what we don’t know

Day three of Red Alert. The Guardian liveblog is updating every 10-15 minutes with news from around the world. SAS has cancelled flights from 16 March. Germany is closing borders. The Dutch are closing “coffee shops.” We still don’t know:

1  What are the UK government’s plans? Their standard operating procedure of leaks and trial balloons is just fueling rumors: lockdowns, cancellation of gatherings over 1000 / 500 / 150 / all, rationing.

2  What do supply chains look like? Where have people overhoarded and where should things be rationed? Where are we coming to the end of stocks and need to implement crowdsharing? Which goods on the shelves are entirely locally made, which come from further away, which depend on China?

(My local Boots is holding back thermometers to keep them for situations of real need. Waitrose posted a sign on the empty toilet paper shelf asking people to take only what they need and assuring them there would be enough. Pasta and paracetamol displays are mostly denuded.)

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social isolation experiments

Last night I watched a Shabbat service from a congregation back home. It was calming and I am grateful for the provision. It was the best policy for their congregation which is almost all over 60. They got twice the attendance on Facebook that I have ever seen them get in person. (On my first visit, the greeter said as I entered, “We’re up to ten!” If I’m your minyan, there are some membership and education challenges here.)

Today for the third week in a row I took part in Ipswich Parkrun / Parkwalk. This is a 5K course starting at 9 am every Saturday from Christchurch Mansion. It is relatively solitary exercise, unless you are fast enough to be part of the pack; I took some 58 minutes to do it (a personal best!) and usually had 5 m between me and the next slowest ahead, and 5 m between me and the sweepers behind.

Fast folk on their second loop passing the walkers.

I would like to keep doing this in Christchurch Park, even after the official event returns to more distant Chantry Park in April. I’m going to use an app to map the exact 5K path next week. It’s a beautiful route and once the pack moves to Chantry it will be really socially distant exercise.

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color terms

Chartreuse alert … yellow alert … orange alert … vermilion alert … and now finally red alert. RED ALERT, DAY ONE. I have taught my last live lecture at Queen Mary University of London. We are going virtual from Monday.

And by alerts, I mean three-page emails about initiative use of IT, washing hands, keeping calm, and preparing for more radical moves.

Word is that there are cardinal, carmine, crimson, and violet alerts on the way.

This may not mean I’ll stop going in at once; I need the fast dependable office broadband to deliver online lectures. Although in a pinch I can record slides with voiceover and post that with an opportunity for forum discussion. Unfortunately it also does not mean that our in-class test is cancelled. It means I have to rewrite the test to work online.

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million euro march: a review

Best symbolic clothing: Blue beret with yellow stars, which had the merits of being visible to the helicopters that were counting the crowd, jauntily continental, and in the tradition of politically inflected headgear (the Hats and the Caps).

Runner-up: Flag worn as superhero cape, which also worked as a rain poncho during the afternoon downpour. Most were EU flags but there were also Scotland, Wales, Ireland and English regional flags, including the white rose and the red rose, Nottinghamshire (Robin Hood), Cornwall, and Hastings, the last represented with Bayeux banners (Europe since 1066).

Most of the Union Jacks seemed to be twinned with EU emblems, or even adorned directly with yellow stars; there were very few Union Jack waving Leavers around, and hardly any England flags, save near Parliament, along with slogans like Fighting for Leave, Save Britain’s Fish, Independence Day, Let’s Go WTO.

Worst symbolic clothing: Blue baseball cap with yellow stars. Baseball caps are also politically inflected headgear, but not in a direction that appeals to most Remainers.

Best T-shirt design: An image of the UK/EU passport cover, which illustrates the privilege individuals stand to lose.

Runner-up: Potato image / The potato is also a migrant.

Best sound effect: Ode to Joy on bagpipes.

