Graffiti of the ’70s

Unusually, here’s a Guardian article with comments worth reading. It’s about Graffiti, so the Guardianistas are out reminiscing about slogans of decades paste:

During Ronald Reagan’s early 80’s anti-Soviet Union sabre rattling era around corner from uni in two foot high lettering with brush in black on bright yellow building site hoarding: MUTATE NOW! AVOID POST BOMB RUSH

Northwick Park roundabout, 1970s – NICHOLAS PARSONS IS THE NEO-OPIATE OF THE PEOPLE. Done by students from Harrow CHE nearby (now Uni Westminster art school or something) around 1972. A suburban masterpiece, it was still there 15 years later, and the source of much local frustration to drivers having to explain what neo-opiate is to their curious kids in the back seat.

I AM THE SCHIZOID OCTOPUS MAN… Wilslow Rd. Manchester, most of the 1970s-4ft high, 50 ft long on a low brick wall in Rusholme.

ART IS A HAMMER, NOT A FUCKING MIRROR on wall opposite Liverpool Art College Foundation Course building, mid 70s.


ALL MEN ARE RAPISTS. DISARM RAPISTS. Coventry 1980 something. always made me shudder.


Classifying Accidents

American doctors need to be very careful to classify each treatment they give, to ensure they can claim payment from insurance companies. Looking at the list of possible treatments, though, makes you wonder if they are being slightly more specific than needed. For example:

  • X35XXXD Volcanic eruption, subsequent encounter
  • W5629XA Other contact with orca, initial encounter
  • W2202XA Walked into lamppost, initial encounter
  • X962XXA Assault by letter bomb, initial encounter
  • Z62891 Sibling rivalry
  • X05XXXA Exposure to ignition or melting of nightwear, initial encounter

[props to Hacker News for locating most of these]

Pitman, Esperanto, FLOSS

This LRB comment on the history of shorthand picks up on the slightly unnerving first wave of enthusiasm around Pitman’s shorthand. It appealed to the same kind of geeky idealists who in other generations would speak Esperanto or write open-source software: men who believed that the road to brotherly love was through mastery of a new, better means of communication:

You can still read every syllable from the first International Shorthand Congress and Jubilee of Phonography, thanks to transcripts produced by ‘an army of phonographers . . . not at all concerned with the economic rewards of shorthand, important as these are, but only with the service – personal, social – even professional – which one Pitmanite can render another in any part of the world.’ One delegate described shorthand as a ‘bond of brotherhood’. Like the open-source movement a century and a half later, Pitmanism was idealistic, distributed and male.

Vote Trepanation!

This must be one of the best election campaign posters of all time.

No, it wasn’t a joke. Amanda Feilding, Countess of Wemyss and March, trying in 1979 to become an MP, had at that point had a hole in her head for the best part of a decade.

In 1970 she drilled through her skull with a dentist’s drill. Then she wiped off the blood and went off to a fancy dress party.

Her husband Joey Mellon filmed the procedure — when they showed it at a film festival, they supposedly caused several audience members to faint.
Joey also had a hole in his head. He documented it all in his book Bore Hole
[customers who bought this also bought: Hieronymous Bosch; Hell’s Angels; The Psychopath Test]

More: Christopher Turner, in Cabinet Magazine

Dead languages on Genius

The street may find its own uses for things, but so does the academy.

RapGenius started as a way to comment on rap lyrics. The expansion to other song lyrics — accompanied by dropping ‘Rap’ from the name — was pretty obvious.

Less so is the appeal to the extreme highbrow. Perpetual super-student Chris Aldrich turned me on to the “off-label” uses in a glowing blog post. He mentions a Harvard MOOC on the early Christianity, which sent 20,000 students to Genius to comment on the letters of Paul the Apostle. There’s also a community busily glossing Latin texts. Want to read Caesar’s Gallic Wars? Bang.

Sanskrit is lagging — I was only able to find one item in the language, the Buddhist Heart Sutra. And that, sadly, is as yet unannotated.

Daniel Quinn vs Meditations on Moloch

Paul, seeing my post on Howl, pointed me towards a (much) longer essay, Meditations on Moloch, which also takes its start from the poem.

It’s an impressive chain of thoughts by Scott Alexander, stretching from the start of agriculture through to superintelligence. Moloch is the name Alexander plucks from Ginsberg to describe all of them. Moloch is civilization, or the tragedy of the commons, or institutions that drive their members into mutual destruction:

A basic principle unites all of the multipolar traps above. In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out

All this reminds me strongly of Daniel Quinn, a writer you might place somewhere between primitivism, Deep Green environmentalism, or tribalism. Quinn is one of the writers I most treasure, someone who has reshaped much of how I see the world. But he’s not a natural fellow-traveller for Scott Alexander, whose background is in the hyper-rationalist technophile community around Less Wrong.

One of Quinn’s fundamental ideas is opposition to ‘civilization’. What Quinn calls civilization roughly corresponds to, or perhaps contains, Moloch. It’s the set of basic lifestyles and activities we live under — which are the ones that have outcompeted other cultures. This civilization is the outcome of a process of natural selection. It has won not by being better for people, but by being better at growing. Quinn takes this all the way back to when farming won out over hunter-gathering, despite the life of a farmer being much worse than that of a hunter.

Alexander traces the same process as Quinn, and then pushes it forward into the future. Humans become less useful to Moloch as technology progresses, meaning that there is less need for Moloch to make any allowance for their wishes:

the current rulers of the universe – call them what you want, Moloch, Gnon, Azathoth, whatever – want us dead, and with us everything we value. Art, science, love, philosophy, consciousness itself, the entire bundle. And since I’m not down with that plan, I think defeating them and taking their place is a pretty high priority.

