Les Mis Review

I finally saw Les Mis: the movie . I have seen Les Mis the stage musical, including once in German in Berlin. I have not (yet) read the book that inspired the musical, so my review will not involve discussions of Victor Hugo’s original intents. I thought the movie was fine but not fantastic. Because I like to complain, the rest of this post will focus on my problems with the film.

I have two primary issues with the movie. One was that several characters felt either uninteresting or simply wrong. In combination, these problematic characters flattened a show that demands large, distinct personalities to drag the viewer in and make us care about them as distinct entities. The other complaint concerns the film’s treatment of the revolution.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 5 Comments

A brief note on photography and apps and the photographic commons

Facebook’s Tom linked to a thought-provoking essay, “Instagram, Hipstamatic and Other Reasons Photography Is Starting To Suck”. The article’s thesis is obvious from its title.

If you’ve ever tried to take a photo everyday, similar to a 365 project, you’ll understand that it’s a pretty hard thing to keep up and it starts to loom over you everyday. I attempted one with my digital SLR, and it was even harder because it meant either going out everyday and taking photos, or having lots of photos of my dog. If you take it seriously, and have the time to complete them, you will find that your photography improves, but for the majority of people, it’s too much like hard work. The good thing about the project was that it encouraged me to carry my camera with me everywhere which meant that I was taking more photos which turned out good, but I ultimately didn’t have time to use it everyday and ended up producing a lot of rubbish too.

Apps such as Instagram take the idea of a daily photo blog and turn it into an iOS app for your iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad and throw in a bunch of filters in there for good measure. You can get some good results from your iPhone, but as I said before, photoshopping for photoshopping’s sake is not a good thing. Currently, Instagram have 150 million photos uploaded, that’s 15 going up every second, with a staggering 80% of using filters (and a bunch more in the other 20% have had filters applied in other apps, such as Hipstamatic). The pressure of trying to get a good photo by the end of the day invariably leads to poor content and composition of everyday life, enhanced by obvious digital filters. This is doing photography no good whatsoever.

These photos are then shared through Facebook and other means where the photographer receives praise for their work. Now, I have no problem with this as it is, but what’s not good is when people start to see this as photography, as they’ll never learn how to really improve on the artform, which they may have otherwise been interested in.

There is quite a lot I agree with in this essay. Many popular photography apps can substitute technology for aesthetics, their relative ease of use decreasing the incentive for photographers to learn more focused skills. I’m also willing to agree that the vastly increased volume of photographs shared with the world, enabled by the spread of inexpensive digital phone technology, makes “art” photography substantially more difficult to find and to market than at any point in the past.

I do disagree with the author on the utility of the distinction that he makes, however. I’m willing to bet that for most people who take photos, enabled by digital technology, the theory and formal aesthetics of photography are irrelevant: they just want to take photos. The alternative to widespread and inexpensive photography apps isn’t the acquisition of advanced photographic skills for our internet era by the masses, but rather the masses not taking and sharing photos at all.

“That’s the thing about iPhone apps that appear to do all the work for you, they make you think that what you’ve created is something special, when in reality, it’s just an excuse to rearrange a bottle of gin, a porcelain model of a dog, tilt the camera and apply some dodgy filters to make it look 50 years older than it actually is.” If that works for the photographer and the audience, well, what’s necessarily wrong with that? Retaining the ability to distinguish between different photographic styles should be enough.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Preliminary notes on N’Ko and language communities

A Language Hat post last December linked to a New York Times Magazine article about the challenges faced by West Africa’s N’Ko alphabet. The N’Ko script isn’t an alphabet of long vintage, like the Latin or the Arabic, but rather was invented in 1949 by a man who wanted the Manding languages spoken by millions of people in southwestern West Africa–in Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, once in the sphere of the Mali Empire–to have a script of their own. These days, the promoters of N’Ko are trying to push the script into the electronic age.

N’Ko first moved from hand-copied manuscripts into the digital age two decades ago. In the early 1990s, Diané, the teacher of N’Ko at Cairo University, was collating an N’Ko text in a copy shop when he was approached by an employee. “Why are you killing yourself?” the man asked him. “Don’t you know about DOS?” The employee explained to Diané that using computer software, he could write a new script and generate as many copies as he wished. Together with information-technology experts at Cairo University, Diané developed a rudimentary font to use on his own computer. But creating a font that anyone could use was a much more complicated task. …

Digital technology has already transformed how [Ibrahima] Traore [the protagonist of the piece] communicates with his family. When his father died in 1994, his family in Kiniebakoro sent news of the death to cousins in Ivory Coast by going to the bus station and looking for a passenger heading toward their city; the cousins then mailed a letter to Traore in New York. It took two months. Now communication with Kiniebakoro takes a day: Traore sends an e-mail in N’Ko. His nephew, who works in the nearby town of Siguiri, checks his e-mail at the town’s Internet cafe, prints Traore’s letter and then goes down to the dock where canoes ferry people across the Niger River to Kiniebakoro. He asks someone on the boat to take the letter to Traore’s family’s house.

