With all this talk of the NSA and its activities, espionage has stormed back onto the front pages. Perfect time to publish a spy novel set in China, the USA and Germany, one should think, and cometh the hour, cometh the man in the form of Olen Steinhauer. That surname suggests another Nordic star but [...]
This evening in London, Sotheby’s will auction 72 lots of Impressionist and modern art in one of the most anticipated sales of the year. When all the bidding’s done, Sotheby’s expects to have raked in more than £75 million. Undoubtedly, the star of show is Claude Monet’s gorgeous depiction of The Palazzo Contarini in Venice, which he painted during a three-month stay in the city in 1908. But it’s complicated.
What the Sotheby’s auction catalogue does not mention is that this particular Monet is from the collection of Helly Nahmad, a character for whom the adjective “colourful” was coined. The Nahmad family hails from Aleppo in Syria and its members operate art galleries in New York and London. Their collection of 3,000 works, including 200 oil paintings by Picasso, is valued at $5 billion by Skate’s Art Market Review.
Much to the surprise of its posh patrons, however, the Helly Nahmad Gallery in Manhattan was forced to shut its doors earlier this year after it was raided by US agents on the grounds that its owner was running a high-stakes gambling ring that catered to celebrities and the very wealthy. On 16 April, Helly Nahmad was charged with racketeering and money-laundering conspiracy. According to the indictment, Nahmad ran an operation that used illegal gambling websites to generate tens of millions of dollars in bets each year. The gambling ring was supported, in part, by the gallery, states the indictment. After such unpleasantness, it is a relief to lovers of modern art, no doubt, that the Helly Nahmad Gallery is open for business once more. The proceeds from this evening’s sale of The Palazzo Contarini painting, which should be spectacular, surely will comfort the proprietor during his difficulties.
“Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in nearly 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.” So claims the Innocence Project. Imagine, then, a car crash in the near-future where one of the drivers captures the accident with her Google Glasses. Would the court prefer to watch the video rather than hear (unreliable) eyewitness testimony? Consider the implications for the justice system as it now operates. Discuss.
Further reading: “With wearable tech like Google Glass, human behavior is now a design problem” by Sean Madden.
With all this talk of the NSA and its activities, espionage has stormed back onto the front pages. Perfect time to publish a spy novel set in China, the USA and Germany, one should think, and cometh the hour, cometh the man in the form of Olen Steinhauer. That surname suggests another Nordic star but Steinhauer was born in Baltimore and attended the University of Texas, Austin. He now lives in Budapest and he’s bidding to be the new John le Carré. Given the quality of An American Spy, he’s got a great hand of cards.
And better again, Steinhauer has got a great sense of the Zeitgeist because he’s peopled An American Spy with characters such as Comrade Colonel Xin Zhu, the corpulent head of the Expedition Agency within Beijing’s Sixth Bureau of the Ministry of State Security. He’s had 33 CIA agents killed across the world in a breathtaking act of liquidation, but he’s got to watch his back because Wu Liang and his associate, Yang Qing-Nian, of the Supervision and Liaison Committee, a branch of the Central Committee’s Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, are not fans. Xin Zhu speaks:
“It wasn’t just revenge, you know. Everyone thinks that’s what it was — the committee, you, probably even the Americans. Revenge factored into it, but it was also a practical decision. That’s something I’ll have to explain on Monday morning. By eradicating one of their secret departments, we have sent a serious message to the Americans, the same message we want to send with the Olympic Games. That we are the primary force in the world. We are a nation that has suffered long enough — that’s the past. The present is this: We are a superpower of unfathomable riches, and we will not stand for interference, particularly from a country on the other side of the planet that still refers to itself as the world’s only superpower.”
Yes, it’s only fiction but le Carré’s fiction was infused with fact and there’s a lot in An American Spy to suggest that Steinhauer intimately understands the nexus of global strategy and dirty deeds, too. His portrayal of Zhu is measured and menacing and the useful idiots who marched in Hong Kong at the weekend in solidarity with Edward Snowden would do will to read An American Spy. There are no paradises upon this earth.
