Friday, November 27, 2009

corr blimey

You remember The Corrs? With their dancey-pop-folk-rock tunes ploughing an unerring laser-calibrated furrow down the middle of the road? Everyone liked the Corrs, for one reason or another. And of course in the vast majority of cases it was "another", if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

So you'll be wanting to know my answer to The Corrs Question, which every man asks himself upon seeing them, or even just hearing their name. And that question is, of course: if you really, really had to choose, which one? And my answer is: Sharon, the fiddle player (on the right in the photo). Which is not to say I wouldn't prefer it to be all of them, in a big bathtub full of Guinness.

However, my point, which I'm sneaking up on ninja-stylee, has to do with the person Richard Herring used to call The Man-Corr, during the frequent visits to his Corrs shrine on This Morning With Richard Not Judy. That is to say multi-instrumentalist Jim Corr, who, it is revealed among numerous other pant-moisteningly fascinating facts on his Wikipedia page, is the tallest of the Corrs, as well as being - wait for it - the only male member.

Rather more interesting is Jim's own website, wherein he reveals himself to be a staunch adherent to pretty much every single bonkers conspiracy theory ever cooked up, mainly the myriad ones relating to the New World Order, which will be implemented (probably by David Icke's 12-foot lizards) literally Any Day Now.

I am not a psychologist, as you know, but my diagnosis is this: standing around on stage with his three lovely sisters for all those years, in the certain knowledge that a) every bloke in the world had just started having The Bad Thoughts and b) he, and he alone, was barred by social convention and societal taboo from doing the same thing, despite - oh, the bitter irony - being the one bloke in the world with legitimate access to their dressing-room area, has caused some sort of catastrophic mental meltdown.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

obey the turd commandment

Two things spring to mind seeing this headline on the BBC website:

Firstly, that's not particulary newsworthy, surely? Prisons are big obvious things that you ought to be able to spot, and avoid, no matter how pissed you are. "Urinating student avoids own shoes" would be more remarkable.

Secondly, given the seriousness with which this is all being viewed (and I'm not suggesting pissing on war memorials is OK or anything) I feel I should in all conscience come clean and make the following confession: I have urinated in the fountains outside the Victoria Rooms in central Bristol on more than one occasion. I'm not proud of myself, and it was nearly 20 years ago, but there it is. I feel better now. I'm afraid I can't confirm whether or not my friend Mario ever followed through on his promise to symbolically confirm his rejection of organised religion by having a shit on (or perhaps even in) a church. I seem to recall that the Victoria Methodist Church and the Tyndale Baptist Church - both a short distance from the scene of my own micturatory misdemeanours - were the two most likely candidates.

coma coma coma coma coma chameleon

Here's a little exercise in scepticism and critical thinking for you, just to demonstrate how important it is, and how it is in fact the only way to find out anything about anything. If you want to limber up first, check out the pixie dust/magic finger story from a while back.

You may have seen the various articles (in the Daily Mail and Guardian, among others, and on the BBC website) about Belgian man Rom Houben and the apparent miraculous discovery that he is, inside his crippled and useless body, actually conscious and coherent after 23 years in what doctors had previously thought was a vegetative coma.

So, if you've got your critical thinking hat on straight, the first thing you think is: wow; how did they find out that he was conscious? And the answer seems to be: initially by some brain-scanning technique of an unspecified nature that might be something like fMRI or CAT, but might equally well be something else. The Mail alludes to "new high-tech scans" and "state-of-the-art imaging", but gives no details, nor does it describe how the results of a brain scan can be interpreted to determine "consciousness" or its absence. The Guardian mentions a "state-of-the-art scanning system", but that's about it.

But, hey, none of this should really matter, because the main thing is that he's able to communicate with the outside world, right? Well....the Guardian mentions that he is able to make simple yes/no signals with his foot, which seems clear enough, but in all the pictures, all the video footage and most of the articles he's communicating via a touch-screen keyboard interface with the assistance of another person.

Again, if you've got your critical thinking hat on straight this should set alarm bells off all over the shop. What appears to be happening here is something called "facilitated communication", whereby a "facilitator" guides the patient's hands around until they feel a "twitch" or something similar which they interpret as the patient selecting a letter. The trouble with this is that, bluntly, it doesn't work. Why it doesn't work, and has been proven not to work repeatedly in properly constructed tests, but appears to, is down to fascinating things like the ideomotor effect (the thing that makes ouija boards "work") and the observer-expectancy effect (also, more amusingly, known as the Clever Hans effect after the famous horse that could supposedly do arithmetic).

