Saturday, August 27th, 2016 04:52 pm
I've been playing Crawl recently, which is a roguelike - like NetHack but worse.
And I won... )
Saturday, August 27th, 2016 11:00 am
Saturday, August 27th, 2016 10:00 am
The Cartoon Guide to Economics, Grady Klein and Yoram Bauman (recommended by [Bad username or site: ”philmophlegm” @ ””])
I really enjoyed this. At first I thought it was a bit too simplistic and that I wasn’t going to learn anything from it, but although most of the microeconomics volume was revision of stuff that I’d done before, it was good for getting back up to speed quickly, and I actually learned quite a lot of new stuff from the macroeconomics volume.

L’Etranger, Albert Camus,/b> (recommended by [Bad username or site: ”vyvyan” @ ””])
I was trying to do all of my fiction reading in French for a while, so this was an obvious choice. I’d read it in translation many years ago, but could only remember the basic outline of the plot. I enjoyed the first half, but found the second half quite challenging and slow, right up until the end, when it hits really hard and everything slots into place.

Watchmen, Alan Moore
I recently treated myself to a Chromebook, mostly so I’d have something to read comics on without filling our flat with any more dead trees. This was a good way to start, but I’d like to come back to it sometime after I’ve read more actual superhero comics, so I have a better sense of what it's a critique of.

Transmetropolitan Volumes 1-3, Warren Ellis (recommended by [Bad username or unknown identity: ”hjdoom”])
Gosh, Spider Jerusalem is compelling, isn't he. My first impression of the series is horrified fascination at how prescient it seems. I'm enjoying it a great deal.

Common Sense, Thomas Payne
I read this entirely because it’s referenced in a song in Hamilton. I didn’t really feel as though I got a lot out of it, but I guess at its time the ideas were more challenging. I might try The Rights of Man at some point and see if I get more from that.

Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow
This is the book that inspired the musical that I’ve been obsessing over for the last couple of months. It did the thing that good biographies often do of reading like a novel much of the time, and despite being a bit of a brick I ripped through it fairly quickly, and now feel a lot more informed about the American Revolution than I was before. I think I’d quite like to read a Jefferson biography by someone sympathetic though, as I’m not sure how skewed my perspective of him is now.

Now reading: On Liberty, John Stuart Mill; the rest of Transmet; Economics by Begg and Vernesca
Friday, August 26th, 2016 08:25 pm
When Lucy woke, the room was already light.

[This post is part of my Watership Down read through. You are welcome to join in at any time; please read my introduction post first.]

Friday, August 26th, 2016 02:30 pm
In a rare, almost scientific move, I am following up on last week's poll. Here is my new phone case, simultaneously expressing my love of Japanese woodblock printing and Pokémon Go.

Pokemon Go meets Katsushika Hokusai

The Great British Bake Off has begun again. The first episode of the new season aired on Wednesday night. I livetweeted with the other fanpersons on my list. We all fell in love with Selasi Gbormittah. So...who is/are your favourite(s)? (A reminder of the contestants, with photos: Radio Times listing)

Poll #17641 Bake Off 2016
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 15

My favourite(s) on Bake Off this year are:

View Answers

3 (20.0%)

2 (13.3%)

0 (0.0%)

15 (100.0%)

0 (0.0%)

10 (66.7%)

8 (53.3%)

3 (20.0%)

0 (0.0%)

2 (13.3%)

0 (0.0%)

3 (20.0%)

Friday, August 26th, 2016 11:00 am
Friday, August 26th, 2016 03:26 am
So I watched the rest of season one. And aside from that one episode (which I posted about yesterday) I didn't have a major problem with it. In fact, I'll go further than that. I liked it. I REALLY liked it. BUT spoilers under the cut )

I dunno. Maybe I'm worrying too much. Maybe this is just what the press is being fed, or what they're paying attention to, rather than what's actually going to be the focus of the series. But I have some disquiet.

Thursday, August 25th, 2016 09:43 pm
I literally cannot remember the last time that happened, probably a Dr Who special from before I got fed up with Dr Who.  Years, anyway.

