Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review of 'The Invention of the Land of Israel'

An interesting meander through some of the back alleys of Jewish, Zionist, and of course Palestine history. Of course it's political in content and intent, and Sand makes what seems to me to be a good case that the Zionist movement took the Jews' vague, spiritual and liturgical affinity for a distant land and turned it into a political instrument. I suspect that his selection of evidence (like everyone's) is partial, and that there will be pro-Zionist scholars who will point to other examples that appear to contradict his argument. I'm inclined to be convinced, so I find his argument persuasive and well documented; and his opposition to Zionism is nuanced and intelligent, and doesn't call for a return to some earlier day 'before the Zionist invasion'.

Nevertheless, as with his other book 'The Invention of the Jewish People', there are some things I didn't much like. Here I think he over-emphasises the ethical and humanist dimension of religious Jews' opposition to Zionism. Yes, the ultra-orthodox of various stripes were opposed to Zionism, just as they were opposed to emancipation and the ending of ghettos, and every other aspect of modern life. And they were opposed to a modern, political variant of Jewish nationalism, but they were most still believers in various ghastly ideas about Jewish superiority.

And I think his characterisation of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism could have been different. Apologists for Zionism are fond of saying that it's a nationalism like others, but it's always been a weird nationalism. I can't think of many other variants that were so uninterested in the folk-culture of the people which they intended to make into a national entity. In that sense perhaps Zionism's 'affinity' for an idealised 'ur-nation' of Hebrews as distinct from actually existing Jews is like the religious Jews' affinity for an idealised, spiritualized 'Land of Israel' that can be a focus of longing devoid of any geographical or practical reality.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Review of 'Man Up'

A surprisingly enjoyable rom-com, with lots of good British character actors. Some visual and physical comedy, and also great dialogue. Nothing special to look at but witty and fun, with nice details that confirm this is twenty-first century London. Simon Pegg acts and is involved with the production - not always a good sign, but this is one of his best. Rory Kinnear is great as the creepy old school friend, and Olivia Williams is good as the ex-wife too. A really good laugh, I thought.

Watched on BBC iPlayer via Chromecast.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review of The Intern

A gentle comedy about...well, work, really. Robert de Niro plays retired Ben, whose life is meaningless without something useful to do, so he applies for and gets a role in Anne Hathaway's company, which has decided to advertise for senior interns (yes, seniors as interns) as a sort of community outreach thing. The film avoids the obvious jokes about old people not being able to understand technology or the new world of work - Ben is superbly adaptable - and instead mainly focuses on Anne Hathaway as the CEO neglecting her home life to pursue her business goals. Which, the film says, is more or less the right thing to do, because the business is her dream.

Quite fun to watch, and some nice jokes about the old guy giving the young dudes good advice about life, relationships and grooming. Not sure about the overall message, but it's only a film.

Watched on DVD at my mum's flat, my mother-in-law having burned it on to a disc from a TV showing. That's old school.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review of 'Hidden Figures'

A nice anti-racist film, about three black women mathematicians who contributed to the space program despite all the obstacles put in their way. Very big on the patriotic dimension - so how it emphasises racism and sexism detracted from achieving the national objective of beating the Commies in space, and how the realisation of this gradually dawns on the buzzcut types running NASA. But very good on the little observations about how racism (and to a lesser extent sexism) are embodied in multiple experiences of everyday life, from segregated bathrooms and coffee pots to forms of address. Of course, black people know this already.

I rather thought Jim Parsons (Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory) stole the show as the obnoxious,  condescending racist chief engineer Paul Stafford - perhaps because he is able to draw on all of the awkwardness and snarkiness of the Sheldon character.

Watched via Chromestream and Chromecast from my Ubuntu laptop - I think the first time that I made this work - having first obtained the film via an informal distribution network.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Review of 'The Duke of Burgundy'

A sad film about sex and sexuality. It's a story about two middle-aged lesbians, one of whom is  obsessed by sadomasochistic fantasies and requires the other to act out a highly specified script (literally, a script) of humiliation and degradation. The irony, which is the essential irony of all BDSM relationships, is that it's the submissive who is in control. The apparently dominant one just wants to wear warm, cozy flannel pyjamas and have a nice cuddle, but instead has to put on fantasy clothing (lots of expensive lingerie, credited in the film) and high heels to gratify the submissive one. The film illustrates this much better than any other discussion of the same point that I have seen.

They genuinely love each other, but the love is eaten up and destroyed by the 'submissive'partner's need to turn every act of intimacy into theatre. She more or less forces the 'dominant' partner to perform acts that she clearly finds horrible, including pissing in the other's mouth and locking her into a trunk at night. There is a strange, symbolic sub-text in that both the women, and many others in the neighbourhood, are lepidopterists, and there is a lot of footage of butterflies and moths. The Duke of Burgundy of the title is a butterfly.

The film looks beautiful, though not at all sexually arousing; it's filmed in Hungary, and the countryside is at once ravishing and unfamiliar. There are some weird  scenes in the local butterfly collectors institute (one of which features some panning shots where some members of the audience are manikins), and the credits include one for perfume.

Watched via Chromestream from my linux laptop and Chromecast, the film having been sourced from an informal distribution network.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Review of 'The Big Sick'

Not as bad as Hadley Freeman made it out to be (I really didn't get those romance of the shiksa vibes that she detected in this), but not a brilliant film either. The first third seems hurried and badly edited, the middle third is strongly reminiscent of 'While You Were Sleeping', and the last third is mainstream rom-com breaking-up/making-up stuff.

