One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Petrodollar Wars.

On the day in which British news sources weill be leading on the arrest of a suspect for the murder of five women, it would be all too easy to overlook a piece of news that is bound to have major implications over the forthcoming weeks and months.

Iran is to start calculating its budget in Euros. I'll repeat that: Iran is to start calculating its budget in Euros. This is massive! Why? Wellll...for years, the oil market has been conducted in US dollars. Indeed, some 70% of all currency reserves worldwide are held in dollars. What this means is that promissary notes are in circulation which far exceed the capacity of the Federal Reserve. If the holders of those notes were to all ask for payback, the US economy would be in freefall. Hence, the US is keen to ensure that the current convention remains in force in a large part of the world economy, ie the oil market.

Now, in 2003, Iraq announced that it would heneceforth like to receive payments from the UN for its 'Oil for Food' programme in Euros. This piqued the interest of Iran and Venezuela, both of whom made similar overtures. The ongoing result has been described by in Rob Newman video as "The biggest punishment beating in history".

Now, we all know that America and Iran (ahem) 'have history'. Following the 1953 US/British overthrow of Mossadegh and the instalalation of the brutal Pahlavi regime, the overthrow of that regime, and the ignominious failure of the military adventure to free US embassy hostages held by a Islamic Republican factions, believed to have included amongst them one Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Then there was US use of Saddam Hussein as a proxy to contain Iran during the high casualty Iran/Iraq war. However, there have been attempts to thaw relations. It is widely rumoured that Iran made approaches through diplomatic back channels along the lines of "Look...we reckon we can sort out Hamas and Hizbollah*, but for god's sake please have a word with Israel." [Decent citation desperately sought for this story. Any ideas?] When these overtures were batted back by the Bush regime, the theocracy pulled the rug from the reformist Rafsanjani and put in the hawkish Ahmadinejad. Lately the focus has been on Iran's nuclear programme, and on proposals (presumably tested out via back channels) for seeking Iran's help in containing the Iraqi civil war.

One has to ask "What's going on with this latest move?" My guess is that the US has shown its weakness over Iraq. They've been trying to use their economic muscle to make it difficult to move dollars in or out of Iran from overseas accounts. The Iranians have seen their chance to break free. Most of their buisiness is with Europe anyway, plus they have another powerful trading partner who would be more than happy to trade with them in Euros...China. And China is also keen to trade in Euros with Venezuela.

Fascinating blighter, geopolitics, no? So...what happens next...?

* Contrary to some media opinion, Hizbollah is not a straightforward puppet of either Iran or Syria. In an Alice In Wonderland, both are sometimes held to be true, ignoring the likely differences in aims and objectives between Iran's Islamist theocracy and Syria's secularist regime. Hizbollah is a broadly-based federation, although admittedly some Hizbollah factions are closely associated with Iran...including that founded by current Iraqi PM, Nouria al-Maliki.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Brighten up your home this festive season with these

Thursday, December 07, 2006

We Are Devo...

Scottish Independence has never really been a touchstone issue for me. I coukd live with it. I can live without it. Recently, though, I've come round to the idea that it would be 'A Good Thing'. Moreover - I think there's a good chance it's going to come about in the not too distant future.

Scotland is traditionally egalitarian and communitarian - and hence the Labour vote has been pretty much guaranteed. But various things have changed:

  • Iraq, sleaze, general Westminster Labour incompetence and a lack of public faith in their stewardship of health and education.
  • New Labour's lukewarm support of the devolved parliament.
  • The parliament's qualified success. Yes, there was the building scandal, yes it's largely toothless - but on various issues it's shown a 'JFDI'* attitude which contrasts with Westmister. As one trivial example - smoking.
  • The West Lothian which the obvious answer is 'Don't worry...we'll sort it out for you.'
  • An incipient English backlash against uppity Scots (cf a similar attitude of "It's one rule for all these Muslims..."). This is illustrated by The Gordon Factor - English voters are openly pondering whether a Scottish MP should be the 'English' prime minister.
  • An increasing cultural gulf between (broadly) welcoming Scotland** (see this heartwarming example) and petty Little Englishness.
  • Accession to the EU of various small but viable countries. Plus the presence of new Polish neighbours amongst us has reminded Scots that they've been migrating for years themselves.
  • A continuing Westminster focus on the economic development of the South East of England alone. In comparison...don't things like the Scottish proposal for a Glasgow/London high-speed rail link seem A Good Idea?
  • Trident. Gordon Brown plans to keep Faslane at ground zero for the forseable future. Jobs at Faslane notwithstanding, this will not be popular.

So the next Holyrood election (May '07) is likely to be interesting. The consenus on Jack McConnel seems to have been that he's done pretty well (And whod' have imagined? We thought he was just a time serving party man who'd got lucky!)...but on the whole, Labour*** has lost much of its shine. In England, the Tories are bound to pick up votes from those easily conned or with short memories. That could never happen in Scotland. The Lib Dems may pick up a few votes, but they as coalition partners they have a certain guilt by association. It is likely then that there will be a considerable swing towards the SNP. They've come on in recent years. Alex Salmond is popular and highly regarded. They've been consistently anti-war - none of the Lib Dem shilly-shallying of opposing until the war actually started. They've thrown off their Tartan Tories past and are to the left of New Labour, who are obviously shit scared of them (John Reid has even been so desperate as to use the terrorism angle)'s my predictions on how the independence snowball will roll:

  • SNP/Green/SSP coalition (they'll probably be able to tell the LibDems to fuck off).
  • Constitutional crisis in England. The backlash will intensify.
  • Gordon loses the General election, spring '08 (or only narrowly wins if he goes for a snap one in October '07)
  • Salmond holds a referendum, against Westminster opposition (This opposition will be the deciding factor).
  • Independence by '12.

