Nothing positive about Brexit

The further we go with this, the more intractable and stupid it all seems.

The hole where the Brexit deal should be
The great sticking point—around the Irish border—has always been there. Since the Brexit negotiations began, in the summer of 2017, they have been vexed by the logical need to create a border between Ireland (a member of the E.U.) and Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom), and the political need not to have a border, in order to protect the island’s peace process. Squaring this circle would be hard enough under any circumstances, but, to pass legislation, May’s government relies on the ten members of Parliament who belong to the hard-line, pro-union Democratic Unionist Party. Any solution to “the Irish backstop,” as it is known, is likely to involve Northern Ireland staying more or less within the E.U.’s structures, while the rest of the U.K. takes a step away. This is a no-go for the D.U.P.

Brexit: a cry from the Irish border
‘Jacob Rees-Mogg you’re right. You don’t need to visit the border… you need to have lived here.’ Belfast-born actor Stephen Rea explores the real impact of Brexit and the uncertainty of the future of the Irish border in a short film written by Clare Dwyer Hogg.

John Major: I have made no false promises on Brexit – I’m free to tell you the truth
I understand the motives of those who voted to leave the European Union: it can – as I well know – be very frustrating. Nonetheless, after weighing its frustrations and opportunities, there is no doubt in my own mind that our decision is a colossal misjudgment that will diminish both the UK and the EU. It will damage our national and personal wealth, and may seriously hamper our future security. It may even, over time, break up our United Kingdom. It will most definitely limit the prospects of our young.

And – once this becomes clear – I believe those who promised what will never be delivered will have much to answer for. They persuaded a deceived population to vote to be weaker and poorer. That will never be forgotten – nor forgiven. […]

None of the mainstream political parties is in a healthy condition. Both the Conservatives and Labour face pressure from fringe opinion within their own membership. My fear is that the extremes of right and left will widen divisions and refuse to compromise, whereas more moderate opinion will often seek common ground. The risk of intransigence – “my way or no way” – is that the mainstream parties will be dragged further right and further left.

Our nation should not tolerate the unreasoning antipathy of the extremes – to the EU, to foreigners or to minority groups. Such antipathy is repellent, and diminishes us as a nation. Softer, more reasonable voices should not be drowned out by the raucous din of the loudest.

Pages from the Book of Life

Have you read anything of the Book of Life yet? You should, it’s the nearest we humans get to a user guide. Here’s a little of what was in the newsletter this week.

How to be comfortable on your own in public
Eating alone in public can be one of the great hurdles of psychological life. It can be an exceptional trial because it forces us to wrestle with a set of thoughts that, for most of our lives, we successfully push to the back of consciousness: that we are in essence an unacceptable being, tainted from birth, an object of quiet ridicule or open mockery.

How to stop worrying whether or not they like you
One of the most acute questions we ask ourselves in relation to new friends and acquaintances is whether or not they like us. The question feels so significant because, depending on how we answer it in our minds, we will either take steps to deepen the friendship or, as is often the case, immediately make moves to withdraw from it so as to spare ourselves humiliation and embarrassment.

What to do at parties if you hate small talk
A lot of discomfort about going to social engagements is rooted in what can sound like a rather high-minded concern: a hatred of small talk. We can develop a dread of parties because we know how likely we are to end up wedged into conversations about the weather, parking, traffic or the way we plan to spend the forthcoming holidays – when there would be so many deeper and more dignified topics to address.

It’s from the School of Life, an organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence by applying psychology, philosophy, and culture to everyday life.

It was founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton. I’ve been a fan of his for a while now, after having read books like The Consolations of Philosophy (which became Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness), How Proust Can Change Your Life (which he discusses here), and Status Anxiety (which was made into a documentary).

Here he is discussing art as therapy.

Alain de Botton on Art as Therapy

Not to be confused with art therapy, of course. Here’s a piece about that, if you’re interested.

Art therapy gives patients a voice when there are no words
Always in any kind of therapy I think we are looking for a an act of communication, the smallest act of connection. There is a wonderful book by Martina Thomson, an art therapist, called On Art and Therapy: An Exploration and she talks about art therapy being like ‘feeding birds’ you want to be very quiet and allow the client to feel able to come towards you in some way. It is a delicate thing. You are not firing questions and needing answers. You are being together. Therapy is often seen as something for psychologically-minded people, or those of a certain class. For those with complex trauma for example, there might not be words to express the depth of what they have been through. Art can give them a voice.

Beautiful libraries, inside and out

Libraries are remarkable buildings.

