Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Devil is in the Detail

The Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge

I hate detail. Literary detail I mean, at least for myself. I’ll be completely drawn in to the stunning scenes described by writers like Cormac McCarthy, and yet when I attempt that sort of intricacy I just feel like I’m trying to be Cormac McCarthy. Not an ounce of my personal ability lies in that kind of breadth and depth of creative descriptive power.

Events are my forte. I can lay down the facts and permutations of a situation as well as any, but ask me to describe the meeting room or lyrically illustrate the speaker at the dais and I’m reduced to crude simplicity. “It’s a big square room with a blue carpet and lots of chairs, and the chap is wearing a suit and appears nervous. The conference slogan behind him is asinine. Shocker.”

Generally speaking, I can’t stand articles of any topic that go to great lengths to “set the scene”. It seems that any journalist waiting to interview someone of note is particularly guilty of this crime. “Waiting in the lounge of the Fictional Hotel for the Singer, there was a calm aura of expectation amidst the soft golden lamp lights. The oversoft silky black sofa was hurting my lower back and the Singer was ten minutes late, but I hadn’t noticed because of the placid tones of the jazz piano.”

Couldn’t care less. Stop aggrandizing your own importance in this situation and conduct the interview thus, if you don’t mind, “I met the Singer and here’s what we talked about.” I’m never going to hold your over-prepared scenery in my mind while picturing the conversation, so you’ve wasted everyone’s time and have come across as a bit egotistical.

It just doesn’t work for me in journalism. I want the relevant details and even in an article where it could help one’s understanding to accurately imagine the setting, I’d rather avoid the self-indulgent excess. I’ve always thought an actual picture would do the trick a good deal better. Really, the root of the problem for me is that heavy description only hinders my ability to mentally envisage something.

If a writer said to me, “a warzone,” I have the imaginative capacity to put a scene in my mind. Labouring over the precise arrangements of the rubble or bodies, or trying to tell me exactly what the old half-ruined church looks like across the square from the schoolhouse, is where you start to lose me. Unless your Cormac McCarthy or a similarly Pulitzer Prize worthy writer of course, but not many are. A writer’s own vision is absolutely important, but not at the expense of the reader’s imagination.

The writing challenge this week, for which this article is for, uses a perfect example, “The dog ran across the street,” versus, “The small, black, three-legged Chihuahua darted under a red Ford Focus and hopped across the wet cobblestone alley.” The writing challenge is actually encouraging the latter, as we were encouraged to flex our descriptive powers. I argue that unless any of those details were relevant, to the plot or tone, the former is better.

Hemingway is hailed for not wasting words, especially in a masterclass such as “Old Man and the Sea.” He gives you precisely the right amount of information to enable his vision with enough room for your own imagination to enrich it. That is great writing. Short of the kind of possibly unattainable poetic genius of McCarthy, Hemingway has a style I would love to achieve.

The devil is indeed in the detail, hence I shall stay well away from it.

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Armstrong

Dominating the headlines this week was the overcooked business of Lance Armstrong and his career built on lies. Lies, lies, lies and few more lies. I never really cared a great deal, cycling wasn’t ever my passion, and at most I had a distant admiration for a high-achiever and charitable driving force. I was willing to believe from my generally ill-informed position that jealous or cynical factors were unjustly hounding him.

I will not be taking you through a step-by-step account of my reactions to the events of the last several months, when the guillotine finally came down for good and there no was hiding for the now disreputable athlete. Having never had an emotional investment in him or his now less-than-impressive achievements, I was only as surprised as anyone who had believed something for a decade that turned out to be false.

Snore. The only reason I’m weighing in at all is because the issue has saturated my favourite news sources and has been impossible to avoid. I watched a few minutes of the interview with Oprah and pretty quickly realised that Armstrong is possibly a sociopath. Intensively lying for that long, indignantly striking out at your accusers and retroactively trying to rationalise the whole thing to make it more palatable, suggests to me this man is not quite all there.

Great A’tuin judge me if I’m wrong, but did he try and justify his cheating because he had cancer, and claimed it somehow fundamentally altered his perception of morality? That’s rather unsavoury really. Oprah should have framed a few more of these responses for him, as he might have avoided such a shocking further indictment of his character. The whole affair smacked so strongly of Stage One of the Rehabilitation of Lance, she may as well have.

Whatever the culture that existed within the sport at the time, it’s irrelevant to the individual choice of purity or corruption. I’ve heard loose numbers thrown around which indicate that during any given year of Armstrong’s Tour de France triumph, roughly the top 20 cyclists were doping. The truth, is that not one of them vindicates, but more likely further condemns, the other. Mutual appeasement carries no water and the only winners during those years were the best of the rest. The rest being the honest ones.

