Friday, February 24, 2017

can I get a witness

I had those Jehovah's Witnesses round the house again a couple of days ago, a scant six years after their last visit. This particular pair (and it seems to be pairs, usually) were middle-aged blokes, the one who did the talking being a bit Scottish, I think.

As before I was in the middle of working, so I kept it brisk and polite and didn't get lured into any sort of theological exchange of views, as tempting as it might be. I accepted the bit of literature they were offering, as I find these things quite interesting, in a "know your enemy" kind of way.

The interesting thing about this particular tract, and the way it was presented, is that the focus groups have obviously concluded (scarcely surprisingly) that getting all in-your-face with the God stuff straight away isn't really a goer, and that it's better to sneak up on all that via some other topic. So while I can't remember exactly how the current script goes, it's something like: I wonder whether you'd be interested in a leaflet on the subject of teen depression. Do you suffer from teen depression yourself? Or maybe know someone who does? Or just any teens in general? They might not appear to be depressed, but who knows, they might just be putting a brave face on it. Here's the front cover of the leaflet:

Now I'm evidently hopelessly ill-informed about religious publications, because while the title sounded a bit suss for a serious bit of medical/therapeutic literature, I didn't specifically know that Awake! is the name of one of the main Jehovah's Witnesses publications (the more famous one being The Watchtower). Nevertheless it took me about five seconds to smell a bit fat Goddy rat here, at which point I trousered the leaflet and bid them a cordial good day.

Flipping the leaflet over exposes the subterfuge, though, as there's lots of contact and website details on the back, below a random and slightly barking article about the Saharan silver ant which seems to be doing a bit of Just Asking Questions while obviously trying to make some sort of point regarding Intelligent Design. The feature article starts off innocuously enough by making some fairly obvious points about depression - you know, some people get it, some don't, it's a bit of a bore, it can be quite serious, it makes you feel a bit rotten, some people find going out for a nice walk helps - and waits till a couple of pages in before it starts making reference to Bible verses. It pointedly omits any mention of antidepressant drugs as a possible treatment, but aside from that (well, and the Bible verses) it's all pretty anodyne. It's not until a bit later in the leaflet that we get into the serious stuff with a prominent article on abortion. It's not actually as fire-and-brimstone as you might imagine, but does sneakily ramp up the evil quotient by making the un-evidenced claim of a link between abortion and depression. It doesn't, as far as I can see anyway, repeat the often-made and entirely bogus claim that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, but I wouldn't want to rule out the possibility of them having made that argument at some point. The print version does also attempt to reassure those who have had either a miscarriage or an elective abortion with the prospect of meeting their "unborn child" in heaven later, which sounds fucking delightful.

Preying on those in a state of mental vulnerability is of course standard practice for proselytising religions, as is a firm opposition to any treatment regime that doesn't involve embracing their particular belief system, in a very real and financially binding sense. Take a look at the Scientologists' bullshit "personality tests" and visceral hatred of psychiatry for another example - to be fair to the Jehovah's Witnesses they can't really compete with the Scientologists in the arena of overtly cartoonish evil and absurdity; whether this makes them more or less dangerous is an interesting subject for debate.

If you're wondering where the bonkers blood transfusion stuff is on the JWs' shiny new website, rest assured it's still there, and they're still bothering, for reasons I can't really fathom, to try to make the case that this is a stand based on solid scientific evidence, while later in the same article conceding that it's "a religious issue rather than a medical one". I would say "well, at least it keeps them off the streets", but clearly it specifically doesn't do that, or they wouldn't be ringing my bleedin' doorbell of a Wednesday afternoon.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

the last book I read

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies.

So here we are at the college of St. John and the Holy Ghost, affectionately known by its denizens as Spook, in a city which I don't recall being named but which we are presumably meant to infer is a thinly-fictionalised version of Toronto, that being where a great many of Davies' novels are set.

As all academic institutions do, Spook carries a varied cast of eccentric academic types: professor Clement Hollier, priest Simon Darcourt, exotic half-Gypsy temptress Maria Magdalena Theotoky, Hollier's graduate student and erstwhile lover, and John Parlabane, defrocked monk and ex-student at Spook, recently returned to the college in an impoverished state to presume on the generosity of his old friends Darcourt and Hollier.

Hollier, Darcourt and their devious colleague Urquhart McVarish are thrown together by the recent death of Francis Cornish, art collector and benefactor of the college - Cornish has named the three men, along with his nephew Arthur, as co-executors of his will. The elder Cornish's somewhat haphazard methods of cataloguing his art collection make the task of disposing of the collection somewhat time-consuming. The collection also includes a manuscript which may or may not be some unpublished writings by Rabelais, one of Hollier's key areas of study.

Many plot strands branch off here: Maria's Gypsy mother, her Tarot readings and her devious schemes to rekindle Maria's romance with Clement Hollier; Hollier's attempts to retrieve the Rabelais manuscript from Urquhart McVarish, who he suspects has stolen it, by getting Maria's mother to put a Gypsy curse on him; Ozias Froats and his research into human excrement; John Parlabane's attempts to get his dreadful autobiographical novel published.

