, I thought it looked rather good. So I'll let you off for now.

I'm going on holiday to wales on wednesday with my family and some friends. We're camping, which of course means that the word document known as the 'camping list' is once again printed out. This thing was written in the late 1980s, but hasn't ever been changed because it's generally a pretty good reminder of the sort of thing you need, even if my parents tent weighs about a tenth of the old family one, despite being much bigger.

It is a rather odd document, that has been transferred from one format to another and opened with every program between Wordstar and Openoffice. It does contain certain anachronisms though, like the section headed "I wanna doa Weeeeee", which dates to a time when me and ed still don't have absolute control over our bladders.

I shall leave you with the section headed "Toys"

Toys

A few Cars

Limited Teddies

Buckets, Spades, Diggers.

Books



I just love the idea of 'limited teddies' (our car was quite small)

-Ben

The BPA



Very good song, combining three different flavours of awesome (Norman Cook, David Byrne, and Dizzee Rascal) with a very good video. The funniest part about this video is what you see when you look at the comments on youtube, which are full of people complaining about the censorship. Put a funny and creative use of censorship in front of a teenage boy and he can think only of the graphic nudity he's missing.

Also, the new Hold Steady album, Stay Positive, is brilliant. As expected.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Jeebus

I'm generally a pretty liberal 'believe whatever you want' sort of geezer, but there are times when I am left rather baffled. My work involves quite a lot of reading up on the religious attitudes and perspectives to various aspects of human sexuality and reproduction and some of them are really quite disturbing.

Take, for example, the old testament view on menstruation - Dig Leviticus 20:18, which says sex with a woman who's menstruating is all evil and nasty, which is valid enough, I suppose (although I'm not sure why you'd want to punish people for it) but then there's the rather more unpleasant sentiments in Leviticus 15:19-24 which essentially says that any man who goes near a woman who is menstruating has whatever the religious equivalent of cooties/lurgi is, and has to go and sit in the corner of the playground until his friends think he's clean again. Now I know that Leviticus is sort of like the dusty attic of Judeo-Christian religions, where a strange elderly relative sits and denounces everything, but seeing as people take some parts of it very seriously indeed, it worries me what else they're going to take as, if you'll excuse the pun, gospel.

The stuff I read, that is completely in earnest, means that when I come across something like this on one of my searches I'm honestly not sure whether it's a joke or not (it is). Which of course wrongfooted me, so that when I read this I thought that I was reading The Onion, but no. Sadly not.

-Ben

Friday, July 11, 2008

Don't look back

I have absolutely no idea why I started doing this, but earlier on I started to read through the archives of my old email account (which I stopped using as my main account in winter 2005). Because my brother didn’t have a computer of his own, and my family didn’t use any sort of instant messenger thingy, there was a near constant stream of quite lengthy emails flying backwards and forwards between me, Eddie, Dad, and various friends at other universities. Looking back at them I’m not hugely interested in the emails that I received, as they tell me things that I either remember anyway, or don’t really feel particularly enlightened for knowing. The thing that fascinates me is reading my old emails to others, daisychained along in a big string of correspondence under my friend's responses. Hotmail didn’t record any sent mail then, and I don't think it does now, unfortunately, so I have only the emails that I got replies to, but it’s still an interesting little study.

What I’ve learned is that I was really embarrassing. Even in emails written when I was just a few weeks shy of my 19th birthday, settled into uni life and in a relationship with someone much more mature than me, I was still writing like an overexcited child about everything. In any email where I mention something to do with women you can actually hear me puffing my chest out and talking in an artificially low voice. I didn’t think it was possible, but I seemed to have a writing style that sounded as ridiculous as my early experiments with facial hair looked. Amongst other things, I come across as a complete prick, arrogant and insensitive to the point that it seems like some kind of absurd parody of a teenage boy. Looking back, I like to think that that tone is the result of some sort of misguided bravado, as I don’t think I was ever that much of a wanker; I did have some friends, after all. Then again, looking at the emails I wrote to J* and the steaming moron fumes that rise from them, I can only assume that I really was as much of a jerk as I seemed.

It makes me worry now about this, about all the writing that gets collected. I write this blog, I use google talk (which keeps everything archived) all the time, and I write emails to people all the time. I think that the end result of this is that people like me are never going to be able to escape the stupidity of their past selves. Even this post, for example, will probably make me cringe in a few years time – if you look back through the archives to the old posts on here you’ll find plenty that make me cringe now (I don’t know why I’ve not bothered to delete them, I suppose it would feel like cheating, editing myself somehow).

In the past I expect that this was an affliction only suffered by writers who had to look back at their juvenilia in their collected editions, which had to flick past all those clumsy and imitative works that they’d long since surpassed and forgotten. Most people were lucky enough to never be confronted with artefacts of how they used to think, and could just pretend that they'd always thought in the way they did in the present.

That is, of course, assuming that I have changed. Perhaps I’ve not, and in a few years the changes that seem mountainous to me will seem insignificant and barely noticeable. I mean, I’ve just written this whole thing, in exactly the form you see it before you, in about five minutes. I’m pretty sure that come the morning it will look just as excitable and childish as the stuff that lurks, like a cupboard full of slanderous skeletons, in the depths of my hotmail account.

I should tighten up the security on that thing. Just in case.

-Ben

*not her real name, in case you hadn't guessed - her name had more syllables and vowels and suchlike.