Archive for the 'art and culture' Category

Shake your Brucie!

Once in a generation, there is a perfect combination of circumstances that leads to the creation of something truly extraordinary. Today is that day – the flawless union of programming, content, beauty and functionality.

This week at the Future of Web Apps conference, the Stella McCartney of geek crochet, Ruth John, gifted me with a hand-made, individually-designed crocheted mankini. A photo of me wearing it is available on my fashion blog What’s Bruce Wearing Today (caution advised).

At the same conference, Syd Lawrence demonstrated his accelerometer-driven app Shake Her Booty which allows you to control J Lo’s bottom (“booty”) by shaking your phone.

Claudia Snell asked “when can we expect the @brucel version?” so Syd mashed up some video he’d made of me dancing in the mankini at the FOWA after-party, and today has released Shake Your Brucie.

Just tap my booty to begin.

Enjoy.

My Krispy Kreme playlist: ten musical guilty pleasures

Like everyone else on the Web, I’m a musical snob. I’d far rather listen to arty difficult stuff like Can and My Bloody Valentine than Abba. But I’m also a musician so have a love and admiration for great catchy melodies and brilliant production. Here are top ten guilty pleasures – the Krispy Kreme Playlist – of songs that I genuinely love, not through wanky PoMo irony, but because they’re great.

Gita Gutawa – Bukan Permainan

This song obsessed me when I was doing a University lecture tour of Indonesia and heard it in a taxi. The helium voice, perfect production, harmonies and vocal line took residency in my brain within 4.3 nanoseconds of her starting singing. I attracted quite a crowd in a Jakarta shopping mall attempting to sing it to astonished music shop counter staff. They finally handed me – a middle-aged white man – a CD of a girl in a big pink wedding-cake dress who looked about ten years old. They must have thought I was Gary Glitter’s brother.

Wham – Young Guns (Go For It)

Sexist, crass and great.

Sugababes – About You Now

YouTube is full of videos of angsty teenage girls strumming moody acoustic covers of this in their bedrooms, but the mechanical drums and bounciness of the original makes it flawless in every possible way.

Oasis – The Hindu Times

Oasis are, of course, preposterous cockheads who steal their tunes, grunt their meaningless lyrics and walk like incontinent chimps. But this has a great moron riff and splendid changeover from chorus back to verse, thumping drums and a wall of sound. I bet even Blur like this.

Natalie Imbruglia – Torn

Perfect. Some splendid bass guitar wiggling around under Natalie. Lucky bass guitar.

Betty Boo – Doin’ The Do

Sassy girl singer, great bass, great video and great dance music. It was a hard decision whether to include this, or Dee Lite’s Groove is in the Heart, but she won because (a) she’s British and (b) I am genuinely in love with her and want to bear her children.

U2 – Where The Streets Have No Name

Undeniably, Bono’s a nob. Indubitably, U2 are flatulent stadium rock. But this is great and you won’t convince me otherwise with sophistry, even if you’re Lou Reed himself.

ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) – Midnight Blue

A lovely tune, so over-produced that it’s in grave danger of collapsing under its own ludicrousness like an orchid wearing loads of rapper bling and Argos sovereign rings.

Dexys Midnight Runners – Come On Eileen

The warbly vocals. The slow down and speed up again bit. Excellent.

Hanson – MMMBop

Anyone who doesn’t love this has cloth ears and no humour or soul. And that’s proven by science.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Murder On The Dance Floor

Oops – a number 11 in a list of 10. But this is too good not to listen to.

Here’s the Spotify playlist.

On sex education for 7 year olds in UK schools

The BBC reports that Sex education should start at seven, Lib Dems say.

Of course 7 year old kids should get sex education at school; puberty is from 8 years old for girls, 9 for boys.

The whole point of education is to prepare kids for life, so you have to tell them about stuff first (hint: that’s what “prepare” means.)

Sex education results in fewer sexually transmitted diseases and fewer unwanted pregnancies. This is not only good for the people involved, but is better for the whole nation – which makes it excellent public policy.

However, “parents will retain the right to pull children under 15 out of sex education lessons” according to the Daily Mail. Why? Do we let them take kids out of Maths or Geography classes?

There should be no opt-out from parents trying to foist their religion or sexual hangups onto their children. Education > indoctrination.

The fruitful lady of dawn

I really enjoy Brian Patten’s love poetry; he writes of joy and sadness and how the two can mingle, while never using words that you wouldn’t hear in an everyday conversation. He’s the only living poet whose works I regularly raid for my song lyrics. So when my battered old copy of his Love Poems fell apart, I invested in a shiny copy of his new Collected Love Poems.

