Search Results: "stark"

25 April 2024

Russ Allbery: Review: Nation

Review: Nation, by Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 2008
Printing: 2009
ISBN: 0-06-143303-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 369
Nation is a stand-alone young adult fantasy novel. It was published in the gap between Discworld novels Making Money and Unseen Academicals. Nation starts with a plague. The Russian influenza has ravaged Britain, including the royal family. The next in line to the throne is off on a remote island and must be retrieved and crowned as soon as possible, or an obscure provision in Magna Carta will cause no end of trouble. The Cutty Wren is sent on this mission, carrying the Gentlemen of Last Resort. Then comes the tsunami. In the midst of fire raining from the sky and a wave like no one has ever seen, Captain Roberts tied himself to the wheel of the Sweet Judy and steered it as best he could, straight into an island. The sole survivor of the shipwreck: one Ermintrude Fanshaw, daughter of the governor of some British island possessions. Oh, and a parrot. Mau was on the Boys' Island when the tsunami came, going through his rite of passage into manhood. He was to return to the Nation the next morning and receive his tattoos and his adult soul. He survived in a canoe. No one else in the Nation did. Terry Pratchett considered Nation to be his best book. It is not his best book, at least in my opinion; it's firmly below the top tier of Discworld novels, let alone Night Watch. It is, however, an interesting and enjoyable book that tackles gods and religion with a sledgehammer rather than a knife. It's also very, very dark and utterly depressing at the start, despite a few glimmers of Pratchett's humor. Mau is the main protagonist at first, and the book opens with everyone he cares about dying. This is the place where I thought Pratchett diverged the most from his Discworld style: in Discworld, I think most of that would have been off-screen, but here we follow Mau through the realization, the devastation, the disassociation, the burials at sea, the thoughts of suicide, and the complete upheaval of everything he thought he was or was about to become. I found the start of this book difficult to get through. The immediate transition into potentially tragic misunderstandings between Mau and Daphne (as Ermintrude names herself once there is no one to tell her not to) didn't help. As I got farther into the book, though, I warmed to it. The best parts early on are Daphne's baffled but scientific attempts to understand Mau's culture and her place in it. More survivors arrive, and they start to assemble a community, anchored in large part by Mau's stubborn determination to do what's right even though he's lost all of his moorings. That community eventually re-establishes contact with the rest of the world and the opening plot about the British monarchy, but not before Daphne has been changed profoundly by being part of it. I think Pratchett worked hard at keeping Mau's culture at the center of the story. It's notable that the community that reforms over the course of the book essentially follows the patterns of Mau's lost Nation and incorporates Daphne into it, rather than (as is so often the case) the other way around. The plot itself is fiercely anti-colonial in a way that mostly worked. Still, though, it's a quasi-Pacific-island culture written by a white British man, and I had some qualms. Pratchett quite rightfully makes it clear in the afterward that this is an alternate world and Mau's culture is not a real Pacific island culture. However, that also means that its starkly gender-essentialist nature was a free choice, rather than one based on some specific culture, and I found that choice somewhat off-putting. The religious rituals are all gendered, the dwelling places are gendered, and one's entire life course in Mau's world seems based on binary classification as a man or a woman. Based on Pratchett's other books, I assume this was more an unfortunate default than a deliberate choice, but it's still a choice he could have avoided. The end of this book wrestles directly with the relative worth of Mau's culture versus that of the British. I liked most of this, but the twists that Pratchett adds to avoid the colonialist results we saw in our world stumble partly into the trap of making Mau's culture valuable by British standards. (I'm being a bit vague here to avoid spoilers.) I think it is very hard to base this book on a different set of priorities and still bring the largely UK, US, and western European audience along, so I don't blame Pratchett for failing to do it, but I'm a bit sad that the world still revolved around a British axis. This felt quite similar to Discworld to me in its overall sensibilities, but with the roles of moral philosophy and humor reversed. Discworld novels usually start with some larger-than-life characters and an absurd plot, and then the moral philosophy sneaks up behind you when you're not looking and hits you over the head. Nation starts with the moral philosophy: Mau wrestles with his gods and the problem of evil in a way that reminded me of Job, except with a far different pantheon and rather less tolerance for divine excuses on the part of the protagonist. It's the humor, instead, that sneaks up on you and makes you laugh when the plot is a bit too much. But the mix arrives at much the same place: the absurd hand-in-hand with the profound, and all seen from an angle that makes it a bit easier to understand. I'm not sure I would recommend Nation as a good place to start with Pratchett. I felt like I benefited from having read a lot of Discworld to build up my willingness to trust where Pratchett was going. But it has the quality of writing of late Discworld without the (arguable) need to read 25 books to understand all of the backstory. Regardless, recommended, and you'll never hear Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in quite the same way again. Rating: 8 out of 10

29 August 2023

Matthew Garrett: Unix sockets, Cygwin, SSH agents, and sadness

Work involves supporting Windows (there's a lot of specialised hardware design software that's only supported under Windows, so this isn't really avoidable), but also involves git, so I've been working on extending our support for hardware-backed SSH certificates to Windows and trying to glue that into git. In theory this doesn't sound like a hard problem, but in practice oh good heavens.

Git for Windows is built on top of msys2, which in turn is built on top of Cygwin. This is an astonishing artifact that allows you to build roughly unmodified POSIXish code on top of Windows, despite the terrible impedance mismatches inherent in this. One is that until 2017, Windows had no native support for Unix sockets. That's kind of a big deal for compatibility purposes, so Cygwin worked around it. It's, uh, kind of awful. If you're not a Cygwin/msys app but you want to implement a socket they can communicate with, you need to implement this undocumented protocol yourself. This isn't impossible, but ugh.

But going to all this trouble helps you avoid another problem! The Microsoft version of OpenSSH ships an SSH agent that doesn't use Unix sockets, but uses a named pipe instead. So if you want to communicate between Cygwinish OpenSSH (as is shipped with git for Windows) and the SSH agent shipped with Windows, you need something that bridges between those. The state of the art seems to be to use npiperelay with socat, but if you're already writing something that implements the Cygwin socket protocol you can just use npipe to talk to the shipped ssh-agent and then export your own socket interface.

And, amazingly, this all works? I've managed to hack together an SSH agent (using Go's SSH agent implementation) that can satisfy hardware backed queries itself, but forward things on to the Windows agent for compatibility with other tooling. Now I just need to figure out how to plumb it through to WSL. Sigh.

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7 March 2023

Jonathan Dowland: Welcome Oblivion 10th Anniversary

I haven t done one of these for a while, and they ll be less frequent than I once planned as I m working from home less and less. I'm also trying to get back into exploring my digital music collection, and more generally engaging with digital music again.
 picture of a vinyl record
It s the ten year anniversary of the first (and last) LP by How To Destroy Angels (HTDA), the side-project of Trent Reznor with his wife, his Nine Inch Nails (NIN) partner in crime Atticus Ross and visual artist (and NIN artistic director) Rob Sheridan. This album was a real pleasure. For NIN fans, it wasn't clear what the future held after the start of HTDA. But this work really stood alone, similar in some ways to NIN but sufficiently different to be fresh and exciting. In stark contrast to NIN (at the time), it was interesting to see the members of HTDA presented on an equal footing, especially Rob Sheridan, who wasn't a musician. The intent was to try and put the visual work on the same level of esteem as the musical. HTDA performed a few live shows, but none outside the US. They were apparently quite a spectacle. As an artefact, this is a gorgeous LP. The gatefold cover and all four sides of the two record sleeves are covered in unique pieces of Sheridan's glitch art. When I originally bought this I had a rather generously-sized individual office at the University, so I framed and displayed many of these pieces on my office walls. Sheridan has since written extensively on the processes and techniques he used for this style of art, and has produced many more works using the same techniques. You can see some on his website, patreon, fine art print shop or Threadless store. Late last year I treated myself to a large print of some related work, analog(Oblivion)000b, which (once the framing is done) I'm going to hang in my home office. The LP had two tracks that were not present in the CD or digital release versions of the album, although a CD was bundled in the LP which included the tracks. (The Knife did something similar with Shaking the Habitual, at around the same time). I've had some multitrack stems from this album sitting in my "for" folder for a while, so I took the opportunity of the 10th anniversary to upload them, here:

16 January 2022

Chris Lamb: Favourite films of 2021

In my four most recent posts, I went over the memoirs and biographies, the non-fiction, the fiction and the 'classic' novels that I enjoyed reading the most in 2021. But in the very last of my 2021 roundup posts, I'll be going over some of my favourite movies. (Saying that, these are perhaps less of my 'favourite films' than the ones worth remarking on after all, nobody needs to hear that The Godfather is a good movie.) It's probably helpful to remark you that I took a self-directed course in film history in 2021, based around the first volume of Roger Ebert's The Great Movies. This collection of 100-odd movie essays aims to make a tour of the landmarks of the first century of cinema, and I watched all but a handul before the year was out. I am slowly making my way through volume two in 2022. This tome was tremendously useful, and not simply due to the background context that Ebert added to each film: it also brought me into contact with films I would have hardly come through some other means. Would I have ever discovered the sly comedy of Trouble in Paradise (1932) or the touching proto-realism of L'Atalante (1934) any other way? It also helped me to 'get around' to watching films I may have put off watching forever the influential Battleship Potemkin (1925), for instance, and the ur-epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) spring to mind here. Choosing a 'worst' film is perhaps more difficult than choosing the best. There are first those that left me completely dry (Ready or Not, Written on the Wind, etc.), and those that were simply poorly executed. And there are those that failed to meet their own high opinions of themselves, such as the 'made for Reddit' Tenet (2020) or the inscrutable Vanilla Sky (2001) the latter being an almost perfect example of late-20th century cultural exhaustion. But I must save my most severe judgement for those films where I took a visceral dislike how their subjects were portrayed. The sexually problematic Sixteen Candles (1984) and the pseudo-Catholic vigilantism of The Boondock Saints (1999) both spring to mind here, the latter of which combines so many things I dislike into such a short running time I'd need an entire essay to adequately express how much I disliked it.

Dogtooth (2009) A father, a mother, a brother and two sisters live in a large and affluent house behind a very high wall and an always-locked gate. Only the father ever leaves the property, driving to the factory that he happens to own. Dogtooth goes far beyond any allusion to Josef Fritzl's cellar, though, as the children's education is a grotesque parody of home-schooling. Here, the parents deliberately teach their children the wrong meaning of words (e.g. a yellow flower is called a 'zombie'), all of which renders the outside world utterly meaningless and unreadable, and completely mystifying its very existence. It is this creepy strangeness within a 'regular' family unit in Dogtooth that is both socially and epistemically horrific, and I'll say nothing here of its sexual elements as well. Despite its cold, inscrutable and deadpan surreality, Dogtooth invites all manner of potential interpretations. Is this film about the artificiality of the nuclear family that the West insists is the benchmark of normality? Or is it, as I prefer to believe, something more visceral altogether: an allegory for the various forms of ontological violence wrought by fascism, as well a sobering nod towards some of fascism's inherent appeals? (Perhaps it is both. In 1972, French poststructuralists Gilles and F lix Guattari wrote Anti-Oedipus, which plays with the idea of the family unit as a metaphor for the authoritarian state.) The Greek-language Dogtooth, elegantly shot, thankfully provides no easy answers.

