Rethinking colour and country

I liked the synchronicity of these stories. (And yes, I’m deliberately linking to the Mail’s version of the first one.)

First ancient Britons had black skin and blue eyes
Dr Tom Booth, a scientist from the museum said that the findings that there was a 76 per cent chance that Cheddar Man was ‘dark to black’ – was ‘extraordinary’. He said in the documentary: ‘If a human with that colour skin wandered around now, we’d call him black, and a lot darker than we’d expect for Europe as well. He added: ‘It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions that are really not applicable to the past at all.’ Dr Rick Schulting, an archaeology professor at Oxford University said: ‘It may be that we may have to rethink some of our notions of what it is to be British, what we expect a Briton to look like at this time.’

Do the limbo! How the Windrush brought a dance revolution to Britain
Windrush: Movement of the People is based partly on Watson’s own parents’ journey from Jamaica to Leeds in the 1950s, emphasising the loyalty that motivated them to go through such an upheaval. It felt horribly poignant to Watson that, having set out for the UK with such high-minded hopes, her parents encountered so much cruelty. The racism of 1950s Britain was brutal, Watson says. “My mother wept and wept once she started telling me about it: ‘When the call came out we answered it. But we arrived to all these notices saying: No dogs, no blacks, no Irish. That really hurt.’”

And here’s a photo of my grandad on the cover of the Windrush 65th Anniversary edition of The Voice.

The TV times are a-changing

A potentially depressing look at the impact that new television technologies are having on family life.

The end of watching TV as a family
For the first time, children aged five to 16 are more likely to watch programmes and videos on devices such as laptops and mobile phones, rather than on television screens. It means that watching television within families is becoming a private activity, individual and solitary. It’s wearing headphones in the bedroom rather than sprawled together in front of the box. It’s Netflix on the mobile rather than a Sunday afternoon television movie. Homes are places where people are alone together.

As a parent of teenagers, that’s something I’ve noticed too; there’s no rush to switch the telly on as soon as they get home from school like we used to. But perhaps we should put our rose-tinted glasses down and not be too quick to equate ‘different’ with ‘bad’. Yes, things have changed but it’s how we, as parents, deal with that change that matters.

Counting scapegoats

Two articles from The Guardian caught my eye recently, about immigration.

That working-class lives are more fraught is not down to immigration
Economic, social and political developments have, in recent years, coalesced to make working-class lives far more precarious – the imposition of austerity, the rise of the gig economy, the savaging of public services, at the same time as the growing atomisation of society, the erosion of the power of labour movement organisations and the shift of the Labour party away from its traditional constituencies.

Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes.

2VCs on … what does 2018 look like for universities?
“There can be few if any rational arguments for including international students in the net migration figures,” Humphris says unequivocally. “The evidence is there. They do not overstay. They add hugely to the enrichment of our universities that should be global and outward-looking. They make a massive contribution. The whole debate around immigration and international students creates very unhelpful mood music.”

Some things are easier to quantify than others, but just because something is countable doesn’t mean that that is where we should be focusing attention or laying blame, surely.

Truth with a small t but a capital Trump

This book about Trump seems to be less biography and more gossip column. But I guess that’s appropriate?

Fire and Fury is a perfectly postmodern White House book
If Michael Wolff is writing fiction in Fire and Fury, this is the kind of fiction he is writing. Indeed, at the very beginning of the book, in an author’s note, Wolff declares himself an unreliable narrator: “Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue. Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book,” he writes. The traditional promise of the journalist is to find the single, fundamental truth obscured by all the partial, biased accounts he elicits. But Wolff explicitly declines to make that promise; he offers not the story but a whole chorus of stories.

Dry January, by the book

Don’t know why we make such a fuss over Dry January, it’s not as if there’s a problem, right?

From mother’s ruin to modern tipple: how the UK rediscovered gin
There are 315 distilleries in Britain – more than double the number operating five years ago. According to figures collected by HM Revenue & Customs, which hands out licences to produce spirits, nearly 50 opened last year, while just a handful shut up shop. Demand for interesting gins, made by small scale craft and artisan producers has driven a near-20% rise in the total amount of the juniper-flavoured spirit sold.

Not content to just drink it, there is now “the UK’s first gin spa, where visitors can indulge in a juniper foot soak and a gin tasting menu.”

But anything that’s good enough for Orwell is good enough for me.

The place of gin in Orwell’s 1984
One of the few permitted vices in Nineteen Eighty-Four is Victory Gin, which oils the outer party and offers suggestions of Englishness and party power: it’s always served with clove bitters, implying that Oceania’s boots are on the ground in Asia. Chemistry professor Shirley Lin wrote an interesting post about gin’s place in Orwell’s dystopia.