It will be a painful process - for England. The negotiations over Oil and military bases will be tough (Scotland will want a small, defensive military; England won't want nuclear submarines in Devonport). And then...somehow we'll make it work. Or, at least, not fail too drastically.

Vive la république!

Speaking of Polish migrants...Over the last few years, employes have increasingly used migrant labour to undecut pay and conditions. But Poles know a thing or two about trade unions. Such things truly gladden the heart!

* Just fuckin' do it.
** But let's not be entirely conned by the cosy myth that "There's no racism in Scotland - only bigotry."
***Note to English readers: The Scottish Labour Party doesn't use the word 'New'.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Curly Locks

Excuse this diversion. In general, I'm intending to keep this blog a celeb-free zone. In fact, I only have a vaque idea who this Gail Porter woman is, although I understand she has alopecia.

I came across this quote in The Grauniad:

...a taxi driver will say, "Oh, you used to be so pretty."

I mean...FUUUUCK! Gorgeous or what?

(This image comes from You probably don't want to go there)

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Ethics of Kitten Strangling.

or It's just God's way of punishing them for being dumb, Part 3.

Agesandages ago, I had a pop at 'Animal Rights'. Then I rambled a bit about what might be a more sensible basis for ethics. This second part was inevitably disjointed. I don't think it's straightforward answer. There's no answer 'out there' and whatever we struggle towards is bound to be as complicated as we are human.'s the long awaited (?!) Part 3, dealing with why we might conclude that it's acceptable to use primates for medical research but look upon kitten-strangling with revulsion. I've said pretty much what I want to say in a posting on Dan's Samovar, which I'd like to repeat here:

In Catholic superstition, life begins at the moment of conception. It thus follows that abortion, stem-cell research, certain forms of contraception (eg IUDs - but not, surely condoms?) are immoral. An atheist argument (or, at least, a non-Catholic one) against this is that small clumps of cells donot have a consciousness - but see the arguments above concerning neurones and thermostats.

However, isn't there a hint of vestigial superstition in affording special consideration on the basis of consciousness? Consider that consciousness does not appear to have a special place in the universe. There is no grand scheme in which stars may explode, but conscious entities are not be wiped out by tsunamis. Indeed, the very idea of consciousness may be 'Explained Away' as simply the combined effect of neurological pathways that give certain organisms the control mechanisms that maximise the probability of certain biochemical processes occuring. So let's remember our place.

On the other hand...we do tacitly acknowledge an ethical hierarchy which seems to correlate with consiousness. At the higher end, we (mostly) agree that (avoidably) killing people is (usually) wrong. (and, by the way, this might include humans who are as yet 'merely' collections of cells incapable of unsupported cells: any potential parent would regard the involuntary abortion of a wanted foetus as an outrage). At the lower end, we're happy to disassemble thermostats without qualm. Somewhere in between there's a continuum, and there are individual disagreements about whether it's reasonable to kill fish, chickens, cows, dogs, bonobos. There are endless arguments along the lines of 'Can lobsters feel pain?' and I recently discovered that the rules for halal slaughter include that animals must be transported kindly, fed beforehand and not killed in the presence of other animals (presumably so as not to worry them).

But is this really an argument about Consciousness? I suggest that really it's about our own empathy. We regard as ethical that which we feel broadly comfortable with. We don't think we'll feel comfortable in a society in which human slaughter is tolerated (especially if we're the ones up for slaughter). We don't much care about lobsters, fish or thermostats - but as one gets higher up the mammalian hierarchy, animals get cuter and cuter.

So let's be honest Atheist Fundamentalists here. A 'scientific' basis for morality is just as superstitious as a religious one - it's making a god of new discoveries in the philosophy of neuroscience. All we actually know about morality is what we will or will not collectively tolerate. Which - alarmingly - seems to be 'quite a lot'.

So clearly there is a certain degree of (biologically natural) sentimentality in our attitude towards non-human animals - and that's OK. That's why we're mostly happy to step on earthworms but less comfortable with kitten-strangling. But that's not to say that human ethics must be determined by the most nauseatingly sweet common denominator. Ethics is a continuing conversation. Some people are OK with killing chickens for food, others are not. Some people are uncomfortable with animal experimentation - and they might ethically be opposed by those who see the benefits to humans and can handle the necessary detachment. (How many of us could handle cutting open a human skull?). Others may feel more distress about the disposal of a collection of human cells than the woman in whose body they are growing - but that's their problem, not hers. There are no fixed answers.

I leave you with two quotes. One from a friend:
"Ethics is a bit like free doesn't really exist, but it's useful
to behave as though it did."

The other from Mark Vonnegut, quoted by his father Kurt in his 'A Man Without A Country':
"We're here to help each other to get throug this thing, whatever it

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Your Highness is like a cream bun...