Anyway, hopefully we can finally put the saga behind us. Even for one who wasn’t very engaged, it was getting pretty tiring. As is the incumbent weather here in snowy London. I didn’t exactly have a picnic planned but there are better things to do with a Sunday than talk about bloody Lance Armstrong.

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Simon Jenkins on Film Theory

The latest offering from Jenkins is a real thought provoker, and pleasingly in the more light-hearted realm of film theory. I’ll be giving you my best dose of Žižek in response. The article hinges around the two recent releases of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, and the most relevant question of historical truths and films selling themselves as accurate representations of those truths.

Jenkins indicates the controversy surrounding these cinematic efforts, neither of which involve the typically wanton shredding of the annals of history in the name of artistic license, but are actually quite sensitive. The morality of torture and the damage of misrepresenting the actions of real people or events are pertinent. He argues, “Cinema in my view is the defining cultural form of the age. It deserves to be taken seriously,” and that, “…films matter.”

I broadly agree, it’s hard to argue that an industry worth billions, that provides humanity with what has become a cornerstone of our escapist entertainments, is unimportant. I do slightly disagree with the point that it deserves to be taken seriously though, based on that definition of “escapist entertainment”. Art in any form, in my understanding, has no relation to the core mechanics and requirements of living, and is intended to remove us from those concerns.

That is still not all to say it’s not important of course. I and I’m sure you, have seen films that have had a formative, or at least lasting, emotional, conceptual or informational impact. I would be deeply upset to lose all the artistic mediums that supplement my enjoyment of life but they are not by definition functional, and my ability to live would not be strictly impeded. To take art, and by extension cinema, too seriously, is in my opinion slightly defeating the point.

As for cinema and the representation of truth, this is a slightly more complex area. For a start, there is a camp of theorists who argue at the extreme end that there is no such thing as historical truth, and trying to establish totally accurate narratives is therefore impossible. I do not belong to this camp however and have even stated while discussing this that, “Good enough,” works for me. Like total scepticism, I find the wholesale redundancy of reasonable certainty to be hugely irritating. I think that with enough evidence and consensus we can arrive at acceptable “truths”.

This is no way excuses some of the more egregious examples of artistic license, seen frequently across film, and fine art for that matter. As a side note, representations of classical antiquity and many other historic scenes in fine art can border on the absurd and, due to the higher intellectual culture of that form, could arguably be seen as more misleading to the layman. Although most of us will have more familiarity with examples in film, the underlying problem is the same – the gap between the author’s artistic representation and the viewer’s understanding of the truth.

Admittedly when younger I would spit hellfire and curse the names of offenders of my more dearly regarded works. That Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy was not a page for page replica of the Iliad, but rather a confused, and literally godless, abomination of cliché and lies, was a memorable one. But gradually one does start to care a little less vehemently about these things, and perhaps you learn that it was never Petersen’s intention to identically recreate Homer’s vision. Maybe that would have been impossible while still producing a good film.

If it works, it works. Short of obscene invention that goes so far as to corrupt or disrespect the original material, we should be willing to be forgiving. Sadly, Troy was still awful, and obscene, but the broad lessons remained and I want to be entertained even at the expense of a few frustrating departures. However, the primary reason I was angry with that film in the first place, is that I was passionate and knowledgeable about that particular bit of literature.

Imagine I had walked into that cinema without ever having heard of the Iliad, Homer or Troy and hadn’t the slightest clue about the ancient world and its history. I would have been informed at the start through some caption that I was watching a film based on the works of Homer, or something similar, and would have possibly walked out thinking I knew a thing or two. Based on Jenkins’ objection to Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, neither of which I have actually yet seen, there is a comparable claim of being based on real events.

To me the fact remains that, unless Bigelow or Affleck had explicitly tried to promote these films as the most accurate representations of the truth as they possibly could have been, much of the responsibility of my walking away from those films with a false impression of real events would lie with me. I was not informed and allowed a blockbuster film to form the basis of my understanding. If something close to that did actually happen, it would still be my duty to be inquisitive enough to establish a better understanding.

On the other hand, these two directors are not necessarily free from criticism for some of their more specific reported infringements. I clearly can’t deliver proper judgement before I’ve watched the films, but Jenkins does point at these contentions. Affleck seems the greater offender if he did indeed give an inherently negatively, and therefore wholly inaccurate and offensive, portrayal of living people. That is insensitive, and although this could be said of historical figures of sentimental or living significance, the damage is less immediate and can be rectified more effectively.