Oily gin: a chemist’s perspective on 1984
Can one shed tears of gin? Orwell describes one of Winston’s childhood memories involving an old man who “reeked of gin” to such a degree that one could imagine “[tears] welling from his eyes were pure gin” (page 33). In the last paragraph of the book, Winston’s tears at the end of the book are also “gin-scented” (page 297). While I was unable to find any studies examining the presence of alcohol in human tears, ethanol in the sweat of continuous drinkers has been detected and quantified.

Roll on February. I think.

Tackling loneliness

Steps from the government, as well as research from the Co-op Group.

May appoints minister to tackle loneliness issues raised by Jo Cox
“I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones – people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.” May paid tribute to Cox’s work, saying she hoped the initiative would aim “to see that, in Jo’s memory, we bring an end to the acceptance of loneliness for good”.

Loneliness is harming our society. Your kindness is the best cure
The commission will be outlining its thinking at the end of the year with requests for government and business. But we’ll also be explaining how we all have a role to play. Jo knew this. She said that tackling loneliness is “something many of us could easily help with – whether looking in on a neighbour, visiting an elderly relative or making that call or visit we’ve been promising to a friend”.

What loneliness costs UK employers
Our latest research shows 4 key ways that loneliness is a financial cost to employers. 1. Sickness absence associated with ill health effects of loneliness costs £20 million. 2. Lost working days caring for someone suffering from the ill health effects of loneliness costs £220 million. 3. Reduced productivity costs related to lower wellbeing from loneliness are £665 million. 4. Costs associated with increased voluntary staff ‘turnover’ are £1.62 billion.

Taking your mind for a stroll

I’ve been lucky enough to have jobs that have allowed me to take a stroll most lunchtimes, to get my eyes away from my monitor for a while. Here’s a great article on the rejuvenating powers of walking.

Walking as creative fuel: a splendid 1913 celebration of how solitary walks enliven “the country of the mind”
In a sentiment which, today, radiates a gentle admonition against the self-defeating impulse to evacuate the moment in order to capture it — in a status update, in an Instagram photo — Grahame observes: “Not a fiftieth part of all your happy imaginings will you ever, later, recapture, note down, reduce to dull inadequate words; but meantime the mind has stretched itself and had its holiday.”

The fast and the Fury Road

I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road. Yes, it was just two chase scenes — out, and back again — but what focus.

It should never have happened, though, when you think about it. The 70 year old director of Happy Feet, Happy Feet Two and Babe: Pig in the City? given a $150 million budget and seemingly complete creative control?

Do you realize Mad Max: Fury Road is a miracle?
“Look, I know it makes sense to normal people that you would only let the creator of Mad Max make a new Mad Max movie, but Hollywood studio executives are not normal people. They’re cocaine-addled lunatics who are terrified at the idea of losing potential box office revenue.”

The movie looked amazing; the colours, the cars, the editing.

The editing of mad max the movie
By using “Eye Trace” and “Crosshair Framing” techniques during the shooting, the editor could keep the important visual information vital in one spot…the Center of the Frame. Because almost every shot was center framed, comprehending the action requires no hunting of each new shot for the point of interest. The viewer doesn’t need 3 or 4 frames to figure out where to look. It’s like watching an old hand-drawn flip book whiz by.

Mad Max: Center Framed

It was such a colourful film, but the director had other plans.

Why the “Black & Chrome” edition of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ is vital
“One thing I’ve noticed is that the default position for everyone is to de-saturate post-apocalyptic movies,” he told Slashfilm. “There’s only two ways to go, make them black and white — the best version of this movie is black and white, but people reserve that for art movies now. The other version is to really go all-out on the color. The usual teal and orange thing? That’s all the colors we had to work with. The desert’s orange and the sky is teal, and we either could de-saturate it, or crank it up, to differentiate the movie.”

Mad Max: Fury Road Trailer in Black and White

The Mad Max effect: why cinema is having a monochrome moment
Black and white represented the drab, superannuated past. Colour, intended to supersede it, was the vibrant present and the limitless future. But the ubiquity of colour eventually lent the senior format greater cachet – or at least made shooting in black and white a statement, like using a typewriter instead of a laptop. To choose black and white at any point since the 1960s is to advertise your film as either historically evocative (The Elephant Man) or experimental (Pi), an homage (The Last Picture Show) or a spit-and-glue indie (Clerks). “Something about black and white, the way it distills it, makes it a little bit more abstract,” Miller has said. “Losing some of the information of colour makes it somehow more iconic.”

I think he has a point.