Things reach an unexpected conclusion when the deaths of Parlabane and McVarish are discovered in quick succession, followed by the delivery of a letter to Maria and Hollier which turns out to be an extended confession-cum-suicide note from Parlabane in which he describes the lurid arrangement he and McVarish had agreed upon to satisfy McVarish's unusual sexual tastes, and the circumstances in which he subsequently murdered McVarish during the course of an elaborate sex game.

The novel ends with Arthur Cornish proposing marriage to Maria, and being accepted, and various publishing houses expressing a belated interest in Parlabane's novel in the wake of his posthumous notoriety.

Very much like the previous Robertson Davies novel in this series, The Cunning Man, this one features a lot of hugely entertaining philosphical discussion and digression on a whole host of interesting topics, but not a great deal actually happening until, to quote myself from the previous review: "a few deaths at the end just to tie up a few loose plot strands". It's not a book that appears to have been written out of a burning desire to make a particular point, unlike, say, Surfacing or The Dark Room. But that's fine, different books do different things in different ways. The character of Maria Magdalena Theotoky, in particular, is one you want to spend more time with, and as it happens The Rebel Angels is the first book in a trilogy, so the keen reader has the opportunity to do just that. Davies was a bit of a one for trilogies; all of his novels were grouped into threes except the last two (The Cunning Man was his last published novel) whose planned capping-off into a trilogy was thwarted by Davies' death in 1995.

Davies also sported, during his lifetime, one of modern literature's more spectacular beards.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

anatomy of a (joke) murder

As I'm sure most of you know, Twitter, in addition to being a hive of scum and villainy, has its own little unwritten rules and points of etiquette that change and mutate every few minutes, so that however constantly plugged-in you are, you'll always be a few steps behind. Well, I say "unwritten", but of course someone somewhere is probably documenting them (pointlessly, since it'll be instantly out of date) in an epic multi-tweet thread right now.

Anyway, my specific point here is this: those of us who tweet tweet about lots of different things, from HEYYYY HOW ABOUT THAT LOCAL SPORTS TEAM to OMG TRUMP IS GOING TO LITERALLY INCINERATE US ALL to HERE ARE SOME CUTE CAT GIFS. Also, from time to time we might want to share a joke of our own devising, in a throwaway sort of way, as if tossing out a witticism down the pub. Trouble is, a throwaway gag down the pub floats away on the ether and is gone, whereas unless you've got some very specific account settings on the go (or go around specifically deleting individual tweets) your tweet is going to be hanging around FOR EVER, or at least until Donald Trump gets us all incinerated and we revert to bashing each others' heads in with rocks for entertainment.

So let's say that there's a thing going on in the news, and you think to yourself: if we were discussing this in the pub I'd lob a gag in here, cos I've just thought of one. But I'm sitting at my desk in my pants, so perhaps a tweet will be more appropriate. But should I check to see if it's an original joke? I don't want to be accused of joke-theft; similarly while I don't expect to be immediately given my own radio show on the basis of a single tweet I don't want everyone moaning about me being LIKE THE GAZILLIONTH PERSON to do that gag this morning. But, equally, you don't want to spend an hour obsessively Googling to see if anyone's done the gag, because a) that's an hour that could be spent doing other stuff and it is JUST A JOKE after all and b) you'll inevitably find at the end of that process that you would have been first if you'd just bashed a tweet straight out, but now that you've spent an hour fannying about LIKE A GAZILLION PEOPLE have done it.

Case in point: the rather humorous lettuce shortage this week that everyone who pretends to like salad pretended to give two shits about before waddling out and picking up a KFC. The idea of it being Europe-wide triggered a synaptic thing in my gagular cortex, and I tweeted the following:
I immediately followed this up with a bit of faux-nonchalant weaselly arse-covering, as follows:
I thought no more of it until someone re-tweeted the following a bit later the same day:
So I thought: I wonder how many other people had the same idea? Turns out there were quite a few, most of them earlier than me, with the caveat that Twitter's time-stamping of tweets is a bit confusing.

All of these people can go fuck themselves, though, as they're as guilty of plagiarising stale jokes as I am. Check out these tweets from during the EU referendum campaign back in May and June 2016.

Is that the first time that particular joke was done? Well, in relation to the UK possibly leaving the EU, very possibly. But in a more general sense, the Remain/Romaine pun must have been done countless times before. Really this is a more general variation on the old non-Twitter-specific conundrum: who makes up jokes? We all know lots, but how many of those did we make up? Probably none. I suppose there's some value here in distinguishing between one-off punnery and properly-constructed jokes, though as always there's not a bright and well-defined line separating the two concepts. In fact this (i.e. where do non-groany/punny jokes come from) is essentially the premise of the Isaac Asimov short story Jokester, which I have in the early-1970s collection Earth Is Room Enough (as also mentioned here).

As always when talking about jokes it's worth repeating the old one about how deconstructing jokes is a bit like deconstructing your cat: you might learn something of interest but the cat will never be quite the same afterwards. As if to illustrate the point, I've no idea who thought that one up either.