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world calligraphy day

My father is a self taught calligrapher. He taught me the rudiments of italics and other hands after a teacher complained about my handwriting. I continued to practice italics at an amateur level for years, repeating my shaky upright alphabet on large-square graph paper – and trying to distinguish myself from my father’s brand, which was tiny, perfect slanted italic on green-tinted computer coding forms, and later tiny copperplate on colored card. I never went much beyond my one alphabet, though I taught it to other people, notably in an ESP summer class, in which one of my friends learned to forge my writing. (I’m not naming names, but he has worked in positions of responsibility in the securities industry.)

Last month I attended my own first lettering class at a local art shop, taught by a prizewinning scribe who impressed us at once by saying she still takes instruction from an even higher guru, in the manner of Margot Fonteyn showing up for morning class with de Valois.

The hand of the day was modern calligraphy, the characteristic display style of the 2010s, the hipster anti-font font, ubiquitous in logos, signs, cards, bullet journals. Meghan Markle most likely used it when she was doing professional lettering. My former officemate C does a very nice modern hand. Modern calligraphy is everywhere, the tutor said: “It seems to meet a need people have for craftsmanship, using the right tools, application and repetition to create something beautiful.”

The other participants were accomplished at what the art people call mark making. Several had taken previous seminars with the same teacher, some were artists and art instructors, and one was a dentist. The tutor said one of the benefits of handwriting instruction for children is to develop fine motor control needed by dentists and surgeons (and veterinarians and machinists and watchmakers and acupuncturists and tailors). Indeed, there is a 2009 national handwriting strategy.

Feeling very Ronald Searle.
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It was Glark who first said ‘70s sci fi is all about hexagons. Duncan Jones’ film Moon is all about octagons. Almost every space, structure, aperture has chamfered corners that quote Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and match the Omni magazine fonts of the wall stencils.

There are three spaces in Moon: First, the lunar landscape, which is entirely inhospitable. Second, the lunar work and living space, which is sterile and unheimlich despite its isolated patriarch’s armchair, hobby table and exercise equipment. Third, home and family on Earth, which is seen only through blurry black and white video links. The protagonist is trying to move from the second nested space to the third, but it’s entirely possible he is being gaslit and will never make it. Coffins have chamfered corners too. 

Moon is a triumph of reusing existing elements, including SF tropes and the nearly sole actor. The lunar landscape was built from sand and scale models on a swimming pool sized surface, while the workspace was made of set elements and housewares in Shepperton Studios; see if you can spot the (not chamfered) IKEA cutlery trays.

Although the production is a spiderweb of satisfying intertextuality, it works for non-SF purists as well. I find both 2001 and Solaris nearly illegible, but was sucked into Moon immediately. Now I’m looking for octagons everywhere, rethinking my conviction that a good apartment looks like a high-end office, and generally chewing over this fable for our indentured times. 

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in space, no one can hear your turn-taking cues

Image result for apollo 11 communication image

It’s the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, a good time to take a tour of lunar linguistics:

Corpus of space and lunar conversation: Over four years, twelve human subjects made a total of 9 trips to the moon lasting 6 to 13 days: the talk during this time, most of which we have on tape, would be a satisfyingly bounded spoken language corpus, you might think. Talk between astronauts and between astronauts and Mission Control was however just the capstone of the heap of texts preserved from the 400,000 workers on the effort, including 100,000 hours of Mission Control tapes – 19,000 hours for Apollo 11 alone – as well as memos, reports and interviews (Sangwan et al. 2013: 1135). Space archivists have been slow to isolate the space talk since the research interest of NASA and its contractors was teamwork and crisis solving.

Both the lunar module and the command module were in constant radio communication, except where no link was possible, for example when passing in back of the moon. During those times, microphones recorded sound, to be played back to base at high speed when the link returned. So in principle, all communications during the mission were public and there was no backstage. However, the recordings were selective: for a start, the recorder in the lunar module had only 10 hours of tape and could not rewind (Sangwan et al. 2013: 1136). Magnetic tape was expensive, in terms of weight carried – and in cost as reckoned by NASA. Some of the video tapes from the Apollo missions were later overwritten with satellite weather images to save money.

