Sunday, June 29, 2008

George Carlin: an alternative viewpoint

Just to provide the requisite balance to my bigging up of the late George Carlin the other day, here's Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church with a moving and sensitive elegy. Further old-school charm of this sort can be found at the Church's website, or by watching the Louis Theroux documentary The Most Hated Family In America which was repeated a couple of nights ago.

The most important thing to take away from this is that, despite Poe's Law making it difficult to tell the difference, these people are not brilliant (if slightly over-the-top) satirical performance artists, they are actually completely serious, difficult as it may be to believe. There's several degree theses' worth of material to be written here about the pernicious effect of overbearing authority figures, biblical literalism, in-group loyalty overriding rationality, not to mention the real reasons behind Fred Phelps' irrational fury about what other people get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms. None of which is much comfort to those attempting to grieve for the deaths of Matthew Shepard or Heath Ledger (or indeed George Carlin) while their funerals are picketed by banner-wielding lunatics.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

court short

Let me commemorate the start of Wimbledon 2008 by pointing out that number 3 seed Novak Djokovic has just lost in straight sets to Marat Safin, who you'll recall I mentioned as a possible source of upsets last year. I was unforgivably remiss in not using the amusing phrase "dangerous floater" on that occasion, so let me rectify that here. I'm planning to eat a whole Pizza Express American Hot pizza when I get home from the golf course tonight, so I may have need of the phrase in a slightly different context tomorrow morning.

Continuing the tennis/childish sniggering theme, my old mate Graham always used to refer to former Wimbledon and US Open finalist Mark Philippoussis as Arse Willy Poo Piss. Which is undeniably very amusing.

On a similarly childish (but non-tennis-related) note the lovely Hazel bought some posh handwash for the bathroom the other day from Molton Brown. It could be just me, but this strikes me as an amusing phrase in a similar way, i.e. if the pizza is particularly indigestible I could have a nasty case of the molten browns in the morning. Not for the first time.

and lo, the pwnage was both righteous and awesome

Generally the tactics of religious lunatics are pretty consistent when it comes to science: dance around talking about free speech and science not having all the answers, cry "persecution" when anyone tries to tell you that you're spouting unfounded and easily-refuted nonsense, and generally try to avoid making any testable or falsifiable claims whatsoever, for fear of having your arse handed to you on a plate by people cleverer than yourself.

Just occasionally one of them gets carried away, either through a spot of hubris or the expectation that no-one will rise to the bait, and starts making some specific claims. And, just occasionally, they get a little more in the way of a response than they were expecting, with richly amusing results.

Carl Zimmer's Loom blog carried this intriguing story a few weeks ago regarding some painstaking research that had been done into E. coli by Richard Lenski's team at Michigan State University revealing some interesting evolutionary adaptations over a period of 20 years.

Now, when I say "science" in the first paragraph, the bit that the religious have a beef with is always the same: anything to do with evolution. The heliocentric view of the solar system, gravity, the germ theory of medicine, those all seem to get a free pass despite in some cases not being exactly consistent with one holy book or other.

So....a few trolls stopped by the comment thread for the Loom post, and were indulged with admirable patience and restraint by Lenski's research colleague Zachary Blount.

Then Andrew Schlafly, founder of the richly comic (but not actually parodic, rather frighteningly) Conservapedia, got involved, and wrote a letter to Lenski demanding to see his source data. Pointlessly, since most of it was referenced in the paper anyway, but one presumes Schlafly was expecting to be ignored and then be able to assume carte blanche to whine about the Big Darwinist Conspiracy in the usual way.

Amusingly, though, Lenski replied. Possibly because after being locked in a lab with only a few trillion bacteria for company for 20 years he was keen to converse, and was unaware of who Schlafly was. His reply basically said, in very polite terms, read the paper and the literature referenced in it, and then, if you've got any specific questions, get back to me.

