Thursday, 28 March 2002

[site news] Sadly, going away for the next four days means that I won't be able to update this site with an April Fool's Day prank page. So insert your own fun-filled goofery here, and have a happy Easter.

Easter Chook


Double Crossed

[books] I was thinking the other day that it had been a while since I'd read a real landmark of a book, the kind that has shaken me to my core. Well, as they say, be careful what you wish for, because over the past week I just have: Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.

It's hard to describe exactly how this book affected me, but even after finishing it I can't shake the sick feeling I had for the five days I was reading it. For a lover of books, for someone who grew up surrounded by them, who's owned thousands of them, who cannot imagine what sort of person he would be without them, its message is deeply distressing. For someone who's all of those things and also the son of a librarian, it hits even closer to home.

Baker establishes, beyond a shadow of a doubt in my mind, that the long-held belief that the acidic papers used by publishers from the late 19th century onwards would quickly disintegrate to the point where newspapers and books would (so it was claimed) turn to dust on library shelves was an unsubstantiated myth totally unsupported by hard evidence and the test of time. Yet since the 1930s and 1940s this myth has been promoted by influential technophiles in the library world to promote the widespread microfilming of newspapers and, more recently, books. In itself that's relatively unobjectionable (although arguably a misdirection of scarce resources; libraries never have enough money), except that this decades-long push for microfilming has led to the widespread destruction and disposal of originals, to the point that original copies of many major American newspapers of the past one and a half centuries no longer exist anywhere. Since the charge was led by the Library of Congress, which should be the last refuge for originals, the disappearance of many titles in their original form—too, too many titles—has been total.

As a social science researcher, I've had plenty of acquaintance with microfilm. When using it to track down old stories in newspapers and magazines I've always been aware of its inferiority to reading from actual paper: the machines are awkward to use, the microfilming is often erratic, and the aesthetic result is pretty awful. As a cartoonist, I've also noticed how badly colour or even greyscale cartoons turn out on high-contrast black-and-white microfilm. But I'd always thought that this was okay, given that the microfilm was just a back-up copy; the originals would be safely stored somewhere in a national library if anyone needed them. Now I see that I was kidding myself. If the National Library of Australia has followed the lead of the U.S., and every other Australian library has followed the lead of the NLA—and I fear they have (but hope and pray that I'm wrong)—then there are no physical copies of the entire run of the Bulletin anywhere; no physical copies of the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, or any number of lesser papers. And, frankly, that thought appalls me.

But even if, miraculously, Australia hasn't followed America's lead, America has still destroyed its newspaper heritage, throwing the printed record of its greatest years into land-fill. And since America is the leading nation of the English-speaking world, that effects more than just Americans.

Worse, now that most American newspapers are history, and history has lost those newspapers in exchange for crappy microfilm or fiche substitutes that themselves are subject to deterioration over time—worse deterioration, often, than paper of the same age—many American libraries have turned to microfilming books. Books. It's bad enough reading a thousand-word article on microfilm, but an entire book? The intellectual content may still exist (although often in an incomplete form, because mistakes happen in microfilming as in anything), but it's now effectively dead.

Baker gives copious examples of the treasures that have been lost to the public in this way, and the cumulative effect is devastating. The legacy of generations of writers, editors, artists, publishers and printers has been debased, and all because—as Baker convincingly demonstrates—certain zealous administrators have spent millions on microfilming and deacidification rather than on basic conservation techniques (storing books in a cool, dry place and, if they're fragile, in a box) and on extra warehouses to shelve original works on paper.

They often did so with good intentions, of course, and because they were under budgetary pressure and wanted to save on storage costs. A good deal of blame has to rest with politicians, who determine much of the fate of public libraries. But as Baker establishes, certain librarians have to share in that blame: when they should have been lobbying for more boring ol' shelf space and increased staff, they instead lobbied for millions of dollars to be spent on fruitless schemes like deacidification. After all, it's easier to argue for a brand new technological solution than more of the same. Frighteningly, the cycle is starting all over again, with the push to digitize what remains of America's print heritage by cutting up old books and feeding them through a scanner (funnily enough, crappy old microfilm doesn't digitize very well).

As a writer and reader, I'm left feeling that until the tide turns I won't consider the existence of our major national libraries a guarantee of the continued physical existence of anything I publish on paper, or even anything I own on paper. And for the son of a librarian—for someone who has donated runs of rare newspapers to the NLA to fill gaps in their collection (I hope they're still there; I now fear that they're not)—that's a momentous and awful feeling.

