What Nextdoor should always look like

Nextdoor always feels like it should look like this, but often it’s just random bits of local advertising and people ranting about the noise / rubbish / trees etc. It’s nice to notice when it seems to be working.

The Imitation Game

We watched the Imitation Game last night. The story of Alan Turing and the code breaking efforts at Bletchley Park during World War 2.

As we watched it, a few things didn’t ring true, and afterwards I found myself wondering how much of it was fabricated for a modern day audience wanting a punchy story line.

The bits that didn’t seem right were:

  • Turing demanding a job at Bletchley, rather than being invited by those in charge
  • Turing failing to work well with others and singlehandedly inventing the whole thing
  • Turing naming the code breaking machine after the boy he loved as a child
  • Turing being blackmailed to keep quiet about a Russian spy in his team
  • Turing writing to Churchill out of the blue
  • The code breaking sudden breakthrough about using common words – surely, too obvious an approach to be missed by crack code breakers
  • The slightly random way in which Turing calls off his engagement
  • The code breakers arbitrarily deciding the whole thing needed to be kept secret
  • The whole premise about the police investigating him in the 50s thinking he might be a spy (but this was obviously just a story telling devise, so didn’t both me.)

So, I looked at the Wikipedia entry this morning and sure enough, all of those bits are apparently factually inaccurate.

What I really want now is a version of the film that tells it as it actually was. These times in history were surely fascinating enough without making things up around the edges?

“Do not be anxious”

This article in the New York Times is interesting. What Synchronized Divers Say to Each Other Before the Plunge. I’m a total sucker for that stuff.

The bit that jumped out at me was about a couple of Americans:

Right before each dive, they always say “four-six” to each other — a reference to Philippians 4:6 in the Bible, which begins, “Do not be anxious about anything.”

My first thought was about what a cultural and religious fit these two have in order for that reference to work for them. I am not religious and don’t know the Bible or other religious texts at all well, so it would be a totally insane thing for me to say to a partner, but it works for them.

I came back to thinking about this phrase, though, and the realisation that even the Bible has ‘self help’ about anxiety. Anxiety is such an odd part of the human condition, at first glance adding no value at all. It is, though, essentially tied up in the essentials of socialisation. If you don’t care what people think or how you do in the eyes of others, then you’re a psychopath, right? And if you do care, then anxiety. True now, and since humans have had society.

“Hit the winners and the unforced errors”

I’m a massive tennis fan, so I watched the fluffy documentary about Serena Williams attempting to complete the calendar Grand Slam (winning all four grand slams in one year).

The quote that stuck with me was from her coach, in the lead up to a match against her sister, Venus.

“Go get every point. You’re going to hit the winners and the unforced errors. I want everything to depend only on you.”
– Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach

This approach has defined great athletes across all sports. And great advice for life,

Serena Williams is a fascinating and astonishing athlete, so it’s a shame the documentary was obviously incredibly closely controlled. It’s on iPlayer for another week or so.

US health care, homeopathy and hegemony

I often wonder why there is such a rabid anti-homeopathy sentiment in some quarters. To me, it appears the uses to which it is most normally applied are the areas where conventional medicine does badly, such as hay fever, light bruising, minor anxiety, ennui. In the context of a UK National Health Service, why worry if some people find results they can’t find at their GP using alternative therapies they pay for?

I’m in New York this week, though, and I see a different context. This is a country where health care is privatised, and medicines are advertised. People are forced to make decisions about their own health care based on advertising, rather than good access to medical professionals. In this context, obviously anything that muddies the facts and might mean people self medicate in inappropriate ways is a serious problem. I would personally include in this problem zone the tv adverts for medicines, but I can see why homeopathy appears so dangerous here.

And so the UK context becomes clearer, because we no longer live in truly separate countries. Our world is so connected that the arguments of an activist speaking from a US context easily spreads to the UK, but the unsaid assumptions and cultural contexts behind the arguments go unnoticed.

I wonder if we’re reaching a point where the cultural assumptions of the US will shape lots of UK debate. Even to the extent that the UK will need to become more like the US in its actual social setup in order for the debate to make sense. An alarming thought, but a plausible one?

Photographs of women

I came across a great project by Goodyn Green the other day. It’s photos of people who identify as women but are often mistaken for another gender.  It happens to me (I’ve been struggling with a blog post about it for a while now) and it’s so good to see such a great collection of images and text about the experience.


The life I didn’t live

I was recently at a hospital appointment, as moral support, with a friend and her very new born child. As she saw the consultant and I held her baby for her, and then again as we left the hospital and strangers spoke to us in the lift, I got the distinct impression that people assumed I was my friend’s partner, and co-parent of the baby.

It was a seriously odd feeling.

I’ve never had an urge to be a mother, but that briefest of glimpses into that other life made it seem suddenly appealing. To be clear, it wasn’t the thought of a romantic relationship with my friend (yikes!), or parenting that particular baby, but the thought that I could have been standing in that lift with my partner and her child and that really could be what our lives were about.

It’s hard to say what seemed appealing about it and to exactly describe the feeling. Not the crying or the nappy changing, both of which were happily minimised that day, and certainly not strangers making unsolicited comments about the baby. But perhaps, perhaps, the sense of family in such a strong sense. No longer a couple, but instead a family unit, bringing up a child and engaging in all those bits of society and logistics that I don’t touch at all really. Maternity classes. Nurseries. Mothercare. Angst about which schools they can get in to. Child ISAs. Making friends. Car seats. etc. etc.

And perhaps really that is about societal acceptance. Sure, a lesbian couple with a kid is likely to get some grief, but so much less so than just a few years ago. Which in itself was an eye opener. The consultant didn’t ask our relationship, and the cooing women in the lift were not that pushy, but for it to even be a possibility truly accepted in such a situation seemed incredible to someone who can clearly remember the days before Civil Partnerships. And in some ways, a baby provides a legitimacy and a status in society that is undeniable.

