Thursday, 1 October 2015

Cuttings: September 2015

Anita Sarkeesian interview: 'The word "troll" feels too childish. This is abuse' - article by Jessica Valenti in The Guardian. "Sarkeesian began making videos that took on pop culture, from television shows to the Twilight series. In 2012, she decided to dedicate a series of videos to the topic of computer games. She launched a Kickstarter project to fund her Tropes vs Women In Video Games web series, with a modest goal of $6,000. The target was met in 24 hours, and within two weeks she had raised nearly four times that much. That’s when the harassment started: people vandalised her Wikipedia page with gender-based slurs, and her YouTube videos were hit with a barrage of abuse....
For the uninitiated, GamerGate is a Twitter hashtag, which became an online movement that purported to be about journalistic ethics, but which actually focuses on attacking and harassing women such as Sarkeesian.... The truth, Sarkeesian says, is that GamerGate existed for years before it had a name: the same core players, the same harassment, the same abuse. The hashtag just put a name on this 'loosely organised mob' that attacked women in gaming, she tells me."

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett: the much-loved author’s last Discworld novel - review by A.S. Byatt in The Guardian. "Terry Pratchett’s final novel has an unexpected dedication to one of his own characters: 'For Esmerelda Weatherwax – mind how you go.' Granny Weatherwax, who became more and more complex in the long series of Discworld novels in which she appears, was one of Pratchett’s most-loved creations. She is sharp and harsh as well as strong and wise, fearsome as well as resourceful. The beginning of The Shepherd’s Crown is an account of her death, which, being a witch, she is able to foresee accurately and to prepare for. Death, when he comes to fetch her, speaks his admiration. Her fellow witches bury her in a wicker cradle in a forest clearing, and the wizard Ridcully arrives weeping on a broomstick. Everything is changed. And the world of witches rearranges itself, with Tiffany Aching at its centre. I’ve been thinking of that phrase 'Mind how you go', and the difference between Terry Pratchett’s death and the end of Granny Weatherwax. She will indeed go on. But we have lost him. Like her, he made the world a better and livelier and more complicated place. We shall miss him. Very much."

Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? by Mick Hume – review by Galen Strawsen in The Guardian. "In Hume’s typology: a 'but-head' [is] someone who says, 'I believe in freedom of speech, but … ' Anyone who says 'but' must deny that the right to free speech is 'indivisible'. Hume thinks that’s a fatal mistake: if you allow any exceptions, the dividing line between permitted and forbidden is no longer perfectly sharp, and you’re on a slippery slope, risking more and more restrictions. I disagree: the line is no longer sharp, but it’s not true that we’re on a slippery slope. The first amendment of the US constitution states categorically that 'Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press' (Hume calls it “the global gold standard” of free speech). The court’s defence of the first amendment over the years shows how the line can be held even after exceptions are allowed, for it does place limits on free speech – for example, on 'fighting words', deliberately intended and likely to incite 'imminent lawless action'; on explicit threats against specific targets; and on false shouts of 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre. Hume admits these exceptions to unrestricted free speech, and then makes a rationalisation that he condemns elsewhere: he says they’re 'not cases of free speech', 'not about free speech at all'. Yet each states quite plainly and correctly that you can’t say what you like, where you like, when you like: they place a limit on speech."

How JB Priestley’s Inspector first called on the USSR - article by Valerie Grove in The Guardian. "An Inspector Calls, set in 1912 in the household of a prosperous northern manufacturer, Arthur Birling, had been germinating in Priestley’s mind since before the war. A mysterious stranger arrives during a family dinner and insists on interrogating each of the diners about the suicide of a young girl. Guilty secrets are revealed, and a heavy moral message is conveyed about communal responsibility. Priestley finished the play in the winter of 1944-5. It was bold of him to have his first postwar play premiered in Russia as he was already considered a dangerous leftie in some quarters. In his wartime Postscripts for the BBC, hadn’t he used the line “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” when calling for a better postwar world? The gleeful Tory rumour was that his new play had been rejected, but the truth was no suitable London theatre was available. His Russian translator approached Russian theatres, and it was snapped up."