If you care about the world's intellectual heritage, you won't regret reading Double Fold. The problems associated with preserving the growing digital corpus are bad enough, but they seem as nothing compared to this. You'll certainly come away with renewed respect for those yellowing paperbacks on your shelf.


[net culture] With the increasing sophistication of the world's favourite search engine, I'm waiting to see Googlebot substituting for Rutger Hauer at the end of Blade Runner:

I've seen sites you people wouldn't believe. Flame wars off the shoulder of the Onion. I watched CNN glitter in the dark near the MetaFilter front page. All those links will be lost in time... like tears in rain.



[people] A world without the Goons, Graham Chapman, Douglas Adams, and now Pete and Dud. Dudley Moore is being remembered today for 10 and Arthur, but I'll remember him more for being half of one of the funniest comic duos of the 1960s. Cook may have been the driving force behind the sketches, but Dud was the musical force behind unforgettable tunes like 'Isn't She a Sweetie', 'Lovely Lady of the Roses' and 'Goodbyee'. It's a continuing annoyance to me that their classic Not Only... But Also albums and later ones like Good Evening aren't available in their entirety on CD. The world deserves a digital audio version of the Frog and Peach sketch.


Wednesday, 27 March 2002

[weblog] John Scalzi just hit my regular-reads list. Not for his I Hate Your Politics column that's doing the rounds—an amusing rant, but hardly a revelation to this world-weary 30-something political scientist (although the follow-up is fun)—but rather for his run of columns on writing online: Professional Life: What Writing an Online Journal is Good For; Influential Writing on the Web; and Scalzi the Blog Killer. It's enough to make a world-weary 30-something who's feeling guilty about not having written his Madagascar travelogue think. See also How to Write Hate Mail and Hate Mail Redux, a call to arms if ever there was; and his first and final Oscar predictions, where he picked 4 out of 6 and then 5 out of 6 in the main categories.


[net culture] An excellent piece on copyright by Jerry Kindall, which gets better as it goes on:

Artists, screenwriters, and directors ... turn their copyrights over to a record company or a movie studio ... because they want the fame that only a major distributor can give them. How badly do they want it? Tautologically: badly enough to sign over all their rights.

Copy-protected CD? Pah ... At some point the signal must be made manifest in the real world, in order for humans to see it, and at that point [it] becomes vulnerable. ... In order to completely defeat the "cracking" of digital content, you basically have to ban computers.

[Later thoughts:] Jerry argues that corporations should continue to be allowed to hold copyrights, so that we don't end up in the same situation that exists with patents, where only individuals can hold them but corporations end up controlling them through exclusive contracts. But I'm not sure that such a model would be so bad when it comes to copyrights. It might get a little unwieldy for works created by teams (but no worse than listing copyright holders on the back of an Avalanches album), but at least the contract is explicit. And, importantly, there would be some end to copyright when the creators of a work all die (or at death plus twenty years, or whatever), at which point the world would get to decide what to do with the work, not the corporation.

It's bizarre that we've reached a point where not owning copyright on a work more than, say, twenty or thirty years old can be portrayed as a fundamental threat to the continuing existence of an entertainment company—or any company, come to that. The passing of a fifty-year-old software manual into the public domain isn't going to break Adobe or Microsoft. But let Steamboat Willie into the public domain and suddenly Disney is doomed—never mind that the thought of the modern Mickey Mouse being usurped by public-domain reproductions of his googly-eyed 1920s counterpart is utterly ridiculous. We have to wait another couple of decades before anyone other than Penguin gets to publish George Orwell (for example) all because Walt and a few long-dead colleagues once made a cute animated talkie. And what's the bet that Disney will come up with another argument to extend copyright in 2017? If their 'ownership' of the copyright on Steamboat Willie was simply a licensing arrangement with its actual creators, there would at least be an end in sight. (None of which need prevent them from seeking protection for Mickey Mouse et al. as trademarks, which would be far more appropriate.)


Tuesday, 26 March 2002

Steam Power = People Power

[madagascar] More from Madagascar:

Truckloads of soldiers loyal to incumbent President Didier Ratsiraka descended on the parliamentary complex before dawn. But church bells soon sounded throughout Antananarivo, sending hundreds of opposition supporters into the streets to confront the soldiers. They used rocks, garbage containers and even an old steam engine to block roads leading to the legislature.


Don't Mention the War

[politics] Somewhere along the line I stopped talking here about the most significant thing to happen in our lifetimes since, well, the last most-significant-thing.* At first it was a conscious decision, as those who were reading last year will remember: after saying all that I could bear to say when it was all too painfully new, I stopped writing altogether.

