A Progressive Rake

Funnies, rants, and quite a lot of gin

The Lenten patriot

The forty days are upon us, and yesterday I indulged my nephew by flipping a few comestibles of a recipe traditionally developed to use up all the ingredients not permitted during the fast, and for which I therefore had to make a specific trip to the Co-op, as is right and proper and thoughtlessly patriotic (what other type is there?).

But word has reached my ears that some of you – some of the English contingent1 – have been treacherously applying maple syrup to their pancakes. This cannot stand. Pancake Day may be a lousy, lacklustre tradition, an orgy of the kind of substitution of stodge for gustatory sophistication that rightfully got English cooking a bad name, but it’s our lousy tradition, it’s what we do to start Lent, and if you can’t do it properly then you might as well, I dunno, drink cachaça and dance in the streets for four days. Maple syrup! I ask you! They have a maple leaf on the Canadian flag, a country where it is legally permitted to speak French, for crying out loud. The only acceptable thing to put on your pancakes is Golden Syrup. That’s proper Englishness. Good Queen Bess herself still visits each and every vat they brew2 of the stuff where she ceremoniously gobs on her finger, sticks it in and wiggles it around a bit, and duly proclaims, “There. Now that’s one’s. All fucking one’s,” before hopping onto a unicorn and riding off to take high tea with St. George, or whatever else it is she does to Keep Our Country Great, Gawd bless ’er. [Wipes away a moist, dewy tear.] Maple syrup indeed! Light up a Gauloises and grate some garlic onto them, why don’t you, Jacques? Bof!

So yes, the forty days are upon us. For Lent this year I shall be giving up precisely nothing. This is because God doesn’t exist,3 there’ll be enough dust when I die, so I don’t see why I should spend a month of the brief interregnum shovelling yet more of it into my craw.


1 This really whittles it down. My readership numbers are hardly such as would challenge Cantor, and a significant proportion of those seem to be non-Brits, presumably with a scholarly interest in sarcasm, gratuitous intellectual name-checking (cf. supra, bitterly), or dated tubbish anecdotalism.

2 Infuse? Congeal? Irradiate?

3 Sorry if the last five hundred years passed you by and you had yet to realise this.

Closing accounts with Amazon (redux)

This is not a funny, it’s a rant. And not even a particularly amusing one, though there may be the odd nice turn of phrase along the way. If you were expecting chuckles then move along now, nothing to see here.

Still reading? Well you were warned. Onwards!

I received today the following email from Amazon:

Dear seller,

We have noticed that there is currently no valid Place of Establishment maintained in your Amazon Seller Account.

In line with our policies, we kindly ask you to make sure to update an address as soon as possible. This should be either your personal address if you are selling in your own name or the registration address of your business if you are representing a company. You can update the settings in Seller Central under Settings > Account Info > Place of Establishment Information.

We appreciate your efforts!

Best regards,

Amazon Services Europe

It’s an innocent little thing, isn’t it? Yet it has me genuinely furious—and not the mock-fury I force myself into in order to entertain you folks with intolerant rants about others’ intolerance. I am truly infuriated by this email.

The reason is simple: I asked for this account to be closed over three years ago. I was very clear: I wished to close it—not suspend it—and I was, back then, so irritated by the arcane and unnecessary hurdles put in the way of closing it by Amazon that I blogged about it, back on my old Posterous account. Posterous is now closed but, by the wonders of the WayBack Machine, you can still see that post here. Here’s the gist:

  1. Amazon do not have an option to close your account in their basic account management pages. You may “suspend” your account with ease, but there are no options to close the account. This is poor customer service.
  2. Amazon do not have a customer services email address. If you wish to contact them, you have to do so via a webform on their website. Clearly, if you wish to identify from whom the not-email is coming, you have to be logged into your account to send the request. They call this “email,” but it is not. It is a webform. I consequently have no separate record of my contact with them. This is poor customer service.
  3. I sent a succinct message from the webform, asking for my account to be closed. I received in reply a 19-paragraph email, the vast majority of which was given over to telling me how to suspend my account, and a single paragraph of which, near the end, told me how to get it closed. This is poor customer service.
  4. In order to close my account, they demanded that I contact them again, this time providing evidence of who I was by giving my post code and the last four digits of my post code. Bear in mind, that in order to contact them—given point 2 above—I was already logged into my account, and therefore not only had I already cleared password security, but the information requested was available but two clicks away from the page which I was obliged to use contact them. This is not only poor customer service, it is positively obstructive of the customer’s requirements.

