Mixed Messages, Wednesday 28 December 2016

As a late Christmas present to myself, I’m cleaning out some browser tabs.

There are times when I need more counselling, and times when I need less. So of course I feel guilty about the times when I’m feeling well and don’t need to schedule sessions. In “Ghosting on Freud: why breaking up with a therapist is so tricky” Alana Massey talks about how ending a counselling arrangement can be hard. Fortunately, my counsellor is aware of things like the internet, and I don’t have to worry about him asking me something like, “don’t you have any real friends to talk to?”

In October, jwz “[drew] a line through 1930s agitprop, Ronald Reagan, methane-breathing zombie space aliens, the Mozilla logo, Barack Obama and the International Communist Conspiracy.” It’s a great sprawling tale. Although I’ve never been to the DNA Lounge, I have followed jwz’s blog for a long time, I was sad to hear that it’s going through hard times.

I finished watching Person of Interest over the summer, and I enjoyed reading Ed Zitron’s retrospective Person Of Interest Was Anti-Prestige TV And Too Smart For Primetime”. AI and surveillance technology has been on my mind a lot all of this year. All the way over on one end of the spectrum lies Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence, which literally kept me awake at nights; while on the other side lie technologies like Google Photos, which I have finally grown sufficiently (though not overwhelmingly) comfortable with to trust with limited tasks. I’m not ready to have a permament surveillance device like the Amazon Echo in the house, always on and always listening.

(At the same time, I’m not ready to tape over the camera on my laptop, or to stuff putty in its microphone. And over the years I’ve got used to carrying a GPS tracking device with me wherever I go.)

It’s really hard to talk about these things without sounding completely paranoid, but ubiquitous surveillance + facial recognition + big data processing (even without strong AI) + cheap drones gives the states we live in unprecedented power to identify and target political dissent under the guise of preventing terrorism and extremism. For me, in 2016, the convenience of automatically geo-tagging my photos is worth the tiny risk of being pinpointed and taken out by a smart bomb. I worry that will not always be the case. One of the most unsettling things I listened to this year was the Radiolab episode “Eye In The Sky”, which describes how drone surveillance opens up whole new avenues of crime detection. This technology is only going to get more accurate, and more automated.

(I’ve moved the server that hosts sunpig.com out of the UK, and am trying to figure out what VPN service to sign up for, but I haven’t gone as far as digging tunnels yet.)

If you have watched the film Under The Skin, take some time to read Film Crit Hulk’s deep dive on its many layers of meaning.

Once upon a time (January 2015), WayTools demoed an innovative mobile keyboard, with a tiny form factor. They took tons of pre-orders, promising delivery in early 2015. Since then, they’ve been fairly consistent about slipping their shipping estimates by one month per month, with a stream of plausible-sounding updates about improvements to firmware and software, unexpected manufacturing defects, how awesome their QA robots are, and how their Test Release Group of specially selected real-world users just love their prototype devices. Their latest update says that they’re unlikely to ship even in Q1 of 2017, and I’m pretty sure they’re just trolling us now.

I saw pictures of the Changsha’s Lucky Knot Bridge on the 99% Invisible Tumblr and on Kottke. It’s designed by Dutch firm Next Architects, who also designed the Melkwegbrug in Purmerend, which I had not known about before. Purmerend is only 10km away. During this Christmas break I’m trying to get out for a walk every day, so I’m going to head there and take some pictures.

Andy Baio “redesigned his blog,” and talks about the cultural significance of doing that, rather than just the visual design aspects. I’m with him.

At the end of October I met up with Edward Hasbrouck when he was passing through Amsterdam. Rather than wandering around the city centre, we took the ferry cross the IJ, had lunch at Café Noorderlicht, and then spent a couple of hours cycling around the northernmost outskirts, where the urban melts into the rural. Edward visited Turkey on that trip as well. I’m still not sure what to make of the political situation in Turkey right now.

The Last Man, a short film by Gavin Rothery, who also worked on the film Moon:

The film’s music is by Charlotte Hatherley, who will have a new record out soon? New song “A Sign” out now.

Talib Kweli at Bitterzoet, Sunday 18 December 2016

I have mixed feelings about this gig, for many reasons. Gig fatigue plays a part. That weekend had felt long already, with a stressful week at work just behind me, Christmas shopping, and doing a load of extra maths work with Alex. I wasn’t really looking forward to the gig, because it felt like another immovable deadline. I relaxed when I got there, though. My first visit to Bitterzoet was to see Bleached in May, and it’s a snug, atmospheric little venue rather than a giant barn.

