1584 – Everybody Knows

 Tamron 17-50/2.8 VC  Comments Off on 1584 – Everybody Knows
Feb 162011

I’ve read Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” last summer, while we were in Italy. In between I have only read Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, a finally slightly disappointing, but nevertheless very interesting novel about post-9/11, from the point of view of a young Pakistani having studied and worked in the US, and then of course the three glorious books by Vikram Chandra.

While India / Pakistan have been the focus of my attention for half a year, I frequently think of Heinlein’s book and about the idea, that the most important thing in a constitution is not to list the government’s duties, but to restrict its possibilities by exactly enumerating what it is allowed to do, and to completely rule out everything else.

“The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” is a book about a revolution (an optimistic one at that), and of course when I come back to it, I am triggered by much of what currently happens in the Arabian world. But not only that. Let me explain.

There is much talk about an “Internet Kill Switch” among politicians, and we have just seen in Egypt what the only reason for a government to want such a “switch” can be: to stop a revolution. Well, they failed, Algeria might fail as well, but that does not prevent our politicians to desire such an ability. And that’s exactly why we have to stop them.

And there’s more. As much as I understand the concerns about Egypt and how the fall of Mubarak might impact stability in the Middle East, we must realize, that we can’t always lecture on the merits of democracy, and at the same time deny it to those who seek it. The western world has a long tradition of relying on totalitarian dictators abroad, and that is one of the reasons, why every revolution is seen as dangerous. Everybody in those suppressed countries knows, that we use Doublespeak and that we can’t be trusted. Everybody knows what hypocrites we are and everybody knows that our first desire is to betray them and rip them off. Why should they, once free, ally with us?

But it’s not only them, it’s us as well. Our governments hysterically try to keep the status quo, and in order to do so, they take away our freedom. The power to take down the Internet, total monitoring of communication, we can’t give it to them. We must not. What’s next? There are already politicians (lots of them!) who openly argue against publicly available cryptography and against anonymity on the Internet, who want to require some proof of identity, which would ultimately mean a license to communicate, a license that can be granted, denied or revoked, tied to conforming behavior. Everybody knows that this is largely driven by the media cartels and the fact that they don’t care for freedom and democracy, as long as they can stop file sharing, but still, this is the same infrastructure that can be used by a totalitarian state to prevent a revolution. And this is a bad thing.

If you take away a people’s ability to revolt, to turn down those in power, you have effectively given up on democracy. Democracy needs change, and ultimately this can be the forceful change brought by a revolution. To make a revolution impossible, effectively means totalitarianism, and exactly that is the importance of Heinlein’s credo. We must severely limit what a government is allowed to do, and the most important thing to take out of their grasp, is their ability to perpetuate their reign.

The Song of the Day, “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson, offers a much darker vision. But then, even in Heinlein’s optimistic utopia the dice are loaded. It’s only that they’re loaded by the good guys.

See a video from the London concert on Yandex, a Russian video site I’ve never heard of until now 🙂

Aug 292010

Instead of a proper Saturday image, here’s one more from my walk through Villach on Friday. Saturday we had rain most of the day and I spare you that.

I’ve already given you a view of this church the day I came back from Liguria, and here is another one, with the spire peeking out between Villach’s Congress Center and the new Holiday Inn hotel.

And while we are contemplating this clash of modern and old architecture, let me ask you a question. Do you own an e-book reader? And if so, is it a Kindle or something else?

I ask, because I felt the strong impulse today to buy a new Amazon Kindle. At the moment I read Vikram Chandra’s monumental Mumbai epos “Sacred Games”, an outstanding novel that is full of Indian slang and that assumes quite some understanding of Indo-Pakistani history on the side of the reader. As someone who has largely ignored India and its history in the past (don’t know why, it’s just how it is), I found it incredibly helpful to look things up in Wikipedia, but of course I don’t sit in front of a computer all the time, and certainly not when I read books.

Well, Amazon’s new Kindle 3G could be the solution to that. It has WiFi and 3G connectivity, some kind of easy link to Wikipedia (select a word and press a button, or something like that), and it even has a full-fledged browser. Sure, it’s not as good for browsing the colorful, glossy web as an Apple iPad, but its screen is much better suited to reading everywhere, even in sunlight, and its battery life is much, much longer.

On one side there is my disgust for Digital Restriction Management, but on the other side I really like the idea of the Kindle. It may have the potential to be much more than just a device for reading books. Reading a book like “Sacred Games” on this device may open up a new level of understanding, just because cross-referencing and looking up of background information is so much more convenient than with a physical book and separate computers, I am sure I would do it much more often, at least if it worked well enough. So, then: does it? Is it really convenient to look something up? Do you use that feature? What’s your overall impression?