Experience the beauty of libraries around the world through this instagram series
Over the past two years, Savoie has traveled from his home city of Montréal, to Berlin, Amsterdam, Budapest, Rome, Riga, Paris, Moscow, and several other cities photographing the stunning architecture of libraries. Encountering language barriers and even intense security, Savoie’s dedication to taking the perfect photo has resulted in a stunning collection of images.

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The world’s most beautiful libraries
In a new Taschen book, the Italian photographer Massimo Listri travels around the world to some of the oldest libraries, revealing a treasure trove of unique and imaginative architecture.

But, of course, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Every library has a story to tell
But whatever form a library takes, someone had to have chosen the books in it, which reveal the secrets of heart and mind—their cares, their greeds, their enthusiasms, their obsessions.

‘Spectacular’ ancient public library discovered in Germany
It is not clear how many scrolls the library would have held, but it would have been “quite huge – maybe 20,000”, said Schmitz. The building would have been slightly smaller than the famed library at Ephesus, which was built in 117 AD. He described the discovery as “really incredible – a spectacular find”.

The secret libraries of history
“The new technique is amazing in that it shows us fragments – medieval text – that we could otherwise never see because they are hidden behind a layer of parchment or paper,” wrote Kwakkel in a blog post about his Hidden Library project. While the technology needs to be improved, it hints at a process that could reveal a secret library within a library. “We might be able to access a hidden medieval ‘library’ if we were able to gain access to the thousands of manuscript fragments hidden in bindings.”

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Watch Umberto Eco walk through his immense private library: it goes on, and on, and on!
We can only imagine how many such citadels of knowledge Eco visited in his travels all over the world, but we don’t have to imagine the one he built himself, since we can see it in the video above. Though not infinite like the library of all possible books imagined by Borges, Eco’s private home library looks, from certain angles, nearly as big. The camera follows Eco as he passes shelf after packed shelf, some lining the walls and others standing free, eventually finding his way to one volume in particular — despite the fact that he apparently shelved very few of his books with their spines facing outward.

(That last line about his books not facing outwards? Reminded me of this post from a couple of months back.)

Maps for who we are, not just where we are

Here’s an interesting short documentary, via Aeon, on a project to make maps that bring an indigenous voice and perspective back to the land.

Native cartography: a bold mapmaking project that challenges Western notions of place
Maps have been used not only to encroach on Native Americans lands, but to diminish their cultures as well. With every Spanish, French or English placename that eclipses a Native one, a European narrative of place and space becomes further entrenched. In an effort to help reclaim his region for his people, Jim Enote, a Zuni farmer and the director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in New Mexico, has organised a unique project intended to help bring indigenous narratives back to the land.

Counter Mapping

Maps remind us who we are, not just where we are. As he says in the documentary, “More lands have been lost to Native peoples probably through mapping than through physical conflict.”

Here are some other things I’ve found that show how important maps and names are. And if you’re wanting more idiosyncratic local history, there’s this from Atlas Obscura.

The cowboy cartographer who loved California
In final form, the maps are flamboyant and dense, giving an impression of near-limitless detail. “They’re almost like books,” says Hiller. “You look at a part of them and set it aside, and then come back the next day and look at a different part.” When he’s done exhibitions of Mora’s work, he adds, the maps in particular are “like magnets … People just get totally absorbed in looking at them.”

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It’s ok to just be ok

Here’s a piece from the New York Times on what might be putting people off taking up hobbies — we might be a bit naff at them.

In praise of mediocrity
If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you? […]

Especially when it comes to physical pursuits, but also with many other endeavors, most of us will be truly excellent only at whatever we started doing in our teens. What if you decide in your 40s, as I have, that you want to learn to surf? What if you decide in your 60s that you want to learn to speak Italian? The expectation of excellence can be stultifying.

I enjoyed reading this, and found it personally quite encouraging. Photography is a hobby of mine, and I’ve enjoyed documenting family life for many years now. I like taking photos much more than I like looking at the photos I’ve taken, however. I’m often disappointed that they never quite match the ideas in my head. But that’s fine.

And I guess this blog is another hobby of mine that I enjoy doing but aren’t really that good at, judging by my blog stats. But you know what, that’s fine too.

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Woof woof

After many years of cajoling and persuading from the family, I’ve relented: we’ll soon be joined by a puppy, sweet little cocker spaniel. Not a glasses wearer, though.

Uncanny resemblances between classic dog breeds and humans captured by Gerrard Gethings
For the memory game Do You Look Like Your Dog? Gethings spent a year creating images that examine the classic trope of owners looking just like their canine friends. The new game presents 25 matches, which include a long-haired Afghan and equally silky-haired owner, a messy-haired kid and his scruffy puppy, and Schnauzer with a matching beard to his leather jacket-clad owner.