The sceptical blogosphere has been a-buzzing with indignation over a) blatantly pseudoscientific nonsense being passed off as medical science and b) the hopelessly credulous and unquestioning attitude most of the press and online media have taken in response. The only sceptical mainstream media article I could find (and I should point out I haven't exactly spent hours looking, so there may be others) was this one on MSNBC; significantly it's by an actual science-y doctor type rather than the usual pig-ignorant drunken hacks. In contrast plenty of sceptical and scientific blogs chewed over the story in a more critical way; here's PZ, Orac, the Amazing Randi and the Skepchicks just for starters, but there are plenty more.

It's easy to have an instinctive emotional reaction to what is a pretty tragic story of a life cut short, so here are a couple of disclaimers: no-one is suggesting that either the doctor (Steven Laureys of the University of Liège) or the facilitator operating the keyboard are anything but sincere; the whole point of facilitated communication is that it requires no conscious collusion from anybody. Equally, no-one is suggesting that Rom Houben may not in fact really be just as conscious and lucid as people are claiming he is, just that the "evidence" provided so far provides zero information one way or the other.

Most of the articles, critical or otherwise, have drawn the parallel with the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, author of the book The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (later filmed). It's been suggested that Houben may be suffering from "locked-in syndrome" just as Bauby was. This seems unlikely given the differing nature of their injuries - Houben was in a car accident, Bauby had a stroke, which seems to be the usual trigger for LIS - but it's not impossible, I suppose. Again, until some proper tests are carried out no-one will ever know.

The other obvious parallel that some people have drawn is with Terri Schiavo, whose case was something of a cause célèbre in the USA in the early 2000s. Schiavo suffered some mysterious brain injury (over which there is still much speculation) in 1990 and then fell into a coma from which she never recovered until her death in March 2005. The legal furore surrounding her husband's bid to allow her to die, and her parents' demands that she be kept alive (with, bizarrely, interventions from Jeb Bush, governor of Florida), dragged on for many years. When you add loony religious notions like "the soul" into a mix already rich (and understandably so) in wishful thinking and denial then you've got a recipe for disaster. I predict the Houben case will be hijacked by some loonies banging on about the sanctity of human life and wanting some retrospective re-evaluation of the Schiavo case any second now. Oh, wait.

Many of the news articles have made use of some variant of the "silent scream of anguish" trope, which makes me think they've probably been reading too much science fiction. Or possibly listening to too much Metallica.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

beer and whisky makes you frisky

A couple of drink-related things for you. Firstly, I purchased a four-pack of Brains SA from Tesco the other day. Nothing very unusual in that, except that I noticed that the plastic thingy that keeps the cans together seems to have been changed - your classic four-pack beer-can harness sits around the top of the cans, just below the top lip; this new one sits about two-thirds of the way up.

So one has to ask: why the change? What does the new one deliver that the old one didn't? It's not that the cans are any easier to carry; the old design allowed the whole four-pack to be picked up by just hooking a finger into the central hole at the top. The new one does come with a flap of plastic that looks as if it's meant to be a carrying handle, but I can't see that this makes things any easier. And getting the individual cans out of the packaging is more difficult that it used to be - before you just had to lift and tilt a can and it would effortlessly come free of the plastic; now you have to grip the rest of the cans and slide the one you want out vertically, with inevitably a bit of a jerk as it comes out. And jerking of cans can lead to trouble when you come to open them, as you know. Basically what I'm saying is that I fail to see how this is an improvement in any way. What's going on?

Secondly, more whisky. I don't go to Waitrose very often, but I did take the opportunity of having a nose around their whisky section when I was at the one in Newbury the other day. It turns out they have some unusual stuff at bargain prices, including a bottle of 12-year-old Royal Lochnagar for £19.99, which I bought.

Here's a couple of Royal Lochnagar facts for you:
  • It's one of the smallest Scotch whisky distilleries, having just two stills. By contrast Macallan has twenty-one, and back when it was the biggest distillery in Scotland in the 1970s Tomatin had twenty-three. I daresay Glenfiddich has quite a few as well.
  • The "Royal" prefix dates back to the time of Queen Victoria, who granted it to the distillery when she first visited nearby Balmoral in 1848. There are only three distilleries in Scotland which are allowed to use the word "Royal" in their name; the other two are Royal Brackla (which is still operational) and Glenury Royal (which isn't).
  • The nearby mountain after which the distillery is named is one of my 273 as-yet-unconquered Munros; in fact according to my Munro bible it is the 21st-highest mountain in Britain. I'll get to it in due course; don't rush me.
Anyway, as far as the actual whisky goes, this is from the Highland region, the same as Glenmorangie, and also the same as Highland Park, if you don't hold with the heretical notion of "Island" being a separate region. Broadly speaking Highland malts tend to be a bit more rugged than the very civilised Speyside ones (like the Aberlour, for instance); this one just about conforms to that by having a light smokiness to it. It's relatively light - less chunky and smoky and outdoorsy than the Highland Park, and certainly less so than the Ardmore. It starts off very butterscotch-y and quite sweet, and finishes surprisingly smoky and dry, all of which encourages another mouthful. I like it a lot.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