I've come up with an aphorism.

Here's the background. I was talking to a small group of people last week. Most of them were university educated. But one guy was a rather down-on-his luck former caretaker, originally a trained printer. It was clear that he felt slightly out of place amongst all these other guys with their fancy words. was pretty clear to me that he was one intelligent guy. Sometimes he'd say something perceptive that really made me think. And unlike us others who dressed our opinions up in fancy cultural references...he'd just say it. The distressing thing is that I just couldn't get him to appreciate how intelligent he was. (And I promise you I didn't patronise him. I hope.)

In my life, I've met just as many bright people without degrees as with. And I've definitely met many, many people in universities who are thick as auld pigshite. They're usually in roughly the same proportions wherever you go.

So here's my aphorism:

Never confuse 'intelligence' with 'education'. Any fool can get an education. Many fools have.


Friday, November 17, 2006

The Iraq Body what?

I was going to talk about the Lancet's report on the Iraq body count anyway, but some of my gavourite bloggers have beaten me to it. See Dan's comments, and also the link to the Grauniad article that Polonius linked to in a comment on my earlier post. My starting point was a Slate article by Christopher Hitchens.

I like Hitchens. That's not a popular view on the Left at the moment because he's reckoned to have gone over to The Dark Side. I fear that's largely true... his moral stance against islamofascism* has blinded him to his allies' excesses...but he's a great entertainer (try this excellent podcast) and a puncturer of wooly liberal orthodoxies. These days I find that I can agree with about 90% of what he says...but the remaining 10% is a massive gulf. But we need to test our opinions by cross-checking against reasoned disagreement. Hitchens is my touchstone. summarise Hitchens opinion of the uses a flawed methodology, its production and peer review reflects left-wing bias and it's been too eagerly jumbed on by the anti-war faction as yet another example of Bush's evil. There's some truth in that, so let's allow it as valid opinion. However, he goes on, the anti-Bushites shouldn't bleat about the casualties. They may be uncomfortably high (if not as high as the report suggests), but that's not America's fault. Since the end of the war, the overwhelming mass of the slaughter has been of Iraqis (and their coalition force protectors) by Iraqis, and there the moral culpability lies.

First of all, let's deal with the casualties that have been caused by coalition forces. During the invasion there was, inevitably, a good deal of 'collateral damage'. Unless one is a pacifist (and I'm not) then provided one accepts Hitchens' position on the paramount necessity of the overthrow of Saddam, it's reasonable to argue that the means justify the end. (Yes, there's a countergument that the coalition was so reckless that they didn't even count the bodies, and certainly incidents like the blatant assaination of journalists in the Hotel Palestine, and the heavy-handed razing of Fallujah need to be accounted for). Also, there has been a series of casual excesses since the invasion (trigger-hapiness; beating and murder of captives; etc. etc.). But we shouldn't be naive about such things. This is how soldiers behave, especially when put in intolerable positions. If we're prepared to use military force, then we have to accept this kind of thing as the consequence (although it goes without saying that we should not condone it; discipline should be maintained, excesses punished). Incidentilly, Hitchens has stated (wittily, I think) that conditions in Abu Ghraib prison improved markedly immediately following the regime change. So, let's grant that the coalition mean well, but you have to be cruel to be kind.

Now let's go back to early 2003, when I was one of 2 Million+ in Britain who marched against the war. Various anti-war arguments were being put forward at the time. So let's have a recap:

  • "War is bad" Indeed. Thank you for that piece of sage insight.
  • "It's all about oil." Wellll...possibly there's a lot of truth in that. Not, I don't believe, that the Bush/Cheney oil intersts wished to grab Iraqi oil profits for themeselves. But re-connection the Iraqi supply would certainly have detabilised the OPEC cartel in an advantageous way. (And there's an intriguing argument- see this Rob Newman video - concerning the switch from Dollars to Euros as the payment method for oil which would have sent the Federal Reserve into meltdown). But if we accept the Hitchens view, the causus belli is unimportant, so long as there's a legitemate morale outcome.
  • "Ah, but why aren't we invading other bad regimes, like Burma" Vapid, liberal idiocy. Nuff said.
  • "We don't have evidence of WMDs, and we don't believe they're a threat." That was a pretty good argument at the time, and has since been proved to be right. And see the last point but one. But let's also take the related argument:
  • "We don't believe the government. We think Blair's trying to hoodwink us." Much though it may leave a nasty taste, let's allow that for Tony Blair, the case for regime change was so morally convincing that he had to find a means to make us buy into it. That's not what he's said, of course; "You can say I was wrong. But you can't criticise me for believing it." Well, yes, we can criticise you for not having gathered sufficient evidence (the UN inspectorate was asking for more time) or for interpreting it incompetently. maybe he was so sincere in his laudable desire for regime change that his bias influenced his interpretation - doesn't that sound faintly scary? But let's allow the odious man of the hook. Maybe he just God was telling to convince the public of the need for regime change 'by any means necessary'. Although a man of integrity would have put the regime change argument to the fore - as he's had to since.
Thus far it has been possible to reason that all the arguments fail to take into account the clear necessity of deposing Saddam Hussein's vile regime. We can ignore rhetoric such as "He's a monster of our own making." We can ignore our doubts on whether "Freeman Moxy**" is foremost in the mind of the American Right. Sometimes causes make strange bedfellows. In WWII (aka 'The Great Patriotic War'), moral necessity meant allying with one totalitarian murderer against another. In this conflict, the self-declared Trotsyite Hitchens is content to get into bed with the Neo-Cons. But there's one argument from the time that remains unananswered:

How sure are we that it will work?