Needless to say Schlafly wasn't about to do that, so he had another pop, at which point Lenski presumably started to smell a big fat creationist rat, and issued a lengthier, more detailed and very slightly less polite response. As you know, I don't use the word "pwnage" lightly, but I think it's entirely appropriate here.

My predictions for possible further developments:
  • Schlafly affects a lofty disdain for the (pretty mild) invective in Lenski's second reply, and therefore declares himself to have won the argument.
  • Schlafly makes a whole bunch of entirely unreasonable demands regarding handover of data and samples, Lenski refuses to have anything to do with the whole thing, and Schlafly declares himself to be a victim of the Big Darwinist Conspiracy, and therefore to have won the argument.
  • Schlafly changes tack, declares that "they're still just bacteria" and that because none of them gave birth to a cat or a tapir during the 20-year experimental period evolution is therefore debunked, and he wins the argument.
  • Lenski delivers some sealed flasks of E. coli to Schlafly, Schlafly drops them on the floor while praying for divine revelation, and they eat him. Not very likely, but we can hope.
[Incidentally I'd like it noted that I posted this before reading Ben Goldacre's quite similar article - similar even down to the extensive gloating use of the word "pwnage". Too much to hope that I would scoop professional bloggers on this one, I guess, as it is bulgingly ripe with comedy.]

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

bogus, dude

Follow-up on a couple of previous posts:

Legendary American stand-up comic George Carlin died on Sunday. Most famous for the "Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV" routine which I linked to in a previous post, and which got him into trouble repeatedly in the early 1970s, and also for playing avuncular mentor Rufus in the Bill & Ted films. Those seven words, for the record, are: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits. There: that should get the sweary content rating of the blog up a bit. And he had some admirably sensible views on religion, too.

The word "carlin", interestingly, means "old woman" or "witch"; I know this because it features in Alan Garner's book The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen which I mentioned in this post way back in September 2006. In fact it's so old it now smells faintly of mothballs and wee.

In other news, Dominic Lawson surprises me again by talking generally good sense in the Independent about acupuncture, "psychic surgery" and similar barking charlatanry, including making reference to a study purporting to show evidence for the efficacy of acupuncture (and which in fact showed nothing of the sort) which I mentioned here.

Monday, June 23, 2008

open the pod bay door, HAL

You may feel all safe at the moment, sitting there watching daytime TV in your underpants eating crisps, but be warned a wafer-thin 100 kilometres or so of atmosphere separates you from what James Dickey memorably described as the "vast beast-whistle of space". So it'll be useful to know in advance how long you'd survive should you find yourself up there without a space suit or some other protective device.

How long could you survive in the vacuum of space?

This handy quiz is brought to you by the people at OnePlusYou, where plenty more fun stuff can be found. This includes various tools for assessing your blog content, including the one below which reveals that despite some sterling work during my occasional forays into the wacky world of religion, I clearly don't swear enough during my regular blog posts. Which is, frankly, a fucking disgrace.

The Blog-O-Cuss Meter - Do you cuss a lot in your blog or website?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

non-lettuce-related fact of the day

Here's a little gem for you. No not one of those, I mean a little piece of information to brighten up your day and make you a better person. Regular doses of interesting informative stuff makes you a better person, and less prone to those horrible beastly urges. You know the ones I mean.


Today's fact is as follows: this location just north of Newark (no, not that one, this one) is the only remaining location in the UK rail network where two railway lines cross each other on the level (it's called a "flat crossing", apparently). More pictures are available here and here. I question the necessity for someone to immortalise it on video, but someone went and did it anyway.

Friday, June 20, 2008

I've got one hand in my pocket, and the other one is writing this blog post

Here's an entertaining addition to the blog sidebar: GraphJam. Popular songs, films etc. summarised in (generally) Microsoft Excel graph form. That munching sound you hear may just possibly be the sound of popular culture eating itself, arse first, but it's fun nonetheless. You just might need to go outside and get some fresh air afterwards. If you're pop-culture un-savvy enough not to be familiar with Alanis Morrissette lyrics, or not to know who Inigo Montoya is, you might find some of it a bit baffling, but cheat-sheet links are available under each graph.