My first post, over three years ago, speculated that the intentional effect of this combined poor customer service was to make closing one’s account an irritating and long-winded process, with the effect that many people would not bother, leaving Amazon free to hold their data for their own purposes.

It would appear, however, that despite my having jumped through all those loops, Amazon still hold my data and are treating it as active to the extent that they actually demand more. In one sense, the account is closed, for I cannot log in to it. But it is also clear that they have retained my data, and presumably treat the account as in some senses active, given their email to me; three years after I asked for the closure.

A year ago, I would simply have considered this desperately feeble customer service, probably an infringement of my data protection rights, and truly lousy corporate policy. However, in the wake of the NSA revelations from Edward Snowden, this takes on a whole new, worrying sheen.

Corporations such as Facebook and Amazon are data-greedy. You are a fool if you do not realize this, if you do not accept that when you provide them with your data—be it who you’re in a complicated with, or what books you buy—this is a resource for them that they can, and do, monetarize. This is why they make it so difficult for you to close your accounts. But, until Snowden, I gave them the benefit of the doubt, in that I presumed that they abided by the general principles of data protection: that individual data was not sold on, that they sold trend information extracted from their databases, not the details of any given individual’s behaviour.

However, we now know that this is not the case. We know that these corporations are being obliged—unwillingly, so they claim—to make available to the staggeringly vast US surveillance operation huge amounts of personal data on request. I’m not particularly cynical about the motives of companies in hogging data—they wish to make money, but the easiest way for them to make money is to operate within the law and I presumed I was safe from my personal details being sold on. But I am deeply suspicious of the motives of the US military-industrial regime, and its sycophants here in the UK. I am very doubtful whether they operate within the law. It is very clear that they secretly coerce large corporations into handing over personal data, regardless of the individual’s rights or the corporations’ policies. And I want to know, therefore, that when I request my data to be removed from a company who may be, in secret, being obliged to pass it on, that it is so.

Amazon, this is a massive fail on your part. I cannot now have any confidence that my data is in any way safe in your hands. I must confess that, since my rant three years ago, I had been tempted back to Amazon, because of the cheapness of Kindle editions. I have been contemplating upgrading my Kindle recently, and this (coupled with the disastrous failure of the platform to handle Arabic script) has now confirmed for me that I shall be switching to a Kobo when I do so.

I would respond, Amazon, to your email letting you know this. I would point out to you that you are demanding I update data on an account that I requested to be closed over three years ago. I would tell you that this is a gross infringement of my data rights, and that I am once again going to be leaving you for other shores. But I cannot, because I cannot access this account (for “closing” it you seem to have understood “shut off customer access to”), and because you don’t even give your customers the courtesy of a fucking email address.

The rant is over. Next time, I promise, I’ll be hi-fucking-larious.

Cf. supra? Wevs, bro.

This is a rant, and it’s a rant about language. I have been having an intermittent altercation with a friend on Facebook—

a reader [who we could just as well call the plain people of ireland, so nakedly is this device stolen from Myles na gCopaleen]: Facebook? Again? Are you ever off that dratted site?

me: Look, buster, it’s my only contact with the world at the moment. I just moved to a new city where I have no social circle and have had no time to form one, what with the hours spent producing beautiful Arabic/English books, writing witty invective such as this and, um, faffing around on Facebook.