For Traore and others, the most pressing reason for making N’Ko available to Mande speakers is that only a small percentage of Guineans can read and write. The United Nations puts the rate of adult literacy at 39 percent, but that figure counts mostly those who live in major cities — in rural areas, it is much lower. Schooling in rural Guinea is often conducted in the open air, with no chairs, perhaps a blackboard, maybe one book. But most discouraging to students, it takes place in French, a language they don’t speak at home.
“The only hope for literacy in Guinea is N’Ko literacy,” Traore says. For Mande speakers, he says, N’Ko is extremely simple to learn. He and his fellow N’Ko advocates have sponsored hundreds of informal schools throughout Guinea that teach in Manden languages and N’Ko. This year, for the first time, N’Ko will be taught side by side with French in an official school — the pilot program will be in Kiniebakoro, Traore’s hometown.

N’Ko first moved from hand-copied manuscripts into the digital age two decades ago. In the early 1990s, Diané, the teacher of N’Ko at Cairo University, was collating an N’Ko text in a copy shop when he was approached by an employee. “Why are you killing yourself?” the man asked him. “Don’t you know about DOS?” The employee explained to Diané that using computer software, he could write a new script and generate as many copies as he wished. Together with information-technology experts at Cairo University, Diané developed a rudimentary font to use on his own computer. But creating a font that anyone could use was a much more complicated task. …

Digital technology has already transformed how [Ibrahima] Traore [the protagonist of the piece] communicates with his family. When his father died in 1994, his family in Kiniebakoro sent news of the death to cousins in Ivory Coast by going to the bus station and looking for a passenger heading toward their city; the cousins then mailed a letter to Traore in New York. It took two months. Now communication with Kiniebakoro takes a day: Traore sends an e-mail in N’Ko. His nephew, who works in the nearby town of Siguiri, checks his e-mail at the town’s Internet cafe, prints Traore’s letter and then goes down to the dock where canoes ferry people across the Niger River to Kiniebakoro. He asks someone on the boat to take the letter to Traore’s family’s house.

For Traore and others, the most pressing reason for making N’Ko available to Mande speakers is that only a small percentage of Guineans can read and write. The United Nations puts the rate of adult literacy at 39 percent, but that figure counts mostly those who live in major cities — in rural areas, it is much lower. Schooling in rural Guinea is often conducted in the open air, with no chairs, perhaps a blackboard, maybe one book. But most discouraging to students, it takes place in French, a language they don’t speak at home.

“The only hope for literacy in Guinea is N’Ko literacy,” Traore says. For Mande speakers, he says, N’Ko is extremely simple to learn. He and his fellow N’Ko advocates have sponsored hundreds of informal schools throughout Guinea that teach in Manden languages and N’Ko. This year, for the first time, N’Ko will be taught side by side with French in an official school — the pilot program will be in Kiniebakoro, Traore’s hometown.

N’Ko and the Manding languages face an uphill struggle. In the zone of the Manding languages, where millions of native speakers outnumber native speakers of English and French hugely, the Latin script and the English and French languages brought to West Africa enjoy huge benefits: very large numbers of speakers worldwide in wealthier countries, a superabundance of literature, even a technology geared to the reproduction of these languages in their native scripts. How many N’Ko computer keyboards are there? Even languages with established traditions of literacy–Romanian in the 19th century, Turkish in the 20th century–shifted from their original scripts (Cyrillic and Arabic, respectively) to Latin thanks to modernizers who thought that the adoption of Western norms in written language would help the languages’ associated nations. It’s probably not a coincidence that N’Ko is, at least according to the Internet, a script strongest in Guinea, a country that under its first president Ahmed Sékou Touré engaged in a particularly fierce disengagement from the French post-colonial sphere of influence.

A few languages and even fewer writing systems dominate the world, whether because of a language community’s wealth, its cultural influence, and/or the sheer numbers of users. What costs are imposed on people who belong to radically disadvantaged and relatively marginal language communities, like the ones associated with the Manding languages and the N’Ko script? To what extent will the knowledge and cultural capital of these people be marginalized, even wasted, because it’s not available?