Holy Motors (2012) There is an infamous scene in Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 film collaboration between Luis Bu uel and famed artist Salvador Dal . A young woman is cornered in her own apartment by a threatening man, and she reaches for a tennis racquet in self-defence. But the man suddenly picks up two nearby ropes and drags into the frame two large grand pianos... each leaden with a dead donkey, a stone tablet, a pumpkin and a bewildered priest. This bizarre sketch serves as a better introduction to Leos Carax's Holy Motors than any elementary outline of its plot, which ostensibly follows 24 hours in the life of a man who must play a number of extremely diverse roles around Paris... all for no apparent reason. (And is he even a man?) Surrealism as an art movement gets a pretty bad wrap these days, and perhaps justifiably so. But Holy Motors and Un Chien Andalou serve as a good reminder that surrealism can be, well, 'good, actually'. And if not quite high art, Holy Motors at least demonstrates that surrealism can still unnerving and hilariously funny. Indeed, recalling the whimsy of the plot to a close friend, the tears of laughter came unbidden to my eyes once again. ("And then the limousines...!") Still, it is unclear how Holy Motors truly refreshes surrealism for the twenty-first century. Surrealism was, in part, a reaction to the mechanical and unfeeling brutality of World War I and ultimately sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind. Holy Motors cannot be responding to another continental conflagration, and so it appears to me to be some kind of commentary on the roles we exhibit in an era of 'post-postmodernity': a sketch on our age of performative authenticity, perhaps, or an idle doodle on the function and psychosocial function of work. Or perhaps not. After all, this film was produced in a time that offers the near-universal availability of mind-altering substances, and this certainly changes the context in which this film was both created. And, how can I put it, was intended to be watched.

Manchester by the Sea (2016) An absolutely devastating portrayal of a character who is unable to forgive himself and is hesitant to engage with anyone ever again. It features a near-ideal balance between portraying unrecoverable anguish and tender warmth, and is paradoxically grandiose in its subtle intimacy. The mechanics of life led me to watch this lying on a bed in a chain hotel by Heathrow Airport, and if this colourless circumstance blunted the film's emotional impact on me, I am probably thankful for it. Indeed, I find myself reduced in this review to fatuously recalling my favourite interactions instead of providing any real commentary. You could write a whole essay about one particular incident: its surfaces, subtexts and angles... all despite nothing of any substance ever being communicated. Truly stunning.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) Roger Ebert called this movie one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come. But whilst it is difficult to disagree with his sentiment, Ebert's choice of sad is somehow not quite the right word. Indeed, I've long regretted that our dictionaries don't have more nuanced blends of tragedy and sadness; perhaps the Ancient Greeks can loan us some. Nevertheless, the plot of this film is of a gambler and a prostitute who become business partners in a new and remote mining town called Presbyterian Church. However, as their town and enterprise booms, it comes to the attention of a large mining corporation who want to bully or buy their way into the action. What makes this film stand out is not the plot itself, however, but its mood and tone the town and its inhabitants seem to be thrown together out of raw lumber, covered alternatively in mud or frozen ice, and their days (and their personalities) are both short and dark in equal measure. As a brief aside, if you haven't seen a Roger Altman film before, this has all the trappings of being a good introduction. As Ebert went on to observe: This is not the kind of movie where the characters are introduced. They are all already here. Furthermore, we can see some of Altman's trademark conversations that overlap, a superb handling of ensemble casts, and a quietly subversive view of the tyranny of 'genre'... and the latter in a time when the appetite for revisionist portrays of the West was not very strong. All of these 'Altmanian' trademarks can be ordered in much stronger measures in his later films: in particular, his comedy-drama Nashville (1975) has 24 main characters, and my jejune interpretation of Gosford Park (2001) is that it is purposefully designed to poke fun those who take a reductionist view of 'genre', or at least on the audience's expectations. (In this case, an Edwardian-era English murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie, but where no real murder or detection really takes place.) On the other hand, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is actually a poor introduction to Altman. The story is told in a suitable deliberate and slow tempo, and the two stars of the film are shown thoroughly defrocked of any 'star status', in both the visual and moral dimensions. All of these traits are, however, this film's strength, adding up to a credible, fascinating and riveting portrayal of the old West.

Detour (1945) Detour was filmed in less than a week, and it's difficult to decide out of the actors and the screenplay which is its weakest point.... Yet it still somehow seemed to drag me in. The plot revolves around luckless Al who is hitchhiking to California. Al gets a lift from a man called Haskell who quickly falls down dead from a heart attack. Al quickly buries the body and takes Haskell's money, car and identification, believing that the police will believe Al murdered him. An unstable element is soon introduced in the guise of Vera, who, through a set of coincidences that stretches credulity, knows that this 'new' Haskell (ie. Al pretending to be him) is not who he seems. Vera then attaches herself to Al in order to blackmail him, and the world starts to spin out of his control. It must be understood that none of this is executed very well. Rather, what makes Detour so interesting to watch is that its 'errors' lend a distinctively creepy and unnatural hue to the film. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, Sigmund Freud used the word unheimlich to describe the experience of something that is not simply mysterious, but something creepy in a strangely familiar way. This is almost the perfect description of watching Detour its eerie nature means that we are not only frequently second-guessed about where the film is going, but are often uncertain whether we are watching the usual objective perspective offered by cinema. In particular, are all the ham-fisted segues, stilted dialogue and inscrutable character motivations actually a product of Al inventing a story for the viewer? Did he murder Haskell after all, despite the film 'showing' us that Haskell died of natural causes? In other words, are we watching what Al wants us to believe? Regardless of the answers to these questions, the film succeeds precisely because of its accidental or inadvertent choices, so it is an implicit reminder that seeking the director's original intention in any piece of art is a complete mirage. Detour is certainly not a good film, but it just might be a great one. (It is a short film too, and, out of copyright, it is available online for free.)

Safe (1995) Safe is a subtly disturbing film about an upper-middle-class housewife who begins to complain about vague symptoms of illness. Initially claiming that she doesn't feel right, Carol starts to have unexplained headaches, a dry cough and nosebleeds, and eventually begins to have trouble breathing. Carol's family doctor treats her concerns with little care, and suggests to her husband that she sees a psychiatrist. Yet Carol's episodes soon escalate. For example, as a 'homemaker' and with nothing else to occupy her, Carol's orders a new couch for a party. But when the store delivers the wrong one (although it is not altogether clear that they did), Carol has a near breakdown. Unsure where to turn, an 'allergist' tells Carol she has "Environmental Illness," and so Carol eventually checks herself into a new-age commune filled with alternative therapies. On the surface, Safe is thus a film about the increasing about of pesticides and chemicals in our lives, something that was clearly felt far more viscerally in the 1990s. But it is also a film about how lack of genuine healthcare for women must be seen as a critical factor in the rise of crank medicine. (Indeed, it made for something of an uncomfortable watch during the coronavirus lockdown.) More interestingly, however, Safe gently-yet-critically examines the psychosocial causes that may be aggravating Carol's illnesses, including her vacant marriage, her hollow friends and the 'empty calorie' stimulus of suburbia. None of this should be especially new to anyone: the gendered Victorian term 'hysterical' is often all but spoken throughout this film, and perhaps from the very invention of modern medicine, women's symptoms have often regularly minimised or outright dismissed. (Hilary Mantel's 2003 memoir, Giving Up the Ghost is especially harrowing on this.) As I opened this review, the film is subtle in its messaging. Just to take one example from many, the sound of the cars is always just a fraction too loud: there's a scene where a group is eating dinner with a road in the background, and the total effect can be seen as representing the toxic fumes of modernity invading our social lives and health. I won't spoiler the conclusion of this quietly devasting film, but don't expect a happy ending.

The Driver (1978) Critics grossly misunderstood The Driver when it was first released. They interpreted the cold and unemotional affect of the characters with the lack of developmental depth, instead of representing their dissociation from the society around them. This reading was encouraged by the fact that the principal actors aren't given real names and are instead known simply by their archetypes instead: 'The Driver', 'The Detective', 'The Player' and so on. This sort of quasi-Jungian erudition is common in many crime films today (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Layer Cake, Fight Club), so the critics' misconceptions were entirely reasonable in 1978. The plot of The Driver involves the eponymous Driver, a noted getaway driver for robberies in Los Angeles. His exceptional talent has far prevented him from being captured thus far, so the Detective attempts to catch the Driver by pardoning another gang if they help convict the Driver via a set-up robbery. To give himself an edge, however, The Driver seeks help from the femme fatale 'Player' in order to mislead the Detective. If this all sounds eerily familiar, you would not be far wrong. The film was essentially remade by Nicolas Winding Refn as Drive (2011) and in Edgar Wright's 2017 Baby Driver. Yet The Driver offers something that these neon-noir variants do not. In particular, the car chases around Los Angeles are some of the most captivating I've seen: they aren't thrilling in the sense of tyre squeals, explosions and flying boxes, but rather the vehicles come across like wild animals hunting one another. This feels especially so when the police are hunting The Driver, which feels less like a low-stakes game of cat and mouse than a pack of feral animals working together a gang who will tear apart their prey if they find him. In contrast to the undercar neon glow of the Fast & Furious franchise, the urban realism backdrop of the The Driver's LA metropolis contributes to a sincere feeling of artistic fidelity as well. To be sure, most of this is present in the truly-excellent Drive, where the chase scenes do really communicate a credible sense of stakes. But the substitution of The Driver's grit with Drive's soft neon tilts it slightly towards that common affliction of crime movies: style over substance. Nevertheless, I can highly recommend watching The Driver and Drive together, as it can tell you a lot about the disconnected socioeconomic practices of the 1980s compared to the 2010s. More than that, however, the pseudo-1980s synthwave soundtrack of Drive captures something crucial to analysing the world of today. In particular, these 'sounds from the past filtered through the present' bring to mind the increasing role of nostalgia for lost futures in the culture of today, where temporality and pop culture references are almost-exclusively citational and commemorational.

