02 November 2015

Special training in Samurai sword fighting

Tsuba from the Ashmolean collection. Photo by Samourais et Ikebana

Greg Irvine makes the Guardian article on the reopening of the V&As Japanese gallery this week after a major renovation:

The 700 year old blades certainly are  "murderously sharp" but I would imagine that the "special training in Samurai sword fighting" that the curators were given by Greg was along the lines of Careful with that axe Eugene rather than how to recreate the fight scenes from Zatoichi.

28 October 2015

A fight in a phone box

Reading the new OWC selection from Martial's epigrams suggests that not much has changed on the poetry scene in the last 2,000 years...

Book 1 #16
A slim volume -
some good, more average,
and a bunch of crap
is what you're reading:
it's that sort of book.

Book 3 #9
Cinna's writing broadsides against me -
they say. It's not writing if no one's reading. 

Try here for an introduction to Martial if you are interested in learning more: http://blog.oup.com/2015/10/oxford-worlds-classics-reading-group-season-4-martials-epigrams/.

[Translation of Martial by Gideon Nisbet used as a crib, but all words my own.]

20 September 2015

I'm in the library

The poetry wall is on the left, together with new accessions (Citizen, Cold Light, Riddley Walker...). The print to the right of the desk is Botticelli's drawing of Dante being lead through Paradise by Beatrice, and the cushion on the green chair is the head of Charles Darwin.

The literature wall is on the left with the racy stuff on the top shelf, under the watchful eye of Marie Stope's Planned Parenthood and Gloria Steinem's Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.

01 September 2015

Dubcek's manic pixie dream girls

All That Jazz (1979)

I’m rereading Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was published in English in 1984 and I can’t have read it any later than 1986. The book was presented as an urgent bulletin from behind the Iron Curtain, which felt permanent at the time, but remarkably only survived another 5 years. Although the ostensible subject of the book is Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, especially the Prague Spring rebellion, by far the greatest weight of words is expended on the sexual, and occasionally romantic, relationships between men and women.

Even in the 80s the male characters struck me as having a debatable attitude towards women, and re-reading I found the book pretty much as I remembered it. I suppose the fact that it made such a lasting impression on me is at the very least a backhanded compliment.

The cornerstone of the book is the relationship between Tereza, a 20 year old waitress, and Tomas a surgeon in his early 40s. The book unfolds through a litany of categorial assertions about life that just beg you to disagree with them, and can get deeply infuriating at times. Tomas is not one of those middle-aged men who use young flesh to stave off their sense of impending death, but a deep and tortured thinker, an existentialist, the Ulysses of the bedroom.

He is naturally unfaithful, running a large stable of mistresses, though the only one we learn about in any detail is Sabina, an artist who gets turned on by wearing a bowler hat, bra and pants next to her fully clothed lover. Tomas explains his womanising as an imperative to explore the idiosyncrasies that women only express during sex. He has little interest in the idiosyncrasies women only express outside of sex and is not going to be a source of many profound profound insights, though he may have a book of sexual technique in him.

Tereza is understandably deeply pissed, but incomprehensibly long suffering. At one point she is so distraught she considers sleeping with the chef who sexually harassed her as a young waitress, as a means of dealing with her pain.

The book pivots around a letter about the tragedy of Oedipus that Tomas publishes in a literary magazine that is obscure almost to the point of extinction. The unreasonably thorough censors decide that Tomas identified the regime with Oedipus, implying that it has made itself wilfully blind. Tomas becomes an unintended, and very obscure martyr. The incident reminds you of Paulin’s poem “Where Art is a Midwife” (The censors are on day-release. / They must learn about literature. // There are things called ironies, / Also symbols, which carry meaning. // The types of ambiguity / Are as numerous as the enemies / of the state).

Tomas’ descent begins. He loses his job as a surgeon, and is soon washing windows for a living, and fucking his female clients. Finally Tereza confronts him about his infidelity and Tomas realises that his only comfort comes from her love for him. They decide to move to the country to work on a collective farm, where the simple life keeps Tomas faithful, and they come to an understanding of what life is really about.

I realise that I have made the book sound dreadful and it is dreadful in some ways. But it reads like a dream, has great pace and energy, and is not lightweight. The story shifts backward and forward in time, and major plot points are revealed long before they happen. All of this is handled masterfully and the early revelations only serve to make events more poignant when they happen. As I said, I found the book pretty much as I read it 30 years ago - I don’t remember most books a fraction that well...