For Bigelow, the issue is much more expansive and requires more time and attention than this article has to spare. More importantly I would like to make my own determinations on her representation of the use of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and whether they amount to what some see an attempt to vindicate it, and its broader use. Neither do I pretend to be up to speed on the actual details, or even have a clue as to their availability. All I currently know is that torture is an immediate moral debate, and was almost inevitably going to court controversy.

Just to drag this back in more direct response to Jenkins’ piece, I have to agree with his assessment that, “Films appeal to inner fears and chauvinist prejudices.” Thus all the laughable patriotism and melodrama of many a war film, which I would apologetically refer back to the point that we shouldn’t always take film too seriously. But I do understand his point that film has still been misused, and can mislead, whatever I think about the issue. If it might help people help themselves, I’m all for the L-rating.

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The Political Class

Many an evening spent in the London homestead involves a bit of high-octane debate between myself and two far more qualified and intelligent individuals, those being my ever resilient girlfriend, and old friend and flatmate. I fairly consistently land squarely on the opposing side to both of them, and although it can be lonely on logic and rationality mountain, I do my best to drag them forth from the muck of primeval superstition and falsehoods in the which they dwell.

One of the things that annoys me about these affairs is never being able to remember how we got into them. We aren’t an organised debate club so it had to happen organically, and I suspect it has a lot to do with my boring habit of endlessly droning on about current affairs in about as unpopular a fashion I can. However else were we talking about the intricacies of UK politician’s pay and societal status? Over a well-executed (not by me) rendition of a Jamie’s (logistically impossible) 30-Minute Meal, we conversed.

It goes without saying that politicians, particularly members of the House of the Commons, are the subject of much scrutiny and scepticism. It might even be fair to say that the average person doesn’t have a great amount of patience or respect for them. Admittedly they make life hard for themselves sometimes, be it incompetence, corruption or scandal, but I think the British public give them a pretty hard riding. Myself emphatically included.

Get ready to disagree with me, but the long and short of my argument was that we should pay them more, let them enjoy a few perks and, if only deep down inside, respect them a bit more. Under a few conditions of course, including that there should be far fewer of them, MP’s and Lords, as why on Earth do we have nearly three times as many national legislators as the USA, a country about five times our size. Redraw the constituency maps and suck a few of those arguably competent folk into more regional levels to promote a bit more quality there. Elect the Lords perhaps.

Right, now we have a slightly more reasonable model of government upon which to validate my theory. I’ll start with the respect part. While it may be laughable or frustrating at times to see these politicians stack industrial quantities of ridicule upon themselves, they are above all things the people who turned up. Motivations aside, they offered themselves to the altar of public service, incomprehensible an act as that may be, and were elected by us to run our country.

That is, run a diverse and modern country of approximately 65 million often fickle people in as effective, but adversely as popular, a manner as they can. Their pain is a mammoth news media machine’s bread and butter. I mentioned logistics earlier and that example was one of a only a few things more difficult than the task facing these men and women. It’s an unfathomably difficult thing to do, let alone do well, and I don’t want to try as much as you probably don’t.

This leads to the next part about pay and privilege, factors that I think could be considered sufficiently supported by what I’ve already said. There are more practical than just sentimental elements however. I consider the reasonably standard theory that higher pay attracts higher quality, and argue that at least a little bit more intellectual talent could be stolen from the private sector. A 65k annual MP’s salary, before Cabinet and Select Committee bonuses, is by no means stingy but could be more competitive.

But that’s not even my favourite argument. MPs are regularly bombarded with temptations from private interests, such as lucrative post-public sector career opportunities, in exchange for the inside line. Given how potentially short an MP’s career can be, it would make some sense to recompense them enough to keep them honest in the face of these sultry advances. I also happen to think that entertaining said interests should carry an automatic political death sentence, but it’s slightly off-topic.

The privilege aspect goes back a touch to the sentimental. MP’s may be public servants, but that doesn’t exactly make them our public servants in a very literal sense. They shouldn’t be required to bow and scrape in equal a measure to how they shouldn’t consider themselves unduly elite or authoritative. It goes back to a mutual respect in the contract of being handed whatever authority they possess by the people, in the understanding that we expect them to make very tough decisions. We grant them a heavy responsibility so as to relieve ourselves of it.

