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2005
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May 31st; Awake at Nigel's. Rigo pops round to walk Juno.

May 30th; Pizza with Kate. Later to Nigel's.
May 29th; Awake in Craig's sunny sitting room early, struggling out of dreams of regret and resentment: a sort of short bright morning of the soul.

May 28th; Last night we kept Kerry up, doing Tarot readings for all 5 of us in turn. By day, with her to British Museum. Dine with Nigel & Phil in Brick Lane.
May 27th; With Scott and Kerry to Tate Modern. Kerry and I walk back through City. Hot, sticky weather.

May 26th; Leisurely day, culminating in showing of Scott & Sam's film at the Hungarian Cultural Centre. Drinks afterwards with Paul, David, Veejay, and Rachel.
May 25th; Fly to London. Scott's brother Craig meets me at Old Street Tube station.

May 24th; Shop for trip. Linguistics Paradise says hello.
May 23rd; Still not ready for Wednesday's flight to London.

May 22nd; Time to map-reference Prague.
May 21st; Lovely grilled meat and trifle at Rajiv's garden party of busy toddlers. Later Franc & I watch 15 British men dressed as Elvis impersonators mob girls at a cafe. Finally with Heather to Philipp's farewell party.

May 20th; Beer with Mr Mahita. Chat: Alex, Brandon, reiki, coffee & meat, memory, people who look like Beata.
May 19th; Much less gloomy day. Finish the line drawings for Rex's Swiss patent application. I drink milkshakes and Rex talks inspiringly about Plato and Parmenides 1 2 3 4.

May 18th; I make another mistake and waste at least 30 quid on buying the wrong air ticket.
May 17th; Insomnia, 3 hours sleep, forget don't have return ticket as usual. Am fined on train.

May 16th; Ice-cream outing again, today to Tiszakurt.
May 15th; Cool, cloudy weather. I read Robin's copy [or perhaps Robin's old Berlin friend Mike's copy] of 'Understanding Media' by Marshall McLuhan. It is an interesting read from the mid-1960s covering familiar McLuhan territory. Cool [inclusive] media versus hot [intensive] media, the pervasive message that is the medium, and the ending of the linear, print-dominated Renaissance-to-1850s period. I would have liked this book to recap a bit about the lost "rich" world of scriptoriums, annotated manuscripts, and orally-focussed mediaeval scholasticism that he asserts movable type killed off in Europe. Footnotes and an index would have been good too - a lot of it is cryptic references, sometimes to events and people of the 1950s or 60s which I had never heard of. His dense, allusive, snappy style goes so far in a couple of places that he lost me completely. {"[Tribal society's] money can be eaten, drunk or worn, like the new space ships that are designed to be edible." ends one paragraph, bafflingly.}
The book is also smug. Lines like "The hi-fi changeover was really for music what cubism had been for painting..." make up about 2/3 of the text, and feel very much like McLuhan extemporising brilliantly while on a roll, rather than saying anything very likely to be true. It has an over-rushed feel to it - very repetitive and more than a little full of itself. It's easy to imagine McLuhan smartly claiming that this is exactly the post-Gutenberg sensibility in action, spiralling back on the same points again and again to show how post-linear, participatory, cool and tactile it is as a book. On the other hand it might be a shortage of persuasive evidence. The host of unsupported anecdotes ["A researcher...", "An African village...", "An airline executive"] seemed odd coming from a professional scholar, however hip. Call me boring, but while I enjoyed hearing of an airline executive who asked executives at other airlines to send him a pebble from outside their offices around the world, I would have liked it even more with a reference citing which airline. The claim that African audiences are surprised when someone disappears off the side of a shot on the movie screen, dropped in to make a point in one sentence, sounds like an oft-repeated story that has grown in the telling. Likewise that Nigerian students cannot [or could not in the 1950s] understand pictures in perspective - a little support would convince more. One page even has a casual half-line reference to Descartes being alive in the early 19th century: an unchecked typo may be all in the spirit of the post-Gutenberg inclusive blur of tactile media, but this is still, after all, a book.
The obvious question is what McLuhan would have made of the Internet, the web in particular. On many pages he confidently heralds something that sounds very much like it, but this confidence [resting on his breezy division into cool versus hot, and his matching condescension to other writers like Lewis Mumford who he explains almost get it right but not quite] is not fully warranted. If radio and print are "hot", and the telegraph and television are "cool", what would the worldwide web be in McLuhan's neat taxonomy? Presumably cool, because inclusive and participatory and "mosaic-like", but on the other hand it prompted a stock-market bubble, a rather hot-medium thing to do, and it is full of large chunks of intense, deep linear text. Would printing a book made up of items that first appeared on the Internet amuse him as being as misguided as early buyers of printed books taking them to a scribe to be properly written out by hand? As with all his analogies, it might be like that. Or it might not. Similarly, when he is glibly explaining away apparent contradictions in his theory [Britain and the US were so shaped by print culture, apparently, that they were more immune from the hot effects of 1930s radio than tribal Germany], you see a set of lucky guesses being stretched into a pseudo-science. The suggestion that Central European physicists were still more part of a non-linear folk past than West Europeans, so were better able to imagine non-Newtonian 20th-century physics, gives some idea of how ambitious his offhand explanations get. All I can say is that his competition [such as the Frankfurt School] do even worse at explaining how films, TV, newspapers helped shape the last couple of centuries. Like his others, this book is full of stimulating, provocative thoughts, and, as elsewhere, McLuhan heavily overplays his hand.