It seems to me that support for the Iraq War could only have been justified if it would lead to improvements in the lives of the Iraqi people. Freedom. Security. Self determination. Living conditions. For these improvements it is reasonable to make the dismal but necessary tradeoff against the amount of suffering along the way. So...let's allow that a there is some worthwile price, measured in terms of the numbers of bodies directly attributable to the coalition.

Except...have there been improvements? One area in which life has definitely not improved is in personal security. whether the insurgents are responsible for the lion share of 650,000 or of some smaller number (although the official estimates of a tenth of that are utterly incredible and certainly wouldn't stand up to peer review), it is undeniable that more people are dying, being kidnapped, etc. etc. now than there were under Saddam***. The people live in a climate of fear. It is arguable whether the coalition has achieved - or will in future be able to achieve - any material or psychological improvement in the conditions of the Iraqi population.

One is forced to conclude that, even if...if...action was taken with the best of intentions, its results have been an abominable failure. I will accept, then, that there may be an argument for, as Hitchens claims to have done, throwing ones lot in with those who might have had their own reasons for invasion because whatever the motives, the outcome would have been desirable. But the outcome hasn't been desirable. Has it? So - could this have been predicted? I refer you back to the pre-war period:

How sure were we that it would work?

Maybe if you throw a pack of cards in the air, they'll land so that only the ace is right-way-up. But in the case of Iraq, it was a terrible gamble with peoples' lives. Humans are rather poor at making gambling-related decisions; they focus on the possible benefits ignoring their low probability and the negative consequences of losing. That is what - maybe with the best possible intentions - Hitchens has done. In this context, the argument about numbers isn't about whether he's wrong. It's about how much.

*Fluffy liberals are quite wrong to criticise Bush's use of the word. It may not be strictly accurate, but it works well enough. What is this? The Pedants' Revolt****?

**Grauniad If cartoonist Steve Bell's version of Dubya's pronuciation of 'Freedom and Democracy' (constantly refered to in his 'War Against Tourism' speeches.

*** Caveat: Apart from the period of their war with Iran...although the nations that supplied Iraq with arms and other support as a buffer against Iran are hardly in a position to comment.

****Q. Who led The Pedants' Revolt? A. Which Tyler.
Q. What is the definition of pedanticness? A. Surely you mean pedantry?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Class War (and my Oscar nominations)

I detect an intellectual trend. Possibly class issues are on the verge of a comeback in British politics. Admittedly my evidence is drawn from just 2 Radio 4 programmes (and it would be faintly surreal to think of R4 as the vanguard of the proletariat) . Firstly, in Class Conscious, a series of programmes from retired political correspondent, John Cole (him with the Northern Irish accent who was invariably seen outdoors, at night, in the rain, in a beige gaberdene mack*), who is old enough to remember when British politics had a left wing. Then in R4's flagship 'Analysis' programme. Quote from the latter:

"New Labour said they were going to take Class out of politics. They've
certainly done that...if you mention it you're branded a dinosaur."

The programme refered to some facts which are well known to us brontosaurii: There is still a strong correlation between a child's parental incomeand any manner of factors from their educational attainment to their health; Social mobility has decreased over recent fewer people are climbing out of poverty.

Maybe those old stalwarts who've remained in The Party were right after all?...If they handg around long enough, New Labour might go away.

Changing topics entirely. .. I've always been wary of the urge to buy the latest models of gadgets. People are inordinately impressed by the number of megapixies offered by cameras, not realising that hi-end models are only really necessary if you intend blowing your photos of the kids up to the size of a tower block, and as for hi-fi reproduction...admit it...most of us have tin ears. So I read with ineterest Mark Lawson's comments on HDTV. He talks about the potentially distracting effect of detail. I was thinking about this when watching the superb 'The Departed' on a rare outing to the cimena. Two examples:

  • Scorsese (or his cinematographers) use some very clever lighting to hide Jack Nicholson's make-up which is used to take 10 years off him. It wouldn't have worked in HD.

  • In two-up shots, sometimes neither actor was in focus...yet it worked. Sharper doesn't always mean better! (remember all those 1970's US TV shows in which the focus would shift back and forth as each person spoke?)

I'm going to bore everyone to death on this for the next few weeks, by the way...but it really is an excellent film. There were outstanding ensemble perfomances from all. Nicholson was breathtakingly charismatic without phoning in his usual Jack Nicholson impersonation. Matt Damon starts out being...well...Matt Damon, and the beauty is in when that slides away and the character development comes through...Martin Sheene, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone - all playing at the top of their game and then some. But the Academy has to go to Lenny DiC. I think this is Scorsese's big film about Acting. Posible Spoilers From Here. He's the undercover cop, so is having to act all the time (as is Damon, who's Nicholson's mob plant in the police). He's seeing a police shrink, first profesionally, later as a friend. She says to DiCaprio: "You seem very vulnerable right now...or it just an act?" He slumps and says: "No...I don't think so..." - and for that slump alone he deserves the Oscar. Do you get it? He's stopped acting for a moment...only, of course, he's acting that he's stopped acting! OK. I'll shut up now.

