27 June 2008

The conet project

In an earlier post, I wrote about Icebreaker (sometimes Icebreaker international) and their concept albums about NATO and free, global trade. Well, I appreciate these albums, both because of the music itself and the way the concept is transformed into music (I don't know, maybe a distinction like that is artificial).

Now, I happened to come across a review of The conet project. I downloaded it, and started listening. There's four records, and the first track begins with shortwave radio noise, an eerie music box melody, and a girl counting from 1 to 5 in German and/or Swedish. The next tracks are similar: noise, beeps, a voice counting, or calling out random words that resemble letters. And there's some music, always primitive, always very, very spooky. In a weird way, it's listenable, even, if you allow me to say so, catchy, captivating, fascinating. An example: in "New star broadcasting" (from disc 1) a melody drifts in and out of the shortwave radio noise (which is, this time, quite harsh to the ears), a voice says something, but it's difficult to make out in which language she is talking. The voices of the messages sound all-to-human and non-human (robotic) at the same time. It's not Oasis, but, then again, what is? So, what's the deal?

From the all-knowing Wikipedia:
The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations is a four-CD set of recordings of numbers stations, mysterious shortwave radio stations of uncertain origin believed to be operated by government agencies to communicate with spies "in the field". The collection was released by England's Irdial-Discs record label in 1997, based on the work of numbers station enthusiast Akin Fernandez.

One night in 1992, one of the makers of this album tuned into some strange shortwave radio messages and that's how the idea was born (source).

And it is this story that makes the music really interesting. It is immediately situated in military - & political history. In the frenzy of the cold war. One wonders: what the hell are the spies told by means of these coded messages? To go kill somebody? What's going on with the music, why is it thrown in there in the first place? Without knowing anything about the exact messages, it's an uncanny experience to listen to it.

"with a shortwave broadcast, anybody can listen, which means that nobody knows who the message is intended for."

To my great delight, the album is available for free at the label's homepage!

26 June 2008

The village

My mother talked me into coming with her to the cemetary and, not having any other plans, I complied. For the villagers, the cemetary is a place for display of social status, for remembering those who have passed away, for mourning and reflection - but the cemetary is also a social meeting point fully comparable to the shop or the bank office. All in all, it occupies an important place in day-to-day chatter in a way that might strike the outsider as puzzling, but when once familiar with its importance, one does not think about it much (when somebody has been at some place, afterwards, she is usually inquired about the people she met there). Today we met nobody. There was a sudden gush of rain, and through the rain sunlight made the cemetary bath in an unreal dark light, the shadows rawly demarcated. While my mother attended to practical matters, I shuffled around, looking at the names of the graves, thinking about people that have been dead for many years.

When I was a kid, we had to raise money for school trips by selling lots. We were doing this at least once a year, harassing people into buying our lots. Our victims were fully aware of the very modest value of the prizes (coffee, garish towels, pens...). We were usually prowling the village for prey during day-time, when mostly elderly people were at home. I thought about that, today, when I saw the grave of "Nordens Birger" and "Nordens Ada".
Older villagers talk about their neighbors using the name of the place where the family resides, plus the forename. There was one exception, "Gösta Carlsson" was always called - "Gösta Carlsson". I wonder whether something positive was ever said about Gösta Carlsson.

When I knew them, the "Nordens" were both half-deaf, but they always treated us with candy. I remember sitting in their somehow deserted house, chewing on a mint candy, listening to the clock ticking, which was the only sound in the room. The room had the smell of old age, of the non-existence of time flowing. Ada's voice was shrill, and Birger always (or so I remember) had a curious smile on his face - as if slightly unsure of or amused by what was going on around him. I never knew whether Birger & Ada were siblings, or if they were married. That goes for some other people of the same generation. I don't know if that means anything.

Then there were scary places. Ingmar had a dog (I've forgotten the dog's name, but even the name itself conveyed danger) and as we were slowly approaching the house on a seemingly endless gravel road, we could hear the bark of the dog. Ingmar is a sturdy man, but one should not be deceived by appearances; he was kind to us kids and there are few villagers that have anything bad to say about him, which is a rare thing, indeed (my mother asked me whether I could recall his mother, but I couldn't).

Lennart was a blind man who was friends with everyone. He loved to talk. He could talk to anybody, about anything. I remember him talking about the bombing of Helsinki during the war, how everyone was leading a normal life despite the circumstances. During those years, he was a young man. He enjoyed the small adventure of riding buses without paying for the ticket. He used to have dinner at our house every week. It was obvious to everybody that he loved life. The villagers, however, are addicted to slander, so some of them considered him overly social, he "rushes on from house to house" ("springer från gård till gård"). And a few days ago, somebody said of him: "Well, you know, he was one of the N---s, for sure - he piled up a lot of junk in his house." (Some of the villagers are very skillful at turning every seemingly nice thing into a gruesome vice. The art of description.)

There are also people who lived in the village before my time that I now merely from stories and sayings. "Nu ska vi dela, sa Teddy" ("Let's divide this between us, as Teddy would say"). Teddy, and a bunch of other men, are remembered mostly for their drinking and for their witticisms. Based on pictures from the fifties and the sixties, they seem to have had a blast.

I don't know whether it is something that is characteristic of this village only, but people talk a lot about those who are no longer with us. In conversations, it is not uncommon that people recall things that happened fifty or eighty years ago. "You know these folks from X - they have always been foolhardy. You remember that time when...." "He has that from his mother, you know how she...." There's usually no conversation without an endless excursion into the annals of genealogy. Also horses, cats and dogs that lived over fifty ears ago have a vivid place in people's memories. My father sometimes talk about the cat they had when he was a young man - Pip.