May 14th; Robin & I drive with 5-year-old Bela to a party in Bekesszentandras, where we meet Istvan the linguist, Laci the classicist, and Nara the chemist. Giuliano, the host, meets us with home-made Limoncello prepared from Italian lemons.
May 13th; A rather good Friday the 13th. Just manage to catch train connection at Szolnok and make it to meet Robin at Lakitelek. If otherlanguages reader Mahita has now finished reading how to combine yin and yang energies to reshape bits of reality, he has presumably started doing it.

May 12th; A cake lady tells me there are 3 Auguszt cafes, not just 2. Now a week since Harold Wilson the 2nd led Labour to another election victory.
May 11th; Last night finished Marion's copy of 'Othello'. In the years since I last read this, two things have changed. First, I've met more sly, cool-blooded Iagos than I knew back then. Second, this time it seemed to be less about jealousy and more about rage.
Othello, a Moroccan military leader serving the Republic of Venice marries a Venetian debutante called Desdemona. They are very much in love, yet a vindictive and clever officer passed over for promotion by Othello succeeds in convincing him, with great subtlety and many shows of reluctance, that Desdemona has cuckolded him with another officer called Cassio. Othello loses this, his most challenging battle, and is outwitted by Iago into strangling his newly-wed bride and killing himself.
The most worrying scenes are those in which Iago insinuates to Othello that his wife has been unfaithful while seeming to do the opposite, arousing Othello's jealousy by warning him against jealousy. In a way the Moor is an ultimate tragic hero, since not even destiny or his own unforced blunders are needed to bring him down. A single opponent, like a chess player, takes the initiative, pinpoints Othello's one weakness and goes straight for it. While Othello is admired by all for his frankness, bravery and nobility of character, it only takes one Iago to see that Othello can be broken, and to do it. Even the craven
Macbeth needed a steely wife and a clutch of witches to expose him to his own weakness. Last week saw a New-York accent joke quoted by Language Hat about how "a tragic hero is someone who falls through a floor in his character". Othello disappears down a kind of moral trap-door with extraordinary suddenness: magnificent leader one moment, crippled animal the next - fatally poisoned by a character sharpened into a needle of evil. I saw a British TV executive bawling in raw wrath at a set of game-show technicians a couple of years ago stopped in his tracks by one student so-bravely interrupting "I must defend Gabor" and realised that I was watching the magic at work: there and then seeing someone in the instant of being manipulated by a person pretending to tremble with just the right mixture of nervousness and humble indignation. The TV executive was completely taken in. Shakespeare warns in 'Othello' that we need to not simply guard against our flaws but to really fear them. Someone out there has the key to your lock.