Bought!

The breeds, personalities, temperaments and physical traits of the beloved pet dogs of Ancient Rome
In a tail-wagging video essay, Julien Blarel of Invicta History takes a look at an often ignored facet of daily ancient Roman life – their pet dogs. Blarel explains the type of breeds available along with their physical traits, personality and temperament with the help of wonderful illustrations by Beverly Johnson.

How They Did It – Pet Dogs in Ancient Rome

Happy Stoic Week!

I’m glad I happened across this article in time.

The secret to happiness is simple: live like a Stoic for a week
We don’t control what happens to us, we can’t control what the people around us say or do, and we can’t even fully control our own bodies, which get damaged and sick and ultimately die without regard for our preferences. The only thing that we really control is how we think about things.

It’s an invitation to learn a little about this ancient philosophy.

Modern Stoicism: Stoic Week 2018
On October 1, 2018, the seventh annual Stoic Week takes place and Modern Stoicism are inviting people in the UK and from around the rest of the world to participate and learn how to live like a Stoic for a week. The idea behind the week is to give people an opportunity to see whether Stoic philosophy can help them live a more fulfilling life today.

I’ve mentioned Stoicism here before: I was getting wound up by my damned phone and displaying some decidedly un-Stoic attitudes towards it, before remembering a book I had just finished and had obviously not taken on board. A re-read is due, I guess.

Some other introductions.

The philosophy of Stoicism – Massimo Pigliucci

And then there’s this one, from the School of Life. A little harder to get, I think.

Why Stoicism Matters

Another great introduction to Stoicism comes from Maria Popova‘s philosophy and literature blog Brain Pickings.

A Stoic’s key to peace of mind: Seneca on the antidote to anxiety
With an eye to the self-defeating and wearying human habit of bracing ourselves for imaginary disaster, Seneca counsels his young friend: “What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”

That blog is such a rabbit warren, I could get lost down there all day.

An antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on happiness and how to live with presence
Wisdom on overcoming the greatest human frustration from the pioneer of Eastern philosophy in the West.

How Not To Worry: Timeless 1934 Advice on Controlling Anxiety and Mastering Life
“We must gain victory, not by assaulting the walls, but by accepting them.”

100 Days of Overthinking: An Illustrated Diary of Mental Meanderings
A visual serenade to presence and a lamentation of how we continually eject ourselves from it.

Peanuts and the quiet pain of childhood: how Charles Schulz made an art of difficult emotions
“Readers recognized themselves in “poor moon-faced, unloved, misunderstood” Charlie Brown — in his dignity in the face of whole seasons of doomed baseball games, his endurance and stoicism in the face of insults. He … reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human — both little and big at the same time.”

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What are you reading?

A review from TLS of what looks to be a fascinating book.

Pass the tortoise shell: Eve Houghton explores reading and writing across time and space
The history of the book does not always involve the study of either history or books. As James Raven shows in this slim, engaging volume, the question of what sort of object might count as a book remains very much up for debate. The history of the book in the Western world has traditionally made “book” synonymous with “codex” – gatherings of leaves folded or stitched together – but in Professor Raven’s geographically and chronologically wide-ranging account, it takes a variety of material forms: Chinese tortoise shells inscribed 3,000 years ago; Sumerian clay tablets impressed with cuneiform scripts; knotted string records, or khipus, used for record-keeping by South American Incan officials. The boundaries of the book seem even less clearly defined in the era of the blog post and Kindle.

I’ve mentioned khipus here before. It’s so odd to think of a bundle of knotty string as a book. But of course books aren’t just written, using knots or otherwise — they’re read too, a trickier research topic.

The book also gestures towards emerging areas of scholarship, particularly in an illuminating chapter on the history of reading. Raven writes that reading is “the most significant and challenging dimension of the history of books”. Because it leaves few material records, reading remains one of the most elusive practices to capture in historical terms. For example, it is not always a silent, solitary activity. As Paul Saenger and other scholars have shown, there is significant evidence that many people in pre-modern Europe heard books more than they read them. But how can historians and literary critics account for a form of engagement with books that, more often than not, left no trace behind?

I was going to make a comment about the rich, varied and global history of the book standing in contrast to its bland, flat future, if Amazon has its way, but that could be a little hypocritical as I’ll probably read this on my Kindle, like everyone else.

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The game is on

Breathing new life into old games.