24 June 2008

I'm an armchair philosopher!

Y found this fine chair in a trashbin (or something) today. So, now I've got my own comfortable chair at work in which I will perform essential tasks such as sleeping, dozing, procrastinating, drooling, sitting, resting, day-dreaming, watching paint dry, planning adventurous evenings, listening to music, gossiping, admiring my hard-working colleagues, doing nothing.

In this chair, I will set a revolution in motion.

Twin Peaks

Nothing is as addictive as Twin Peaks. I don't know how many times I've re-watched it. Many. God, I'd do anything for a donut like that right now.

23 June 2008

Bodyguard + Waiting for Godot = El Custodio

I hope you forgot the existence of that awful romantic thriller called Bodyguard. It's for sure one of the crappiest movies I've watched. The protagonist of El Custodio is a bodyguard and as I began watching it, I thought I was up for a boring political thriller. One reason for my suspicions can be derived from the bleak, grey-ish cinematography; images well fitting for German krimis situated in Bonn or Dresden. If there's something I can't digest in this world, it's German Krimis where nothing happens. Well, what can I say? Nothing much happens here, either. But to quote Simone Weil: everything good and beautiful is a mix of variation and monotony. There's a lot of the latter, because this is primarily a film about waiting. Most thrillers & crime movies include at least one scene in which two guys sit in a car waiting for something. Perhaps they are munching on donuts, who knows. In El custodio, this scene is stretched out to encompass almost the entire movie.

Rubén is a bodyguard. He works for a minister, an annoying, self-absorbed chatterbox. Rubén follows the minister wherever he goes. Most of his days are spent in drab, clinical corridors, waiting for the meetings to end, or in his car, accomapanied by a similarly stone-faced chauffeur. Rubén reminds me of Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the day, the perfect professional, for whom invisibility and discretion are virtues par excellence. It is Rubén's job to do nothing, to stay alert in case something happens (ironically, when something does happen, he is smoking a cigarette). His job is not appreciated by anybody; to many, his just ridiculous. In one scene, the minister is engrossed in an important meeting somewhere by the sea. In an adjacent room, Rubén stands quietly, staring out at the enchanting sea. He tells another man that he has never swam in the sea. Why doesn't he take the opportunity and jump in? He must wait for the minister. In another scene, Rubén waits in yet another anonymous corridor. "The minister will be occupied for a few more hours" he is told by an assistant. He sips on a mug of water from a water cistern. For a few minutes, the only thing we see is the water cistern against the background of the naked corridor. There's bubbles within the cistern, and there's a sound - burp, burp, burp. That scene is, to me, strangely Lynchian. You might remember the scene from the Twin peaks hospital in season one (after the fire at the mill)? There's a close-up of a bizarre-looking food tray, and that's it, it's just a god damn food tray and some odd-looking food, but the effect is still tremenduous.

El Custodio is a film with a grand ending, it's very cinematic, but it's great nonetheless. All in all, the film is a hard-boiled, cynical affair in a way that makes me think of Ellroy. Ellroy on tranquilizers. Ellroy with a minimalist credo. This is a good film even though it will, in several ways, test your nerves. There's no dramatic suspense - there's an awful lot of no-action, but when something suddenly happens, the result is all the more forceful.

22 June 2008

Neuroscience 2: memory, perception and antropomorphisms

Brains and memories

I'm reading a review in the New York Review of Books on two prominent neuroscientists, Jean-Pierre Changeux and Gerald M. Edelman, and I find myself quite at a loss of how to understand their ideas about "memory" in relation to the way we actually talk about memories, the roles such talk plays. Israel Rosenfield, the writer of the article, says:

In fact, "external reality" is a construction of the brain. Our senses are confronted by a chaotic, constantly changing world that has no labels, and the brain must make sense of that chaos. It is the brain's correlations of sensory information that create the knowledge we have about our surroundings, such as the sounds of words and music, the images we see in paintings and photographs, the colors we perceive: "perception is not merely a reflection of immediate input," Edelman and Tononi write, "but involves a construction or a comparison by the brain."

The main dispute between Edelman and Changeux seems to concern the issue of whether memories can be understood as neural representations. While Edelman disputes it altogether, Changeux presents a "sophisticated" functional analysis of such representations. Much of their views seem to hinge on "external reality" as a chaotic buzz that our brains, somehow, has to "take in" so that meaning can be created. Music is created out of sounds (sound waves?), and paintings are created out of - images? But, taking this view at face value, even such concepts as "images" or "colors" seems to be far too "meaning-laden" to fit into this picture of a chaotic external world. Because both "color" (as in red, blueish, pig-pink and so on) and images ("from this angle I see...") cannot be separated from meaning (or so it appears to me). If we want to hold on the the view of external reality as chaos, maybe we have better talk about this undefinable, inscrutable X that, somehow, finds its way into our brains, in which Meaning is created. Mystifying, to say the least.

Here's another formulation of the same idea, this time from an article in The New Yorker:

The mind integrates scattered, weak, rudimentary signals from a variety of sensory channels, information from past experiences, and hard-wired processes, and produces a sensory experience full of brain-provided color, sound, texture, and meaning. [...] Perception is inference.

The example focused on here is phantom limbs but also some formerly inpenetrable phenomena related to itches that may be explained by this view of the relation between perception, the brain and reality. The idea criticized here - and the criticism is justified, it seems to me - is that perception is something like a sucking in of information from the surrounding world, perception being, thus, impressions, picture-like reproductions of the world (Hume, I think, would have it that way). But now I want to ask: do the alternatives run down to these two: either we simply receive information from the outside world or our brains constantly construct meanings, sounds, colors? And what about the idea of the brain "making inferences" - can it be translated into terms that makes it less prone to have the ring of antropomorphism? (I know too little to come up with an adequate answer, but as it stands, I allow myself to be puzzled.)