17 August 2015

O Tempora, O Mores

A Parthian Shot
Hunter S Thompson by Annie Leibowitz

In solid counter-culture fashion Hunter S Thompson’s book Hell’s Angels starts with an attack, not on the Angels, but on the the police and the press. Around 1965, for reasons that aren’t wholly clear, but in the case of the press can probably be traced to a desire to sell papers, and in the case of law enforcement to a need to be needed combined with a terror of being caught out by the next lurking menace, the press and the authorities began to spin horror stories about the Angels. At the time the Angels were only one of several motorcycle gangs in California and far from the largest; with a falling roll they were dying on their wheels. The stories concocted to make middle class flesh creep created a public panic out of all proportion to any actual danger, and gave the Angels the power of myth: in the end the cops and press made them far bigger than they would ever have been without all that attention.

It’s hard to disagree with the thesis, but the way HST chooses to illustrate it in the opening chapters of the book tells you that more than 50 years has passed since it was written. Initially two women who’d spent the day in a bar and the night on the beach with the Angels, alleged multiple rape and identified half a dozen of their attackers, who were arrested. The story was extensively and enthusiastically reported in the press, who spun it against the Angels for all they were worth. Subsequently the women withdrew their allegations and the police dropped all charges for lack of evidence, leaving the stories of gang rape washed up on the shore like spilled oil that never goes away. You’re invited to infer that a credulous police force colluded with two women with buyer’s remorse, to make a felony out of misdemeanour, while an irresponsible press had a field day.

The women were 14 and 15 years old.

Later on in the book HST is clear-eyed enough to describe a consensual gang bang as something which was not sexual but "stank of vengeance" and I don't think a charge of brute misogyny holds up - though the way he continually and casually uses the word rape throughout the book, unqualified and decontextualised, intending to be transgressive and edgy, pokes at a nerve, as he surely knew it would (but doesn’t seem clever anymore). He’s writing a thesis about the press and law enforcement, and the warping effect of a tampered discourse on public opinion; he’s not analysing misogyny. And, of course, he is like all of us, of his time: the cold fact is that the story could only unfold the way it did because the cops' determination that the 14 and 15 year old's behaviour was consensual, was sanctioned by society.

Despite overwhelming qualms about the framing, HST’s point is a valid one; the police’s overenthusiastic response to a hyped up menace only served to magnify it, and the popular press enthusiastically exploited the opportunity the Angels provided. That said, HST’s real beef is with the heavyweight press and TV stations who failed to question the stories they were fed, and took press releases from interested parties, political spin and uncorroborated anecdotes at face value; this, in turn, lead to an inevitable failure of political discourse. Someone (especially a self-proclaimed gonzo journalist), writing with such earnestness about the immoral willingness of the fourth estate to be spoon fed junk food, is a sad, almost pitiable, spectacle in the internet age.

Spike and Buffy Summers looking down on an army of Turok-Han inside the Hellmouth
Daily Mail readers view the mouth of Hell from a safe distance

I have no idea where to look for the serious press today. Having read The Times just before it set sail for the undying lands beyond the paywall, I doubt it is there. Even those papers-with-pretensions left in Middle Earth, like the Guardian and Independent, seem to publish ten times as much click bait as information, and the Daily Mail has reinvented itself as Buzzfeed for the middle-aged. There are no svelte athletes like the Sunday Times Insight team any more, just a gaggle of end-of-days Elvis impersonators solid with cholesterol and additives, days away from carking it on the toilet.

There is an obvious lineal descent from the breathless historic reports of "Hell’s Angels out of control" to current tabloid stories intended to make readers feel they are living on the edge of the hell mouth despite the counter evidence of their comfortable middle class lives. In '65 families with children, their curiosity piqued by the press, made their way to the resorts which were the endpoints of the Angels' Labour Day runs in the hope of seeing the world burn. HST heard parents being berated by their kids if it happened that the Angels didn’t turn up as promised.

If much has changed in the last 50 years, much remains and not for the better. In some passages HST reads like a modern day Cassandra with a Luger. “More and more often the police are finding themselves in conflict with whole blocks of the citizenry, none of them criminals […] this is particularly true in situations involving groups of negroes and teenagers."

"It may be that America is developing a whole new category of essentially social criminals […] persons who threaten the police and the traditional social structure, even when they are breaking no law, because they view the law with contempt and the police with distrust."