“Ew,” “yowza,” and “OK” are now fair to play in Scrabble
“Ew,” for instance, is a newly added word and an example of what lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, calls “transcribed speech.” This refers to expressions, such as “mm-hmm” (not playable) that are colloquial and used frequently online. Sokolowski told the Associated Press: “Traditionally, they were not in the dictionary but because so much of our communication is texting and social media that is written language, we are finding more transcribed speech and getting a new group of spellings for the dictionary.”

Tower Block Game, playful take on a not so playful architecture
This game I’ve made is a playful tribute to a not so playful reality of monotonous and bleak cityscapes built out of same prefabricated concrete blocks. Very specific for Eastern-Europe but evident everywhere else too. These relic tower blocks usually mark failed social programmes and neighbourhoods planned as clumsy as some failed building block game…

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After finding those, I trawled through my bookmarks on the hunt for more games-related stories. These few caught my eye, about Magic: The Gathering. My son plays this and has tried to explain it to me a number of times — I remain clueless.

Why Magic: The Gathering beats Poker or Chess any day
The strategy paid off, helping to foster a group of professional Magic players like Jon Finkel and David Williams who grew up in the spotlight and were accustomed to high-stakes card games. Having mastered the fiendishly complex rules of Magic, they found it relatively easy to compete in a much simpler game like poker.

The twenty-five-year journey of Magic: The Gathering
To change more rules, you needed to buy more cards. Many of the most powerful cards were rarely printed, which drove fans to crack open even more packs. By November of 1993, under the headline “Professor’s Game Casts Magic Spell on Players,” the Seattle Times reported that ten million cards had been sold in a few months. “I’ve wasted—no not wasted—I’ve used all my money just buying Magic cards,” an eleven-year-old boy named Jake told the Washington Post. He carried his deck around with him everywhere he went in case a game broke out. By 1997, Magic: The Gathering was so successful that Wizards of the Coast acquired Dungeons & Dragons. Newsweek noted that Wizards had sold two billion cards. A game like Magic, Garfield told the reporter, could “take over your personal operating system, like a virus.”

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Whoops, it’s 2016 and I just got obsessed with Magic: The Gathering
It’s one in the morning, and things aren’t going well. I’ve lost my first few matches; my virtual card decks have fallen apart. I think I have an idea, though. I frantically sort my cards, switching one color in my deck for another, the air caught in my lungs. With over 16,000 different cards available, Magic: the Gathering‘s greatest barrier to entry is its sheer breadth. The number of strategic options potentially available to any player at any time is massive. If other games are a lake, Magic is an ocean.

As intriguing as it is, I still don’t really get MTG. Is it like D&D, with all the dice?

Critical Hit D20 waffle maker
Certain foods just fall into alignments. Pancakes and waffles? Good, obviously. But while waffles are Lawful Good, pancakes are Chaotic Good. The syrup goes all over the place and there’s the dreaded butter well. Waffles follow rules. Pancakes break ’em.

Medieval fantasy city generator
This application generates a random medieval city layout of a requested size. The generation method is rather arbitrary, the goal is to produce a nice looking map, not an accurate model of a city. Maybe in the future I’ll use its code as a basis for some game or maybe not.

Who the f**k is my #DND character?

Not a clue. I have fond memories of these games, however.

Dare YOU face the orcs? 80s game books Fighting Fantasy return
Ian Livingstone calls it the “five-fingered bookmark”: that grip known to children of the 80s and 90s. You’d insert a finger into various sections of your Fighting Fantasy adventure game book in order to be able to return if, say, your choice to drink the “sparkling red liquid” and turn to section 98 turned out to be a bad one, or if attacking the Mirror Demon “from another dimensional plane” proved fatal.

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These maps reveal the hidden structures of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books
There are also structures that loop readers through the story in unique ways. Mystery of the Maya, for example, has time travel, and keeps sending the reader back to the same page and place in time. (“Almost as if it were the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum,” as Doc Brown would say. If you think that’s what it is, click here. If you decide it’s just an “amazing coincidence,” click here.)

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Sometimes the old board and card games are the best.

How checkers was solved: The story of a duel between two men, one who dies, and the nature of the quest to build artificial intelligence
“Checkers is a deep, simple, elegant game,” he once said. Playing another human great was “like two artists collaborating on a work of art,” Tinsley said another time. And then there is his most quotable line: “Chess is like looking out over a vast open ocean; checkers is like looking into a bottomless well.”