—concerning certain items in use in certain registers of English, and the time has come for me to set out my views clearly for the world to hear. Tremble, you pillars of academe, for it is at you that my guns are turned. My thesis is simple, and it is the following:

Enough! Enough with your cfs and your vide supras. Enough with your flourits and enough with your ibids. Your passims are passé. I am counter-contra, I oppose your opus, I vilify your videlicet. And the loc where you may cit your anno domini, well, in ano est.

These and similar abbreviated Latinities are, in my possibly not-so-humble opinion, stuffy and antiquated relics that serve no purpose other than to obfuscate and obscure, and should be done away with, with immediate effect. There is not a single one of them for which a simple English-language formulation will not perform an exactly synonymous function, with the added benefit of not sending newcomers hunting through abbreviation lists or glossaries.

I am not opposed to jargon. In fact, as a sociolinguist and lover of all things meta, I would have to point out that “jargon” can itself be jargon. Every specialist domain needs words for things not in general use (such as “quark” or “alveolar flap”), or more constrained meanings to words in common use (such as the physicist’s understanding of “energy” or the linguist’s understanding of “jargon”). But these, the objects of my ire, are not specialist terms, they do not have specific meanings that require a special word. They have simple and exactly synonymous English cognates.

Here’s a piece of jargon for you, in fact. Barrier to entry. This term, from economics, applies in its narrow meaning to costs that have to be incurred by newcomers to a market, that are not borne by existing participants in that market. But in its wider sense, it can be seen as “anything that prevents entry when entry is socially beneficial” (Franklin M. Fisher). Free market comparisons? Do they really stand? I suppose it’s whether you think academe should be a self-selecting elect guarded by portals such as grammar schools, the Oxford entrance exam, and the ability to conjugate the verb “to go” in a language not productively used since the nineteenth century, and vernacularly not since long before that. But I take a different view. Karl Popper, in The Poverty of Historicism observed that “Science, and more especially scientific progress, are the results not of isolated efforts, but of the free competition of thought.” Amen to that. And these Latinities are nothing more than barriers to entry, unnecessary hurdles placed to socially restrict access to certain types of text by making them abstruse and difficult to the uninitiate — regardless of whether that individual would actually have the ability to understand the content itself.

I’m a publisher, and I have spent the majority of my career working in the academic sector on supposedly audience-broadening texts, and it boils my blood that many of these books, which are purportedly intended to draw in new readers to the wonders of non-western literatures, speckle themselves with these alienating italicised lexical affronts. In fact, one of my authors — an Emeritus at Oxford, no less — routinely confused q.v. and s.v. Presumably, in fifty years of publishing, he has had editors fix them for him. If you really must know, q.v. is quod vide (“which see”) and comes after a mention of a topic or word indicating it is discussed in depth elsewhere, whereas s.v. is sub verbo (“under the word”), comes before said word, and is specifically and only used to give the headword in a glossary or dictionary under which to look. If he’d have been able to bring himself to simply write “see elsewhere” and “see under” then he wouldn’t have made these errors. And if an Oxford don can’t actually correctly handle this vocabulary, what chance for the rest of us?

Here is my golden rule: if the expansion of a term in your abbreviations list itself requires a gloss then there is something very wrong with your idea of clarity.

Enough! I have more on this topic: so far I have only covered the first part of the title. Wevs, bro is to come, and will clearly and simply, with no obscure Latinities and no italicised alienation, explain why initialised and contracted slang terms are a whole different issue: they are to be celebrated and savoured as part of the joyous innovation that keeps language alive and exciting, not fossilised, elitist, and occult. But no tl;dr posts from me, so I shall save that for later. Vide infra, when it comes. Bah!

On pantries

The other day I was staying at the flat of a friend and, as he handed over the keys, he apologised for the apparent mess. The general needlessness of this apology to me of all people (see above, floordrobes) does not require mention; and his mess in particular was wholly forgivable, as he was in the process of building a pantry.