I do not give two hoots about MP’s taking a publicly covered taxi to work from inside the city, or having the audacity to send a child to private school if they can afford and want to do so. It doesn’t implicitly cry a lack of faith in the infrastructural or educational institutions of the nation that they are supposedly conducting. Neither does it automatically put them on a sort of pedestal above the rest of us to whom TFL service and the quality of the local catchment school are regular concerns.

Without going on forever, it would be nice to have a political class that reflects the pride we should want to have in our nation’s politics. Whatever it is we’re doing now, clearly does not engineer that kind of a situation and, whether or not you agree with anything I’ve offered as a solution, something needs to change. Thoughts?

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Starting Over

The Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge

Starting over is all too familiar a concept to me, and in several iterations. Country, home and direction would be the obvious ones that spring to mind, and I don’t feel obliged to dig much deeper. Perhaps starting over is for many a positive affair, but I have over time come to be excessively wearied by it. All things stable and unchanging are now the better things.

Not wanting to sound melodramatic, I would attribute myself with a degree of melancholy born from never being afforded the chance to stay in one place when young. Born in the Middle-East and straying between Dubai, Sharjah or Bahrain before aged six set the tone, and these shifts were all at once made paltry when the mother chose another man and with the children found themselves back in the old home. Starting over with a new family too.

Scotland and then England couldn’t possibly be more different than actual deserts but the general environment wasn’t a mark on the fifth and sixth schools in memory in seven years. At least then I was good through practice at making new friends and not wholly fed up as I would be later. Not wasting any time of course, we relocated to yet another completely far-flung location, although there probably couldn’t be a better choice than California.

Three years here, by far the victor in time spent wherever by this point, and as good a group of friends as I ever made. Everything was good in the pleasant hills around San Jose and so barely a discernible minute after my 11th birthday it was to Holland and away from everything I had grown more used to than ever before.

Great friends made there too, although the place itself comparatively dismal. Eindhoven is no drive through the mountains around Palo Alto or heading up the Santa Cruz coastline, or even just enjoying a few straight days of sunshine. But great friends, who there was little chance of remaining in contact with in the days without so much networking, and once we were back to England it was for a while like they never existed.

A brief stop at the school I attended many years before came to an end when by sick irony I expressed a degree of boredom and was whisked off to boarding school before my thirteenth year. A finer education you couldn’t ask for but the interest in people was largely gone and so I coasted through, comfortably insulated by my own apathy and a delight in trivial entertainments. Maybe I thought I would save my lingering supply of sociability for university, prepare myself for yet another round of introductions.

Sure enough I did and with no small amount of success in some regards. Yet the decision to follow in my grandfathers footsteps, and be a classicist, proved ill-made and after a year I started again at another institution, in a different field. Philosophy and theology did my nature little good but it didn’t matter, as tragedy intervened and losing my mother was adequate to shut down all my best intentions for a couple of years.

I think I tried to be a musician, not that I was unsure of my purpose, but more that looking back it’s hard to say this attempt at a completely divergent beginning was ever really invested in. Eventually I realised the dream was mad at best and returned to higher education. Third university, third interest, three more years on, and this last attempt at starting over might have paid off, but it remains to be seen.

Having not given you the whole story by half, don’t doubt there’s plenty of opportunity for recalcitrance. Relationships between friends, girlfriends, family and others all have their own stories of starting over or rebuilding. On a better day I could have relayed every detail dripping in optimism as indeed I often do think more on the incredible opportunities and experiences therein.

But from the perspective of starting over it has long felt that either by choice or circumstance a new beginning, wanted or unwanted, is not far around the corner.

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Technology and the Future

Not so long ago I was knee deep in a fairly heated debate over the nature of technology. I was digging myself into a position that intuitively felt right at the time, but now seems less sound. There were two key facets to the conversation, the first being whether or not the current exponential rate of advance was due to slow at any time, or indeed if it would ever stop completely. The second dealt with the idea of falling behind with the times.

The first is easy to move past, I was then suggesting that inevitably there would be a point when we hit the brick wall of physical impossibility. I can’t even begin to conjure all of the developments that might occur between now and that point, or how many false walls would be pushed through before the true limits of natural law prevent further progress, but I believe those limits do exist. Use your imagination – do you believe there will ever be a hand-held device for the instantaneous creation of customisable micro-planets in the solar system of your choice? iPlanet?

An extreme example, but when proffering a similarly outlandish one during this debate, was exasperatingly told something along the lines of, “Maybe, you don’t know, you can’t know, some of the directions technology has gone would have been utterly inconceivable to past generations.” I bullishly stand by my opinion though, regardless of the distinct ring of truth to that counter-argument. I don’t know, I can’t know, but I can be pretty damn assured of the unlikelihood of my more extravagant concepts being realised.