The master Apollo mission recordings were made on 30-track SoundScriber tape systems, long obsolete. To avoid having to digitize each stretch of the one-inch tape 30 times, stressing the tape media, a 2-track SoundScriber to be retrofitted with a newly made 30-track head (Hansen et al. 2018: 2758), There are also problems in aligning the audio without claps or timestamps, though communications with base are bounded by intro and outro beeps known as Quindar tones, which functioned as on-off tones for the worldwide network of transmitters. Telecommunications was expensive too.

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careers advice

In a previous lecturing post, I taught Professional Writing Practice, a full-year module including a work placement as well as research and reflection papers. That meant I was a de facto careers counselor. Eventually I wrote up the advice I was giving into an employability guide for English students (pdf) and now I’ve posted it to my page at Academia.edu. One thing I always meant to do was attach a reading list of books about work. Here are just a few of those I’ve recommended over the years:

Barber, Lynne. 2009. An Education.  Never mind the affair that inspired a Carey Mulligan film – the real juice here is about how Barber learned copy editing from working at Penthouse. Captures the absurdity of first jobs.

Newport, Cal. 2016. Deep Work. Everyone needs to learn to concentrate and there is some good advice here as well as acknowledgement of different working styles. Newport is problematic for his gender assumptions – more so in his other work addressed to students – and it’s useful to learn to recognize those too.

Preis, Michael W., with Frederick, Matthew. 2010. 101 Things I Learned in Business School. Looks like a humor book, but most of what humanities, arts and science majors need to know about business is here in concise form.

Samuelsson, Marcus. 2012. Yes, Chef.  Just about any chef memoir will do, actually, as a document of daily life in a rank-ordered low margin industry. The hazing is similar to that experienced by Michael Lewis in Liar’s Poker, but the salary and perks for an entry level HASS major are more similar to those of a cook.

Wells Lawrence, Mary. 2003. A Big Life in Advertising. War stories from the Mad Men era. David Ogilvy was right about a lot of things, but who remembers his bullet-point lists?

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the international job


The Italian Job, now being re-released for its 50th anniversary, seems at first to be an ensemble drama like Ocean’s 11, with a diverse sample of loveable rogues rotating through scenes showcasing their specialisms and speech patterns. In fact, it is hierarchy made mechanism. Most of the talking scenes belong to Michael Caine, as Charlie Croker, a chameleonic working-class project manager, and some to Bridger, a toffish prison kingpin played by Noel Coward (who was called “the Master” on set by director’s orders). All the others – the chinless wonders, the Cockney mechanics, William the Black British getaway bus driver, the boffin played by Benny Hill, Franco, Butch Harry, Camp Freddie – mostly do what they’re told, leaving not much of an echo.

The film has been acclaimed as part of Britain’s swinging ‘60s image, and its soft nationalism is evident from the news clippings of the Queen that paper Bridger’s cell to the red, white and blue getaway Minis. Just a few years before British accession to the EU, continental economies are deliberately othered: in the world of the film, it’s absolutely fine to rob the Italians, and in particular to rob them of gold earmarked for building an Italian car factory (in China). It’s fine to make jokes about spaghetti and to threaten an Italian gangster with violence against Italian immigrants in Britain. When the main part of the heist is completed, the inmates of Croker’s alma mater prison shout “England!” The scenes were actually filmed in Kilmainham Prison, Dublin, where the British shot Irish freedom fighters before independence.

