lundi 22 décembre 2014

France's outbreak of offensive driving

Mme Beezer had already agreed to take the boy to see Paddington this evening. Dubbed into French, but never mind: well, mostly. We did regret not hearing Julie Walters in person. Nicole Kidman was certainly an impressive baddie--the lad was trembling--and he roared at the CGI'd slapstick. It was perhaps an irony that the film made, as is customary, very light of a car chase, at the denouement of which, no-one (of course!) was in any way injured.

I myself had been feeling a mild duty to see the film after reading this excellent blogpost on how Paddington (and the Browns) would be treated, were he merely an undocumented human migrant from Peru in Britain today.

Anyway, we got the tram into town, as is so very convenient for us, and we were a bit early, so we wandered back out into the Christmas market after picking up our cinema tickets in order to get a present for Mme Martin, Mme Beezer's faithful help. The cinema faces onto the Christmas market in Place du Commerce; fifty metres up an adjoining street is the other, larger, part of the market, in Place Royale.

These markets are a Nantes tradition: in the last week of November, highly efficient crews erect what is basically a large collection of garden sheds, from which are sold variously artisanal salami, handknits, battery-operated drones, candy floss, plaster models of the nativity, winter hats, and vast cheeses. A pleasant feature of the set-up are the many stalls selling vin chaud (mulled wine); and in one corner of Place Royale is a large traditional merry-go-round, around which the children of Nantes form a willing scrum.

Anyway, we ducked out into this for ten minutes, and then back into the cinema, in good time for the 7.10pm start (lest the trailers be the best bit).

At which same time, also, reportèdly, and most unhappily, the generally calm and orderly life of we Nantais, was shattered by the driver of a white van, who, for reasons best known to himself--though there may be clues in an indecipherable notebook found in his van--decided to plunge his vehicle at the crowd standing round one of the mulled wine stalls on the south-west corner of the Place Royale. Panic briefly ensued; staff from the pharmacy opposite  came to the aid of the injured immediately; the emergency services arrived in strength with commendable promptness.

We were in blissful ignorance of all this until the film finished around 9pm. We were oddly captured on video walking towards Place Royale by a dude with his mobile phone, and then walked on a few metres to find our path home barred by a cordon of gendarmes, and the rumour, on the lips of a fellow citoyenne, that 17 people had been injured by a madman crashing his car into a mulled wine stall.

Getting home, and turning, as is my wont, first to the google news and the twitter, it is consistently reported that the number of people injured was in fact ten, four seriously, and one of whom, a woman, is on the critical list. The driver himself, "of European surname," and a Charantais (where his vehicle was also registered) apparently then tried to stab himself several times (between 2 and 11 depending on what you read), and is also seriously injured, though not critically.

 Various right wing commentators on Twitter were quick to spread rumours that the driver had shouted "Allah Akbar" as happened in Dijon the other day. (if you want to read it, try a Twitter search on #Nantes + Akbar; you will also quickly find the reason why the swivel-eyed are best ignored on-line). This sectarian provocation has been firmly denied by the Nantes Procureur (chief prosecutor) and the police. A full investigation is under way; a lone madman the dominant hypothesis.
("The madman didn't shout 'Allah akbar,' prosecutor confirms")

My thoughts, naturally, are with the injured. It certainly could have been us standing there having a glass of mulled wine before the film. Let us hope that all concerned, not least the driver, make a full recovery, so the lessons can be learned. And it certainly could have been worse: those poor Glaswegians! My condolences.

A former doctor writes: if you issue random humans with personal armoured vehicles, this kind of thing will happen from time to time. Making it harder to acquire, and easier to lose, a licence to drive a motor vehicle (cf. commercial pilots) would probably reduce the lamentable toll of death and injury on the roads. It would be unsurprising if this character's psychiatric case record turns out to have been many inches thick. Should he even have been at the wheel of vehicle that works by exploding petrol? That most useful of diagnostic instruments, the retrospectoscope, is evidently reading NO off the scale; but are the social structures in place to keep the wayward, the demented, and the blind, and those, bless them, who are heading that way, off the road? Evidently they are lacking. And all that before even considering the place of the "essential car user" in society. Which must remain a topic for another day.

Update 15:15h, 24/12/14: According to this Liberation article, the driver responsible had little history with the psychiatric services or police. One of the victims, a 25 year old man, has died of his injuries.

Update 13:03h, 17/7/16. The accused is reported to have hanged himself in Nantes' prison.

Update 17:56h, 17/7/16. The substantial planters placed at all the points of road ingress to the 2015 edition of Nantes Christmas Market were a welcome security measure. Whether this would have been enough to stop a 19-tonne truck remains an open question.

jeudi 18 décembre 2014

A short note on the importance of the triolectic

I read it was Hegel who said that things are both coming into being and going out of being: the historical dialectic. (Full disclosure: I've never read Hegel, only the reviews: which is why I've never read Hegel). Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, thesis. Or Ramon y Cajal's exposition of the discontiguous synapse. (Others believed the nerves to be continuous.) Or "the forces of history" as the kind of phrase used by people for whom Newtonian mechanics were the best thing they had. F = ma. Great equation. Highly explanatory. No-one ever falls out of a window without it.
But it's easy to get stuck in binary oppositionalism. As a tool for illuminating nature, it's not bad, and certainly better than a greybeard spouting ex cathedra, but it has the dangerous flaw of situating a debate. You seek knowledge; you find yourself arguing around the village pump, because that's where the debate is, rather stravaiging into nature to make some original observations.
And this is the importance of triolectic football. Because what are you going to do with your knowledge? I've never actually played a game of triolectic football, but knowing it exists is surely most of its importance.

