Thursday, December 03, 2009

Libraries, identity cards and readability

On my birthday, I went to the library in Happy Valley to borrow a book for my girlfriend. While I was there, I had to provide my Hong Kong ID card as identification, and they tapped a few numbers into their computer, peered at my water bill to ensure I lived where I said I did, and then wished me a happy birthday. Which was nice. Now, possibly conveniently, I can use my ID card as a library card. This is a good thing, if you don't want to carry extraneous identification documents around with you, or possibly a bad thing, if you don't think governments should be able to easily track what books you have been borrowing.

Now, I didn't have to make my ID card a library card, but since it's the basis of most identification in Hong Kong, it couldn't be hard to use that to key back to my library usage, although it's more likely that you could claim somebody had borrowed your library card and borrowed books on bomb-making, than that somebody had borrowed your ID card. (Well, a little more likely, depending on whether you hold to the view that all gweilo look the same or not...) So this is more convenient, but not massively so. It did make me consider the heat and noise coming from the UK about the possibility of National ID cards being instituted, and whether this is a good or a bad thing. Supposedly you have to carry your HK ID card with you everywhere, as the police can demand you show it to them when they request, but, based on anecdotal evidence and the experience of friends, the police won't stop you if you're white, and if you're another colour and look like you don't speak English, they won't bother you either. Possibly all this changes in 2047 or before, but that's something to pontificate on another day.

Anyhow, since you have to use your HKID for identification in all circumstances, all the systems work quite smoothly to enable you. I get the feeling that in the UK things will be more hit and miss; systems won't all go online at the same time, and some systems won't talk to each other, and from time to time huge amounts of private data will get lost in a pub car park again. Meanwhile in Hong Kong, there have been regular stories in the press (another one just today) about confidential information being leaked from the police through filesharing tools installed on their work PCs, so it's not as if the UK has any sort of monopoly on losing data.

I guess my feelings of worry are that the HKID card works pretty well, but I'm in rather a privileged position right now; it's not at all clear that I'd carry on thinking it wasn't invasive of my privacy if I began to worry that the government didn't approve of me, and like any investment, the value of your residency can go down as well as up... what other small print should we be reading?

Of course, if the government were to inspect my reading record, they'd find a book teaching 4 year olds about transport. Let's hope they don't think it's a double bluff.

For the last month, I've been writing my own little Lovecraftian tentacular horror novel, set in Hong Kong and probably owing more of a debt to those indebted to Howard Philip than to the tubercular man himself. First amongst these literary creditors must stand Charles Stross; The Atrocity Archives has been a constant influence and shining example to me, and I hope that by purchasing three copies of it (replacing attrition from moving house and then country) should form some recompense. Or some compensation for a slapdash Hong Kong reiteration. It's not like this part of the world has ever produced any hacked-up cheap copies of anything else, is it?

When I first read his sequel, The Jennifer Morgue, I remember feeling a little disappointed with the ending. Rereading it now, I feel another difficulty with Stross: concentrating on evoking unspeakable horrors, at times he doesn't seem to want to write a pronounceable sentence. I noticed this while reading aloud to my girlfriend. (Yes, I am the sort of enlightened soul who considers Lovecraft/Fleming pastiche to be acceptable bedtime story material. Yes, my girlfriend does like a bedtime story, and no, that doesn't imply anything about her age.)

Now, I adore Stross, I've avidly consumed Halting State, every one of the short stories that I could find, and although I can't stand his Merchant Family cycle, I think it's still robustly packed full of ideas. I think he's great, even if there is some generational dot-com chauvinism going on here. (He was a programmer at Datacash, I worked for a little internet start-up that used them as their payment solution.) But, I wonder if he's blessed with either a tin ear, an iron lung, or just a brass neck, for attempting sentences like this:

This was a mistake I've been regretting ever since, because it tends to go hand-in-hand with things like being rousted out of bed at four in the morning to go count the concrete cows in Milton Keynes, which sounds like a lot more fun than it actually is; especially when it leads to people shooting at you and lots more complicated forms to fill in and hearings in front of the Audit Committee.
(page 27)

Ok, it's the written word. It's there to be read. But should it be capable of being read out? Stross is pastiching Bond here (more the films than the books) but Fleming was probably busier writing short sentences so he could get back to Colonel Blimping about the decline of the British Empire. I wonder if Stross should have attempted a closer stylistic rendition, rather than a sentence that fills the whole screen of my Blackberry. Is it unfair to make this criticism? I'm really not sure; I don't think I've managed to produce anything of similar length without some literary awkwardnesses of my own, and I do admit a love of the overlong sentence. And I do like the book, and perhaps its a stylistic tic to show up the protagonist as the uber-nerd he is. Oh, if only Charles Stross was on the internet to ask...

Perhaps it's just too good an opportunity to pass up here, to quote Harrison Ford to his director on the set of Star Wars: "You can type this shit George, you sure as shit can't say it"


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