Those words already seem like a time-capsule from another age, caught up in the dread of that awful moment, but I'm glad I wrote them, and don't feel any particular need to resile from them now. They don't anticipate all of my evolving views of recent events, but those are about as important as any other randomly sampled armchair opinion.

Not that crushing insignificance has stopped me or any other weblogger from writing before. No, to be honest, a full and nuanced discussion of the subject is more than I can afford to write—not because I don't have the time, but because I wouldn't have the time to write anything else. It would turn the site into a warblog, and there are more than enough of those. Besides, now that the number of warblogs has eclipsed the tonnage of high explosives dropped on Kabul, plain ol' blah-blogs are bound to become next season's hot fashion item.

It's hard, though. Every now and then I feel a terrible urge to scream in big all-caps letters surrounded by <blink> tags at the latest example of belligerent arrogant black-and-white jingoistic imperialistic self-righteous nonsense to parade past our collective eyeballs, and have to remind myself that it would be utterly pointless: in their eyes I would be, not a fellow Westerner, not a concerned citizen of the world, not even someone who studied politics for too bloody long, but Not American, and therefore of no consequence.

This is one of the more frustrating aspects of the current online debate. Some of those who in September angrily rejected the notion that any of the world's peoples had any cause to resent American society or foreign policy are now suggesting that any Europeans (or other non-American allies, one assumes) who dare to suggest any form of restraint on America's part should go fuck themselves. This is, presumably, creating no resentment of American society or foreign policy whatsoever. The word in big all-caps letters surrounded by <blink> tags is, as all too often, 'irony'.

So I won't mention the war, or question its escalation; I won't wonder what pressures a Gulf War II would create in Iraq's neighbouring societies, particularly the one that most of the September 11 hijackers came from. No, that might suggest the need for some form of restraint on America's part, and that way lies hermaphrodism.

*It's probably sacrilege to suggest that 9-11 and all that has followed is not the most significant thing to happen in all of our lives ever, and indeed in all of recorded history up to that point and projecting forwards until the colonisation of Pluto, but I'm in a sacrilegious mood. Apollo 11, Cambodia's Year Zero, Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Rwandan massacres: all of them matched 9-11 in the scope of their horror or grandeur, although not all of them were concentrated into one unforgettable day.


Monday, 25 March 2002

Glasgow, City of Taste

[journal] Went to Glasgow on the weekend to soak up culture, like a deep-fried Mars Bar soaking up oil. Saw some amazing photographs of the Islamic world by Peter Sanders, some entertaining sculpture and collage by David Mach, and some good stand-up by Miles Jupp and Colin Murphy at the Stand. I had vague plans to write a longer review of them, but they stayed vague. In lieu of same, this observation: if you ever want a truly bizarre sandwich experience, head to the Stand for a toasted cheese and hummus ciabatta—the multicultural toastie, from the city that brought you battered pizza.

Further observations on the sorry state of the world (most recently evinced by A Beautiful Mind winning best picture) will be forthcoming as soon as I can get that cheddary chickpea taste out of my mouth.


Thursday, 21 March 2002


[code] Okay, here's one that was annoying the hell out of me. See the faint blue border around the links in these main entries? See how they don't appear in the menu box to the right, or around the links at the bottom of the page? Well, until today they did appear around those links in Opera 5 for Mac (and I assume PC). I got rid of them in IE and Netscape by assigning those particular hrefs a class called 'menu' and setting it to border-width:0 in my style sheet, but it didn't work in Opera. Here's how the relevant part of the style-sheet looked:

a:link, a:visited { border: 1px solid #ccffff; }, { border-width: 0; }

I revisited the problem today, and although I came up with a working solution using contextual selectors like ".menu a:link { border-width: 0; }", it would have involved changing the HTML of all my pages to move the classes off the hrefs and into other elements (p, div, span), which I'd rather not do. Anyway, how come assigning class="menu" wasn't working on the hrefs? Surely they were elements too?

Nope. They were pseudo-elements, at least when I was setting the styles: 'a' is an element, 'a:visited' is a pseudo-element, an element changed by the browser when certain conditions apply (in this case when a link has been visited).

The CSS-1 spec says that a browser "is not required to reformat a currently displayed document due to anchor pseudo-class transitions"—in other words, although it may choose to apply my a:hover styles for class="menu", it doesn't have to. I suspected that this was the source of the problem, since Opera is a stickler for doing what the spec requires and no more.

