May 30, 2006

Needled

Long streets of strip malls and car yards, tangled forests of roadside signs, cluttered hilly emptiness, grey skies, bad coffee, industrial estates, white trash encampments backed up against scrubby trash-strewn lots… Seattle, beyond the needle and Pike Place: everything suburban England dreams of being, but with a sense of space, real landscape, mountains, big cars, strutting self-pity.

May 27, 2006

Just Beautiful

You look beautiful today (Mars)

Mars has been telling me I look beautiful today for a month now so I wander down Telegraph to Moe's where there's a pleasant little book, "Tarkovsky's Polaroids", on the art book shelves, a production of, well, the great man's polaroids from the 80's and such, tweely-annotated here and there by short poems, gnomic utterances, or personal asides. In the age of photoblogs and things like Photo Noise it puzzles me that anyone would pay for this sort of thing — is there any cachet at all in the rather boring images being Tarkovsky's? Wouldn't you rather see random images from someone you'd never heard of, someone utterly anonymous? Wouldn't you rather have free rein to invent backgrounds, contexts, stories, emotions, etc., from anonymity and careless juxtapositions?

May 24, 2006

Deconstruction

"Alain Badiou says 'emancipatory politics always consists in making seem possible precisely that which, from within the situation, is declared to be impossible.'" — Charles Esche (again).

Beware the studied imprecision of the rhetorical "precisely" — it's so often used to draw attention away from the underlying attempt to restrict alternatives, to declare those alternatives impossible…

May 20, 2006

Berkeley

I lived in Berkeley for more than a dozen years, and a lot of the people who know me here still think of me as living there (the place always kind of suited me). I still go there several times a week, and I continue to think of Telegraph Avenue and a lot of other bits of Berkeley as part of my extended home, even though I've lived in Oakland now for quite a while.

Berkeley can be a frustrating place, a sort of icon or easy shorthand symbol that everyone in the US seems to know something about, regardless of how untrue that something is (and most of the stories about Berkeley that end up in the national media or get bandied about in conversations are fantasies that say more about the media outlets and their willing audiences than about Berkeley, but never mind). It's definitely a City Of Stereotypes (aging hippies, students, protesters, the homeless, punks, clueless academics, newagers, etc. — the usual menagerie of strident, self-righteous, or flaky stereotypes that congeal in a town dominated by a very well-known university campus). And it does too often seem heroically hell-bent on living up to those stereotypes, no matter how stupid or self-destructive the effort or the results.

But as I've said elsewhere, there's more to it than that. Molly Ivins once wrote an affectionate (and now rather out-of-date) piece about Berkeley (she found it hard to resist "the lunatic comedy of the place") that gives a better flavour of the place than the usual easy-target tabloid sensationalism ("Berkeley Bans US Flag!!!!"). But even she misses a lot of what's actually different about Berkeley — not the steretoypes — not the students, not the pathetic old hippies, not the preening self-absorbed gesture politics — but the fact that normal life goes on surrounded by such stereotypes, and that for all those stereotypes, most Berkeleyites are really fairly normal people living fairly normal lives. Sure, that normality's typically a little skewed compared to (say) Kansas, but part of the attraction of Berkeley is the ability to find this little oasis of culture and urban living in amongst all the other crap.

After all, this is a city that within my memory still had working foundries and other heavy industry, and which for all the "Godless Berkeley" sneers seems to have an awful lot of first-rate seminaries and sprawling churches, and which has about as many used car yards as book shops. Yes, it has an excellent city orchestra headed up by Kent Nagano, and was ground zero for the whole California Cuisine thing, but it also has one of the best business schools in the country, and a huge number of really crappy fast food outlets — students have to eat too, you know…. And despite the growing and very visible fleet of Priuses on the streets, a surprisingly high proportion of Berkeleyites drives Hummers, Escalades, or similarly obnoxious SUVs. And Berkeley's downtown YMCA is one of the most popular places in town. So there's a little more to it than most people realise, I guess.

And it's the only city or town I've lived in with an element named after it. That's got to be worth something…
Die Rättin
Up On Telegraph
Berkeley Typewriters
The Little Things
Berkeley Hardware
The Hygenic Dog Food Factory
Godless Berkeley
Owl Drugs
God Bless!