looking a bit peaky

I thought the name of Michael Buerk's guest on Radio 4's The Choice rang a bell when it was trailed during the Today programme that preceded it this morning - the couple of minutes of the show I caught provided the necessary context: Cathy O'Dowd, mountaineer, adventurer and author.

I know the name because she features in Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's account of the events on Mount Everest in May 1996 when eight climbers died. The South African expedition that O'Dowd was a part of, led by O'Dowd's husband Ian Woodall (though they weren't married at the time), comes in for some fairly heavy criticism in the book. Krakauer seems to have taken an instant dislike to Woodall in particular - Krakauer's friend Andy de Klerk was one of the original members of Woodall's expedition, but resigned in protest at Woodall's leadership before the Everest attempt, and Krakauer's expedition leader (and one of the eventual list of fatalities) Rob Hall seems to have been of a similar opinion. Krakauer's original Outside magazine article (which mentions O'Dowd and Woodall) can be found here, and a preview of the book can be found here.

I thoroughly recommend reading Into Thin Air, but of course there's more than one side to every story. O'Dowd seemed perfectly sane, humane and reasonable during the interview, which focused on her unsuccessful attempt to save Fran Arsentiev's life on a later ascent of Everest in 1998. Her notes on the 1996 expedition can be found on her website here and here. Yet another view of the events is provided by Anatoli Boukreev's book The Climb, which addresses some of the criticisms of his actions in 1996 made in Krakauer's book. If you're not all Everest disaster-ed out after that, try Beck Weathers' Left For Dead for yet another account of the same events.

It's inevitable that different people have wildly differing recollections of the same events when those events take place in the so-called "death zone" above 8000 metres, where rational thought is as difficult as summoning the energy to move. Much as I love mountains, once you get to a point beyond which you can get up by parking the car, putting your boots on and walking, i.e. the point where ice-axes, crampons and rope start to be required, I lose interest quite rapidly. Also the "death zone" thing is a bit troubling: death = bad in my book.

Friday, November 20, 2009

where we're going we won't need eyes

A bit shout out to my main man Jann for directing to me to the A.V. Club's film flops hall of fame in response to my post referencing Nicolas Cage's performance in the remake of The Wicker Man. Yeah. Props. Respect. Recognize.

Anyway, sure enough The Wicker Man does find a spot on the list, along with another Cage film, Zandalee, which looks as if it features a Cage performance so hammy you could make X out of it, where X is some comically appropriate culinary thing involving a lot of ham that I can't think of right now. A ham sandwich? No, not enough ham. A hamburger? No, that doesn't work. Maybe an installation art piece featuring 140kg of ham piled on a bed? Yes. It's not culinary, but goodness me that's a lot of ham.

There are various other films which prompt me to nod at their unspeakable awfulness, most obviously Pay It Forward which I saw on an aeroplane in about 2001; I have yet to fully recover from its desperate mawkish manipulative cheesy teeth-grinding horribleness. All I would say in defence of A Life Less Ordinary is that no film featuring Holly Hunter in a tight skirt and knee-length boots (even though she does do a really irritating accent throughout) can be completely without merit. The appearance of Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days on the list, however, prompts me to construct this brief list of my own, which I choose to entitle Films I Quite Liked, Even Though Pretty Much No-One Else Did:
  • Dune. I probably liked this (I went to see it in the cinema when it came out in 1984) because a) I was only 14 at the time and the whole outer space and giant worms thing seemed really cool, and more importantly b) I'd never read any of the books (and still never have, and almost certainly never will). I've also never watched it again since, which is probably key to retaining any fond memories.
  • Fearless. One obvious reason to hate this: Rosie fucking Perez and the most annoying voice in the world. One obvious reason to like it: the Dude! I suppose it's obvious that my paranoia about flying should mean that I find this fascinating, but I don't think it's just that.
  • Strange Days. The virtual reality thing has been done to death now, but this was quite innovative stuff when it came out. The A.V. Club guy is quite right, though, when he says that only a fool would fail to recognise that the fantastically foxy Angela Bassett is far more attractive than Juliette Lewis, even a topless Juliette Lewis on roller skates. Plus, it's got Michael Wincott, keeping up his rigorous voice training regime of gargling battery acid and clock parts.
  • Event Horizon. I thought this sci-fi/horror combo was really quite good, despite being about 20 minutes too short - apparently there were a whole load of wranglings between director and studio and a lot of stuff got cut. Consequently the last third of the film feels weirdly rushed and confusing, but it's still good. And Sam Neill is an asset to any film; he was one of the two things that made Jurassic Park bearable (the second being Bob Peck. Clever girl!) Well, OK, Omen III was a bit shit.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