But since I wanted the border to apply to any anchor pseudo-elements of class="menu", what if I just set styles for the whole element?

a:link, a:visited { border: 1px solid #ccffff; } { border-width: 0; }

Worked fine in IE and Netscape, but Opera now put a two pixel border around links of class="menu", which wasn't what I wanted at all. I made one last try:

a:link, a:visited { border: 1px solid #ccffff; } { border-style: none; }

and tadahhh, it worked.


[infotech] Allow me a moment of geek awe: a fully functional virtual keyboard that can be projected and touched on any surface [via].


Wednesday, 20 March 2002

[weblog] New zine Microcontent News sets out to cover "weblogs, Webzines, email digests, and the entire personal publishing sector" and trump the YAWNs ("Yet Another Weblog Newsarticle").


Tuesday, 19 March 2002

Global Warming Critic Has "Seen It All Before"

[whatever] NEW YORK, Tues.: The disintegration of an Antarctic ice shelf proves nothing, a global warming doubter has claimed. "Ice melts all the time," said leading oil industry spokesman Kent Brockelgruber. "Just last week I saw a big-ass icicle fall off my roof. It's almost spring; these things happen." He went on to point out that it has just been summer in Antarctica, so "what should we expect?": "The surprise is that it hasn't happened sooner. I mean, Jesus, the sun's still shining at midnight down there."

Brockelgruber brushed aside fears about the size of the shelf in question—half a trillion tons—and the rapidity of its collapse. "Half a trillion, half a shmillion. It's just ice, fer Chrissakes. It's not like we're talking dollars here."

"All you whiny bastards keep looking on the bad side. The good side is, that's half a trillion tons of fresh water that's now available to the world. Sure, it's all gone straight into the ocean, but if we can get a bucket the size of Portugal underneath the next one, we could turn the Sahara into Seaworld."

Noting that he had "never liked penguins and all their shifty waddling", Brocklegruber added that if anyone really wanted to see ice, "there's a perfectly good Ice Age being simulated in a theater near you."


[books] Just finished James Gleick's Faster after a few weeks of neglect, and found that its closing chapters have echoes of the things I was saying yesterday, though from a different angle—that of our increasing rush to know and do more and more. It's a good read; probably even required reading for anyone looking at this page, assuming that someone who barely uses the web won't have stumbled into this out-of-the-way corner of it.


Webs of Memory Episode II: Attack of the Clones

[net culture] As happens all too often, in my rush to get down the essence of a thought I've skipped over a few points that deserved further elucidation; Bill picked up some of them in his comment on that post below. So here are some more, probably also rushed.

First, I should note that I have nothing against trivia quizzes—witness my fleeting obsession with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in SF in 2000, which wasn't all down to Regis's endearing way with a raised eyebrow. Nor was I trying to suggest that a comprehensive knowledge of trivia equates to intelligence. 'Trivia' is actually a misleading label for what I was trying to discuss, because it suggests, well, triviality.

I suppose I was questioning an already out-of-date model of education as pouring facts into students' heads like water into a bucket. Some disciplines have always had more of that than others; if a surgeon is going to be slicing you open, you want to be damn sure that she knows where to stick the knife. But in so many areas of human endeavour, the hope that any one person can grasp all of the essentials of their field has been dashed by the ever-expanding boundaries of knowledge; hence the increasing specialisation of higher education (across the system as a whole, and as one proceeds up the degree ladder).

It's true that education isn't just about learning how to learn: the key phrase I should have expanded on was 'how to judge the relative merits of what you find'; in other words, how to think critically. It's hard to do that if you have no knowledge of the facts and the broader landscape of knowledge in your field, but specific knowledge of particular facts isn't always essential, especially now that they can be so easily (trivially?) researched on the spot.

We're now at a point—and have been for many years, I suppose—where two supposed experts in the same discipline can have almost no interests in common; they need not have read the same books or learnt the same facts to qualify as experts. Yet we can recognise both of them as experts, because we recognise that it isn't every individual fact that matters but the way that people interpret and use the whole range of facts at their disposal. And exactly what is 'at their disposal' is currently undergoing rapid expansion.

Think of all the intelligent writing we can find in the world: so much of it about things that we readers have no knowledge of at all, yet we can tell intelligent writing from unintelligent, educated from uneducated, and recognise a good argument when we see one. Different ingredients can lead to similarly satisfying recipes at the hands of good cooks.