Typewriter, you're fired! How writers learned to love the computer - article by Joe Moran in The Guardian. "Writers are fetishistic about their writerly tools. In The Writer and the Word Processor, a guide for authors by Ray Hammond published in 1984, a year before the Amstrad launched, the computer refusenik Fay Weldon was quoted as saying that 'there is some mystical connection between the brain and the actual act of writing in longhand'. Iris Murdoch agreed: 'Why not use one’s mind in the old way, instead of dazzling one’s eyes staring at a glass square which separates one from one’s thoughts and gives them a premature air of completeness?' Writers either felt that their muse flowed through the natural loops of their handwriting, or they had grown used to the tactile rituals of typewriting: that click of the ratchet as you fed in the paper, the Kalashnikov sound of the keys, the ping of the carriage-return bell and the final whoosh when you pulled out the paper, which by then was smothered with little raised areas of correction fluid so it looked, in Diana Athill’s words, 'like a London pavement partly thawed after a snowstorm'. All this gave you a sense of industry, as if you were actually making writing, as tangibly as someone weaving cloth. The Amstrad changed all this, for the simple reason that it cost £399, word-processing program and dot-matrix printer included, while an Apple Mac or IBM system cost four times as much. The Amstrad’s price lured in those writers who were beginning to realise that, on their Smith Coronas and Olivettis, they were spending as much time retyping as typing. A critical mass formed."

The key to better lecturing? Trust your students - article by Simon Lancaster in The Guardian, Higher Education Network. His tips: "You are not obliged to teach the same way you were taught.... Use contact time to engage with students.... Prioritise concepts above facts.... Embrace [already existing] online resources - they’ll save you time.... Trust your students - they are your collaborators in learning.... There is reward and recognition out there for teaching"

How eBay built a new world on little more than trust - article by John Naughton in The Observer, referenced in his Memex 1.1 blog. "eBay played a significant role in persuading millions of people who were ignorant of, or indifferent to, cyberspace that there might actually be something in this internet thing. I saw that happen in my own family. My elderly mother-in-law was a technophobe from central casting. She thought that mobile phones were weird and could not understand why I kept going on about 'this internet thing'. In desperation one day, I thought of showing her eBay. I logged in, and knowing that she was passionately interested in pottery and porcelain, clicked on some auctions in that area of the site. In an instant she was transfixed: she might not have been interested in technology, but boy, was she interested in porcelain. Suddenly, for her, the internet made sense. It was transformed in her mind from an obsession of her geeky son-in-law into something that would be useful to normal human beings. And in that respect, she was simply treading the same path as hundreds of millions of other people."

Promised You a Miracle: UK 80-82 by Andy Beckett: how today’s Britain was born in the early 80s - review by Ian Jack in The Guardian. "According to John Hoskyns, the head of her policy unit, [Margaret Thatcher] could be found in the summer of 1981 sitting on a seat at the end of her garden thinking: 'It’s all gone wrong. I don’t think it will ever come right. I’m the most unpopular prime minister ever. I will go down as a total disaster.' A year later, even as the [Falklands] taskforce was still heaving and wallowing its way homeward, the Tories were suddenly leading Labour by 20% in the polls and Thatcher was chastising 'the waverers and the faint hearts … who thought we could no longer do the great things which we once did', and announcing that Britain had 'found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back'. In the election the following year, the Tories won their biggest victory since Harold Macmillan’s in 1959. A Commons majority of 144 meant that that they were likely to last at least two more terms in government, the years in which Thatcherism came into its own."

Omission: Choosing What to Leave Out - article by John McPhee in The New Yorker. Referenced in John Naughton's Memex 1.1 blog. Quoting Ernest Hemmingway's non-fiction Death in the Afternoon, 1932: “'If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water'.... [As a writer at Time magazine] you came in on Day 5 and were greeted by galleys from Makeup with notes on them that said 'Green 5' or 'Green 8' or 'Green 15' or some such, telling you to condense the text by that number of lines or the piece would not fit in the magazine. You were supposed to use a green pencil... Groan as much as you liked, you had to green nearly all your pieces, and greening was a craft in itself—studying your completed and approved product, your 'finished' piece, to see what could be left out.... Greening has stayed with me, though, because for four decades I have inflicted it on my college writing students, handing them nine or ten swatches of photocopied prose, each marked 'Green 3' or 'Green 4' or whatever."

A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman - blog post by Ursula K. Le Guin, 3 August 2015. "Reviews that describe the Attticus of Watchman as having become a racist, or being revealed as a racist, by clinging to the idealized Atticus of Mockingbird may miss the point of Watchman. Atticus hasn’t changed. We saw him through his young daughter’s eyes as faultless. Now, seen by his grown daughter, we can see him as imperfect: a good man who, being fully committed to living, working, and having friends in an unjust society, makes the compromises and performs the hypocrisies required of its members.... So, the daughter returning home on a visit finds her father, her model of clear thinking and courageous honesty, is siding with the bigots; her boyfriend, her model of brotherly kindness, is siding with the bigots. What’s she to do? The answer from outside is quick and easy: of course she rebels. She rises in wrath, denounces, disowns, and departs.... It’s what I would have imagined her doing, and believed it absolutely necessary for her to do, before I married into a white Southern family and lived with them some years...."

