Wednesday, November 26, 2014

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Just to lighten the tone a bit, here's Treetog from Tree Fu Tom and the Oracle from the Matrix movies - well strictly from the first two movies, since Gloria Foster (who is pictured here) died before the filming of the third and was replaced with a different actor (with the appropriate retconning, easier in a reality-bending science-fiction universe than in, say, Dallas). Same penchant for predominantly green clothing, same sort of role as a chuckly matriarchal ethnic type with secret super-powers doling out advice to our impetuous young male hero.


thank you for talkin' to me africa

That last post was getting a bit long, and it was bedtime, but the thing I wanted to go on to do was draw a parallel between the furore over #ShirtGate and the rumblings of discontent over the re-re-re-recording and release of the Band Aid single. That might seem like a bit of a stretch, but stay with me.

I was put in mind of the similarity by the astonishingly charmless performance of music promoter and general mover and shaker Harvey Goldsmith on the Today programme on Radio 4 last week. When faced with someone from the area in question (in this case Liberian academic Robtel Pailey) telling you that actually quite a few Africans find this stuff problematic, at least try and listen, even if you disagree. It wouldn't have been that difficult to say: yes, I understand what you're saying, but resurrecting this hoary old chestnut, problematic lyrics and all, is the best way in the short term to raise the big spike of cash that the crisis demands. Instead Goldsmith chose to go with the WELL I SUPPOSE WE SHOULD JUST DO NOTHING AND LET EVERYONE DIE IN A BIG LAKE OF POO THEN SINCE THAT'S WHAT YOU CLEARLY WANT line, which wasn't very helpful.

Saint Bob himself was similarly dismissive, in his inimitable way, of the numerous other criticisms directed at the single and the underlying charity campaign. This interview with Ian Birrell (journalist and co-founder - with Damon Albarn - of Africa Express) sets out a few of them - basically, this is a simplistic solution to a complex problem, it perpetuates a paternalistic "them" (i.e. black Africans) and "us" (i.e. white westerners) mindset, the implication that Africa is some single monolithic entity all currently riddled with Ebola is wildly inaccurate and unhelpful, the past record of charity money getting routed to the right places is not uniformly glorious, charity money of this sort can be counter-intuitively harmful by allowing governments to ignore the underlying chronic systemic problems that allow these crises to happen in the first place, and there's an uncomfortable tension between the spectacle of super-rich music stars tearfully exhorting us to give our hard-earned (after tax) pounds to charity while frantically doing all they can to avoid paying millions of pounds of tax in the first place. Geldof conveniently avoided all these questions (while still getting the publicity he was after) with a bit of calculated sweariness. Have a look at the half-smirk as he drops the bollock-bombs; he clearly knows exactly what he's doing.

And that's before we even get to the lyrics. The original Band Aid single in 1984 was knocked together in a matter of days, a pretty remarkable organisational feat in those days before mobile phones and the internet, and while the lyrics were a bit crass and clunky in places people were prepared to overlook that, since there just hadn't been time to come up with anything more crafted. The trouble is, that excuse has long since evaporated in the 30 years since, but paradoxically the periodic resurrections of the idea are hamstrung by having to do something that sounds mostly the same as the original song, since the perception is that that's what'll sell in the greatest numbers. So a bit of tinkering here and there is the best that can be done.

As it happens I think the Ebola crisis might be one that's more amenable to being treated with a one-off cash injection than the original Ethiopian famine was, and I'm certainly not saying No More Band Aid Ever, just that it wouldn't hurt to acknowledge that this is actually a complex problem and while the overall balance of good vs. harm might well come out in favour of the single and its accompanying charity campaign there are nonetheless people who are hurt and frustrated by it.

The parallels with the comet/shirt debacle are, well, firstly that if you're in the privileged group it behooves you to listen to what those in the non-privileged group are telling you, since it may be about problems that you are completely oblivious to, and secondly that the whole attitude of HOW DARE YOU BOTHER GREAT MEN WHILE THEY ARE DOING GREAT THINGS WITH YOUR PIDDLING OBJECTIONS AND SO-CALLED "FEELINGS" is not very helpful or healthy, since for one thing it implicitly makes the assumption that people can't hold more than one thought in their heads at the same time. Like: Ebola is clearly a humanitarian crisis requiring swift action BUT here are some issues with the way it's being done here. Or: it is clearly unutterably awesome that the ESA Rosetta team has landed a probe on a comet BUT we could have done without the sexist bullshit. Call me a crazy old optimist but I actually think people are more than capable of grasping this.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

why not pop down to your local comet

Let's kick off with a bit of light-hearted smut: here's the BBC News article featuring some high-resolution images of the Philae probe's landing site on comet 67P (more formally: 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko). Note the wording of the headline:


I have a suspicion, particularly after looking at the section sub-headings within the article, that this was a deliberate (and clearly successful) attempt to slip something past the BBC website editors. How snigger-worthy you find it will depend on how keen you are on the puerile comedy trope of hearing someone say a sentence with a NOUN in it and responding by saying "what - your HAIRY NOUN?" The word "landing" is clearly eligible for this treatment owing to its similarity in meaning to "corridor" (what, your HAIRY corridor, etc.) and the reasonably well-known phrase "landing strip" (that Urban Dictionary link is work-safe, a Google image search probably less so).

