The cone of corporate creepiness

Plums in cone 2
Zwetschgenpflaume in market cone

STALLHOLDERS AT THE weekly Lister Meile street market here in Hannover (Germany) sell fruit and vegetables in brown paper cones. At the last market, we picked up highly seasonal plums. As the photo shows, they are a type of damson.

We knew that Zwetschgenpflaume had just arrived on the market, because they featured on the specials board the night before at restaurant 11A Küche mit Garten (11A Kitchen with Garden). The name derives from its address, being in the square that translates as Kitchen Garden.

(Horror alert: creepiness coming).

My mobile phone has taken to opening with a YouTube suggestion, and when we returned from the market, it proposed a demonstration of how to use the plums.

Plum video 2
Renias Backwelt demonstrates how to use Zwetschgenpflaume

How did it know? I can think of three possibilities: that it was coincidental, that google tracked us at the market and the plums are in season, or that google had eavesdropped, and heard the word.

That was so creepy that, as soon as I showed Marion the video running, I turned it off. To be correct, I thought I turned it off, because it disappeared from my phone and started on a television in the next room. We’d last turned on the tv the previous evening, making our way through dvds of the wondrous 1982 series of Heimat.

plum-video-1.jpg
The finished product (taken from Renias Backwelt)

Adding to the horror, Mozilla had only just sent a blog item about how you can’t believe even baking videos any more, with a link to Sydney dessert-influencer Ann Reardon showing how so-called “content farms” are crueling the internet.

A “content farm”, such as So Yummy, creates low-grade “how to” videos to game the algorithms and drag in advertising dollars. That reduces the income of more serious posters, such as “Renias Backwelt” (Renia’s Baking World) with her plums, or Ann with “How to Cook That”. While I cannot imagine who would make Ann’s novelty dessert items, including a Prince Harry chocolate sculpture that took her three days to make, So Yummy has more than 100 million views a month with videos that merely look like cooking videos with their boring bits speeded up. As Ann demonstrates, So Yummy’s cooking instructions are way post-fact. The recipes she attempts don’t merely fail, they plainly would never work.

Incidentally, I have retained quotes around “content farms” as maligning farms; they are content production lines.

The monolith at the top of surveillance capitalism, Google owns YouTube and so much more, but does it really listen in through microphones in homes, cafes, offices and therapists’ rooms?

The next day, I received another Mozilla post:

“Hi Michael,

“If you have a voice assistant in your home or on your phone, have you ever been concerned that someone from the company could listen to your voice recordings?

“Recent news coverage confirms that suspicion.”

According to the quoted sources (Mozilla Foundation, “What can you trust on the internet?“), eavesdropping is now banned in the EU, but I still worry.

Returning to humour might distract from the creepiness. The secret agent comedy series Get Smart had a device called the “cone of silence” – those inside the bubble couldn’t hear; those outside could.

Or I might also cheer us up by turning to a second highly seasonal German phenomenon on the streets the past day or two: the two-century-old tradition of the Schultüte (school cone). A Schultüte is sometimes also called a Zuckertüte (sugar cone), because it is a large cone, almost as big as a small child, that contains sweets, toys and school items.

School cone

The cone marks an important rite of passage – a child’s first day at school. Parents have made or purchased a cone, filled it with the items, and hung it on a tree at the school. The child carries it home to open at a family party.

We saw children carrying them home yesterday, and I snapped an illustration of one, in a line-up of first-day-of-school children’s books, each showing cones, in the window of the nearby library.

 

“Traditional” marriage

Pugnacious ex-Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged a “no” to same-sex marriage to help “stop political correctness in its tracks“. Instead, the government’s postal survey found 62% in favour and 38% opposed, and so demonstrated strong Australian support for political correctness.

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Cheap shot (Abbott in red)

Tony Abbott deplores the “long march of the left through our institutions”. As he also told a group opposed to equal marriage in New York recently: “It’s not just the loss of Christian faith”; the politically correct also promote the “slow erosion” of “Western civilisation”.

