Saturday, January 29, 2011

On the Importance of Perspective

How is our sexual freedom compromised by our ignorance of some information about our sexual partner? Is there a basic set of facts that should always be assumed to be important? How does each partner know what would make the the other one reject them if they knew it? Does it make any difference if there is deliberate deception, as opposed to simply not mentioning something that the partner felt to be important? There have been stories lately which hinge on the role of identity in giving consent to sex. I’m not going to offer any opinion on Julian Assange and Wikileaks* because the whole thing is a lot of 'he said she said' which may or may not be clarified to some extent in court. The case of the hippy who claims to have been sexually assaulted because her lover didn’t mention what he did for a living is much more clear cut, and thus can serve as a springboard to what I really want to talk about.

The woman clearly believes that being a policeman is such an important part of the identity of her sexual partners that he should have told her, and he should have known that she felt that way. But why would he have known that, or imagined that it mattered, more than any of the other things that he, or she, didn’t get round to mentioning? The woman feels that her ignorance of this point meant that she had sex with someone who had tricked her into believing he was someone else (I interpret fairly liberally, here), and her feelings may be genuine, but would a reasonable man be expected to know that?

Well, I’ll leave the courts to work that out. The general question is of more interest than the specific one. Some commentators are saying that being called a rapist and locked up for a few years is a fitting punishment for the deception that the policeman is felt by the woman to have practised. What, then, is a fitting punishment for someone who obtains sex by quite deliberately pretending to be a woman? On the scale that has been set in the previous case by the more excitable commentators, is being beaten to death about appropriate?

I think not. Gwen Araujo was beaten to death by a group of young men, some of whom she had had sex with, when they discovered she was in fact a man. Her death wasn't a result of an extreme reaction to the discovery, it didn't occur in the heat of the moment; it was a premeditated act of revenge, carried out over several hours of repeated beatings, at the end of which she was finished off. It was a quite indefensible act for which the young men were convicted and jailed. The details are in the link if you can stomach them.

I refer to her as 'she', because that is my instinct, for some reason. (Not politics or anything else, if the first pronoun had come out as 'he' I would have left it that way). But in fact she was not a 'she', and that's what cost her her life.

Her mistake was, simply put, to exaggerate the importance of her own sense of herself. We all do it, we all see things from our own point of view, and assume people know about, and care about, what matters to us about ourselves. For most social purposes we learn to understand that this is not entirely so and we are able to moderate it, but not all adults learn this particular skill, and children on the whole don't have it.

My teenage pupils will talk among themselves about their concerns, sometimes quite intimate things, in my presence, because as far as they are concerned I'm not there. I don't exist in their world, even, in my case, as a threat to it, unless we are interacting in class, and even then they see it more as them entering my world than me entering theirs.

Gwen Araujo was a teenager, and as such was very much enclosed in the world of her own private concerns. But she also had much more serious problems of identity than most people her age, and so was very likely to be more self-absorbed than most. She felt herself/wanted/believed herself to be a woman, she lived as a woman and as far as she was  concerned she was a woman. Those very few people around her who had some understanding of and sympathy with her position would have thought of her in the appropriate terms, but to everyone who was not deeply interested in what went on inside her head, including the boys she had sex with, a simpler term for pre-operative trans-woman, is 'man'.

While the revenge taken against her by the boys was, as I have said, indefensible and so far beyond a reasonable reaction as to be little more than cold-blooded murder, it is easy to understand the shock, horror, disgust and anger that the young men would have felt on discovering that they had been tricked into having sex with a boy. If any man, however reasonable, discovered such a deception the result would be ugly. Given that this lot were a bunch of thugs, the revelation of this outrage against their, doubtless also a bit precarious, sexual identity, it should have been obvious that she was in real danger. She did not have the social skill to understand this. She assumed that, at least to some relevant degree, they saw her as she saw herself and understood what they were doing. It cost her her life.

If she had lived, could the young men have had her tried for tricking them in that way. Does California have laws that might cover this? Should such laws exist?

*Beyond pointing out that he might have dumped all the documents on his site because he knew he was going to be arrested, rather than the arrest being a response by the CIA or whoever to the leaks. Who can say.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Authentic

What is behind the quality we are sometimes able to recognise as authenticity, in works of ‘art’, creative expression in general or just when we watch people doing things? Why is a Berber storyteller on a junk-strewn mat in the square at Marrakesh more authentic than a juggler at Camden Lock?