So far I have not ordered and my initial enthusiasm has cooled off a little, because a quick lookup of the last about 30 books I’ve read showed most of them not available in Kindle format so far. I have read William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” trilogy, and of the three books only the first two are available. A bit anti-climactic is you ask me 🙂

I’ve read all books in Orson Scott Card’s “Ender” universe and his “Homecoming Saga”. None of these 17 or 18 books are available. Steinbeck of course seems available and complete, but there is no Tom Sharpe and no David Lodge. OK, they’re british 🙂

There are some books by A. S. Byatt, but “Possession” is missing. They have Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight Children” (that I’m going to read soon), but not the “Satanic Verses”. Heinlein’s “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”? Nope. Almost nothing by Ursula K. LeGuin. Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee? Almost nothing.

Overall it seems to me, that we’re not yet there. As much as I’d like the comfort of using such a crossover device, at the moment it would not be of much use to me. But then, maybe what I want is simply an iPad or something like that, some small computer that can be dragged around along with a physical book. Actually I have no idea, do you???

The Song of the Day is “Tempos Modernos” from Marisa Monte’s album “Barulhinho Bom”. I have the album under the title “A Great Noise”, and the cover of my version is slightly censored 🙂

Hear the song on YouTube.

1350 – The Marvel Of Marble

 Nikon 70-300 VR, Tamron 17-50/2.8 VC  Comments Off on 1350 – The Marvel Of Marble
Jul 012010

Thursday we began with a museum in La Spezia‘s Castello San Giorgio. They have one of the two biggest collections of pre-historic “statue stele” in Liguria, most of them having been found in the region of Luni. Photographing the collection was forbidden, of course I did, but please understand that I don’t want to post the images here.

La Spezia is an ugly city with a population of roughly 100,000. There is much heavy industry, an enormous caloric power plant, a military harbor and lots of military everywhere. I suppose the city has been bombed heavily during World War II, at least that’s the impression.

After a short odyssey up the hill to the castle/museum (did it ever occur to you that your blind spot for direction signs only goes away after you have found your target?) and the actual visit, we quickly left for San Terenzo south along the coast (that’s where I took the images of the arrows), and then via Lerici and Marina di Carrara to our main destination: Carrara, home of marble, from ancient times to distant future.

Along the way I spotted the thing on the picture to the left. I have no idea what it is. Remotely it reminds me of Orthanc, though I admit, it is not of black stone but of rusty iron.

Whatever. Carrara was our destination, a small town at the foot of a mountain consisting wholly of marble, and not just any marble, no, the purest and most beautiful marble in the world, quasi the all-time reference of what marble is supposed to be.

The quarries in the mountains above Carrara number by the hundreds, and when you take the winding road, that is used today for transporting the blocks by truck (as opposed to using sledges and ox-carts from Roman times until only 150 years ago), you get the sincere impression, that they are systematically taking apart the whole mountain.

And still, considering the thousands of years, even taking into account the acceleration of the past century, there is so much left, it’s hard to imagine an end to this treasure.

Pretty much at the highest point of the road, at least the highest point that is accessible to the general public, there is a marble museum, a shop and an underground mine that you can visit. We didn’t, we even skipped the museum, but we bought a mortar and pestle 🙂

The interesting thing in Carrara is, that every quarry looks exactly as if the mountain consisted of nothing but marble. It even may, but then the sheer number of quarries is puzzling. It looks like a whole army of ants trying to eat a mountain, from all sides, chaotic, seemingly without system or order. It’s fascinating.

And in the middle of all that, a village. Colonnata, home to the cavatori, citadell of anarchism, home of the famous Lardo di Colonnata, a white bacon, cured with rosemary in troughs of pure marble.

It’s delicious. Not as salty as bacon is here in Austria, and it is served warm on toasted bread. While we ate, I took the image of the stairs, of course constructed from marble as well.

In fact, the whole village is made of marble. There is a big monument dedicated to “Al Cavatore”, and behind it a small church, all made of marble, and there are these two (and maybe more) inscriptions:

Well, here in the mountains, in this village, then so far off of any city, they found a retreat.

Unlike communism, anarchism never could muster broad support. It’s in its principle, I guess. Not enough organization, too much individualism. Well, having just finished Heinlein’s “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, those marble plates, commemorating the “anarchist companions, fallen on the road to freedom”, somehow touched me deeply.

The image of the truck and the building was made up at the highest point of the street, where the marble museum and the shop are.

The image to the left is an HDR, made from five bracketed exposures. The sun was already low when we stopped at the cemetery, and without HDR, the valley would have been in deep shadows.

Speaking of the cemetery, this is extremely impressive as well. It was the wrong time of the day, I suppose I should be there in the morning, no later than noon, depending on the time of the year. I did not go in, it would have taken me at least an hour, it was already late, light was bad and we had a long way back to Sestri Levante.

I just made a series of images from the other side of the valley, six exposures taken with the Nikon 70-300 VR, and then stitched in Photoshop to this panorama. The “thumbnail” links to an image of 4181 x 768 pixels, the original is 14069 x 2584 pixels. Hmm … I really should try to print it 🙂

The Song of the Day is a cheap pun: Gershwin’s “Too Marvelous for Words“, interpreted by Frank Sinatra. I have it on “Concepts”, this collection of songs that I bought for, I don’t know what, five Euros? May have been a mistake on Amazon’s side, because some days later it was back to $180 🙂

YouTube has the song in a version seemingly taken from a TV show.