As HST acknowledges in the book, Hell’s Angels was written contemporaneously with the Watts race riots in LA caused by a police stop of an African American man for driving whilst intoxicated. The riots lasted from 11 to 17 August 1965 and 34 people died. Immediately after the riots, public opinion identified Communism as the likeliest root cause (which was not quite as insane then, with the Cold War at its height, as it would be today, but is still an impressive stretch by any standards).

11 August 2015

Twilight of the Guru

I wrote this poem over a year ago as part of a sequence about work called Business Class. It's based on my nostalgia for the golden age of management gurus 20-25 years ago, and the door stop-sized "must read" books they published. The books were farmers' almanacs for senior and middle management, and appeared on an annual basis, much like the franchise superhero movies of today and with the same diminishing returns.

It's nice to see The Economist finally catching up. They point out that the pundit industry has been stagnant for over a decade now, and that "perhaps the biggest enemy of guru renewal is the development of 'thought leadership'. Companies are being sold the idea that becoming a leading public thinker on an issue affecting their industry will give them a competitive edge."
The pitfall is obvious: "as companies scramble to be seen as thought leaders, they are likely to repackage existing ideas instead of creating new ones. Whenever companies treat thinking as 'content' and deploy their marketing and PR people to pump it out, the result is bound to be cliché or gobbledygook."
I should own up that my job title is Thought Leader. Make of that what you will.
Also: both guru and pundit are Sanskrit words.

Reading Your Way To Success 
I’m nostalgic
for the evangelists,
the management guru
snake oil salesmen
who blitzed the 90s,
rescuing dinosaurs
from extinction
with holy paperbacks
of anecdata,
and became
the cautionary tale
they’ll never tell,
cut down in a hail
of 140 characters,
their corpses stripped
of their lunch money
among the Joshua trees.

19 July 2015

Wolf Hall

The Shotover Oak probably started life as an acorn in Tudor times, and was a small sapling by the time Elizabeth I visited Shotover Lodge in 1566.

I've known the oak for most of my adult life, but a week ago on 13 July its major branches succumbed to damage brought on by the dry weather. It fell in two parts, and the council had no option but to cut it down.

I feel a sense of loss I find impossible to justify.


If I worship anything
it is this old oak,
stranded centuries
from its birth,
curated by treecreepers.

I place my palm
on its skin
as I could only be
to something
and capable
of suffering,
and pray
as if it could care.

I pray
it will keep my memories safe
refreshed and bright and bitter
as leaves.

08 June 2015

Living at 10,000 feet

Living at 10,000 feet is hard, more so if you’ve spent your life at sea level in Oxford. You have a perpetual, vague headache, you walk slowly, and take rests when you’re climbing stairs. There’s 30% less oxygen than at sea level, and at night when you’re trying to sleep, your body wakes you every few minutes to check you’re still alive. You read about unwary tourists dying of altitude sickness in Machu Picchu, but the Pic du Midi is 1,500 feet higher. You’re so high up that, miles below, the fearsome climb of the Col de Tourmalet looks like a gentle Sunday bike ride. 

Picture by Pascalou Petit - Licensed via Wikimedia Commons

The Pic du Midi is a meteorological, astronomical and ecological observatory perched on top of the highest peak in the French Pyrenees. It looks like Blofeld’s lair. It is also, after the recent very harsh winter, surrounded by snow, rather than the pristine rock shown in the picture.

The most distinctive feature of the complex are the multiple cupolas housing many different telescopes. 


The Pic has converted 6 rooms previously used by the scientific staff into guest bedrooms so that people can stay at the observatory overnight, watch the sun go down, see Venus and Jupiter rise, watch the rings of Saturn and Jupiter’s moons through a telescope, see the Milky Way and all the stars in the sky, sleep briefly, watch the sun rise over the mountains the next day, view solar flares through a coronascope, visit the huge TBL telescope with its 2 metre mirror, and then go back down the mountain by cable car to somewhere you can actually breathe.

Rocks, snow, cloud, June

Of course, this being France, you also get a four course meal with red and white wine, and a bijou bottle of champagne which the maitre d’ says you can drink or take back to your room.

There is a long safety briefing when you first arrive, and great stress is laid on the emergency number you can call if you are taken ill (there is a fully equipped sick bay), and there is an emergency phone in each bedroom. I think they’re concerned about shenanigans.

It’s behind you. Actually this is a coronascope and it is taking pictures of the sun, not the moon.

Unsurprisingly there is not a lot of fauna this high up, but we got to see vultures soaring, alpine choughs, and snow finches. 

The author about to strike...

16 May 2015

Nightjars and Tufa

Apple Picking by E Tolley

How do you see a poem?