we'll have the primordial soup to start, please, followed by the trilobite

I spotted an excellent phrase on one of the Pharyngula discussion threads earlier, which describes very succinctly the creationists' view of the Theory of Evolution:
from goo, to you, by way of the zoo
Isn't that great? I'd never heard it before, but it's obviously been around for a while, as it seems it's the title of a book by a chap called Harold Hill (no, not him). Some Americans have fond childhood memories of it, though, apparently. It almost has a bit of a Dr. Seuss sound to it, though you can bet what's inside will be considerably less entertaining and educational.

Actually, as scornful representations of the ToE go, it isn't all that bad a catchphrase, as it suggests life formed in very simple forms and evolved through lots of progressively more complex intermediate forms to the wild profusion of life we see today, which is pretty much what all the available evidence suggests actually happened. Ridicule is clearly what's intended, though. Those crazy godless Darwinists!

Whereas the Bible says God created life with the whole Adam and Eve thing, then The Fall (no, not them), a whole load of begatting, the flood, Jesus, yadda yadda yadda, you. Or, if you prefer, from two, to you, by way of some Jews.

pretenzioso? me?

I had to do a quick run down to Tesco to pick up some lunch supplies earlier, and happened therefore to be in the car with Radio 4 on between 11:30 and 12 o'clock. This enabled me to catch a few brief snippets of a programme about Oulipo, the French experimental literature group (it's a portmanteau word formed from "ouvroir de littérature potentielle").

I'm vaguely familiar with Oulipo through having read a couple of novels by two of its more well-known members:
  • If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino. You can gauge quite quickly whether you're going to enjoy this or not by deciding whether you're intrigued or enraged by this opening paragraph:
    You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice - they won't hear you otherwise - "I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell; "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone.
    If you just want a Proper Ruddy Story with no authorial intervention and general post-modern dicking about, then you might be best advised to look elsewhere. That would be a shame, though, as it's great. I also notice that Sting's new album has a title which is a nod to this novel. Pretentious? Lui?

  • Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec. Back when I used to have a summer job in the Town Bookseller bookshop in Newbury (on the canal bridge in the town centre, here) I recall conducting a lengthy search on behalf of a customer for this book, which I'd never previously heard of. We did eventually manage to locate a copy for him, which I had a sneaky flick through before handing it over. Incidentally the Town Bookseller later became a branch of Ottakar's (who, as you'll discover if you click on the link, were themselves later taken over by Waterstone's), and is now a Cornish pasty shop (apparently it was a Costa coffee shop for a while as well).

    Anyway, my point, such as it is, is that when I eventually decided I wanted to read L:AUM it was a great deal easier to find as there were handy things like Amazon around to help me out. And a strange and mysterious book it is too (though also sad, funny and all sorts of other stuff). On the surface a series of eccentric and occasionally interlinked tales concerning the residents of a fictional Paris apartment block (and therefore less obviously experimental than the Calvino novel), the novel's underlying architecture is built according to an extraordinarily involved and complex set of rules and constraints, of which the Wikipedia article has a good summary.

    It's very entertaining, though the hoops Perec has to jump through to obey his own self-imposed rules make some of the chapters a bit odd (some are just long lists of the contents of a room, for example). I strongly recommend giving it a go, though.

    Perec's other experimental literary exploits include writing an entire novel without using the letter "e", and constructing the world's longest palindrome (a mind-melting 5000+ letters long). And that hair/beard combo was pretty extraordinary, too.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

this week I have been mostly eating potatoes

I seem to have accumulated a few foody pics on the camera, so here they are with a few explanatory recipe notes.

Spanish Stew & Tortilla

I picked up some interesting-looking pork and fennel sausages in Waitrose the other day, made by the people at Unearthed. We also have a big sack of potatoes from Hazel's parents which we're gradually working our way through, so this seemed like a good excuse for a Spanish stew and potato omelette extravaganza.

