April 13, 2010

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March 30, 2010

Not Dead Yet

Tight Sainthood is on a temporary, fitful hiatus while I slowly sort out Blogger-related hosting issues. Nothing serious, but I'm way too lazy to spend the concentrated time on solving it all at once, so it might be a few weeks before it's all usable properly, and articles or even the site itself might disappear for a few hours or even days at a time until things are stable again….

March 17, 2010


As a front-page headline in one of today's local rags blares out something like "How To Have An Authentic St Patrick's Day!" it's hard not to respond with a morose little vignette about sitting in a gloomy church somewhere in Cork having the priest note in passing that it's St. Patrick's day before passing on to more pressing things….

Authenticity? Overrated. Especially in a context of no context at all.

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March 10, 2010

Can't We All Just Get Along?

In some probably long-forgotten "Why Oh Why?" Grauniad commentary on the US culture wars I re-read recently, Timothy Garton Ash says "this war will not finish with a victory of blue over red, or vice versa. It will finish with the accepted, peaceful coexistence in one society of different faiths, value systems, and lifestyles — along the line laid down centuries ago by the classical liberalism of John Locke and others […]".

Well, he got the first part right in some ways: the US culture wars really aren't about left vs. right or red vs. blue (or green) — they're a struggle between people who believe in Timothy Garton Ash's tolerant liberalism and those on the right, the left, or wherever for whom that tolerance is the enemy, for whom True Belief is all that matters.

But the rest of that sentence is, for most of his opponents, equivalent to saying the culture wars will only be won when they lose — the whole point of most cultural warriors is to impose intolerance, to ensure that coexistence is impossible, to kill off or at least suppress the people who don't believe what you do. It's equivalent to TGA's saying "the culture wars will only be over when my side's won". Which may or may not be true, but it's not useful.

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February 28, 2010

Why I Love Berkeley, Part 38

Berkeley Post Office

The Post Office — a luminous, beautiful mediteranean building dating from when Californians still cared about civil architecture and took pride in their public buildings.

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February 17, 2010

I Can Do That!

Technology's promise: any idiot could do that!! Technology's curse: every idiot will do that...

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February 08, 2010

Angus Douglas

Angus Douglas, original (in every sense of the word) guitarist for Sydney post-punk band Tactics died this week after a long period of declining health. That wasn't so unexpected, unfortunately, but that doesn't make it any easier or any less sad — Angus was a creative fire, an endless source of odd or unexpected riffs, ideas, phrases, and anything else that occurred to him, and a smart, likable, funny, and good-natured person in real life.

I have no idea if there's anything planned in his memory, but if I hear anything, I'll let interested parties know.

(Photo circa 1980 (?), by Stephen Hocking).

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February 07, 2010

Common Sense

Malcolm Millais "Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture": a book aimed at the general public that oscillates uncomfortably between an empathic socially-engaged engineer's response to architectural blight, and the sort of bluff prejudices-masquerading-as-common-sense more at home in the Daily Mail. He's not half as much fun as Tom Wolfe, and probably not nearly as effective, either.

He aims at all the usual suspects — Mies, Corb, the Bauhaus, Norman Foster, council flats, etc. — but also at Calatrava, Saarinen, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building, the Pompidou Centre, Paul Goldberger, Frank Gehry, Bucky, Frank Lloyd Wright, and even poor old J√łern Utzon (with varying levels of venom or disdain). But there's really nothing that unites these architects or their architecture much beyond the fact that they lived sometime after 1920 or so, or that the buildings were built in the same period; he often seems to confuse or conflate "new", "modern", and "Modern", so while he's quite explicit that the enemy is the Modern Movement (a phrase he uses a lot — capitalised — in the book), it's not really Modernist architecture as such that's the target here, but the direct and indirect effects its ideology and founding concepts are supposed to have had on architects, architecture, and architectural criticism over the years. Which would cover a huge amount of contradictory ground, at least in my estimation: basically just about everything from pure Modernism, through movements and architecture merely influenced by the Modern Movement, to architecture (like the various Postmodernisms) quite explicitly reacting against the Moderns.

He's most concerned about the usability and (social, environmental) suitability of much architecture, and it's difficult not to agree with a lot of what he says, but… The Seagram Building actually looks pretty damn good from the street; he goes for the Opera House in all sorts of ways but misses the sheer banality of everything about it except the sails. The Calatrava bridge I know at first hand is so popular, so appropriate to its placing and intended use, such a pleasant piece of architecture, that it has kids running around touching it and playing on it, it has people (like me) visiting from all over the place. The Saarinens I know best — the old TWA terminal at JFK, and the main terminal at Dulles — are or were pleasnt (fun, even, in the case of the JFK terminal) pieces of work to look at and pass through (it was hardly Saarinen's fault that technology rendered them obsolete over the decades). I know at second hand how annoying the Lloyds building could be to work in (my uncle was a Lloyds underwriter), but it was a bracing sight from the street, one I visited many times just to take it all in. The Pompidou Centre's rightly one of the most visited buildings in Paris, a joy to behold; it may be a failure as an art palace or not, but it's a much-visited and much-enjoyed public building.