Although I listen to a fair bit of rap and hip-hop, I don’t go to many hip-hop gigs. In fact, I’ve hardly been to any. I’ll count Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip in 2010, but they came at rap from a distinctly British/electronic mash-up tradition. The only other one was De La Soul last year, and I came away from it somewhat disappointed. So I don’t have a terrific baseline for judging Talib Kweli’s performance last week.

Getting up on stage with just a microphone and a DJ behind you is different than playing with a band. Watching a rapper perform is a different experience than watching a group of musicians all play their own instruments. There are some aspects of Sunday’s gig that were familiar from seeing De La Soul: the shout outs to other artists, the call and response, the “put your hands in the air, let me see those hands”. The relationship between the artist and the audience is different. It felt to me like Talib was constantly probing the audience for a sense of community…and not quite finding it.

About half-way through the show, he paused briefly to deal with an over-enthusiastic woman at the front of the crowd. From further back I hadn’t noticed anything, but she was clearly bothering him. He asked for her name, and said something along the lines of “You know what? When people pay money to see your show, you can have the mic. Until then, I’m up on stage, not you.” It was an annoyed put-down, and he got a bit of support from the rest of the audience.

Ten minutes later he took a break between songs to talk about the nature of hip-hop, and how if you love the beats and the rhymes, but don’t care about the message, you don’t really love hip-hop, you have a hip-hop fetish. As he spoke about Black Lives Matter, the same woman at the front of the crowd called out “what about indiginous people?” He just about exploded. He accused her of using her white privilege to interrupt his show, and that he’d had enough. He called for security to take her and her boyfriend away, and then stalked off stage saying that he wouldn’t come back until they were gone.

The overwhelmingly 30-40 year-old white audience didn’t know how to deal with this. There was a lot of uncomfortable murmuring. They (we) weren’t cheering him on, but nor were we coming to the woman’s defense. We shuffled our feet until security removed her and her boyfriend, and applauded uneasily when Talib came back on and resumed the show. If he hadn’t fully connected with the audience before then, the mood was subdued after that. Even the Bob Marley sing-along, and the point where he encouraged everyone with a joint to light up didn’t bring back a whole-hearted sense of cheer.

Or maybe that was just all in my head? I’m getting over the idea that I’m doing concerts wrong when I just stand around watching and listening attentively rather than jumping and dancing. I’ve been to enough indie and rock shows that I’ve convinced myself that’s perfectly fine. Maybe hip-hop shows are different? The interaction with the crowd seems to be more important. I was back to feeling like I was letting the event down when I got tired of putting my hands up.

Which leads me to questions like: to what extent does the artist get to dictate how the audience enjoys their music? When Talib called out the woman at the front of the crowd, he emphasized that the audience had paid to see him, not her. Okay, but she had paid her money, too. Obviously, the price of entry doesn’t give you the right to do just anything. Each tradition of performance has a matching set of social norms for the audience. Standing on your seat and singing along at the top of your voice might get you ejected from an opera. At what point do these norms get enforced by the audience through social pressure, and when is it acceptable for the artist to express their disapproval about my reaction to their work?

(Aside: I sometimes get a thrill when I see artists trying to prevent politians from using their music at events in support of politics that the artists themselves vehemently oppose. Is this the same thing? Musicians are certainly well within their rights not to perform at such an event, just as it would be unreasonable to prevent people with opposing views from buying and playing their music privately. When it comes to public performances of recorded music we get into that whole grey area of copyright, intellectual property, and public interest.)

Abi points out that this can be seen as another example of the Author’s Big Mistake, which is to respond (angrily, defensively, or any other way) to a negative review. It just doesn’t end well.

Anyway, after weighing up all of that emotional baggage, I don’t think it was a particularly good show. Talib Kweli is a great rapper and lyricist, and there were moments when he laid down the best of his flow. Most of the time it was a cut-up affair, where he extracted the best bits from her repertoire, and cut them off part-way through so he could move on to the next one. His best recordings are his collaborations, where he gets to spark off other singers and rappers, and his light and fast voice cuts through them like a switchblade. Solo, even with DJ Spintelect at his back, he could only rebound from the audience, and when the audience let him down, he didn’t shine.