Where do we find expression that is not in some way self-conscious, not derivative, or imitative or commercial? What do we grasp as real?

Poverty is authentic. Misery, profound suffering, terror- these things are authentic. When there is no possibility of having any other reason for expressing an emotion than that it is can’t be hidden, no motive for doing something beyond the desire or the need to do it, when there is no thought for how it will look, because there is absorption in the feeling or the act, we have authenticity.

War, famine, disease, disaster, poverty, tenements, and abroad are good places to find authenticity.

Abroad is generally a good place because we are not very good at judging the motives of people whose culture we don't understand and we assume that they do what they do spontaneously and naturally, without intent to deceive. In many parts of the world there is a good living to be made by offering 'authenticity' to tourists who don't know the difference and probably wouldn't care if they did.

But all the best news photographs and most vivid impressions, the finest prose descriptions are from disasters and misery of one kind or another. And the subjects of them are real, at least before mediation by artist, writer, journalist or oneself.

And here we have authenticity, too. The old shoeshine boy, who must be 80 now, and spends his days looking for someone to stand him the price of a wine or two so he can sleep on a bench in the square in the afternoon when the weather's good enough. He is authentic, because decades ago he ceased to have any function in the world and has spent the rest of his life existing from one day to the next.

I've never photographed him. To take someone in close-up without permission is an intrusion and the line 'Do you mind if I take your photo? I find artistic truth in the abject defeat and surrender to failure in your face', is hard to pull off in practice.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Communicative Context and the New Journalism

I wonder to what extent newspaper journalists, subs and editors are aware of the way that the context of the communication they engage in with the reader has changed in the last few years.

Those who work for the media, especially the national media, have always been terribly parochial, tending to think of those media in general, and themselves in particular, as the centre of the universe, and will frequently introduce columns with phrases like ‘unless you’ve been on Mars this week you will know...’ when they really mean ‘unless you haven’t been slavishly following the popular press and the telly this week you will know...’, but now the major newspaper websites, and to a lesser extent the broadcast media, have an audience which, while it may be no larger than it was, is much more widespread, and shares the background, and especially the immediate cultural background, of the producer to a much lower degree than before. The context of communication has changed greatly, but they don’t seem to have noticed.

‘Joanna Yeates did not eat pizza’, as a headline is a little underwhelming, unless you know who she is and why her pizza is in the news. I didn’t, and neither would many readers of the Telegraph from outside Britain. I clicked on the headline only because it was so obviously not news that there had to be more to it than that.

A reader in Britain probably would know about Joanna Yeates because they would read the paper for national news and would also probably watch British television. But the reader from outside Britain does not necessarily read for information about crime stories; from my perspective that is no more than local gossip, and of little interest. And if I do not have the cultural references even to understand the headline, I am not going to be interested in the story.

‘We all remember the little red coat from Don’t Look Now’. Er, no we don’t. I haven’t a clue what that line is about, nor who Roeg is, nor why any of this should matter. And maybe it doesn’t matter, or only as much as you think it does, but though the second case is trivial, and the first is not, in both cases the writer intends for the articles to be taken seriously, and I cannot take them seriously because the writers fail to recognise the context of our communication. They assume it is as it has always been, and my point is that I am not unusual, an outlier that it isn’t worth changing your practice to accommodate; I am one of an increasingly large part of the readership, and the press will need to learn to communicate with people like me if they aren’t going to disappear into the ether.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Freedom to be Invisible

Chatting yesterday with a small group of computer science lecturers from the University here, I asked what they thought the future held for wifi; would there soon be free (to use) wifi provided by councils in all urban areas, or would the private open networks of cafés, bars, hotels, rail networks and community buildings expand to achieve more or less the same function? Maybe not, they said, at least not in the foreseeable future, as for councils to provide the service directly would be against competition laws. The law can be changed, I said, and if they are paying a service provider who makes a good offer there is not necessarily any unfair competition going on. So will the advance of technological and social pressure overcome this very minor legal quibble?