Update 1101h, 10/2/15:
 So funny!

mercredi 17 septembre 2014

L'indépendence pour l'Écosse? Bah oui!

I don't have a vote in the referendum on Scottish independence tomorrow. Though I'm proud to be Edinburgh-born and educated, I haven't resided in Scotland since I got on a train to head off to Sheffield University in October 1983, and my professional life since has pursued a southward trajectory: Yorkshire, Cambridge, London, now France.

But there are still family and friends that I care about up there, and hardly a year goes by without a visit or three to Edinburgh. Now, as there's nothing quite as contemptible as a partisan who can't even be bothered to live in his own country, there, perhaps, I should leave it. ("Sean Connery in the Bahamas, I'm looking at you!")

But if you were to ask me in a general way, "Should Scotland be an independent country?" I'd probably say YES. I base this opinion on the prejudice that smaller countries are in general better governed (think Norway, the Netherlands), and also less likely to venture abroad in a noxious manner. ("Tony Blair, you warmongering vomit-bag, I'm looking at you!").

Smaller countries create natural experiments and permit cultural variations that are always instructive. The world is richer for them. Living in France, an unashamèdly centralized country, one is struck with how, if Paris has it right, then everyone is right; but if they have it wrong, then everyone is wrong. The offences such a system can create against common sense are legion, though it's yet to break my romance with French culture: the overall effect is... well, France, and the many wonderful things that also implies.

Metropolitan France is an empire, fully consolidated by the bourbon kings in the late 16th/early 17th century. Its population is also much more rural than the UK's, which makes holding regional identity self-evidently natural, but the centre quite carefully and consciously acts to ensure that this does not raise its head into practical demands for separate national identities.

I live in Nantes, within the Napoleon-created département of Loire-Atlantique (44), which falls within the administrative région of Pays de la Loire, set apart from the other four départements that make up the Brittany region (="Breizh" in the (Welsh-like) Breton language). There is indeed a current in contemporary French life which believes that Brittany should be reunified, and even, perhaps, a separate country (this is the significance of the "44=BZH" graffiti one sees about the place), but the powers-that-be have rejected this option, electing to keep the Loire-Atlantique, the most prosperous and industrialized part of what was historically Brittany, carefully apart from it in the recent reorganization of the regions.

(This is fun for me: if people are banging on about Breton identity, I can interject, with James Bond-like cadence: "Je suis de Bretagne: Grand Bretagne!" which usually gets a laugh).

I say life here is centralized. One wee example: would university professors at the University of Nantes best be appointed in Nantes or Paris? For me, the obvious answer would be Nantes, but currently their selection committee is in... Paris! (Update§: it's complicated, but) new teaching staff do still arrive, blinking, like newly-expatriated colonials sent hither at the will of a Parisian emperor, to their posts.

And then one is in the realm of consideration of how corrupt is the empire, does the emperor love all of his subjects equally, and do they prosper in the might of his justice and his peace?

And you have to say, by that standard, looking at Westminster's track record ever since I've been old enough to follow politics, first Thatcher, then Major, then Blair, then Brown; mighty emperors all;  each, in their own way, has committed sufficient crimes upon the Scottish people to richly deserve their sacking. From stocking their nukes tidily away from English population centres, to trashing whole swathes of regional industry and doing very little about the social devastation that resulted; to undermining the United Nations--how the Scottish people admired New Labour's development of the 'special relationship' with George W. Bush, state executioner turned federal torturer!--while all the while flipping second residences and claiming duck houses on expenses... Tsk, tsk!

Scottish people have a relationship with the truth that derives from their proud, early adoption of the protestant tradition, entirely unrelated, and in stark contrast to the so-called "Reformation" of the Church of England, a tool of monarchs. Pity the English certainly, but do we always have to stoop down to their level?

Now my Facebook feed is alive with YouTube video of lumpen Dundonians, pale and fat and middle-aged, singing Dougie MacLean's "Caledonia," a song that I detest by the way, for its line "Caledonia, you're all I've ever had" which even for the most abject Scottish person is surely understating reality, and I've just about had enough of it. Tone down the empty nationalism by dears, and tell me what you're actually going to do to improve the nutrition of those poor folks in Castlemilk. My Facebook feed is also alive with friends, all comfortably off, succumbing to the economic fear the NO campaign is very successfully generating. Curiously the shenanigans of the banksters did not so rouse them in 2008. But hey--the prevailing international neo-liberal "reality"! What can you do?