Nicholson will walk Best Support - although he could be nominated for best actor. And I think you have to see this one in the theatre. The violence needs maximum impact. It's strange - I really don't get off on movie violence, but three of my favourite films are (now) The Departed, Goodfellas and Casino.

Giving Heavy Poddage to:

Polly Harvey (the new Peel Sessions album)
MC Solaar
Public Enemy
Yusuf Islam
Joanna Newsom.

*Old Joke: "Have you got a light, mac?" "No - but I do have a dark overcoat."

Monday, November 06, 2006

Beware of the Leopard

I got a letter from that nice 'Dave' Cameron the other day. He wanted to know my opinion on the Conservative Party. He even enclosed a pre-paid envelope. Naturally, I was happy to oblige:

"Since you ask...

I think that that the deceiving, opportunist bastard who was more than
willing to use racism in the service of Michael Howard can just fuck

Written with my best green crayon, of course.

There are fascists
To be humanitarians
Like cannibals on a health kick
Eating only vegetarians.
(Roger McGough. Or possibly Adrian Henri)

Currently giving heavy Poddage to:

Miles Davis (Porgy and Bess)
Talving Singh's compilation, 'Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground'.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Poop the Magic Draaa-gonnn!

More Halloween photies.

My reputation amogst coworkers for eccentricity was sealed when I sewed this costume at lunchtime:

And here's yet more pumpkins:

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Nothing to say...except to give a quick cross-link to Pumpkin-a-thon '06.

I have a Hitchens/ Iraq body count posting in preparation, but I've been too busy carving pumpkind. And sewing a dragon costume.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

...and it's a fuckin' ugly head

Welcome to my first 'Guess The Relevance Of The Accompanying Image' competition.

So anyway…on the way to work yesterday, I stopped for petrol at a supermarket (I’ll not mention which one, but if you were to assume that it was whichever one first comes to mind, statistically you’d have a good chance of being right.). When I went to pay, there was an East European lorry driver at the counter trying to get directions – the supermarket is brand new, and he’d fallen off the edge of his GPS. He was getting nowhere in sign language, so I asked him if he spoke German – which he did, some – and pointed him in the right direction. After he’d gone, I paid for my petrol, and the woman serving engaged me in conversation:

“Where was he from?”

“I’m not sure. I think it was either The Czech Republic or Slovakia.”

“Hmmph. See if you went to one of their countries? Nobody would be friendly like that. They wouldn’t give you the time of day.”
(Sigh! Always give them a chance to be educated, though).

“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve always found the people very friendly over there.”

“Aye – but see on our estate? They get all these houses for the Russians, and the council pays for it all, and they just fill them with prostitutes…”

I turned on my heel.

“Tell you what – I shouldn’t have to listen to racist garbage like this on my way to work.”

“I’m not a racist.”
I turned and gave her my steeliest of glares.

“Yes you are.”

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…then it probably hasn’t spent enough time in the microwave. But isn’t this kind of run-of-the-mill stuff just soooo tedious?

When I got to work, I phoned the store manager. Give them their due, they’ve taken it seriously and I’m confident that certain working practices will be explained.

As Jeremy Hardy said the other week:

“You have to sympathise with racists these days – they’re having a hard time putting across their point of view: ‘These immigrants – they come over here with their white faces and bland food and fit thermostatic valves to our radiators.’ Hardly has the right force, does it?”

Monday, October 16, 2006

Never return to a god once lit.

More of the headline story in a minute.

First of all...

There has been a pernicious rise in religious extremism of late. The Minister for Women and Equality, Ruth Kelly, is responsible for nursing through the Equality Act, which aims to outlaw discrimination in the provision of goods and services for the LGBT* community. She is also a member of the crypto-fascist Catholic autoflagellant group, Opus Dei. The bill has already been delayed due to meddling by religious groups, and Kelly is pushing for exemptions for faith-based groups. This has caused rows in the cabinet, but she is being supported by Tony Blair, an in-yer-face Christian who is widely rumoured to be a Catholic convert. More information here and here.

Obviously one gruesome aspect of this is the grubby homophobia that so frequently goes with religion. But as a certain George O'Dowd once said, "If God didn't want men to shag each other up the arse, then why did he put the male clitoris up there? It must be some sort of divine plan."

At an even more basic level, I fail to understand why the religious might think they have a special right to be exempted from democratically-agreed laws. This law is intended to limit the effects of individual bigotry on others. What Kelly and her ilk are saying is "Ah, but our bigotry is divinely inspired."

Shit on 'em.

* Sorry - but this always comes out as "LGBLT". My bad!

But back to the title....