Stuffing recipe

Abi points out that this is technically “dressing” rather than “stuffing” because I make it as a side dish rather than use it to actually fill the Thanksgiving or Christmas bird. In fact, it’s probably hearty enough to act as a meal in its own right. Because I usually only make this twice a year, I tend to forget how I did it from year to year. So here’s the written version.

Ingredients:

  • 8 slices of white bread
  • 250g fatty bacon bits
  • 250g chopped carrots (about two carrots)
  • 125g chopped celery (about three stalks)
  • 350g chopped apples (about three apples, peeled and cored)
  • some sage, thyme, and mild paprika powder
  • two generous tablespoons of cranberry compote (or jam, or sauce)
  • 400ml (approx) chicken fond or other rich stock

The slices of bread have to be dried out. I spread them on a rack and put them in a warm oven (100°C) for about 40 minutes, turning them over half way through.

Bready to go in the oven

While the bread is drying in the oven, get busy with the rest of the ingredients. Start by frying the bacon bits in a large thick-bottomed pan until they are brown and crispy and have given up most of their fat. Start on a high heat, and once it’s up to temperature, take it low and slow.

Mmm, bacon.

While the bacon is frying, chop the carrots, celery, and apples. The carrot should be chopped reasonably thinly. (Paper thin and they’ll burn too easily, diced and they’ll take too long to soften all the way through.) The apple chunks can be a bit bigger.

Carrots and celery are good for you
Apples, too

Once the bacon is ready (see above), remove the bacon bits from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the fat behind in the pan. Keep the bacon bits aside for later. Don’t eat them all in the meantime. Put the carrots and celery into the pan, and stir them around to give them a nice coating of bacon fat. Cook them on a medium heat until they take on a nice bit of colour. If they look like they’re too dry and in danger of burning, add a little olive oil.

Carrots and celery with a bit of colour

Add the chopped apples to the pan, put the lid on the pan, and let the mix steam for a bit while the apples give up their moisture. Take the lid off and give the mixture an occasional stir until the apples have softened and collapsed a bit, but not turned to mush.

Healthy food: a pan full of vegetables and fruit.

By this point, the bread in the oven should be dry. Take the slices out of the oven, put them in a bowl, and use a potato masher to turn them into a mixture of mostly fine breadcrumbs, with some larger bits left intact.

Breadcrumbs

Return the bacon bits to the pan. Add the cranberry compote and the herbs, stir them together, and check for taste. (A little dried sage goes a long way. Don’t over-do it.) Add the breadcrumbs and the fond, and mix. It will end up as a rough but gooey mass. Spread it out evenly in an oven-proof dish.

Before oven

Cook in the oven at about 200°C for 20-30 minutes, until it gets slightly crispy and nicely browned on top.

After oven

Time from putting the slices of bread in the oven to taking the finished product out of the oven at the end: about 1h 45m. Which is why I made it today, rather than leaving it to tomorrow. Abi likes this stuffing on its own, but personally I prefer it with a bit of gravy. It keeps in the fridge for a couple of days, or less if there are more people around the house.

The Cool Quest at Melkweg, Thursday 15 December 2016

I came across The Cool Quest on Dutch radio a couple of years ago, and loved their funky hip-hop sound right away. I always thought they would be good to see live. I missed an opportunity to see them last year, but when the opportunity came up to get tickets for their club tour this year I was first in line. (Well, maybe.)

And it was every bit as good as I had hoped. Better. I love their albums, but this is a band you have to see live.

It was the last night of their tour. The Oude Zaal at Melkweg wasn’t full, but it was pleasantly busy with about two or three hundred fans. Unlike most concerts I go to, the floor chatter was not punctuated by English speakers. This was a local crowd.

Great drums, terrible camera. Lumia 930 still can’t cope with the colour blue.

For the whole gig, front man Vincent Bergsma jumped around on stage grinning from ear to ear, getting us all to punch the air and jump around. Every song was a re-invention of its recorded version, sometimes slower, sometimes faster, always extended with extra solos and variations. Arjen Schipper, who played saxophone on their first album Funkin Badass, has been replaced by guitarist Vadim Neef, and he takes over the brass lines with gusto. I love the saxophone on their song “Shine”, but it’s still just as good with a guitar solo instead.

The encore they played was a fifteen-minute extravaganza of a single song (“Hesitate”) stretched out with solos from everyone in the band, as well as a magnificent duel between keyboards and guitar. Vadim perched himself in front of Sander Moorlag on keys, and the two of them swapped bars and riffs for what must have been a solid three minutes. It was glorious. After the encore the crowd screamed and roared for more, and I could see the band were tempted — they were swapping questioning glances — but they had given it all they had already, and they were worn out. They left the stage promising a new album in 2017. I can hardly wait!