Having a brain and being able to remember things are inseparable. But everything depends on what we want to say about memories. Are we talking about alzeimer? Some other neurological disease that can be shown to have an influence on some abilities? Or are we instead talking about the way we suddenly may come to think of Gunnel-my-first-teacher-at-school-whom-I-adored-so-much? Such specifications are very rarely to be found in explorations of the connections between memory and neurological functions.

For example, contrary to our visual experience, there are no colors in the world, only electromagnetic waves of many frequencies. The brain compares the amount of light reflected in the long (red), middle (green), and short (blue) wavelengths, and from these comparisons creates the colors we see.

All right, but what is meant by "the colors we see"? If this description is proposed as an explanation of the meaning color concepts have, then I think it is wrong-headed. If it is to have some other role - well, then I am a bit more at ease with it. And "there are no colors in the world" seems, at least that is how I react, to imply the question: "then, is the WORLD simply something totally independent of human consciousness, but, perhaps, something that science explores?" If so, then - well. At least some words of clarification would have been illuminating. "Do you see how green her face is? I can tell she has a terribly awful hangover." "No her face is white, not green, but I get your point." What makes you see the greenness in her face? The neural circuits in your brain?

And the idea that the brain "compares". The choice of words here is a bit misleading - if we do not buy the idea of some mix between darwinism and neuroscience, a variation of a theory launched by Changeux. (The idea that the brain strives, makes choices, compares, etc., is confused and replete with antropomorphism) But I should not say too much about Changeux - it's foolish to draw too many conclusions on the basis of a review.

Our visual worlds are stabilized because the brain, through color perception, simplifies the environment by comparing the amounts of lightness and darkness in the different frequencies from moment to moment.

"Our wisual worlds"? What does that mean? And "the brain simplifies..." is, in my opinion, just another example of the antropomorphisms I've already talked about. I get the picture of an army of industrious workers residing in my brain, who is sorting out the essential information from inessential info, so that "I" (whatever that is!) am able to take it all in. Our brains are far less considerate than what many popular ideas labelled "neuroscience" take them to be.

My brain does not see, nor does it feel. That is what I am doing, not my brain. My brain might be damaged, it may malfunction, but then let's talk about that. Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia is quoted in the articles as talking about "the acting brain is also and above all a brain that understands." and from this, a more general conclusion may be drawn:

Our abilities to understand and react to the emotions of others may depend on the brain's ability to imitate the neuronal activity of the individual being observed. When we see a friend crying, we may feel sympathy because the activity in our brain is similar to that in the brain of the person crying. We recognize disgust in another person through our own experience of the feeling of disgust and the associated neural activity.

Well, at this point I don't know what to say anymore. It's too much, it's too outlandish. No matter what can be shown to go on in the brains of human beings when X takes place, this does not mean that brain state X "lies behind" what human beings do in this situation. And I don't even want to start explaining why this picture of "understanding others' emotions" is utterly wrong-headed, boarding on the bizarre (even though this picture has got a lot of currency nowadays).

Subjective dimension of memories?

Rosenfield also mentions the "subjective character of memories":

In general, every recollection refers not only to the remembered event or person or object but to the person who is remembering. The very essence of memory is subjective, not mechanical, reproduction; and essential to that subjective psychology is that every remembered image of a person, place, idea, or object inevitably contains, whether explicitly or implicitly, a basic reference to the person who is remembering.

But I'm not so sure that "refers to" will help much. One is easily inclined to imagine that there are two things: the recollection (an image of some sort) and the person it "refers to". But when I suddenly remember your last name, or when I think about our adventures yesterday, or when I resent having got so pissed at the party - it is not some curious "references" that makes these my memories (or my thoughts). Compare: "Oh god, I don't want to think about this, I wish I was not the person who got drunk at that party." But usually these questions do not arise at all. Furthermore, it would be quite misleading to say that all memories are images. "You didn't return the books to the library, even though you promised to do it." - Where's the image in that?

But the hope lives on that science will clarify the nature of memories, even the subjective nature of memories:

And as these differing views show, while we are still far from a full understanding of the nature of memory, perception, and meaning, it is nonetheless because of the work of scientists such as Changeux, Edelman, and Rizzolatti that we have a better grasp of the complexity of subjective experiences.An unexpected scientific discovery can give us a new insight into something we thought we had always known: mirror neurons, Rizzolatti tells us, "show how strong and deeply rooted is the bond that ties us to others, or in other words, how bizarre it would be to conceive of an I without an us."

The "complexity" referred to here is, of course, of a purely scientific nature. The many aspects of memory that Proust talks about in Time regained appear mysterious to the neuroscientist for completely different reasons, which seem to be the connection bewteen 'the chaos of the external world' - mechanical processes of the brain - "subjective aspects of memory".

If you're interested in these things, have a look at David Cockburn's excellent book Other times (1997), in which he grapples with time, memories and tensed language. His arguments are not always easy to follow, but that is not to be ascribed to a deficiency of his, but to the difficulty of the subject at hand. Criticism is levelled at antropomorphic views of the brain among many of the post-wittgensteinians writing in the field of philosophy of mind.

To quote Bill Callahan (Smog):

Cold-blooded old times
Cold-blooded old times
The type of memories
that turns your bones to glass
Turns your bones to glass

PS: Philosophy of mind is not my main area of interest. I am a mere amateur. A happy and carefree one.