One personal note, though. When the hero is leaving home to move to New York, near the end, he hugs his dad, and suddenly I had the most powerful recollection of hugging my own dad (who looked a bit like the dad in the film) and the way that he smelled, like I was actually smelling him. I've had a few more smell-recollections since, one of the smell of my dad's shop, which was mainly of Bakelite and old kinds of plastic. Go figure,  as they say.

Watched at the Everyman in Muswell Hill.

"Into the Unknown" at the Barbiican

I went to this exhibition. Some of the exhibits were a bit dull - some old books in glass cases. And quite a lot were editions that I'd actually owned at some point. Displays of old futures, on cigarette cards and advertisements and posters...the sort of thing that would be 'retro-futurist', except that at the time it was made it was just...futurist; it has to be knowing to be retro-futurist, doesn't it?

There were some physical objects...models of Jules Verne things like a Nautilus and a balloon, some maquettes and props from films, none of which really grabbed me, though I rather liked some of the things from eXistenZ, which I've always though was rather under-rated.

The best bit was really the screens displaying clips from films...the mainstream ones like 'Close Encounters' and 'Back to the Future' and 'The Day after Tomorrow', but also some that I'd never heard of, like Afronauts, and Pumzi, the Invisible Cities series...and High Rise and Dark City...and Astro Black. All of these looked really interesting, and some are short and available on YouTube or somewhere else online.

The last item in the exhibition is a showing of 'In the Future they ate from the finest porcelain'. This was striking, but left me feeling uncomfortable. It's a film by a Palestinian woman about archaeology and politics. It doesn't mention Israel or Palestine or Zionism, but it's clearly about the way that Israel uses archaeology as part of an ideological justification for the its version of essentialist Jewish nationalism. It's cleverly made, and beautiful to watch and listen to. But it does explicitly argue that the people it refers to as 'our rulers' have invented their own historic connection to the land, so as to deny that of the suffering indigenous people. There is a school of thought in Palestinian nationalism, and sometimes its supporters, that really does deny that there ever was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and so on.

And I think that's unnecessary, and offensive. I'm not an expert on the status of the archaeological evidence one way or another, but it strikes me as a stupid and destructive line of argument, like the dreary debates I remember as to whether Jews constituted a nation - in which Stalin's definition usually cropped up.

I'm quite sympathetic to Shlomo Sand's arguments that the 'Jewish People' and 'The Land of Israel' are historical constructions, as long it's understood that the Jewish people is 'invented' in the same sense that other peoples are. Similarly, it's one thing to refer to the Holocaust as part of the founding 'myth' of the State of Israel, and another to suggest that the Holocaust is a myth in the sense of not being part of actual history. The concept of 'fake news', somehow counterposed to 'real news', belongs here too.

There is a bigger issue here, which someone else is probably thinking about even now. Liberal and progressive intellectuals have spent years picking away at what we might think of as 'realist' epistemology, pointing out the way that all kinds of knowledge - science, history, medicine - are not simply revealed but are constructed. And we've ended up not with a population that engages critically and wisely with knowledge, but with Trump and Farage and Gove, and the climate change deniers...and the Moon landing deniers...Where does this go? It's not sustainable to say that non-realist epistemology is only for us clever people, and the rest have to just trust in the experts.

More to follow about this, I think.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review of 'The Circle'

Not time well spent, this one. I really liked the book, which seemed to be a rather good satire on life at Google but also on the implications of social media for our civilisation. It came at a rather significant time for me; I read it just before I 'joined' Gartner, and the fictional culture of The Circle went some way towards preparing me for the highly metric-driven culture of my new employer.

But the film is a bit lame. In the book Mae's naivety is sort of picaresque, and sort of believable. In the film, seeing it performed by an actual human, it's not - she's too stupid to live, or at least to thrive as she does. Some of the elements that I most liked in the book (like the importance of her time away kayaking by herself, which is here turned into just a sucker's lesson about the value of 24-hour 'safety' surveillance) are not really included. And the denouement is different from the book, and it's ambiguous but not in a good way. Are we, the audience, still supposed to believe in the redeeming power of technology to make the world a better place, once it's in the right hands and the evil bad guys are exposed to the same transparency they want to impose on everyone else? I think we are.

Watched via Netflix and Chromecast. Can't remember the last time I watched a good film from Netflix.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Connected bikes shed new light on the smart city

Just over a year ago I wrote about See.Sensea Northern Ireland-based start-up making and selling smart connected bicycle lights. The lights were pretty cool in themselves (the cyclists in my family tried one) but the really clever thing was the way in which the company was planning to make use of the data from sensors in the lights, recognising that it was now in the urban data business.

I’m pleased to be able to say that the company is still progressing along this track. This week it announced two new trials with smart city programmes – one in Dublin, where it’s one of four smart cycling pilots rolled out in the run-up to the city’s hosting the global cycling congress Velo City in 2019, and one in Manchester, where the data is being delivered to the CityVerve smart city hub so that it can be accessed and exploited by the wider community of developers.

Both pilots involve the cities’ cycling communities, and both offer the See.Sense ICON light at a highly subsidised price in return for users agreeing to share their sensor data.

These are still early days. Various use cases are being discussed (including one of my favourites, using the lights to gather crowdsourced data on surface quality) but none have been definitively adopted. There’s no commercial model either, so no sign of how See.Sense might move towards a business that isn’t just based on hardware sales. But it’s promising, and a coupe of visible signs that the value of the company’s approach is being recognised more widely.