Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Gandhi describing Mussolini

[In 1931 Gandhi visited Mussolini and later described him:]
He has the eyes of a cat, they moved about in every direction as if in constant rotation. The visitor would totally succumb before the awe of his gaze like a rat running directly into the mouth of a cat out of mere fright. I was not to be dazed like that but I noticed that he had so arranged things about him that a visitor would easily get stricken with terror. The walls of the passage through which one has to pass to reach him are all overstudded with various types of swords and other
weapons. He keeps no arms on his person.
["Was he not a remarkable personality?" asked a visitor of Gandhi's.]
Yes, but a cruel man. A regime based on such cruelty cannot last long.
        From Louis Fischer, "Life of Gandhi"

Monday, 15 July 2019

It's becoming illegal not to have a cellphone

Woo! Five years ago I stopped using cellphones, not for their monstrous tracking and spying capabilities like listening to you while they appear to be off, even if you remove the main battery!) but because they only reason people called me was because they wanted something.

The other day, for the first time, I was denied services point blank if I didn't supply a valid cellphone number.

The first was Google Mail, which now refuses to create a new account unless you have a cellphone number. Well, that's OK, I'm not forced to use Google's services if that's their policy.

The other one, which sends a shiver down my spine, is HMRC, the UK tax authority. In view of my forthcoming 55th birthday I wanted to sort out my UK tax position... but to register on their web site the only "verification" option that applied to me was outsourced to Experian, the credit rating agency. That they wanted a scan of my driving licence is fine, but to do this they require me to buy a cellphone and - can you believe it? - install an Experian App on it.

Now, not using callphones for five years makes it much easier to view what a spying and tracking device they have become. Security zero. Facebook Apps that re-install themselves if you delete them, back doors in many apps, apart from the fact that I don't run proprietary software any more, partly for this reason.

So, my question is this: Is it legal for a government service which I pay for, to require me to buy 500 quid of product from some private company and install a dodgy app from a dodgy company?

I think not. The reply from their "help" center was a boilerplate "You don't have to use our services" memo. Well, actually, I do.

Dog Language

Here's the translation of a gem I found in a comment on facebook, a real eye-opener onto the world that dogs live.


When a dog rubs up against us, it’s not looking for cuddles. It wants to mix our odours to confirm the unity of the group.
When a dog approaches its nose to another dog’s, it’s not to give it kisses. It’s to analyse the substances emitted by the glands present in that region.
When a dog urinates, it’s not showing contempt. It’s leaving very clear messages that can only be interpreted by those able to identify and analyse the substances emitted in that gesture. If the jet lands on someone, that strongly confirms their alliance with that person.
When a dog wags its tail, it’s not necessarily happy. It wants to spread chemical information about its identity.
When a dog jumps up at someone, it’s not having a party. It’s telling you to stop, and there may be several different reasons why.
When a dog bows down in front of someone, it’s not inviting them to play but to move.
When a dog rolls on the ground, usually it’s not playing, but is marking, leaving important chemical information in that place, released by the glands present on the nape, the back and at the base of the tail.
This doesn’t make these animals any less fascinating creatures; quite the opposite.
This tells us that they are profoundly different from us or, rather, different from what we humans have become but very similar to how we humans were at the time when the alliance was born between the two species.
This tells us that they are not cuddly eternal babies with only play and food on their minds. Instead, they are intelligent adults able to evaluate things, to reason, to decide and to express themselves.
And those who have ended up in our houses will be all the more adult and mature if we put them in the conditions to be so.
Otherwise, theirs will just be a wasted intelligence.
Posted by Veronica Papa in a comment on facebook on 30 March 2018 at 11:01 CET

Friday, 22 February 2019

Polyphony in Common Swift calls

Common Swifts express themselves copiously with their voices.
This example is the third trill of fourteen in a ten-second sequence. Amazingly, the swift produces not one note but at least three simultaneously.

Blogger deosn't seem to do audio clips yet, but you can see the spectrogram, listen to the call and read a little analysis of it on the page Spectrograms of the call of the Common Swift.

First theft

Early February 2019
For the first time ever, after decades of "social work", someone that I put up for the night because it was cold, has stolen from me. The next morning they were missing, as were:
  • A scratched LCD screen that you can't sell
  • A totally mangled laptop that you can't sell
  • The kitchen clock with damaged and illegible LCD
Talk about stupid! They even moved my guitar from its usual place to behind the main door and then forgot to take it, and that was worth far more than all of the above!

Of the dozens of frightening people I've guested in these years, the only other person who ever subtracted something from my home would always bring it back next time.

So I reckon that's a pretty good average!

Update 22 Feb 2019
Two of my less reputable friends knocked at the door with a computer screen that they'd found, wanting to know if it worked or not so that they could sell it.

When I turned it over to put the cables in, there on the back were my two squares of white insulation tape marked with black CD-pen to show which way round to put the plugs in. "This is mine," I said,and told them the story of the idiot who'd nicked it. To show it was mine, I said "and it's scratched," though it looked perfect but, hey presto, when I plugged the power in, the black part lit up with the manufacturer's logo "It works!" one of them said but there were, top left, two horizontal white lines of pixels always half-on, a a war wound from when it fell off its perch once.

"God is great!" I said, hugging the screen and grinning like a cheshire cat.
"I owe you one!"

Saturday, 1 December 2018

What is Art?

I just found this article in my doc/Scritti archive, written in June 2004. Enjoy!

What is Art?

I have been invited for a second time to spend three weeks as a guest of Medien Kunstlabor at the Kunsthaus Graz, and to write something for the Kunstlabor dossier. Since my highest formal academic qualification is in Computer Science, you may think it presumptious of me to confront such a bold question as "What is Art" (and from the answer I give, inevitably also the question of what is not Art). Fortunately or otherwise, life has taken me far from quiet academic environment of my formation and thrown me deep into the social fabric of the city of Catania in Sicily, in the ferment of art students' shared houses, in the laboratories of "career" modern artists and in the receptions and art houses of gallerists and the rich. It was while living and working in an experimental theatre in the suburbs of Catania, seeing group after group prepare, rehearse and perform various original works, that I came to divide the "artists" I saw into two distinct categories.

   It was clear that many of these people had an urgent need to comunicate some message for which words were useless. Words might accompany the action, but the created situation was without doubt the main carrier of whatever it was they were trying to express.  The result was usually unclear and ambiguous, but their search for a way of sharing their vision with others had the intensity of madness and the desperate inventiveness of someone trying to mouth words to another person from the other side of soundproof glass.
   These tortured souls, having inside them something to say, would seek the necessary means to comunicate it in any way they could and since our theatre was little more than a large whitewashed (if architecturally interesting) room situated in one of the most frightening rough areas of the city, we had the good fortune that an unusually high proportion of the people who came to us were of this creative and luminously energetic type, prepared to make a show out of whatever means they could scrape together.

   In the other category of theatre groups the motives were obviously the other way round. These people wanted the means involved in putting on a show, be it the money, the things or just the prestige, and had to put a show on to get them.  I am talking about groups where, typically, one person had succeeded in getting a project approved by some official funding body and, having taken or been promised money, had to put on a show to justify the public expense.  Any show.  Anything at all, so that no one could say that they had taken the money and done nothing.  They would spend money on large quantities of pointless materials to satisfy the article "expenses" in their budget (enormous lengths of rope and cloth seemed to be perennial favourites!) and programme weeks of rehearsal from a inflexible script that often featured people being tied up and beaten, fire, bowls of blood and other gaudy effects.
   Instead of a relatively disorganised group of equals seeking a common goal that characterised the social organization of the former groups, here we usually had one person commanding and the others obeying on pain of being expelled from the group.  Instead of a happy, playful atmosphere producing joyful surprises, the air was heavy and pained, the people terribly serious and anxious and the few unfortunate creatives who tried naively to give their best in whatever lowly task had been assigned to them would inevitably end up being illtreated, their work insulted, and they often went unpaid despite the promises that had been made to them, as if their candid enthusiasm were a thing to be punished. In reality they had not had the wisdom to realise that they had ended up in the wrong kind of group.

   Returning from these reminiscences to our theme, I am tempted to answer that art can be present or absent in any human activity: in the way a shop assistant wraps a package, in the way one cleans a room (do you also do the places where no one will ever look?), but here we must distinguish art from craft. Craft is ability coupled with care and attention in what one does, instead of reluctantly doing the minimum required to achieve an effect or to satisfy someone else's eye and thereby obtain a reward. Craft also contains a message for anyone who might happen to be watching, or who might observe the artefacts: not only the fact that if you do something you can derive joy from doing it well, but also a demonstration of one specific way of doing that particular thing.
   In art, instead, the message, independent of the activity itself, is the only motivation and the choice of medium and artefact spring solely from the desire to express that message.  It may be the need to comunicate a vision or a new way of perceiving reality, it may be a comment on a topical situation that reveals the artist's view of the true nature despite all it appears or is claimed to be, or meta-art which comments on the concept of art itself, or which challenges what is and is not "permitted" as an art form. (Remember that not many years have passed since every abstract artist risked being asked "It's very nice, but what is it a picture *of*?")
   Like true theatre, it is an attempt to comunicate a message for which words are useless: as one artist said when asked explain one of his pictures, "If I could have said it in words, I would not have needed to do it".

   Let me try to tie these consideration to the position of medien.kunstlabor.  Inevitably, human nature being the same throughout the world, the same motivations repeat themselves here, but the stakes are higher.
   On the one hand we have people whose fixed job at the Kunsthaus is no more than a source of security for them and their families, or of power and prestige in the more perverse minds.  They are to be found crouched in every European Art and Music Institute and in every University, and the amount of influence they exert on the artistic and academic activities of these centres is a measure of the level of corruption in the society of which they are a part.  I have no problem with them because their presence is inevitable.
   On the other hand, apart from the money with which MKL can finance people, the high concentration of computer and networking equipment at the media laboratory, part of the server hosting project, represents an object of insatiable desire for any computer enthuisiast you care to mention.  I remember that when I was 12, and we are talking about the late 1970's, that the desire to be able to program one of the first desk-sized personal computers, even for a few minutes, compelled me to take the train week after week to the centre of London, 25 km away, together with a friend, on the offchance of being allowed to type in and run a program on one computer in a shop's display department.  I know the thirst, and so I understand it in others.
   Medien Kunstlabor must be very careful, if it is to promote artists, to distinguish those humble souls who have a vision to comunicate, who most likely are not very technically able and who seek the means to do so through internet, from the technological vultures whose primary desire is to gain equipment, money and prestige and who simulate the appearance of artists in order to do so.
   I don't criticise them for wanting money and things - the world is full of people who do far worse things than this to get their hands on money and things! - but their desire to possess that which is not theirs and their fear of losing it drives them to compete with the others people, to impede others in their work, and to insult and destroy other people's work where they are afraid that it may cast a shadow on their own glory.
Footnote: While I was there, I made an installation, "Crash". The "artist" jaromil, also there, organized for it to be removed by the cleaners the day after, saying "It's just a pile of rubbish".