We certainly still need 'people who know stuff', but I don't see the expansion of access to facts as a threat to that: rather, it extends our mental reach. Just as computers allow us to search for patterns in stock markets, weather systems, or star systems, by sifting through vast amounts of data that once would have required careful human attention, so this personal access to a vastly increased library of information can free all of us to look at a bigger picture than we have been.

Perhaps. Or perhaps we'll just go eat a taco.

And with that, I reel in my kite.


Monday, 18 March 2002

[madagascar] Most of the English-language reporting on Madagascar's constitutional crisis has come from the BBC, which yesterday carried a background piece on Malagasy culture. There's a lot more happening in the French-speaking press (for example at madonline, which does actually carry some English translations), and I'm once again annoyed that my French barely extends beyond asking the price of a hotel room.


Sunday, 17 March 2002

Webs of Memory

[net culture] Watching A Beautiful Mind with its oblique references to 'Professor Einstein' reminded me of Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study, and the fact that I once read a whole book about it (Ed Regis's Who Got Einstein's Office?). I then realised, with some horror, that I can remember hardly anything about that book: not even the answer to its title question. Nor can I remember much of James Gleick's Chaos, Steven Levy's Hackers, and countless other non-fiction tomes consumed like popcorn throughout my twenties—not to mention all of the novels whose plots and characters I now couldn't begin to describe. What on earth happened to all of that information? All those moments lost in time, like tears in brain.

This should worry me, but it intersects with another recent thought, inspired by Bill's recent Friday quizzes. Before each question Bill has exhorted us to refrain from using Google to cheat outrageously, which prompted me to comment that 'Google is to trivia as pocket calculators are to arithmetic'.

And it's true. I'm just old enough to remember pre-calculator arithmetic and high school exams where calculators were forbidden, but nowadays what's the point of either? Calculators are cheap and ubiquitous, and save us the tedium of long-dividing 126 into 845702, a skill I last used in 1993, and only because I was travelling without a calculator. I do take perverse pleasure in occasionally polishing the rust off my arithmetical skills, but I'd freely admit that for the vast majority of us they're now redundant.

And now we have the web and its powerful search engines, which in time will make the memorisation of facts and figures as redundant as mental arithmetic. The obsolescence of the trivia quiz is exposed by its need for artificial constraints: no Google; no using the thing you would most obviously use if this was a real question. It's still a fun game, but that's all it is.

So if education won't be about memorising facts and figures, what will it be about? The answer is what those of us who've spent way too many years in school and university have long known: education is about learning how to learn. In the context of the web, it's about learning how to find facts and figures using Google and the like, and how to judge the relative merits of what you find when there's so much information out there.

This is, when you think about it, just a new twist on an old story. The only facts and figures we really remember from our student days are the ones that were hammered in so hard they stuck, and they're not necessarily that important to us in later life. The rest form a sea of information that we've learnt how to navigate: what we remember is not the sea, but the charts; and half the time we're the ones doing the mapping. I can't remember who got Einstein's office—but I can remember where to find out.

So now we surf a digital sea, and we're still creating mental maps for it. And because this sea is vast, bigger than the Library of Congress, we find that even our maps are growing too big: the gigabyte archive, the 400k bookmarks file, the thousand item history cache that barely goes back a week. So we create maps of maps; and, if our online presence has a public face as well as a private one, we share them with others. Now there are so many of us doing it, we need maps of maps of maps.

Weblogs a fad? Ha.


Two Tales of Madness

[film] Saw a couple of movies last week. First up, The Royal Tenenbaums: a film the word 'amusing' was made for, because it's rarely laugh-out-loud funny. A strong cast assume the mantle of weirdness and drift through a fairly slight storyline; not much happens, but it's fun to inhabit their fractured world for a while.

The role of Royal, prodigal patriarch of the Tenenbaum clan, was written for Gene Hackman, and it shows: he's obviously having a lot of fun with it. It reminded me of something my own patriarch said years ago: that he'd never seen Gene Hackman turn in a bad performance. And it's true; the man is as close to a seal of approval as any movie is likely to get.

Ben Stiller, who's developing quite the seal-of-approval reputation himself, has a smaller role here than screen siblings Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson, who both turn in beautiful performances. But the one who steals the show for me is Owen Wilson (perhaps because he also co-wrote the script), in a parallel-universe version of his Hansel character from Zoolander. The sight of a doped-up Wilson sprawled under two paintings of insane shirtless bikers in voodoo masks was certainly the funniest I'd seen for a while.