Or perhaps it was less societal acceptance and more the idea of having a child and bringing him or her up to be a great member of society and happy, productive person? That would be a great thing to do, and is the only reason I’ve ever considered having kids. Indeed, that desire to help kids become great is one of the reasons I teach taekwondo and Code Club.

Of course, it was a brief and unsustained experience. I came home from my brief foray into another life and didn’t mind for a moment the lack of child in my home. I mentioned it to my partner, then sat back with a cup of tea and enjoyed the peace and quiet.

Eye in the Sky

We went to see Eye in the Sky this week, on the recommendation of a friend. I don’t think I’d have bothered otherwise, since the poster looked a bit predictable, and the subject matter (drone attacks) didn’t particularly draw me in. I’m very glad I saw it, though.

The story is told in almost real time and revolves around the allied forces of the UK, the US and Kenya carrying out a drone attack in Kenya. Initially, they are working with Kenyan forces on the ground to capture terrorists, including those from the UK and the US, with the drone providing visual information to the people on the ground. However, the plan changes when the terrorists move location and a drone attack becomes an option. A further complication is introduced as a young girl is in the zone of attack, with a high likelihood of death if the drone attack goes ahead.

We see the scenario unfold from several perspectives on the allied side. The UK Colonel running the operation, the UK General liaising with the politicians as it happens, the US service-people controlling the drone (including the weapon) from a porta-cabin outside Las Vegas, the Kenyan agents on the ground, US and UK foreign secretaries being called in to the conversation from their trade missions abroad. And as the situation changes, we’re confronted with the legal, political and moral decision making that happens at each stage.

These various arguments are really well explored. Is the near certain death of a girl more or less important than the likely death of up to 80 people by suicide bombing? If ‘we’ kill the girl, verses ‘they’ kill the 80, does that make a difference? Legally? Morally? Politically? And politically is not just about domestic politics, but also about the impact to the propaganda war in terms of possible recruitment into extremism. How does a 65% likelihood of death compare with 45%?

Sarah and I were both reminded of 12 Angry Men. Partly because of the near real time narrative, which would have worked really well as a stage play, but also because of the importance of so many individuals in making the ‘right’ decisions.

We were also struck by the difference in approaches portrayed by the US and UK governmental systems. I suspect based entirely in fact, the US legal approach has a points system which was used to calculate the value of the girl’s life vs the wanted terrorists’ lives. In the UK system, the Attorney General was seen to assess and explain the issues at stake, and there was a more nuanced, albeit perhaps less immediately effective, discussion.

As a viewer, we were challenged to consider which of these approaches made sense, and what decisions we’d make as the facts were presented. Seeing the stress of the politicians facing these issues made them far more relatable.

The Colonel is played by Hellen Mirren, and I thought she played it very compellingly. I was surprised and pleased to see a woman in such a pivotal role (but wasn’t surprised to learn it had initially been written for a man). The other key female role is played by Monica Dolan, who is an archetypal politician getting her first real glimpse of the realities of war, and is the main voice against the attack. She could so easily have come across as ‘wet’ or ineffectual, but the part is really well played and she seemed very real to me.

Overall, in fact, the cast are excellent (including Alan Rickman in his last film role) and their abilities as stage actors felt like part of what made the film work so well.

Go. See. Think.

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

I’ve just finished reading Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I immediately bought a copy for a writer friend of mine.

It’s short and amusing and incredibly good at breaking through the angst of making art. I draw cartoons (over at Excitable Dog and for the odd birthday card) and write blog posts here. In these endeavours I have struggled with  typical artist stuff, including:

  • what if it isn’t good enough?
  • It’s certainly not good enough
  • I’m not expressing what I want to express
  • this isn’t how it looks in my head
  • everyone can see I’m a fraud
  • nothing I’m contributing is worth anything
  • this is just the same as the thing I did before
  • this is too different from the thing I did before
  • etc.
  • etc.
  • etc.

What is lovely about Art & Fear is that it describes all these insecurities, unpacks them a bit, and then says do art anyway. These fears and insecurities are inevitable, and you need to accept that and get on with it. It’s full of really useful reminders, such as this from the introduction:

“This is a book about making art. Ordinary art. Ordinary art means something like: all art not made by Mozart.”

And this:

“Art is made by ordinary people… It’s difficult to picture the Virgin Mary paining landscapes. Or Batman throwing pots.”

The book also makes some useful distinctions about different points in an artistic journey, during which certain skills are experimented with and then discarded while others are developed and perhaps even finally mastered. And these practical skills of using physical tools lead to a certain restriction in possibility but also a freedom of expression and a new level of artistic possibility.

In many many ways there are parallels to be drawn with life. As we go down roads in terms of relationships, career or lifestyle we close options elsewhere, but reap the rewards of those choices as well. For example, I have practised taekwondo on average twice a week for the past 10 years, sometimes more, sometimes less. That time and effort has led me to a point with my taekwondo ability that can’t be reached by shortcuts, but it’s also closed options in other areas that could have received that attention. For example, I can’t play a musical instrument. And I’ve lived in London, where I am surrounded by people and culture, but not mountains and sea.

The book also covers criticism and the world of art, including this useful way of thinking about art.

“Writer Henry James once proposed three questions you could productively put to an artist’s work. The first two were disarmingly straightforward: What was the artist trying to achieve? Did he/she succeed? The third’s a zinger: Was it worth doing?”

These questions have already helped me think about art I’m experiencing, but also art I’m producing.

Heartily recommended to anyone with any artistic angst that stops them from working on, or committing to, their art.

Some of my art. yay!
Some of my art. yay!