Speaking of comets, and of things which are chuckleworthy among a group of your close friends, perhaps with some alcohol consumption involved, but which would be massively inappropriate at work, the other thing to make the headlines in relation to the comet landing - apart from the basic fact of humanity landing a SPACECRAFT on A FREAKIN' COMET, which everyone agrees is awesome - was British project scientist Dr. Matt Taylor's somewhat disastrous choice of shirt and words for the post-touchdown press interview.

There's been a lot of clueless outrage about the criticism on Twitter, as well as in various other publications who should know better. Most of it can be distilled down to this 6-second This Is Spinal Tap clip, but here's a slightly expanded summary:
  • if you're going with the "chill out, it's just a shirt" angle, it would benefit you enormously to read up on concepts like microaggressions, chilly climate and (most importantly of all) privilege. None of this is necessarily "obvious" or accessible via "common sense", nor would anyone be expected to know about it by default, especially if your daily focus was elsewhere, like, say landing a probe on a comet. 
  • it's also worth noting that three of the world's major astronomy organisations, in America, Australia and Britain, have issued statements echoing the view that it was inappropriate - the American Astronomical Society one went further and made the point that wearing such a garment at work would in many places be a violation of workplace anti-harassment policies. No word as yet from the Astronomical Society of America, though: splitters!
  • by what ought to be a fairly simple process of moral triangulation, if in any sort of discussion about social justice or gender politics you find yourself on the same side as Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi AliThe Federalist, Spiked and Boris Johnson you might want to reflect on whether you're actually one of the bad guys.
  • if you find yourself using the words "feminist" and "bully" in the same sentence, you might want to reflect on your ignorance about power gradients; see also "privilege" as above. Otherwise you might as well accuse Rosa Parks of "bullying" some white guy into a different seat on the bus in 1955.
  • anyway, once the message filtered through to Matt Taylor he issued (during a subsequent Google hangout session) a slightly stumbly but seemingly heartfelt and genuine apology. In response to which pretty much all of the original critics said, well, fair play, that can't have been easy, good man for doing the right thing, let's move on and revel in landing a SPACECRAFT on a FERREAKIN' COMET.
  • inevitably, in a sort of echo of Lewis' Law ("Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism") the backlash against those people flagging up the problem with the shirt (and the words) outweighed many-fold the volume and vehemence of the original complaints, and, despite it being by no means exclusively women who were complaining, it was inevitably women who copped most of the abuse.
If you want more, good summaries of the main points (plus links to some of the more egregious abuse, which saves me linking them here) can be found here and here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

taking myself up the twitter

At some point either yesterday or today something of great significance happened, a shifting, if you will, of the tectonic plates underlying my very online existence, a crossing of a sort of cyber-Rubicon after which nothing, literally NOTHING, will ever be the same again.

Here's a screenshot from my blog post administration page:


And here's one from my Twitter front page:


So you'll see instantly that there was a point where my total number of tweets overtook my total number of blog posts, probably during a futile and unrewarding exchange with an idiot, like this one. Not altogether surprising, you might say, and no doubt you'd be right, but I think I'd envisaged it taking a bit longer than the thirteen months that it has taken.

I suppose, as I near my tweetular sesquicentenary, what this reflects is that I've taken to Twitter more enthusiastically than I thought I might (that number averages out at a bit over three tweets a day), rather than giving up on the blogging project, which I certainly still consider to be my "main" platform for saying stuff, however inane.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

the last book I read

Schooling by Heather McGowan.

Catrine Evans is 13, and her American mother has recently died, so her Welsh father has brought them back to Britain and enrolled her at Monstead, the boarding school he went to as a boy. Cue lots of spiffing japes involving midnight feasts, raids on the tuck shop, hockey practice and hiding from Matron in the sanatorium, right? Weeeeeell, sort of.

Catrine is a spiky, self-possessed and intelligent girl, but with a few challenging events to deal with in her recent past, including the death of her mother, obviously, but also an incident before that involving her American friend Isabelle where they rolled an old car tyre they found in the woods down a hill towards a busy road and knocked a motorcyclist off his bike into the grass verge. Did they kill him? Is she a fugitive from justice? Who knows?