Set list:

  1. Spacious
  2. Get Involved
  3. Egotrippin’
  4. Shine
  5. Supernova
  6. Coastline
  7. Level ya head
  8. Heatwaves
  9. Deadlines
  10. Robosapians

Encore:

  1. Hesitate

(I snapped a photo of the setlist just before they came on stage, so I didn’t have to memorize this one. Half of the songs I didn’t recognize, so the picture was helpful!)

Exits

Earlier this year I read an article by Lara Hogan about women in tech. In it, she references the “Exit, Voice, Loyalty” model of individual dissatisfaction within an organization, developed by Albert O. Hirschman in 1970:

It basically says this: If a customer of a firm (or, a citizen of a state, as the case may be) is dissatisfied, she has three options.

  1. She can exercise voice, and by speaking up, she may affect the firm’s practices and create change.
  2. She can exercise exit, by leaving the firm and going to another firm. In this case, exit might also include leaving tech altogether.
  3. She can do nothing and hope for the best, while suffering the consequences of the grievance or the declining product.

Which of these options she takes is conditioned on loyalty, that is, how deeply she feels invested, either emotionally or financially to the organization.

The model can be usefully applied to employer-employee, customer-vendor, and citizen-state relations. Over time it has been extended to include neglect as another option, which is what happens when an individual stays with the organization but neglects their duties and responsibilities in a way that almost guarantees that conditions will get even worse.

Thinking about the model in the context of employer-employee relations provided me with insights about my own behaviour. Over the course of my own career, I have tended to go loyalty-loyalty-loyalty-exit, often to the surprise of my manager. Exercising one’s voice takes effort, and inevitably leads to confrontation and hard conversations. As a privileged white male in the tech industry, the switching costs, which are what one has to overcome in order to make an exit, are ridiculously low for me. So the abrupt loyalty-to-exit pattern is perhaps not unexpected. In fact, it is fairly common among white males in tech. There are times I regret having made the exit decision, and now that I’m more aware of this model, I’m taking steps to adjust my behaviour to weigh the voice option more heavily.

(Note to self: golden handcuffs increase switching costs. Thus, they reduce exit, and increase adoption of the other strategies. Do employees turn to the other strategies in equal proportions, or is there a bias towards the other destructive response, namely neglect?)

The decision of the UK to leave the European Union was a pretty big exit decision this year. I’m not sure if the exit-voice-loyalty-neglect model can be extended to nation states. At an individual level, there is a big difference between voting for the country to leave the EU, and actually leaving the country (or Union) oneself. The number of people who emigrated from the UK because they didn’t want to be part of the EU is (I assume) pretty small. Likewise, after the referendum, the number of people who have actually left the UK or applied for another country’s passport is tiny compared to the population of the entire UK. (Once you get past the hyperbolic “demand doubles” headlines.)

There was a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the UK in our decision to move to the Netherlands in 2007. (Actually, that’s just the year we moved. We made the decision a few years before that.) Mostly it was that we wanted to raise Alex and Fiona in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural environment, and Scotland didn’t seem to offer that option in any practical sense. We were moving to something rather than away from something. I also never considered it as moving back to where I grew up, because the Amsterdam area in the 21st century is very different from South-Limburg in the 1980s.

I consider myself Scottish; I always have. As a teenager growing up in the Netherlands, speaking Dutch, attending a Dutch school, surrounded by Dutch friends, the inner Scottishness was something that mattered to me. It was something that helped me deal with the (perfectly normal) feelings of teenage alienation and isolation. When I moved to Scotland to go to university, having grown up in the Netherlands contributed to feelings of not belonging there either. It’s a common experience for Third Culture Kids.

The Brexit decision has left me in a strange place, emotionally. Despite feeling very much at home and acculturated here, I don’t consider myself Dutch. Yet political circumstances are making me wonder what it would mean for me to acquire a Dutch passport. How could I consider myself Scottish with a Dutch passport? Having held on to my Scottish identity so strongly for my whole life, it would feel like a betrayal of my very self. And for what? The convenience of being able to live comfortably outside the country I claim as my own? That seems awfully shallow.