18 June 2008

Gay brains & straight brains

Two Swedish researchers have studied differences between brains of "straight people" and "gay people" and they argue the results showing that "lesbian women" have brains resembling those of "heterosexual males" and "homos" those of "straight women". The differences concern, among other things, "the amygdala, the region of the brain important for emotional learning" (source). According to Dagens Nyheter , the researchers claim their research being in support of the view that "homosexuality is not learned behavior". To get around certain methodological problems, their study accounts for traits of the brain that are set by birth.

- Det kan ge en förklaring till varför män och kvinnor reagerar olika på känslomässiga stimuli, som till exempel stress. En tolkning är att vi helt enkelt har olika förutsättningar, säger Ivanka Savic.

The researchers are affiliated with Stockholm Brain Institute vid Karolinska institutet.

I skimmed through an earlier essay by the same researchers but I found no discussion or interpretation of the results that were reported. An interesting thing was that the choice of gay and straight subjects was backed up by "self-identification" plus "the Kinsey scale" of gayness and straightness on a scale from 0-6.


It is clear that this study is reported as a perfectly reasonable application of neurological data. But, god, how long will this last? In 200 years, will some of the present applications of neurological data be discussed in the same vein as the alchemical attempts of earlier times?

The monastery: Mr Vig and the nun

The Monastery: Mr Vig and the nun is a Danish documentary (by Pernille Rose Grønkjær, 2006) about a man who wants to donate his "castle" to russian orthodox nuns. Mr Vig is a man in his eighties, but all the same he is shuffling around the castle, doing repair work for the nuns. When the nuns finally appear, there is quite a few disputes between Vig and sister Ambrosija, who has her own ideas as to the quality of the building and what has yet to be done. These dispute tend to end with Vig's not very self-conscious ideas about the reasons to his & Ambrosija's disagreements: "Well, women are a mystery to me." "I don't like people. I liked my father, but nobody else."
This is basically a film about eccentric and strong-willed people. Some scenes are stranger than words can tell. In one scene, Sister Ambrosija is seen hunched down in prayer, chanting solemnly. Then her cell phone suddenly rings, and the ringtone is "Have a merry Christmas". She barks: "YES??" Cut!
By having investigated religion as an ordinary, down-to-earth practice, films like this one, and Gröning's die grosse Stille, have changed my perception about what religious lives may look like (or should I say: have made me aware of some of my own preconceptions). Vig himself has interestingly little to say about religion. We hear him talk about other things. The same goes for Sister Ambrosija, who is portrayed as a pragmatic manager type with endless engineering skills - certainly something that goes against the grain of my ideas about "russian orthodox nun".
The film seems to have gained some attention, as it is reviewed in places such as the New York Times, in which the reviewer laments the lack of cultural history about the role of the Orthodox church in Denmark - I disagree, if that were the project, it would become an altogether different film.

17 June 2008

Viking Line & psychoanalysis

I keep dreaming about Viking Line. I walk around, I sit in the café, I drink beer. Nothing happens, everything is ugly and time has stopped. I am with new people every time, but everything happens against the backdrop of dread and endless boredom. As I really detest being on board on the Viking Line armada, and as I always feel physically ill (not only due to drinking) when I have experienced a Viking Line adventure, there has to be some deeper level of readings of these dreams. There has to be something that these dreams tell me. The psychoanalytic-marxist reading circle that R & I have gloriously founded will help me grapple with this hard-to-penetrate mystery. Here are some suggestions:

1. I secretly want to go on a Viking Line cruise, and I am just waiting for an excuse to go. For some reason, I am unable to acknowledge this desire on a conscious level, so the dream is a safe outlet for it. The dream tells me that I have to overcome these feelings of dread and boredom by - going on a cruise. The cruise is, I guess, an existential journey; an ordeal in the Kierkegaardian sense.

2. I secretly want to work at Viking Line, just like my sister. This might, in fact, carry with it other ways, in which I secretly envy my sister.

3. Even though I, on a consious level, would deny it, I am an Åland extremist who want to move back to the isles of gold & myrrh to carry the flag of Julius Sundblom and Carl Björkman. In fact, I want to dedicate my life to writing historical accounts of the splendid past of the Åland people (who is One, weren't it for some guiling traitors). In fact, I want to set up a play about the Crimean war and the dramatic turns that took place at the Åland islands. I want to throw in a love story involving a Russian soldier & a plain, industrious farmer's daughter.

4. My dream reveal a repressed resent: I have deserted the ship building industry for more abstract academic interests. I am, would I only acknowledge it consciously, more interested in business than in academia.

5. A Viking Line ship stands for the emptiness of desire and the way desire and language are trapped in the Symbolic Order. Being on a Viking Line cruise yields the interpretation that one's desires are aimed at an unreachable objective - because no objective would fulfill them. Viking Line, in the context of my dream (and otherwise, too), points towards the emptiness and the eternal instability of the signifier. "A cruise", in fact, signifies that one has the impression of having travelled but the travelling is an ontological fraud, a going-nowhere, a play of imagination. A fundamental Lack is the deeper meaning of the logo of Viking Line: desire will always revolve around fundamental Lack: the ideology of a cruise ship is, as it were, a manifestation of this principle. The anxiety of the dream hints at this. To sum up, my Viking Line dream shows in what way "the Real resists symbolization".

15 June 2008


I've come to realize how lucky I am with regard to my job and my colleagues. At the other jobs I've had (I'm afraid not too many - I'm a lazy son of a bitch) I had a nice enough time with my colleagues, but I did not socialize much with them outside the limits of 9-5. There was small-talk during lunch, but mostly what was said did not matter much. It was not very personal. At my present job, I regard everyone at the department as friends, and that has nothing to do with whether we meet often or on a more irregular basis. These are people with whom I can talk about anything, and I know that they will listen, take me seriously. I've learned an endless amount of things from them, about philosophy, but also about other things. There's no clear division between "work" and "non-work", in conversations or otherwise. In this setting of people, it would be slightly absurd to say "let's not talk shop" if "shop" is something other than formal things such as bureaucracy or similar matters concerning practical problems at uni.