Why every movie looks sort of orange and blue
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but in the past 20-or-so years there’s been a real catchy trend in major Hollywood movies to constrain the palette to orange and blue. The color scheme, also known as “orange and teal” or “amber and teal” is the scourge of film critics – one of whom calls this era of cinema a “dark age.”

But what about the cars!

Mad Max vehicles
Production vehicles from Mad Max: Fury Road.

the-fast-and-the-fury-road

8-Bit animated versions of the iconic vehicles from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’
Russian pixel artist Evgeniy Yudin of Mazok Pixels and animator Misha Petrick worked together to create impressive 8-bit animated versions of the iconic vehicles seen in George Miller‘s film Mad Max: Fury Road.

the-fast-and-the-fury-road-1

It was so refreshing to see an action movie not dripping in CGI.

This is what Mad Max: Fury Road looks like without CGI
Mad Max: Fury Road was one of the most visually stunning films of 2015, but what might be the most incredible thing about its visuals is that they’re just as awesome without the special effects of the final cut.

Fury Road – Crash & Smash

And how’s this for a backwards-compatibility format?

Artist retells the entire story of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics
Talented Japanese manga artist and illustrator Takumi has recently retold the entire story of George Miller‘s film Mad Max: Fury Road with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

the-fast-and-the-fury-road-2

George Orwell’s Whitehouse fans

Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 surge after Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’
Comparisons were made with the term “newspeak” used in the 1949 novel, which was used to signal a fictional language that aims at eliminating personal thought and also “doublethink”. In the book Orwell writes that it “means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”.

A different kind of classical music

Melody, rhythm and piety: the rich forms and meanings of Indian classical music
Accompanied by performances from top Indian classical musicians of the time, Music of India examines the form’s essential elements, including its deeply spiritual character, and the concepts of ‘raga’ – a musical piece’s central, often partially improvised, melodic form – and ‘tala’ – its recurring rhythmic pattern.

And then there’s Konnakkol, which sounds extraordinary.

MadRasana Unplugged Season 03 Episode 01 – V Shivapriya & BR Somashekar Jois
MadRasana Unplugged brings artist and the art form closer to the listeners of music. We begin Season 3 with the most traditional, classical & ancient vocal percussive art form of India; the mother of all percussive languages – Konnakkol.

With friends like these

Poet Wallace Stevens, much admired – kind of.

The detached poet
Of course, none of this prevented him from publishing some of the most linguistically inventive poetry in American history, and it’s a testament to his talents that he’ll be remembered as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, despite not being a particularly intellectual or even reflective one.

Damning with faint praise, especially the part where the article lists all the events and changes that have happened during his lifetime, that have all passed him by.

Happy feet?

Get up and move. It may make you happier.
Of course, this type of study does not establish causation. It cannot tell us whether being more active actually causes us to become happier or, conversely, whether being happy causes us to move more. It only shows that more activity goes hand-in-hand with greater happiness.

I’m not sure if it’s the walking that’s making me happy, or seeing my Fitbit’s step count climb to first place on the leaderboard.

Local tragedy

Teenager dies in Leeds Harehills barber shop shooting
The teenager was at Too Sharp’s The Barber Shop on Gathorne Terrace, in the Harehills area, when he was shot shortly before 13.20 GMT on Thursday. West Yorkshire Police said the man was found seriously injured and taken to hospital by ambulance for treatment, but later died. A 49-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of murder.

A little unsettling when it’s so close like that.

Reviewing my reading habits

It’s occurred to me that I’m becoming an increasingly lazy reader, preferring to read reviews of books than the books themselves. Below are some snippets from the latest to have caught my eye.

Reviews of books about dark Jewish comedians and insightful Australian art critics. Books on how the internet has changed our understanding of knowledge, how word processors have changed literature, and about how art can save us from our bone-deep solitude.

The wondrous critic
The most manifest virtue of these essays is their language, marked by an uncommon command of vocabulary and (in our day) a far rarer mastery of syntax, allied to a thoroughly antiquated respect for the rules of grammar. Open this anthology anywhere and you will be hard put to find a sentence that is not as memorable for its very phrasing as it is for its thought.

The lonely city
She tells us that she often moved through New York feeling so invisibly alone that she felt like a ghost, and so started to think of other ghosts as suitable company. The dead, for Laing, are not so much historical figures as they are very vibrant modern companions, and she invokes them with an ease and familiarity of old friends. She allows Warhol to pop up in the chapter on the web, Hopper to pop up in a chapter on Warhol, and so on. In Laing’s head, all of these artists are still alive somewhere – perhaps even in communion with one another. This thought makes her feel less alone, and she passes it along to us.