The Souvenir (2019) The ostensible outline of this quietly understated film follows a shy but ambitious film student who falls into an emotionally fraught relationship with a charismatic but untrustworthy older man. But that doesn't quite cover the plot at all, for not only is The Souvenir a film about a young artist who is inspired, derailed and ultimately strengthened by a toxic relationship, it is also partly a coming-of-age drama, a subtle portrait of class and, finally, a film about the making of a film. Still, one of the geniuses of this truly heartbreaking movie is that none of these many elements crowds out the other. It never, ever feels rushed. Indeed, there are many scenes where the camera simply 'sits there' and quietly observes what is going on. Other films might smother themselves through references to 18th-century oil paintings, but The Souvenir somehow evades this too. And there's a certain ring of credibility to the story as well, no doubt in part due to the fact it is based on director Joanna Hogg's own experiences at film school. A beautifully observed and multi-layered film; I'll be happy if the sequel is one-half as good.

The Wrestler (2008) Randy 'The Ram' Robinson is long past his prime, but he is still rarin' to go in the local pro-wrestling circuit. Yet after a brutal beating that seriously threatens his health, Randy hangs up his tights and pursues a serious relationship... and even tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter. But Randy can't resist the lure of the ring, and readies himself for a comeback. The stage is thus set for Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which is essentially about what drives Randy back to the ring. To be sure, Randy derives much of his money from wrestling as well as his 'fitness', self-image, self-esteem and self-worth. Oh, it's no use insisting that wrestling is fake, for the sport is, needless to say, Randy's identity; it's not for nothing that this film is called The Wrestler. In a number of ways, The Sound of Metal (2019) is both a reaction to (and a quiet remake of) The Wrestler, if only because both movies utilise 'cool' professions to explore such questions of identity. But perhaps simply when The Wrestler was produced makes it the superior film. Indeed, the role of time feels very important for the Wrestler. In the first instance, time is clearly taking its toll on Randy's body, but I felt it more strongly in the sense this was very much a pre-2008 film, released on the cliff-edge of the global financial crisis, and the concomitant precarity of the 2010s. Indeed, it is curious to consider that you couldn't make The Wrestler today, although not because the relationship to work has changed in any fundamentalway. (Indeed, isn't it somewhat depressing the realise that, since the start of the pandemic and the 'work from home' trend to one side, we now require even more people to wreck their bodies and mental health to cover their bills?) No, what I mean to say here is that, post-2016, you cannot portray wrestling on-screen without, how can I put it, unwelcome connotations. All of which then reminds me of Minari's notorious red hat... But I digress. The Wrestler is a grittily stark darkly humorous look into the life of a desperate man and a sorrowful world, all through one tragic profession.

Thief (1981) Frank is an expert professional safecracker and specialises in high-profile diamond heists. He plans to use his ill-gotten gains to retire from crime and build a life for himself with a wife and kids, so he signs on with a top gangster for one last big score. This, of course, could be the plot to any number of heist movies, but Thief does something different. Similar to The Wrestler and The Driver (see above) and a number of other films that I watched this year, Thief seems to be saying about our relationship to work and family in modernity and postmodernity. Indeed, the 'heist film', we are told, is an understudied genre, but part of the pleasure of watching these films is said to arise from how they portray our desired relationship to work. In particular, Frank's desire to pull off that last big job feels less about the money it would bring him, but a displacement from (or proxy for) fulfilling some deep-down desire to have a family or indeed any relationship at all. Because in theory, of course, Frank could enter into a fulfilling long-term relationship right away, without stealing millions of dollars in diamonds... but that's kinda the entire point: Frank needing just one more theft is an excuse to not pursue a relationship and put it off indefinitely in favour of 'work'. (And being Federal crimes, it also means Frank cannot put down meaningful roots in a community.) All this is communicated extremely subtly in the justly-lauded lowkey diner scene, by far the best scene in the movie. The visual aesthetic of Thief is as if you set The Warriors (1979) in a similarly-filthy Chicago, with the Xenophon-inspired plot of The Warriors replaced with an almost deliberate lack of plot development... and the allure of The Warriors' fantastical criminal gangs (with their alluringly well-defined social identities) substituted by a bunch of amoral individuals with no solidarity beyond the immediate moment. A tale of our time, perhaps. I should warn you that the ending of Thief is famously weak, but this is a gritty, intelligent and strangely credible heist movie before you get there.

Uncut Gems (2019) The most exhausting film I've seen in years; the cinematic equivalent of four cups of double espresso, I didn't even bother even trying to sleep after downing Uncut Gems late one night. Directed by the two Safdie Brothers, it often felt like I was watching two films that had been made at the same time. (Or do I mean two films at 2X speed?) No, whatever clumsy metaphor you choose to adopt, the unavoidable effect of this film's finely-tuned chaos is an uncompromising and anxiety-inducing piece of cinema. The plot follows Howard as a man lost to his countless vices mostly gambling with a significant side hustle in adultery, but you get the distinct impression he would be happy with anything that will give him another high. A true junkie's junkie, you might say. You know right from the beginning it's going to end in some kind of disaster, the only question remaining is precisely how and what. Portrayed by an (almost unrecognisable) Adam Sandler, there's an uncanny sense of distance in the emotional chasm between 'Sandler-as-junkie' and 'Sandler-as-regular-star-of-goofy-comedies'. Yet instead of being distracting and reducing the film's affect, this possibly-deliberate intertextuality somehow adds to the masterfully-controlled mayhem. My heart races just at the memory. Oof.

Woman in the Dunes (1964) I ended up watching three films that feature sand this year: Denis Villeneuve's Dune (2021), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Woman in the Dunes. But it is this last 1964 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara that will stick in my mind in the years to come. Sure, there is none of the Medician intrigue of Dune or the Super Panavision-70 of Lawrence of Arabia (or its quasi-orientalist score, itself likely stolen from Anton Bruckner's 6th Symphony), but Woman in the Dunes doesn't have to assert its confidence so boldly, and it reveals the enormity of its plot slowly and deliberately instead. Woman in the Dunes never rushes to get to the film's central dilemma, and it uncovers its terror in little hints and insights, all whilst establishing the daily rhythm of life. Woman in the Dunes has something of the uncanny horror as Dogtooth (see above), as well as its broad range of potential interpretations. Both films permit a wide array of readings, without resorting to being deliberately obscurantist or being just plain random it is perhaps this reason why I enjoyed them so much. It is true that asking 'So what does the sand mean?' sounds tediously sophomoric shorn of any context, but it somehow applies to this thoughtfully self-contained piece of cinema.

A Quiet Place (2018) Although A Quiet Place was not actually one of the best films I saw this year, I'm including it here as it is certainly one of the better 'mainstream' Hollywood franchises I came across. Not only is the film very ably constructed and engages on a visceral level, I should point out that it is rare that I can empathise with the peril of conventional horror movies (and perhaps prefer to focus on its cultural and political aesthetics), but I did here. The conceit of this particular post-apocalyptic world is that a family is forced to live in almost complete silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound alone. Still, A Quiet Place engages on an intellectual level too, and this probably works in tandem with the pure 'horrorific' elements and make it stick into your mind. In particular, and to my mind at least, A Quiet Place a deeply American conservative film below the surface: it exalts the family structure and a certain kind of sacrifice for your family. (The music often had a passacaglia-like strain too, forming a tombeau for America.) Moreover, you survive in this dystopia by staying quiet that is to say, by staying stoic suggesting that in the wake of any conflict that might beset the world, the best thing to do is to keep quiet. Even communicating with your loved ones can be deadly to both of you, so not emote, acquiesce quietly to your fate, and don't, whatever you do, speak up. (Or join a union.) I could go on, but The Quiet Place is more than this. It's taut and brief, and despite cinema being an increasingly visual medium, it encourages its audience to develop a new relationship with sound.

29 August 2017

Sean Whitton: Nourishment

This semester I am taking JPN 530, Haruki Murakami and the Literature of Modern Japan . My department are letting me count it for the Philosophy Ph.D., and in fact my supervisor is joining me for the class. I have no idea what the actual class sessions will be like first one this afternoon and I m anxious about writing a literature term paper. But I already know that my weekends this semester are going to be great because I ll be reading Murakami s novels. What s particularly wonderful about this, and what I wanted to write about, is how nourishing I find reading literary fiction to be. For example, this weekend I read
This was something sure to be crammed full of warm secrets, like an antique clock built when peace filled the world. Potentiality knocks at the door of my heart.
and I was fed for the day. All my perceived needs dropped away; that s all it takes. This stands in stark contrast to reading philosophy, which is almost always draining rather than nourishing even philosophy I really want to read. Especially having to read philosophy at the weekend. (quotation is from On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl on a Beautiful April Morning)