Second on the list was the story of schizophrenic genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, a celluloid combine harvester designed to reap fields of small golden statuettes of men with swords. Every element of a Best Picture is there: the struggle against adversity, the picturesque settings and momentous historical backdrop, actorly acting from a previous Best Actor winner, the personal rise and fall and rise again, the uplifting finale. So much so that you can't help feeling manipulated.

Its middle act is undoubtedly compelling: diseases of the mind always are, and 1950s treatments for them were pretty gut-wrenching. At this point, when Nash's reality is dissolving around him, the movie captures something of the phildickian worldview, which is no small feat.

It's the last few scenes, with forty years of what one assumes was a slow and painful struggle against personal demons compressed into a few minutes, that left me dissatisfied. How did Nash get from there—the rockiest of rock-bottoms—to here—the 1994 Nobel awards ceremony? Director Ron Howard doesn't really show us; Nash just 'gets better', or better enough to function in the cloistered world of an ivy league campus, and somehow the Nobel makes everything all right.

This movie about delusion is, in many ways, a delusional fantasy of academic life itself. Socially dysfunctional genius attends Princeton, skips lectures, wanders around in deep thought, glimpses deep inner structure of universe, hands in no work until his last paradigm-shattering paper, lands important government job influencing the fate of the nation, meets beautiful girl, almost loses everything but hangs in there, becomes campus eccentric at alma mater, wanders around in deep thought and again does no work, ages rapidly, scores free pens and Nobel prize. Ninety nine percent of academics have nothing like that life, but most would identify with some of it; everyone fancies him- or herself as a misunderstood genius.

I didn't dislike A Beautiful Mind, but disliked feeling that I was being made to like it; and, worse, knowing that this ultimately routine bio-flick is odds-on to win Best Picture at the Oscars, because the Academy will never bring itself to honour a towering achievement in an admittedly geeky genre, or even a beautifully bizarre deconstruction of Hollywood itself.

I know it shouldn't matter, but somehow it does, year after year; just as world-record holders don't always take home the Olympic gold, the Oscars all too often go to the wrong directors, the wrong actors, the wrong movies. The difficult movies, the movies that wander around from screen to small screen meeting general box office derision, the movies that glimpse the deep inner structure of the universe, don't end up on stage at awards ceremonies.


Friday, 15 March 2002

Into the Quagmire

[code] I knew this would happen: dip my toe into the murky waters of rigorous CSS testing, and get sucked into the quagmire. Some of the problems in James's blog design weren't quite what I thought, but others persist... and I've spent so long bashing away at these test pages that I may as well make them public.


Thursday, 14 March 2002

By Jupiter!

[weblog] My vague sense of emptiness at the lack of regular japeries from old friend James is finally dispelled by his triumphant return to blogging at Gas Giant. And what better way to make a grand entrance than wearing dra... um, Roman gear. And make-up. Caesar meets the Cure. I came, I saw, I was lost in a forest.

Observant readers will notice that James is grappling with the myriad joys of CSS, with a little help from yours truly—namely, in discovering that for some reason the <p> tags after the first one inside the middle div were inheriting the 'left:40px' and adding it to the left:40px of the div itself, causing no end of mess—but only in IE5 for Mac, not Netscape 6 or Opera (the fix was to use 'margin-left:40px' instead, which works in all three). And, secondly, in working out that Netscape 6 and Opera both add padding to the width of a div when calculating where to put a border and any divs positioned to the right, whereas IE5Mac includes it in the width of the div. But you probably already knew that, ha ha, if you're One of the Damned. The fix for that is to include an appropriately wide image—like James's line of dots between blog entries—to push the border out to the same place in IE as it is in NS and Opera (do I hear transparent gifs raising their ugly invisible heads?). Neither of us has had a chance to check whether any of this works in a PC, though.

But now he's dabbled in fixed positioning, and it's all gone pear-shaped (or should that be <div style="shape:pear;">). Tssh.

Anyway, to separate oneself from the presentation for a moment, it's the content that matters. Welcome back, James.


[madagascar] Four dead in Madagascar as armed youths backing Ratsiraka "swarmed through the town of Toamasina and spread terror among the inhabitants". Pro-Ratsiraka youths have also set up barricades to block petrol trucks, drying up supplies to Tana's one million inhabitants.


[code] Must have been staring at old code for too long this week. I just saw a banner ad for Tomb Raider and thought it said 'Lara Cruft'.


Wednesday, 13 March 2002

Too Much Information

[net culture] Sometimes I don't post here because there's nothing much to say; sometimes because there's too much else happening in my life. Lately, it's because I have too much to say, but none of it's mine.