I don't usually 'do' religious ceremonies, obviously, but at the weekend I was fortunate to be a bystander at a Hindu ceremony for Dussehra. It marks the triumph of Rama over the 10-headed god Ravana - or the triumph of good over evil. It's conducted around sundown at a time considered to be a new start. First of all we watched a (much abridged!) enactment of the Ramayana in which kiddies in brightly-coloured costumes and monkey tails (Rama's army of monkey soldiers, see?) rescued Rama's wife Sita from Ravana. It was a lot more exciting than yer average nativity play, involving much charging back and forth and brandishing of toy swords. (One of the monkeys had a light sabre!). This was accompanied by evocative hindu hymns, drumming, rhythmic clapping, a pandit spraying the crowd with scented water, and much blowing of a conch shell. Then, as night fell, they torched a giant papier maché effigy of Ravana and let loose with the fireworks. By this time we'd wandered over to a small hill overlooking the site, so we were on a level with all the crackles, pops and wheeees. Only a few shells landed near us.

If you must have religious ceremonies, then let 'em involve fireworks, I say.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

There's always an elephant in the room.

Yesterday was National Mental Health Day. Alistair Campbell was on R4's PM show talking about his history of depression. Fair play to him - he discussed it openly and without stigma. He said that it would be unsurprising that leading members of the government were to suffer from mental health problems, given the amount of pressure they're under.

I wanted Eddie Mair to ask him the obvious question:

"How did you feel when a government advisor was put under so much pressure over remarks he was reported to have made about you that he walked into the woods one night, took a handful of pills and slashed his wrists?"

(The picture is a reference to the Peter Capaldi character in a satirical TV show that currently has as much chance of being repeated as Gary Glitter has of doing a comeback tour.)

Favourite Eddie Mair moments:

  • His opening headline on the day the British government had been accused by Gerry Adams of covert surveillance in Stormont: "Sinn Fein say, 'The British government are buggers'."

  • When he asked the Sudanese ambasador, "How do you sleep at night?"

  • When Elton John won a libel case: "We've just got time to read out one more listener's e-mail. Mrs Jones of Basingstoke writes, 'That Elton John - he's a great big poof.' Goodnight."

More of his wit and wisdom here. He's better than that twat John Humphrys any day.

I've a new photo on my Flickr site. Enjoy!

And while I'm doing quotes from the good and the's a bunch from John Peel.

Friday, October 06, 2006

I never knew they did them in tins!

Jen-yoo-wine purchase from my friendly neighbourhood Iranian food store.

(fnarr, fnarr)

Friday, September 22, 2006

Death to Thomas Szasz

A brief interlude before I get back to animal rights. I'm much more interested in our particular type of animal.

I was talking with some people the other night about a legal case that one of them had heard being discussed on Radio 2. A woman had swallowed a load of pills to kill herself and then phoned up a friend and asked him to sit with her while she died. He did so, and has been charged with being an accessory to murder.

The talk turned to whether one is duty bound in such circumstances to intervene by calling for medical help. It somewhat surprised me, given that all people in the room had recovered from episodes of serious depression, that there was some doubt. The argument given was that while they had survived - in large part through the support of friends and family, another person's situation might be so lonely and desperate that they might never get better. And psychiatric services are notoriously hit and miss. Some get an excellent service. Many more fall through the cracks. In such circumstances, since the pain of depression is so severe, it might be cruel to force them to live on.

My counter to this is that we simply don't have the information to make an informed judgement from case to case. We might assume that they won't get better. We might assume that they will never get social or medical support...but we simply don't know. Nevertheless, we have to decide one way or another. My own position is that I would want to be saved. So if someone tells us they're planning on suicide, we call a doctor as a reflex action.

Some notes:

  • I don't blame the guy. He was trying to do the right thing. He was wrong.
  • Suicide is not a cry for help. It's an expression of pain. Suicides want to kill themselves.
  • It's futile to try to identify a cause: "What made him do it?". The answer's "Everything" or "Nothing" or "Bad chemicals on the brain." It's an illness. Call an ambulance!
  • Assisted suicide in the case of nasty, terminal, untreatable and humanity-sapping illness is a different matter. In the case of something like Motor Neurone Disease or Huntington's Chorea, we do have enough information to go on. Individuals should be allowed to choose their fate.
  • Who's Thomas Szasz? The most dangerous psychiatrist wever - with the possible exception of Radovan Karadžić.
  • In all discussions such as this, I am duty bound to post contact details for The Samaritans. If you have come across this post, are feeling depressed and are thinking of harming yourself, Contact them right away. They're there for you.. If you know somebody else in this position, please do your best to get them medical help.

Sorry to, like, totally bum everyone.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

We do (doodley-do) what we must (muddily-must).

"It's Just God's way of punishing them for being dumb?", Pt 2

Yesterday I took a swipe at Animal Rights. Today I'll try and say something about what I think constitutes a suitable foundation for ethics, based on a rationalist, human-centred viewpoint. Next time I'll be saying a bit more about what this means for the poor defenceless bunnie-wunnies.

I'll try and be as coherent as I can here...but note point 13.