It’s worth noting that the Netherlands does not allow naturalised citizens to retain their previous nationality, unless the other country does not allow you to renounce its citizenship (e.g. Greece, Marocco, Iran). I really don’t think that Guy Verhofstad’s proposal to grant British nationals an opt-in associate EU citizenship post-Brexit is going to work out. But just a couple of days ago, two members of the Dutch parliament (from D66 and PvdA) introduced a bill that would allow Dutch nationals to hold a second passport.

If this is pre-election posturing (the general election happens three months from now), it’s posturing I can get behind. I could see myself taking on dual citizenship. Coming back to the exit-voice-loyalty model, the emotional cost of giving up my Scottish nationality would be high. It would take quite a lot of discomfort around our residency and tax status here in the Netherlands for me to go down that route. Multiple passports changes the whole game.

Mixed Media, Sunday 11 December 2016

A surprising number of books this time!

  • In The Cold Dead Ground by Stuart MacBride is the latest in his Logan McRae series. As the series has progressed, the books have become less physically gruesome, but have taken Logan McRae to more morally dark places. Over the last few books, he has been dealing with hallucinations of his girlfriend Samantha who has been in a vegetative state for years following an accident he feels responsible for. Narratively, she has been the voice in his head arguing against his feelings of guilt and balancing out is self-destructive impulses. But in this book Logan has come to the point where he has to take her off life support. When her voice is gone, what replaces her? As the protagonist of the book, I naturally feel sympathy for him, but that sympathy has limits. He emerges here as a deeply damaged, disturbed, and unpredictable individual.
  • I read Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt in the original Dutch to keep Fiona company as part of a book report she had to write for school. Apparently the English language version is more of an adaptation than a transalation, and has extensive changes throughout. It’s a dark journey, genuinely horrific, and surprisingly misogynistic. I appreciated it, but I don’t think I actually enjoyed it. Horror isn’t really my thing any more.
  • Rather Be The Devil by Ian Rankin: the new Rebus novel. (More of a Rebus/Fox/Clarke novel than pure Rebus — he doesn’t seem to be doing separate Malcolm Fox books any more.) Liked it.

Having said that I’m not too into horror any more, one of the films I watched recently was 10 Cloverfield Lane. Which sits in the same universe as Cloverfield, which I suppose is kind of in the horror genre, but I would probably class more as sci-fi suspense. Anyway, I found the premise of 10 Cloverfield Lane intriguing (woman is “rescued” from a disaster above ground by a doomsday prepper, and he won’t let her out of his underground bunker), and I wanted to see how it would play out. Was there really a disaster, or is it all in his imagination? Is he sane or a psychopath? Both?

In many ways it expands on director Dan Trachtenberg’s short film Portal: No Escape: woman tries to escape from a dire situation, but is the outside world really what she thinks it is? The ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane genuinely surprised me. I had thought it would go in a different direction, but the one it took was very satisfying.

Other watchings:

  • Synchronicity: reasonable time-travel thriller. Set design, lighting, and music are very heavily influenced by Blade Runner.
  • Point Break (2015): vacuous and awful.
  • The Disappearance of Alice Creed: tense, claustrophobic, low-budget crime thriller about an abduction that has more to it than meets the eye. There may not be much bloody violence on screen, but the psychological humiliation perpetrated against the hostage Alice (Gemma Arterton) is graphic and uncomfortable to watch. Without giving too much away, she gets her chance to turn the tables, but it’s hard going. Great performances from all three actors (the only people who appear on screen). But like the book Hex, I didn’t actually enjoy this.
  • Parks and Recreation isn’t not Netflix here in NL or in the UK, and until recently I had only seen an occasional few episodes while I was in the US. When I was in Glasgow a few weeks ago I picked up a DVD cheap box of the first two seasons, and have just finished watching them. Love it.
  • For no specific reason, I felt a desire to re-watch Fringe. I’ve started in on season 1. The show takes a while to find its feet, but there’s enough entertainment there to keep me happy.

Speaking of Gemma Arterton (The Disappearance of Alice Creed), she features in the music viceo for Bonobo’s new track, “Kerala”. If the video looks subtle and intricate on first watch, try watching it a couple more times and see how much more detail you spot.

If The Girl With All The Gifts got a theatrical release here in NL, I missed it. I’m looking forward to when it appears on download or streaming, though.

As for music, I’ve been playing a lot of Frightened Rabbit, and A Tribe Called Quest. Their new album We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service is amazing.

New Area 11 music video for “After The Flags”. This one was great live.