The web is a wonderful place, but it can feel overwhelming: a thousand voices and issues and images competing for attention in any one day, and me with only one mind to think about them. And in thinking along the lines others have drawn, I end up losing track of my own. It's no problem when I've just been doodling for a while, but if I'm sketching ideas of my own the web can end up scribbling all over them.

I've been trying to get myself back into the quiet mental space I inhabit when writing—writing a lot, that is, not just a paragraph or two—and it's proving difficult; the web keeps dragging me back out. "Don't think about that," goes its siren song, "think about this"—and the urgent tone is all too persuasive. So I think about whatever the issue of the day is, and put the issues of the week, the month, the lifetime, to one side for just another day. And feel guilty about it.

Not that I don't think it's important to keep up with the news, or with what friends and peers are saying about it; of course it is. But the web has made the conversation vast, ever-changing, endless: everyone in the room is talking at once, and they're all talking at me. (Or at you; just as I am, right now. "Think about this.")

Other media aren't quite like that. Television, newspapers and radio also talk 'at' us incessantly and insistently, but they don't expect a reply, or give the appearance of such expectation ("What do you think? Post here! Leave a comment! 76 other people already have, and this thread will disappear off the front page tomorrow—don't miss the boat!"). We can safely read the opinions of newspaper columnists without engaging with them; not writing to the letters page doesn't make us a 'lurker'. But lurking on a bulletin board or community blog, or even a personal blog with a comments system, can feel like standing at the side of the room at a party. To be part of the crowd you have to start dancing.

That wouldn't be a problem if the dance wasn't so infectious. Whatever your intellectual groove, there's somewhere on the web playing your tune—again and again and again. Think, think, dance, dance, until your head hurts. It's the dance of St Vitus.

And to what effect? Half the time there's no point in adding your comments to the conversation, because someone else has already made them, or else they seem too obvious; they'll be 'me too' comments, 'here I am' comments, a cry for attention, a call for validation—and even though that's what part of us wants, if only to feel that we're part of the crowd, it's desperately uncool to admit it. So you spend your time thinking along the same lines as everyone else, but can't capitalise on those thoughts: if you post them in the thread or even in your personal blog, you're following the herd. So you post them anyway, and in attempting to 'blend in', you... blend in. Or you keep them to yourself in an attempt to 'stand out', and stand... out.

There's only one way out of this as far as I can see. Read more selectively, and think beyond what you read; but if your thoughts do reflect those of other people, write about them regardless, in your own way. Report your thoughts to the web as you would to another country, whether it's near or far, whether it knows your history (or thinks it does) or not. Be like Alistair Cooke with his Letters from America. Who among his listeners wouldn't feel that they know a lot about America already? Yet week after week, for fifty years, he's told us something new about the place.

(Do I think all of that? Yes, I think I do. Hey: in writing about how I'm losing track of my thoughts on the web, I've ended up finding them again.)

So, welcome back to Letters from Speedysnail. I've spent a bit too long on the beaches of Thailand, but now that I'm home I'll try not to be such a stranger.


Tuesday, 12 March 2002

[madagascar] Madagascar's army swings behind Ravalomanana as Ratsiraka relocates to the port city of Tamatave:

The continuing constitutional crisis in Madagascar poses a difficult question for the international community. Is the Indian Ocean island nation in the process of a "popular power" democratic revolution, or is a power seeker with wide popular support staging a peaceful but illegal coup?

More context in this interview with a former Malagasy television journalist. The struggle for power is by no means over: most goods bound for Tana and the rest of the country enter through Tamatave, so control of the port gives Ratsiraka considerable leverage. (Sorry if this doesn't mean much to you, but as about the only weblogger in the English-speaking world with the faintest interest in all of this, I'm determined to keep plugging away at it.)


Sunday, 10 March 2002

Situational Irony

[minutiae] Saw for sale in a department store yesterday an oversized purple porcelain turtle with googly cartoon eyes; the kind of monstrosity it's heartbreaking to imagine as a future family heirloom. ("This was Grandma's favourite googly-eyed turtle, a fine example of the Hideous school of early 21st century art. Apparently there are only 132,000 left in existence!")

And across the aisle in the very same store, the book of the BBC TV series 'The Life Laundry': How to De-Junk Your Life.


The New London

[travel] Views of the changing capital, March 2002 (click images to see more).

Leadenhall Market The Other London Eye The City Walking Over the Millennium Bridge Canary Wharf Sculpture The Millennium Bridge The Great Court of the British Museum Great Court Roof



Friday, 8 March 2002

Jumped in the River, What Did I See?