The result seems too close to call. My own dear parents, who, charmingly, have always* cancelled each other out in past constitutional referendums (on accession to the "Common Market," or "EEC" as the European Union was then proffered to the electorate, in 1977, on devolution, in 1979), are unanimously YES. But my sister is against, because she believes the SNP's current economic proposals ("a sterling currency union") to be half-assed. She may well be right, but it seems to me that creating a new nation is always going to be a leap of faith, and that there is no reason why Scotland should not create its own central bank and currency, should it wish to do so. The Irish Punt pegged sterling for fifty years--with no cooperation from the Bank of England--before Ireland adopted the Euro. Scotland's economy is bigger than Ireland's, and its fundaments are strong, and it will be stronger still once wind and wave renewables get going. I can't say I'm wild about the SNP's longstanding enthusiasm for the oil industry: have they heard of climate change? But renewables plus conservation will in any case create more jobs, so either way they'll be fine.

Among the old friends I keep up with on Facebook, opinion seems also to be divided, with a slight trend towards the better-off being against, the more humble, for, independence. As an independent Scottish government would almost certainly start to adopt more progressive property taxes, so perhaps they are right to be worried: if worrying about your own personal wealth is all you should do in a democracy, sending the polity any information it needs through Hayekian signals. (That's a joke BTW).

 We expats, very often only expatriated as far as England, and generally to the left, seem generally in favour, I think mainly because we see the justice of the Scottish case: the Scots vote left, and yet they are always suffering under right-wing governments chosen for them by the English. Scotland's departure from the union would be a wake-up call to the English left to actually organize themselves to democratize their country (a House of Lords! In the 21st century!), and regain the necessary checks and balances brought to government by strong trades unions and dynamic civil society.

Here in France, people are curious about the Scottish referendum, and wonder what to make of it. That's if they've even heard of Scotland: to many, we're all "les anglais"; at any rate to all those not up on the finer points of the history of Her Majesty's Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Certainly the intellectual void of the crude right wing identity politics espoused by Le Pen's Front National is generally despised. I try to reassure them of the truth of the previous paragraph, whilst praying that is true of the Scottish National Party.

Certainly the SNP's policies on Europe, immigration, education, health and social care seem well to the left of any English party with a chance of power at Westminster. I watched a bit of a Scottish parliamentary committee live on cable TV the other week--a finance discussion--and was reassured by the dullness and technicality of all participating. This is surely how politics should be: sober, grey-suited men and women, seeing what sort of laws can be agreed upon, openly, in full view of the people they represent, accountable. You can see it would work, that they are capable people, and Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP deputy leader, is obviously outstandingly competent, as, for all his faults, is Alex Salmond.

Outside the parliament in Edinburgh there are a number of shallow ornamental ponds, divided by low waterfalls. These are ideal for paddling, though naturally this is officially forbidden, presumably for the best of health and safety reasons. But on a hot summer's day (22°C!), of which we were fortunate to enjoy many on our visit this July, the single unarmed policeman on duty outside the parliament, his white sleeves rolled to his elbows, was studiously uninterested in enforcing the little "No paddling" signs, turning a blind eye to the small children and dogs frolicking in the water, as their parents enjoyed the dramatic view up Salisbury Crags, and the legislators, presumably, enjoyed the remarkable work of the Catalan architect from the inside.

Law and architecture are but approximations of the human spirit, but this harmonious tableau of aspiration meeting reality in general civilized contentment, seemed to me to suggest that Scotland has already chosen a brighter day, and that full independence will come, if not this time, then the next. The contrast with the tank traps and machine-gunners that line the approaches to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and the Scottish parliament on that day could not be starker. What goes around, comes around, and if the Scottish people deliver a serious and considered drubbing to the corrupt bunch of warmongers operating out of London town, by rejecting them utterly, no-one will cheer louder than me tomorrow night. Vive la paix! Vive l'Europe! Vive l'Écosse!

§ Update 1743h, 17/9/14. Naturally, I find now I've written this (based on what my FLE prof. told me, hmm, now 6 years ago), things are more complicated than I first wrote. In fact, in higher education, more power for candidate selection has apparently devolved locally, though the concours --the competitive teaching qualification exams, are still nationally organized. But secondary school teachers, who are considered to be civil servants, are still allocated around the country by Paris.
Update 22:36, 17/9/14. My recollection of my parents' stated voting behaviour  is at variance with their own. They now claim to have been of one mind on devolution in 1979 (for), but concede they may possibly have been at odds over the "Common Market" referendum in 1975. I'm going to let the point stand for now; it was an honest recollection from my youth, and it's generally a shame to let facts spoil a good story. And I'm happy to report that they're both feeling sufficiently chipper to totter along to the polls in person tomorrow!
Update 09:10, 18/9/14. Links to my sister's numerous effusions on the matter below, many of which have attracted good comments. Continuing the family tradition of discord on constitutional questions, she is broadly against! Unlike me, she will be voting. And there is also a handy guide to late-opening Edinburgh pubs if you want to see the results announced in the company of your fellow citizens.
Update 12:43 25/9/14. Obviously the NOES had it, 55:45 on an 85% turnout. I am sanguine about this outcome personally. There's been a lot of chat on social media in the aftermath too. Here's a comment I made, lifted from my Facebook activity timeline: " I appreciate you nailing the currency question Paul because that was the sore point that led my sister Jane, a resident of Leith, to become an outspoken partisan for NO. Despite being in favour of Scottish independence in principle, she thought the economic proposals as outlined (and yes, she did read them) were half-cocked. I respect her view. My own surmise is that Salmond, in a grotesque parody of New Labourism, wanted "Independence, but don't worry, nothing's going to change, so you can vote for us as a simple lifestyle choice" whereas, true fiscal independence does, inevitably, involve having a central bank to manage a currency floating free in the international soup (and a thrashing from George Soros et al if they don't like the way government receipts are getting out of kilter with expenditure)."
My final word on the matter? En avant la république!