Yet The Italian Job is also an Italian job. It would not be what it is without Gianni Agnelli, who made Turin and his factories available for filming, fixed the authorities, and donated cars to smash up – nor without French stunt driver Rémy Julienne and his team – nor without the graceful ironwork of the Irish prison, chosen as a main location to help Coward dodge tax obligations, and the Irish extras. It is also an American job, backed by Paramount and scored entirely by Quincy Jones, including an ersatz Baroque lead-in to “Rule Britannia” as well as the anthem “Get a Bloomin’ Move On (AKA The Self Preservation Society),” which Jones wrote after a few days hanging out with Michael Caine and picking up rhyming slang.

If the nationalism is cringey 50 years on, so are the gender relations. Scenes that would have shown Maggie Blye’s Lorna as more than a disposable Bond girl were cut. Because Michael Caine couldn’t drive, Lorna still drives Croker in their outings, but this is unremarked and easily missed. Benny Hill’s Professor Peach was originally meant to be an enthusiast for trains, rather than “big women” (seen as comedy at the time). With a nerdier, less lecherous Peach and a stronger Lorna, a more inclusive and durable script could have been written. The nationalism would have been tempered in the proposed alternative endings in which the Mafia grab back the (unrealistically light) gold bars, either by airlifting the bus at the end, or by turning out to be in charge of the Swiss banks, setting up a bank heist sequel.

But any of these changes would have undercut the fantasy of men flying away to freedom in cars. When the last car has left the scene, things begin to go pear-shaped and it is clearly time to end the film. The cars are more human than some of the characters (a scene of them contradancing to Strauss was shot, and cut), and suffer the worst tortures. Even a hardcore #numtot could fall for those Matchbox-bright Minis and sleek convertibles, behind which the glories of an Italian city appear as a dun-colored backdrop. A celebration of automobility and its extension to the rest of us, an allegory of show business life as almost criminal in its license, an evergreen comedy of confidence – this picture has wheels. Brexit, you say? Hang on, lads, I’ve got a great idea.

The Italian Job, 1969, dir. Peter Collinson, at Genesis Cinema tonight and eternally on DVD (two disc version with commentary and making-of recommended). 99 minutes.  There is a remake with Mark Wahlberg which I’ve not seen.

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Toutes choses sont dites déjà; mais comme personne n’écoute, il faut toujours recommencer.
Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.

— André Gide, Le Traité du Narcisse (The Treatise of the Narcissus)
via @CulturesCast

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The vital difference between sport and theatre … is that sport is unwritten; it happens for real. No authorial brain devises it before it takes places. In the world of sport, if Konstantin shoots himself in the last minute of extra time, no one has told him to, and it gets listed under the heading of unforced error. But for all this absolute spontaneity on the field of play, the relationship between sport and ‘reality’ is obviously a bit tenuous, when you think about it. Wimbledon finals do not simply break out when two terribly well matched young people can’t suppress their competitive yearnings any longer. Sport is staged – at great expense, with great expertise, and at great profit …

– Lynne Truss, Get Her Off the Pitch

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films on planes and off

When you’re in a straitjacket seat, can’t sleep, and the battery on your book device is fading, there is really not much to do but catch up on the contemporary cinema. (Spoilers ahead.)

Widows – Sad, tragic Ocean’s Four. Slow-paced, except for the scenes where it communicates complex information in a tearing haste.

Hidden Figures – You don’t get anything approaching fairness until unfairness starts costing the patriarchy money, or international standing – that’s the lesson from this story. Also, Sheldon is not your ally. The clothes and hair seem extra glam for a bunch of nerd girls, but Taraji P. Henson gets the parallax gaze of the myopic just right, and the film gets extra credit for accurate science details.

The Favourite – Allegory of unpaid internships and the future of work. Sparkling script. Olivia Coleman earned that Oscar.

A Star Is Born – The first part is exhilarating, and then just as you’re wondering how they are going to tell the real story of partnering an addict through his ups and downs and rehabs and relapses in less than four hours, the story ends. It must have been a trip for Lady Gaga to front a staunchly rockist movie that casts trendy pop as the devil. But then she has always had a traditional acoustic light to hide under her wigs and veils.

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