W.H. Auden famously observed that the poetry of Cavafy seemed to survive translation remarkably well, and that it was marked by “a tone of voice, a personal speech immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it.” If there is a thread running through Cavafy’s take on life, it’s transience.
Days to come stand in front of us,
like a row of burning candles —
golden, warm, and vivid candles.
Days past fall behind us,
a gloomy line of burnt-out candles;
the nearest are still smoking,
cold, melted, and bent.
I don’t want to look at them: their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my burning candles.
I don’t want to turn, don’t want to see, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly one more dead candle joins another.
Constantine P. Cavafy (29 April 1863 — 29 April 1933)
“Somewhere in the east: early morning: set off at dawn. Travel round in front of the sun, steal a day’s march on him. Keep it up for ever never grow a day older technically.” So muses Leopold Bloom early in Ulysses. Interestingly, one of the books that James Joyce places on Bloom’s bookshelf in his [...]
Tomorrow is Bloomsday and we’re getting into the mood with this classic track from Hothouse Flowers, a band that evolved in the mid-1980s when Liam Ó Maonlaí and Fiachna Ó Braonáin started busking on the streets of Dublin, the city where Leopold Bloom endured so many trials and tribulations on 16 June 1904, all of which James Joyce chronicled in Ulysses using very long sentences.
“There’s a blue sirocco blowing warm into my face
The sun is shining on the other side of the bridges
The cars going by with smiles in the windows
There’s a black cat lying in the shadow of the gate-post
And the black cat keeps telling me that love is on it’s way
Don’t leave me now
Stick around and laugh a while.”
Liam Ó Maonlaí: “The song could be for anyone. Parents, exiles, sons and daughters. For me, it’s a very personal thing, the death of my friend, Eamon. The day he died. A beautiful spring day, otherwise. A slow death. One year long. So much pain for the people around him. It’s not a difficult song for me to sing though. It’s a rejoicing song, in spite of everything. ‘Don’t Go’ is here and now.” (Speaking to Melody Maker in 1988).
It takes a brave person to defend the NSA and its surveillance remit, but David Simon, writer of “The Wire,” is not afraid to step up. In a blog post titled “We are shocked, shocked…,” he declares: “Having labored as a police reporter in the days before the Patriot Act, I can assure all there has always been a stage before the wiretap, a preliminary process involving the capture, retention and analysis of raw data. It has been so for decades now in this country. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff.” And, he adds:
“But those planes really did hit those buildings. And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically-motivated enemy. And for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks. After all, we as a people, through our elected representatives, drafted and passed FISA and the Patriot Act and what has been done here, with Verizon and assuredly with other carriers, is possible under that legislation.”
The Guardian is home to some very nasty types still in pain following the defeat of the tyrants they so ardently supported, from Stalin to Chavez. Since the defeat of communism, this lot has flirted with everything from Islamism to feminism in the hope of gaining some relevance again, but each “ism” is worse than the other and all that’s left now is the “faux-scandal”. Same old stuff.
“Huge thank you to the region of Trentino, Italy for having me as a guest in your epic wonderland!” So says Matty Brown, the creator of this awesome clip. “This is incredible,”commented Ryan Dury. “Tons of creative footage. Beautiful region. I once had a day in Bolzano. Great editing!” Matty Brown’s video brings back happy memories of our wanderings across these parts of Playground, Italy, especially around Renon/Ritten.
“There’s a sense of place, depth, and spatiality in iOS 7 that makes it feel like hardware,” writes John Gruber of Daring Fireball. For this, he credits Jony Ive, also known as Sir Jonathan Paul Ive, Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple Inc. Gruber continues:
“There is a deep intellectual rigor to the design of iOS 7, and it’s hard not to see it as being profoundly informed by Ive’s background in hardware. In hardware, design is limited by physics: weight, density, size, connections, seams. Software doesn’t face those design limits. The old design of iOS 6 took advantage of that lack of limits, to its detriment. In iOS 6, you open a folder on the home screen, and linen is something you see underneath. You pull down Notification Center, and linen is something you see over. It’s both over and under. Hardware doesn’t work like that, but software can, because software can show you anything, conceptual logic be damned.