On our way home tonight, rain falling heavily and the lights a-glaring, G said to me when we found ourselves having walked the wrong way, "this is what it's like to be a philosopher". That is, walking around (we happened to talk about "getting lost", about maps and what it is like to walk around in an unfamiliar surrounding) and being occupied in convesation to the point that one no longer pays attention to the direction in which one's feet is taking one (just like old Thales who was so engaged in watching the stars that he tripped and fell into a well).

At best, philosophy is miles away from scholarships, employment, small-minded argumentation and academic accomplishments. At best, philosophy is a quiet walk in the rain. One does not have to appear as something (intelligent, "learned", charming) but the only thing that counts is that one dares to dive into a conversation - regardless of what it is about - with an open heart and without any agendas. Of course, I have philosophical conversations with non-scholars as well. In the best case scenario, a philosophical discussion is not about "traditional" topics (as if philosophy could be described in terms of a specific set of issues) but it's often about the most surprising and unexpected things that suddenly become the object of serious (in the sense of 'honest', relentless) reflection. With many of my friends, even gossip will take on philosophical forms.

One thing that characterizes these discussions is that they are not mainly a forum for opinions, if you end by saying "that's just what I think, deal with it", then, from a philosophical point of view, there's a problem. Maybe there are conversations in which it is not a problem at all, but then they are not what I would call philosophical. In philosophical discussions, an appeal to facts will count to nothing, if facts are taken as "this is just how things are". I want to employ a cliché by saying that philosophy is aimed at clarity, not "knowledge about particular states of affairs". But this way of expressing it carries certain risks, and might lead to some misconceptions (that philosophy is not about the world, about ordinary things).

I think I've learned more about the character of philosophical conversation gradually, by the years. And there's still a lot I have to learn. The hardest thing in philosophy is that one has to devote one's whole person to the conversation taking place, and that in no case is it possible to retreat to "personal views" as a defense. There's no defense if the interlocuter does not understand what you try to say. That is, in a sense, the only measure. Bad philosophy is not due to deficient intelligence - bad philosophy is vanity. And maybe laziness, a lack of vitality: one does not have the energy to throw oneself onto the hard, unpolished ground of thought. Most of all, my colleagues have taught me a lot about talking and, even more important, listening. But, as I said, I've learned so much in occasions outside the seminar room: in bars, on walks, and so on. "Professional" philosophy is, in so many ways, the end of philosophy. Professionalized philosophy will be dead philosophy, dead letters and words that come from nowhere and will end up nowhere.

13 June 2008

Auf der anderen Seite (The edge of heaven)

I watch a lot of movies these days. It's summer, and there's too much light for my vampire life. I went to the movies tonight to watch Auf der anderen Seite and I liked it just as much as I've liked Fatih Akin's previous works (Gegen die Wand, Crossing the bridge).

Auf der... is a political film. But it is also a love story. Two stories are told, and they finally blend into each other. He's treading a dangerous path here, Akin, as the film could easily have come out as mannered and, well, too self-conscious. Even though a lot happens in the film and the plot contains many dramatic turns, I wasn't really thinking that the whole thing was an attempt to manipulate the viewer into Great Emotions. The emotions it did evoke - endless grief - felt real enough. At least that's what I thought. Akin's characters are richely described, never simplified into clichés, and the cinematography bustles with life, just as the characters.

One of my favorite scenes of the film involves a dispute between one of the main characters, a Kurd activist, Ayten, and her lover's mother. Ayten walks into the kitchen and lights a cigarette. The mother, who doesn't seem to approve of her daughter's choice of partner, tells her she can't smoke inside. The mother inquires Ayten about her life situation, and she tells her she's a political refugee, that she is an activist who works for human rights. In a dry, know-it-all, glossing-over kind of voice, the mother tells Ayten that everything will be better, once Turkey joins the EU. Ayten snarls that EU will change nothing, as EU is led by colonial powers such as France, England and Germany. For some reason, I found that to be a really powerful scene - one out of many, that brings politics back to a level of ordinary conversation & real lives.

Akin pays attention to details, to the small things that matter, and that's what makes a film like this, with a quite - if I may say so - melodramatic plot - work. If any other director would work with this material, I'm not sure what the result would be. I'm glad that our otherwise totally crappy, business-minded movie distributors had the good taste to let Finnish audiences enjoy this gem of a film.


This is a scary picture from contemporary Russia (look at that "our army" sign...). I found it on THE EXILE, a newspaper featuring edgy - at times showcasing a tacky form of juvenile machismo "irony" - articles about Russia, among other things. (I'm not sure whether it still exists, or whether it has closed down for economic and - possibly - political reasons.) Some of the articles are good.

You are probably familiar with the "Nashi" phenomenon; the pro-Putin youth group that enroll thousands of people in nationalist rallies. It proclaims to be "anti-fascist", but they bestow the label of "fascist" on diverse groups such as liberal-leftist Yablokovians and nazis. I also wonder what will happen to them now, as Putin is no longer president. But the activities of "Nashi" are, apparently, not limited to street rallies:

Just like its Komsomol predecessor, Nashi is beginning to develop programs for training elites. Some of its new "projects" include developing a business school, a political institute, and programs to recruit recent graduates for business ventures. One example of the latter is a project called "Our Builders," where students and young professionals are employed to work in construction projects for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Other Nashi projects focus on promoting Orthodox Christianity, patriotism, paramilitary training, tourism, and even a brand of Nashi clothing lines developed by designer and commissar Antonia Shapavolova.