But the real crime of Modernist architecture wasn't the failure of Utzon to get a working opera house on Bennelong Point or the unsuitability for workers of various capital-A Architecture projects like the LLoyds building, but the destruction of community and the effect on domestic architecture of things like council flats and inner city projects. The most depressing bits of London in the 1980's were never the stupid Modernist office blocks or monuments, they were the tall grey instantly- and permanently-stained concrete council towers dishearteningly visible almost everywhere you looked. That's not so much a failure of Modern architecture as vast multiple failures of city planning, empathy, and imagination.

But what does he actually like? What's his vision of a good architecture? He plays this way too close to his chest, and you finish the book wondering if he has anything much in mind beyond Prince Charles's earnest quaintness or a sort of vague resurrection of earlier eras in new tech guise.

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January 29, 2010

Short Shameful Confession

Even now that Salinger's dead, I still can't bring myself to like or even admire "The Catcher In The Rye". I was forced to read it as part of a high school English course; back then, I remember thinking how specifically and annoyingly American it was, and just how alien to my own life as a teenager in Australia it all felt.

Nowadays, I think I'd add to this the uneasy feeling that the idea abroad here (in so many obituaries) that this specifically-American story represents something universal seems to be one of the most American aspects of the whole inflated TCITR phenomenon.

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January 26, 2010

Army Of Shadows

A film not afraid to wear its reticence on its sleeve: telegraphic, understated, laconic, minimalist, episodic, precisely elided; violence by implication. Melville makes the most of blue and green colour casts and varying saturation to coat so much with a sense of dread mirroring the fogs and washed-out light. The camerawork feels like a big budget film (steady, assured, occasional jolts, zooms, blacks), but with a sort of dirty realism that transcends itself in a minimalist impressionism (visually and narratively). Hats and tunnels (aircraft, train carriages, underpasses, jail and hospital corridors), symbols and geometry, wall textures (tiles, cell walls, London buildings); this film stays in my mind for weeks afterwards….


January 19, 2010

Down The Drain

Outside, on 29th, a homeless woman who's inhabited the area around the 7-11 for the last few months has built a small fleet of origami boats that she's placed in the gutter and on the grate over the storm water drain next to the street. The effect is desperately sad: this woman is quite crazy — she talks to herself, she sleeps on the bus stop benches in elaborate cardboard-and-umbrella structures, she wanders into the traffic, she verbally attacks you if you show any interest in her — and the sight over the past week or so of these little scrap-paper things sailing away in the garbage-strewn gutter just underlines too much about life in a society too drained of decency.

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January 09, 2010

Rights Rights

I have a little sideline in video making; some of these videos would benefit from music soundtracks derived from (or using as-is) classical or rap or whatever recordings. Unfortunately, while I'd be happy paying a reasonable price to use these tracks on public versions of the videos, there's just no easy way to get those rights, and no fair pricing setup. Around here you typically have to get at least two types of rights per song (sync rights and a master use license); but there's no single central place to find out who the original rights holders are (there may be many, and you may never be able to discover with any certainty whether the rights are unencumbered by other hidden rights holders through derivative licensing), and even if you find them, it may take months or even years of wrangling to get an agreement, which will inevitably cost an arm and a leg (think thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars with a reduction if you're just doing a film festival or you're a student or whatever). The system's set up for large-scale studio films and lawyers; it's hopeless for people like me who're only too happy to pay but have no mechanism for doing so that doesn't include paying more than every other production expense combined for a single soundtrack right, for a short video that's intended for only very limited public showing, or that's not a commercial work.

I dream of the day when there's a central authoritative and efficient rights clearing house for things like this, with a simple payment system based on micro payments per (YouTube, Vimeo, whatever) play, up to a capped amount (think something like a penny per play up to (say) $500 for non-mainstream use). Fat chance, of course, but I can dream.

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January 03, 2010

That Totalitarian Democracy

With all the bipartisan furor about the missing intelligence oversight of the Christmas Underpants Bomber we're rushing slowly towards the consensual totalitarian democracy. But the real scary and destructive scenarios involve things like a suitcase bomb on BART's trans-bay tube, random truck bombings in the heartland, or DNS root server subversion; those are the sorts of things that have me reaching for my shades….

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December 27, 2009

North State

It's a state of mind, really (I-5 south somewhere a little below Red Bluff).

