Misadventures in Design and Grammar: I

No Learning No Hugging, the blog of an author, observer and misanthrope

I’m an editor. This doesn’t mean I make no mistakes with grammar and syntax, but it does mean I see most of the mistakes other people make. I’m also a pretty keen consumer of book design—and, holy shit, if that ain’t a cemetery of broken dreams and failed visions.

Anyhow, I thought I’d start posting things I see—things I can’t help but see. Things that just aren’t right. Like The Four Fingered Man. Do you see the problem?

For want of a hyphen, one wonders if this is a cute kids’ book, or the sexual romp of a gang of four obsessively fingering some poor bloke’s ringhole to satisfaction, or fingering the ringholes of all men (man as a noncount noun) they come across because, well, I’m not sure why—and that’s the exact sort of hook you need to get someone to read your book. Why did the gang finger so many ringholes? What a great premise. Like Rumblefish  and A Clockwork Orange, except with more ringhole fingering.

For the record, it should be: The Four-Fingered Man. Nice cover, though.

Dear Academic: I Want Society’s Money Back

No Learning No Hugging, the blog of an author, observer and misanthrope

Recently, I came across something horrifying: Buffy studies. Remember Joss Whedon’s cult show from 1997–2003, Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I do. I watched it and enjoyed it (as well as the spinoff, Angel).

Well, turns out that a whole academic industry has sprung up around it. University scholars spanning media studies, women’s studies, psychology, sociology and philosophy have directed their taxpayer- and student-funded attentions to deconstructing the meanings of Buffy and assessing what it says about society.

Are you kidding? This is their best use of time and money? This is progress for 21st century humans?

Now, to make sure I wasn’t disparaging a field of inquiry that really does have important insights for wider society, I took a look at some of the work.

Holy shit, it’s bad. Or not so much bad—fields like media studies and women’s studies have their own esoteric criteria for what’s good—as pointless, inutile, inane, a giant waste of effort, resources and intellectual capital. Most of the scholarship comes down to this: in Buffy, gender stereotypes are both reinforced and subverted.

No shit. My drunk brother could have told you that, and he did not go to university (well, he did in the sense that I used to take him to the Uni tavern so we could both get drunk). None of this would matter if it was just someone’s privately-funded hobby or passion. Do whatever you like. But these people are taking money bilked from students for an education or confiscated from people with less fun jobs who don’t get paid to watch Buffy. When you take public money you have an obligation to contribute to the public good. Buffy studies fails that test.

The problem is marrow-deep in the universities, where this sort of thing is allowed to happen. No one—colleagues, department heads, administrators—ever asks the question: what is the value of this? It’s just not in the mentality of these disciplines. Value is judged intrinsically—based on how well work conforms to the pre-set rules and conventions of the discipline. I know, because I used to be knee-deep in it myself.

When I was studying for a PhD in history I quickly tired of being asked by new acquaintances what I was researching, so I made something up. I conjured the most ridiculous, pointless, valueless topic conceivable. From that point on, when someone asked what I was researching, this is what I told them: I’m writing a history of beer-bottle caps.

I was very specific—only beer bottles, only their caps. It did the job. I could describe my (pretend) topic in one sentence, and people, presumably disdainful, didn’t dare ask a follow-up query. But you know what should have happened? They should have told me I was a complete waste of space. That I was spending taxpayer money to investigate something that was worthless to society. I was a disgrace—that’s what I should have heard.

But I didn’t, because people in our industry know that once you start pulling that loose thread, the new clothes unravel and we’re all naked, exposed for what we are: opportunists. We get the opportunity to take governmental or institutional funds, often with little in the way of encumbrance, and use it to do something we enjoy or think we’ll be good at. We don’t give a shit what benefits it brings the rest of society. Oh, we’ll make some reasons up if you ask us—bullshit about better understanding social mores, or social processes, or the economics of this or that, any number of confabulations—but the truth is, we did the most human of things: saw money on offer, took money on offer.

I want to be clear: a lot of what goes on in universities is awesome. There are great people doing great work in fields that are dripping with potential for application to society’s problems either now or in the future. But in all fields—even the sexy ones—there are people spinning the hamster wheel, doing whatever they need to do to stay employed and get funding; doing what they can get away with doing; doing research that has already been performed, been shown to be useless, been shown to be misguided.

