Sweet Portia

Singapore is a Venetian place: a maritime republic, a trading entrepôt, straddling cultures like a salesman, gateway to the Occident, wielding languages like a nimble lumberjack, protective of its citizens, happy with a respectable facade, tolerating most people so long as they have capital, importing labourers rather less indulgently, multi-racial, sometimes racist, mostly clean and rich in a region mostly otherwise. Above all, it is mercantile. La Republica Pristina.

Singapore isn’t like the Old Venice we visit today, the gorgeous Victorian Disneyland kept afloat for art and tourists. It’s like Young Venice of perhaps the year 1000, the Paduan colony, a trading post perched tenuously in a lagoon to keep Dark Age cavalry at bay, one starting to make a serious go of it, with its conscripted navy and an early grip on eastern Mediterranean trade with Byzantium.

The Singapore Repertory Theatre seize the chance offered by this parallel with Bruce Guthrie’s production of Merchant of Venice. Some Shakespearean plays look hard and get clearer with familiarity, but Merchant for me looked very legible on first encounter, and has got steadily less clear since. Jason Schneiderman captures the ambivalence of its relationships in his elegant The Sadness of Antonio.

The cast is good across the board, but three actors dominate. Daniel Jenkins brings something of last year’s Iago to his Antonio; gentle with his friends but always sneering and insulting to Shylock, even before his life is forfeit. Remesh Panicker’s Shylock has tremendous calm presence, with the production effortlessly substituting Indian chettiar tropes for Jewish moneylender ones, without changing the text. You can imagine his years of practicing his reserve as a survival skill. This means he keeps our sympathy as much as possible, while he faces his posh boy tormentors in court, who made a deal they couldn’t stick to while colluding to allow his daughter to elope. And Julie Wee’s Portia pins her end of the triangle, her lawyer’s brain sharpened on years of study while restrained by her dead father’s will. She explains the quality of mercy … even if it’s a greatest hit, it’s still a beautiful speech … before kicking Shylock as hard as she can while he’s down. You wonder if it’s her revenge on her father, her well-cultivated rage, or just self-righteous racism. This production leaves in her racial jab at her suitor, the Prince of Morocoo:

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

This comment, too, comes after the Prince has lost, in his case at a riddle. Unlike Shylock, we never see Portia at a loss, only at a disadvantage. Even the failure of her new trophy husband is used to put him in his place, and teach him a lesson. She never loses, and the mask never slips.

Every major relationship in the Merchant of Venice, and many a minor one, comes with a contract, and every contract comes with a sting. John Kerrigan notes that Marx was encouraged by Shakespeare to see money as a bond that separates, particularly in Timon of Athens. We imbue objects with a symbolic weight and then behave as if the object is magical. Portia’s wedding ring is such a tool, not only for with her husband Bassanio, but with his so close friend, Antonio, who ends up swearing his Bassanio will be faithful; a peculiar oath.

Those last few scenes, about the ring – they can be a dizzy little comedic spiral after the horror movie of the court case, if you want, cheeky cross dressing and lovers’ tiffs. Guthrie doesn’t let us get away so easily. Jessica’s stolen dowry is another bond that separates. The quarrel between Krissy Jesudason’s Jessica and Johnson Chong’s petulant Lorenzo has more pain in it, and more regret. Jessica is given the last moment of the play, and she spends it weeping. It’s a shock, this interpretation, but it fits. In sooth, we know why she is so sad, but do her new pretty rich friends?

Some theatrical traditions emphasize the contrast between mystical Belmont and cutthroat commercial Venice, but this production doesn’t really see the need. Everything glitters. In Singapore, Belmont is a condo in Holland V.

That School Should Be Abolished

In the state highschools of my leafy green suburban homeland, a small fragment of the mandatory curriculum was set aside for the formal study of rhetoric. This worked out to about one formal English class debate a year, for a few years. The topics were a small set of banal perennials, at least as treated by thirteen year olds trained on Judy Blume and sports commentary, and who were less focused on their studies than on barely concealed techniques for manipulating others through lust. We got to hear about the death penalty, the end justifying the means, and though we never discussed whether Man was Good, it wouldn’t have been out of place. The prince of these was in one way the most relevant to our day to day experience, That School Should Be Abolished.

It's on

In another way, it was also the most cruelly unreachable topic: school was, and is, mandatory well past that age. The only way to abolish school actually available to a student was to drop out after landing a job, in the midst of the worst Australian unemployment since the Great Depression. Let’s not overstate the hardship ­- current Greek and Spanish youth unemployment, for instance, is a whole different scale. Yet even if the text is that school is a comforting support, the barely submerged subtext of the argument is compulsion.