According to the EXILE article, "Nashi" will not disappear; the organization attracts all kinds of types: political fanatics, careerists, kids who want to occupy themselves with something, "street thugs" - and so on.

It's quite typical that "Nashi" has received so much covering in Western media. Articles on Russia or Russian politics tend to focus almost exclusively on Kremlin, on the oligarchs and different forms of political and bureaucratic corruption. On extremism, be it left or right wing. Russia is a huge country. It would be interesting to get other pictures of it, as well. Go have a look at Sean's Russia Blog, good stuff, good stuff.

PS: When I tried to access the manifesto of Nashi at their homepage, my computer told me that a virus has been detected. How typical.

11 June 2008

Weil on business

In her essay "Sketch of contemporary social life" (written in 1934), Simone Weil writes:

It seems as though the economic struggle has ceased to be a form of competition in order to become a sort of war. It is no longer so much a system of organizing the work as of squeezing out the greatest possible amount of available capital scattered about in society by marketing shares, and then of squeezing out the greatest possible amount of money from everywhere by marketing products; everything takes place in the realm of opinion, and almost of fiction, by means of speculation and publicity.

This is, in my opinion, a passage full of insights. "Competition" is said to be the most basic concept of business, but Weil seems to say that the present state is more suggestive of war than competition. I think she means that "competition" brings to mind a situation in which competition is based in real differences (quality, quantity, etc.), but that a naked struggle for increasing capital seems to have little to do with competition as something "material". A very rudimentary struggle of power, revolving around "conquest and destruction" rather than the production of things for real people.

What I think is especially important here is the way she points out the way the contemporary world of business has marginalized work and the importance of work (she talks about this in The need for roots as well). In other text she elucidates the all-important distinction between what it means to be an instrument of something good, and what it means to be treated as an instrument to be "squeezed out". In this quote, I also agree with her that "the business world" could be said to lack reality, to live in a dimension of almost-fiction. Of appearances, rumors, speculations, publicity. What I appreciated about Weil's writings is that she, among other things, make clear the dreadfulness of activities, in which we engage, that in many ways lack reality, connections to reality. Her conception of "the real" must, of course, be taken to be a moral concept, "the real" in distinction to "lofty ideas", "lies" or propaganda.

9 June 2008

Bohren & der Club of Gore: Midnight radio

I've had a dull, mind-numbing day at work. I go home early, just to slouch down in my huge easy chair and put on Midnight Radio by Bohren & der Club of Gore. I turn up the volume really, really high, so that every sound bounces around in my tiny flat. Admittedly, I should be riding a car on the autobahn somewhere between Berlin & Dresden in the middle of the night, but nevermind. I open the window to let the music blend into the noise outside; car horns, birds, bus breaks, church bells - and the wind (it's a really windy day). Just as the other Bohren records, this is minimalist jazz/drone/ambient stuff. But as I've listened to all of the albums by the band (except Midnight Motel, yet to be found) I've come to notice some distinguishing marks of them all. Midnight Radio has a lot in common with Geisterfaust - they are both extremely slow, revolving around some very, very sparse, somber, resonating riffs. Yet there's a queer grooviness (however slow) of this album that sets it apart from Geisterfaust. Unlike Sunset mission, there's no sultry saxophone that would add some sweetness to the songs. It's often the notes of the upright bass that set the mood, but the use of percussion - it's used here and there - provide some variation and, also, a few surprises (esp. on disc two). Some of the riffs make me think of Neil Young's soundtrack to Dead man (great movie, by the way); one feels the resonance in one's head, literally, like a throbbing headache. There's also a lot of rhodes electric piano, and perhaps that's why "Riders in the storm" does not seem a far-fetched association here. There's something about the melodies on the album, the atmosphere and the road theme that resembles a lot of the stuff that goes on in that Doors song (I like the Doors, and esp. that song even though the lyrics are what they). Midnight Radio clocks in at over 1 1/2 hour, but you should here it from beginning to end. One of Bohren's best albums, IMO.

7 June 2008

omnipresent Gösta

Gösta sits at the library, reading Marx. We are all slaves of labor, thinks Gösta, and gets up to get another cup of Joe. Black as a moonless night.

Gösta calms his nerves with a night of "seniors' bingo".
Gösta deserts the fumes and noise of the city ("Babylon!" as one of G's mates would have it) for a pastoral weekend of cookies & boat trips.
This is the origins of Gösta.

Gösta looks at the materialization of the repressed desires expressed in the 70's notion of 'gillestuga' ('rumpus room'). Gösta does not have a spotless record. Look at that sunset, bastard! Shall we make a fire? What kind?

Gösta + Cat check out the birds outside. Don't mistake her for a sweet lil' kittie. This is a killer with big intentions. Beware.

Gösta gazes at the drifting clouds and thinks about nothing. Gösta is not in a hurry.

Gösta has found his Graceland. Brooklyn lager, "Tennessee Waltz" and cosy leather couches. The sun is shining into the windows and the small venue is all light and silence. The barman is involved in a quiet conversation about PA systems with a silver haired gentleman. The beer melts in Gösta's mouth.
This is another day, another pub, another idyllic place. Gösta is introduced to Sture Alléns Dansorkester. Gösta is thrilled. Then there's Johnny Cash in the sound system.

The police officer tells the demonstants, the few that showed up, sarcastically: "And remember to be calm. Don't get run over by a car. You have to form lines" He talks like a kindergarten teacher. Gösta craves for riots, Gösta wants to disturb the public peace, but Gösta lacks moral energy. Gösta ponders on "demonstrations are for old ladies". Gösta doesn't know. Gösta is confused.
These are sweet nights. Gösta never sleeps, Gösta never rests. Gösta considers Jon Bon Jovi to be a dexterous poet who has truly dissected the depths of the human soul. "You'll sleep when you're dead."