The occasion was the Great British Bake Off, which I have got sucked into because of a work sweepstake. There are 24 of us in it, 2 of us drawn for each GBBO contestant yesterday morning.  Each week after a contestant goes out, the two unlucky colleagues have to cook something on the week's theme and bring it in for everyone else to taste and fill out a scoresheet for a mini-contest.   (All the invention of one of my colleagues who likes to organise this kind of thing.)

Literally everyone signed up has made disclaimers about how they are not very good cooks and not to expect much, although in my case this is completely true.  Charles has volunteered to help me, and he is already a better cook than I am, so I won't turn it down!

Anyway, having signed up, I felt I should at least try an episode to see what the fuss is about ... and I can completely see why it's such a popular show.   Tony got sucked in too, and I might actually try to make a habit of this.  I have Val, so I was getting a bit worried last night, but thankfully I've been spared my cooking ordeal for another week.  (On the other hand, it might be nice to get it out of the way early, before expectations have been set too high.)

GBBO was followed by The Chronicles of Nadiya.  I had picked up on the wonderfulness of Nadiya Hussein, last year's GBBO winner, through fannish osmosis, and I really enjoyed this show following her from her home in Luton to the village her parents came from in Bangladesh, with a great deal of food and family interactions.  I completely see why everyone was enthusing about how lovely Nadiya is.  I think the Explaining My Culture To The Presumed-Ignorant Viewer was done with a great deal of grace and straightforwardness.  This week of all weeks I really appreciated the segment where two young articulate women (Nadiya and her cousin) talked about the importance to them of wearing hijab.

There is a second part next week after the GBBO.  I'm looking forward to it very much, if I can pull off being free to watch them both in time again.

Thursday, August 25th, 2016 08:59 pm
When Hazel stamped, Dandelion leapt instinctively from the grass verge.

[This post is part of my Watership Down read through. You are welcome to join in at any time; please read my introduction post first.]
Thursday, August 25th, 2016 01:43 pm
There is a set of questions which can be called "The stupid questions asked by a journalist, which shows that they haven't done the most cursory research on the topic they are writing about". This will be an occasional set of posts highlighting these questions, and the answers to them, in an attempt to solve this problem.

Post number one: things the Meat Loaf won't do

Because the title of one of Meat Loaf's biggest hits is "I would do anything for love, but I won't do that", many, many, MANY idiot journalists have asked him what the "that" is, thus showing that they have never actually listened to the song, in which all the things which "that" refers to are detailed. Here is a list of all the thats that Meat Loaf won't do (some of them are a bit rude):

- forget the way you feel right now
- forgive myself if we don't go all the way tonight
- do it better than I do it with you
- stop dreaming of you ev'ry night of my life
- forget everything
- see that it's time to move on
- screw around

You're welcome. Next in this series: why did it take so long for daleks to fly?
Thursday, August 25th, 2016 11:00 am
Thursday, August 25th, 2016 01:49 am
I just watched ep10 of Supergirl - Childish Things - & there be spoilers under the cut )

I am beyond pissed off about this. I was REALLY enjoying that show. Fuck's sake. Like why do shows that I enjoy keep DOING this?

Anyway, that's my toys out of the pram. Yay.
Wednesday, August 24th, 2016 10:41 pm
Groundsel scrambled up the steep slope of the shaft and rejoined Woundwort in the pit at the top.

[This post is part of my Watership Down read through. You are welcome to join in at any time; please read my introduction post first.]
Wednesday, August 24th, 2016 05:23 pm
Moments when you think a film may not be going well.

A character asks “Do you know who I am?” and I think “No, I don't. Am I supposed to?”

10 minutes after I thought the film was drawing to a close, a character asks “How much longer is this going on for?”

Suicide Squad is an odd film. Something that feels like it might have been an anarchic mid-size space filler between epics has been retooled into a summer tent-pole movie. The idea is straightforward. Criminals with particular talents are co-opted by the government to act as an off-the-books black ops team. If they refuse, small bombs which have been implanted in their necks will explode and kill them. Any similarity to Escape from New York is probably not co-incidental.