First, the stew:

You've got your sausages, obviously, plus a 500g pack of boneless chicken thighs, a couple of onions, some garlic, some Peppadew peppers, a couple of tins of tomatoes and a tin of beans - I've got cannelini beans, but any old white beans would do; haricot beans, butter beans, that sort of thing. The amounts as shown here will make about four portions.

Cook the onions and garlic a bit, bung the meat in, cook that a bit, throw everything else in, add a bit of thyme and paprika, maybe a dash of red wine, and leave it to cook.

Meanwhile, the tortilla. Now most recipes for this would have you cook the potatoes slowly in a frying pan in several batches. I can't really be arsed with that, though, so a profitable short-cut is just to dice them up, slosh a load of olive oil over them and then stick them in the oven for half an hour.

Then beat up half-a-dozen eggs in a bowl; I threw a bit of grated cheese in as well, though this is no doubt sacrilege to the tortilla purist. Stir in the spuds. Then pour the whole sloppy mess into a hot oiled non-stick pan.

All you need now is a bit of green salad and a large glass of wine.

Thai Fishcakes & Noodle Salad

What I've got here is 400g or so of white fish (this is haddock, as it happens), a few spring onions, some garlic, a lime, some ginger and chilli, some Thai curry paste, some Thai spice powder and some parsley and coriander (out of a jar, though fresh coriander would be much better). This will make enough for two people.

Divide the fish in half. Chop half of it fairly finely, and throw the other half in the food processor along with the other ingredients (well, don't throw the whole lime in, just squeeze the juice out of it). Whiz it around for a minute or so until it's a smooth-ish paste. Then take the blade out and stir the chopped fish in.

Make the mixture into little patties (lots of small ones is better than a small number of large ones, as they'll only fall apart) and fry them in some sunflower oil in a non-stick pan.

By this time you'll have made the noodle salad by blanching some ready-cooked noodles for a couple of minutes, and then mixing them with some chopped Peppadew peppers, chopped spring onion, lime juice, sesame oil and fish sauce. All you need then is a few salad-y leaves, and a cold beer.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

there's a strange kind of chemistry between us

As we discovered yesterday, if there's one thing that we know about scientists, it's that they are godless killing machines and cold-hearted pitiless genocidal maniacs. It turns out some of them are also high-class prostitutes; well, at least one of them is; well, used to be anyway - specifically Dr. Brooke Magnanti, a research scientist in a Bristol hospital, who has recently revealed herself to be notorious sex blogger Belle de Jour.

So far, so meh, well, plus maybe a little bit of prurient interest in joining the dots between the bright and high-powered scientist in the lab coat and the high-class hooker in the suspenders doing a bit of light bondage with paying clients.

What's arguably more interesting is how the papers have responded - the original revelations were in the Sunday Times, and there was also a fairly baldly factual and non-judgmental piece in the Guardian. Needless to say the Daily Mail prefer judgmental to non-judgmental (they describe the Sunday Times article as "remarkably uncritical"), and just plain mental to either. So they went with the story of the ex-boyfriend who Dr. Magnanti says was partly the reason for her revealing herself (i.e. she was concerned he would spill the beans) - apparently his name is Owen, and he is in the army. Therefore, by the Mail's unassailable logic, he is one of Our Brave Boys and immune from criticism. And what a tear-jerking story of seduction and abandonment he has to tell:
Meanwhile, Owen rattles around the house by the coast he bought for Brooke in the hope this would be where they would start married life together. All he has for company is the cat they both used to dote on.
The cat! Won't somebody think of the cat? And meanwhile she, the Dirty Bitch, is off selling her stories of guilt-free rogering to the papers like the Filthy Whore that she is. Which makes her No Better Than She Ought To Be, I shouldn't wonder.

here's the barrel; now choose your fish

In linking to the excellent New Humanist blog in yesterday's post I noticed that they are currently inviting nominations for the 2009 Bad Faith Awards. These are presented each year to "the person deemed to have made the most outstanding contribution to the cause of unreason". This year's list of nominees is an excellent cross-section of people guaranteed to get the rational thinker into a foaming incoherent forehead-slapping rage, and includes in Terry Eagleton and the British Chiropractic Association a couple of previous targets for specific bile-flecked ire on this very blog.