Here's my attempt, based on a song I was listening to in the car this morning. I might submit it once I've checked it hasn't already been done.

And here's your cheat-sheet, if you need it. Note that these numbers don't include the girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

the truth is out there

Needless to say I had to go and find out the answer to the question I posed in my last post, and it is this: Chanderpaul is unique in having gone 1000+ minutes between dismissals in Test cricket more than once. He has actually done it no less than four times; the one I missed was in 2002, when his successive scores of 67 not out, 101 not out, 136 not out and 58 occupied a monstrous 1513 minutes, i.e. just over 25 hours, which is a record. Bill Frindall's TMS page has the lowdown, needless to say; more info is available here.

The most runs between dismissals, since you ask, is 497 by Sachin Tendulkar in 2004.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

more stats - calm yourself

Nothing too surprising about the result in the recently-completed West Indies v Australia test series; 2-0 to the Australians. What was slightly more surprising was the relatively competitive nature of the matches, given the relative strengths of the teams. Hard to say whether this is due to the Australians not being quite as good as they once were, particularly in the bowling department after the departure of McGrath and Warne, or the West Indies improving. Probably a bit of both.

Nice to see another player responding to being bigged up on this blog by producing the goods on the pitch, though, in this case the mighty Shiv Chanderpaul, who, in the course of becoming by far the highest run-scorer on either side with 442 at an average of of 147.33, clocked up a run of 1115 minutes (18 hours and 35 minutes) of batting without being dismissed, during which time he faced 689 balls and scored 313 runs (107 not out, 77 not out, 79 not out and 50). He's clocked up over 1000 minutes between dismissals at least twice before: while scoring 101 not out against Bangladesh and then 128 not out, 97 not out and 45 against England in 2004, and while scoring 116 not out, 136 not out and 70 against England in 2007 (this is the sequence that prompted my previous post). I have no idea whether this is a record or not. If you find out, let me know.

Chanderpaul also became only the fourth West Indian to pass 8000 Test runs - consider that the previous three were Sobers, Richards and Lara and you get the idea of the sort of company he now finds himself in.

On a less Stattoesque note, the recent influx of players from beyond the usual West Indian strongholds of Jamaica and Barbados (Chanderpaul is from Guyana) has resulted in a fascinating array of entertaining names. Only one of the following list of players is made up - see if you can spot it:
  • Dwayne Bravo
  • Sulieman Benn
  • Mahendra Nagamootoo
  • Prepostera Dogidoodoo
  • Sewnarine Chattergoon
  • Brenton Parchment
  • Amit Jaggernauth
  • Rangy Nanan
  • Dinanath Ramnarine

Monday, June 16, 2008

she was only the fishmonger's daughter.....

Speaking of halibut, as I was only a couple of days ago - my local Sainsbury's had some very appetising-looking halibut fillets on their fish counter this evening, so I snapped some up for dinner.

I won't rehash the recipe as I've already described it in an earlier post, but here's a couple of pictures. Halibut is a slightly more interesting fish than pollock, I would say, but either way is good.

this blog post soon to be remade as a musical kung fu extravaganza

Be very afraid. Apparently lovable drunken anti-Semite Mel Gibson is due to star in a movie remake of the legendary mid-eighties BBC political drama series Edge Of Darkness. Given that this is one of the most celebrated TV dramas ever produced, and the sort of thing that makes grown men go all misty-eyed about the BBC's public service broadcasting remit, there may be some grounds for trepidation here.

Remakes of films that the great American public won't have seen because they were either a) made a while back or b) made in some wacky foreign language must seem like a good idea, and you can see why, I suppose, in that it saves you having to think up a plot yourself, but the omens aren't good. The first category would include such gems as the remakes of Get Carter, The Wicker Man, Alfie and Sleuth, and the second would include things like The Assassin (a remake of Luc Besson's Nikita) and George Sluizer's Hollywood-ised remake of his own The Vanishing. None of which are very encouraging, and they didn't have Mel Gibson in them. This article lists some more examples.