Curiously, in a volume called “Collected Poems”, one of them is missing. It was in “Love Poems”, substantially revised from a previously published version, and revised for the better. But I can only assume Patten was still dissatisfied and so dropped it.

Because I’m talking online to some people about his poems (and who have bought his newest book on my recommendation), I’m copying the poem here so they have the text. Brian – if you want me to remove it, I will. But I think you’re mistaken; it’s a lovely piece. (And, sorry, but I stole the blue dress image for an unrecorded song called “The girl in the room”.)

The fruitful lady of dawn

She walks across the room and opens the skylight
thinking: “perhaps a bird will drop in
and teach me how to sing.”

She cannot speak easily of what she feels
nor can she fathom out
whose dawn her heart belongs in.

Among the men she knows
she knows few
who understand her freedom.

Baffled by her love and by
how she withdraws her love,
she remains an enigma,

and under the skylight
puts on her red dress calling it a blue one.
She approaches breakfast as she would a lover -

She is alive,
and one of her body’s commonest needs
I have made holy.

“åpp større” and the Finnish Inquisition

A number of readers cast doubt on yesterday’s throwaway aside that in Finnish, “åpp større” means “fellate a demon”.

It’s true that in modern Finnish it doesn’t. That’s because it’s wrapped up in a dark era of Finland’s past, a past which modern Finns prefer to forget.

“Åpp større” means “fellate a demon” in the Middle Late High Hämeenlinna dialect. Hämeenlinna is a small city of 68,000 people, but in the fifteenth century it was a hotbed of Catholic religious fervour, centered around the monastery of Häme Castle. In 1498, the Finnish Inquisition began (unexpectedly), and most of the Inquisitors were recruited from Hämeenlinna.

Suspects were tortured until they confessed to carnal relations with minions of Satan – åpp større – and then punished by being weighed down with stones and thrown into a fjord to sink the accused to Hell, known as “Hell-sink”.

Although much of this is forgotten or suppressed in modern-day Finland and most Finns will strenuously deny it, some linguistic clues remain. The modern-day Scandinavian surname “Helsing” indicates a descendant of the Hämeenlinna inquisitors – indicating someone who sent people “sinking to Hell”. The city that was nearest to the fjord where executions took place became known as “rapids where they sink to Hell” – or, nowadays, “Helsingfors”: Helsinki.

You can’t argue with history.

Thoughts on monetising user data

Aral Balkan asked me to “cut to the chase, Bruce: do you find anything wrong with the business models of Facebook & Google (monetising data)?”

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, but it needs more than 140 characters, so here goes. Note that these are my personal opinions. I work for Opera, which has business relationships with Google, Facebook, and its own advertising arm of the business.

But I also use Google and Facebook services privately so have my own views as a user; again, these are my opinions, not those of my employers.

I work on the web, but at home on my own, so I use Facebook and Twitter a lot. Not only is it useful for discussing work, but it’s my “watercooler”. I don’t mind that the personal stuff I write is publicly available, although I keep my location secret and no longer put the names of my kids online. (Facebook stuff isn’t public. I only really use it as it’s where non-geek real-life friends are.)

I don’t much mind that Google tracks my searching habits around the Web (although I would pay money not to have to watch Treehouse Woman again on YouTube, because she’s too shinyhappy, and puts her coffee down on a wooden surface without using a coaster).

The annoyance I find is offset by the fact that I understand why they do this; it’s how they make money to support the services I use for free, which are primarily Search, Gmail and YouTube. (I get no benefit from Google+.)

In short – I understand that “I am the product being sold”, and am OK with that. Similarly, I’m fine with getting tailored money-off vouchers for products that I use, sent to me by supermarkets who know what I use because they monitor it. I opt in, because I see value in that. You may not; that’s fine.

As long as the companys’ privacy settings are both clear, and honoured by the company, I don’t see this data gathering and data mining as inherently intrusive. I’m not sure that all companies privacy settings are sufficiently clear, however; I read a case study some years ago in which a good-sized sample of people were asked what privacy settings they had on their social networking, and it was compared with the actual setting – very few matched. The Facebook Android app permissions are certainly opaque.

Perhaps companies that do monetize data could make their privacy settings more transparent, and be even more obvious that the price of free is your data. But I think the latter is pretty obvious to those who give it a little thought; we can’t always handhold stupid people. There should certainly be a simple method to delete all one’s data and history from public view, and which will be removed from the company’s server/ archive within a defined period of time.