How wrong could he get! But let me just explain here that the end of traditional marriage is a good thing.

Firstly, even professed proponents no longer really want traditional marriage; they want little more than “what I like to think is traditional marriage”.

In a pastoral letter entitled Don’t Mess with Marriage, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference defend specifically “traditional marriage”. However, among many errors and omissions, the Bishops fail to mention that traditional marriage has included gold ring-wearing priests having “married” the church. The tradition for nuns “marrying” Jesus dates back at least as far as St Catherine of Siena, who saw herself as a bride of Christ, after a vision of the infant Jesus giving her a wedding ring.

Until late in the nineteenth century in Australia, traditional marriage meant depriving a wife of property rights (and she became property herself). In 1969, the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission lifted the general female award minimum wage, but out of deference to men as the “traditional” breadwinners to only 85% of the male wage. The patriarchal marriage was so sacrosanct until recently that police remained reluctant to intervene in a “domestic”.

Historically, marriage has been highly diverse, including polygamy. But let us concentrate on the tradition of child brides. As recently as 1942, the state of Tasmania raised the minimum legal age of marriage from 12 to 16 for girls, and from 14 to 18 for boys, and Tasmania led the other states on that. The Australian Marriage Act of 1961 still allowed girls of 14 or 15 to marry in “unusual and exceptional circumstances”, although that provision was amended in 1991.

Such traditional marriages might now be illegal, but religious “conscientious objection” is so strong that a few such weddings are still performed surreptitiously in Australia.

Tony Abbott’s former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin recently fulminated on Fox News against the silence of “feminist warriors” on these child brides. Blaming the politically correct’s hesitation to criticise other cultures, Credlin said that “in other faiths, we call it paedophilia, but not when it comes to Islam”. But how post-fact could Credlin get?

Worldwide, an estimated more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday. That includes massive numbers of Christians. Especially in Africa, Christian-predominant nations still encourage child brides. UNICEF figures show 16% of Ethiopian women aged from 20 to 24 were married before 15, and 41% before 18. In the Central African Republic (where 80% of the population are Christian), 29% were married by the age of 15, and 68% by 18. (For comparison, 3% were married under 15 in Iran, and 5% in Iraq.)

In the US, the statutory minimum age varies between 13 and 17, depending on the state. However, 25 states have not set minimum ages, instead relying on the “traditional” minimum – taken to be 12 for girls and 14 for for boys.

Many American Christians defend child brides, arguing that the girls are of child-bearing age, and, anyhow, Mary was probably 14 when she carried Jesus. Such claims were reasserted recently to defend Judge Roy Moore, the Republican’s fundamentalist Senate candidate now accused of harassing and sexually assaulting girls as young as 14. He is said to be socially inept, and in his early 30s notoriously haunted a shopping mall in search of a young bride.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently reported that between 2000 and 2010 as many as 250,000 children got married in the United States (“children” being aged 17 or younger).

Kristof interviewed Sherry Johnson, who was raped by both a Pentecostal minister and a parishioner, and gave birth to a daughter when she was 10. A judge approved the marriage to end the rape investigation, telling her, “What we want is for you to get married.”

“It was a terrible life,” Johnson recalls. Married at 11, she missed school, and spent her days changing nappies, arguing with her husband and struggling to pay expenses. She ended up with nine children, and periodically abandoned by her husband.

Proponents of “traditional marriage” have to accept that conservative Republican states tend to have higher proportions of sexually-active school students, teenage mothers, users of prostitution, married “swingers”, and divorce.

As to strongly Democrat states, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone wrote in Red Families v. Blue Families (2010):

the most visible representatives of blue family values [that is, the politically correct] bristle at restrictions on sexuality, insistence on marriage or the stigmatization of single parents. Their secret, however, is that they encourage their children to simultaneously combine public tolerance with private discipline, and their children then overwhelmingly choose to raise their own children within two-parent families.