The structure at first seems to be tolerably straightforward too. As security bigwig Amanda Waller introduces each of her prospective team members, we get a flashback showing them in action. Or a few of them anyway. The rest get left to one side, their flashbacks coming later, or – in one case – not at all. This latter is Slipknot – a man introduced with the single line “He can climb anything”. Going by his example, unusual abilities do not necessarily go hand in hand with intelligence. After 90 seconds screen time, one of his less intelligent colleagues convinces him that the bombs are faked and his escape attempt is ended somewhat squelchily.

It'd be tempting to think that the increasingly random placement of flashbacks is a deliberate collapse of narrative structureas the chaos of the characters overtakes the film. However, rumour has it that the film was heavily re-edited after the hostile reception given Batman v Superman, as the studio wanted something more fun. One of the main victims of this is apparently Jared Leto's Joker. Myself, I'd say this is all for the better. The Joker can portrayed in many ways – Cesar Romero's camp clown, Heath Ledger's anarchist terrorist, Jack Nicholson in white face paint. One thing he really can't be is boring. Leto's Joker is visibly desperate to impress. He has “damaged” tattooed on his forehead and lies artily posed in the middle of concentric circles of knives. He comes across as a Marilyn Manson fan boy who has spent far too much time watching The Dark Knight and Breaking Bad, all metal capped teeth and gangsta tattoos. Reports from filming say that he remained in character permanently, leading to him sending severed animal heads to other castmates and pissing on Will Smith's breakfast. One might wish that Smith had similarly stayed in character – one suspects that Deadshot's reaction to having his morning oatmeal violated would have been quite final.

Smith is one of the film's strengths. It's not one of his better performances, but the level of charisma he brings still draws the gaze whenever he's on screen. The standout performance comes from Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. She and Smith remain detached from the film – he commenting on it's stupidity, she varying from childlike reactions of joy to explosions to off handedly diagnosing Smith as textbook sociopath after he denies feeling any emotions. She also manages to give the character a sense of depth – she gets a moment to mourn the Joker's apparent death, before putting her game face back on when the remainder of the squad catch up with her. In all, a character it may be interesting to see develop.

Part of the effect of the last minute reworking of the film seems to have been to make the Joker/Harley relationship less abusive. Given that as it stands, the relationship includes Harley being offered to another gangster as a bribe and also being tortured with the words “I'm going to hurt you real bad”, how successful this was must be open to doubt. The film has a familiar problem in that women are often seen to be a reward for good behaviour or something to be denied someone as a punishment. Besides the Joker who spends much of the film chasing the Squad to reclaim Harley, Rick Flag, leader of the Squad, is looking to get back his girlfriend, June.She's been possessed by an ancient witch, known as the Enchantress. At the film's close, he kills Enchantress, which he knows will kill June, and for his heroism is rewarded by having June come back to life. Team member El Diablo, who can control fire, is in mourning and lives with the fact that he burned his wife and children to death in a moment of frenzied rage. He is given a form of tragic heroism as he learns to trust himself and his control over his ability once again. Take away the fantasy elements of this though and we get a man who killed his family , plain and simple. Would Deadshot be given the same level of sympathy had he used his own special ability and shot his family? Given that he describes his ex-wife as a whore and advises Flag to control June/Enchantress by “beating her ass”, I wouldn't bet against it. Add casual displays of misogyny such as Slipknot being introduced by punching a woman in the face and explaining that “She had a mouth on her” and the film does not leave a good taste.

Simply by looking at the cast, the film seems to achieve a better level of diversity than many. Deadshot and Amanda Waller are black. There is also a Japanese woman, a Latino man and other women in Harley and June/Enchantress. Sadly, the film has a tendency to go for the stereotype. The Latino character is a gang member with rage control issues. The Japanese woman is a ninja called Katana. One of the squad is an Australian called Captain Boomerang who swills lager. No stereotype left unturned.

And yet, the film is still not as bad as Batman v Superman. This is a low wall to hurdle. Should a director's cut of Suicide Squad emerge, it may yet be an interesting film. A director's cut of BvS was never going to be anything other than longer.
Wednesday, August 24th, 2016 11:00 am
Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016 09:03 pm
At that moment General Woundwort, out on the open grass below the bank, was facing Thistle and Ragwort in the chequered, yellow moonlight of the small hours.