What annoys me most is when people or organisations use my data without my permission. For example, a few years ago, my wife had a minor car accident. Somewhere in the chain of insurance company, loss adjusters and repairs garage, our phone number was given to an unauthorised third party and occasionally I receive a phone call from a call centre trying to sell me “no win, no fee” ambulance-chasing legal services.

But beyond annoyance, what alarms me is secretive State intrusion into my life through my digital tracks. I assume that all companies – whether a supermarket loyalty scheme or a social network – regularly comply with warrants from law-enforcement agencies going about their legitimate work.

Let’s assume that the social networks and search engines, as they claim, don’t just hand over all their data to the governmental snoops. It then seems to me that, unless they’ve been fantastically lax with their security – which is certainly possible, but unlikely, given that it’s their core cash-generating asset – they can’t be blamed for the actions of the government.

We know from Edward Snowden that some companies’ data is just wholesale hacked by NSA, GCHQ and other state bodies. The legality of this is being debated in courts at the moment. The morality of this is clear (to me): it’s wrong. “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear” is the refrain of the KGB, the Gestapo and every despot across the globe.

Government intrusion isn’t new. When I was a teenager, I joined a communist party. My letters from them were always opened (and no others). Presumably, this was done actually by the UK Post Office on police orders – that is, complete collusion, even thought there was no warrant or reason to fear an idealistic but naive 17 year old. It’s also long been rumoured that the voting slips of all UK communist voters were cross-referenced against their counterfoils and the names of communist voters given to Special Branch and MI5.

In short, to answer Aral’s question: I don’t feel that commercial organisations using data that I’ve opted to provide them, for the purposes they said they’ll use if for, is wrong. It’s part of modern capitalism, which contains plenty I have to hold my nose about, but that’s a much longer blog post which I can’t be bothered to write.

The worrisome aspect is states illegally stealing our data from those companies, and putting us under constant surveillance, justified by keeping us safe from this year’s bogeymen.

But those same social networks and web companies allow us to share information on what they’re doing and organise in order to protest against it. The tension between individual liberty (I believe privacy is an integral part of liberty) and state control is not new. The threat may be greater because of technology, but the platform to fight it from is greater, too.

David Tennant’s Richard II (RSC)

We went to see David Tennant as Richard II in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s eponymous production last night. As a production it was all you’d want from RSC – great actors, impeccably staged. But I can’t get over the feeling that actually, it’s just not a very good play (or it simply hasn’t aged well).

It’s a reasonably early Shakespeare play, almost all in iambic pentameter with very little prose, and a great deal of rhyming couplets (later plays close scenes with a rhyme, but don’t use it throughout). This made a lot of it sound like a Hallmark greeting card poem as the rhyme and rhythm are quite regular.

There’s also a howling clunker of plot, in which one character simply forgets to tell another of the death of the previous King’s widow:

[Servant:] My Lord, I had forgot
To tell your Lordship, to day I came by, and call’d there,
But I shall grieve you to report the rest
[York:] What is’t knave?
[Servant:] An hour before I came, the Duchess died.

I almost laughed out loud at this.

Another problem is that Richard II is a thoroughly unlikeable character. Perhaps it’s a failure of Tennant’s acting or Greg Doran’s direction (but I doubt it; they’re both highly professional) but Richard simply has no redeeming features, so you I didn’t care what happens to him. He’s vain, messianic and treats his nobles badly. He deserves to lose the throne. At least with Richard III, you enjoy his evilness; Richard II just seems rather wet.

On Goethe and “sobbenbunker”

Leaving Germany earlier today, I tweeted a farewell, politely using the native language of those I was farewelling “Ladies of Germany, auf wiedersehen. But don’t cry in your sobbenbunkers: I shall be back to schaden your freudes and zeit your geists asap”.

Two German speakers asked me what “sobbenbunker” means, which surprised me. It simply refers to a room for crying in. German culture invented the word “angst” because Germans spend at least 15% of their day crying over existential worries about the futility of it all. Given that most homes have a dedicated room for the toilet – an activity which normally consumes much less than 15% of the day – it’s unsurprising that middle class Germans had a dedicated room for weeping and sobbing. (Now they get it all out at football matches.)

