6 of Hearts: “Burning the Books” and the stories we tell

CW: This post discusses homophobic and transphobic attacks by the Nazi regime.

Among the books I’ve picked up recently is Richard Ovenden’s Burning The Books, about book burnings throughout history and the actions of those who have saved precious manuscripts and the knowledge they contain. On the first page of actual text, we get a description of the night of May 10th, 1933, when the texts of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft were burnt by Nazis. Looking in the index, this opening page is the only mention of the Institut in the book. It briefly mentions that among the books burnt, both in Berlin and in other locations, were from gay authors, but…it leaves me wondering. See, this event, the 1933 book burnings, are important, and they began with an attack on the Institut on May 6th, 1933. The Institut was also, notably, a pioneering location for trans studies, carrying out some of the world’s first reassignment surgeries. It was also an important centre for studying sex, and particularly gay and lesbian love. It’s library was unique around the world, and it was destroyed. 

Stories from LGBTQ’s people’s lives at the time, the detailed notes on sex reassignment surgery procedures, all the studies the Institut had carried out – they were all destroyed by the German Student Union. The book agrees that this was a super important event, and even discusses how a bust of the Institut’s founder, Magnus Hirschfield, was carried ceremonially to be thrown upon the flames by the nazi students carrying out the burning.

So, given all of this, it is weird that this is the only time the book, as far as I can find, chooses to examine these events, particularly in a time when so many are turning against trans rights in particular and across the world LGBT rights are under threat. This is not a callout for the author or his editors. I do not believe this was maliciously intended; this is the incident chosen to introduce the entire book, and other victims of the nazis are covered in later chapters. There is also a single superscript note, pointing towards a note in the section at the end of the book, which in turn mentions that if you want to learn about the Institut, see The Hischfield Archives by Heiker Bauer, a text I may try to track down myself. By itself, this omission is simply curious; a gun over the mantle piece is commented on at the very start of act one and then never goes off.

However, I think it is important to think about these gaps in what we tell, the narratives we create, and how these narratives flow into the larger currents of society and what we see. There’s only so much you can put in a book, true, but this is what he chooses to start the entire book with; the image of the head of the institut’s bust being set alight. This is event is important, and I must assume Ovenden agrees with me on this because, again, this is what he chooses to start the book with. So why are the details of this attack, what the Institut did, and why the Nazis chose to attack it, not explored even later on when the chronological chapters catch up to that era? Why is there this gap?

Information is lost not just through deliberate acts of book burning, but also simply through what we don’t tell, what gets left behind, sometimes deliberately. The choices we make in what we choose to tell matters. Burning the Books opens with the famous quote from Heinrich Heine: “Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” In the attack on the Institut, the Nazis left a number of books unburnt; specifically the membership records that held the addresses and details of those patients and researchers who used the institut.

The path to burning human beings was very short indeed.

Perhaps the actual content of the first big Nazi book burning is avoided in discussions about book burning because it means you need to handle the awkward fact that those targeted were still arrested under the allies in both West and East Germany. 1920’s and 30’s Berlin were far more open to queer identities, partially due to the work of the institute, and the Nazi’s targeted it for being “degenerate”, declaring that they were returning to an utterly imaginary, murderous “pure” past. Burning the Books does at least avoid one of the biggest issues with writing about what the Nazis did by actually listing specific groups the nazis where burning literature from, as opposed to just saying they were burning books with “threatening ideas” or that were “different” – everyone wants to think their ideas would be the kind that the Nazis would find threatening and want to stamp out, so these kind of bland descriptions tend to result in people assuming that of course the libraries being burnt would look a lot like their own.

Burning The Books discusses, among other things, how the burning of libraries is not just a symbolic act, but a brutally practical one for ripping out the knowledge base of those you declare others. When people ignore why the Nazis attacked the Institute, or, as some transphobes have, directly use the attack on the Institute and the other 1933 pyres as a metaphor to attack trans people with, that history continues to burn away. 