Additionally, Democrat states tend to be wealthier and better educated, and, as Kristof wrote a couple of days ago:

So the deeper problem seems to be the political choices that conservatives make, underinvesting in public education and social services (including contraception). This underinvestment leaves red [Republican] states poorer and less educated — and thus prone to a fraying of the social fabric.

Australian right-wingers, including Tony Abbott, claim to uphold “the traditional stance of the centre-right in the English speaking tradition”, which is “to be pro-market and to be socially conservative”.

To translate, Abbott-style conservatives are proudly both neo-liberal (cutting social services, and undermining public health and education), and wanting to prop up the ensuing disaster through the promulgation of fundamentalist religious values, plus  divisive fear-mongering, and dog-whistle politics.

Such “no” leaders are sexually obsessed. For example, in Don’t Mess with Marriage, the Catholic Bishops warn against, among other consequences, “sex-education classes that teach the goodness of homosexual activity” (as opposed to teaching “the badness” or perhaps “evil” of homosexual activity?).

But basing “traditional marriage” on reproductive sex hardly works. Most immediately, other animal species successfully procreate without any tradition of marriage. In turn, embracing childless heterosexual marriages leads to shaky generalities about the “potential” for procreation. The Bishops want an institution, “open to the procreation of children”. The real concern therefore must be the social control/licensing of procreation.

For sexually-preoccupied conservatives, meals don’t matter (or don’t matter enough).

If we take marriage basically to be an institutional foundation for meal-sharing, it is then ideally a core commune of equals.

That explains, for example, the main problem with child marriage: juveniles are typically ill-equipped emotionally, educationally and financially to form an equal partnership, seeking “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” together.

Even the Bishops have a sneaking appreciation of marriage’s gastronomic basis, declaring that the union is “centred around … the wellbeing of the spouses”. Admittedly, the union also aims towards “the generation and wellbeing of children.” But, even in that requirement, “well-being” still counts.

In a little more detail, the Bishops accept:

Each marriage, from its beginning, is the ‘foundation-in-waiting’ of a new family and each marriage-based family is a basic ‘cell’ of society. Families also provide the social stability necessary for the future by modelling love and communion, welcoming and raising new life, taking care of the weak, sick and aged. The principal ‘public’ significance of the marriage-based family is precisely in being the nursery for raising healthy, well-rounded, virtuous citizens.

Once the Bishops have added something about marriage establishing a “nursery for, and household for sustaining, healthy, well-rounded, virtuous citizens”, even they might one day vote “yes”.

Note: I wrote previously about the “habitually divisive” Tony Abbott’s close relationship with the openly gay Christopher Pearson. As Abbott said: “Christopher was the aesthete; I was the athlete; he was a reformed Maoist and I was a lifelong conservative. Yet he had made it his mission to take me under his wing.”

Please Like Me’s restaurant decadence

We won #AACTA awards! @joshthomas87 won Best Screenplay in Television and Debra Lawrance (Mum) won Best Performance in a TV Comedy. Yeeeaah. Thanks guys. Go team. http://ift.tt/1ycBgmB
Debra Lawrance & Josh Thomas

YOU HAVE BEEN warned: Please Like Me is television brilliance. Perceptive, bold, exquisitely acted, and with a gastronomic thread winding throughout (a domestic comedy has to include meals).

Some movie-goers don’t like Eric Rohmer, and others avoid Woody Allen, so I shouldn’t be surprised that many also seem impervious to Josh Thomas.

If you do not yet know what I’m talking about (despite much praise, including mine a year ago), you could go straight to #PleaseLikeMe Season Four Episode 4 “Dégustation” for a devastating parody of restaurant decadence, the setting for an emotional reunion by Josh and his separated parents. Except for a couple of things.