May 17, 2006

Black & White

I was in a long-term relationship with a smart, beautiful, brown-skinned Indian woman a few years ago when I picked up a then-popular book on the experiences of inter-racial marriages in the US, thinking it might have something interesting to say about our situation (which was entirely unremarkable for the Bay Area, and relatively untroubled in real life, but never mind). If you know me you'll know where this is heading: the book spent well over half of its dozen or so chapters discussing black (i.e. African-American) / white marriages or relationships, and gave scant attention to the sort of diversity you see in everyday life here in urban California.

There was literally nothing on relationships like ours, even though our relationship had its own cultural minefields, and was fairly typical by Bay Area standards: apparently, when mainstream Americans say "race" they so often mean "black" and "white"...

May 14, 2006

Cedar Crescent, Please...

The railway was central to the Woy Woy area when I was living there: the road to Sydney, the Pacific Highway, was still only a winding two lane road that took well over an hour to drive the 35 miles to the outskirts of Sydney (and another 30 minutes or more to get to the centre). By 1970, Australia still had only 12 miles of "international standard" (i.e. Freeway / Motorway) road in a country the size of the U.S — and 10 of those miles were replacement for the worst parts of the Pacific Highway north out of Sydney (we were so proud of the new Tollway when it opened, we’d try to get mum or dad to let us drive with them to Sydney whenever they went down; now the freeway stretches pretty much all the way to Newcastle, and the drive to Gosford is a quick easy jaunt). The tollway cut huge pink and yellow bare sandstone scars through the hills; we thought it was beautiful… (and Hawkesbury sandstone — pink, yellow, gold, and white when unweathered, darker and curved, porous, when exposed for years — is so much a part of this landscape and my childhood images).

By contrast, the railway was quick and convenient, at least for commuters. At 6 in the morning Woy Woy station would be a hive of activity — bicycles, cars, buses, men – all rushing to catch the trains to Sydney. There was a strong and obvious division between the blue-collar workers and the white collar workers here: the former usually got to the station, in overalls or King Gee work clothes, by about 6; the latter typically caught the trains around 7 or even later, in (bad) suits or Public Service shorts. In the early days I remember the Red Trains — the old red single-decker ten-carriage trains pulled by the omnipresent class 46 electric loco. Fairly fast, endlessly noisy (clackety-clack! clackety-clack!), unairconditioned (but with large openable windows). Some of the carriages dated from the early 1900’s; most from the 50’s. The new silver electric self-propelled carriages came in in the mid 60’s, still noisy, still fast, relatively comfortable in a spartan sort of way. Much better late at night in the summer with all the windows open and dog shift workers playing cards and talking their way to work than the later closed window air-conditioned double-deckers with the reflecting windows. Even us ten-year-old kids knew how to take the train to Sydney or Gosford on our own, and often did.

The track was electrified as far north as Gosford, and then the steam trains and diesels took over for the run to Newcastle or the North Coast. I can remember the odd steam train pushing through Woy Woy even in the late 60’s; the station overpass had smoke walls to stop people running to the trains from getting soot all over them. Gosford train yards — at that time quite a sizable operation — still had small steam shunters in the early mid-60’s; they were endlessly fascinating to me when I was allowed to watch them when dad had to go to Gosford Hospital to visit a patient.

Late at night you could hear the trains coming out of the long tunnel near Bull’s Hill and accelerating towards Woy Woy, then running across the causeway towards Gosford. A long diesel goods train might take 20 minutes or more, and you could always hear it miles away across the water. For the first decade or so of my life in Australia trains were an utterly natural part of the landscape, characteristic parts of the soundscape, something taken so much for granted that when I moved to Canberra for the first year or so I kept hearing trains in all sorts of other sounds.