31 October 2016

James Bromberger: The Debian Cloud Sprint 2016

I m at an airport, about to board the first of three flights across the world, from timezone +8 to timezone -8. I ll be in transit 27 hours to get to Seattle, Washington state. I m leaving my wife and two young children behind. My work has given me a days worth of leave under the Corporate Social Responsibility program, and I m taking three days annual leave, to do this. 27 hours each way in transit, for 3 days on the ground. Why? Backstory I started playing in technology as a kid in the 1980s; my first PC was a clone (as they were called) 286 running MS-DOS. It was clunky, and the most I could do to extend it was to write batch scripts. As a child I had no funds for commercial compilers, no network connections (this was pre Internet in Australia), no access to documentation, and no idea where to start programming properly. It was a closed world. I hit university in the summer of 1994 to study Computer Science and French. I d heard of Linux, and soon found myself installing the Linux distributions of the day. The Freedom of the licensing, the encouragement to use, modify, share, was in stark contrast to the world of consumer PCs of the late 1980 s. It was there at the UCC at UWA I discovered Debian. Some of the kind network/system admins at the University maintained a Debian mirror on the campus LAN, updated regularly and always online. It was fast, and more importantly, free for me to access. Back in the 1990s, bandwidth in Australia was incredibly expensive. The vast distances of the country mean that bandwidth was scarce. Telcos were in races to put fiber between Perth and the Eastern States, and without that in place, IP connectivity was constrained, and thus costly. Over many long days and nights I huddled down, learning window managers, protocols, programming and scripting languages. I became a system/network administrator, web developer, dev ops engineer, etc. My official degree workload, algorithmic complexity, protocol stacks, were interesting, but fiddling with Linux based implementations was practical. Volunteer After years of consuming the output of Debian and running many services with it I decided to put my hand up and volunteer as a Debian Developer: it was time to give back. I had benefited from Debian, and I saw others benefit from it as well. As the 2000 s started, I had my PGP key in the Debian key ring. I had adopted a package and was maintaining it load balancing Apache web servers. The web was yet to expand to the traffic levels you see today; most web sites were served from one physical web server. Site Reliability Engineering was a term not yet dreamed of. What became more apparent was the applicability of Linux, Open Source, and in my line-of-sight Debian to a wider community beyond myself and my university peers. Debain was being used to revive recycled computers that were being donated to charities; in some cases, unable to transfer commercial software licenses with the hardware that was no longer required by organisations that had upgraded. It appeared that Debian was being used as a baseline above which society in general had access to fundamental capability of computing and network services. The removal of subscriptions, registrations, and the encouragement of distribution meant this occurred at rates that could never be tracked, and more importantly, the consensus was that it should not be automatically tracked. The privacy of the user is paramount more important than some statistics for the Developer to ponder. When the Bosnia-Herzegovina war ended in 1995, I recall an email from academics there, having found some connectivity, writing to ask if they would be able to use Debian as part of their re-deployment of services for the Tertiary institutions in the region. This was an unnecessary request as Debian GNU/Linux is freely available, but it was a reminder that, for the country to have tried to procure commercial solutions at that time would have been difficult. Instead, those that could do the task just got on with it. There s been many similar project where the grass-roots organisations non profits, NGOs, and even just loose collectives of individuals have turned to Linux, Open Source, and sometimes Debian to solve their problems. Many fine projects have been established to make technology accessible to all, regardless of race, gender, nationality, class, or any other label society has used to divide humans. Big hat tip to Humanitarian Open Street Map, Serval Project. I ve always loved Debian s position on being the Universal operating system. Its vast range of packages and wide range of computing architectures supported means that quite often a litmus test of is project X a good project? was met with is it packaged for Debian? . That wide range of architectures has meant that administrators of systems had fewer surprises and a faster adoption cycle when changing platforms, such as the switch from x86 32 bit to x86 64 bit. Enter the Cloud I first laid eyes on the AWS Cloud in 2008. It was nothing like the rich environment you see today. The first thing I looked for was my favourite operating system, so that what I already knew and was familiar with was available in this environment to minimise the learning curve. However there were no official images, which was disconcerting. In 2012 I joined AWS as an employee. Living in Australia they hired me into the field sales team as a Solution Architect a sort of pre-sales tech with a customer focused depth in security. It was a wonderful opportunity, and I learnt a great deal. It also made sense (to me, at least) to do something about getting Debian s images blessed. It turned out, that I had to almost define what that was: images endorsed by a Debian Developer, handed to the AWS Marketplace team. And so since 2013 I have done so, keeping track of Debian s releases across the AWS regions, collaborating with other Debian folk on other cloud platforms to attempt a unified approach to generating and maintaining these images. This included (for a stint) generating them into the AWS GovCloud Region, and still into the AWS China (Beijing) Region the other side of the so-called Great Firewall of China. So why the trip? We ve had focus groups at the Debconf (Debian conference) around the world, but its often difficult to get the right group of people in the same rooms at the same time. So the proposal was to hold a focused Debian Cloud Sprint. Google was good enough to host this, for all the volunteers across all the cloud providers. Furthermore, donated funds were found to secure the travel for a set of people to attend who otherwise could not. I was lucky enough to be given a flight. So here I am, in the terminal in Australia: my kids are tucked up in bed, dreaming of the candy they just collected for Halloween. It will be a draining week I am sure, but if it helps set and improve the state of Debian then its worth it.

10 September 2016

Dirk Eddelbuettel: New package gettz on CRAN

gettz is now on CRAN in its initial release 0.0.1. It provides a possible fallback in situations where Sys.timezone() fails to determine the system timezone. That can happen when e.g. the file /etc/localtime somehow is not a link into the corresponding file with zoneinfo data in, say, /usr/share/zoneinfo. Duane McCully provided a nice StackOverflow answer with code that offers fallbacks via /etc/timezone (on Debian/Ubuntu) or /etc/sysconfig/clock (on RedHat/CentOS/Fedora, and rumour has it, BSD* systems) or /etc/TIMEZONE (on Solaris). The gettz micro-package essentially encodes that approach so that we have an optional fallback when Sys.timezone() comes up empty. In the previous paragraph, note the stark absense of OS X where there seems nothing to query, and of course Windows. Contributions for either would be welcome. For questions or comments use the issue tracker off the GitHub repo.

This post by Dirk Eddelbuettel originated on his Thinking inside the box blog. Please report excessive re-aggregation in third-party for-profit settings.

22 July 2016

Norbert Preining: Yukio Mishima The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

A masterpiece of modern Japanese literature: Yukio Mishima ( ) The Temple of the Golden Pavilion ( ). The fictional story about the very real arson attack that destroyed the Golden Pavilion in 1950.
mishima-golden-temple A bit different treatise on beauty and ugliness!
How shall I put it? Beauty yes, beauty is like a decayed tooth. It rubs against one s tongue, it hangs there, hurting one, insisting on its own existence, finally [ ] the tooth extracted. Then, as one looks at the small, dirty, brown, blood-stained tooth lying in one s hand, one s thoughts are likely to be as follows: Is this it?
Mizoguchi, a stutterer, is from young years on taken by a near mystical imagination of the Golden Pavilion, influence by his father who considers it the most beautiful object in the world. After his father s death he moves to Kyoto and becomes acolyte in the temple. He develops a friendship with Kashiwagi, who uses his clubfeet to make women feel sorry for him and make them fall in love with his clubfeet, as he puts it. Kashiwagi also puts Mizoguchi onto the first tracks of amorous experiences, but Mizoguchi invariably turns out to be impotent but not due to his stuttering, but due to the image of the Golden Pavilion appearing in the essential moment and destroying every chance.
Yes, this was really the coast of the Sea of Japan! Here was the source of all my unhappiness, of all my gloomy thoughts, the origin of all my ugliness and all my strength. It was a wild sea.
Mizoguchi is getting more and more mentally about his relation with the head monk, neglects his studies, and after a stark reprimand he escapes to the north coast, from where he is brought back by police to the temple. He decides to burn down the Golden Pavilion, which has taken more and more command of his thinking and doing. He carries out the deed with the aim to burn himself in the top floor, but escapes in the last second to retreat into the hills to watch the spectacle.
Closely based on the true story of the arsonist of the Golden Pavilion, whom Mishima even visited in prison, the book is a treatise about beauty and ugly.
At his trial he [the real arsonist] said: I hate myself, my evil, ugly, stammering self. Yet he also said that he did not in any way regret having burned down the Kinkakuji.
Nancy Wilson Ross in the preface
Mishima is master in showing these two extremes by contrasting the refined qualities of Japanese culture flower arrangement, playing the shakuhachi, with immediate outburst of contrasting behavior: cold and brutal recklessness. Take for example the scene were Kashiwagi is arranging flowers, stolen by Mizoguchi from the temple grounds, while Mizoguchi is playing the flute. They also discuss koans and various interpretations. Enters the Ikebana teacher, and mistress of Kashiwagi. She congratulates Kashiwagi to his excellent arrangement, which he answers coldly by quitting their relationship, both as teacher as well as mistress, and telling her not to see him again in a formal style. She, still ceremonially kneeling, suddenly destroys the flower arrangement, only to be beaten and thrown out by Kashiwagi. And the beauty and harmony has turned to ugliness and hate in seconds. Beauty and Ugliness, two sides of the same medal, or inherently the same, because it is only up to the point of view. Mishima ingeniously plays with this duality, and leads us through the slow and painful development of Mizoguchi to the bitter end, which finally gives him freedom, freedom from the force of beauty. Sometimes seeing how our society is obsessed with beauty I cannot get rid of the feeling that there are far more Mizoguchis at heart.

20 March 2016

Sean Whitton: Spring Break in San Francisco

Last night I got back from spending around 5 days in the Bay Area for Spring Break. I stayed in a hostel in downtown SF for three nights and then I stayed with a friend who is doing a PhD at Stanford. When initially planning this trip my aim was just to visit somewhere interesting on the west coast of the continental United States. I chose the Bay Area because I wanted to get my PGP key signed by some Debian Developers and that area has a high concentration of DDs, and because I wanted to see my friend at Stanford. But in the end I liked San Francisco a lot more than expected to and am very glad that I had an opportunity to visit. The first thing that I liked was how easy it seemed to be to find people interested in the same kind of tech stuff that I am. I spent my first afternoon in the city exploring the famous Mission district, and at one point while sitting in the original Philz Coffee I found that the person sitting next to me was running Debian on her laptop and blogs about data privacy. We had an discussion about how viable OpenPGP is as a component of a technically unsophisticated user s attempts to stay safe online. Later that same day while riding the subway train, someone next to me fired up Emacs on their laptop. And over the course of my trip I met five Debian Developers doing all sorts of different kinds of work both in and outside of Debian, and some Debian users including one of Stanford s UNIX sysadmins. This is a far cry from my day-to-day life down in the Sonoran Desert where new releases of iOS are all anyone seems to be interested in. Perhaps I should have expected this before my trip, but I think I had assumed that most of the work being done in San Francisco was writing web apps, so I was pleased to find people working on the same kind of things that I am currently putting time into. And in saying the above, I don t mean to demean the interests of the people around me in Arizona for a moment (nor those writing web apps; I d like to learn how to write good ones at some point). I m very grateful to be able to discuss my philosophical interests with the other graduate students. It s just that I miss being able to discuss tech stuff. I guess you can t have everything you want! One particular encouraging meeting I had was with a Debian Developer employed by Google and working on Git. While my maths background sets me up with the right thinking skills to write programs, I don t have knowledge typically gained from an education in computer science that enables one to work on the most interesting software. In particular, low-level programming in C is something that I had thought it wouldn t be possible for me to get started with. So it was encouraging to meet the DD working on Git at Google because his situation was similar: his undergraduate background is in maths and he was able to learn how to code in C by himself and is now working on a exciting project at a company that it is hard to get hired by. I don t mean that doing exactly what he s doing is something that I aiming for, just that it is very encouraging to know the field is more open to me than I had thought. I was also reminded of how fortunate I am to have the Internet to learn from and projects like Debian to get involved with. Moving on from tech, I enjoyed the streets of San Francisco, and the Stanford campus. San Francisco is fantastically multicultural though with clear class and wealth divisions. A very few minutes walk from the Twitter headquarters with its tech bros , as the maths PhD students I met at Stanford call them, are legions of the un- and barely-employed passing their time on the concrete. I enjoyed riding one of the old cable cars through the aesthetically revealing and stark combination of a west coast grid system on some very steep hills. I was fortunate to be able to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge on a perfectly clear and mist-free day. Meeting people involved with Debian and meeting my old friend at Stanford had me reflecting on and questioning my life in the desert even more than usual. I try to remind myself that there is an end date in sight and I will regret spending my time here just thinking about leaving. I sometimes worry that I could easily find myself moving to the big city London, San Francisco or elsewhere and letting myself be carried by the imagined self-importance of that, sidelining and procrastinating things that I should prize more highly. I should remember that the world of writing software in big cities isn t going away and my time in the desert is an opportunity to prepare myself better for that, building my resistance to being swept away by the tides of fashion.