Firstly, you’d be smarter to treat yourself to the whole six episodes of Season Four, taking them in turn, because the season openers (“Babaganoush”, “Porridge” and “Beluga caviar”) set the scene for “Dégustation” and then … well… watch them through.

Secondly, the “Dégustation” parody was shot in a real restaurant, using its actual parade of 15 dishes (even the culminating “cake”?). The half-hour was filmed over three days at Lûmé restaurant, South Melbourne.

Lûmé is a cheffy fantasy of tweezers, eye-droppers, liquid nitrogen, and, to quote the website:

Artfully deceptive, Lûmé takes a thoughtful and considered approach to dining. It’s a restaurant that doesn’t just serve food, rather, it creates experiences best enjoyed by curious minds. Pronounced loo-May, the word Lûmé evokes a sense of light, elegance and beauty. But its true origin is unknown, and its meaning controversial.

Early reviews of the restaurant mentioned a meal taking 5½ hours, everyone leaving plastered, and some unfortunate misses. After just seven months, two original partners left Shaun Quade to it. Yet, from other comments, the Please Like Me trio’s expressions of delight weren’t entirely acted. Here is a snap of cauliflower “camembert”.

Image result for Lume restaurant Melbourne

Census needs another party

Turnbull

I haven’t laughed as much for a long time as on Census night 2016. The internet sarcasm almost converted me to lifelong tweeting.

We tried to get through for an hour,  with final responses suggesting we try again in two days.

The organisation behind #CensusFail graciously promised we wouldn’t be fined for being late.

The flood of social media comments included a photo of the IT cat inside the bureau’s pc, and suggestions they try turning it off and then on again. Others said these same people guaranteed to keep our data safe.

Undoubtedly the most historic tweet came from the man who, according to then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013, had “virtually invented the internet in this country”:

This is the Prime Minister that Albo predicted the other night might last a year!

According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

Census was delivered by technology company IBM using its Australian SoftLayer cloud. Figures from the Australian Government’s procurement agency AusTender show IBM was paid $9,606,725 in 2014 to design, develop and implement the “eCensus”.

IBM motto

That certainly cut the cost of scurrying Census collectors, although, as it turned out, the ABS shouldn’t have relied on IBM to handle the inevitable storm in the local cloud.

This morning, the ABS boss is trying to blame denial-of-service (DoS) attacks from “an international source”.

Kalisch says it all went smoothly, and they fended off three attacks, until a fourth about 7:30 pm, when they decided to shut the site down.

As if a government data collector mightn’t expect antagonism here or there.

But, as Age economics editor Peter Martin revealed this morning, the ABS has a “reckless” new culture at the top. (David Kalisch in so much trouble that I won’t go on about him, of all people, using “data” in the singular.)

The fact is that the ABS organised its own DoS flood of messages. That’s if we believe ABC News:

In the lead-up to census night, the ABS spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on load testing and said its servers could handle 1 million forms per hour.

Let’s do a simple sum. Let’s assume only 10 million forms. At one million per hour, that would take 10 hours, assuming everyone were nice and orderly.

Census AustraliaPerhaps not unusually, we had a small party to upload our information. After something to eat and a Barossa red, we opened up the laptop about 8:20 pm. Annoyance eventually turned to social media hilarity, and we set a date for another Census party.

What did these people think? That they could insist that everyone was legally required to participate (as, apparently, television advertising kept reminding through the evening), and not expect an after-dinner rush?

Perhaps IBM staff assumed people would fill in their forms at work. Perhaps neoliberal bureaucrats have already abolished all life’s rhythms, ridding the world of penalty rates, at least in their heads.

And you don’t think meals matter!

Christmas, a “shallow celebration”?

HERE’S A RESEARCH question – is Christmas more enjoyed in the north than in the south?

In today’s column in Fairfax papers, Wendy Squires argues that any seasonal fun is spoiled by commercialism, family conflict and an ensuing “festive funk”.

That is an increasingly common view, and I sense a growing demand for a Christmas rethink.