Ah, they said (well, one of them did and the rest seemed to think it was a good point), there are other difficulties. If people are connecting and disconnecting constantly, randomly, and anonymously 'we' won't know who is accessing what sites, and who is talking to whom about what. Paedophiles and terrorists, you know.*

These people were all genuinely intelligent, and none was rabidly leftwing (I think they all tended to the left, but no more). Yet they were unable to appreciate the following argument. Due to the circumstances I was only able to make the bare bones of it; here I flesh it out:

People who live in any country that considers itself to be more or less free, which includes my past and present homes, expect as an absolute minimum to be able to walk the streets and talk to anyone we want without our every step and every word being logged by some equivalent of the Stasi, the KGB, or the CDR*, and without having to justify or even be punished for where we go or what we say unless we commit a real, actual crime, the sort of crime that human beings, rather than bureaucrats, politicians and dictators, think are crimes.

Why then does it seem normal to most people that we should be unable to make a phone call, visit a website, make a Google search or chat to someone else by email, forum, Skype, Facebook, Tuenti, Habbo or whatever may be our medium of choice without having the fact recorded for future use by our masters. The fact that it is technical possible doesn't make it desirable, or morally acceptable. Denying us the use of something until it is technically possible to record everything we do with it is not just anti-libertarian, it is utterly reprehensible.

In Spain it is no longer possible to have a phone number that is not registered to an identified name and address. I don't know if this is true in Britain yet, and I think in the US you this freedom does still exist, but clearly even democracies are keen to prevent us talking to each other without government knowledge. In Cuba, of course, using a mobile phone or accessing the internet is illegal, for reasons of paranoia and a love of repression state security, so they save themselves the trouble of tracking everyone.

There is no intrinsic difference between being unable to walk down a street or talk to a friend without anyone knowing about it and making a phone call or writing an email with no one looking over your shoulder, but even people who should understand this have difficulty getting the point.

*Apparently they're everywhere, yet I've never met one of either. In twenty years of teaching I have never knowingly encountered a paedophile teacher or parent or a child who has been a victim of one. A bit odd, really. I'm not saying they don't exist, of course, but are they really prevalent enough to make the actions taken to stop them, which restrict all our freedoms, worthwhile? Ditto terrorists?

**The CDR is Fidel Castro's secret police, set up shortly after his coup to persecute anyone who might threaten his stranglehold on wealth and power safeguard the ideal of the revolution. They still opertae with virtual impunity and they're a thoroughly nasty bunch

***I'm a hedgehog, not the Devil's Kitchen. Utterly reprehensible is very strong language for us.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hickory QSL

On my bedside table there is a Roberts R-861 shortwave radio. It was once just about the best portable receiver on the market, and I see it's still being sold. It had Phase Lock Loop, digital tuning, a synthesized receiver, Radio Data System which brought the name of the station up on the screen, hundreds of  memories and continuous scanning across the spectrum, none of that jumping only between authorised frequencies within authorised bands. A joy to use. I bought it in the mid-nineties, back before the internet, as the best way to hear authentic voices from around the world. Most people, then and perhaps even now, got their impressions of the rest of the world from the narrative fantasies of Hollywood films and from foreign correspondents of the Guardian and the BBC saying 'funny foreign bloke who talks funny foreign language does funny foreign thing for some funny foreign reason which it would be beneath me, as an Englishman, to try to understand.' Shortwave radio gave you the chance to hear what those people were really doing, what was happening to them, what they were interested in and what they thought about it all, unmediated by someone with a story to sell and his own prejudices to satisfy.

The R-861 wasn't the first such radio I owned, but it was the best, and it's the one I was still using when the web made it all unnecessary, so it's been relegated to playing a bit of background music while I have a siesta. Needless to say, it performs this task perfectly.

I call it a shortwave radio, but in fact it covered FM and AM medium and long wave too, which was important because, although FM doesn't travel more than a very few miles,  AM can travel hundreds of miles along the surface of the Earth in the right conditions, and some frequencies will propagate thousands of miles, allowing Radio 4 to be heard in parts of Africa, and vice versa (SW bounces around the ionosphere randomly with only a low power transmitter which is why it was used so widely and is why it can be so frustrating to listen to).

I was never a very serious DX-er, not like the chap I knew who took his holidays in Hawaii because it's the best place in the world for picking up AM stations from just about anywhere. His suitcase contained a toothbrush (sometimes), a tabletop receiver that cost more than his car and several hundred yards of wire, which always caused comment at customs. He didn't actually listen to the stations, he just collected information about the signals. And since you ask, no, he wasn't married.