samedi 28 juin 2014

On the mysterious disappearance of *Dr* Douglas Carnall

   Between 1994 to 2007, if you'd asked me, "What do you do?" I suppose I'd have replied, "I'm a GP." Certainly that was how I mostly earned money, even if I rejected much of the ideology of the discipline. This was a delicate matter. My chief concern was to keep my workload within reasonable limits, which I did by working as a locum and billing by the hour.  Such an attitude was a certainly an affront to the notions of vocation claimed by the betweeded denizens of the British Journal of General Practice. I had no desire to confront this ideology: it seemed in many ways humane, certainly in comparison with other parts of the profession. And anyway, I didn't really have the intellectual tools to do so, and wasn't particularly interestedat that timein acquiring them.
   Still, I was flattered, in 2003, to be called by one of the editors of the Br J Gen Pract, and asked to write about blogging for the back pages of the journal, presumably on the strength of the columns I'd been writing about the internet for the BMJ for several years.
   I remember finding the BJGP article hard to write: I'm not sure that I shared the vision of the commissioning editor, and I was certainly more interested in maintaining my own blog and making music at the time. But I wrote something, and delivered it, probably on time, and in due course, it appeared.
  Usually I enjoy rereading my old stuff, but not that one. By that time I'd developed significant disillusion with the dis-ease of use of the free software of the epoch. I was ambivalent about proposing that all doctors should blog, though I'd taken it up myself. Doing it on free software seemed almost insurmountably difficult; yet handing over all comms and memory to predatory capitalists and intrusive state agencies using proprietary platforms was as much an evident danger back then as it is now. I didn't pose the issue explicitly in the article, but my nagging doubts that I was merely a fashion victim do seep through, I think, and it's hardly a comfortable position as an author.
  A decade later, happily retired from general practice, I suppose I was right that blogging would catch on: both Twitter and Facebook are effectively blogging platforms; but wrong that this would greatly affect general practitioners, who seem largely absent from them. I guess taking up blogging would be something to be done on the eighth day of the week. And the duty of confidentiality makes any discussion of individual cases online so fraught as to be best avoided entirely. Neither has the publishing world's snail-like progress towards open access aided trade among doctors in professional articles. Progress towards the noble goal of making the world's scientific literature open to anyone who cares to read it, has, to my mind, been disappointingly slow, though things are going in the right direction.
  Anyway, when I moved to France in August 2007 "for six months off" I stopped paying all of my medical subscriptions, including to the Royal College of General Practitioners, and felt that it was only right that I should saw the MRCGP off my name (the M stands for member). And as holders of a bachelor's degree in medicine are addressed as doctor only as a courtesy for clinical settings, I have converted, for all purposes, to being a simple monsieur, et toute ma vie y est améliorée.

samedi 14 juin 2014

Jam not telly

Well, the general consensus on the internets is that Croatia was robbed. Brazil's double goal scorer shouldn't have been on the pitch after his forearm smash to an opponent's throat, it was never a penalty, Croatia's goal should have stood, etc etc. Still, they've spent so much on the stadiums, they can't have the home side being knocked out early. This tweet summed it up nicely:
And though we enjoyed a pleasant little soirée round at Djamel's watching this opening match, I realise I can't summon that adolescent fervour any more. It was a great buzz while it lasted, but I won't be going out of my way to watch any more FIFA World Cup matches. Instead I'm going to be making jam and chutney and maybe posting some illustrations here.
I like pictures of stuff in the kitchen sink on the way to being transformed to some delightful conserved product that will last out the year:

A list of the steps

0) First pick your strawberries. These were from Muzon, near Trellières, about 15k from Nantes. The women and children drove in cars; I naturally found it a pleasant occasion for a bike ride. Picnic in a field. When the farmer returned from lunch we got started. I picked about 3 kilos as fast as I could. On the ride home I bought 3kg of sugar from SuperU.
1) Wash and trim strawberries. This took a while, listened to some podcasts online. In the end there was 2.2kg of fruit.
2) As well as a field of berries to pick, the farmer also kindly supplied an A5 flyer with a jam recipe on it, which I followed slavishly in the absence of any other counsel. This suggested adding 600g of sugar plus the juice of 1 lemon for each 1kg of fruit.
3) As soon as you add the sugar and lemon to the fruit the osmotic process of maceration begins. The lid on the pan not being 100% close fitting, I also put the pan in a plastic bag, to avoid contamination with any other odours from the fridge.
4) In the morning you have a cauldron of shrunken wibbly strawbs in a dark red syrup. This you boil for one minute, then cool it and put it back in the fridge.
5) On the third day, comes the definitive cooking. This obviously involves jar preparation (see video below for technique). The cooking is the most fraught part of the process. Boiling the fruit, sugar, and acid should liberate pectin from cell walls in the fruit and cause the mixture to gel. You test the propensity of your solution to gel by the 'cold plate test': putting a teaspoonful of the solution on a cold plate and looking for signs of jellification. If you boil it too much, you can zap all the pectin chains, and it will never set, or you boil off too much water and it crystallizes into a solid lump of fruity sugar.
So when I had exceeded the recommended cooking times of both the farmer (7-12 min) and Harold McGee* (10-20 min) I was nervous. The red juice ran down the face of the plate as freely as at the beginning. Also, it was time to go fetch the boy from school for lunch. So once more I cooled the mixture in a sink of cold water, and held off doing anything about it till later.
6) Happily I ran into Isabel, picnicking at the park, who suggested the addition of some agar-agar and pointed me to the La Vie Claire to get it.
7) That evening, I mixed four 2g-sachets of the grey, seaweed-derived product with about 30mls of water in a cup, then added some of my reheating jam solution to the cup, mixed it well, and lobbed the whole lot back into the pan. Another couple of minutes of boiling, and, for the first time, the cold plate test started to develop a ripple of viscosity, and into the jars it went.
8) Cooled over night, the jam is a nice consistency, doesn't run off the toast and has a good flavour. It's very sweet.

*Heston Blumenthal's favourite cookbook: McGee H. On food and cooking: the science and lore of the kitchen. NY: Scribner, 1984.

samedi 24 mai 2014

Why I keep public bookmarks (and where you can find them)

Well, the finding them bit is easy. They are here:

a brief explanation

About 5000 8000 web things of various kinds are there, all tagged by subject in my own folksonomic classification of about 900 1000 terms. Each is also accompanied by an evocatext of similar length to an abstract, designed not to summarise the content of the text, but to evoke its memory. This might be a conventional summary (if one was easily available to copy) but it is more often a key passage in a text, or a bit that was funny or sexy or violent or grotesque (because that kind of stuff is more memorable). Evocatext* is a neologism. Sorry about that.

a short history of my bookmarks

The arrival of family life in 2009 meant I started to have fairly generous swathes of time available before a computer screen, and no particular ambition in mind. My complete break with my former life as a jobbing GP in London town by moving to France had left me agreeably free of an obligation to professional reading that had become increasingly tedious.

I was using the internet a lot for my French studies, and decided to open accounts on all of the social networks to play with them and better understand them. I've labelled monitoring these accounts "being on general internet patrol," and I quickly realised the frustration that comes from reading something online, then being unable to find it even a few days or weeks later. Social bookmarking seemed to be the answer: I was happy user until it was taken over and trashed by its new owners. At that point I discovered I am extremely tightfisted when it comes to paying for online services, but founder Majiec Ceglowski has convinced me of the need to dob him $25/year, and I find maintaining my collection there useful and satisfying. My annual fee also pays for personal copies of pages to be archived, which means if you hit a 404 from there, I may be able to help.

examples of tag collections

French > English, English > French resources
Open access advocacy and information
Readings in agnotology, obscurantism, and attention

Note that in selecting one set of tags, associated tags open up on the left right of the page, enabling selections such as 'openaccess' + 'funny', 'peerreview' + 'reputation', or maybe 'sex' + 'drugs' (which will lead you to a Paris Review interview with Beatriz Preciado entitled Pharmacopornography).

If you find stuff you like there, and you'd like to follow my curations in future, pinboard has a really cool RSS feature that makes that easy: simply place any pinboard address navigate to the Pinboard view you'd like to follow (up to three tags deep), then use the RSS button top right to receive alerts in your RSS reader: the next time I classify something I've just read using those tags, up pops a link in your reader. Fellow freelance translators might enjoy my translation business stream for example.

  a modest caveat

My own experience of following other users' bookmarks on delicious and diigo  was that following all of an individual's bookmarking is just too random to be time-efficient. Pinboard's ability to follow subsets by tag may mitigate this somewhat. Those bookmarks are up there first and foremost for me, but if they're in any way useful for anyone else, I'd love the feedback (to dougie_DOT_carnall_ATT_gmail) or in the comments here.
* A short (~80-150 words) text selected or composed to evoke a longer text. Evocatexts do not aim to summarise the longer text as a whole, but to represent the most memorable parts of it to enable later recall by digital searching. An evocatext would aim to reproduce the parts of the text that were, for example, funny or sexy or violent or grotesque (because that kind of stuff is more memorable). See also: keywords, abstract, summary, précis, publon.

"Yeah, he's got a really nice collection of tagged public bookmarks, each with a high quality evocatext to assist later recall."