It’s a stupid question: you don’t see poems. Poems are about how you see things.

Poetry is so much about seeing things that there is an extensive genre - ekphrastic poetry - of poems describing visual works of art. One of the most famous ekphrastic poems is Keat's Ode on a Grecian Urn, but the technique goes back at least as far as Homer, and is still very popular today.

Poems are used to seeing, not being seen.

This painting of an apple orchard is an exception. It’s a reverse ekphrasis: a friend took a poem I’d written a few years earlier, and described it in a picture. I’m the one in the purple T-Shirt leaning against the tree. I’d say it’s as faithful a representation of my poem as most ekphrastic poems are of the works of art they describe - which is not a criticism of the painting or ekphrastic poetry, simply an acknowledgement that works of art have to exist in their own right first, and only secondarily in relation to what inspired them. 

Here are the opening stanzas of the same poem visualised by a program created by a multidisciplinary team of poets, linguists and computer scientists:

I learned about their work in a seminar on Data Visualisation: Poetry Visualisation on the Web held at the IT Services Department of Oxford University.

The team had the interesting idea of writing a computer program to visualise a poem in a way that would help a close reader to analyse it. The first problem they faced was to find a common language they could all use to talk about poems. Given that the intent was to create a program to do the work of visualisation, it made sense to look for concepts in computing which had a usable correspondence to poetry. Computer scientists may not understand poems, but they understand complex dynamic systems - and a poem, in the right light, can be seen as a complex dynamic system.

Traditional data analysis makes the world comprehensible by sifting the myriad of possible influences on a complex event to identify the handful of factors which are critical to understanding it.

One of the most brilliant uses of this reductionist technique is Minard’s infographic describing Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, and his subsequent retreat from Moscow. For anyone interested, Minard’s work is discussed in detail in Edward Tufte’s remarkable book Visual Display of Quantitative Information but, in short, the picture plots the geographic advance (brown) and retreat (black) of Napoleon’s army, the width of the line corresponding to the size of the army, the bottom graph showing the bitter temperatures experienced during the retreat from Moscow, the route showing how Napoleon tried to avoid returning over the same scorched earth he had advanced across and how the Russians forced him to retrace his steps along the Smolensk road, the corridor of which had been stripped of food by both armies during the French advance. Napoleon’s invading force of 680,000 was reduced to 27,000 fit men by the end of the campaign. The picture is War and Peace as a one page graphic novel.

Poetry is not amenable to such simplification. The poets on the team identified over 50 features they felt were vital to the close reading of a poem - rhyme, assonance, consonance, vowel sounds, and so on. It was not possible to meaningfully reduce the analysis of a poem to two or three key variables. Not all factors were vital to the understanding of every poem, but a substantial subset were. Simultaneously presenting 50 variables in a comprehensible way on the two dimensional canvas of a web page is pretty much impossible. In addition to which the analysis and visualisation of the poem had to be done by a program, and therefore it was necessary to choose features of poems (like letters, words, lines and stanzas) that a computer program could identify and understand. This meant the analysis of metre and rhythm was ruled out early in the project (in my opinion most metrical analysis of English poetry has no more objective basis than homeopathy, so I wasn’t surprised a computer couldn’t understand it).

In the end the team settled on 26 poem features, both phonetic and semantic, that the program was going to analyse and visualise.

The first step is to translate the poem into the phonetic alphabet, with vowels, consonants and punctuation colour-coded. The line of symbols above the phonetic text represents the consonants (coloured circles or squares) and vowels (3x3 grid) in the words beneath. The particular design used to represent each letter describes its sound, and the way it is produced by the tongue and lips. The original design of the vowel glyphs was based on an X-Ray of a human head showing the position and movement of the tongue in the process of pronunciation. Although accurate, this was pretty gruesome to look at, and the picture contained a lot of invariant information - only the positioning of the tongue was different in each case. So the team settled on the abstract 3x3 grid representation instead.

Phonetic relations such as rhyme, end rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance are shown by colour coded ligatures between the related elements - for example connecting rhyming words.

The final refinement of the visualisation was to create a glyph to represent the line as a whole:

The line glyph, or macro glyph, is the spiderweb to the left of the line of text. This glyph describes the changing sound of the line as it progresses.

All of the analysis performed by the program relates to the structure of the poem, rather than its content - for  obvious reasons. I don’t think that’s such a terrible limitation: after all in the best poems form and content  are strongly aligned, so by saying something about form you are also, implicitly, analysing content.