I recommend you get over there and cast your votes using the buttons provided. I haven't voted yet as I'm having some difficulty deciding - the Pope is the obvious one, but Eagleton is such a giant cock that I'm tempted to vote for him instead. And while I wasn't previously familiar with Damian Thompson's writings for the Telegraph, and while he's not directly responsible for the ravings of his regular commenters, the level of insane bigotry that can be found in the comment thread for, for instance, this piece is pretty alarming. And then there's insane coffee-table book publisher and fishing enthusiast Harun Yahya aka Adnan Oktar.

Sadly no room for my favourite rent-a-loon Stephen Green of Catholic Voice, though I notice he was on the shortlist last year (when Sarah Palin was the runaway winner). I went for Eagleton in the end, by the way; looking at his smug beardy face in my previous post pushed me over the edge. The voting position as at about 1:30pm today is captured on the left - as you can see the Pope is well in the lead, with the BCA in second, and Eagleton in fourth.

Monday, November 16, 2009

down with Newtonism!

It's difficult to tear your hair out while at the wheel of a car on the motorway, and just as well as I have little enough of it to spare anyway. Had it been possible I might have done so this morning, however, while listening to the brief interview the Today programme did with author Dennis Sewell, who is doing the rounds promoting his book The Political Gene: How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics.

It's late, so I'll be brief - basically Sewell's thesis is: Charles Darwin's discoveries led inexorably to the advocating of eugenics, and therefore inevitably to the extremes of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and more recently to the atrocities committed by the Columbine killers. Sewell was keen to point out that he had no disagreement with the central science (though he did then go on to disagree with it, as it happens), but with the use it was put to by those who came after Darwin. That being the case it's hard to see the justification for the prominent use of Darwin's name, unless of course it's just a transparent bid to squeeze some cash out of the old geezer's multiple anniversaries this year.

It's always amusing to play spot-the-logical-fallacy with these idiots, the most obvious one here being the huge appeal to consequences at the heart of his argument (equivalent, say, to blaming Isaac Newton every time someone falls off a high building), but there's also the slippery attempt to draw an equivalence between "Darwinism" and, say, Marxism or Islam in terms of their capacity for unforeseen consequences. Trouble is, Darwin wasn't espousing a political worldview, merely trying to explain how the world works. While it's certainly true, for instance, that by today's standards his views on race seem pretty archaic and unpalatable (though there's a case for saying that he was pretty liberal for his day), it isn't for those that he is remembered. Since science is not a religion, we're under no obligation to accept everything Darwin said as truth unquestioningly; we can just pick and choose those bits that repeatedly stand up to empirical testing and reject the rest.

Anyway, various others have taken turns to tear strips from Sewell's still-twitching corpse in an entertaining way.

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Conservative party candidate and current source of minor media frenzy Elizabeth Truss, and Irish rugby hero (and their saviour yet again on Sunday) Brian O'Driscoll. Again, you've got to get past the hair, and once again I've provided a means for you to do that by some seamless photo-editing.

oh christ; oh jesus christ

By way of a tribute to Edward Woodward, who died today, here's the climactic scene from the classic 1973 film The Wicker Man. Just to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it, this is the bit at the end where the locals re-enact an ancient fertility ritual by putting a policeman and some chickens into a giant man-shaped basket and setting fire to it. Looks like the chicken might be a bit overcooked by the end, to be honest.

And here's the equivalent scene from the less-celebrated 2006 remake, starring Nicolas Cage.

I haven't seen it, but from these couple of montages (the second one admittedly deliberately cut together for comedy effect) it looks buttock-clenchingly awful, and seems to feature Cage overacting even more than in the rivetingly terrible Face/Off. Who would have imagined such a thing were even possible? I suppose one might conclude that Cage is just hamming it up in any old shit these days to pay the bills.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

the last book I read

G. by John Berger.

John Berger's career and public profile follows an interesting trajectory: painter and art critic and occasional novelist from the late 1940s up to the early 1970s, suddenly phenomenally famous in 1972 owing to the prize-winning success (of which more later) of this novel, and also of the book and television series Ways Of Seeing (most of which is available on YouTube, for instance episode one which is available in four parts here, here, here and here), then back to art criticism, exile in France and political activism, all of which he still pursues energetically at the age of 83.

On the face of it the story he tells in G. is a pretty simple one - boy born to a British/American mother and an Italian father, grows up in England in the 1890s, is seduced by his cousin at the age of 15 and therafter becomes a sexual adventurer, serial seducer and libertine who pops up Zelig-like (or Forrest Gump-like, if you prefer) in the background of various momentous events in western Europe during the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War (and therefore ending up in a similar place time-wise to the previous book in this series), depite having no interest in politics whatsoever, or indeed seemingly much at all beyond the constant thrill of the sexual chase. When he does, more by accident than anything else, become directly involved with an uprising in Trieste in the early days of the war he is promptly killed and dumped in a canal for his troubles.