If I just look at my own example, the simple truth is that I was rewarded for being smart. Not an especially hard worker, not especially resourceful or industrious, just lucky by birth-right to inherit genes that gave me a talent for words and bullshit. I parlayed that inheritance into an APA scholarship at a sandstone university where I received close to $20 000 each year for three and a half years, had all my university fees paid, and I also got a dandy office (though that did require some industry and resourcefulness: by the time I was done I had a beer-fridge, beanbag, view unto a courtyard, fancy chair [a few fancy chairs, actually], book shelves, huge desk, filing cabinets—plush).

Little was asked of me in return. If, after however-many years, I hadn’t finished my studies, hadn’t produced anything? Just keep going, son. If I failed to finish after twelve years, dropped out, or did a really terrible job? I still didn’t have to give a dime back.

Now, all that is great. It allowed me to get a very good education. I learnt things I now use. I made decisions that will impact the rest of my life.

But I got all that because I was born with a very specific set of talents. How can I justify that when people who aren’t born with those talents, and people born in circumstances that make the expression of those talents impossible, get nothing?

Well, I can’t.

The Tyranny of the BBC and its Orwellian TV Licence

No Learning No Hugging, the blog of an author, observer and misanthrope

You hear those three letters—BBC—and think nothing but good associations. Fine documentaries. Brilliant historical dramas. Edgy comedy. All-round bastion of culture.

As an Australian I was brought up on the BBC, as BBC programs stand in for about half of all content on the Australian national broadcaster (the ABC).

Alas, the BBC is a bloody tyrant. I discovered this by moving to the UK and thus within the BBC’s all-powerful dominion. It starts with the obvious fact that a national broadcaster gets the majority of its funding through tax-payer dollars. In Australia this was through general tax revenues, but in the UK it is through a special levy known as a TV licence.

I only found out such a thing exists when, yesterday, an English gentleman knocked on my door and promptly informed me that I had failed to renew my tv licence and such failure, if not remedied, could result in considerable fines and possible court action.

Huh?

A strange conversation ensued in which the gentleman kept making statements about my need for a tv licence, while I made statements about not knowing what this Orwellian-sounding article of bureaucracy could possibly be, not to mention the fact I do not, have not, and will not ever be watching British television.

Though I appreciated The Bill, various Attenborough documentaries, and classic fare like Fawlty Towers when growing up, these days the general bulk of what passes for British television is decidedly not to my taste. No doubt some gems exist, but I know myself—I’d end up watching the dross, too, and my life would be inestimably worse for it. No, there shall be no British tv in my British household. If I want to watch a specific program (like Broadchurch or The Fall) I will wait till it is available for download.

This should have been the end of the matter, for, as I later found out, if you don’t watch tv, you don’t need a licence to watch tv (and, it repeats being said, the simple fact a “licence” is required to watch tv is the sort of thing I’d expect to find in a Bradbury or Huxley or Orwell novel, and which has now gone into my notebook for inclusion in my own dystopian novella; what next, a licence for pavement utilisation, or a half-licence if you promise to only walk on the cracks?).

But the chap very nearly pushed his way into my home. He insisted on examining my tv so that he could confirm it wasn’t in use, not receiving a tv signal. Anything less might result in a fine for improper usage without a licence. Of course, I wasn’t worried. I had ripped the bloody antenna out the moment I moved in, and thrown about twenty cables into a dark cupboard.

“I don’t use the tv,” I explained.

“Which is exactly why I must enter and examine it,” the BBC man countered.

“What for? I told you I don’t use the tv, so surely I don’t need a licence.”

“That’s right, so I just need to get inside and take a look around to ensure you don’t need a licence.”

“No, I don’t need a licence. I don’t watch tv. If I don’t watch tv then why would I need a licence to watch tv?”

“Well I’ll just take a quick look then.”

“At what?”

“The tv.”

“But I told you, I don’t watch tv.”

“But you have a tv?”

“Yes, but I don’t watch tv on it, just stuff from my computer.”

“I’ll need to check that then, so, if you don’t mind.”

“Check what?”

“The tv.”

“Huh?”

It occurs to me that this is less Orwell, more Kafka—a man accused of a crime, the details of which he is never fully aware. If I was to believe this BBC man, I needed a tv licence of which I knew nothing to watch tv which I don’t watch.

BBC, I’m sorry, but you lost me at licence.

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