Hmm … did I promise a shorter post in the last post? Guess I did. Maybe next time 😀

Jan 232009

I’ve mentioned it some times, you may know, I have a science fiction phase right now. I am quite through with Ursula LeGuin’s classic novels, only two books with short stories left, and at the moment I read William Gibson’s “Count Zero”, the second part of his “Sprawl” trilogy.

I guess most of you who are interested in science fiction will have read the trilogy a long time ago, but for me it fell into my 25 years of abstinence, thus this is another series of books where I have the pleasure to see how they withstood the test of time.

Boy, that’s interesting. Gibson published the first part, “Neuromancer”, in 1984, two years after the Disney movie Tron. Interestingly enough, Wikipedia lists neither one as an influence to the other, and when you know both, this is hard to believe.

What the trilogy and the movie have in common, that is a very naive and, in hindsight, rather stupid model of networking and computing, but in a way it is excusable. Tron happens in a mainframe world, and although in Gibson’s creation there is networking, it is as far as can be from what we know as the Internet.

The idea of “Artificial Intelligence” was the dernier cri then, and this is obviously the reason why both, movie and novels, anthropomorphize computer programs. The concept was popular but not well understood at the time, and like always in such cases, it was greatly inflated in fiction. Heaven knows we have reduced our expectations to humble dimensions by now.

I began to read English books with the “Lord of the Rings”, something about 25 years ago, today I read much more English literature than German, I have written my master’s thesis in English, I write daily, so I guess I am quite capable of finding my way around in the English language, but “Neuromancer” was hard to read. This is for two reasons:

The book describes a world that should be familiar to me as a computer scientist, but in fact it is not at all. The idea of a “matrix” (Gibson didn’t invent the term, but he popularized it greatly) where you step around from node to node, using a “cyberspace deck”, this is utterly meaningless. Obviously Gibson himself had no real idea what the intellectual contribution of his “cyberspace cowboys” (basically hackers and crackers) would be, because when he describes what they do, then it’s almost exclusively using some magic intrusion software that solves their problems, but that they seemingly don’t remotely understand. Regarding the real nature of those programs, his elite cyberspace cowboys are left just as clueless as the reader.

The other reason why “Neuromancer” was hard, is the slang he uses. According to Wikipedia (Danger: spoilers!!),

the novel’s street and computer slang dialogue derives from the vocabulary of subcultures, particularly “1969 Toronto dope dealer’s slang, or biker talk”.

And that’s obviously a slang of people who don’t need to express complicated concepts. The language is oversimplified, greatly reduced in context and redundancy, to the point of extreme ambiguity, and the combination of these two things makes the book hard to comprehend, at least for me.

Well, I’m through now, and either I have managed to accomodate, or “Count Zero” is a very different book. To me it seems a much better book anyway, less simplistic, weaving more of a believable pattern of this fictiuous reality.

You know, most of the time science fiction is not very creative when it comes to future developments. Authors normally extrapolate what they know, and you instantly recognize it in the role that arcade games play in “Neuromancer”. Arcade games were the kind of computer games played at that time. They completely lost their importance with the advent of the personal computer, but when the novel was written, personal computers had been just invented, were still expensive and not big in graphics anyway.

The other interesting thing is always how science fiction deals with future politics. It is quite safe to assume, that at one time in a more or less remote future, we will have overcome the concept of national states, but not all science fiction goes that safe road, and although Gibson only drops some hints, it is clear that his future still has a Soviet Union, and that there has never been a reunion of the two German states. He hints at “the radioactive ruins of old Bonn”, so Germany has seemingly been battlefield in a nuclear war, but nothing decisive is ever said.

Not all of Gibson’s inventions have been obsoleted though, and all in all the fabric holds. His world is consistent and believable, partially also because much of what he has invented has defined a cliché, familiar through movies like “The Matrix” or “Strange Days“, through cyberpunk role playing games and a host of computer games. Whatever its weaknesses, especially those of “Neuromancer”, the Sprawl trilogy has become a genre-defining classic.

Well, that’s it so far. I won’t tell you anything about the storylines, I myself hate nothing more than literature reviews where every single sub-plot is explicated, but I can definitely recommend Gibson’s novels as a case of science fiction that has mutated into the genre of “alternate reality” much sooner than its author may have intended or expected.

If you’ve made it down here, you may ask yourself where the connection with photography and this particular image is. Well, if at all, it’s the concept of subculture. Just as Gibson’s characters, the subcultures in our own society all have their own language, their own rituals, and it is sometimes hard to understand what they do and in which way they do it.

This particular hydrant has been featured in “377 – I Should Have Taken It As A Warning” and “657 – Here We Go Again“. The bright yellow on black never fails to attract me, but the ritual of smearing tags on everything is absolutely alien to me, as alien as the typographic peculiarities of graffiti themselves, as alien as the ritual of writing “Boys” as “Boyz”. Well, Boy #1 will probably know.

The Song of the Day is “Beautiful Boyz” from CocoRosie’s 2005 album “No
ah’s Ark”. YouTube has a video.