I wasn't like that; my interest was in the places I could reach and the people I could listen to, but I did buy, every year, the World Radio and TV Handbook, a sort of Radio Times for trainspotters, with details of all the world's radio stations, times of broadcast and the frequencies they used. Conditions vary depending on the position of the sun (I think it causes the effect of the solar wind on the ionosphere to vary, or something similar), and so a single station will change frequencies regularly throughout the day, and often stations will share frequencies if they have different target areas or broadcast times. (Rather dull, I know, but it's why it isn't enough just to jot down the name of the station and its frequency or put in the memory.)

I caught Radio Pyongyang the day Kim Il-Sung died. If you've ever heard Radio Caracol when Colombia have just lost a vital World Cup qualifier to Bolivia you will have just the faintest inkling of an idea of the kind of hysterical grief that was pouring out of the ether. I listened to Radio Slovakia regularly and learned more than anyone needs to know about the economic and social problems of the wine growers in the East. I listened to Radio Australia, always fascinating, and never missed Lucky Oceans, and American country/folk/blues/southern rock DJ who rarely played a song you knew but never played one that wasn't worth hearing.

At times I caught football from South America, interviews with people shopping at markets in obscure parts of Africa, the Jordanian view of events in Japan, thoughts from a Thai lawyer on incipient democracy in Chile, a Bangladeshi historian explaining the history of a small temple in a village almost swallowed by the jungle, Beef Stew, Notho Myrmecia, God's will that I pop a tenner in an envelope and send it to a man in Alabama, dead people who no one else cared about, caught by accidents, wild animals, floods, earthquakes, political violence or crime too small  for anyone outside their own country to even notice, and literally thousands of other moments, some regular, most chanced upon by a happy spinning of the dial at just the right time. I heard ten thousand people who didn't know I was listening tell me things I had never realized I wanted to know, and the best were always those who spoke unselfconsciously of the world they lived in, a world completely different from mine and which I could not have known anything about but for the radio.

An important part of DX-ing, for the really serious, was the reception report. When you picked up a new, rare, very distant or otherwise unusual station you would write down the name, time, frequency, signal strength and quality, and a brief summary of the content to prove you really were listening, and send it off, by post, to the station. They would send you back a QSL card, confirming receipt, which you would proudly add to your collection. These were traditionally idiosyncratic, collectible, and some were highly prized. There is a story I heard told by an American presenter (of a programme about DX-ing; a surprising number of programmes on shortwave radio stations are about listening to shortwave radio) where he claims to have stumbled upon a clandestine station in Cuba just when it was raided by the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, not a body known for its sense of humour. But he sent a reception report to the CDR headquarters in Havana, and he says they sent him back a QSL card, which he treasures.

There is a point to all this reminiscing (not that there needs to be, but there is), so it is pobably time to be drifting towards it. I have decided to reinvent the QSL card for the internet age. I propose, therefore, to design a Hickory Wind QSL card and, when I'm happy with it, I shall send it to any commenter who leaves a contact link to a blog, website, email address or some such. Given that this is a quiet little blog, frequented only by a few, highly discerning denizens of the higher reaches of the blogosphere (Claridges at Tuesday teatime rather than the Nag's Head on a Friday night) it shouldn't take up too much time.

That, then, is my proposal for this weekend- to produce a QSL card worthy of my commenters, and perhaps to start a trend, who knows. I should really be working, but some things are more important...

Friday, January 14, 2011

And be there no puddles up yonder...?

Over at the Language Log a blog I can't link to because I don't remember which it was yesterday, there was a post about a speech by Barack Obama given at the funeral of a girl from Arizon who was killed by a nut who was upset with a local politician. I'm sure you know the story. The article quoted a part of that speech, and I was struck by what, mulling it over later, I realized is probably the oddest line I have ever seen in a piece of political discourse. He said, 'If there are rain puddles in heaven, then Cristina is jumping in them today.'

It is, of course, more than likely that I am missing some context here, but it is still a very strange thing to say. The address- I didn't hear it, I only read the part quoted by the Log blogger- seems to have satisfied a number of very difficult conditions and restraints. Whoever wrote it was given a task on the following lines: it's got to be simple and elegant; it's got to reflect the age and implied attributes of the deceased; it must take as read that everyone hearing is united in feeling what it expresses, but it must make some implicit mention anyway, just in case; it must place Cristina rather than Obama at the focus of its attention, and it must at least keep the popularity index stable; oh, and it must contain something quotable that even the kids can understand.