The disaster seems too big for my suggested survival tactic of a Champagne anti-party.

Drawing attention to an additional post-Christmas funk, Squires’ column forced me to theorise further, and to suppose the clear benefits of a mid-winter Christmas over our present “shallow celebration”.

Australians have long enjoyed the “joke” that baked turkey and plum pudding are as unseasonal as Santa Claus’s thick coat and tinselly store Muzak. Historian K.S. Inglis pointed to the colonists’ tradition “to enjoy both the heavy Christmas dinner and the absurdity of it”.

Gastronomically, however, more has to be said.

Forget the birth of Jesus, and not merely because of falling church attendances.

Historians have difficulty estimating his birth year, let alone precise date. The choice of 25 December under Emperor Constantine borrowed the mid-winter festival, presumably because the beginning of the year would be appropriate for the beginning of Christianity, too.

Christianity’s local languor has left it too like a sentimental, Dickensian festival. Concentrating on family fun is triply two-edged. Firstly, which family? One practical solution has been for a couple to join one partner’s family for lunch and the other’s for dinner or the next day.

Secondly, it’s for the children, they say. But that should be year-round. Besides, Squires points to parents who just “spent the holidays aching for children in the custody of exes”.

Thirdly, as she reports, happy snaps of elderly relatives and wide-hatted kids on the beach are more than matched by negative stories – this year, one of her mates had a seemingly irreparable falling out with his brother, and a girlfriend’s “strained marriage” finally snapped.

To family woes Squires adds the “general malaise”. Falling into a festive funk, she tends “to ponder what I haven’t, rather than embrace what I have”. She laments another year passing, and flagellates herself for what she didn’t achieve.

And worst of all I make that terrible and oh so common mistake of thinking everyone else’s life is better than mine.

People then return with their holiday stories – about broken families, and about noticing “the empty chair of a lost loved one” – and she realises that “many of those happy snaps I envied should have been captioned ‘help!’”

Squires recommends accepting the Buddhist belief that “life is suffering”. I prefer the formulation in my dear friend Suzie’s long-term email signature, which I suspect she restored especially for the season:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. ~ Philo of Alexandria

My love for Brillat-Savarin rivals M.F.K. Fisher’s, and is helped by him tackling such downers as The end of the world”, which is “Meditation 10″ in Physiology of Taste.

In “Meditation 14”, Brillat-Savarin argues dolefully that table-pleasure compensates for hunger, thirst, and pain. He asserts:

Humanity is incontestably, among the sentient beings that populate the globe, that which is inflicted with the most suffering.

His evidence is people’s unprotected bodies, poorly shaped feet, inclination to war and destruction, and a mass of maladies such as gout, toothache, acute rheumatism and strangury. In his view, the fear of all the pain pushes people to give themselves up to the “small number of pleasures which nature has allotted”.

My suspicion is that contemplative festivity works better when it’s cold, and meals are made from thinning flocks and from fruit preserved in puddings. Christmas thinking is helped by the faint cheer of carols and baubles, attempting to keep close for warmth, and the prospect, however distant, of fresh shoots.

Our Christmas made more sense a year ago in Germany when cantatas and Christkindlmärkte seemed to challenge the cold and dark.

Even and, indeed, especially in a secular state, Christmas ought to arouse what the Christian emperor wanted, new beginnings. New Year’s Eve is beaten hands down by Christmas’s gift-giving, family reunions, intense commercialism, and whatever remains of religious thought.

But we need renewal in the right season. Those Antipodeans who move to a “Christmas in July” are on the right track, trying hard to get even colder and more drab than with a six-month shift to June.

We should not have to mourn among young bodies dashing into the surf. Daylight saving was not introduced to serve melancholy. A world flowing with white peaches, raspberries and, further north, mangoes provides pure pleasure, leaving scant room for reflection.

Plum pudding at a jolly Australian Christmas, 1875