Pantries, even those partially-constructed, are never to be apologised for. Pantries are awesome, and I encourage you to relish them, not to mention to put your relish in them. Pantries, properly used, not only keep your butter at a usable temperature and allow your veg to gently ripen, but they spontaneously generate all manner of bizarre and exciting foodstuffs for you to gaze upon, occasionally sniff, and — if you are very brave — to sample.

When I was a lad my grandparents’ house, I recall, had a pantry, and any childhood excuse to nose in there was seized with ardour. The very front of it may have been in regular use but then, beyond a certain point marked by Spam tins, one entered a veritable Narnia of antique and glorious items. Sardine cans with keys that seemed solely designed to rip the thumb off their wielder whilst leaving the lid unscatched nestled against tins with labels like Mrs Sprogget’s Easy-Cook Tripe, Hackney Jack’s Jellied Eels, Fetid Onion Relish, and Thrupenny Meat Essence. Half-used packets of powdered custard glowered menacingly from a musty corner, and strange organic smells layered themselves through the air. Tubers of differing types that had fallen to the floor had, abandoned, performed strange and unholy acts of cross-fertilization, with the resultant species slowly evolving into gnarled, facelike roots that were clearly forming their own restless protoconsciousnesses. It was mysterious, arcane, and thrilling.

In fact, when I was very young, we had a pantry of our own in my house, which my parents had demolished for the unforgivably trite reason of moving the back door. “Oh! You scoundrels!” my youthful brain yelled furiously at my parents: “How, how can you do this to me? Do you not know how brittle the fingernails with which one clings onto the ledge of middle-class respectability? How easily they may break, and leave us falling into the chasm of pantryless oikdom, where butter is served hard from the fridge and tubers grow bored and lethargic in darkened cupboards? And you have willingly — willingly, I say! — destroyed this treasury for what? To move a fucking hole from one bit of a wall to another!” We all must learn, one day, that our parents are not infallible superbeings, but are flawed humans like the rest of us: and oh, how bitter that discovery when it came via the wanton destruction of a faultless larder.

After my stay in the home with the laudable, newly-constructed pantry that, in years to come, will be spawning its own occult foodery, I had a brief trip to pantry heaven, in the listed, thatched farmhouse of a different friend, whose pantry rises to levels of magnificence that leave me lost for words. Formed by walls so thick that it can back onto a fully-blasting oil-guzzling Aga, yet remain cool and still inside, accessed by an oak door with an old-fashioned latch, and made up of two separate rooms, one of which boasts a dusty and impressively full ceiling-to-floor wine rack, the pantry in Lavelle Lodge is a true work of art, and I could have stayed in there for many an hour, were it not for a more pressing need to drink gin and run over innocent pedestrians in morally suspect games on the XBox.

Pantries are what distinguishes us from beasts. The lion stores not his kill in a cool, dry place, but leaves it for the jackals and vultures. The jaguar, it is true, is onto the right idea; but until such a time as they construct a true pantry, I shall grant them no self-awareness or spirit. The Soul of Man was forged in his pantries.

There's wine racks, and there's pantries, and then there's wine racks IN pantries.

There’s wine racks, and there’s pantries, and then there’s wine racks IN pantries.

Another treat from the Guardian

Look, I know Slavoj Žižek’s basic modus operandi is to pass off provocative silliness under the guide of intellectualism but … really? Signers are not for the deaf but to make hearing people feel good? What, could the deaf people understand perfectly well if only they tried a bit harder? Or are they just so unimportant that, were it not for this condescension to my apparent privileged liberal guilt, we wouldn’t bother? Perhaps guide dogs exist for the same reason, and as for those lazy buggers in wheelchairs, why we only let them out to justify spending money on those natty accessible buses.

I agree that there may be a “deeper truth” exposed by this article, but if there is, it is not that signing only exists to placate liberal consciences; it is that Slavoj Žižek only exists to remind us that there are no propositions so innately ridiculous that some attention-grabbing old pseud won’t pass them off as adventurous heterodoxy.

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