The George Sluizer incident shows that you can't even assume that retaining the original director will work, as they seem to be intending for the EOD remake. I haven't seen Michael Haneke's (director of Hidden which I mentioned a couple of posts ago) original Funny Games, but it's hard to believe some watering-down hasn't happened for the remake.

And I bet they don't include the scene where Bob Peck sniffs his daughter's vibrator.

Friday, June 13, 2008

remember: internet paedophiles make your children smell of hammers

There I was, just about to add a footnote to the previous post praising the Mail for slipping in a reference to the stoning scene from Life Of Brian ("A halibut big enough for Jehovah?") into one of the photo captions in the halibut article, when I stumble across (via Bad Science) this 24-carat classic Mail story about the RAF destroying a stash of drugs in Afghanistan.

There's so much to enjoy here, from the photo captions ("Smoke pours from a bombed trench full of drugs" - you need to imagine that being bellowed out by the Chris Morris newsreader guy from The Day Today and Brass Eye) to the bog-standard journalese units of measurement (the drugs weighed "more than 30 double-decker buses" and the trenches in which they were found occupied an area "the size of two football pitches") but most of all this frankly bizarre claim:

Officials believe the area - near to the Taliban stronghold of Quetta in Pakistan - was turning dried cannabis leaves into heroin.
Erm....what? That's a good trick if you can pull it off. Nice to see the armed forces bombed the area and then set fire to the trenches, just to be sure. And then went and stood downwind of the area and breathed in deeply. Don't expect any major military offensives from that particular division for a while; they'll be spending the next six months sitting around cross-legged listening to The Doors and staring at their hands.

Finally, in a pleasingly circular burst of cleansing synchronicity I note that The Day Today was the original source of the phrase Speak Your Brains for its take-the-piss-out-of-Joe-Public segment.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

big fish, little fish, cardboard box

Nice to see that the Daily Mail occasionally take a break from complaining about illegal immigrant lesbian Muslim paedophiles sullying Diana's memory by causing a house price crash to run some interesting stories.

Incidentally you can generate your own Daily Mail headlines by using the link in this post (assuming it still works) or generate some Daily Mail reader stylee comments by using the SYB Twat-O-Tron.

But I digress. Here's an interesting story about a giant halibut. Apparently they can get up to twice this size. So watch yourself. Our day will come, and when it does people who haul our fishy brethren out of the sea by embedding hooks in the roof of our mouths, hang us up to take photographs and then throw us back in (or, alternatively, cut us up into juicy steaks and cook us) will very probably be first up against the wall. Just as soon as we've evolved opposable thumbs, and some means of on-land ambulation. Oh, and lungs. Any day now.

There really is a halibut museum on the island of Senja, by the way. It's only open between the 23rd of June and the 12th of August, though. Maybe that's the halibut season or something.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Being short has its disadvantages, I'm sure. Not being able to reach things off high shelves, dogs licking you in the eye, people farting in your face, that sort of thing. Swings and roundabouts, though - I suspect if you did a survey of the scalps of tall and short people you'd find the tall people had a much more fascinating and varied collection of scrapes and gouges, and of course this would be because they're far more prone to walking into things built to cater for Joe Average, who if I remember correctly is (in Britain anyway) about 5 foot 9. I'm not exactly freakishly tall (6 foot 1 first thing in the morning, a smidgen less in the evening as my spinal discs are slowly crushed by the weight of my head), but my scalp is like a relief map of Switzerland. Some of the reasons for this are detailed in this recent post (though strictly neither of those were height-related incidents), but there have been numerous other head-damaging incidents, a cracking (quite lidderally) example of which occurred this morning.

Our kitchen occupies the rearmost part of the ground floor of the house, and occupies an extension built quite a bit later than the rest of the house. This extension has a much lower ceiling than the rest of the house, as well as a lower doorway which you have to duck slightly to get through. Here's a photo.

Now after a short while the slight stoop as you go through becomes second nature, but if you're suffering from a bit of pre-coffee bleariness in the morning you can forget, and what you get then is this:

That's a photo of the top of my head. A couple of interesting footnotes are a) Christ, it's all a bit bald up there (though ironically this helps the wound show up better) and b) I don't know if you've ever tried taking a photograph of the top of your own head, but it's not all that easy, particularly if you're aiming for a particular spot. I had about five goes before getting one that was in focus and had the relevant scabby area in it.

Monday, June 09, 2008

now I just need to practice my petanque and Gallic shrugging skills

Continuing my garlic-crazed immersion in French artistic culture, I watched the DVD of Caché last night. I've had it for a while - picked up for a fiver or so in a sale at either Virgin (who seem to have strangely mutated into Zavvi these days) or HMV in Bristol - but never got round to watching it before. And very good it is too - not much in the way of conventional "action" most of the way through, which makes the one brief scene where something unspeakably violent and shocking does happen all the more, well, shocking. Excellent acting from Daniel Auteuil and the divine Juliette Binoche, who manages to pull off looking drab and dowdy in a series of sack-like dresses for much of the movie - a pretty remarkable acting job, considering.

A central theme here is giving smug white bourgeois French intellectualism a good kicking - Platform has some fun doing the same thing.

One of the interesting things about fictional works, be they films, novels or whatever is the oblique light they throw on real-world places and events. A case in point here is the reference in this film to the massacre by the Parisian police of a couple of hundred Algerian demonstrators in Paris in October 1961, something I was unaware of until yesterday. The flipside of that observation is that one of the interesting things about startling or traumatic real-world events is the artistic works they inspire. The Algerian conflict, for example, gave Albert Camus plenty of material, as well as providing the background for The Day Of The Jackal. Looking back through the last few book reviews, you've also got the sinking of the Titanic, the Prague Spring, the Cold War and the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands.

Life imitating art imitating life. Imitating art. Etcetera. Watching us, watching you, watching us, watching you. No, hang on, that was something else.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

the last book I read

Platform by Michel Houellebecq.

I'll start by offering you a couple of metaphors: firstly, stuffing yourself with sweets and chocolate - you know it's bad for you in the long run, but you can't resist the brief, transient thrill it gives you. Secondly, getting cornered at a party, or perhaps in a railway carriage, by an obviously intelligent and articulate bloke, but one who's perhaps had a couple of sherbets too many and goes ON and ON relentlessly at high volume, possibly getting more animated and grabbing you by the shirt as he gets into his stride. Both of those are appropriate to this book, I think. Here's the first couple of paragraphs:
Father died last year. I don’t subscribe to the theory by which we only become truly adult when our parents die; we never become truly adult.

As I stood before the old man’s coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me. He had made the most of life, the old bastard; he was a clever cunt. ‘You had kids, you fucker...’ I said spiritedly, ‘you shoved your fat cock in my mother’s cunt.’ Well, I was a bit tense, I have to admit; it’s not every day you have a death in the family.
So you get the idea, I hope. The story continues as follows: the narrator (also called Michel) inherits a considerable sum upon his father's death (it later transpires that he had been having an affair with his Muslim housekeeper and was murdered to avenge her "honour" by her brother), which he uses to go on a holiday to south-east Asia and consort with numerous prostitutes in massage parlours. He also meets a Frenchwoman, Valérie, with whom he begins a relationship back in France. Valérie works for a travel company, and the couple cook up a scheme whereby they offer sex tourism holidays at various locations around the world. In the course of a research trip to Thailand after the launch the couple are caught up in a bombing (in a spooky echo of the real-life Bali bombing of 2002, a year or so after Platform was published) carried out by Muslim terrorists, partly (it is suggested) in retaliation for the exploitation of their country and people by decadent Westerners. Valérie is killed; Michel survives to reflect on the conflict between East and West, between free enterprise and exploitation, and of course between puritanical Islam and sexual freedom.

It was the last of these which caused a certain amount of controversy when the book was originally published, but it's hard now to see what all the fuss is about - although it is of course a characteristic of Islamic fundamentalists to find offence at the tiniest perceived slight. Certainly there is some intemperate talk of rejoicing on hearing the news of Palestinian civilians being gunned down in Gaza, and some flippant asides about buggering camels, but Islam doesn't really come off any worse than European women, men in general, the Germans, pretty much everyone in fact. The only people who seem normal and well-adjusted amid this torrent of vitriolic misanthropy are the Thai prostitutes Michel frequents so enthusiastically.

Other criticisms could be made with a bit more justification, though. Lengthy passages read like the feverish panting fantasies of a 15-year-old: Michel and Valérie's sexual exploits are described with pornographic relish, and their initiation into threesomes happens a little more easily than (I suspect) these things actually happen in real life - a Cuban chambermaid interrupts the couple in mid-foreplay and instead of making an embarrassed retreat, strips off and joins in. Great! The whole thing (see my second metaphor) reads like it was tossed off (so to speak) in one extended rant without much reflection, or indeed editing. Some of the later passages where reckless hedonism collides with violent death read a bit like some of JG Ballard's later novels like Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, though not nearly as intelligently written. The sheer reckless energy of it all is very bracing, though. To illustrate my first metaphor, though, I read Houellebecq's previous (award-winning) novel Atomised a couple of years back, but I couldn't honestly tell you a thing about it now. It's like literary MSG: delicious, but not very nutritious.

Oh, and a belated note on pronunciation: try "Wellbeck" and you won't be too far off.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

I offer you: actor and star of the Evil Dead series of films Bruce Campbell, and ex-Australian cricket captain and opening batsman Mark Taylor. I think it's a chin thing, mainly.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

shoot zem. shoot zem both.

We went to see the new Indiana Jones film last night (at the lavishly appointed Newport Cineworld gargantudome). Needless to say the following series of brief musings contains several film-ruining PLOT SPOILERS for those who haven't seen it yet.
  • One the basis of the new film one could construct a plausible theory along the following lines: the Indiana Jones films stand and fall on the quality of the central MacGuffin. So - Raiders Of The Lost Ark; the Ark Of The Covenant: good. Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom; some stones: not so good. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade; the Holy Grail: good. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull; some sort of crystal skull: not so good. Needless to say this isn't totally conclusive, and one could come up with equally plausible theories which say, for instance: odd numbers in the series good, even numbers bad, or: fewer words in film title good, more words in film title bad (5, 7, 6 and 9 respectively, just to save you the trouble). Or films with Nazis good, films without Nazis bad.
  • This film is noticeably sillier and more implausible than the others, and obviously they weren't all that realistic to start with. But I don't think any of the previous 3 films featured anything as ridiculous on so many levels as the bit during the big set-piece at the start of IJATKOTCS where Indy shelters from a nuclear bomb blast by hiding in.....a fridge. I'm not joking.
  • The bit where they find a secret Mayan temple in the Amazon jungle by walking through a waterfall to a secret cavern behind is lifted straight out of Hergé's Tintin adventure Prisoners of the Sun.
  • It all goes very science fiction at the end, with a multi-dimensional temple-destroying climax very reminiscent of similar scenes from Stargate and The Fifth Element, among others. An impressive orgy of CGI, but not as good as the simple cup-selection routine at the end of the third film. He chose....poorly.
  • Cate Blanchett was obviously having a lot of fun as the Russian femme fatale, and adhering to the instructions in Russian Film Villain Accents For Dummies, rule one of which says: do a vaguely German accent, but insert a "y" before 80% of vowel sounds, so you get something like: Yif you wyill nyot cyooperate, Doctyor Jyones, we wyiull hyave to be more.....pyersuasive. That and saying "w" instead of "v" instead of vice versa for a German accent generally does the trick.
  • All good fun though, for the most part. As for the critics, some liked it, some didn't.