No Complaints #9: The Festive Misery Special Edition

Now, I'm sure you all love spending time with your relatives at Christmas very much, but just in case you need a bit of a break from the incessant jollity, I've made this a bumper edition full of serious and/or miserable things. I imagine this email would go very well with a large lump of crumbly cheese, a few leftover canopes of indeterminate origin, some slightly stale jammy dodgers, and a glass of cheap, sweet port.

Things to read

“Did French pride in their teeth owe something to superior mouth care? It did indeed. It was the French, in the eighteenth century, who invented scientific dentistry. In fact, they invented the word dentiste too, before it spread into other languages. In the past the noble art of tooth-pulling had been practiced by showmen who traveled from fair to marketplace, yanking out painful teeth in full public view before a gawping populace (and sometimes offering tightrope walking and commedia dell’arte performances on the side). The dentist, in contrast, prided himself on surgical legerdemain, medical book-learning, and gentlemanly respectability.”

I did not know until I read this that a) the French apparently invented modern denistry b) the French popularised the shiny white-toothed smile we see everywhere on celebrities c) teeth were so important to the French Revolution.
“Books love to hide from us. While you were sure you put your current read on the kitchen table, it turns up next to your comfortable chair in the living room. As you handle more books at the same time, it becomes increasingly challenging to keep track of their location. In the Middle Ages it was even more difficult to locate a specific book. Unlike today, medieval books lacked a standard size, so you couldn’t really make neat piles – which sort of brings order to chaos. Finding a book was also made difficult by the fact that the spine title had not yet been invented.”

How were medieval libraries organised? By using a kind of proto-GPS, of course.

“They coded. They built websites. They hung out in chat rooms and text-based online communities like LambdaMOO. They told stories through interactive code and experiences like the CD-ROM game All New Gen, in which a female protagonist fought to defeat a military-industrial data environment called “Big Daddy Mainframe”. They believed the web could be a space for fluid creative experimentation, a place to transform and create in collaboration with a global community of like-minded artists.”

A history of cyberfeminism, told by the women who were there at the start. Pair with this excellent, long piece explaining the movement and what it achieved.


“AOL quietly discontinued the bulbous-headed icon with a rebranding effort in 2011 after years of phasing it out. And like so many once-familiar visual representations of early Internet culture, he has faded from popular view. But you can still see him – mid-dash, leaping toward the future! – in Wayback Machine screenshots of AOL's 1997 homepage.”

My first experience of the internet was the AOL dial-up connection my parents had. The yellow running man was part of many a furtive, teenage night spent IMing my friends when I was supposed to be using Encarta to do geography homework.


“The closer he got, the more uncomfortable it became. The character was elegant but uptight; generally correct, but also a scold, deploying righteousness to shield impatience. In my most honest assessment, I’d say I possess shades of all these attributes and that they are some of the things I like least about myself.”

A compelling case for why you should avoid long-term relationships with writers – you'll just end up providing their material. (Nora Ephron is also great on this in her novel Heartburn, in which a thinly-veiled version of herself rails against “Mark” – her ex-husband Carl Bernstein – for perpetually turning her life and words into column-fodder.)


“Veronique confessed. She had concealed both pregnancies from her husband. Each time she had labored alone in a bathroom and then suffocated the child before hiding it in the freezer. A third baby had been born, she added, while the couple was still in France in 1999 – Veronique burned the body in the fireplace. The “affaire des bébés congelés”, or “freezer babies affair”, gripped France for months.”

A look at neonaticide, and the women who feel compelled to kill their babies. Can, or should, they be punished?


“Our team has analysed 144 of AQI’s and the ISI’s own financial and managerial documents. Captured by coalition and Iraqi forces between 2005 and 2010, these include scans of typed documents, as well as electronic files found on hard drives, USB sticks, and other media. Among them are spreadsheets listing the qualifications and training of hundreds of fighters, details on thousands of individual salary payments, and massive lists of itemized expenditures. There are also instructions outlining geographic areas of responsibility for subunits, memos suggesting minor changes to organisational structures, and periodic management reports of all kinds.”

Terrorists use spreadsheets too. A fascinating look at the bureaucracy that keeps Isis running. This sentence particularly grabbed me: “As banal as it sounds, even true believers need to be paid back when they incur expenses.”


“As an erotic episode, Softporn would leave much to the imagination. Softporn was a text-based adventure game, meaning it had no graphics. Upon booting the floppy disk, the player was given control of a “puppet,” a human male through which the player executes textual commands. PLAY SLOTS. BUY WHISKEY. WEAR CONDOM. SCREW HOOKER.”

How better to end this bumper reading section than with the story of an early text-based erotic adventure game. You’re welcome.


Things to listen to

I had dinner with an old friend recently, who I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. We had a lovely evening, but then at about 9pm she admitted that she’d quite like to go home because there was a new episode of Rumpole of the Bailey on the BBC Radio iPlayer. Now, that might sound incredibly rude to you, but to me it just reaffirmed why we were friends in the first place – sometimes, you just have to accept that a good radio adaptation and a cup of tea is more fun than a second bottle of wine. It just so happens that we are swamped with Rumpole-riches at the moment. Timothy West really does voice John Mortimer’s beloved barrister very well – I highly recommend this episode about rehabilitation, and this one where he solves a mystery through his knowledge of Shakespeare. And then there’s the slightly more recent Afternoon Drama adaptations, where Timothy West voices the elder Rumpole and Benedict Cumberbatch plays his younger self. Listen to both of them, immediately, ideally with a brimming glass of Chateau Thames Embankment at your elbow.

Things to watch

Marbling is mesmerising.

Maths can be beautiful.

I really want to see this film about depression.

Compulsory medieval thingamabob

Wasn’t me.


The guest gif

This is me, from about now until 2 January. Happy eating, everyone! (Thanks to Sara for the gif.)


THE END. See you next time*!
*Next time will probably be next Friday, unless I can't be roused from my Christmas lethargy to read anything. If you want to suggest things I should include in the next one of these, please do reply and send me links.