Catrine makes some friends at school, some wisely-chosen, some not: glue-sniffing delinquent Brickie, arsonist Aurora (soon to be expelled for burning down the cricket pavilion) and future head boy material Owen Wharton. She also gets to know some of the teachers, most notably awkward Mr. Betts the English teacher and the more obviously friendly and welcoming Mr. Gilbert the chemistry teacher who also does a bit of art tuition on the side.

Catrine and Mr. Gilbert soon strike up a friendship that extends beyond the normal pupil-teacher relationship, and soon extends into areas that might legitimately be cause for some concern - she poses for a painting, the description rather coyly not specifying exactly what (if anything) she's wearing for the session, and at the end of the book Mr. Gilbert organises an art tuition trip with some amateur pupils which he arranges for Catrine to attend as well, thus getting them both away from the school environment with its stifling notions of appropriate pupil-teacher relations. At this point stuffy old Mr. Betts comes up trumps by turning up to rescue her and whisk her away back to her father.

At least, that's what appears to happen, but it's hard to be sure since the book is written in an intense stream-of-consciousness style that doesn't offer the reader much context for what's going on at any point, and provides a viewpoint that can't necessarily always be trusted. The style makes it more of a challenge to read, as well, and it's interesting to speculate whether the book would have been any better if it had been written in a more orthodox way. Schooling was Heather McGowan's first novel (published in 2001) and there's a suspicion of a bit of stylistic throwing of the kitchen sink at it to make it memorable, whereas perhaps just telling the story in a more linear way would have resulted in a more satisfying, though less ambitious, book. The decision to frame the last chapter (15 pages or so) as a single-paragraph wall of text seems to deliberately invite comparisons to James Joyce's Ulysses, the canonical stream-of-consciousness novel, comparisons which, for all Schooling's merits, can't really end well. My conscience dictates that I should point out here that I have a Penguin copy of Ulysses on my shelves which I have yet to get round to reading.

The subject matter has a queasy fascination to anyone who's read Lolita; another strange parallel is that my Faber & Faber paperback carries a cover image of Thérèse by Balthus from 1938, while the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Lolita carries an image of the same artist's Girl With Cat from 1937. Both are slightly disturbingly sexualised images of clearly underage girls in poses of varying degrees of upskirtiness. Interestingly some of the other editions of Schooling zoom in on the image to reduce it to an area of jailbait-y thigh and knee; I'm not sure whether this makes it better or worse.

Some trainspottery facts for you: Heather McGowan is the second Heather to appear in this list after Heather Lewis in August 2011, and Schooling is the 42nd of the 194 books in this list to have a one-word title.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

[cetacean needed]

Looks like we've got another potential exploding whale on our hands. This one is stinking up a beach in the Camargue National Park in the south of France. According to this Independent article, authorities are considering various options including "one option of using dynamite to blow it up". WILL THESE PEOPLE NEVER LEARN?

I should imagine that what'll actually happen, much like in the case of the Newfoundland whale back in May, is that eventually the bloated carcass will spring a slow leak and gradually deflate in a disappointingly un-explodey manner. Honestly, those Camargue beaches are pretty remote; this one could almost be left to explode and all that would happen is a few of those white Camargue horses might get a bit spattered.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

daddy loves mummy very much so he sticks his manhood in her modesty

I should start this post by saying: you'll notice there's an increasing level of cross-pollination between blog posts and tweets, usually where things start out as either an individual tweet or a series of related tweets and then I think of more to say on the subject. Those of you who are foolish enough both to follow me on Twitter and read the blog might find this slightly frustrating, though I would hope the whole point is that the blog bits expand the tweets without just being tediously repetitious. Or, to put it another way: this shit is happening. Deal with it.

Anyway, I happened across this article on the Daily Mail website a day or two ago, featuring American actress Maitland Ward, of whom I confess I'd never heard before (and no wonder, if her Wikipedia filmography is accurate, since it's blank since 2007). My interest was piqued not so much by that story of sadly unfulfilled early promise, but by the language the Mail used to describe the story, a fairly flimsy one relating to some provocative photos intended to promote the new film Descent Into The Maelstrom, which may or may not be based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name. Here's the headline:


And here's my original tweet on the subject:

It occurred to me afterwards that it would be interesting to do a bit of simple Googling to see how many other examples I could find. It turns to be pretty easy. So my crackpot theory for today is that the phrase "flaunting her assets" is the most Daily Mail phrase ever, even more quintessentially Daily Mail (or more accurately, Mail Online) than any amount of bullshit about immigrants or false rape claims (they love a false rape claim story at the Mail, but that's a subject for a whole separate blog post). It's got the perfect blend of prurience and concentrated essence of 1950s, the decade in which the Mail dwells, morality-wise. There's also a liberal dose of Carry-On style attitudes to female sexuality, which basically comprise 1 part phwwooarrrr to 99 parts stark terror. It's also one of those phrases which gradually drains of meaning the more you say it. Flaunted her assets? Flaunted her assets? Flaunted her assets? I mean, what?