[This post is part of my Watership Down read through. You are welcome to join in at any time; please read my introduction post first.]
Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016 01:08 pm
Welcome back. I was off ill yesterday so I present this week's update a bit late, sorry.

Rui shatkora and rice at Ponchokhana, Whitechapel, London E1

The featured article is Ponchokhana, E1 1DB. Not in fact some kind of Mexican-equestrian hybrid, this is instead a Bangladeshi cafe, which has good rice and flavourful fish in the fish curry, though we daresay their other food is also worth trying. Good prices too.

Three new articles! Andu Cafe in Dalston does Ethiopian vegan food, with a really sour injera. Brazil Express is a Brazilian cafe in Stratford, which also offers some grocery items for pao de queijo fans, lovers of preserved hearts of palm, and other exotic things. Finally, there's Eddie's Cafe in Addiscombe, a greasy spoon which does greasy fried things as you'd expect.

There's an update to The Fox, friendly craft beer hub in Dalston.

One reported (but thankfully temporary) closure is The Ladywell Tavern, a tavern in Ladywell. It's being refurbished, we hear.
Monday, August 22nd, 2016 09:57 pm

Posted by Alix

I have a belief about beliefs

Posit: certain beliefs cluster. Through an unknown combination of crowd effect (you like the stuff your friends like) and perhaps some weird, alchemical property of the things themselves to locate near each other in the human mind, the kind of people who believe this thing are also more likely to believe that often-associated thing. This is true of societally acceptable belief clusters (e.g. Lib Dem membership, taste for real ale, Dr Who fandom) and it is also true of what I shall call aberrant beliefs. Crazy shit, basically. Anything that marks one out as a proper tinfoil hat-wearing weirdo who is standing foursquare against societal norms (as opposed to merely a shambling sandal-wearer with over-developed ideas about land taxation). And this works, I suggest, in a scalar way. Such that it is not true that everybody who believes the CIA assassinated Kennedy and NASA faked the moon landings also thinks that aliens are controlling their thoughts through the radio and lizards rule the world. But it probably is true, I suggest, that the people who seriously think aliens are controlling their thoughts and lizards rule the world have already passed, quite some time ago, through the tamer pastures of Kennedy/NASA-related conspiracy theory.

What are the characteristics of Crazy Shit?

We could say this particular variety of belief cluster has several characteristics.

1. Its component beliefs tend to be large in design – they all comment on some matter of great scale and importance.

2. They have some core feature that the societal consensus would consider bonkersly unlikely (I am adopting this as a technical term).

3. They presume superhuman skill and usually deceit on the part of some other, often unknown and shadowy party.

4. And the person who holds the belief is a member of a tiny minority, either representing themselves blessed/lucky or perhaps exceptionally unlucky, who have seen the truth, and to a greater or lesser extent there is always some implication of persecution or at least differentiation from the rest of society.

Some of the people in the modern era who are a long way into aberrant belief clusters presumably get diagnosed with illnesses like schizophrenia, but I guess not all of them do. I’ve picked a particularly schizophrenic example there with aliens controlling their thoughts but not all of them are like that. So let’s just say the inclination towards these particular aberrant beliefs is the result of some kind of psychological state or set of conditions (not necessarily a “bad” one, if we are using that label, but certainly an unusual one). Certain people, not very many of them, are nudged towards aberrant belief clusters in a way that causes them to become the subject of comment and disparagement from wider society.

So this is my question: assuming this psychological state is a human constant in anatomically modern humans, how might it have manifested itself in the medieval period? Or even better, in the Neolithic? I asked The People of Twitter this, because they know everything. The trouble is I think I did it wrong.

My tweet said:

Answers from various people: fairies, miracle cures/King’s touch, séances/ectoplasm, building Stonehenge, paganism, druidism, any polytheism that was taken as more than allegory. @Heresy_Corner, @LeithMotive, @cmccrudden, @PhillipRotty, @daveweeden.