Update 09:24, 19/1/15. Amended RSS instructions to something that might actually work.
Update 07:05, 11/4/16. Updated N° of bookmarks and corrected minor error in navigation help.

dimanche 13 avril 2014

A consultation with a social librarian

    I came upon GoodReads again this morning, and decided to sign up and give it a goI've been yearning for some medium-light stuff in English to complement my worthy trawl through the French classics, currently La Peste.
    GoodReads is like Facebook for book lovers: 25 million users have shared their literary preferences, and, using the power of the social graph, once you do that too, those magical inklings about what you "didn't know you didn't know" become yours for the taking.
    This technique worked dramatically for me. Told I needed to rate 20 books to start receiving recommendations from the site, I set off, but was being presented with digital screeds of books I'd never heard of, and didn't even care that I hadn't. After scrolling through many pages of this, I finally lighted upon Richard Feynmann's Surely you're joking Mr Feymann?, gave it a five star rating (heartfelt: I even bought it for a nephew last Christmas), and from that moment on, my universe at the site changed completely, and I started to be presented with much more plausible choices of stuff that I might actually want to read. I was reminded that I have yet to tackle much of Dostoyevsky and Kafka for example.
    There was a slight dip when I came to rating my preferences in sport, where, as a simple matter of attentional survival (84kb PDF), I limit my reading strictly to cycling. Amidst a morass of recommendations treating on American-rules "football" (this though the ball is hardly ever kicked), baseball, and basketball, cycling was nowhere to be seen. This time I had to resort the the site's search tool: a search and a click on Tim Krabbé's The Rider sufficed to transform the site once more into friendly territory.
    It's a pretty awesome site, it has to be said. So now the problem is the more familiar "so many books, so little time." But my impression is that the site offers a powerful attentional tool, enabling ready surmise of populist preference, whilst easily forcing it to turn to the interest at hand (say, by specifying philosophical works). For an autodidact this is invaluable. For example, you'd seen references to the 19th century philosopher Schopenhauer, but didn't know where to begin; the GoodReads recommendation looks like a pretty palatable place to start. And unlike at Amazon, the GoodReads reader reviews generally seem non-trivial and sane.

mercredi 2 avril 2014

Was this URL censored on Twitter?

Update 2/12/16: The problem was likely the hashtags rather than enemy action. Until this morning, I naively imagined that 1 hashtag = 1 character. But according to social media pros SocialOomph, hashtags get converted into links of up to 23 characters whatever their original length. Paranoia diminished.

The post's still worth a read though. If I was writing a post with >2 embedded tweets today, Storify's ease of use would be a tempting alternative to this 'ere Blogger.

Try as I might (and I need my beauty sleep) I could not manage to post a tweet with this URL in it tonight:

The story there describes how a Mr Duff, head of his large eponymously-named company, only agreed to move his head office to Rennes from current locations in London and Paris, because he knew there was going to be a new airport at Notre-Dames-Des-Landes. Three hundred jobs are reportedly at stake.

The idiocy of this position can hardly be described. Why does he need a new airport 90km away, when he's already got one 10km away on the outskirts of Rennes? I crafted a tweet to point out this basic absurdity at 2330h on 2 April 2014:

 M. Duff retirerait 300 emplois si #NDDL n'aurait pas lieu: Mais il déjà existe un aéroport à Rennes! #bizarre

[Mr Duff will pull 300 jobs if #NDDL isn't built: But Rennes already has an airport! #bizarre]

 and thought I was about to head for bed, when it failed with the following error:

'Your Tweet was over 140 characters. You'll have to be more clever.'

Well, actually, it wasn't. It was 110 characters, plus a valid URL, which would normally be shortened by Twitter's URL-shortening service to 20 characters. This gives a total of 130 characters, well within the 140 character limit.

But try as I might, that Tweet wouldn't post. I redrafted it. It was very like Twitter was overwhelmed, as happens sometimes, so I thought I'd complain
and get off to bed. But then that tweet posted so easily and quickly (i.e. not at all like a general server fail that you sometimes see at busy times with Twitter) that my curiosity was piqued.

So I thought I'd post another tweet, avoiding the hashtag #NDDL and the URL to the Ouest-France story, and see how I got on:
That posted very nice and smoothly. Hmm! This was looking, on the face of it, like a keyword censorship problem at Twitter. I used the and URL shortening services. Those yielded 'internal server error(s).' It seemed to me that the powers-that-be had created some crummy propaganda (which really is of insultingly low quality) and didn't want sarky tweets flying around deconstructing it before it's had a chance to fool a few time-pressed loyalists.

So I alternated attempts to post the most refined version of the tweet (as follows):

M. Duff retirerait 300 emplois si #NDDL n'aurait pas lieu. Et l'aéroport actuel de Rennes ne sert à rien?

with a few tweets on other subjects, as one might, while on general internet patrol.

The madness that is the public discourse over American healthcare never ceases to exercise a horrible fascination in me, for example:
Hmm. No problem posting that one either.

So what are they filtering on? Surely the #NDDL hashtag can't be entirely blocked, because that would be too obvious, and people would complain:

So #NDDL is alright. Must be that link. But I still have not succeeded in posting it in any way to Twitter from my location here in France. I complain

And start researching Twitter censorship. It seems that France is indeed the leader in this. On the spurious grounds of preventing the sale of Nazi memorabilia, the French government have demanded that internet players be able to filter content by national boundaries.

