Friday, 16 September 2016


In this stylish and intelligent new science fiction drama, directed by Alex Garland, a young computer programmer is sent to an isolated research facility, run by an eccentric recluse named Nathan Batemen (played to terrifying effect by Oscar Isaac), to determine whether his new robotic creation possesses artificial intelligence.  The computer programmer Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) encounters an enigmatic female robot called Ava (played by Alicia Vikander), who quickly surpasses the boundaries of the Turing test, revealing what appear to be a range of human feelings including loneliness, vulnerability, and desire.   The emerging emotional connection between Smith and Ava, or rather projected onto Smith by Ava as part of an elaborate experiment, begins to unsettle the power relations within the subterranean labyrinth.

There is a touch of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) here in Garland’s Ex_Machina (2015) where the power of imagination emerges out of an interface between human and machine and consciousness resides in a tangle of wires and flesh.  The film’s spectacular denouement hints at a near future in which Turing’s anticipated avatars stroll among us.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Harlow as viewed from Berlin

In the wake of the EU referendum there has been a surge of racism and xenophobia across the UK including acts of extreme violence.  A spate of attacks on Polish people in the Essex town of Harlow, for example, located not far from London, culminated in the murder of Arkadiusz Jóźwik, and has attracted international attention.  Unlike the muted media coverage in the UK external observers see this murder and the atmosphere of intimidation as a shameful indictment of the UK’s declining status as a respected European nation.1
Harlow was the future once.   As one of the original new towns established under the New Towns Act of 1946, and designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, Harlow was a state-of-the art planned settlement created in response to acute overcrowding in London.  Its buildings exemplify some of the most important examples of post-war British architecture and its comprehensive park system reflects the richness and complexity of the local topography.
Politically, Harlow is a classic bellwether constituency:  Labour in the 1970s, Conservative in the 1980s, regained by New Labour in the 1990s, lost again to the Conservatives in the 2010 general election.  In the 2015 election this working-class seat seems to have slipped further out of Labour’s reach than ever before: it is more Tory now than even under the high water mark of Thatcherism in the late 1980s.  Without Labour winning Harlow there will probably never be another progressive government in the UK again.
Part of the UK’s problem is that it has never gone through a process of collective self-reflection over its colonial antecedents, whether in Ireland, Kenya, India, or elsewhere.  A fog of self delusion pervades national discourse so that the UK’s complicity in the geo-political turmoil that has generated the contemporary mass movement of migrants and refugees is scarcely acknowledged.  Equally, the enormous contribution of migrants to British society, over many decades, has been drowned out by years of wilful misrepresentation.   The imperial mantra of “free trade” has become part of the labyrinthine tautology of “Brexit means Brexit” where vacuity and mendacity rule supreme. 
The fading of Harlow’s post-war dream is a poignant cipher for the wider ills of British society.  But the European Union is no more responsible for the town’s perceived decline than the rings of Saturn.  Why blame Europeans for the failures of Britain’s ruling class?  I hope very much that Neal Ascherson’s interpretation of the UK’s predicament is correct: we will spend three years trying to get out of the EU and then a further three years trying to get back in.2 
1          Christian Zaschke, “Rührt euch,” Süddeutsche Zeitung (10/11 September 2016)
2          Neal Ascherson, “Where are we now?,” London Review of Books  (14 July 2016

Sunday, 11 September 2016


This afternoon I grabbed my towel and headed for Schlachtensee — a lake in the south west of Berlin, surrounded by the vast Grunewald forest that stretches beyond the city limits.

It’s been just over ten years since I swam in this lake — the last time I was here Germany were hosting the world cup and I had a picnic on the lakeshore.  As I swim out through bands of warmer and cooler water, beyond the dappled shade provided by alder and poplar trees, I am alongside coots and great crested grebes bobbing about on the surface, making occasional dives into the muddy depths.  Large dragonflies skim across the water like turquoise jewels in the sunshine.  In the distance I can the see the bright green reed banks on the other side — my destination as I gradually leave the crowds behind.

In the early twentieth century speculative developers tried to grab the lakeside to build private villas and restrict public access.  Luckily a new city planner called Martin Wagner stopped this from happening in the 1920s as part of his inclusive vision for urban nature.  How many swimmers know that somebody had their future in mind nearly 100 years ago?  This is public space at its best!

City of wasps

One of the nicer features of Berlin during the warmer months is the popular habit of having a Sunday breakfast platter served outside.   The city has many hundreds of excellent cafes with their assorted bread, cheese, and jam awaiting the bleary eyed as they emerge blinking into the sunshine.

It only takes about three or four minutes but then they come.  From the second or third week of August they arrive in ever greater numbers.  It is the wasp season. It is now mid-September, and the glorious blaze of late summer sun, belied only by its angle in the sky, is but a backcloth to a momentous feeding frenzy.  The wasps seem to know that their days are numbered and it is now or never to have a really good final supper.  The Berlin wasps know what they like: a trace of foam from a Milchkaffee serves as an ideal accompaniment to strawberry jam.  A soft-boiled egg is also appreciated: genau six minutes if you don’t mind.

It is above all jam that kick starts their party.  Never mind philosophical studies of human crowd behaviour this is the collective affect of insects in full swing: suddenly there are nine wasps feasting on the small pot of jam that arrived with my breakfast.  There’s just no use in batting them away — this makes them understandably really annoyed — as other tables fail to realize in their desperate efforts to curtail the wasp buffet.  Yet somehow all this jam seems to remind the wasps that their days are numbered — a kind of frenzied sugar rush takes hold.  I am not so sure about the Heideggerian assertion that non-human life simply perishes because it has no conscious understanding of death: these wasps seem to know that they have little time left and are not happy about it. 

I observe with grim satisfaction as a party of four enjoying a champagne breakfast at the table next to me abandon their table amid a series of elaborate Pina Bausch style body movements to continue their revelries indoors.

The finale to my breakfast is a small glass pot of plain yoghurt mixed with stewed morello cherries preserved in alcohol: at this point the wasps finally take over with several sitting on my spoon as it approaches my mouth.  Be gone human!  We are in control now!