Buses were also crucial in a place where the majority of people had no cars. The local bus company, Richter Bros. Buses, ran a fairly decent monopoly that served most areas of the Peninsula. The buses always synchronised with the trains, since this was the main way for commuters to get to and from the station. The Richter buses also made it as far as Gosford, Pearl Beach, and Patonga every hour or so. Except for the main streets, the buses had no defined bus stops at that time — you could flag them down anywhere just by waving at the driver, and when you got on (even a small kid like me) you just said something like "Cedar Crescent, please" and the driver (Dennis, often enough, on the Ettalong via Booker Bay route — many of us kids knew the drivers by first name at least) would mentally note the destination, then remind you (often by name — "Master Little… Jimmy… Cedar Crescent!") if you hadn’t got up in time to stop when your destination approached. It was considered quite rude to use the stop cord buzzer thing; you just stood up as the bus approached and the driver would slow down for you. They’d stop anywhere along the route, right up until the early 70’s when the council forced them to stop only at properly-marked bus stops.

Late at night there’d be only one bus meeting the train; you’d get on, tell the driver where you were going, pay, and after everyone got on, he’d sit there for a while thinking about how he’d best get everyone home, then pull out onto Woy Woy Road. In this case they’d go pretty much wherever needed to get the passengers home, as long as it was not unreasonably off the beaten track. Usually, within 20 or 30 minutes, everyone got there, but every now and then (mostly because the preferred route in these situations would go first towards Umina, then Ettalong, then Booker Bay, then (home!) Orange Grove Rd) I’d end up in the back completely forgotten, with the bus obviously heading back towards the station or the depot (at the foot of Barrenjoey Road). I’d pluck up the courage and walk forward; Dennis would look startled or sheepish, and we’d head back towards Orange Grove, Dennis always cheering me up with a good shark story or something….

May 10, 2006

Correction Of The Week

"In Amos Elon's 'A Shrine To Mussolini', [NYRB, February 23] the mention of 'fasces' in ancient Rome should have said they were carried by 'lictors' not 'lectors'".

May 07, 2006

Pigs And Lipstick

A local Chevrolet dealer is having — yes! — a "Green Day" today, with rows of huge fat heavy Chevrolet SUV's topped with signs saying things like "gets 20 miles per gallon!" or "runs on ethanol!".

Twenty miles per gallon is green? Wow. There goes a flying pig...

May 05, 2006

Pardon?

The attempts to get Mississippi to pardon Clyde Kennard appear about to fail again. But the real issue surely isn't whether Mississippi will pardon Kennard (he, after all, did virtually nothing wrong and almost everything right), but whether Kennard will pardon Mississippi (well, he's been dead for more than forty years, so that's probably out of the question), or whether history or the rest of the world will pardon Mississippi. The jury's out on that one, I guess.

May 04, 2006

Torkel Franzen

Torkel Franzen died a few weeks ago from cancer. I was coincidentally halfway through his book "Goedel's Theroem: An Incomplete Guide To Its Use And Abuse" (AK Peters, 2005) when I heard about it. In books, papers, and on Usenet, he had a lucid, probing, and drily funny style that for me was perfectly suited to (among other things) his trying to correct the often idiotic and shallow "understanding" of Goedel's theorem and its supposed ramifications that seem to attend both Postmodern and pre-modern takes on maths, logic, and the real world (wherever it is, somewhere Out There).

In particular, there's a special circle in hell reserved for people who (mis)use Goedel's theorem(s) to justify saying things like "Goedel's theory shows that physics can not ever be complete or True", or "as Goedel's proof has shown, the human mind can prove what computers cannot", or "Goedels' theorem shows that absolute truth is always unattainable" (and similar atrocities that it's sometimes a little too tempting to blame on the whole Goedel Escher Bach Thing). Torkel demanded a rigour that felt refreshing after the liguistic shell games that so often result from the movement of scientific or maths concepts like Goedel's Theorem, Relativity, Chaos Theory, Fractals, etc., into general philosophy and popular culture.

May 01, 2006

Introspection, Again

Tight Sainthood has been plugging on in its slightly Pooterish way now for two years, an eternity in blog time. I know of only four regular readers, all of whom I've met (even if Phil doesn't remember it from all those years ago :-)), but judging by the logs or the occasional email, there's a few more Out There who pass by or lurk occasionally. As with this time last year, googling for the word "pudenda" is still by far the most common way people get to this site, followed — still! — by "flying car", and now by "woy woy", presumably via Spike. Don't really know quite what it all says about Tight Sainthood — nothing, probably.


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