  1. It's a cold, impersonal universe out there. God, Mother Nature or whatever don't give a flying fuck whether we live or die. Our survival, as individuals or as a species, is not guaranteed. In the grand schemelssness of things, our pain or suffering does not matter. It follows that 'good' or 'evil' are not transcendental or absolute concepts. There's no natural order to the way we must behave. We can't deduce it by looking beyond ourselves.
  2. Ethics relate only to how we behave as humans. A tsunami killing thousands or a dingo running off with a baby may be 'bad', but they're not unethical. As far as we know, non-human animals are incapable of making ethical choices about one another, but that's their business anyway. We can't change it. The only sphere we have any control over is our own behaviour.
  3. There are many different types of human, with vast intra-species variation and differences in physical function (young/old; sick/healthy). There is no basis for differentiation in the rights of any group. Further...there is no basis on which to judge the superior worth of any human, be it on grounds of ability to do sums, a good singing voice, height, girth, wealth or attractive breasts. The same ethical status should be applied to anyone with human DNA in their cells.
  4. Humanity is a biochemical phenomenon; we're bundles of DNA that got lucky. It is inherent in our nature that we will seek certain things (call these 'pleasure' or 'bad') and avoid others (call these 'pain' or 'suffering' or 'bad'). These are broadly related to gene tranmission since we tend to survive if we seek gthe things which are good for survival and tend to perish if we fail to avoid things that are likely to kill us. Pathology apart, this is how always behave. This isn't the same as saying that pleasure always equates to things related to breeding (although it often does!), simply that we have a pleasure seeking/ pain avoiding mechanism built in to us. All animals are the same, at least as far as avoiding injury or death. As any typesetter will tell you, Cicero put it well:

    Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit. (There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain)

    So I think it's reasonable to say that 'Good' = the things we like and 'Bad' = the things we don't.
  5. A significant human quality which affects our happiness is our ability to empathise. Certainly, while some can kill and feel no emotional trauma, a reliable source of pleasure is the company of loved ones (or, for some but not all people, animals, especially cute, fluffy ones that invoke nurturing responses). On the whole, a lack of empathy is 'A Bad Thing', so it is reasonable that we should be guided by our nature.
  6. As individuals we have a degree of choice (within environmental constraints) as to what we want to do. Granted it's a bit more complicated than this and sometimes involves long and short term tradeoffs (I want that chocolate vs I want to get slim; I don't want my husband to hit me again vs I'm afraid I won't be able to support myself without him; etc) . So it's reasonable to say that ethics should be based on a right to avoid pain and pursue pleasure as best we are able. (Although in a complex world we're not always able to make straightforward, reliable choices).
  7. So far, so Ayn Rand. But we are interdependent herd animals. In a community, it would defeat the pleasure/pain principle if we were all allowed to do whatever we wanted at any given time, regardless of the consequences for others. Imagine you were one of the weaker members of the community...or a strong member taken by surprise. So "Do as thou willt" shall not be the whole of the law. It needs to be qualified by accepting that just as the individual has the right to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, so has every other individual. Ethics requires this recipricocity.
  8. So, a judgement as to 'What is right' has to be based on some form of community consensus. At various times in history, such consensus has been imposed top down, democratically debated...or just simply is - but it's not important to talk about that here. In any case, Ethics is based on what we mutually agree is, by and large, on the whole, good for society at large.
  9. We can't always trust our own judgement, as individuals or as communities. Some problems need to be thought through rather than leaping to simplistic conclusions. It is useful to have specialists appointed - judges, ethicists - who have the intellectual equipment to do so.
  10. The consensus will always evolve. Leaving newborn infants on rubbish heaps? That was fine for the Romans. Imprisoning homosexuals? That was what we did in the UK until the 1960's. We might deplore the behaviour of those in times past, but there's not a damned thing we can do about it...other than behave differently in our own time and try to convince others to do the same.
  11. Ethics are situationally dependent. On the whole, it's probably not nice to cast the elderly adrift on an ice floe...but if there's not enough blubber to feed everyone...
  12. Sometimes we won't have a bloody clue what's the right thing to do. And sometimes we'll get it wrong. (See my previous comment on The Law of Unintended Consequences.) This should come as no surprise because a) It's a complex world and b) There are no set standards to guide us. So we just have to do our best. This does not necessarily mean that we can just follow our gut instincts or we can be lazy about thinking through alternatives. But sometimes we're going to just have to do what we do and not know whether we've done the right thing.
  13. At any given time there will be disagreement as to what is right and what is wrong, and on how to behave and structure society to deliver good. There's no way around that. One way out of it is to let the rules be defined by an arbitrary autocrat. It seems more sensible, though, to evolve towards a consensual, democratic system with a safety net of tolerated dissent. That's what gets my vote, anyway...even if the outcome isn't always what I'd want. There still remains a problem with those who might flout the consensus and behave badly. The best we can do is to grant democratic institutions the powers to deal with them.
  14. It will always be a bit of a fudge. Individual needs and opinions will differ. And we can't always be certain that we're doing the right thing...after all, there are no absolutes to guide us, and the universe doesn't give a fuck anyway (see point 1). We just have to do the best we can with our puny brains.

That's enough rambling for now. Some applied examples:

  • Allowing homeowners to shoot people for trespassing on their lawn leads to a dangerous, fearful and unhappy society. It shouldn't be allowed.
  • Killing the infirm shouldn't be allowed. You or I might get sick too. Plus by routine killing we reduce our empathy.
  • Abortion is troubling for some but not for others. Those who wish their fetuses to mature into viable humans should be helped to keep them. Others are perfectly capable of disposing of an unwanted fetus without becoming hardened by it.
  • In my subjective judgement, some perfectly tolerable, decent, humane people eat steak. No matter how they're reared, moo cows don't like being slaughtered

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The right to arm bears

“It’s just god’s way of punishing them for being dumb.” Part 1.