The “sobbenbunker” was the subject of one of the big song and dance numbers that German poet Goethe wrote in his early draft of “Faust: the musical”. In the song, Mrs Faust learns of her husband’s pact with the devil, and goes off for some angst in the sobbenbunker. Faust sings “My pact with satan is a clunker/ mein Frau ist in der sobbenbunker./ My heart recoils at words she’s spoken: / for me, her fotze is verboten.”

However, Goethe removed the song before publication. Although at heart, he was a light entertainer, he was constantly stung by criticism from serious High German artists that he was dumbing-down the culture. Beethoven and Brecht were particularly scathing, deliberately re-naming him “Goatse” in interviews to show their disdain. In an attempt to rid himself of his low-brow image, he took all the songs out of “Faust: the musical”, and reinvented it as a rather dull treatise on good and evil.

On prostitution

Mariya tweeted a link to an article on why young women in rural China become mistresses of older men, which reminded me of living next door to a paid mistress in Thailand, and she prompted me to blog about it. So here goes. Names are changed, by the way.

When I moved to Thailand in 1996 to help set up a school, I took a 3 month rent on a small room in a new hotel near my work. On my floor there was only one other resident, a very well-dressed, attractive woman in her mid-20s. We soon became friends, leaving our doors open and popping in and out of each other’s rooms to chat, gossip, eat, drink beer and smoke.

Lek didn’t seem to work, but attended college every day to learn how to cook, went out most nights and, frankly, seemed to have more disposable income than I had. This was surprising for two reasons; firstly, most Westerners employed in Bangkok with work permits earned three or four times what the locals earned. Secondly, while there were many Thai kids with rich parents, they tended to be fair-skinned, whereas Lek was dark-skinned and from the impoverished Southern provinces of Thailand where a long-running terrorism campaign to secede from Thailand and join muslim Malaysia had damaged the area.

I asked her about it, and she told me straight: she had an older, Western boyfriend called Mike who was posted to work in Thailand in some big engineering project. Mike was married, but his wife was back in England with their kids. Mike paid for the apartment, her college course and took care of her living expenses. In return, she was his mistress. She was to be available for sex, going out to parties or weekends away. The sole stipulation was that she was not to have sex with anyone else (a wise move; in the late 90s, HIV was rife in Thailand). She didn’t love Mike, although she liked him – she viewed it purely as a business relationship. Mike, however, did get jealous of me (until we lied and told him I’m gay); I found lots of Westerners who had mistresses or picked up prostitutes deluded themselves that they were emotionally involved rather than simply buying a service.

Before I’d met Lek, I had always assumed that prostitution was a sordid business of trafficked or abused women being forced into it by a pimp. It had never occurred to me that it could be voluntary. I asked Lek if she felt exploited. “Absolutely not”, she answered. She explained that she had a sister, a year younger, still living in the home village “in the jungle” (as she put it). Her sister had four children by a man who beat her when he was drunk, and who forced her to wear a veil. “I have a nice apartment, I’m getting an education. Mike is a good guy who treats me well, we go to parties where I meet lots of people, I’ve learned English and have friends from all over the world. This is freedom – don’t pity me.”

Who was I to argue?

It made me wonder, though, why we still get so squeamish about sex. If someone works with their bodies to entertain by dancing, or gymnastics, or sports, we don’t pity them. Neither do we condescend to other people who look after others’ physical needs for money – we don’t pity a person who cooks food or others, or cuts their hair, or massages their aches, or looks after their teeth. So why do we look down on people who voluntarily offer sexual services?

UK ISPs confirm central database of filter opt-ins

After convincing my Member of Parliament, John Hemming, of the folly of Cameron’s plan to censor the web in the UK (sorry, I mean filter the web), he’s been doing some digging with the ISPs, writing to them to ask whether they plan to store your opt-ins privately on your router, or centrally.

He’s published the answers to his emails to BT, Sky and Virgin. BT were evasive, and TalkTalk didn’t formally respond, but it’s pretty clear they’ll store them in a centralised database. What could possibly go wrong with the government having access to a list of all those who want to see porn or “extremist” sites? It’s not like we live in a surveillance society, is it?

John and I would like to publish a fuller list. If you are a customer of an ISP that’s not on the list, please email them and ask them if they plan to store your opt-ins on a centralised database, what categories they intend to filter (eg, porn, extremism, alcohol, drugs) and how they will categorise them (eg, who will decide whether BNP/ EDL sites are “extremist”?) and paste it into a comment below. Please include the date and time the reply was sent, and who signed it (so we can double-check before publishing on John’s blog).

Thanks!