The design of iOS 7 is based on rules. There’s an intricate system at work, a Z-axis of layers organized in a logical way. There is a profound reduction in the use of faux-3D visual effects and textures, but iOS 7 is anything but flat. It is three dimensional not just visually but logically. It uses translucency not to show off, but to provide you with a sense of place. When you pull the new Control Center panel up from the bottom of the screen, its translucency lets you know that you haven’t gone somewhere new, you’re just looking at something over where you were.”
Those wondering about Edward Snowdon, his motivations and deeds, might consider watching The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant, paranoid psychological thriller from 1974. Starring Gene Hackman, with supporting roles by John Cazale, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall, the film addresses the social role of technology and examines the effects of spying on the human mind and the cost of being forced to keep secrets against one’s principles.
Although Gene Hackman’s character does not understand the true meaning of the conversation he has recorded, he finds it deeply troubling. Sensing danger, he is increasingly uneasy about what may happen to the couple involved once the client hears the tape, so he plays it again and again throughout the film, gradually refining its content, constantly reinterpreting the speakers’ emphasis on particular words and phrases, trying to figure out their meaning in the light of what he fears.
The horrific tension so brilliantly portrayed by Gene Hackman in The Conversation comes to mind in considering the mental condition of those whistle-blowers who make confidential material available to the public. How do they deal with the risks? How do they cope with the often unforeseen consequences of their actions?
“Bless me Father for I have sinned. Three months since my last confession. I — these are my sins. Took the Lord’s name in vain on several occasions. On a number of occasions, I’ve taken newspapers from the racks without paying for them. I’ve — deliberately taken pleasure in impure thoughts. I’ve been involved in some work that I think, I think will be used to hurt these two young people. It’s happened to me before. People were hurt because of my work and I’m afraid it could happen again and I’m — I was in no way responsible. I’m not responsible. For these and all my sins of my past life, I am heartily sorry.” Harry Caul (Gene Hackman)
Spent part of the weekend reading part of The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. The book exudes positivity and Richard Waters noted in the Financial Times that “it lays out a mainly optimistic case for why the world’s tyrants should tremble in the face of universal internet access.”
In their Introduction, the two authors sing the praises of “digital empowerment”, the result of which is that “authoritarian governments will find their newly connection populations more difficult to control, repress and influence, while democratic states will be forced to include many more voices (individuals, organizations and companies) in their affairs.” Then, comes this sentence: “To be sure, governments will always find ways to use new levels of connectivity to their advantage, but because of the way current network technology is structured, it truly favors the citizen, in ways we will explore later.”
Is “the citizen” here Jared Cohen or Edward Snowdon? The revelations about the PRISM project would appear to suggest the transition to a total surveillance society is underway and while Schmidt and Cohen don’t dismiss such dangers, they come across as somewhat naïve when they write: “In fact, technology will empower people to police the police in a plethora of creative ways never before possible, including through real-time monitoring systems allowing citizens to publicly rate every police officer in their home-town. Commerce, education, health care and the justice system will all become more efficient, transparent and inclusive as major institutions opt in to the digital age.”
More “efficient”, no doubt. But more “transparent”? One has doubts. That, by the way, is from the first chapter, “The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting”, which asserts: “Governments, too, will find it more difficult to maneuver as their citizens become more connected.” Really? The NSA data-mining PRISM project is, in fact, a partnership with at least nine big US internet companies, among them Google, Skype, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple. Governments, it turns out, regardless of what Schmidt and Cohen say publicly, are very agile in The New Digital Age.
In a future where everyone is connected, Juvenal will be more relevant than ever: “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“But who will watch the watchers?”) he asked.