10 of Diamonds: Top 13 Favourite Robot Wars Robots

Roboteers, Stand By



Robot Wars is a long running (admittedly with a decade long gap) british tv show created by the company Mentorn, first airing in 1998. The show saw members of the public known as roboteers building, driving and battling remote controlled robots in an arena surrounded by bulletproof glass. The show ran till 2004 originally with seven main series and two side series called Robot Wars Extreme, all airing on the BBC except for series 7 which was moved to Channel 5. In 2016, the show returned for three more yearly series.

The show is a cherished childhood memory, and while some of it doesn’t hold up to my recent rewatching of the entire series on youtube (I’ve had a lot of time during this pandemic), with a particular note being some awkward 90s era casual sexism that did improve over time, the robot fights are still as fun to watch as ever, with the buoyant and incredibly enthusiastic commentator Jonathan Pierce and an array of wonderful presenters such as Craig Charles, Philippa Forrester, Julia Reed, Dara O’Briain and Angela Scanlon. The show is fascinating to watch as a demonstration of the evolution of robotics throughout the period, with huge jumps between each series, and an even bigger one during the hiatus.

The stars of the show are, of course, the robots. The show has a set of robots called the House Robots that act as moving obstacles and, during the classic series, finished off immobilised robots for the delight of the crowd. I’ll probably cover the House Robots later, but today I want to look at the competitors which fought in that arena. This is a list of my personal favourite robots. Essentially anything that I can enjoy about them can get them on this list, from battling skill to design to the team to just having good memories about them. It began as a top 10, but with so many robots to choose from, over a hundred in series 3 alone, I ended up adding some extra slots. Please enjoy.

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Queen of Hearts: Defining the Head of A Pin #1: Planets

Defining The Head Of A Pin is a series looking into the definitions of various words and concepts, discussing the reasoning behind them, and exploring the limits and limitations of both the definitions and the way we use them.

Definitions are tricky things. Quite a few discussions have decayed because the participants are working with differing definitions for the same word. In many circles, the question of what art is is one of great interest, whether that is artists exploring it in their work or politicians attempting to defund endowments for the arts on the grounds that what they are funding is not true art. But actually discussing what definitions are is…somewhat unpopular. When you poke at many definitions, you tend to find more definitions lurking underneath, like a fractal argument. Those that don’t are usually either artificially created, like well agreed upon country borders (when they are not well agreed upon, we get some of the worst arguments about definitions), or specific, well separated natural states, which are far rarer than one might expect.

So then, one might ask…who wants to spend ages discussing definitions? Who would want to make a whole series just poking at this?

Me! I do! I love poking at definitions, from working out who created them and for what purpose, to finding weird counter examples at the fuzzy edges of them. This is something I do for fun, even for definitions that don’t really have a practical purpose; ones where you may as well ask “How Many Angels Can Dance Upon The Head Of A Pin”* for all the good it does.

* Oh look, we have the series title!

For now though, let’s look at a definition that would seem to be nice and clear, based in the world we live in. In fact, it is directly related to the world we live on.

What is a Planet?


Collage created by the author

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9 of Hearts: An Introduction to Mathematics.

I do a lot of mathematics in my everyday life. Some of that is due to me doing a climate science PhD, which requires me to be able to handle lots of data, some of it is due to me doing programming and maths problems in my spare time, but a lot of it I think is just part of living in the modern world. Finances are an obvious example, particularly things like taxes and interest that require an understanding of percentages. Another is the constant barrage of statistics and studies that we are surrounded with. Being able to, if not carry out the statistical analysis itself, but at least understand how one would do it can help you navigate the data and hopefully avoid those trying to pull one over on you using manipulated statistical data.

Maths pops up everywhere, but I encounter a lot of adults who are either convinced they can’t do it, or are even afraid of maths. Lots of people have that one bit of mathematics, perhaps percentages or algebra or probability that they could never understand, and that is often caught up in childhood memories of feeling humiliated by not being able to do maths, or not having it explained in a way they can understand, or memories of trying to learn times tables by rote. There’s a lot of different ways that maths as taught in early years can not stick. To make matters worse, maths is cumulative, that is, more advanced concepts use and combine earlier tools and ideas, so if you struggle with those, then later concepts will be an even harder struggle.