Solitaire as symbol and synecdoche
Solitaire, a game mixing skill and chance, also provides what psychologists call “intermittent reinforcement.” Every time a card is revealed, there is, for the player, the possibility of a reward. The suspense, and the yearning, is what makes the game so compelling, even addictive. “Basically,” wrote Griffiths, “people keep playing in the absence of a reward hoping that another reward is just around the corner.” Turning over an ace in solitaire is really no different from getting a like on Facebook or a retweet on Twitter. We crave such symbolic tokens of accomplishment, such sweet nothings.

But even these games are being brought up-to-date.

Donald Rumsfeld releases solitaire app
Rumsfeld presents himself as in over his head when it came to actually creating the game, which was made in partnership with WSC Solitaire. “I’ve reviewed wire frames and branding guides. I’ve spent countless hours on beta releases. I’ve signed off on something they call ‘UX’.”

Video games looked very different in my day, of course.

Some very entertaining plastic, emulated at the Archive
Introducing the Handheld History Collection. This collection of emulated handheld games, tabletop machines, and even board games stretch from the 1970s well into the 1990s. They are attempts to make portable, digital versions of the LCD, VFD and LED-based machines that sold, often cheaply, at toy stores and booths over the decades.

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The legend of Nintendo
Next year, Nintendo will turn 130 years old. Once again, the outside world is wondering how a company periodically left for dead keeps revitalizing itself. But seesawing is nothing new for Nintendo. It has long alternated between fallow periods, in which the media churns out reports of pending doom, and boom times, during which Nintendo Mania is cast as an unstoppable force. What remains constant is the company’s understated and zealously guarded culture—the system at the root of its unusual ability to recalibrate, with some regularity, to humanity’s ever-evolving sense of play.

Play The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy video game free online, designed by Douglas Adams in 1984
Back in 1985, Douglas Adams teamed up with Infocom’s Steve Meretzky to create an interactive fiction video game based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Designed before graphic-intensive video games really hit their stride, the original Hitchhiker’s Guide game was played with text commands on the Apple II, Macintosh, Commodore 64, CP/M, DOS, Amiga, Atari 8-bit and Atari ST platforms. And it found instant success.

The cyberspace we forgot – Neuromancer
As a game, Neuromancer is dated and unforgiving, with progress mostly coming from clunky and tedious trial and error. Its story is borderline fanfiction, as you name a character who just happens to resemble the novel’s down on his luck hacker anti-hero, and unravel a mystery that leads you to confront the titular AI. But in its portrayal of cyberspace—shortly before the world wide web was invented, and long before it became a household service—it remains intriguing. It’s a window into an era when the impact of computers on the world had not yet been fully realised, and when their potential seemed infinite. The Amigas, Apple IIs and Commodore 64s that ran Neuromancer wouldn’t have been able to read this. But the game showed their owners a world where computers could do so much more.

Behind a pizza-slice smile: the dark side of Pac-Man
“He is the pure consumer,” wrote Poole in Trigger Happy. “With his obsessively gaping maw, he clearly only wants one thing: to feel whole, at peace with himself. He perhaps surmises that if he eats enough, in other words buys enough industrially produced goods – he will attain … perfect roundness. But it can never happen.”

The thrill of cleaning in video games
“In a way, what I’m doing is cleaning. It’s the same urge that makes one suddenly decide to organize, to vacuum, as if gaining control over the space around you will offer some psychic relief, or will constitute, to you, some sense of progress. The pleasure in many games comes from putting things in order”

As well as looking very different nowadays, video games are being used very differently too.

‘We give access to a lost world’: Assassin’s Creed’s new life as a virtual museum
The Discovery update, as it’s called, removes all combat, missions and story from Assassin’s Creed Origins, leaving you free to explore its detailed recreation of ancient Egypt at leisure. It also adds in 75 interactive tours, written in collaboration with Egyptologists from around Europe, which teach you about everything from mummification to the city of Alexandria. It’s like one of those audio guides that you can pick up at museums. The difference between Assassin’s Creed Origins and a museum, though, is that you are immersed, walking the streets of a village as an Egyptian child or riding a horse in the shadow of the great pyramids.

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The Twitch streamers who spend years broadcasting to no one
While there are tools to find lesser-known streamers, most people starting out without built-in audiences from other platforms or supportive friends and family end up staring at a big, fat zero on their viewership counter. This lonely live stream purgatory can last anywhere from a few days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, depending on your luck. According to people who have gone through it, lacking an audience is one of the most demoralizing things you can experience online.

That sounds terrible. Step away from the computer!

Pencil and Paper Games
Pencil and Paper Games is devoted to games you can play with nothing more than a pencil and a piece of paper. These games are ideal for entertaining children and adults on rainy days or dark evenings, at home or on holiday.

Ah, that’s better.