The point of the book, though, is not so much to tell G.'s story as to use it as a jumping-off point for various things, firstly a series of tangential fictionalised musings on various real historical events such as the Milan riots of 1898, the race to achieve the first air crossing of the Alps in 1910 (eventually achieved by Jorge Chávez, but at the cost of his own life), and the battle for control of Trieste between Austria, Italy and Slovenia in the run-up to World War I, and secondly for Berger to do various metafictional experimentation:
I write in the spirit of a geometrician. One of the ways in which I establish co-ordinates extensively is by likening aspect with aspect, by way of metaphor. I do not wish to become a prisoner of the nominal, believing that things are what I name them.
A cubic metre of space; empty it of your conception of that space; what remains is death.
Er, yeah. There's a fine line here, on the wrong side of which this sort of pretentiousness would be profoundly irritating, but the relentless energy of it all rescues it, plus the occasional amusing sex doodles scattered throughout the text. We aren't given anything as bourgeois and obvious as any sort of motivation for G.'s development into a fairly heartless Don Juan, or indeed for his last-minute conversion into political activism on the streets of Trieste; indeed the character of G. himself remains as opaque and mysterious to us at the end of the book as at the start.

G. was the fourth recipient of the Booker Prize in 1972; Berger's radicalism made him briefly notorious as he announced during his acceptance speech that he would be donating half of his prize money to the British arm of the Black Panthers in retaliation for Booker McConnell's history of exploitation of sugar workers in Guyana. G. also won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in the same year, so you can add it to the lists mentioned here and here. It is also the second book in this series to feature a cover which could conceivably cause some consternation on the bus, among the unusually prudish anyway.

if not now, venn?

So when I read in the papers on Monday that both of the two £90 million Euromillions enormo-rollover jackpot-winning tickets were bought in the UK, and moreover that one of them was bought by someone who lived in Newport, and the other was bought by a syndicate of employees at an IT company, I thought: well, I fall into both of those categories, so one of them must be me, right? Good job I checked before reserving the Aston Martin, because it turns out neither of them was me. What are the chances?

Sunday, November 08, 2009


I've just had the misfortune to witness the final stages of the X Factor sing-off, and with reference to John & Edward's performance in particular I was put in mind of Calculon's response to Bender's audition performance in the Futurama episode Bender Should Not Be Allowed On TV:
That was so terrible I think you gave me CANCER!
I can't find that particular line on YouTube to illustrate my point, unless you happen to speak Spanish, but here's an audio version.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

blogging tip of the day

Here's something I was discussing at work earlier and which might prove useful: how to link to a YouTube clip at a specific starting time. Basically you take the URL for the clip and append #t=XmYs to the end of it, substituting the appropriate numbers of minutes and seconds for X and Y as appropriate.

So I can now take you straight to the Michael Portillo "erect" moment, which is handy. I can also, for instance, skip the rest of the Not The Nine O'Clock News Question Time sketch and take you straight to the funny bit. For those of you too young to remember, that's Clive Jenkins that Richard Davies is impersonating (and Nye Bevan that he's referring to, though of course even I am too young to remember him). Jenkins was a ripe target for impersonation: here, via some similar YouTube magic, is Monty Python's Graham Chapman doing a similar job in 1972.

Jenkins (the real one) can be seen in this slightly surreal pin-up gallery of 1970s/1980s trade union leaders; I've also nicked the image from that page and put it on the left here for you, just in case you can't be arsed to click on the link. Apparently the eventual winner of Trade Union Idol was former leader of UNISON and Buddy Holly lookalike Rodney Bickerstaffe.

a packet of dry roasted disco biscuits, please

More interesting footnotes to the drug advisor sacking fiasco: firstly this article in the New Scientist by David Nutt himself presents a thought experiment originally presented in this NS editorial (the full version of which is behind a paywall):
Imagine you are seated at a table with two bowls in front of you. One contains peanuts, the other tablets of the illegal recreational drug MDMA (ecstasy). A stranger joins you, and you have to decide whether to give them a peanut or a pill. Which is safest?

You should give them ecstasy, of course. A much larger percentage of people suffer a fatal acute reaction to peanuts than to MDMA.
The question to then go on and ask yourself is: given this, on what basis do we come to the conclusion that the sale and consumption of peanuts is OK, but the sale and consumption of ecstasy is not? I'm sure Alan Johnson will be setting it all out for us nice and clearly and unambiguously any day now.