Alexander’s way out of this is that we should rush to develop a friendly artficial intelligence that can outcompete Moloch on our behalf, reach a position of absolute universal power and use it to smack down other superintelligences that care less about humans.

I can’t say I find that prospect much more reassuring than Quinn’s nods towards neo-tribalism. I’d rather run with a tribe than be subjected to the benevolant dictatorship of an all-conquering machine of loving grace.

Why I love Howl

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is permanently associated for me with winter in Berlin.

It fixed itself there in the winter of 2009-10. I’d fallen in love, in a way that I’d not believed myself still capable of, and my emotions had burst open into areas I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager. It was also one of the coldest winters, and cold has always energised me. I’d go out the door in the morning, onto uncleared month-old snow, be jolted awake by the cold air, and only restrain myself from running with the knowledge that I’d slip over if I did.

Howl was the constant mental soundtrack when I was outside — as I paced through a park eating carrots on my lunch-break, or earned scathing looks for muttering to myself in the u-bahn. It was the perfect accompaniment for my manic, convoluted rush of half-forgotten emotions — extreme states and rootless poverty, bursts of arrogant passion just a whisker away from despair or self-destruction.

Since then, Howl has always been somewhere in my head. Especially at a time like now, when the cold loosens up my head and I can recover an echo of how it once felt. There’s a miniature revelation as the poem becomes physical rather than intellectual, as the ecstatic intensity briefly becomes comprehensible. I tap fingers, twirl pens; the body fidgets and the mind free-associates.

All this has happened again these past few days. It’s always half a surprise — no more, no less. There’s a strange interplay between my past and my present and Allen Ginsberg, and some point where Howl suddenly bursts into colour. So rather than dissect it I’ll just repeat some of the lines which — for no obvious reason — shine most brightly to me:

      who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in 
              Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their 
              torsos night after night 
       with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, al- 
              cohol and cock and endless balls, 
       incomparable blind; streets of shuddering cloud and 
              lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of 
              Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the mo- 
              tionless world of Time between, 
       Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery 
              dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, 
              storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon 
              blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree 
              vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brook- 
              lyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind, 

You can (should!) read the full poem here

The Unknown Citizen: WH Auden on the limits of data

As the best and the brightest pour their brilliance into chasing our data-trails, WH Auden’s take still feels fully applicable:

The Unknown Citizen

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Link dump

  • Dystopian investment fiction: what nightmares is Vanguard leading us into? [for those not subjected to financial news: people are increasingly giving up on sharp-suited stock-pickers, and instead just buying a bit of everything. This has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth among said sharp-suited stock-pickers, many of whom are about to lose their meal ticket]
  • A browser game relying on knowlege of vim, the cryptic text editor with a hardcore cult following among programmers
  • Of many articles I’ve read about Leonard Cohen, this one gets closest to my feeligs about him
  • And in processed sugar, Buzzfeed collects some actually-funny tweets.

Faith and Terror

Last week I finally grokked a little of what performance art can do, having been left cold by most of my previous encounters with it. I’d gone to the Faith and Terror festival almost by accident, and was pleasantly surprised by how much it touched me.

On the Faith side of things, Sara Zaltash spent perhaps an hour repeating a modified call to prayer. Modified partly in being sung by a woman, but also by entirely removing Mohammed. Is this a personal preference, an attempt at non-sectarian prayer, or part of some tradition I don’t know of? Zaltash’s multilingual translation and commentary doesn’t explicitly explain.

At first her fervour and the beauty of her voice held the room rapt. Then as time passed people mentally disengaged, fidgeted, left the room. At first, I counted it as the unfortunate side-effect of a long performance after a long evening after a long festival.

But then: repetition to the point of irritation is one of the basic, near-essential, building blocks of religion. When I lived in Bosnia the call to prayer was a soothing piece of background, semi-consciously absorbed through its identical presence every day. In my time at a Christian school I was constantly frustrated by the repetitive pattern of hymn and prayer. Yet, like it or not, the prayers are permanently burned into my brain. Repetition works. More than that: it’s obvious from inside any religion, but rarely experienced from the outside. So it’s a perfect thing to bring to a festival about faith.

As for terror: Openspace Performunion gave us a quasi-military march around the theme Every Flag is a Border, and Borders Kill.

It could have been menacing, but wasn’t — and in its way, the lack of menace was more unsettling. We see the soldiers stop for a smoking break — regulated, but gentle. We see them strip and dress and carefully paint each other’s faces. We see them each briefly break away from the group — always alone, as though if two got away together they might never come back. Unnervingly, it’s a platoon you could imagine wanting to join.

The flags are another matter. White they may be, but certainly ont peaceful. They mutate from flag to weapon to phallus to baton to fence and back to flag, but never stop being the enemy of the piece.

With Ritournelle, Anais Héraud and Till Baumann managed to nudge me from peace to nightmare and back again. Sheets of paper flutter through the air, telling us to inhale and exhale. In the back a plastic pole circles horizontally on what looks like a modified record player, while a metronome ticks in the front. Ticking, circling, breathing — the three rhythms don’t align, but they lull me into a meditative peace. Then, slowly, the logic becomes darker, Héraud loses herself in the repetition of a phrase, pulling other words out of it as anagrams. It’s not quite terror, but it does have something of the inescapable self-reference of a dream.

Why did I like all this so much? Partly through encountering it after a while without seeing any performance art, so that even the clichés seemed fresh.

Mostly, though, because of the relationship between the artists and the audience. This was a small and close-knit group, many performers themselves. They skipped past the two usual, frustrating reactions to contemporary art — either unthinking dismissal, or blind acceptance of anything the artist presents. Instead there was healthy, informed criticism, which seemed to get us a lot closer to understanding and communication.