The primary use of the visualiser is as an aid to the close reading of a poem, and to teaching poetry. It is very complex, especially for less advanced students, but different elements of the visualisation can be turned on and off so that the teacher can concentrate on a single element, such as rhyme, or a small handful of elements, which should simplify things a lot.

That’s a valuable thing to do, but personally I’m more interested in the creative possibilities of the visualiser. One suggestion made in the seminar was to use the analyser to render a three dimensional representation of a poem by stacking the line / macro glyphs like a pile of coins and feeding them into a 3d printer. I think that’s a brilliant idea, but I don’t think the current visualisation of the line / macro glyphs would result in interesting 3d structures: you’d get something that looked like a scabby packet of Polos. But the idea is definitely worth pursuing. As a biologist I tend to think of poems as proteins. Proteins start life as a linear sequence of amino acids, just as poems start life as a linear sequence of words, but as the chain of amino acids gets longer the elements in the chain begin to interact with each other, and the protein folds up, the two dimensional structure becoming a complex three dimensional shape, undergoing multiple transformations as more elements are added to the chain, until it reaches its final configuration - which often brings elements which are distant from one another in the linear structure of the protein into close three dimensional proximity. That’s how I’d visualise a poem.

Another suggestion was to use the visualiser as an adjunct to the performance of a poem. Again this is an excellent idea, but at the moment the visualisations produced by the program are optimised for analysis, not entertainment. You'd need a pretty specialised sense of fun to be captivated by the current diagrams. 

If you want to go back to the source material for this blog post you can find a podcast of another performance of the lecture I attended here.

If you want to experiment with the poem viewer, it can be found here.

And finally here is the full text of the poem which was the basis of the ekphrastic painting and computer analysis so that you can judge for yourself how well they interrelate. 

Apple Picking

The colours of the hedgerows
bruise and ripen.
Each tree set with a blaze

like a slant of light. He was
waiting for us at the door
and led us into the orchard.

He rooted out two ladders
of rickety grey wood,
and stood back to offer

advice and plenty; those
are good eaters and keep well,
those are cookers,

they wont last after picking.
He'd seen the trees force out
the last flowers of frost,

then stripped by wind and rain,
blind calyxes swelling
with green galls. Under his care

their puckered cheeks
belled and reddened to this
roseate halo; the best fruit

always out of reach.
I climbed into the sunlight.
The last good day of the year

he said, as he gathered it
and cupped it in his palm,
the light held in the waxy

lustre of its skin. Take what
you want, they'll just go to waste.
As I picked the jarred fruit

fell with the padded thud
of billiards on baize; soft
stones pressed underfoot.

I had never known wealth
so wholly impractical;
in the black country

at harvest festival
we brought offerings
of tinned fruit and coal.

02 May 2015

The Oxonian Review 2015 poetry competition

This is Florida
The competition was judged by Jamie McKendrick and a reading of the shortlisted poems was held at the Albion Beatnik book store in Oxford. Those willing and able followed up with a celebratory meal at the Al Shami restaurant afterwards. Everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and it was marvellous fun.

My poem is my jaundiced response to having to travel to Florida one too many times for work, with all the Disney families and the snowbirds chasing the last of the sun. It's part of a sequence of poems about how office drones and IT workers like me make our living.

18 February 2015

Elemental Path Debuts The First Toys Powered By IBM Watson

Picture (c) Elemental Path
A friend wrote to me today: "I'm about half impressed, half creeped out here, but pretty sure I'd check with a child's parent before gifting one of these." 

He was talking about Elemental Path's new line of smart toys for children which will be powered by IBM Watson (the same machine intelligence that won the quiz show Jeopardy), and which the company says will enable the toys to hold meaningful conversations with children, and to evolve with a child as he or she grows.

There's an article on the toys here and the project can be found on Kickstarter if you want to buy one.

It's easy to get this sort of thing out of proportion, and to start sounding like an old person. But (crazy idea) why not encourage kids to go out and talk to other children instead?

The toy is intended to contain specific educational content, and I'm probably overthinking things again, but who gets to decide what content? Will the Jesuits release their version? Do you get to pick the world view of your toy (libertarian, creationist, objectivist etc) or are they all plain old liberal secularists?

I can see some potential therapeutic uses for the toys (with autistic children for example), but beyond that it feels like a bad idea. I admit I bought my kids a Furby when they came out, but the thing about Furbies is that they were endearingly rubbish. These toys have the potential to be just too good: childminder, pacifier, teacher, friend...

Note: according to the article, none of the founders of the company is a parent.