Will we ever be able to take guided tours through the heart of star? I say no.

All the same, I was just now unsuccessfully dredging through Google searches for the name of the British industrialist or gentleman, or whoever it was, that some hundred years or more ago ignorantly stated, probably drooling over a steam engine, that surely we have completely outdone ourselves and can not possibly do any better. Humanities march of civilisation is over, let’s retire to the plantation. I’m not that guy.

I’m not looking at the prototype of the smartwatch and pondering a future without greater expectations, as that sort of gadget vindicates our faith in bringing to life our most improbable ideas. The science fiction writers of the past two centuries have pre-empted more amazing things than you might believe. But I don’t think even Arthur C. Clarke with his three laws of prediction would have permitted the wild extremes of his mind to push his works from science fiction into fantasy. Part of the genius of Clarke and other masters of the genre is revealed when it is shown they called it accurately.

The second element is more of a sticking point, partly due to ego. Although more tenuously than before, I still defend the idea that the younger generations of today will not experience the general pattern of not being able to keep up with advances, particularly later in life. Do you have a parent or grandparent to whom the notion of a computer or the internet is totally alien? Someone who doesn’t even want to try and understand your personal device much less its new “cloud” functions? I believe the future will see less of that person.

Younger people are growing up in such a vastly different climate to their elders. Access to information, and the speed and weight of information being thrown at us, is at a higher level than ever before and only increasing. Disconnection is now a dangerous phenomena to some, as proven in the anxiety and disorientation that a heavy internet or social media user experiences when denied their fix. Consumerism engages us with the latest products, the possession of which is almost fanatical to many.

I don’t mean to sound too doomy. But I do broadly keep to the idea that for these reasons, in the least, more of us will remain in the technological loop for longer than ever before. This is in spite of a curious little moment I experienced a couple of weeks ago. While visiting my grandfather, aged 96, over Christmas, I found myself poking through his study for some wrapping paper reported to be there.

This room was sort of an inner sanctum and in the many years of visiting him, I had never actually been inside and so was surprised to see an electronic typewriter perched on the desk. At a guess I would say it emanated from the late 60’s and although the old man couldn’t precisely recall, he told me it was a truly state-of-the-art machine in its time. He extolled that for his purposes it was about the last step up that particular tech ladder he required, thus never owning any sort of computer.

The family patriarch is no luddite. An artillery officer during World War II and an experienced architect with a distinguished career, he is absolutely comfortable with the digital radio, LCD-TV, Sky box, DVD-player and all their many remote controls. He is perfectly at ease with a new model dishwasher or microwave when the old one goes.

After that I was more open to the possibility that I might one day not comprehend the latest gizmo, not because I ever naturally became less capable with technologies, but because I might eventually be landed with the tool that suits me best and won’t feel the need to keep abreast of the fast moving times. It goes back to the question of the necessity of technology in our lives, whether looking at individual or societal needs. Do we retroactively create the necessity of certain things?

Ultimately though, we are being hard-wired by today’s much more technology-savvy and product driven culture, in a manner limiting that eventuality as best as possible.

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A Transamerican Journey

The Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge

This was a journey planned but not undertaken. We never even thought of how to get to the start, much less how to finish it, and yet it still seems like the best idea we ever had. It was meant to be the sort of formative adventure among friends that would endure in our memories forever.

Every stop and leg of the journey would be a tribute to the best things we knew about those places. Whether the towering buildings of New York or the endless expanses of Kansas, there was a purpose particular to each. Some were more than worthy, like capturing the spectacles of Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon, and others bordered on the absurd. Memphis for a token walk or Dodge City just to get out.

We wanted a little piece of as much of the nation as could be achieved without losing direction too much. Starting on one coast and ending up on the other felt like a great challenge, the perfect way to frame a great adventure. But for me there was a slightly deeper meaning than for whoever accompanied me. After thousands of miles and endless days of driving through the cities and countryside we would arrive in California.

Lived there once, when I was young. Exhausted and ready to go home, we’d take the final stretch up Big Sur, aware of our conceit but not caring because we had finished the journey and were happy.

One of the last stops would take us trundling through a Saratoga suburb until I found the old place with the creek behind, leading to a dusty rail line. The sort of place that when choking the air with dust kicked up from bike wheels was like a vast wilderness but now would seem small.

Melancholy well-established. On to San Francisco for the final days of postponing the real world and then the bittersweet return.

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