Given this, I was thinking about how you might go about explaining basic maths in a comprehensive and non-judgemental manner, trying to take into account common issues with learning maths.

First of all, I think the most important thing to do is to remove as many of the psychological issues with learning maths as possible. A big factor here is the fear of failure, of being judged for not understanding maths, and feeling that “well, I’m not ever going to get it”. Like a video game, where a failure just results in a “Continue?” screen, this would need to be a place where you can get things wrong without feeling terrible about yourself. This also includes avoiding certain stress causers such as high speed mental maths and rote learning multiplication tables, or at least finding a way to make these less unpleasant, whether that’s by encouraging learning through repeated practice or just acknowledging that we live in the modern age and if you do understand how to do them, you can just use a calculator.

Another factor here is giving reasons for why we’d want to do this piece of mathematics, linking it into contexts that people will already understand. If a piece of maths doesn’t directly tie into a real world context, then we need to explain why we are looking at it, and what it leads into.

I think also making this connectivity between different areas of maths clear is important as well. For practical reasons, we are taught maths in discreet sections; here is algebra, here is shape and space, here are numbers. Explaining how all of these can be linked together can often be a key for understanding them, since it lets you address a confusing problem through the lens of something you might already understand.

On a practical level, there are two ways to go about a course aiming for this. One is to be extremely specific; reaching out to individuals with particular problems about maths and working with them. While this is a very good way to handle it for those individuals it would be very work intensive, and I think for an internet based course we’d want to go to the complete opposite end of the scale, at least at first. This is what I mean by comprehensive: it would need to cover as many different ways of learning and understanding maths as possible, essentially trying to solve problems that individuals have by solving every problem we can at once. Of course, the range of issues people may have is pretty wide: some people may only struggle with say, division (a common problem I’ve heard when discussing mathematics with people), while others might find the entire subject just a slippery mess, numbers jumping around the place, so it would need to be navigable enough for the first group to get to the part they need, while complete enough to cover all the ground the second group may want, and it must do this without condescending to or dropping the morale of either group.

Furthermore, particularly for the most basic parts, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, we’d want to cover all the different methods. People often have one particular method of solving these, so explaining how all the different methods come to the same answer and might have different uses is important. Finally, if you are a parent of a young child learning this stuff, they might be being taught a very different method to how you were, so helping those parents understand what their children are being taught is vital.

For this project, I am picturing a systematic series of articles and/or youtube videos, explaining concepts of mathematics with an underlying structure between the articles/videos so we can show how it all links together, and with frequent real world examples of the mathematics, would fit this.

Who would the target audience be? Not young children learning this for the first time I think; the practical examples would be created with things like taxes in mind, that kids learning them for the first time wouldn’t get. I am aware that creating a series defined as being “Mathematics for adults who hate mathematics” isn’t a killer pitch, but I think there are enough people who struggle with a particular part of maths, but want to improve, that such a creation would be worth it.

Obviously there’s a lot of work to be done here. Creating curriculum for mathematics is, of course, a full time job. But I think it this is something I can do, collecting resources and creating lessons that will hopefully help at least someone with that bit of mathematics that has slipping through their fingers for years.

If you have a particular issue you’d want covered, please comment below and discuss whatever issues you may have, or if you have ideas on how to go about doing this, I’d love to hear them!

3 of Hearts: 4:17 am April 2nd

The time in the title is accurate as of when I start typing this.

I suffer from depression and anxiety, and tonight I’m awake at a silly time in the morning in no state to try to sleep, so I guess, given that at least here in the UK April’s Fools day has come and gone, I might look at the various ways that bits of media I’ve followed have decided to celebrate it this year.

There’s two major trends I think are worth looking at. The first is simply the existence of Patreon, a site that encourages a monthly release schedule by it’s very nature. A lot of creators drop their work at the end of one month and the start of another because that’s the deadline if you are using a monthly payment model. Patreon as a site is interesting for me partially because it’s an alternative to the standard method of monitization online, advertising, and partially because it has become another example of a business model that is highly sustainable but not one that’s going to enjoy repeated massive growth which is being torn apart by the demands for constant, exponential growth in the market, but that’s for a time that isn’t stupid o’clock in the morning. For our purposes, the position of April Fools at the beginning of the month simply fits in neatly with this existing timeline, encouraging material that is not simply a prank but is also worthy content in and of itself.