Backdoors won’t work. Just ask the TSA. (Or the NSC.) - blog post by John Naugton in his Memex 1.1 blog. "[An article by Julian Huppert about why there shouldn't be backdoors in encryption software illustrates] how useful it is to have a mundane, everyday illustration of an important idea. ... I wasted [many years] trying to persuade lay audiences about the importance of open source software. My argument was that software that affects our lives should never be impenetrable or unalterable ‘black boxes’ — the 'freedom to tinker' was vital. This argument got precisely nowhere. And then, one day, I suddenly understood why: my audiences had never written a line of software. It was an entirely alien concept to them. So the next time I gave the talk I brought a copy of my favourite recipe book with me. Before starting, I asked who in the audience cooked or baked? Every hand went up. So then I turned to a particular recipe that had 300ml of double cream as one ingredient. 'Now', I said, 'double cream if not good for a guy like me, so I’d like to replace it with creme fraiche. But imagine that we lived in a world where, if I wanted to do that, I would have to write to the authoress to seek her permission, and perhaps to pay a fee. What would you think of that?' And of course they all said that it would be nuts. 'Well then', was the payoff line, 'now you understand why open source software is important.' "

Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation by David Crystal: hissy fits about apostrophes - review by Sam Leith in The Guardian. "As Crystal writes, scribes started to punctuate in order to make manuscripts easier to read aloud: they were signalling pauses and intonational effects. Grammarians and, later, printers adopted the marks, and tried to systematise them, as aids to semantic understanding on the page. The marks continue to serve both purposes.'This,' Crystal writes, 'is where we see the origins of virtually all the arguments over punctuation that have continued down the centuries and which are still with us today.' His central argument, buttressed by countless well-chosen examples and enlivened by the odd whimsical digression, is that neither a phonetic, nor a semantic, nor a grammatical account of our punctuation system is singly sufficient. Those hoping to make punctuation logically consistent are chasing a will o’ the wisp – and ignoring the aesthetics and the pragmatics of practice. But nor is it a complete free-for-all. There are discoverable rules, or at least workable generalisations, about how punctuation functions. However, they are discoverable by the study of usage rather than from old school textbooks."

Why the suffragettes still matter: 'they dared to act as the equals of men' - articles by Sarah Crompton and others in The Guardian. "As a new film Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan as a passionate campaigner for votes for women, arrives in cinemas half a century later, it is strange suddenly to realise that [the] song for Mrs Banks [in the film Mary Poppins], dreamed up on a whim, stands as one of the most famous cultural representations of the women who, in the early years of the 20th century, fought fiercely and resolutely for the vote, breaking laws that they believed were unjust and engaging in a campaign of active resistance. What’s more, the sparky wit of 'Sister Suffragette' has helped the musical, full of strong, self-motivated women, to be discussed – with some seriousness – as a feminist tract, a representation of different kinds of womanhood within the candyfloss surroundings of Cherry Tree Lane. Yet in 1964, when women were talking about liberation, and the counterculture was in full swing, it can also be seen as a slap in the face for their ideals – a throwback to the negative image of a suffragette as someone who is prepared to sacrifice everything, even her children, for her beliefs."

Way to go: the woman who invented Britain’s road signs - article by Homa Khalelli in The Guardian. "More than half a century ago, [Margaret] Calvert, along with her colleague Jock Kinneir, took on what he called 'possibly the biggest graphic design job ever' – creating a new signage system for Britain’s roads.... The pair were asked to design signs for the first motorway in the UK. Sleek, modern and made to signal 'a common language' with Europe, they were colour-coded, easy to read at speed (the 70mph limit was not yet in place), distinctive and uncluttered. Then, when the government became worried about the state of the nation’s roads – whose signs were a jumble of words, fonts and styles – the duo were asked to do the same for all national roads. Today, their triangles warning of children crossing or slippery surfaces, and circles prohibiting right turns, have become such an integral part of the national landscape it is hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. Although they may not have the glamour of other iconic British designs, it’s easy to see what designers find so impressive in the pleasing simplicity of their arrows, and the surprising loveliness of their running deer."

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