13 January 2016

Norbert Preining: Ian Buruma: Wages of Guilt

Since moving to Japan, I got more and more interested in history, especially the recent history of the 20th century. The book I just finished, Ian Buruma (Wiki, home page) Wages of Guilt Memories of War in Germany and Japan (Independent, NYRB), has been a revelation for me. As an Austrian living in Japan, I am experiencing the discrepancy between these two countries with respect to their treatment of war legacy practically daily, and many of my blog entries revolve around the topic of Japanese non-reconciliation.
Willy Brandt went down on his knees in the Warsaw ghetto, after a functioning democracy had been established in the Federal Republic of Germany, not before. But Japan, shielded from the evil world, has grown into an Oskar Matzerath: opportunistic, stunted, and haunted by demons, which it tries to ignore by burying them in the sand, like Oskar s drum.
Ian Buruma, Wages of Guilt, Clearing Up the Ruins
Buruma-Wages_of_Guilt The comparison of Germany and Japan with respect to their recent history as laid out in Buruma s book throws a spotlight on various aspects of the psychology of German and Japanese population, while at the same time not falling into the easy trap of explaining everything with difference in the guilt culture. A book of great depth and broad insights everyone having even the slightest interest in these topics should read.
This difference between (West) German and Japanese textbooks is not just a matter of detail; it shows a gap in perception.
Ian Buruma, Wages of Guilt, Romance of the Ruins
Only thinking about giving a halfway full account of this book is something impossible for me. The sheer amount of information, both on the German and Japanese side, is impressive. His incredible background (studies of Chinese literature and Japanese movie!) and long years as journalist, editor, etc, enriches the book with facets normally not available: In particular his knowledge of both the German and Japanese movie history, and the reflection of history in movies, were complete new aspects for me (see my recent post (in Japanese)). The book is comprised of four parts: The first with the chapters War Against the West and Romance of the Ruins; the second with the chapters Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Nanking; the third with History on Trial, Textbook Resistance, and Memorials, Museums, and Monuments; and the last part with A Normal Country, Two Normal Towns, and Clearing Up the Ruins. Let us look at the chapters in turn: The boook somehow left me with a bleak impression of Japanese post-war times as well as Japanese future. Having read other books about the political ignorance in Japan (Norma Field s In the realm of a dying emperor, or the Chibana history), Buruma s characterization of Japanese politics is striking. He couldn t foresee the recent changes in legislation pushed through by the Abe government actually breaking the constitution, or the rewriting of history currently going on with respect to comfort women and Nanking. But reading his statement about Article Nine of the constitution and looking at the changes in political attitude, I am scared about where Japan is heading to:
The Nanking Massacre, for leftists and many liberals too, is the main symbol of Japanese militarism, supported by the imperial (and imperialist) cult. Which is why it is a keystone of postwar pacifism. Article Nine of the constitution is necessary to avoid another Nanking Massacre. The nationalist right takes the opposite view. To restore the true identity of Japan, the emperor must be reinstated as a religious head of state, and Article Nine must be revised to make Japan a legitimate military power again. For this reason, the Nanking Massacre, or any other example of extreme Japanese aggression, has to be ignored, softened, or denied.
Ian Buruma, Wages of Guilt, Nanking
While there are signs of resistance in the streets of Japan (Okinawa and the Hanako bay, the demonstrations against secrecy law and reversion of the constitution), we are still to see a change influenced by the people in a country ruled and distributed by oligarchs. I don t think there will be another Nanking Massacre in the near future, but Buruma s books shows that we are heading back to a nationalistic regime similar to pre-war times, just covered with a democratic veil to distract critics.
I close with several other quotes from the book that caught my attention: In the preface and introduction:
[ ] mainstream conservatives made a deliberate attempt to distract people s attention from war and politics by concentrating on economic growth.
The curious thing was that much of what attracted Japanese to Germany before the war Prussian authoritarianism, romantic nationalism, pseudo-scientific racialism had lingered in Japan while becoming distinctly unfashionable in Germany.
In Romance of the Ruins:
The point of all this is that Ikeda s promise of riches was the final stage of what came to be known as the reverse course, the turn away from a leftist, pacifist, neutral Japan a Japan that would never again be involved in any wars, that would resist any form of imperialism, that had, in short, turned its back for good on its bloody past. The Double Your Incomes policy was a deliberate ploy to draw public attention away from constitutional issues.
In Hiroshima:
The citizens of Hiroshima were indeed victims, primarily of their own military rulers. But when a local group of peace activists petitioned the city of Hiroshima in 1987 to incorporate the history of Japanese aggression into the Peace Memorial Museum, the request was turned down. The petition for an Aggressors Corner was prompted by junior high school students from Osaka, who had embarrassed Peace Museum officials by asking for an explanation about Japanese responsibility for the war.
The history of the war, or indeed any history, is indeed not what the Hiroshima spirit is about. This is why Auschwitz is the only comparison that is officially condoned. Anything else is too controversial, too much part of the flow of history .
In Nanking, by the governmental pseudo-historian Tanaka:
Unlike in Europe or China, writes Tanaka, you won t find one instance of planned, systematic murder in the entire history of Japan. This is because the Japanese have a different sense of values from the Chinese or the Westerners.
In History on Trial:
In 1950, Becker wrote that few things have done more to hinder true historical self-knowledge in Germany than the war crimes trials. He stuck to this belief. Becker must be taken seriously, for he is not a right-wing apologist for the Nazi past, but an eminent liberal.
There never were any Japanese war crimes trials, nor is there a Japanese Ludwigsburg. This is partly because there was no exact equivalent of the Holocaust. Even though the behavior of Japanese troops was often barbarous, and the psychological consequences of State Shinto and emperor worship were frequently as hysterical as Nazism, Japanese atrocities were part of a military campaign, not a planned genocide of a people that included the country s own citizens. And besides, those aspects of the war that were most revolting and furthest removed from actual combat, such as the medical experiments on human guinea pigs (known as logs ) carried out by Unit 731 in Manchuria, were passed over during the Tokyo trial. The knowledge compiled by the doctors of Unit 731 of freezing experiments, injection of deadly diseases, vivisections, among other things was considered so valuable by the Americans in 1945 that the doctors responsible were allowed to go free in exchange for their data.
Some Japanese have suggested that they should have conducted their own war crimes trials. The historian Hata Ikuhiko thought the Japanese leaders should have been tried according to existing Japanese laws, either in military or in civil courts. The Japanese judges, he believed, might well have been more severe than the Allied tribunal in Tokyo. And the consequences would have been healthier. If found guilty, the spirits of the defendants would not have ended up being enshrined at Yasukuni. The Tokyo trial, he said, purified the crimes of the accused and turned them into martyrs. If they had been tried in domestic courts, there is a good chance the real criminals would have been flushed out.
After it was over, the Nippon Times pointed out the flaws of the trial, but added that the Japanese people must ponder over why it is that there has been such a discrepancy between what they thought and what the rest of the world accepted almost as common knowledge. This is at the root of the tragedy which Japan brought upon herself.
Emperor Hirohito was not Hitler; Hitler was no mere Shrine. But the lethal consequences of the emperor-worshipping system of irresponsibilities did emerge during the Tokyo trial. The savagery of Japanese troops was legitimized, if not driven, by an ideology that did not include a Final Solution but was as racialist as Hider s National Socialism. The Japanese were the Asian Herrenvolk, descended from the gods.
Emperor Hirohito, the shadowy figure who changed after the war from navy uniforms to gray suits, was not personally comparable to Hitler, but his psychological role was remarkably similar.
In fact, MacArthur behaved like a traditional Japanese strongman (and was admired for doing so by many Japanese), using the imperial symbol to enhance his own power. As a result, he hurt the chances of a working Japanese democracy and seriously distorted history. For to keep the emperor in place (he could at least have been made to resign), Hirohito s past had to be freed from any blemish; the symbol had to be, so to speak, cleansed from what had been done in its name.
In Memorials, Museums, and Monuments:
If one disregards, for a moment, the differences in style between Shinto and Christianity, the Yasukuni Shrine, with its relics, its sacred ground, its bronze paeans to noble sacrifice, is not so very different from many European memorials after World War I. By and large, World War II memorials in Europe and the United States (though not the Soviet Union) no longer glorify the sacrifice of the fallen soldier. The sacrificial cult and the romantic elevation of war to a higher spiritual plane no longer seemed appropriate after Auschwitz. The Christian knight, bearing the cross of king and country, was not resurrected. But in Japan, where the war was still truly a war (not a Holocaust), and the symbolism still redolent of religious exultation, such shrines as Yasukuni still carry the torch of nineteenth-century nationalism. Hence the image of the nation owing its restoration to the sacrifice of fallen soldiers.
In A Normal Country:
The mayor received a letter from a Shinto priest in which the priest pointed out that it was un-Japanese to demand any more moral responsibility from the emperor than he had already taken. Had the emperor not demonstrated his deep sorrow every year, on the anniversary of Japan s surrender? Besides, he wrote, it was wrong to have spoken about the emperor in such a manner, even as the entire nation was deeply worried about his health. Then he came to the main point: It is a common error among Christians and people with Western inclinations, including so-called intellectuals, to fail to grasp that Western societies and Japanese society are based on fundamentally different religious concepts . . . Forgetting this premise, they attempt to place a Western structure on a Japanese foundation. I think this kind of mistake explains the demand for the emperor to bear full responsibility.
In Two Normal Towns:
The bust of the man caught my attention, but not because it was in any way unusual; such busts of prominent local figures can be seen everywhere in Japan. This one, however, was particularly grandiose. Smiling across the yard, with a look of deep satisfaction over his many achievements, was Hatazawa Kyoichi. His various functions and titles were inscribed below his bust. He had been an important provincial bureaucrat, a pillar of the sumo wrestling establishment, a member of various Olympic committees, and the recipient of some of the highest honors in Japan. The song engraved on the smooth stone was composed in praise of his rich life. There was just one small gap in Hatazawa s life story as related on his monument: the years from 1941 to 1945 were missing. Yet he had not been idle then, for he was the man in charge of labor at the Hanaoka mines.
In Clearing Up the Ruins:
But the question in American minds was understandable: could one trust a nation whose official spokesmen still refused to admit that their country had been responsible for starting a war? In these Japanese evasions there was something of the petulant child, stamping its foot, shouting that it had done nothing wrong, because everybody did it.
Japan seems at times not so much a nation of twelve-year-olds, to repeat General MacArthur s phrase, as a nation of people longing to be twelve-year-olds, or even younger, to be at that golden age when everything was secure and responsibility and conformity were not yet required.
For General MacArthur was right: in 1945, the Japanese people were political children. Until then, they had been forced into a position of complete submission to a state run by authoritarian bureaucrats and military men, and to a religious cult whose high priest was also formally chief of the armed forces and supreme monarch of the empire.
I saw Jew S ss that same year, at a screening for students of the film academy in Berlin. This showing, too, was followed by a discussion. The students, mostly from western Germany, but some from the east, were in their early twenties. They were dressed in the international uniform of jeans, anoraks, and work shirts. The professor was a man in his forties, a 68er named Karsten Witte. He began the discussion by saying that he wanted the students to concentrate on the aesthetics of the film more than the story. To describe the propaganda, he said, would simply be banal: We all know the what, so let s talk about the how. I thought of my fellow students at the film school in Tokyo more than fifteen years before. How many of them knew the what of the Japanese war in Asia.