I, however, am not even trying to sell a Hugo Boss suit: I am legitimately participating in a public debate about whether to build a new local airport using my taxes! Leaving aside the environmental question for a moment, the proposed subsidy is €266 million euros (which is about €450 for every man, woman and child in Nantes)—for what? A useless white elephant further away from Nantes, with no public transport, when we're already proud owners of a prizewinning airport.

I regard this as prima facie evidence that tweets around a certain URL were blocked between 2330h and 0300h, when I stopped trying to tweet, and began to pull this post together. I really cannot believe that they are defending this completely idiotic story, which they obviously plan to circulate as a major triumph in their new airport = jobs argument. Such a completely bogus argument. Mr Duff! Indeed!

Doubtless the filter will be switched off tomorrow and everyone can deny this ever happened.

In the meantime, I have engaged here:
But really! This is supposed to be the EU, not some banana republic.

vendredi 14 mars 2014

No more talks from Tony Benn

As is so often the way these days, I surmised the demise of a public figure by random occurrences in my Twitter timeline, such as this:
which is quite a nice way to get the sad news.

I did actually meet Tony Benn one day on Whitehall, sometime in 2003: opposing the invasion of Iraq, we were. He wasn't actually engaged on any more serious conversations at that moment, so I went up to him and shook his hand and told him how much I'd enjoyed a talk he'd given at Sheffield University Students' Union at the time of the miners' strike. He received the compliment without comment, smiled benignly and moved on. I was struck by how his dress sense resembled my father's: decent in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and brown trousers.
Anyway, here, in his memory, is the story he told, to that adoring student audience, back in 1983:

"So I was helping out on one of the miners' stalls outside a supermarket--we were gathering food, tins and whatnot, from the people coming out of the shop--when an old lady, obviously very deaf, came up and said [more than passable imitation of a Chesterfield accent] "What's going on 'ere then?"
"So, of course, I replied, we're collecting food for the miners, there's a strike on you know."
"And she replied, [more Chesterfield] Oh verra good. I'll 'ave a tin of beans then."
"And she took a tin of beans off the stall!"
[We all laughed with Tony, who of course had a wonderful beaming smile on his face as he told the story]
 "And of course, at the time I was flabbergasted, and I didn't know what to say. But I've thought about it, and you know, that old lady was right. Because that is what this strike is about: it's about defending the rights of ordinary people to live a decent life..."

Truly, a memorable homily. It was a big meeting: I'd say 1500 students had turned out to hear the great man, and we were not disappointed. He had that very rare talent, of great warmth and charm, and being able to put that over in a way that unites an audience.

Of course, he is as easy to criticise in hindsight as any of his contemporaries, left or right, but I think he was a very decent man, and I mourn his passing. Plenty of YouTubery out there to enjoy, but @medialens picked this one out, which does capture his late era persona rather nicely.

dimanche 2 mars 2014

Shocking resort to science to resolve question of English language usage

Almost two years ago, David Crystal posted a short article on his blog musing about when to use "for instance" and when to use "for example." Such pedantry is perhaps not the most thrilling topic, but I guess métier oblige, and Mme Beezer and I count ourselves among his fans: she even buys his books.

As Crystal was requesting the intuitions of his readers, and as anyone had yet to post, I thought it a reasonable opportunity for increasing my notoriety, and quickly drafted a few remarks. These stated my intuition that "for instance" was perhaps more likely to be used in spoken English, than "for example," and showed that "for example" was more common, citing evidence from the Google Books corpus. I also remarked that my hunch about spoken vs written usage would be testable, given access to the right corpus. Happily I managed to express all this, and still get the first post, which I'm sure are more read than others 'below the line'.

Even more happily, I'm now five weeks into the most excellent Future Learn MOOC on corpus linguistics, which has given me access to the British National Corpus, and some good teaching about to how to use it. Anyway, as we all now know on the course, the BNC comprises corpora of both transcribed speech and written texts, enabling me to test some of the intuitions I offered Crystal two years ago against hard data. Here's a table showing the relative frequencies of both terms in the spoken and written sections of the BNC:
For instance51.4976.61.49
For example106.25257.42.42
(freq/10^6 words)(freq/10^6 words)(ratio)
Data: British National Corpus hosted at
As you can see, the outnumbering of "for instance" by "for example" witnessed in the Google books corpus is replicated. I'm no statistician, but it does look as though "for instance" is relatively more favoured in speech than in writing, when compared with "for example."
As some of Crystal's other commentators (Lucy, Rick Sprague) remarked two years ago, fr'instance does slip more felicitously off the tongue, or, if you like that kinda thing, "is preferred for phonotactic reasons."

lundi 24 février 2014

Don't want a new airport? Tear gas for you!