[music] A postcript to that brief entry about Last Plane to Jakarta. I've now read John Darnielle's entire deconstruction of Amnesiac, and it's completely changed my attitude towards the album. On initial listens I thought it was good enough, but not as good as Kid A. Then I had something of a conversion while driving south along the Hume Highway just before leaving Australia, listening to the two in sequence: nothing but darkness, white lines on the road, and the red lights of the car ahead all the way through Kid A; then halfway through Amnesiac the glow of Melbourne approaching, with the album finishing as I plunged into its outer streets. Suddenly, the music made much more sense.

But I put Amnesiac to one side, as you do when there are so many competing demands for attention, and left it mentally filed somewhere below their last three albums. It took Darnielle's lengthy analysis to prompt me to listen to it again, properly. Our improved sound system lifted the music to a new level, but it was his framing that made the real difference. It was like a whole new album: and, yes, a landmark, every bit the equal of Kid A or The Bends.

It's a fine critic indeed who can transform a work by his criticism. It's the unspoken aim of any critic: not just to commend or condemn a work, but to explain it, to get inside the head of its creator—and into the head of the reader, to connect one to the other.

A tall order, and how often do we see it achieved in the press? Hardly ever, really; a few days' acquaintance with a complex work of art isn't enough to reveal its full range of meanings, but no newspaper or magazine is going to hold over their Amnesiac review for six months to let its implications sink in.

Which may be why some of the best writing about music in years wasn't in Q or Juice, but here on the Web.


Thursday, 7 March 2002

[weblog] Don't read weblogs any more? Too many good ones to follow? With the aid of this miraculous bookmarklet which follows a random link from the page currently loaded in your browser, your blog-reading experience will dramatically improve. Add to your toolbar, then use on any handy blog-portal page and watch the seconds fly by. Brighter! Whiter! Now with extra cheese.


[people] "There is very little of his work that is easy, conventional or blandly acceptable. It's all so Spiky."—Michael Palin on Spike Milligan.


In Full Bloom

[art] One of my favourite things in London last weekend was an exhibition at the British Museum of Richard Hamilton's series of prints and drawings based on James Joyce's Ulysses. I loved the prints themselves—particularly In Horne's House and The Heaventree of Stars—but just as much the thought of Hamilton working on them over a lifetime, for fifty years or more. The only comparable artistic endeavours that come to mind are in the realm of fantasy illustration. That sense of finding the world in a single book, of drawing continuous inspiration from it, is almost enough—perhaps it is enough—to prompt me to finally read Ulysses.

In 1948, Hamilton took a sample to an editor at Faber and Faber, who said, as Hamilton recalls:

no publisher would be remotely interested in the work of an unknown student. I was a bit cast down. I kept going, but I never really showed it to another publisher.

More fool T.S. Eliot (the editor in question), and lucky for us that Hamilton kept going. You can see some of the results here, but if you get the chance go and see them hanging on the wall where they belong.


Wednesday, 6 March 2002

[music] Last Plane to Jakarta is an impressive music crit site, particularly for its song-by-song take on Radiohead's Amnesiac. Fine writing, fine presentation.


Tuesday, 5 March 2002


[travel] After years of wandering the world I'm increasingly conscious of the need to qualify statements about where you've been with when you've been there, because this rapidchangingworld remakes itself behind your back right after you look away. So: London[1985-86], London[1991-92], London[1998], London[2000], and now London[2002].

This time I was able to walk over the Millennium Bridge, and, even better, to see the Great Court of the British Museum, which was still unfinished in 1998 and 2000. It's one of the most beautiful and tasteful expansions of a major public building I've had the pleasure to see; it makes the whole museum feel spacious in a way it used not to, and encourages the ever-increasing crowds to start their explorations at every point of the collection, not just at the Elgin marbles. I've been impressed with alterations to much-loved London landmarks before, but this really is something.

I'm finding that my sense of London is shifting; partly from staying in different areas over the years, from Bayswater B&Bs to places south, west and east, but also from exploring new areas and stumbling across 'new' things: Leadenhall Market; the Monument; dozens of outlandish and untouristed buildings in the City, Holborn and the Docklands. Every time I come back there's something new (old/new). It's an endlessly fascinating place.

As long as you don't travel everywhere by tube. Walking along its crowded tiled corridors gets old pretty quickly; almost as old as the tiled corridors themselves. Refurbishing the Great Court is impressive, but I'll be really impressed when they refurbish the Northern Line. Provided I make it to London[2063].


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