The second trend is the pushbacks against cruel pranks. Online content creators often rely on their own brand, and being unpleasant, even for a temporary joke, will reflect on that brand. Furthermore, the existence of this brand allows for an easy April Fool’s joke by pretending to massively change your brand, using it as a way to explore a style or a topic that you wouldn’t usually touch.

Anyway here’s a top…whatever list of April Fool’s for this year. I’m not even gonna edit that once I’ve finished and know how many there are.

1.) “Folding Ideas Pivots To Fortnite”, on Folding Ideas, Dan Olsen’s youtube channel, isn’t really an April Fool’s video. It sort of dabbles with it at the start, but that only really goes as far as the first five to ten minutes, which is a set up for the final idea about the use of Fortnite as a creative platform, and how it doesn’t really work. I don’t know whether I’d describe it as a pretend April Fools joke, or an April Fools joke where the joke is that you expect an April Fools joke and get instead a discussion on the game Fortnite and how it manipulates players to make money.

2.) A lot of larger corporations and brands go for the “Here’s a product we’d never actually create” April Fools. A stand out this year is probably a tweet from the official Doom account, crossing the violent demon killing shooter with Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting, a program that like Mr Rogers I have never seen but that a lot of American internet users tell me is super wholesome. Ross’ aesthetic, though simple, is iconic enough that even I got it immediately, but this one kind of sticks out because Bob Ross famously became the chill, laid back painter in the show because he was fed up of being a drill Sargent in the military, a job that involves shouting and being unpleasant, making the use of the aesthetic here either be a wink to his history, a humorous juxtaposition between Doom the ultra violent game and the laid back show (probably the intended reading), or kind of an awkward joke dragging the aesthetic of the show back towards the militarisation that Ross created it to escape from. I’m too sleepy to say which.

3.) There’s one advert that I saw which appeared to actually be a product that just happened to come out on April First, so it had to make clear “no this is real, we just had to do it now”. But I can’t remember what it is and Facebook isn’t showing me that specific ad again.

4.) In the “Jokes that aren’t really jokes” category, the insect loving Bogleech wrote a review of creatures called Squisherz, in a similar vein to his reviews of Pokemon and Digimon. The framing of the essay is that Squisherz is a forgotten ‘mon franchise contemporaneous of the former two, and the blog post makes repeated references to the show and more specifically the fandom reaction to it. Halfway through I was getting into it as a parody of pokemon in particular, assuming that Bogleech himself had designed the creatures. I was enjoying it, but some of the gushing about the bits of the designs he loves got a bit weird assuming he made them. Like how the book of the Never Ending Story takes a detour to talk about how fantastic the main character, and thus the author’s, imagination is once he starts to remake the world, it was getting tiresome.

Then at the end, he reveals that the joke was actually entirely different. Squisherz was designed by an artist friend of his for a game called Hyperspace Outlaw, and the piece ends with shout outs slash advertisements for the original creator. It kind of feels like the opposite to Folding Idea’s video; rather that examining how a piece of work is advertised and monitized, it is an advert itself, although yes there is a difference between an indie game on itch.io and what Fortnite has become.

5.) The most depressing April Fool’s joke this year comes from the webcomic Whomp!. The main character, a somewhat parody version of the writer Ronnie, is shown to have lost weight, changed out his colourful shirts for a simple beige pair, and now has a sunny, optimistic outlook on life.

Somehow, despite Whomp being regularly depressing, this is the most upsetting portrayl of Ronnie for me. I should probably ask why.

EDIT: So the next strip after that is the same but with thin Ronnie bleeding from the eyes and covered with glitches. So…make this a multi-part joke, getting steadily darker?

Anyway, that’s my list. If I remember I’ll come back when I’m awake and edit in some links. Happy April Wise day everyone.

5 of Hearts: The True Gender of Santa

Santa Claus does not exist.

I kind of want to get that out there first of all. Just so we are entirely clear. Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and that is quite possibly the most powerful thing about Santa.