Anyway, here's a bit of a collage for your amusement:


These snippets were harvested from articles about (in addition to Maitland Ward as featured above) Ashley James, Sam Faiers, Chantelle Houghton, Jennifer Hawkins, Daisy Lowe, Naya Rivera, Kate UptonKelly Brook and Mariah Carey. "Assets" is occasionally used in a more general sense (and sometimes in the singular) to refer to other things, generally arses, as in these articles about Doutzen Kroes and Coco Austin.

As for my other claims about Daily Mail usage, here are a few citations for "modesty" meaning "fanny"; again, it is sometimes used in a more general sense as well:
  • Lindsay Lohan protects her modesty
  • [Maitland Ward] her modesty was very nearly revealed
  • [Selena Gomez] could barely contain her modesty in the tiny pale blue skirt
  • Britney tries to cover her modesty
Finally, here are some citations for "manhood" meaning "cock":
  • Shia LaBeouf 'wanted to wear camera on his manhood'
  • Robert Downey Jr. talks about his manhood at Cambridge Union
  • Rod Stewart reveals addiction to steroids shrunk his manhood
  • Mick Jagger 'used bees to enlarge his manhood'
  • 'He tried to cut off his manhood with craft scissors'
  • Skinny dipper bitten on manhood by deadly New Zealand spider
The other classic Daily Mail phrase used to accompany a bit of gratuitous leering is to describe a woman in a tight dress as having "poured her curves" into it; "curves" in this context meaning tits and arse, obviously. As it happens I don't need to do any research for this one as there is a whole tumblr blog already dedicated to it. It hasn't been updated for a couple of years, so you can imagine the amount of potential material that must have built up since then.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

loafing around

When you're a busy professional person and parent, you don't get a lot of free time to just wander off and go for a walk. When you're wanting to go for walks with other people who are also busy professional persons and parents, opportunities are few and far between and must be siezed upon when they present themselves. So when I and my fellow NCT alumni Huw and Alex found ourselves with an available Saturday (i.e. today) we decided to go out for a walk and to hell with the direness of the weather forecast.

We didn't have a whole day as Huw had to be somewhere else later, so we had to devise a decent walk featuring a satisfying summit somewhere, but which wasn't going to take more than, say, four hours to get round. So we decided to drive up to Abergavenny and tackle the Sugar Loaf.

I'd been up the Sugar Loaf once before, with my parents, back in the summer of 2010. I can't at this point remember the exact route we took, but I think we took a pretty direct approach by parking at the small car park here. This time we decided to make a bit more of a walk of it by parking in town and walking up the Deri ridge, bagging the summit and then walking back down the Rholben ridge to our starting point.

I think the Sugar Loaf is the most pleasing of all the hills around Abergavenny; not only is it the highest but it is a very definite little mini-Matterhorn peak with a little summit plateau which falls away on all sides. The Blorenge, by contrast, is only 100 feet or so lower but is a great bulky lump which, when you get to the top, reveals itself to be just the end of a great long plateau stretching off over towards Blaenavon, and where if you start from that side you can drive to within about 150 vertical feet of the summit.

Sugar Loaf is also one of the Seven Hills Of Abergavenny - not only that but Deri and Rholben are on that list as well, so we knocked off three at once today. That leaves Mynydd Llanwenarth as the only one I haven't conquered, but since this is just another subsidiary ridge of the Sugar Loaf it isn't the sort of thing you'd make the focus of a day out. Next time I climb the Sugar Loaf I'll go up that way and that'll take care of it.

Here's the GPS-captured track info (click for a bigger version) - a modest 8.3 miles apparently, but it turned out to be about right in terms of distance and duration. Although we were in general quite lucky with the weather (it was clear while we were at the summit, for instance) we did get rained on quite extensively as well or we might have got finished a bit quicker. Four hours for the round trip turned out to be pretty nearly spot on.


A couple of other graphical thingies that may be of interest, firstly essentially the same map but with some colour-coding added to show the changes in altitude (of course you could get essentially the same information by careful reading of the contour lines on the OS map); secondly the altitude profile. Both of these are courtesy of GPS Visualiser.



It was too wet for much photography, and my proper camera is currently on the fritz anyway, but a small number of pictures, including the obligatory summit shot, can be found here.