May 10th; I meet Liia's friend Rex, an ex-watch trader.
May 9th; Icelandic purists contact me. Intense stuff.

May 8th; Unpack boxes in new office on 2nd floor. Fail to attend Linda & Mike's showing of 'No!'.
May 7th; Read copy left me by SF Jessica of Kurt Vonnegut's 'Galapagos'. While I used to have a twinkle of curiosity about his first title, 'Sirens of Titan', from the 50s, now I don't think I need read one of his books ever again. The story is narrated from one million years hence. It is about how, in the late 1980s, a global disaster makes a small group of people on a boat heading for the Galapagos Islands the ancestors of all future humanity. Vonnegut's facetious 'Ship of Fools' nihilism is as boring as ever. The idea that human beings are handicapped by having large brains [and so will be much happier as they evolve into seal-like beings without proper hands] is repeated ad nauseam on almost every page. Like any Vonnegut book, the plot proceeds with deliberate use of chance at every turn. Blunders and misfortunes turn out well, and carefully thought-out plans turn out badly. Plot twists come from genetic disabilities, heart attacks, hungry waiters, insane soldiers, economic events Vonnegut flatters himself he understands - whatever it takes to mock our idea that we can think ahead and negotiate positive outcomes. Vonnegut takes particular delight in showing how disparate elements of his toy world fit together: just as a missile is about to blow up the airport the protagonists are headed for, a food riot delays the bus departure, saving them all from certain death etc etc. This confident omniscience jars awkwardly with an overcute plot full of holes. The disease causing infertility across the planet would clearly die out or mutate before reaching every corner of earth except the island they are wrecked on. Or else twenty years on from 1986, a childless and high-tech civilisation would have flown over or noticed from space the island our proto-seal-humans' ancestors are marooned on. His over-neat randomness tries to have it both ways.
Such quibbles would hardly matter if there were anyone worth caring about in the story - if in fact it were a real story. But since - in the guise of humbling all of us on the cosmic scale, Vonnegut promotes himself to cosmic narrator god who patronises his own twittish toy creatures - the tale's cod science and economics are all that's left. The nearest we get to a character is the wriggling blue tunnel to the Afterlife that pops up now and then, trying to hoover the ghost narrator out of the world. This tunnel comes a lot closer than any of the people or post-people in the story to having a personality: it glows electric blue, it writhes in peristalsis like a beckoning intestine, and it drops in drolly at unexpected moments. This is in fact pure storytelling sleight of hand by Vonnegut, since the mischievous tunnel puts a little meaning back into the dreary tale he has doggedly washed all meaning out of, thus making it at least partly bearable to read again. For of course charming blue tunnels to Afterlives make no sense in terms of the smug materialism that fills his writing.
The smart-alec slapstick palls. Perhaps Vonnegut, whose entire career looks to me to amount to snide sci-fi rewrites of Voltaire's Candide, closes this couple of centuries of self-mocking [ie self-pitying] rationalism. With any luck, he will soon be as forgotten as the clockwork people trapped in his books. As he says in one paragraph on page 298 (several times) "But this wouldn't have mattered either." Quite.

May 6th; Interesting article about 'stereotype threat'. Gyorgyi finds me and helps out too.
Office is moving floors, so everyone packs boxes.
Boo Boo has lively party, where I meet Svetlana & Istvan, free spirit Krisztina, and Sard-speaker Ricardo.
May 5th; Tim zooms by in white mercymobile to help out.

May 4th; Free Hindi and free Arabic lessons on in town?
May 3rd; Another Hungarian-English online dictionary.

May 2nd; Hello to a Chinese weblog writer I wish I could read, and who apparently reads me. Blush.
May 1st; Wayne helps out with Maori library signs.

Mark Griffith, site administrator / markgriffith at yahoo.com

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