I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a brief recap of recent nonsense.

Earlier this month, December 2018, a marketing company, GraphicSpring, sent out a survey asking how to best modernise Santa. One of the questions was “If you could ‘rebrand’ Santa for modern society, what gender would he be?”, with the three answers being Male, Female or Gender Neutral. Of the respondents, 10.6% said female, 17.2% said gender neutral, and 72.2% said male. Anyway, this has worked up some people, with a wave of pieces from various places decrying the idea of a gender neutral Santa.

Let’s be entirely clear here: this is not a measured opinion poll. This is a marketing company creating buzz, and using the fact that a lot of people have knee jerk reactions both to Santa himself, as a beloved holiday figure, and to anything they regard as “shoving transness down their throats”. A cynical viewer might even argue that it is a clear attempt by GS to use transphobia as a cynical way to get marketing clicks, knowing that the brunt of the anger will be directed at the trans and non-binary communities, not at themselves.

Anyway, this is clear attempt by GS to use transphobia as a cynical way to get marketing clicks, knowing that the brunt of the anger will be directed at the trans and non-binary communities, not at themselves. All the trans and non-binary groups* I’ve been involved with have generally been mostly confused by this entire thing, since no one has really asked for Santa to be made gender neutral. Maybe as a joke, but seriously, that’s not really something you need to worry about. It isn’t actually a thing.

But there is another side to this, and for that I want to return to what I mentioned above. Santa isn’t real, and that is one of Santa’s greatest strengths.

Santa Claus is in many ways a symbol as much as he is a character, and I think the best thing he symbolises is generosity, and anonymous generosity at that. There’s a couple of ways to read him. Santa as a judge of behaviour, who know when you’ve been bad or good, and the bad get coal** is another popular reading for instance, but my personal view of Santa is less as a character, and a role that people step into. Signing a gift from Santa removes the giver from the equation. We know Santa doesn’t exist, but still, it is his name on the presents. Santa gives without the hope of receiving anything back, except maybe a glass of milk and a few biscuits. Santa is a mask for us to wear so we can in turn, focus on giving and kindness, and I think that is Santa’s greatest strength. Santa does not exist, and we can all be Santa.

So, if you ask me what Santa’s gender is, then my question in turn is, what is your gender? Because that is Santa’s. And Santa is also agendered, using they/them as their pronouns, because I am also Santa. And Santa uses he and she and they and all the neo-pronouns you like, because Santa is all of us. Just stepping into the red suit, and quietly placing down a present, before disappearing unseen, back up the chimney into the world that doesn’t exist, just North of the North Pole.

* I am agendered, and I generally use they/them as my pronouns. I will almost certainly be exploring this more, but this is the first post where this has come up.

** Which in itself is another interesting point; is it a warning, or, given that the tradition dates back to when coal fireplaces were used to warm the house, a way of saying “you may be bad, but you still don’t deserve to be cold”? Although in some traditions it is coal from the fireplace, so that is a whole other thing. I tried to look this up for this piece, and for a story I’m working on, but no one’s really sure where the tradition of coal comes from, other than it is pretty widespread and not really done anymore.

3 of Hearts: An excerpt from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“The chimes were ringing the three quarters past eleven at that moment.
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?”
“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”
“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.
“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”
The bell struck twelve.
Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him. “

2 of Hearts: Drafting the 2018 Recommendation List

As the year of 2018 draws to a close, I propose we all take a moment to step back and think about what we loved in this last year, and which we would like to share. Games, movies, books, stories, blogs; everything is fair game.

My personal list this year is still being decided, but I think so far I have to include Sunless Skies by Failbetter games, which I have had fantastic fun streaming for people, and Spiderman: Enter the Spiderverse, a fantastically animated movie that really has fun with its characters and their dynamic movements, while also having a genuinely good coming of age narrative and is that rare superhero movie that understands we already know Spiderman’s backstory.

I’ve only just started coming up with this list, and to be honest the year has kind of flown by in a blur, but feel free to post your suggestions in the comments, or, if you’ve done something you want to show off this year, feel free to post that as well. Self-promotion is always welcome here (as long as it doesn’t become spam!)