I do love Dashiell Hammett

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.

The opening of Red Harvest, written in 1929 and the inspiration behind Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, Miller’s Crossing, and Last Man Standing whereby a man arrives in a town plagued by two warring factions and plays one off against the other as the body count racks up.

I first read this story in my early 20s in university, and loved it.  I re-read it a few years later and still enjoyed it as much.  Then I read it again early this summer and was rather sorry it wasn’t as good as I remembered it.  Age, I guess.  It’s still a good book though, and from one of my favourite authors.

Some Photos of Paris

Today, 15th August, is a public holiday in France – Assumption Day, whatever that is – and so I took advantage of the wonderful sunny weather to wander around part of Paris with my camera, specifically: from Charles de Gaulle Étoile, down Avenue Kléber to Trocadéro, across the bridge and around the Eiffel Tower and along Champ de Mars then across to Invalides and back towards the Grand Palais over the Alexandre III bridge.

Don’t expect to see anything you won’t have seen a thousand times before – I was mostly photographing world-famous landmarks – but the blue sky made for some good, basic photography.

More photos here, including those I took on previous wanderings through Paris.

Whisky Stones and Physics

Recently, for no real reason, I decided to buy myself some whisky stones.  These are little cubes of rock which you put in the freezer before adding them to a drink (usually alcoholic) which you want to be chilled.  The advantage over ice is that the rocks do not melt and dilute your expensive whisky (not that I drink that).  I have used them a few times and was quite disappointed to discover they don’t cool a drink very well at all, at least compared to ice.  The best they’ll do is stop it getting any warmer, but they are no substitute for ice cubes.  Now I’ve thought about it, I should have figured out why: a drink is cooled mainly by the process of ice cubes melting rather than their being cold, and I learned all about this in physics class at school.

There is a physics term called Specific Latent Heat which is defined as the amount of heat energy required to change the phase of a substance, i.e. turn it from a solid to a liquid, or a liquid to a gas.  This amount of heat is usually a hell of a lot more than that required simply to increase the substance’s temperature, and I remember my physics teacher telling us why you feel so cold when you step out of a shower: the heat taken from your body to evapourate the water is 2,265kJ per kg (which is, of course, why we have evolved to sweat to cool us down).  He also gave us an example of the effect in reverse: burns from steam are so much worse than those from boiling water because that 2,265kJ per kg is being transferred from the water onto the skin.

I remembered this reverse effect when I was in Sakhalin, and I noticed that the air temperature dropped right down when the snow on the ground was starting to melt.  Of course it would, because to change snow into water takes 334kJ/kg heat energy out of the air.  But somehow I’d forgotten this when I ordered the whisky stones and expected them to work like ice cubes.  My old physics teacher, wherever he may be now, would have given me a right bollocking for this.

Laurie Penny on Polyamory

Via the comments at David Thompson’s excellent blog I came across this article by Laurie Penny on the subject of polyamory – or “open” relationships, as they are sometimes called – of which she herself is a practitioner.

The reason why I found this interesting is that earlier this year I made the acquaintance of a woman in her early 30s here in Paris who, like Penny, had practiced polyamorous relationships since her early 20s and I strongly suspect still did (regular readers can probably guess who I’m on about).  My acquaintance mounted an impassioned defence of polyamory and her participation in open relationships, and during one of several rather lively discussions we had on the subject I asked her what the advantages were of sleeping with several people over having one loving partner other than the obvious – sex.  She admitted that it was all rather idealistic, but the answer she gave me was as follows:

“Supposing” she said “you are dating a guy and you really like each other and you get on really well, but he’s not into rock music and you are.  Well, if you’re in an open relationship you can also have a partner who is into rock and you can go to a concert with him, and your boyfriend won’t mind.”

“Yes,” I replied “but you can go to a rock concert with a guy who’s into rock when you’re in a normal relationship; people often have hobbies and interests that their partners don’t share.”

“Yes,” she said “but after the concert you can go and have sex.”

My next remark – which made her considerably angry – was that this sounded more like an excuse to fuck around than a substitute for a meaningful relationship, and that the whole polyamory thing was merely an attempt to put a veneer of respectability on it all.  As somebody put it afterwards: “this is polyfuckery, not polyamory”.

What I find interesting is that Penny mounts pretty much the same defence in her article:

It’s the conversations. It’s the texts with your girlfriend’s boyfriend about what to get her for her birthday. It’s sharing your Google Calendars to make sure nobody feels neglected.

The Daily Mail would have you believe that polyamory is all wild orgies full of rainbow-haired hedonists rhythmically thrusting aside common decency and battering sexual continence into submission with suspicious bits of rubber. And there is some truth to that. But far more of my polyamorous life involves making tea and talking sensibly about boundaries, safe sex and whose turn it is to do the washing-up.