If you are middle class in America today, or Greece for that matter, does attending college, and all the time and money that goes with it, seem any less compulsory and life-determining? I don’t feel like the experience has reached the same intensity elsewhere as yet, but all the same trends are driving it. And then we add a set of disruptive recording and distribution technologies, a bucket of venture capital, and an industry full of people with a skill – programming – that is both academic and that you have to teach to yourself in order to do it with even a modicum of competence. Before long you get statements like this …

“It was this catalytic moment,” Thrun says. “I was educating more AI students than there were AI students in all the rest of the world combined.” By the end of the semester, he’d raised another $5 million and was standing in front of the Digital Life Design conference in Munich, promising a world in which education was nearly free, available to poor people in the developing world, and better than anything that had come before it. “I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said definitively. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill. And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your students. But I’ve taken the red pill. I’ve seen Wonderland.” – Sebastian Thrun, robotics genius and CEO of Udacity, who later decided this revolution was mostly about tutorial videos for Salesforce.com APIs

… or this …

Read beneath the headlines a bit. The pundits and disrupters, many of whom enjoyed liberal ­arts educations at elite colleges, herald a revolution in higher education that is not for people like them or their children, but for others: less wealthy, less­ prepared students who are increasingly cut off from the dream of a traditional college education.
“To champion something as trivial as MOOC’s in place of established higher education is to ignore the day­care centers, the hospitals, the public health clinics, the teacher training institutes, the athletic facilities, and all of the other ways that universities enhance communities, energize cities, spread wealth, and enlighten citizens,” [Siva Vaidhyanathan] says. — Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk in the Chronicle of Higher Education

These articles are aging – we seem to be coming off the hype peak – but isn’t that exactly where the two sides of this argument talk past each other? One is using school as a verb – as a process that happens to an individual. Another is using it as a place – as an institution for learning and teaching, around which a community is built.

Shallow as the innovation disruption rah rah Silicon Valley techno-yay side of this can be, doesn’t the other side of it – the fixation on school as a place and a community – rather devalue the importance of study, of the subject of education itself? Isn’t that a strange position for an academic institution to hold? It’s rather reminiscent of the arguments against homeschooling, or indeed, the same terms our highschool debates would revert to. The online education providers have the same whiff of adolescent libertarian naïveté, of not being able to see how existing institutions support them, even when though they are lumbering and awkward. And their opponents end up arguing that the real worth of school is not learning: that you need to be in school to play sport, or eat lunch, or learn social skills; that to socialize you need to be institutionalized.

It’s all enough to make a person call a plague on both their houses, and start their own EduPunk course on open source 3D printed macrame. But I don’t know macrame.

Coin, Part IV

Previously, on Economic Psychics: Parts I, II and III.

Satoshi had a weakness for playing board games, usually online. He’d met Proxy playing Monopoly, at which she excelled. She was using the handle indigo72, and favoured a Railway Stations – Picadilly strategy, with aggressive slumlord variants. He was no slouch himself at the game, and as you do, they’d got to talking over months of play. They shared an interest in crypto and software, and she’d got involved in the Bitcoin project, mostly around the automated test harnesses. Proxy didn’t refer to voting. It alluded to the fake counterparties set up for testing the manufacture and exchange of coins, but never intended for real transactions between people or companies.

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Coin, Part III

Previously, on Economic Psychics: Parts I and II.

We spent a week in Vienna with not much to show for it. We hit up pawn shops, bankers’ wine bars, cash machines, asylums, churches, whatever we could think of, all over the Viennese suburbs. Ticket machines doled out tickets to me without even a single murderous tentacle. We even spent some time ruling out the dilettantes in the Tempelhofgessellschaft, and established firmly that we were under no threat of Nazi UFOs from Antarctica at this time. We cast bones, we rolled dice, flipped coins, drew from the I Ching; all the portents confirmed Vienna in general was at the centre of something big and horrible, but nothing more specific. Good old fashioned shoe leather parapsychology, uncovering bugger all. I flipped open perhaps my tenth copy of Wiener Zeitung to a random page and did a reading of the coffee grains in my otherwise empty cup. Yep: money, death, and destruction.

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Coin, Part II

Previously, on Economic Psychics: Part I

“Gold is up,” Jen said, as the lift winched screechingly downwards. “You still long on Kafka?”

“Yeah.” It was true, I had a chunk of my retirement savings sunk into a couple of grams worth of Kafka’s papers via an exchange traded fund. I trusted the value of contractually sealed unread pages from a dead Czech existentialist better than lumps of rock.

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