This is an even sweeter night. Gösta is the last person on earth. Gösta is waiting for the zombies to dig their teeth into his flesh.

But no zombies show up that night. Gösta finally meets them, at the grill, among the birds. One of the zombies starts a brawl. "You call yourself patriots" she hollers "but you don't even know the borders of Finland. You know nothing about Karjala." Her smiling boyfriend, dressed in a tuxedo, attempts to drag her away. She persists. Another zombie starts singing "Oolannin sota" in an angelic voice, perfectly pitched. But his singing is interrupted when a guy stands up on the steps of the grill, professing his hatred for muslims. He tries to imitate Arabic. Guttural sounds. Then there's another lecture. "Give it a rest", a pacifying voice. "You bloody idiot, you don't understand anything!" A while later, he is silently chowing his fries, but the birds won't leave him alone. He is waving his arms like a windmill.

5 June 2008

Greetings from Berlin!

A few years ago, I was doing some interrailing in Germany. One day, I was walking around in Hamburg. The part of the city in which I was strolling around was all steel and glass, business brands and industry. From my headphones a song by AGF & Delay was blasting, "From morning on". Since then, I've wanted to know more about similarly minimalist, ambient electronica. AGF & Delay made an album in 2005, Explode, that is pure magic throughout. The record is strangely melodic, despite being quiet-quiet. Every beat matters. The same could be said about the solo work of AGF. Her music includes vocals but the themes she is exploring are quite surprising: in her characteristic, hushed voice, she reflects on language and its relation to the world. Her lyrics have the quality of poetry (I know that could be understood the wrong way, but.).

Laub is an equally interesting band from Berlin. Actually, the band is AGF plus Jotka. Their music shares many qualities with AGF's solo projects. So far, I've listened to Deinetwegen. Laub's records are somewhat hard to get hold of, so I'm looking forward to a trip to Berlin. Some of their lyrics are in German, which is fun. The record is inspired by American blues, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. It's for sure a very interesting take on the tradition of blues. They do to the blues what His name is alive does to soul and r n' b.

Ellen Allien is a prolific artist. Her latest album, Sool, offers a slightly more minimal sound than the earlier, more techno/dance-oriented albums. Of course, AGF is part of the reason for this. She's been contributing to the recording process. The opening track, Einsteigen, sets the mood with a mechanical voice announcing the arrival at U-Bahn stop Alexanderplatz. The album is song-oriented in a fairly traditional sense, but a lot of ambient elements blend in. The record's got a very urban sound, and that's a quality I'd ascribe to AGF's music as well. Some songs stand out, such as Zauber, featuring oboe.

Even though Lali puna is a far poppier act than those mentioned in this post, their music is still redolent of AGF et al due to a common taste for minimal beats and a somewhat mysterious sound.

Yet another artist whose music could be situated somewhere in the AGF regions is Murcof. He's not a Berliner, but Mexican, but nevermind. His music is spooky as hell and it includes samples from classical music (at worst, the effect could be cheesy, but it's not). I've got two of his albums, Remembranza and Martes, and they are both outstanding. Then I also want to mention Finnish musician Vladislav Delay. His projects are quite dissimilar from each other (Vladislav Delay/Luomo/Uusitalo/AGF&Delay....), but they are all good. Do check them out.
Let me finish by mentioning Machinefabriek, a Dutch project of, mostly, ambient music. His music ranges from sweetness to noise, from almost-pop to dizzy ambience. Being eerily spacious, this is music that easily opens up to the listener, without forcing itself on her.

3 June 2008

Bikur Ha-Tizmoret (The band's visit)

There are a few rare movies that grab hold of the viewer from the very start. After the first few pictures. For me, Bikur Ha-Tizmoret (The band's visit, 2007) provided me with that kind of experience of being totally enchanted from beginning to end. In the introductory scenes, a group of men dressed in uniforms are standing, as it were, in the middle of nowhere. The picture is very clean, very focused, and the blue uniforms shine starkly in the bright light. Already here, I realized that this film simply can't be bad, not with a scene like that. Even the god damn tagline is brilliant: "Once - not long ago - a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this...It wasn't that important."

And, boy!, what a movie. The story in itself, a band comprised of police officers from Egypt getting lost somewhere in Israel, isn't that remarkable. But good movies are rarely movies the storylines of which look good on paper. The police officers arrive at the destination they think is the place where they are to perform at a cultural event the next day. They have ended up in the wrong place and there's no bus until the next morning. They are stranded in the town, but a restaurant owner takes them in for the the night. That's about it. But beyond that, every single scene in the movie conveys warmth, insight and sensitivity. Very ordinary situations are transformed into great comedy. In one scene, the group of men who are lodged at the male waiter's house are sitting watching TV. Everything is quiet, except for the blaring sound of the TV (based on the sounds, they are watching cartoons). The men sit on the couch like statues, with grave faces. The waiter's family have all retired after an evening of uncomfortable conversations and subdued conflicts. Both me & my friend cracked up while watching this scene, but none of us dared laugh out loud, as we would've disturbed the silence. There are uncountable moments like that throughout the film, extremely sad and funny at the same time. (For a point of reference for that kind of humor: Kaurismäki)

You might not believe it based on your notions of "a police band", but the music in the film was superb. The music was, of course, as quiet as everything else. A younger police officer, Haled, asks the hostess whether she likes Chet Baker but she is not familiar with his music. Tarwfiq, the leader of the band, a man of dignity, surprisingly tells Haled that he owns all of Chet Baker's records. Haled starts playing a Chet Baker tune on his trumpet. That scene is simply stunning (and also here I found the whole situation strangely comical, even though it might be hard to explain why it is funny that a gray haired egyptian police officer turns out to be an expert on Chet Baker).