16 November 2015

Norbert Preining: Movies: Monuments Men and Interstellar

Over the rainy weekend we watched two movies: Monuments Men (in Japanese it is called Michelangelo Project!) and Interstellar. Both blockbuster movies from the usual American companies, they are light-years away when it comes to quality. The Monuments Men are boring, without a story, without depth, historically inaccurate, a complete failure. Interstellar, although a long movie, keeps you frozen in the seat while being as scientific as possible and starts your brain working heavily. monuments-men-interstellar My personal verdict: 3 rotten eggs (because Rotten Tomatoes are not stinky enough) for the Monuments Men, and 4 stars for Interstellar. Story First for the plot of the two movies: The Monuments Men is loosely based on a true story about rescuing pieces of art at the end of the second world war, before the Nazis destroy them or the Russian take them away. A group of art experts is sent into Europe and manages to find several hiding places of art taken by the Nazis. Interstellar is set in near future where the conditions on the earth are deteriorating to a degree that human life seems to be soon impossible. Some years before the movie plays a group of astronauts were sent through a wormhole into a different galaxy to search for new inhabitable planets. Now it is time to check out these planets, and try to establish colonies there. Cooper, a retired NASA officer and pilot, now working as farmer, and his daughter are guided by some mysterious way to a secret NASA facility. Cooper is drafted for being a pilot on the reconnaissance mission, and leaves earth and our galaxy through the same wormhole. (Not telling more!) Monuments Men Looking at the cast of Monuments Men (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett) one would expect a great movie but from the very first to the very last scene, it is a slowly meandering shallow flow of sticked together scenes without much coherence. Tension is generated only through unrelated events (stepping onto a landmine, patting a horse), but never developed properly. Dialogs are shallow and boring with one exception: When Frank Stokes (George Clooney) meets the one German and inquires general about the art, predicting his future being hanged. Historically, the movie is as inaccurate as it can be despite Clooney stating that 80 percent of the story is still completely true and accurate, and almost all of the scenes happened . That contrasts starkly with the verdict of Nigel Pollard (Swansea University): There s a kernel of history there, but The Monuments Men plays fast and loose with it in ways that are probably necessary to make the story work as a film, but the viewer ends up with a fairly confused notion of what the organisation was, and what it achieved. The movie leaves a bitter aftertaste, hailing of American heroism paired with the usual stereotypes (French amour, German retarded, Russian ignorance, etc). Together with the half baked dialogues it feels like a permanent coitus interruptus. Interstellar Interstellar cannot serve with a similar cast, but still a few known people (Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Michael Caine!). But I believe this is actually a sign of quality. Well balancing scientific accuracy and the requirements for blockbusters, the movie successfully spans the bridge between complicated science, in particular general gravity, and entertainment. While not going so far to call the move edutainment (like both the old and new Cosmos), it is surprising how much of hard science is packed into this movie. This is mostly thanks to the theoretical physicist Kip Thorne acting as scientific consultant for the movie, but also due to the director Christopher Nolan being serious about it and studying relativity at Caltech. Of course, scientific accuracy has limits nobody knows what happens if one crosses the event horizon of a black hole, and even the existence of wormholes is purely theoretical by now. Still, throughout the movie it follows the two requirements laid out by Kip Thorne: First, that nothing would violate established physical laws. Second, that all the wild speculations would spring from science and not from the fertile mind of a screenwriter. I think the biggest compliment was that, despite the length, despite a long day out (see next blog), despite the rather unfamiliar topic, my wife, who is normally not interested in space movies and that kind, didn t fall asleep throughout the movie, and I had to stop several times to explain details of the theory of gravity and astronomy. So in some sense it was perfect edutainment!

31 October 2015

Andrew Cater

Ken Starks (Helios) of Reglue could use your help

I'm not normally one to respond to online appeals for money: there are often far too many of them. Ken Starks is a well known Linux personality who set up a charity to provide needy local people with Linux and recycled machines. He's also a good guy who works hard for this as something he believes in: this is no scam. The Helios Project (from before his own charity merged with another known as Reglue) is also still an SPI project as far as I know

Ken is currently holding a fund raising drive to replace his vehicle used for the Reglue project on Indiegogo. This is probably most of interest to US readers who may be able to treat this as charitable donation - the things he's offering in return for donations are most readily shipped within the US and Canada.

Any and all help would be greatly appreciated.

17 August 2015

Iustin Pop: A few macro photos

I was walking in the city with my camera and a wide (35mm) lens. I also took in the bag a macro lens, "just in case", although I wasn't sure what would it be useful for, beyond a solitary flower here and there. But as luck would have it, I stumbled upon a floral arrangement which was host to a lot of working bees, bumblebees and ants. Perfect opportunity for some attempts at macro work! Especially as I didn't do many such attempts "outside" before. A few of the photographs turned out "OK". Not good, as there were multiple things fighting against my lack of skills and experience. First, aperture. From normal photography, I thought that f/8 is a small aperture. Turns out that f/8 is not enough to have the entire body of a bee in focus! f/16 is good from the depth-of-field point of view, but then the light is not good enough. Second, wind. Not in the sense of blur - high shutter speed combats wind-induced blur, but the movement of the subject due to wind makes it very hard to focus properly, either automatically or manually, as the depth of field is very thin. In any case, learned something more. The first and last pictures in this set are my favourites; the first one due to the detail in the wings (in stark contrast to the lack of detail in the body), and the last one due to the soft colours. Here they are, or check out the entire set: Mis-focused (bee body is not in focus) but with good results: very nice wings! This turned out much better than I expected, mostly due to the colours.

20 May 2015

Norbert Preining: Shishiodoshi or Us and They On the perceived exclusivity of Japanese

The other day I received from my Japanese teacher an interesting article by Yamazaki Masakazu comparing garden styles, and in particular the attitude towards and presentation of water in Japanese and European gardens (page 1, page 2). The author s list of achievements is long, various professorships, dramatist, literature critique, recognized as Person of Cultural Merit, just to name a view. I was looking forward to an interesting and high quality article! The article itself introduces the reader to Shishiodoshi, one of the standard ingredients of a Japanese garden: It is a device where water drips into a bamboo tube that is also a seesaw. At some point the water in the bamboo tube makes the seesaw switch over and the water pours out, after which the seesaw returns to the original position and a new cycle begins. Shishiodoshi The author describes his feelings and thoughts about the shishiodoshi, in particular connects human life (stress and relieve, cycles), the flow of time, and some other concepts with the shishiodoshi. Up to here it is a wonderful article providing interesting insights into the way the author thinks. Unfortunately, then the author tries to underline his ideas by comparing the Japanese shishiodoshi with European style water fountains, describing the former with all favorable properties and full of deep meaning, while the latter is qualified as beautiful and nice, but bare of any deeper meaning. I don t go into details that the whole comparison is anyway a bad one, as he is comparing Baroque style fountains, a very limited period, and furthermore ignores the fact that water fountains are not genuinely European (isn t there one in the Kenrokuen, one of the three most famous gardens in Japan!?), nor does he consider any other water-installation that might be available. What really destroys the in principle very nice article is the tone: The general tone of the article then can be summarized into: The shishiodoshi is rich on meaning, connects to the life of humans, instigates philosophical reflections, represents nature, the flow of time etc. The water fountain is beautiful and gorgeous, but that is all. I don t think that this separation, or this negative undertone, was created on purpose by the author. A person of his stature is supposedly above this level of primitive comparison. I believe that it is nothing else but a consequence of upbringing and the general attitude that permeates the whole society with this feeling of separateness. Us and They Repeatedly providing sentences like Japanese people and Western people have different tastes.. ( ). About 10 times in this short article expressions like Japanese and Westerner appear, leaving the reader with a bitter taste of an author that considers first the Japanese a people (what about Ainu, Ryukyu, etc?), and second that the Japanese are exclusive in the sense that they are set apart from the rest of the world in their way of thinking, living, being. What puzzles me is that this is not only a singular opinion, but a very general straight in the Japanese media, TV, radio, newspaper, books. Everyone considers Japan and Japanese as something that is fundamentally and profoundly different from everyone else in the world. There is We the Japanese (and that doesn t mean nationality of passport, but blood line!), and there are They the Rest or, as the way of writing and and description on many occasion suggestions, They the Barbarians . A short anecdote will underly this: One of the favorite TV talk show / pseudo-documentary style is about Japanese living abroad. That day a lady married in Paris was interviewed. What followed was a guided tour through Paris showing: Dirt in the gutter, street cleaning cars, waste disposal places. Yes, that was all. Just about the dirt . Of course, at length the (unfortunately only apparent) cleanliness of Japanese cities and neighborhoods are mentioned and shown to remind everyone how wonderful Japan is and how dirty the Barbarians. I don t want to say that I consider Japan more dirty than most other countries just the visible part is clean, the moment you step a bit aside and around the corner, there are the worst trash just thrown away without consideration. Anyway. To return to the topic of Us and They I consider us all humans, first and foremost, and nationality, birthplace, and all that are just by chance. I do NOT reject cultural differences, they are here, of course. But cultural differences are one thing, separating one self and one s perceived people from the rest of the world is another. Conclusion I repeat, I don t think that the author had any ill intentions, but it would have been nicer if the article wouldn t make such a stark distinction. He could have written about Shishiodoshi and water fountains without using the Us They categorization. He could have compared other water installations, could have discussed the long tradition of small ponds in European gardens, just to name a few things. But the author choose to highlight differences instead of commonalities. It is the Us against Them feeling that often makes life in Japan for a foreigner difficult. Japanese are not special, Austrians, too, are not special, nor are Americans, Russians, Tibetans, or any other nationality. No nationality is special, we are all humans. Maybe at some point this will arrive also in the Japanese society and thinking.
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24 August 2013

Marko Lalic: PTS rewrite: Django Memory Usage

Rewriting the PTS in a fairly large Web framework such as Django is sure to cause larger memory consumption by even the more simple tasks, when compared to a couple of (loosely related) perl scripts. If anything, simply due to the fact that the entire Django machinery needs to be loaded.

However, just how large the memory consumption difference between the two can be seen in the example of the command to dispatch received package emails to users. In the new version, the command is implemented as a Django management command, whereas before it was a perl script relying on the script for some additional functions.

The reason this command's memory usage is important is an incident with the current test deployment of the new PTS found at All package mails that the old PTS receives are also forwarded to the new instance in order to expose the new implementation to real-world mail traffic. At a certain point, over a hundred mails were received instantly causing over a hundred dispatch processes to be launched. This led to the system running out of memory and the kernel had to run the OOM Killer which brought down PostgreSQL server thereby causing the site to become unavailable.

For now, such a problem seems to have been prevented from reoccurring by setting up exim to queue messages when a certain system average load is exceeded, however it is interesting to check how large the memory consumption difference between the old and new dispatch really is.

Measurement setupIn order to measure the memory use, two messages of different sizes were used: 1KB and 1MB.

For the new PTS two cases were considered, when the database used is sqlite3 and PostgreSQL. In both cases, it was simply initialized by syncdb, meaning it contained only the default keywords found in the initial fixture and no registered users and subscriptions. The DEBUG setting was set to False.

For testing the old PTS's, the database was also initialized empty.

This way, the tests should show the actual difference between the two implementations.

Since the main concern here is the maximum memory usage of the dispatch script, a simple bash script was written which takes a PID of a running process and outputs the maximum memory usage as reported by ps once the process is terminated. The script used is shown below.

#!/usr/bin/env bash


while ps $pid >/dev/null
ps -o vsz= $ pid
sleep 0.1
done sort -n tail -n1

Old PTS Measurements
The maximum memory usage of the old PTS was:
  1. 37.8 MB for the 1 KB message
  2. 38.2 MB for the 1 MB message

New PTS Measurements

The maximum memory usage of the new PTS using sqlite3 was:
  1. 91.77 MB for the 1 KB message
  2. 92.59 MB for the 1 MB message


The maximum memory usage of the new PTS using PostgreSQL was:
  1. 148 MB for the 1 KB message
  2. 160 MB for the 1 MB message

Comparison and DiscussionWhen comparing the memory used by the old implementation and the new PTS running sqlite3, the difference does not seem to be too large and is to be expected, since, as mentioned, the whole Django framework is loaded when executing a management command.

However, the huge difference between the two versions of the new PTS: the one using sqlite3 and the one using PostgreSQL is very surprising indeed.

Another interesting measurement is the difference between running a bare Django management command: one including only a sleep statement (in order to allow enough time to measure its memory usage) on PostgreSQL and sqlite3. In both cases, the memory usage was only about 1 MB less than what the respective maximum memory usage when processing the 1 KB message.

All this considered, the logical conclusion seems to be that either psycopg2 package and/or the Django postgresql_psycopg2 database engine use a lot more memory than the corresponding sqlite3 alternatives.

Could anyone shed some more light as to what causes this stark difference between using sqlite3 and Postgres in Django? Anything that could be done to mitigate it?

14 July 2013

Matt Zimmerman: Liberty and justice for all, but not in equal measure

200302020-001 As Americans we might like to believe that the US legal system is intended to protect all of our citizens. Unfortunately, it doesn t protect us all equally, and in fact disproportionately fails to protect the most vulnerable. We re surrounded by instances of injustice related to gender, race and other axes of social privilege, and the machinations of law are not exempt. The state of Florida has recently provided an especially stark example in the application of its self-defense laws in two cases: Marissa Alexander and George Zimmerman. This example is notable because although there were many similarities between the cases, the outcomes were very different. Alexander s case was tried in May 2012 , Zimmerman s in July 2013, both prosecuted by Florida state s attorney Angela Corey. Both cases involved the use of firearms which were legally purchased and carried, and their owners were trained in their use. Both prosecutions cast the defendant as the aggressor, who could have avoided the confrontation. Both of the encounters were with unarmed persons. Both defenses were based on Florida self-defense laws, which include stand your ground laws justifying the use of deadly force without the obligation to retreat. Both shooters admitted to firing a single shot with the intent of defending themselves. Beyond those similarities, each case had its own unique circumstances. The events of Alexander s case took place in her home. Her altercation was with her husband, Rico Gray Sr., who was under a restraining order following a conviction for domestic battery which put Alexander in the hospital. After Gray threatened to kill her, Alexander retrieved a handgun from her car, returned to confront him, firing once. She was arrested and charged the same day. She had had no prior criminal record. A jury deliberated for just 12 minutes before convicting her. A judge sentenced her to 20 years in prison, in accord with mandatory minimums specified by law. Gray, previously sentenced to probation for his earlier conviction, remains free. Zimmerman,_George_-_Seminole_County_MugZimmerman s shot was fired in his neighborhood, in an altercation with a teenager, Trayvon Martin, who was a guest in the community and walking by himself. The two were not acquainted. Zimmerman called police from his car, claiming that Martin appeared suspicious, and began to follow him. Some of the facts of their encounter remain in dispute, but that Zimmerman fired his gun is not in question. Afterward, Zimmerman was detained by police, questioned and released the same night without being arrested or charged. Following a public outcry, a new investigation was launched and two months later he was arrested and charged. He had been previously arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer, but the charges were later dropped. After 16 hours of deliberation, the jury found Zimmerman not guilty, and he is free today. The most striking difference between the two cases is where each defendant aimed their gun: George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the chest and killed him, while Marissa Alexander fired at a wall and injured no one. Alexander, a black woman, is in prison for scaring her abusive husband away, while Zimmerman, who killed a young black man, walks free. Alexander and Martin s families have lost a mother and a son. The outcomes for the people involved in these cases could not be more different. Regardless of the merits of the relevant laws themselves, their radically unequal application is deeply troubling. What does this tell us about the relative value of these human lives, as weighed by the judicial system?
The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today. One is that if women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the Stand Your Ground Law will not apply to them. [...] The second message is that if you are black, the system will treat you differently. - U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown

14 March 2013

Richard Hartmann: The day the Reader died

...we stopped the singing. This may be irony:
No More Google Reader
from Google Operating System by Alex Chitu
via What's Hot in Google Reader

but the topic at hand remains serious. This is a stark reminder of why it's important to be able to get your data out of cloud services at a moment's notice and why you should always keep local backups of important data. Thankfully, Google is quite fair about this, as opposed to a lot of other large players. (As a side note, export of full data should be doable, but come with another layer of security like a grace period, password confirmation, verification email, or other means. Imagine someone gains temporary access to your account and exports all your digital life at once. And yes, I know how that relates to IMAP.) Google Reader has felt like a second class citizen for quite some time now, the removal of features to push Google+ and the slow updates for Android were two signs that didn't forebode well (Vim's spelling correction does not know "forbode", how weird is that)(turns out I'm simply stupid, see comments; thanks Jim). I can see how this move may make sense from Google's POV even though I am sad to see an old companion go. Anyway, the stats page of two of my accounts show how sadly I will miss Google Reader in two simple lines:
Since January 24, 2010 you have read a total of 59,253 items.
Since February 20, 2011 you have read a total of 215,285 items.

Farewell, my friend. PS: Maybe those petitions will sway them, but I won't get my hopes up. PS: Speaking of Google, I found this gem today; TMI.

27 August 2012

Andrew Cater: Ken Starks - immediate need for help is over for the moment - but

From Ken Starks, of Helios Project / Reglue

From the desk of just-so-you-know.....

Thomas Knight and I have agreed that the fund drive to aid in paying for necessary surgery for me should be halted. I will do a full blog about this entire effort this Monday but suffice it to say, you have donated more than enough to take care of my immediate needs and those down the road. Asking for anything more would be taking advantage of a loving and generous community. While it is far from adequate, the only thing I can offer you is my eternal thanks. It just seems so....small of a thing to give in return.

They will not stop the Indiegogo campaign until it reaches its time limit unfortunately so that will remain in effect for the next 30-some hours. Please do not donate anything further as I have more than enough to cover my expenses. I will explain more about that on my blog Monday.

If you helped spread the word about this campaign, please pass this posting along with the same intensity. I would deeply appreciate it.

See also now: update from Ken:

Donations for Ken himself may be over: the work of Helios/Reglue still remains good, important and useful - the world benefits for investment in education. I would urge that this is still a worthwhile charity to contribute to as you get Linux into the hands of young people and the disadvantaged who can then USE it.

26 August 2012

Andrew Cater: Helios - Ken Starks - appeal for (time-critical) help

For anybody that doesn't know - Ken Starks is the man behind the Helios Project - recycling computers, putting Linux on them, donating them to youngsters and the needy in Austin Texas.

He has a cancer diagnosis but his disability pension is enough to defeat his state provided insurance. Now he himself needs the help of the community.

More details here: and his partner's post above.

and here: Thomas A. Knight, who is setting up donations.


There is now also a donate button at the Blog of Helios (

Enough has been raised so far to buy Ken an appropriate monitor - because of the effects of radiotherapy, he's been unable to tolerate using a monitor with backlighting.

One donor has also stepped in to buy a month's drug treatment.

The initial target -US $5000 - has been met but The cost of an operating theatre session is at least US $50,000. All donations continue to be gratefully received.

Should efforts for raising funds for Ken himself be unsuccessful, all surplus funds raised will be ploughed back into the Helios Project (now known as Reglue following a recent merger with another local computer charity).

The Helios Project has been associated with Software in the Public Interest [SPI - also the umbrella organisation supporting Debian] for some years.

UPDATE2 - From Thomas A. Knight's blog referenced above:

By Thomas A. Knight on Sun 19 Aug 2012 07:33:49 am $11,000 so far, and still going strong. The outpouring of support for this is amazing. My most humble thanks to all contributors.

Even though we are still far from our goal, this has been far more successful than I ever thought possible. Thank you.