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December 22, 2009

The Wisdom Of The Mob

(Or Dense Pessimisms, Take 3…)

The internet's about immediacy; immediacy fosters instability (it implies no moderation). The net therefore discourages stable grand-scale narratives — like science or government — that are based on a sort of reasoned consensus, but encourages those based on True Belief and revelation (such as religious or political fundamentalisms). The net fragments, it destroys structure; or, rather, it destroys permanent structure. On the one hand it's the great leveler; on the other it encourages dynamic fundamentalisms in response to that lack of structure. Truths wash over the net in waves; it's Postmodernism without the twee irony, and with the power to spill over into real life (not that the net isn't a fundamental part of real life) with catastrophic effect for the sort of Postmodernist sensibility that probably applauds the lack of grand narrative.

The net privatises truth generation and reception; it's like the way the transistor radio and then the iPod privatised the experience of listening (or not listening). In some ways the internet's effect has been like the translation of the Bible from the Vulgate to the vulgar: the unmediated word for everyone, the Truth is in your own reading, not that handed down from the Church. But it also introduces writing for the masses, a universal platform to proclaim those little private Truths very publicly.

The net's the Wal-Mart of truths — you can get anything you want, but like shopping in Wal-Mart it's easier to trust a familiar brand when looking for a particular product. Brands structure the world — the Word, for that matter — and become essential in the world of a million choices. And fundamentalisms are brands; and surely successful brands flirt with a sort of fundamentalism…. We're headed for the Society Of The Brand, not that of the Spectacle.

The unmediated wisdom of the crowd? Just another way of saying the wisdom of the mob.

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December 15, 2009

(Fruit and) Nut

Kraft and Cadbury are struggling over control of Cadbury. I don't really care who wins; all I ask is that (whatever the outcome), Americans please please (please!) stop pronouncing it "Cad-Berry". That is all.

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December 14, 2009

It's Irrefutable!

"Althusser informs us that 'it is an irrefutable fact that the Family is the most powerful State Ideological Apparatus'" (from Tony Judt's 1994 New Republic review article, reprinted in his recent book "Reappraisals"). I sometimes tend to think it's more like state ideology is the most powerful family apparatus, in all the engendered senses of that inversion, but that's just a detail, right? After all, Althusser's talking irrefutable fact here, so he can't be wrong, right?

Despite his obvious humourless totalitarian tendencies and socially unperceptive work (and life, for that matter), Althusser was once taken Very Seriously Indeed by people I knew and respected in Sydney, and I'm sure somewhere in the stash of books I left with my brother when I moved to London there's a dog-eared copy of "For Marx" or "Reading Capital" (probably both). Reading Althusser as an engineering student who was also doing a serious history and philosophy of science (HPS) second major was a transformative experience, but not in the way it probably was for most non-techie readers. More than the deliberately obtuse and jargon-laden prose (seemingly designed to do the familiar trick of being allusive without actually pinning Althusser down to anything you could test or criticise without him (or his acolytes) protesting that you'd misread or misunderstood him), I think it was his misuse of the words "science" and "scientific" that did it for me. It's that classic sleight-of-hand shell game equivocation where a hollowed-out version of "science" is used as a stand-in for something quite different, but still lends it the aura of objectivity (the dead giveaway with Althusser is that nothing non-trivial in science is an irrefutable fact). And I was left with the stark difference between the "show the work" and "evoke the metaphor" poles of my then-academic reading life….

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December 05, 2009


One of the words I often feel driven to retake from the hard right is "decency". As in, "a minimally-decent society is one that strives to ensure that the circumstances of one's birth, upbringing, and genetics — the things you have no control over — do not determine your access as a member of that society to the basics: health care, education, and justice (the things that most affect the course of your life)".

Fat chance, of course. It's a word that's as loaded and tarnished in this country as "liberty" or "patriotism".

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December 01, 2009

Please Allow Me To Introduce Myself

Seamus Heany on his experience selecting students at Harvard: "What I wanted was evidence of their artistic doings [rather than] the plenitude of those essays of self-introduction that American students are so good at" (quoted in a recent LRB review of Dennis O'Driscoll's "Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heany"). Perfect.

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November 25, 2009


"Amped up, antic and crackling with chemical intensity, [Nicolas Cage's] performance moved movie critic Roger Ebert to observe: 'Cage is as good as anyone since Klaus Kinski at portraying a man whose head is exploding.'" — from a recent LA Times news item on "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans".

Well, yes. Like Kinski himself, Cage is another of those actors (or overactors) you watch in order to watch the actor — Nicolas Cage (or, rather, "Nicolas Cage") in this case — rather than the character they're playing. Or rather, in my case, don't watch — I find both Kinski and Cage generally unwatchable in all their showy look-at-me intensity and hamminess. They're performers, not actors; and the performance is so often about their performance itself. It's all about (say) watching James Dean playing James Dean playing yourself (were you an American of a certain age), for example, or Nicolas Cage playing yet another variant of Nicolas Cage playing another twitchy quirky mannered variant of "Nicolas Cage". Tilda Swinton does the same in a rather different context. I doubt I'll be watching this version of Bad Lieutenant any time soon.

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