Conversations, texts about birthday gifts, making tea, and having sensible discussions are indeed pleasurable social activities.  But you don’t need to be having sex with multiple partners to enjoy them, do you?  So – like going to a rock concert – I’m not sure why these are cited as a benefit of polyamory.

Over the past ten years, I have been a “single poly” with no main partner; I have been in three-person relationships; I have had open relationships and have dated people in open marriages. The best parts of those experiences have overwhelmingly been clothed ones.

Well, quite.  If the best part of those experiences have been clothed ones, then why doesn’t she do what most normal people do and keep the clothes on permanently?  She’s completely undermined her own case.

Penny unintentionally includes the most succinct explanation of polyamory in her article, probably thinking hers would be the more convincing:

When I told my editor that I wanted to write about polyamory, she adjusted her monocle, puffed on her pipe and said, “In my day, young lady, we just called it shagging around.”



I’ve had a few readers telling me they’ve gotten malicious code warnings and seen other signs of mischievous intent on the part of some script or other, so I decided to give the server space a clean-out and reinstall everything afresh.

While doing so I also decided to update the theme and change the header image.  For anyone that’s interested, the photo was taken in November 2008 at Borocay’s White Beach as the sun was setting.  The full version can be seen here.

Ainu a Feminist

I don’t come across many hardcore feminists in person either in my line of work or social life, but I had the occasion to do so in the form of my artsy friend Angela around February this year.  One of the things she said to me in the early stages of our brief acquaintance was that she was a feminist and, after I probed that statement, she told me she believed behavioral differences between men and women were wholly the result of social conditioning.  To support this theory she said she used to play with trucks as a child, and not dolls.

My response was to ask her to imagine a set of men and a set of women being assigned the following task: each person has to wrap a Christmas present of an awkward shape, such as a pair of socks.  Let each go away and do so, and then view the results.  I said the presents wrapped by women would be very neat with the ends folded into little triangles and Sellotaped in place, whereas the men’s would be an utter mess of crumpled paper and excess tape.

The likely results she did not dispute, but our reasons for them differed: my theory was that men simply don’t care about the presentation of gifts they receive – especially things like socks – possibly because they know it’s going to be ripped off in a second anyway, and so don’t see the point in putting in effort to wrap things nicely for others.  By contrast, women tend to care about the presentation of gifts – both given and received – and so put more care and attention into the wrapping.  Angela wasn’t convinced.  Her hypothesis was that society places an expectation on women to wrap presents well and so they do, whereas men have no such expectations placed on them.  I didn’t press the point any further, and took a slug of the strong cocktail I was holding at the time.

If Angela’s hypothesis is true, then seemingly disparate societies are a lot more similar than we think.  Back when I was working in Sakhalin for an oilfield services company which did, among other things, industrial insulation of pipework we set up a training centre in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  One of the conditions of us being granted a quota for bringing foreign workers into the country was to hire and train local labour, which was fair enough only anyone who was unemployed on Sakhalin between 2006-2008 was incapable of holding down a job.  An exception to this was a handful of Ainu women who we brought down from the north of Sakhalin and put through our training centre.

From what I could tell, the Ainu had only partially integrated into Russian life.  They spoke Russian, ate Russian food, and dressed in non-traditional clothes, but were treated by the Russians as an altogether separate people (as Russians are wont to do with their ethnic minorities).  I’d probably describe them best as looking like Eskimos, with one or two being rather attractive, but the rate at which they aged showed they lived hard lives.  Almost every one had a husband who was either an alcoholic, had taken off, or was in prison, although I never found out if they were ethnic Ainus or Russians.  Anyway, what we found when we put the Ainu women to work insulating pipes was that they worked very slowly but very accurately, and the result was insulation around the bends of pipes which was incredibly neat.  And they did so with more than a little pride.  By contrast, the (Russian) men who we were training turned in work which looked as though it were done wearing boxing gloves.  None of us involved was particularly surprised by this outcome.  (Incidentally, the Ainus were the only women we put through the training centre: ethnic Russian women simply wouldn’t sign up to this kind of work.)

So if Angela was right in her thinking, the tiny Ainu society – which would know about the wrapping of presents only insofar as they have seen their Russian neighbours do it and adopted their customs – imposes such gender-based expectations on its womenfolk that they will go to a yard run by foreigners and wrap a piping spool in fibreglass with more care and attention than any number of men.  And if I was right, it is simply because women – of any ethnicity, society, and background – are simply pre-programmed to care about this sort of stuff more than men.

I’ll leave it to my readership to choose which theory they support.