(Edit: late entry from @CJR23 which I REALLY need to look at. But this post is too long already.)

In other words, having planted the idea of “religion” in people’s heads as a core association with “irrational beliefs”, lots of them came up with religious/mythological/mystical stuff as evidence of crazy shit from previous eras. And actually I think these answers usefully cover the kind of stuff that usually comes up in these debates (I am not the first to ask this question, obviously). But surely the point is, these things were not perceived as crazy shit at the time. Even my own example of religious visions is inadequate because they were an accepted component of conventional religion (although I am on to something with it because visions were closely policed by the Church, and the wrong sort of visions could land you in trouble at least analogous to the sort you can land in now for aggressively harassing the FBI over suppression of files about UFO sightings – essentially, life-changing trouble).

Thus, the number of genuine aberrant subcultures in this list seems extremely small. I like séances/ectoplasm as the nearest example, mainly because it truly fulfils the “bonkersly unlikely” criterion, but in other respects (being very fashionable amongst the cool kids, namely) it falls a long way short. It’s more analogous to rock music in the 1950s than lizard theory in the 2010s. Here is my tabulated summary, green to show the belief meets the criteria, pink to show it doesn’t. Blue (oh bite me, I never did have a design eye) shows a mix.

Crazy Shit table

What this tells you is that all these things are actually the commonplace quirks of a society. At best they are the equivalent of hipster trends, and actually most are quite close to societal norms of the time. They only look weird now. The very fact that we are chatting easily about them on Twitter, with the range of expertises we presumably have, suggests to me that we aren’t really identifying the psychologically aberrant behaviour in medieval society, or maybe only bits of it by accident. The stuff that was only ever commented on as evidence of just out-there crazy. And I include myself in this, because while I am technically a medievalist it is in the sense that I know a metric fuckton about high politics and constitutional crises and almost nothing about the wider culture and worldview. I am the medievalist equivalent of the modern Westminster Villager, precluding of course any incidental implication that I might have dung on my head.

So what would qualify as historically situated Crazy Shit?

But then Andrew Hickey arrived and as usual things IMMEDIATELY made more sense:

For medieval I’d suggest things like Perkin Warbeck. Earlier stuff like Gnosticism, Arianism.

Now, I might come back to Gnosticism and Arianism another time because I think they are quite complex examples, as are Cathars, Lollards, and other heretics.

But Perkin Warbeck! He is a window onto an abiding historical mystery, what happened to the Princes in the Tower, which makes it into William D. Rubinstein’s excellent Shadow Pasts, in which an academic historian explores his fascination with the passionate and well-informed communities of amateurs who grow up around certain historical oddities – junior-grade crazy shit fanciers in fact (the book also features the provenance of the Pyramids, the true identity of Shakespeare, and critically, JFK’s assassination). Furthermore, Warbeck was not even the origin of this particular brand of crazy shit, and he is not the end of it. A previous Yorkist pretender, Lambert Simnel, had been defeated by Henry VII and set to work in the royal kitchens, only a few years earlier. Less than 10 years ago someone claimed to have another candidate for a surviving Richard (Mail link). This is a crazy shit storyline that still resonates with us.

  1. Large in design?

Warbeck meets the first criteria. Who was the rightful King of England might be a matter of parlour game interest to modern minds, but it sure as hell wasn’t in the 1490s. It’s easy enough to forget, from the other end of the telescope in which we know what happened down to 1603, how recently a forty-year period of civil and constitutional warfare had ended. If it was true that Perkin Warbeck was Richard of Shrewsbury, it changed everything, and in a way deeply troubling to the medieval intellectual and political mind.

  1. Bonkersly unlikely?

Yes, due to the sheer scale of the stakes. Someone who was supposed to have died as a child turns up seven years later, not dead. You either believe it or you don’t. It has the zero sum characteristic associated with all high quality Crazy Shit. Once you make the leap to believing lizards rule the world, you can’t go back, you have started your mind on a set of problems that it solves by detecting ever more patterns, associations and explanatory narratives, and the human mind doesn’t do this stuff well in reverse (I have tried believing an allegory of the lizard thing, as an experiment; I went back, but it is hard).