Obviously I went to the demonstration against the proposed construction of an airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes (#NDDL). My pics are here. I have captioned them all, though the default Flickr landing page gives no clue of this: click through to the view which does present the captions alongside if you'd like to read them.
Happily, the excellent Hervé Kempf, formerly of Le Monde, has written a very fair report of events on the day, which I entirely endorse, saving me a job here.
As far as I know M. Kempf doesn't actually live in Nantes, so I'll just add that I share the view of some quoted in his article that the tactics of the authorities towards the demonstration on Saturday were:
a) unprecedented: every Nantes demo I have seen has gone up the cours de 50 Ôtages, so to place a great barrier and a water cannon to prevent this is an obvious provocation: it's like banning a big Edinburgh march from Princes Street, or Londoners from Trafalgar Square; and
b) entirely counterproductive to the maintenance of public order.  As I have observed in the comments to the YouTube video embedded below, which shows some time lapse footage of this point of confrontation between riot police and demonstrators, the authorities evidently wished to provoke this violence. Of course the threat of violence is an effective way of reducing the size of demonstrations (for example, though, like me, squarely against the proposed airport, Mme. Beezer et fils were understandably reluctant to turn out for their corporal punishment by the state, a reluctance I endorsed). It might be an effective tactic on the part of the authorities, but it's a grave stain on their purported democratic credentials.

This debacle has reportedly resulted in at least six injured police officers, and a young demonstrator losing an eye. I myself don't appreciate being teargassed as I peacefully express my political views on a matter of legitimate public concern.

They're backing a loser though: I really don't know anyone here who's in favour of the proposed airport, and what poll data I've seen suggests that this is because very few people are. The so-called pro-airport demo a few months back was pitifully small, and all this "silent majority" stuff they're coming out with is frankly, nonsense. (That was a ruder word in the first draft). And don't forget that the natural pro-airport constituency (like, I regret to say, frequent flyer Mme Beezer) are pretty happy with the existing airport, which is actually part of Nantes, and easy to get to, like, if you want to go to and from Nantes (duh!), and would be even better (e.g. requisite 1.2k of tramway connected +/or direct rail) if it hadn't had the ridiculous 40 year planning blight hanging over the 30k-away-and-no-public-transport airport on offer following any "transfer" to NDDL.

The insane persistence of the authorities in the pursuit of this project, which if it ever made sense when first mooted in 1967, is, in 2014, quite clearly SHEER BLOODY FOLLY.  The chaos in the centre of Nantes this Saturday was the result of the ineptly provocative tactics on the part of the authorities and the man responsible, Prefet Christian de Lavernée, should resign. Must we really wait for the political figures who have most invested in the project to be sacked, retire or die before the plan is cancelled? Or will they see reason? I trust that comparisons with recent events in the Ukraine are inappropriate...
Update 14:45h Tue 25 Feb 2014: According to today's local papers (Presse Ocean, Ouest France) more than 100 people were injured, of whom ten police officers and twenty demonstrators required hospital admission. The most severely injured person was a 29 year old man who reportedly lost his left eye to a flashball fired by a police officer. The cost of the clean-up is estimated at €1million euros.
And while we're here, a wee note on the media coverage:
The establishment media seem to have dutifully devoted multipage spreads to the violence and damage to property, happily enabling them to avoid the rather awkward facts of the debate proper:
a) reputable surveys show that the majority is against the airport;
b) the enormous €266million subsidy the project requires;
c) the authorities' lawbreaking with respect to legislation on water, the environment, and endangered species;
d) the effect of aviation emissions on climate change targets, and future kerosene price trends.
Ho hum!
Update Mon 14 Apr 2014: The number of demonstrators losing an eye to a headshot from a flashball has now risen to three. As a James Bond villain once observed, "Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action." In other words, one or two such injuries might be explained by bad luck or negligence, but the third is strongly suggestive of malice. Charges have, rightly, been filed. Ce n'est pas fini, as the French say.

vendredi 31 janvier 2014

HuffPo atheists: "Let (some) freedoms ring"

from the freedom-from-illegal-invasions-is-also-a-human-right department
   The Huffington Post irritates in so many ways—from its browser-jamming javascripts, to its hideous advertising, to its forcing its .fr content upon me, even if I specify a .com URL. Still, HuffPo's been hard to avoid on general internet patrol recently, after my impulsive decision to follow one of its Middle East specialists for a while.
   Thus it was that I came upon this conversation between two north American atheists, of Pakistani and Iraqi origin. Now I feel a certain extra responsibility and compassion for the people of Iraq—it was, after all, partly my taxes that paid for their country to be royally fucked over in recent years. Getting one's head round the situation there obliges a wider concern with the Middle East more generally.  But this is the kind of thing that I'd usually read quickly and move on: sadly, 'middle eastern atheists cop their share of oppression, and there's plenty to go around,' is not such a surprising message. But there was something about their mutual consensus that people in the West "take their rights for granted" while supporting, in the same paragraph, the illegal actions of Western governments towards their former countries, that I thought was maybe worth puncturing.
   Comments were apparently open at the foot of the article, but my attempt to post a comment (using my Twitter account) failed, I know I'll get spammed to death if I give them my email, and I don't particularly think my friends will be interested in a HuffPo Facebook app spewing all over their timelines. So I gave up. Someone remains wrong on the internet! But, following the strict artistic rule that it is the comments that are difficult to post in situ that are most worth publishing, here it is:
It is certainly a good point that many in the West take their rights for granted because the political struggle for them took place before they were born; but the invasion of Iraq was a great crime precisely because, in doing so, the US and the UK were thumbing their noses at the authority of the UN's Security Council, and by extension the post-WWII settlement. In his hurry to damn the American left, and roam the world removing dictators he doesn't like, the M. Al-Mutar seems to have forgotten this.