You might think: "oh, what a cute little film this seems to be..." But even though I have no problem in saying that I like some movies, even if they will not turn out to be revolutionary in any sense, I would not say that of this film. I was certainly overwhelmed by it and I already think about re-watching it, as there were so many small, delightful details that I might not have understood the first time around. Stunning.

Agitated radio pilot: your turn to go it alone

I've listened to Your turn to go it alone by Agitated radio pilot now on a regular basis for a couple of years. It sounds better and better each time. Agitated radio pilot is one of those mysterious band I can't recall how I became acquainted with. I know there is a more well known act that Dave Colohan of ARP is involved in, United bible studies, but I've never brought myself to look for the music of that project. That is because Your turn... feels so self-sufficient (in a good way), a universe of its own. I can't imagine that Colohan could ever top this effort. But who knows. What's the album like? It's clearly some kind of late Talk Talk/Mark Hollis territory we are dealing with here. Quiet, sad music that displays a full, rich sound without sounding over-produced. But I also connect this album with artists inspired by British folk music from the late sixties or early seventies. Greg Weeks, Espers, are names that seem to be kindred spirits.

Your turn to go it alone consists of several parts. The first part of the album is a set of vignette-like songs about loss. Straightforward songs, but very engaging. I usually cannot stand the use of flute in music, but even the flute fit in this setting. The long, buildup track "It won't last" is a continuation of the sad atmosphere of the first part, and also on this song, Colohan sings in a distinctive, no-nonsense kind of way (no frills whatsoever - I like that). But this song brings in other elements than what the firsts songs contain (streched-out solos led by a trumpet and interestingly sleazy-sounding percussion). The last section of the album consists of an ambient track, "psych-folk" of a more abstract form (more "psych" than "folk"). This doesn't mean that the album looses something of its emotional directness towards the end; it's just different. The music slows down, becomes more quiet. But it's still highly evocative music.

I wish this band were a bit more famous so that their material would be slightly more acessible. Who knows? There are a few free downloads over at Last.fm.

1 June 2008

The mysteries of the universe: the Cern tunnel

Few of us have deep insights into physics, or chemistry, or medicine. I don't, for sure. I thought about that when I was skimming through some news articles about Cern (The European Organization for Nuclear Research), an organization presently involved in a huge project that, according to news articles, try to solve the "mystery of mass", how mass is held together and how big bang really came about. News articles tend to focus on the showy part of the project; see, as the particles collide, small and unstable "black holes" ( - don't ask me about the details) are created. Small nuclear explosions occur as the particles are smashed together. "the particles will produce tiny fireballs of primordial energy, recreating conditions that last prevailed when the universe was less than a trillionth of a second old", explains the reporter from The New York Times. Obviously, a lot of bad jokes about being sucked into a black hole just have to be cracked (The organization was, in fact, sued by a worried American teacher).

After I've read the articles, it's clear to me that this project is very costly, that many researchers are engaged in it and that it concerns some questions that physicians consider to be of importance. But I get the feeling that there must be some technical use, to which these results can be applied. It just has to. Why do I have that hunch? Aren't the fundamental questions of physics essential enough to initiate grand research projects? I guess I am thinking about the relation between military interests & the development of space programs. The splitting of atoms and all the things that this made possible. Is it just my lack of knowledge of physics that makes me suspicious of the objectives of the research project in question?

This article from The Telegraph makes it is extremely difficult, as a reader, to get a clear picture of what is driving the project onwards, what is really of importanc here. One certainly gets a picture of the "large hadron collider", a particle accelerator situated in a tunnel, where some of the experiments take place; the article conjures up a futuristic, sci-fi montage of arcane technology and arcane interests, of which ordinary people understand little, but still it's very admirable, very grand. Why all this admiration? The journalist tries his best to make physics appear like something quite ordinary, like baking cookies. The tone is dramatic, it's all about "unlocking the mysteries of the universe", but at the same time he tries to capture something of the ordinary life at the laboratory. I like the latter aspect, and wish there were more articles focusing on that aspect of science. The drudgery at the lab, which not always will lead to the unlocking of the mysteries of the universe (I haven't read Bruno Latour's writings on the everyday work at the lab (Laboratory life), but I should - his take on science seems fairly interesting, and fairly sound).

I'm at Cern (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), and I'm in this tunnel to look at a long metal tube, a particle acclerator known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the most complex piece of machinery ever built.

Most complex...? Then it must be some serious shit going on there, but what kind? (My associations drift towards rhetorics during the cold war, science and politics) Of course, there are two things here, the rhetorics of journalism - "NEWS! NEWS! NEWS!" and the way "sheer curiosity" or "senseless indulgence" or hidden intentions may worm their way into science (Hannah Arendt talks a bit about the latter dimension, I think).

“For me,” Dr. Gianotti said, “it would be a dream if, finally, in a couple of years in a laboratory we are going to produce the particle responsible for 25 percent of the universe.”

Without either the knowledge of paradigms of physics theories or the practical dimension of application, this quote (from the New York Times article referred to above), for me, means absolutely nothing. "The payoff for this investment, physicists say, could be a new understanding of one of the most fundamental of aspects of reality, namely the nature of mass." Fundamental aspects of reality? I don't think so, at least not if 'reality' is understood separately from the concepts used in the theory of physics. My only point is: there is a certain grandiose tone in many of the acticles discussing scientific experiments that seems to have nothing to do with physics itself, nor its application. Am I wrong?

PS: It was at Cern that the World Wide Web was developed.