There is broad agreement that it managed to do all this. I still find the line extraordinary, however. What if there are no puddles in heaven? Is he condemning her to an eternity stomping around in Wellington boots feeling angry and disappointed. Why puddles? Did he pull them out of nowhere. Why assume that she is in Heaven, or that she is happy to be there? Surely she would be happier to be still down here, and not cruelly summoned to paradise. Puddles are, at most, in these circumstances, a paliative of sadness, not an aid to happiness.

Anyhow, this has been your blogging hedgehog's way of not contributing to the blast of noise booming out of the empty vessels that the press and the blogosphere are so filled with. It is, is it not, so much easier to be right when you have no idea what you're talking about? For this reason I ask a question which it might in fact be possible  to answer.

So why puddles?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Strangeness in the Hills

When bloggers I read take a break from saying interesting things in order to tell us dreary little details about their home lives, humorous anecdotes that have happened to them in Tesco's, or to whine about how difficult it all is because something triviual has caused them inconvenience, I take a break from reading them. A writer's purpose is to interest his audience, to instruct it, to entertain it, to amuse it, to entrance it, to annoy it even, but always to keep it reading. Otherwise he won't have an audience at all. It is in this spirit that I approach such personal matters as I choose to mention here, in the knowledge that, if they are nothing more than 'stuff that happens to me is interesting, don'tyer know' type pieces, of the sort most newspaper columnists churn out daily for reasons that escape me, no one is going to read them.

I have been at the beach for a few days, and, good though the fish was, no matter how fine the weather, creative the sandcastles and relaxing the air, I know that my readers don't care about these things. You want to hear (you don't know it yet, but you do) about El Torcal.

El Torcal is an extensive area of Karst formation near Antequera in Málaga. It's not easy to explain why so many people like to go up there to wander round it, but they do, and it's worth it. At weekends and on holidays the police have to shut the access road some way down the mountain because otherwise no one would be able to turn round or come down again.

It's a landscape that you wander through (there are no real paths, you just follow other people's footsteps in the mud, or clamber up and down the rocks of your choice) with shapes that you can imagine to be almost anything you want. I saw councils of the gods, apples designed by Dalí, boats at sea, round tables, runways for flying saucers, nesting places for giant mythical birds, the faces of friends, enemies, well-known actors, singers, sportsmen, politicians and creatures of the night, cliffs, prison walls, precipices, islands, entire continents laid out before you or hanging over you, and rocks just sitting on other rocks, apparently not rolling or falling off because they just don't feel like it. Not a place to be smoking anything illegal.

And ibexes (or is it ibices?). Real ones, lots of them. It's very hard to see any kind of mountain goat close up. They don't do close up, which is why they like to live up in the mountains. But in that kind of landscape they can be quite close and still feel safe. A family of them crossed the path ten yards ahead of us.

In the links you'll find a lot of info, and photos, so I won't do the technical description of the geology, or the how to get there. I wanted to tell you why it's worth doing.

Note: Bit of trouble uploading photos. I'll do it later.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

On Becoming Lunch

My flatmate, the one on the left with the long, floppy ears, is in the doghouse, so to speak. And he can count himself lucky just to be locked in his cage. In fact he's pretty lucky not to be in the pot, as the patience of the chap who feeds us is wearing a bit thin.

What he did this time was get behind the washing machine (filthy place, even I don't go there, but he was bored) and chew a rubber pipe. Well, he'll chew anything that offers a bit of resistance, and it looked like good chewing. So there he is chewing away on this pipe, quite happily (he doesn't learn, you know- once he starts gnawing too much there's always trouble of some kind) and suddenly he gets a jet of water in the face. And it didn't stop. So there he was, stuck in the kitchen with wet feet, the water rising around him, a strong sense that it was all his fault. Oh and the couple of bipeds who we keep around to bring us food and clean the place up a bit were away on holiday, so it was up to the woman downstairs to sound the alarm when she noticed it was raining in her living room.

When the bipeds turned up the next day they weren't happy at all. One more of these and my long-eared colleague will be lunch, and possibly slippers. He doesn't understand that there's more to this business of being a pet than pretending to like having your ears scratched. It's a bit more nuanced than licking hands and standing humorously on your hind legs. One of the things humans really don't like is having their cage eaten, and a pet has to know these things.