Rethinking knowledge in the Internet Age
In fact, knowledge is now networked: made up of loose-edged groups of people who discuss and spread ideas, creating a web of links among different viewpoints. That’s how scholars in virtually every discipline do their work — from their initial research, to the conversations that forge research into ideas, to carrying ideas into public discourse. Scholar or not, whatever topic initially piques our interest, the net encourages us to learn more. Perhaps we follow links, or are involved in multiyear conversations on stable mailing lists, or throw ideas out onto Twitter, or post first drafts at arXiv.org, or set up Facebook pages, or pose and answer questions at Quora or Stack Overflow, or do “post-publication peer review” at PubPeer.com. There has never been a better time to be curious, and that’s not only because there are so many facts available — it’s because there are so many people with whom we can interact.

How literature became word perfect
The literary history of the early years of word processing—the late 1960s through the mid-’80s—forms the subject of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s new book, Track Changes. The year 1984 was a key oment for writers deciding whether to upgrade their writing tools. That year, the novelist Amy Tan founded a support group for Kaypro users called Bad Sector, named after her first computer—itself named for the error message it spat up so often; and Gore Vidal grumped that word processing was “erasing” literature. He grumped in vain. By 1984, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, and Anne Rice all used WordStar, a first-generation commercial piece of software that ran on a pre-DOS operating system called CP/M.

Jews on the Loose
In his movie roles Groucho, for Lee Siegel, represents not an amusing attack on pretension but “the spirit of nihilism.” Siegel disputes the view that Woody Allen is Groucho’s descendant, for he feels that “Allen is simply too funny to be Groucho’s direct descendant.” Groucho is—and he is right about this—much darker. “No other comedians of the time,” Siegel writes, “come close to the wraithlike sociopath Groucho portrays in the Marx Brothers’ best films.”

Rather than solely answering our “Should I buy the book or not?” question, these reviews act as companion pieces to the books, whether the reviewer is agreeing with the author or not. The dialogue only adds.

I need to resist the temptation of considering the review as a substitute to the book, though. Maybe I need to find a review of a book about tackling laziness or something…

The hurrier I go, the behinder I get

I think it’s time for a backlash against inane, obvious productivity advice, and this article from the Guardian feels like a good start.

Overwhelmed? 10 ways to feel less busy​
#8 ​​​Slow down, however wrong that feels​. The last thing you want to hear, when you’re drowning in to-dos, is that cultivating patience might be part of the solution. But our urgency-addicted culture is at the core of the busyness problem, according to the addiction researcher Stephanie Brown. We’re convinced that with just a bit more speed we could stay in control – and so we grow unwilling to tolerate the discomfort of slowing down. When you’re already on this urgency treadmill, it can feel excruciating to attempt to slow down – but you may end up getting more done if you try. Experiment with doing nothing at all for 10 minutes between tasks: the harder that feels, the more you may need it.

EU et UK HE

It’s let’s-have-a-heated-debate time again, this time about whether or not we should stay in the European Union.​​ Here are a few articles on the higher education angle to all this.

Contemplating a Brexit for UK HE
I’ve left the strongest argument that the HE sector can muster till last: the student trade. 6% of all students in UK universities are from elsewhere in the EU. That’s a lot of fee income. And, over the decades after their graduation, it’s a lot of soft power. Of course it’s more than that too. It’s an example of our open society. It changes us to meet, argue, learn from, befriend and fall in love with people from other parts of Europe.

What has the European Union ever done for us?
The EU is both a catalyst and an enabler of collaboration. It breaks down barriers to collaboration and makes working across borders easier by reducing the level of bureaucracy which researchers face when putting together complex multi-national bids.

Both authors think we should stay in the EU and that the UK higher education sector, and society as a whole, benefits from our continued membership, but both seem to worry that their arguments are quite weak and can be easily rebutted.

I can’t imagine for a moment though that many people are giving the academy much thought in this debate. Unfortunately.

Reading without words

​A novel, visual way of reading books.

Punctuation in novels
Here is a comparison of some other books — notice how large a break A Farewell To Arms was from the past. There almost no commas, just sentences, dialogue. How refreshing and wild that must have been! Look at how spartan Blood Meridian is compared to everything. Pay attention to the semicolons which seem to have disappeared from writing.​

Visualising Wikipedia

See, also: A collection of our favorite visualizations built on Wikipedia data
This is a collection of our favorite visualizations, infographics, and other projects built on open data from Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects, curated by Stephen LaPorte and Mahmoud Hashemi.

I don’t know a great deal about the Wikipedia open data projects, but there are some great data visualisation examples here. One of them even mentions Borges, what more do you want?