UPDATE3 - From Ken Starks, Sunday 26 August 2012

The amount of money needed has been raised. Donations to Helios Project/Reglue are welcome, as ever - but Ken's immediate needs are satisfactorily met and he himself doesn't wish to profit further from the community's goodwill. As he says, he can't thank us enough
More news at is due on 27/08/2012

22 March 2012

Richard Hartmann: Svalbard

Svalbard The things you find when cleaning out a disk; preparing for re-installation of your laptop on a larger disk once the laptop comes back from repair... I thought I had posted this in early January, but apparently not. As it would be a shame to just throw this away, here goes: I am sitting in the Oslo airport, waiting for boarding back home to start. Seeing the sun after a week of darkness still feels strange. Inital trouble It's been a very interesting week, starting with our trip to Oslo in the other direction. We spent New Year's Eve in Oslo, timing our forced overnight stay before reaching Svalbard to coincide with something interesting. The close timing of our travel meant that there was exactly one flight to Oslo we could take. Never having heard of Air Baltic before and finding out that they are a discount airline, my gut feeling told me to be be wary. I refuse to fly with those airlines on principle, not wanting to support their business model while hurting airlines with decent treatment of customers. Unfortunately, I was forced to book with them in this case. As it turns out, my gut was right. More on that below. Our plane was late in landing and my luggage was lost. As it was New Year's Eve, the staff at Oslo airport understandably wanted to be home, not at work. Still, getting them to file a report was tedious and finding out days later that the report was incomplete was, well, not good. The express train from the airport to Oslo central station had closed early without any advance notice or local signs, presumably because of NYE. The gates were simply closed and that's that. We figured out how the bus system worked, got our tickets from a vending machine, saw the one bus to central station drive away, and proceeded to wait in the outside waiting area; at least we had a front spot in the queue. While we don't get cold easily, it was funny to see Norwegians in thin clothes stand around in the biting wind, apparently being comfortable. A young mother with a baby, who didn't anticipate being forced to wait outside at -15C, as opposed to just sitting down in a train, had no warm clothes for her son; something that was fixed by wrapping him in spare clothes from Ilona's luggage. After waiting for about thirty minutes for the next bus to appear, it parked twenty or thirty meters away from the designated parking spot. The rough queue disintegrated and if not for Ilona's leaving me with luggage and backpacks and storming off to fight the masses, said mother with baby and ourselves would have waited for another thirty minutes. More than hundred people were left stranded at the airport to celebrate there or on the bus. Meh. We hurried, by taxi, from central station to hotel to harbour and arrived about five minutes to twelve. NYE itself was nice. We stood on top of the opera house and watched a rather impressive show of fireworks through the thickening mists. Norwegian fireworks pack lot more punch than German ones; you actually feel your clothes shake when they go off. Getting to Longyearbyen The flight from Troms to Longyearbyen had free in-flight Wi-Fi and flying over the edge of satellite coverage demonstrated how far we were from everywhere else rather impressively. Arriving at Longyearbyen, I fixed the lost luggage claim with the help of an extremely nice woman working at the airport. She confirmed that Air Baltic is legally required to reimburse me after an arcane system based on a virtual IMF currency to the tune of about 1.500. That may sound like a lot, but seeing as I had most of my scuba gear with me, that's not even half of what my luggage was worth. I was forced to get by New Years with what I had on my body and went shopping the next day when I could buy at least a few things. I got by with spending about 180 by going for non-fitting bargain bin clothes, wanting to reduce impact on Air Baltic. Shortly after that, my luggage arrived, unannounced. Air Baltic refused to reimburse me even though they are legally required to, again the airport staff confirmed this. But unless I sue in the country of destination, Norway, I won't see any money. Long story short: Avoid Air Baltic if possible. They will break the law to cheat you out of money when they have a reasonable expectation of getting away with it. Update: Yep, seems they got away with it unless I take legal measures. You have been warned. Longyearbyen itself was very nice. We started off with a short, guided taxi tour around the city, seeing literally everything of it as there's not a lot of Longyearbyen to start with. Dogsledding Next day, as noted earlier, we went shopping and spent the "evening" with dogsledding which turned out to be tons of fun. We helped with harnessing the dogs which is somewhat cumbersome as the dogs are so eager to burn off their energy that they want to run all over the place, not being put into a harness and snapped onto the pull-line. Never having been dogsledding before I was a bit wary, but riding over not too rough terrain is almost trivial once you get the hang of it; listen to what the musher in front of you yells and emulate the same shouts with your own dogs. If the dogs become too fast, step onto the brake pad which simply drives spikes into the snow. If the dogs slow down while going uphill, skate with one foot to help them. That's it for speed. As the dogs are following the musher's sled anyway, steering the dogs was not a concern. Fun fact: The musher used a laser pointer to steer his dogs; simple, efficient, and presumably fun. We learned, by demonstration, that sledding dogs can eat snow, take a leak, and take a dump while running at full speed and pretty much all at the same time. The dogs are left either in cages or on long chains far away from the city as they tend to bark and howl a lot. We were surprised to learn that, even when there are seals left to hang dry as dog food nearby, there are no problems with bear attacks. Apparently even the extremely aggressive and hungry one year old males will not go near dogs. Still, while out in the ice and snow, our guide carefully flooded all crevices and cliff bases to root out female bears with young ones early. They hide their children from the wind and they will attack, dogs and all, if we get too close. That's why our musher carried rifle in his sled and flare gun on his body. Snowmobile The next "morning", we drove around by snowmobile. This turned out to be extremely boring as it was a curated trip with over half a dozen snowmobiles in our group; a stark contrast to our two-sled tour the day before. The last time I went snowmobiling, we raced each other up and down a two-star black (i.e. steep, bumpy, and curvy) ski slope, jumping several meters when racing over larger bumps and crossing streets, so riding single file at 30 km/h was... anticlimatic. Again, the guide had rifle and flare gun with him. We spent the afternoon and evening walking around the city. Ice bears, part I As the ice caves and the glacier were still closed, we decided to have another walk around the city. Having planned make it a quick tour, we lost track of time due to lack of sun and ended up walking around for seven hours. A note about that trip.. If you are alone with your wife, unarmed, climbing up a very steep and slippery mountainside over a sheet of ice with deep snow underneath and loose rocks in between, and then start shining around with your flashlight under the stilts of an abandoned mine that looks like in a horror movie, the correct answer to "What are you doing?" is never ever "Looking for ice bears". Even if it's the truth, this is not an acceptable answer. I crawled up the last part on all fours, camera and tripod in hand while Ilona stayed about two dozen meters below the mines' entrance, refusing to go another step towards the mine. As soon I made it up the creaky and shaky, for a lack of a better word, let's call it ladder, she forced me to come down again. Bleh, but I guess I deserved that. Armed photographer Next day, we got final confirmation that we would not be allowed to rent snowmobiles to explore the hinterland on our own and that other for some, and I quote, "crazy Russians", no one would even attempt to cross over to Barentsburg. Thus, we ended up renting a car for the ~20 kilometers of total road length. That turned out to be a great idea as it allowed us to get away from the light and take some very nice long exposures. It was then that I got a rental rifle, as well. There is a law against leaving the town unarmed and I was not about to test my luck too much. Turns out that, as part of Germany's WWII reparations, Norway received our all hand guns and as they still function perfectly when dirty and in cold climate which makes them still popular in Svalbard, today. The Karabiner 98 Kurz which I received is built incredibly well. It's somewhat scary inasmuch every detail is designed to make this weapon ready to fire. If you hurry or are inexperienced, you will end up with an unlocked and loaded rifle after putting in the bolt. Putting the safety in and not chambering a bullet takes conscious effort and knowledge of the weapon. This is in stark contrast to other weapons I had the chance to dissect, which all defaulted to being safe. Even other military weapons such as the AK74 and the M4A1 are inherently more secure, designed to be locked and safe. The Mauser K98... not so much. As an aside, they didn't bother to remove the Reichsadler and Swastika from the rifle, contending themselves with striking out the German registration number and stamping the rifle with a Norwegian one. I guess Norwegians don't really "care" about these signs as much as we Germans do. In a way, that's a good thing I guess, at least as long as it's an indication of indifference towards the sign, not one of forgetting or ignoring the underlying issues. Still, I was very glad to have rented the rifle. While Ilona tended to stay in the running car with heat and lights on, I went out and away from the car. Even when standing near a street, a medium snow storm will make you appreciate the four powerful arguments against being eaten by a random bear which are at the ready over your shoulder. We even went to the shooting range so I could get some practice. The procedure is very trusting, as is anything in Longyearbyen. After accessing the interior of one of the houses in a particular way which I won't specify here, you simply switch on the floodlights, put up the red flag, position a target and write your name into the guest book. Once you're done shooting, toss a few coins into the bowl next to the guest book, remove the targets and flag, turn off the lights, close the door and that's that. Unfortunately, the way in was under a few meters of snow so I couldn't get in any practice shots. Ice bears, part II Later, as I was standing on a wind-polished slate of ice taking pictures of the Seed Vault (located here), I heard an ice bear roar behind (i.e. to the north of) me. I consciously remember hearing the bear, I consciously remember facing the other way around, half-crouched, rifle raised in the direction of the roar. I also consciously remember smacking the safety off and chambering a bullet after having regained control of my body. I do not remember spinning around on a wind-polished slate of ice, so treacherous I hand to balance with my arms and didn't even lift my feet when walking over it, without losing balance or footing, nor do I remember crouching and raising the gun. Evolution really is amazing; no matter what primal chord that roar struck, it certainly saved a ton of people over the years. In my case, thankfully, there was no bear to be seen down the slope. There may be no sun or anything, but the snow reflects the starlight so you tend to see surprisingly far and as I was on on the mountainside and the roar came from down from the coast, and as I had my rifle, I decided to finish the photo session while keeping the slope in close view. In hindsight, I am still glad I decided to do that as the shots came out rather nice. Next day, we drove out to Mine 12, the farthest you can away from Longyearbyen. The dump truck transporting coal alternated between driving a full load of coal back to the city and being its own snowplow. One quick trip to get coal, one slow and empty trip to plow away snow, rinse, repeat. If not for that, our 4WD would never have made it all the way up to the mine. Neither snow storms in North America nor around the Alps prepared me for what people on Longyearbyen consider normal wind in their backyard. This is where the word wind-swept was invented. The main reason that Svalbard is inhabited at all, other than the Gulf Stream, is coal. We have been told that the coal up there is of extremely high quality and while I can't say much about that, I can say that it's hard as stone. This is nice as it does not smear when you get coal all over yourself. Just shake out your jacket and pants and you are good as new. On our way back, we met two locals who had just prepared the glacier and ice caves for tourists. Had I known that in advance, I would have tried to go with them to take pictures completely away from all artificial light. Oh well, can't have everything. Speaking of not being able to have everything, the outdoor hot tub in our hotel which integrated ice bar and BBQ grill was still under several meters of snow so we couldn't use that, either. Finally, the few divers who are in Longyearbyen didn't have time to take me onto a trip while I was there. As I already missed my opportunity to dive the Arctic circle when the one diver on Gr msey happened to be on the mainland and barely missing it by diving Str tan instead, this was kind of a bummer. On the plus side, this has given me a goal to pursue and achieve. Random notes For the rest of my notes, I will resort to a largely unsorted list of bullet points as there's just too much to talk about in prose. All in all, it was well worth it. PS: If you know anyone working with Google Maps, ask them to consider improving their coverage of the Arctic. This is a real pity. As is the rest of the Arctic and the fact that Google Earth cheats you out of the North and South Pole by stretching adjacent tiles into and over them.