With all this confusion and disagreement, what the situation is clearly crying out for is some Good Old-Fashioned Common Sense. In other words, a column by Melanie Phillips. Mel takes a different tack from the one you might have expected (dismissing the science and proclaiming that drug consumption is Just Ruddy Morally Wrong in some ill-defined way) by claiming that the science doesn't show what Professor Nutt claims it does regarding relative harmfulness of drugs. Obviously you should make up your own minds based on a sober examination of the evidence, but it would be remiss of me not to point out here that Mel also thinks the scientific evidence comes down firmly in favour of Intelligent Design as opposed to, you know, all that evolution rubbish. If you really feel you can't just dismiss everything Melanie Phillips says as the ramblings of a deranged right-wing knee-jerk contrarian, some specific refutations can be found here.

Also in the Mail, A.N. Wilson takes a few potshots at David Nutt as well, in an article that is if anything even more cretinous than Mel's. First this gem:
The trouble with a 'scientific' argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.
Yeah, you can prove anything with facts. Secondly he Godwins himself a bit further down:
The only difference between Hitler and previous governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth. He allowed scientists freedoms which a civilised government would have checked.

I am not suggesting that any British scientists are currently conducting experiments comparable to those which were allowed in Nazi Germany or in Soviet Russia.
Oh, well, that's all right then. Finally a bit of anti-vax looniness, ostensibly in the name of - hey! - "free expression":
In fact, it is the arrogant scientific establishment which questions free expression. Think of the hoo-ha which occurred when one hospital doctor dared to question the wisdom of using the MMR vaccine.
Absolutely tremendous; top marks.

Monday, November 02, 2009

keith vaz, on crack, yesterday

Couple of further bits on the government drug advisor fiasco - firstly Keith Vaz steams in with a textbook display of Just Not Getting It At All:
Keith Vaz, who chairs the home affairs select committee, described Nutt's comments as "unwise". Vaz said: "As the country's top adviser on the issue, he is implying to many young people that cannabis is not particularly dangerous."
Well, yes, that's the point, isn't it? What with it actually being not particularly dangerous and all. In a rather more surprising development, today's Independent features an article from Bruce Anderson that actually talks a lot of sense:
So let us start with fundamentals. Until the 1960s, our legal system was overshadowed by pre-libertarian theories of the state, which criminalised breaches of Christian morality and started from the assumption that governments were entitled to regulate the private behaviour of adults. As that has all gone over the past few decades, what theory of the state now permits governments to prohibit adults from taking drugs? There is only one intellectually respectable answer to that question: none.
Right on. He does blot his copybook a bit later in the article, unfortunately, with some slightly mental stuff about using the SAS to combat foreign drug traffickers (proper God-fearing indigenous British drug traffickers presumably being all right), which put me in mind of Michael Portillo's infamous Conservative Party Conference speech from 1995. The SAS stuff is towards the end, but I found the most amusing bit to be at about 1:10 when Portillo pauses briefly after uttering the word "erect" to lick his lips lingeringly in what is probably the Gayest Moment Ever at a Conservative Party Conference.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

miscavige of justice

Couple of further things in relation to the earlier Scientology posts - firstly this very amusing article regarding some new uniforms that you must buy in addition to the endless course material that you must buy, etc. etc. Most of it is the usual psychotic encyclopaedia salesman garb, but the Dracula capes are pretty cool. And if they prevent you from getting stuck in an electronic incident, then all well and good I suppose.

Secondly, check out this video clip from (sources allege) Tom Cruise's birthday party aboard the Scientology ship Freewinds (I suspect these similar video clips may be faked, though) Recall that there is much hilarious disinformation about regarding how tall Tom Cruise actually is; remember also Nicole Kidman's post-divorce quip about being able to wear heels again. Conclude perhaps in a totally unscientific averaging-out of rival claims that he's perhaps 5'6" or 5'7". Then notice that Scientology head honcho David Miscavige appers to be at least three inches shorter.

Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that those of less than average height are any less capable of doing their jobs than anyone else, whatever that job might be, and that clearly includes the job of cartoonish supervillain that Miscavige currently occupies. It's just that one tends to imagine cartoonish supervillains as Optimus Prime-sized enormotrons, crushing all of puny humanity within their mighty grasp, not as people towered over by Tom Cruise (which I suppose would put Miscavige at maybe 5'4" or so, at most - this article reckons he is 5'5"). I guess the shorter the subject the greater the concentration of pure evil you can achieve. Clever.