  1. Superhuman powers?

Yes, not in the fairies sense, but in the same sense that JFK conspiracists attribute superhuman powers of judgement and action to the CIA. Somebody had to get “Richard of Shrewsbury” out of the fucking Tower of London (I mean have you seen that thing? Beats me how people ignore it as a harmless tourist destination, as a symbol of arbitrary establishment power it still scares seven shits out of me) under the close watch of loyal servants of the King, and then a succession of other people had to get him away and keep him in secret for seven years, believe his account of himself, make all the contacts and secure all the support he needed to declare himself in 1490. If you buy it, that is. But presumably the whole reason some people bought it is the corresponding unlikeliness of the counter-factual. If he wasn’t Richard of Shrewsbury (and we are tolerably sure he wasn’t) some people including him went to all that trouble to make him seem so. It really isn’t the easiest route to wealth and power, being the “legitimate” opponent of a usurper in fifteenth century England, as plenty of previous heads-on-spikes could attest. It is intensely high stakes and your prize if you win is one of the most difficult and (at the time, because you are yourself a usurper) insecure jobs in Europe. The motivations we moderns think of, as we picture jewels, crowns, horses and courtly dancing and a long drunken slide towards monarchical security, are really not in point. There were better ways to be upwardly social mobile, even in early modern Europe. It was the sheer audacity of Warbeck’s bid, the sheer unlikeliness of it all, that qualifies this again as crazy shit.

  1. Truth-seeing minority?

Yes, no question. And for the very good reason that you faced the prospect of being Horribly Killed if you were a part of that minority. I have read it suggested somewhere that the only person who demonstrably really Believed in Warbeck was Margaret of Burgundy, his supposed aunt, Richard III’s sister (with the implication that this was wishful thinking on her part). Yet Henry did not, we note, come down hard on Warbeck straight away – or did he? After defeat, Warbeck was actually allowed to take up residence at court, but was forbidden – of all things – to sleep with his wife. There could be no more contemptuous dismissal of his importance. If – if – that man by some chance really was Richard of Shrewsbury… Good god. Beheadings were a mark of nobility, and by the end of the fifteenth century had I suggest become culturally associated with a great enterprise failed, inferior to actually falling in battle perhaps, but not by much. There could be no greater and more insulting punishment for a man born to that inheritance to be tolerated below the salt at royal banquets and barred from legitimate procreation. Eventually Warbeck tried trouble again and was executed for it; but if there is any evidence that he was the younger Prince in the Tower, its strongest underline must come from that possible streak of political sadism on Henry’s part.

Cataloguing the crazy shit

So that concludes the case for the defence. I have not, at this point, proceeded with my central question, which I have left titling this post – what was a history of crazy shit down the ages look like? But I think I have got some way, with other people’s help, in thinking through what it doesn’t look like. We are very inclined to think of religion as a source when we try to come up with Crazy Shit from before 1900, but of course that is a function of our post-religious perspective. Some of it may qualify, lots of it doesn’t.

Any ideas? Once we have started a card index of authentic historical Crazy Shit examples, matching against the four criteria above, I would also like to proceed to the prehistoric, which is much harder and more intriguing because nobody is expressing their Crazy Shit beliefs in words anywhere, and nobody is reacting to them in words. People are getting increasingly interested in archaeologies of the deviant, of aberrant behaviour generally. (I myself am interested in the archaeology of failure. There must be some massive white elephant construction projects in the record somewhere, things that did not do what they were designed to do. Which ones are they?) An archaeology of what a Crazy Shit psychological state looks like in Neolithic material culture would really be something.

Monday, August 22nd, 2016 12:30 pm
Poll #17637 Ring ring ring
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 38

Your colleague's mobile phone keeps ringing when they are away from their desk, from the depths of their bag.

View Answers

You dig the phone out, leave it on the desk, and pointedly turn it off.
5 (13.2%)

You grit your teeth and wish the forcefield preventing you rummaging in someone else's personal bag also blocked sound.
20 (52.6%)

Something else (see comments).
13 (34.2%)