Posted in History, Information, Writing | 5 Comments

Grandpa’s Memoirs

Veteran’s Day (Armistice Day for you non-Americans out there) is fast approaching. I thought I could share some memories of my favorite veteran, Grandpa, and our joint experiences recording and remembering his past, transforming his personal life into family history.

As a child, I only saw my paternal Grandparents once a year or so because we lived so far apart. Their visits, however, meant walks home from school, Grandma’s famous French toast, and, especially, Grandpa’s stories. Grandpa, who passed away in May, spent roughly twenty years in the navy straddling World War Two. I wanted to know all about it. My love of Grandpa’s personal stories never waned, either.

Grandpa’s stories were short, self-contained, and generally had a lesson of some sort. Occasionally, a punch line. They were not all completely true, but as he said, at his age nobody could tell him that he was wrong [1]. As I got older, I became increasingly aware that the stories contained little flesh. They were parables, full of simple lessons espoused by a man who was quite wise but never completed high school. Of course, this did not bother me as a child. I grew up, however, and my historical training matured. I wanted more. Grandpa told stories. I wanted history. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Lions of Solomon

The photograph below is a caption of a Finnish newspaper article published in 1935, at the time of the crisis which preceded the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The translation of the headline is: “Finns tend to get involved everywhere: a hundred volunteers want to leave to fight in Abyssinia”. The subtitle continues further: “The local consul of Abyssinia tells about his country, which is not a ‘Negro state’ [sic], but one of the oldest Christian nations”.

Continue reading

Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Warsaw’s Forgotten Ghosts

Exactly 180 years ago, on September 7th, 1831, the conflict between the Russian Empire and the Congress Kingdom of Poland had reached its climax. After nine long months of hostilities, triggered by the Polish November Rising of 1830, the Russian army had gained the upper hand and was ready to deal the final, decapitating blow against the rebellious borderland. During the first week of September, the Russian forces of field-marshal Ivan Paskevich surrounded Warsaw completely and unleashed their final onslaught against the Polish capital.

The military units which had been assembled for the Russian punitive expedition included also the Finnish Sharp-Shooter Battalion of the Imperial Guard. I have previously written extensively of the Finnish Guard’s campaign in Poland at Noel Maurer’s blog (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) as well as in academic publications (1, 2), so in this particular blog post, I shall settle merely for a small commemoration on this forgotten anniversary.

Continue reading

Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How every detail counts in large amounts

I owe my co-blogger Jussi Jalonen thanks for the superb job placing last month’s massacres in Norway in the context of an increasingly unhinged and conspiracy-minded ideology, Internet-based but spreading, whose protagonists claim that Muslim are taking over Europe (at least) through their superfecundity as enabled by traitorous multiculturalists. I couldn’t write the essay; I’m even now trying to avoid despair over the issue.

Everything I’ve written here about information it’s predicated on the beliefs that preserving information matter and that preserving as much detail as possible matters. Yes, that’s in part an emotional reaction of mine to my own personal circumstances, but it’s something that works very well for me from the perspective of scholarship. Detail does matter; everything counts.

My 2004 post on the non-existence of Eurabia was a product of my idle curiosity and my desire to seek some distraction from graduate school. Later, as I became more aware of what Eurabia was starting to do, I became more concerned, more strident. Breivik’s massacre was the sort of thing that I’d expected to eventually happen; I felt guilty, frustrated, despairing that this had happened. If the mass of details describing reality don’t register, what’s the point of any of it?

Jussi’s approach is best. Friend of the blog Jim Belshaw helped with this comment he posted at A Bit More Detail in response to my Eurabia-themed question wondering how you reach people who believe in unfounded things. Selected elements are below.

2. You can’t change people’s minds by direct attack on their views. You have to come at it indirectly.
3. Don’t deal in universals. Eurabia and Muslims have become universals, labels to which other things are attached. Each time you use them as universals, you carry other people’s labels with them. At a purely personal level I try to avoid the use of the world Muslim unless I am speaking about a faith with all its varieties.
4. Recognise diversity. Within Europe each country, and sometimes parts of countries, are different. Australia is different again.
5. Attack intolerance, but do not attack the validity of views on which that intolerance may draw. Precisely, recognise them and address them independently as different issues. Avoid culture wars. Don’t confuse issues.

Thanks, Jim, for the reminder. The details will reappear, here and elsewhere. It’d be an honour if you’d join us all here at History and Futility for the ride.

Posted in Blogging, History, Information, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments