Sunday, June 30, 2013

jew cannot be serious

Really tremendous work from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks this week in The Spectator, as befits the de facto spokesman for non-scary secular-ish Judaism in the UK. And by "as befits" I mean: at this stage of human cultural development you're unlikely to be making an awful lot of new recruits, certainly from outside your standard catchment area of people born into the religion anyway, so your focus really ought to be turning to hanging onto as much of your current flock as possible. And the best way to do that is to talk about the alternatives (i.e. atheism, secularism, humanism, rationalism and the like) while waving your arms about in a spooky manner and to throw as many tired old tropes at the wall as possible and hope a few of them stick, at least for long enough for the faithful to be scared into pulling their yarmulkes on a bit tighter and lighting a few more sacrificial candles or whatever the fuck it is that they do.

The whole thing is basically a checklist of all the laziest, most facile anti-atheism jibes you can imagine; the only originality points I can award are for the last-minute swerve Sacks makes away from Godwinning himself, contenting himself with banging on about how Nietzsche had some ideas that weren't very nice: well, no shit, Sherlock.

The one section I'd pick out demonstrates how religion, instead of granting its adherents some sort of special magical Spidey-sense regarding moral and ethical matters, in fact rots the ethical faculties in certain unique ways that those who don't adhere to religion just aren't subject to (thought that's not of course to say that they aren't capable of their very own moral turpitude and depravity; I know I am). The rabbi is an intelligent and widely-read man, so I can absolutely guarantee that he knows pretty much every word of this paragraph is a lie:
But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer. They tend to argue that ethics is obvious, which it isn’t, or natural, which it manifestly isn’t either, and end up vaguely hinting that this isn’t their problem. Let someone else worry about it.
Most rationalists who've given the issue any thought will tell you pretty much the same thing: no, there is no such thing as an "objective" morality - how could there be? That said, most successful societies have operated around some broadly similar rules ever since we stopped being nomadic hunter-gatherers and started being social creatures, cultivating crops and the like; the development of these rules is explained in large part by fascinating things like game theory. There really is very little mystery around all this.

I don't know about the Torah specifically, but there is definitely something in the Bible about not bearing false witness. The following seems to be a sentiment that various people have expressed in various ways through the years, but the current definitive version is attributed to Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg:
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

headline of the day

Here's one in the Daily Mail today:

Well. We've all been there, haven't we? I myself had a lamb and mung bean curry last night that prompted very similar thoughts. I was put in mind of the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer (borrowed from the Bhagavad Gita) on the successful development of the atomic bomb:
Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.
- and also of the words from the early pages of Susan Cooper's classic children's fantasy novel The Dark Is Rising:
...this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.
It turns out it's not a reference to curry-induced sulphurous flatulence after all, though, but to honky rap superstar Eminem's prescription drug problems. Here's the full headline:

The concept of hitting "bottom" before being prepared to surrender yourself to a recovery programme is central to most variants of the 12-step programme pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. All of which are no doubt terrific, if that's what you need, but come liberally soaked in the sort of unreflective goddiness that brings me out in hives with their talk of surrendering to a higher power and all that bullshit. But, hey, if it got Eminem off the happy pills and onto the alfalfa sprouts and mineral water, then good for him.

Monday, June 24, 2013

memory banks

Just a couple of quickies in the wake (geddit?) of my post on the death of Iain Banks:
One thing that links the two is that they (as I did) attempt to nominate some best Banks novels, and both come up with Use Of Weapons, the third Culture novel, as the pinnacle of the series. Banks himself seems to rate it as his favourite (along with The Bridge of the non-SF ones), and the guy reviewing The Quarry evidently feels the same way. For what it's worth, I disagree; I think Use Of Weapons is fine, but its overly tricksy structure and the big plot twist revealed at the end betray its origins as something Banks wrote when he was about 20 and then re-jigged for publication much later. The frantic throwing of the kitchen sink at it stylistically betrays a slight lack of confidence in the material, I think, and the simple linear storytelling of something like Inversions is much more impressive. But, you know, they're all good.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

the last book I read

Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith.

Impulse. Men just can't help acting on it. Least of all Tom Ripley, as we know from our previous encounter with him in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Five or six years have passed since the events of the first book, but has Tom Ripley shed the impetuous habits of his youth, like murdering people and then assuming their identity to snaffle flipping great wodges of cash? Hell no.

Having been provided with a fairly comfortable income from Dickie Greenleaf's trust fund, and augmenting it by having married the lovely Heloise, daughter of a rich French family, Ripley is now living a life of leisure in his country residence a short drive from Paris. This life of leisure is occasionally interrupted by Tom's dabblings in various shady schemes, including an art scam involving a dead artist by the name of Derwatt, a couple of unscrupulous blokes in London, and Bernard Tufts, an artist friend of Derwatt's whom Tom has persuaded to knock out some Derwatt fakes and pass them off as genuine.

Obviously for this to work the subterfuge of Derwatt still being alive must be maintained, and this is where Ed and Jeff in London come in, with guidance from Tom. All goes well, and lucratively for all concerned, until an American, Murchison, turns up in London claiming that his Derwatt is a fake. Which of course it is, since Derwatt is dead and it was painted by Bernard. Everyone in London is getting a bit twitchy, so Tom steps in to try to calm things down. First he appears in London as Derwatt (courtesy of a fake beard) to reassure everyone that he's definitely still alive, he's just been living a reclusive life in a remote Mexican village, and he's just dropped into London in passing so he thought he might as well say hello. When Murchison isn't immediately mollified by this, Tom reappears as Tom and invites Murchison down to his French residence to have a look at his Derwatts and assess their bona fides. After Murchison takes up the invitation but still insists on being suspicious, Tom is left with no option but to regretfully murder him by bashing his brains in with a bottle of wine in the cellar and burying him in the garden.

Tom has covered his tracks by dumping Murchison's luggage at Orly airport as if he'd dropped him off there to catch a plane, but the police are asking questions, both in London and in Paris. Tom is well-equipped to handle all this, but some of the others are a bit flaky, especially Bernard, who seems on the brink of cracking up and revealing everything. When Bernard turns up at Tom's house, Tom takes him into his confidence and reveals that he has killed Murchison, and enlists Bernard's help in removing the body from its shallow grave and dumping it in a river. Bernard's mental stability is not improved by this, strangely, and after a botched attempt to kill Ripley he flees to Salzburg.

Tom follows him there, and after a slightly comical sequence of near-meetings during which Bernard seems to think he's seen a ghost (since he doesn't know Ripley survived the murder attempt), Bernard finally goes over the edge, both metaphorically and literally, by hurling himself off a cliff. Never one to stand around moping after being the (albeit indirect in this case) cause of someone's death, Tom arms himself with a big rock and some petrol, smashes Bernard's teeth in and then sets fire to the corpse. He then reports the death as being that of Derwatt, while implying that Bernard has also probably topped himself somewhere, perhaps by throwing himself in a river. Thus all the loose ends and possible sources of trouble are tied off, and Tom can return to the arms of his incurious wife and his former life of leisure.

So in a sense this is a retread of the first book, in that Tom does some murdering - regrettable but necessary and unavoidable murdering, in his view - and gets away with it, while in the process finding some ways to snaffle more money without having to do anything as coarse and vulgar as get a job. Tom is actually only directly responsible for one death (Murchison) in this book, though he bears some responsibility for Bernard's. Like the first book, how much you enjoy this one will depend on how much you share Highsmith's glee at having Ripley do all manner of horrific stuff and not only get away with it, but get rewarded for it. Also like the first book, Tom's sexuality is shrouded in some mystery - yes, he's got married, and seems genuinely fond of Heloise, but one of the reasons he seems to like her so much is that her sexual demands are fairly modest. So perhaps not so much The Talented Mr. Ripley as The Latented Mr. Ripley, amirite?

Overall it's probably not quite as good as The Talented Mr. Ripley, but that's just standard sequelitis, as it's still wickedly entertaining, despite not much in the way of actual action happening between the murder of Murchison quite early on and the Bernard/Derwatt real/fake death dénouement stuff at the end.

Ripley Under Ground was published in 1970, fifteen years after the first book - having succumbed to the temptation to revisit Ripley Highsmith did so three more times over the next twenty or so years. I fully expect to work my way through all of them.

Like The Talented Mr. Ripley (and indeed the third Ripley book Ripley's Game) Ripley Under Ground was filmed, in 2005, with a fairly stellar supporting cast but featuring Barry Pepper (of whom I'd never heard) as Ripley, and with some fairly radical re-engineering of the plot. The only trailer I can find is in German, unfortunately, but judging just by the visuals I'd say Pepper's portrayal is a bit too floppy-haired and rakish and charming to be quite right; Ripley is meant to be a bit awkward. And an amoral psychopath, con-man and murderer, but hey, nobody's perfect.

Monday, June 17, 2013

when I hear the words Father's Day, I reach for my gun

My clever and beautiful daughter, in addition to being a) impossibly cute and b) a frickin' genius, was thoughtful enough to buy me a nice mug as a Father's Day present. Here it is:

I happen to know they were knocking these out for two quid in the Spar across the road, but it's a nice gesture nonetheless. And I would have been quite happy with it, had I not had a glimpse of what might have been (not wanting to be, you know, critical or anything) if Nia had been prepared to think outside the box just a little bit more. Here's what our friends at Bud's Gun Shop have to offer:

As always, click for a bigger version. As the preamble says:
Dear Dave, 

Father's Day is just around the corner and what Dad would not want a new gun!  Choosing a firearm for someone else can be difficult, however there are those basic guns that every Dad needs in their collection. 
Maybe next year.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

jura sell

By way of a tribute to the late Iain Banks, here's a belated look at a couple of bottles of whisky I acquired around Christmas and New Year. As it happens they're both from the same distillery, Jura (as previously featured here).

Firstly, Elixir. This is a 12-year-old whisky matured in a combination of bourbon and sherry casks. A good deep sniff gives you the usual Christmas cake-y stuff you'd expect from a sherry-cask-matured whisky, plus some darker stuff like bicycle inner tubes and licorice. Have a sip and it's sweeter than you expected, but at the same time not as rich and heavy as you might have expected; there also seem to be some bananas in it that you might not have noticed when you sniffed it. It's a bit richer than the standard 10-year-old, but there's no hint of peat here whereas there is just a suspicion with the standard one. It's very moreish, but perhaps not massively different from some of the standard sherried Speysiders like the Glenfarclas.

Secondly, Superstition. This one is labelled as "lightly peated" and it's noticeably different - much more of a creosoted fence and magic markers smell to it, and when you drink it it's simultaneously lighter (in that there seems to be less sherry in it) and heavier (in that it's got the fizz on the tongue from the peat). It's not Bowmore or Laphroaig levels of peatiness, but it's definitely there, and more so than in the standard 10-year-old.

There is a "heavily peated" variety called Prophecy, but I haven't tried that one yet. With that caveat in mind I'm going to say that the Superstition is my favourite of the ones I've tried so far.

Friday, June 14, 2013

short sharpe shock

This week's other notable (or, to be more accurate, noted by me) literary death was Tom Sharpe. I own eight Sharpe books, though I would guess it's been somewhere between fifteen and twenty years since I read one, and most of the ones I read were read in a big concentrated splurge of a couple of years following my watching the BBC's adaptation of Blott On The Landscape in 1985. It was an odd coincidence that my purchasing and reading Wilt On High, Sharpe's most recent book at that point (published in 1984), and then subsequently deciding that I'd read enough Sharpes and would move on to other things, coincided with a decade-long period of writer's block during which Sharpe published nothing until Grantchester Grind in 1995.

My enthusiasm for this sort of stuff has diminished a bit over the years, what with a lot of the farcical stuff deriving from a very British fear of sex, and of female sexuality in particular, i.e. the same thing that was at the heart of the Carry On films and makes them seem so tragic when you see them now. While that struck a chord with a 15-year-old, it all seems a bit sad now.

That said I would recommend giving the two South African satires Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure a go, and of the others perhaps The Throwback, which is probably the silliest of all his books but has a frenzied energy which is quite appealing.

banks of scotland

Sad to hear of the death of Iain Banks this week - something that was clearly going to happen some time in the year or so following his announcement back in April that he was suffering from late-stage gall bladder cancer, and occasional status updates since, but a mere two months seems a bit harsh.

I own fifteen Iain Banks books, of which three are as yet unread, so I feel qualified and indeed obliged to chime in with some views on which ones are the best, as pretty much everyone else has done. If I were in some imaginary situation where I had to recommend a couple from each of his literary genres (i.e. two non-Ms and two Ms) I would probably go for The Wasp Factory, Whit, Consider Phlebas and Inversions. If I were inclined to second-guess my own choices I'd say that I probably choose these because The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas are the first books he published in each of his two chosen genres and consequently they're full of freshness and energy and ideas, and Whit and Inversions are the two books which crystallise most explicitly his scorn of organised religion, or indeed any sort of religion - he liked to describe himself as an "evangelical atheist".

Banks was also a whisky enthusiast, to the extent not only of writing a book, Raw Spirit, about it, but also of taking "malt whisky and the distilleries of Scotland" as his specialist subject when he competed in (and won) Celebrity Mastermind in 2005. It's hard to be objective and honest when you've got the answers in front of you, but I reckon I would have scored eight (Banks scored twelve). Anyway, if you've got some in the cupboard might I suggest raising a small glass in his memory later. I might even join you.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

watch out for slow-moving heavy intercourse on the M25

Following on from yesterday's post, another little oddity of the users in UK, servers in Germany set-up is that Bing (like Google) attempts to serve up pages in a locale-appropriate way, i.e. in German by default. As a short-cut before you go and search out the setting that tells it that you want pages in English, you can use the auto-translate facility that you get as standard in Google Chrome. Here's what happens when you do that for the Bing Maps homepage:

Original German

Translated version

Proper English

Note the translation of the word "traffic" in the second image - if the two really are nearly interchangeable that must cause some confusion during news reports: now here's Ingrid with an update on the intercourse situation. And don't forget you can get up-to-the-minute information by consulting the intercourse cameras on our website. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

look at the firmware on that

At work we've just had a bit of a server rationalisation project, one of the side-effects of which is that our main web servers are now located in Germany. There are a few unwanted side-effects of this, notably Google wanting to serve up results in German by default, and more importantly my being unable to purchase any lottery tickets off the National Lottery website, since it now detects me as being outside the UK.

Some of the adverts in the sidebars are now German as well, and they provide an interesting comparison with UK adverts. Here's an example - I don't think you would get away in the UK these days with advertising a computer operating system bundle for sale and augmenting the advert by draping a bikini-clad tousle-haired slightly jailbait-y young lady along the back of it. But apparently in Germany this is all OK, or at least the folks at seem to think so.

She's so hot for your operating system choice she's shuffled her bikini top straps off both of her shoulders, and she's so moist for's software bargains in a more general sense that she's carrying their logo in close proximity to her Fraugarten. Buy the extended warranty package and she might let you pop your peripheral device in her USB slot.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

god with the wind

It's the little things that bother you. And I'm not talking about the minuscule size of my genitalia, though I will concede that's a bit annoying. No, I mean the sort of reflexive goddiness that people retreat into in the event of natural disasters. How often have you heard the phrase "our thoughts and prayers are with the victims' families" or some variant thereof after people have died? Examples are easy to find; a quick Google reveals David Cameron doing it after the recent Woolwich murder, the Queen getting in on the act in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings last December, and various world leaders doing it after the Boston Marathon bombings in April - Canadian PM Stephen Harper and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg are the ones cashing in the specific phrase on this page of reactions. There were a whole host of them in the wake of Thatch's demise as well. Harking back to a recent post, recall President Reagan's twaddle about how the seven Challenger astronauts had "slipped the surly bonds of Earth" and "touched the face of God".

And you might say: weeeeeeeeeeelll, yeah, but where's the harm? Most of these people aren't really doing any actual serious praying, they're just trotting out a stock phrase because that's what they think people want and expect to hear on these occasions. Well, maybe the Americans really are praying, but I bet Cameron isn't, even after his heroically garbled declaration of religious belief.

To which I would say: yes, but words have power, and just because these have been dulled by familiarity to the point where we almost don't notice them any more it doesn't mean they don't mean anything. If David Cameron responded to some terrorist atrocity by saying something like "at this tragic time I extend to the families my thoughts and gibbering woad-smeared incantations to the great and vengeful Nuclear Space Octopus" or "at this tragic time I extend to the families my thoughts, prayers and the frenzied nude ritual slaughter of a pregnant she-goat as the holy scrolls dictate" people would think: blimey, that's a bit mental, and rightly so.

You can see the same sort of thing from the media and Joe Public in the aftermath of natural disasters. A good recent example was the Oklahoma tornado - much media hoo-ha followed the news video piece about the slightly batty old lady who was bemoaning the loss of her little doggie (and her ENTIRE HOUSE, but, you know, priorities) only to have him snuffle his way out of a pile of debris while the cameras were rolling. It's profoundly revealing of the religious mindset to listen to the lady's reaction, which goes something like this:
Well, I thought God just answered one prayer to let me be OK, but he answered both of 'em. Because this was my second prayer.
So, to recap, then, you're thanking your God for sparing you and little Bowser while ignoring the fact that he's just FLATTENED YOUR HOUSE AND DESTROYED ALL YOUR STUFF. The guy is meant to be all omnipotent and shit, so why not divert the tornado out of the way of your house, or just not have a tornado in the first place? And if you've been spared by a divine hand, then are you saying that those who were killed were less deserving than you in some way?

Really, the aftermath of something like this would be a good moment for a bit of a re-evaluation of your belief system, along the lines of: crikey, my supposed God didn't do much to help me there, did he? I mean, yes, I'm alive, but why couldn't he have fixed things so I didn't get flooded/tsunami-ed/tornado-ed/whatever in the first place? And why did he have to kill that nice Mrs. Johnson from number 46? I mean, I can console myself by trotting out the usual "mysterious ways" stuff, but really, if literally anything can be hand-waved away with that then how would I ever know if God was looking out for me or not, or indeed if he exists or not? Maybe it's time to have a rethink. To put it another way, you either have to conclude that your God is at best capricious and/or incompetent or at worst actively malevolent, or you go with the mysterious ways, we cannot know God's purpose, it's all for the best approach and find yourself trapped in an unfalsifiable theory.

But, instead, paradoxically, people tend to cling to their belief systems all the more tightly when something like this happens. Which makes it all the more commendable when someone puts a hand up and says: no, actually I'm not going to go along with the normal default background goddiness here, I'm going to make a point. Like this young woman who responded to being repeatedly asked whether she "thanked the Lord" for not being tornadoed to death by very politely saying: actually, no, I'm an atheist. She was clearly slightly embarrassed and even apologetic about being put on the spot, but she stood her ground and didn't just cave in and say, yeah, OK, thank the Lord, thoughts and prayers, yadda yadda yadda, whatever. This is braver than it might seem, particularly in Oklahoma.

the last book I read

The Innocent by Ian McEwan.

Leonard Marnham is a bit of a nerd, or at least he would be if that word had been invented in 1955. He's an electrician, assigned to an Anglo-American surveillance team in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. It turns out this "surveillance" is a bit more espionage-y than Leonard had been led to believe, as it becomes clear that what the team are planning to do is dig a tunnel under the border separating the American and Russian sectors of post-war Berlin and tap into the Russians' telephone transmissions via some lines that conveniently run just beneath the surface. Leonard's job is to set up and maintain the huge bank of tape recorders that capture the transmissions until they can be passed elsewhere to be deciphered.

Leonard lives with his parents in England, so the exotic surroundings of Berlin are a bit of an eye-opener, as is the forced proximity to lots of those awful brash loud American types, in particular Bob Glass who offers himself as Leonard's contact and mentor. More interesting avenues for shedding his innocence present themselves in the form of Maria, a slightly older German woman who takes a shine to Leonard and initiates him into the exciting world of sex.

Progress down the tunnel towards the Russian sector continues, as does Leonard's progress down Maria's "tunnel", hem hem. There are a few bumps in the road, though, principally in the form of Maria's no-good drunken ex-husband Otto who turns up periodically to beat Maria up and then disappear again. On one of these occasions he passes out in a wardrobe in a drunken stupor and is only discovered when he wakes up while Leonard and Maria are in bed together. Somewhat disoriented (and presumably hungover) and none too pleased at finding his ex-wife in bed with another man, he attacks Leonard and Maria, and in a bid to subdue him they accidentally kill him.

So now there's a body to dispose of. And in these paranoid times there's not much point in going to the police and trying to explain things. So Leonard and Maria have to find a way of getting rid of the body, and short of making a casserole or spending the next fortnight flushing slivers of Otto down the toilet there's really only one way to do it: cut him up and take him somewhere where he can be disposed of. Leonard acquires a couple of large equipment cases from work and he and Maria set about their gruesome task. Trouble is, casually disposing of two giant suitcases full of body parts in plastic wrapping isn't as easy as you might assume, especially when Leonard runs into both his downstairs neighbour and Bob Glass on the way out of his building, and Glass unceremoniously throws the cases in his car and speeds off to the tunnel to ensure their safe return.

So now the cases are stashed under a table at the American end of the tunnel, with the possibility of being opened at any minute, and the near-certainty of the smell provoking suspicion within a couple of days. So Leonard does the only thing he feels he can do, and betrays the tunnel's location to a Russian spy in the hope that in the confusion minor details like a dismembered corpse in some suitcases might be overlooked. Sure enough the tunnel is "discovered", but it turns out that it wasn't Leonard's information that led to its discovery, but the treachery of his downstairs neighbour, George Blake.

With no reason to stay around, his and Maria's relationship having been soured by their complicity in the Otto business, and every reason to leave the country, Leonard heads back to England. A brief sighting of Glass and Maria together in the departure area of the airport as he leaves arouses his suspicions and he fails to respond to any of Maria's subsequent letters.

Flash-forward to 1987 and Leonard is back in Berlin. It's the tail-end of the Cold War now, and - although Leonard doesn't know it - only two years from the Hoff-inspired tearing down of the Berlin Wall. He's come back because he's received a letter from Maria - after the war she married Bob Glass and moved to America with him, but now Bob Glass is dead and she can tell Leonard the truth without betraying the promise she made to Bob. Apparently Maria had confessed everything to Bob and he'd arranged - among all the confusion of the tunnel break-in - to get the contents of the cases hushed up and any investigation dropped. So as Leonard scouts around the remains of the buildings where he'd worked 30 years previously he contemplates heading to America and turning up on Maria's suburban doorstep, just to see what would happen.

The Innocent was published in 1990, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and fills a gap between two of my favourite McEwans, The Child In Time (1987) and Black Dogs (1992). It shares some themes with Black Dogs, mainly the long-term repercussions of the war on those who participated in it, and the long shadow cast by the events that took place during the war on the following decades. That it's probably not as good as either of those books it at least partly down to the grating gear-shift just over halfway through where after setting up some interesting espionage background and introducing us to the main protagonists the book suddenly takes a swerve into Shallow Grave territory, even down to the trip to the department store to buy body-dismemberment tools. This bit (which McEwan later regretted) seems like a throwback to McEwan's early stuff like The Cement Garden and the short story collections, even as the rest of the book is doing the sort of convincing period stuff that later turned up in Atonement.

There are obvious echoes of other espionage novels as well, most obviously The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in which Berlin and the Wall also feature heavily. McEwan is more concerned with the characters and less with the procedure and the multiple layers of deceit than le Carré, though. It turns out there really was a tunnelling operation to tap into the Russian phone lines, incidentally, and George Blake really was the man who betrayed it.

The Innocent was filmed in 1993, starring some heavyweight names, though also some slightly incongruous casting - Welshman Anthony Hopkins as brash American Bob Glass, Swedo-Italian Isabella Rosselini as German woman Maria (I'd pictured her as looking more like Diane Kruger) and American Campbell Scott as quintessential Englishman Leonard Marnham.