This post is a tirade against the very idea of animal rights – which I think is based on some sloppy sentimental thinking. In particular, It’s about the Ideas of the philosopher Peter Singer, who is regarded by some as the founding father of the Animal Liberation Movement. …Although perhaps he’d be less in favour if the guys actually listened to him or read his books. He regards suffering caused against animals as morally equivalent to suffering in human, so on that basis he doesn’t believe we are justified in eating them. Fair enough. However, as a Utilitarian (he calls himself a Consequentialist) he maintains that the benefit of many can justify the suffering of the few, so he’s not, in principle, against animal experimentation. But he would regard a newborn baby as ethically inferior to an adult primate and so would advocate experimenting on the baby rather than the monkey - with the obvious benefit that a human subject would provide a better medical model.

Here are some reasons why I think he’s wrong:

  • The whole notion of Utilitarianism is rendered bankrupt by the Law of Unintended Consequences. We can’t reliably tell whether our actions will lead to good or ill (what if we kill a baby Mandela to save a baby Hitler…etc. etc.). Thus we must only make such utilitarian decisions in extremis – such as shooting down the airliner just before it hits the building – and even then only if we can be sure it’s not going to plummet into the crowded city. (There’s a flipside to this in medical research: We can never be certain that by inserting the probe in the monkey’s skull we’ll cure Parkinson’s disease – but I think there’s an answer to that - more in a future post.). And then there’s the paradox of how we measure’ good’ across populations: Maximum? Mean? Mode?
  • Singer has spoken of ‘speciesism’ as being equivalent to racism, sexism or any moral distinction between humans. This is a key quote for Animal Rights advocates - it gives them a spurious high ground. His argument for the equivalence of humans and animals is based on the idea that we are indistinguishable from animals – we are simply a type of Great Ape. This is true. We share our DNA, in varying degrees, with bonobos, dogs, snakes, slugs, fruit flies, bananas, slime moulds. But from this reduction ad absurdum it’s pretty clear that a line has to be drawn. Singer draws it at the capacity for suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness. So humans and gerbils have rights, bananas and boulders don’t. Oddly (to my way of thinking), he’s not an absolutist about this. He allows a continuum based on the extent to which organisms have unmet goals. So a newborn baby, who hasn’t yet developed goals, or an infirm elder who’s met all the goals they’re going is less ethically important than, say, a bonobo or (I’m not clear on this) a mouse. And, perhaps quite reasonably, there’s a continuum from grown-up humans down to jellyfish. Hmm. I wonder how you measure an organism’s capacity for pleasure/pain . I’m not convinced by people who tell us authoritatively that fish/lobsters/shrimp don’t feel pain; I just don’t think we know. And I’m damn sure we can’t quantify it. But even if we could…how many lobsters would be equivalent to a human? What’s the exchange rate between lobsters and mice? I’m thinking it’s an all or nothing thing.
  • Singer is selective about the rights that he grants to animals. He focuses on their suffering but does not think, for example, that armadillos should be given the vote. So let’s focus on life, freedom from suffering and self determination (which, I guess, would translate in practical terms as the right to roam free). To take the last one first – all animals compete for resources. If there’s not enough nuts in a wood, grey squirrels will survive at the expense of red. Do mice and rats have a right to nibble at our soybeans or birds to eat all our cherries from the tree? Maybe – but I think it’s quite in order to deny them that right and keep the food for our own species. Then…life and freedom from suffering. Well, animals don’t afford us those rights, do they? Presumably, though, given a continuum it’s in order for us to shoot a leopard who’s about to pounce on a human. (But what about a baboon who’s about to fatally injure a baby?). However…they don’t even grant each these rights. But are we in order to shoot a leopard who’s about to pounce on a zebra? Or a human who’s about to shoot a zebra? Or a leopard? Or a bonobo? It seems to me that human moral capacity must fit into the equation somewhere and that humans have a different ethical status to animals.
  • Ethics fundamentally deals with issues concerning how we deal with one another, and Singer would extend this to animals. I think that all but selfish ‘Objectivists’ of the Ayn Rand school (I object to her use of the word ‘objective’ - and thanks to healinmagichands for pointin out an error in my original post) would accept that we have a duty of care towards one another. So, for example, it is morally good to feed the hungry and tend the sick – not that we do enough of these. Should we be expected to extend this to animals? Need we scour the jungles in search of sloths in need of medical attention? Should we have lifeguards on beaches to throw back beached jellyfish?*

In short, it seems to be that Singer's ethical framework is somewhat irrational. Taken to the extreme, it would have thoroughly objectionable consequence for humans judged to be less sentient.

For the record - I don't eat animals.

Eventually in Part 2 I'll expand on (my version of) human-centred ethics.

* A man is walking by the beach. He comes across another man who is walking along the high tide line, picking up jellyfish, placing them in the sea and wishing them luck with a cheery wave. He approaches him. ”What are you doing?” he asks. ”Im rescuing jellyfish”, the man replies. ”But there are thousands of them. How can you possibly make a difference? The man places another jellyfish in the sea and bids it farewell. “Made a difference to that one, didn’t I?”

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Fancy a quick marriage, hen*?

Sometimes you come across something that makes you realise that public perceptions are not the whole truth.

In this vein...I've been reading up on Sharia Law. This, as I'm sure you'll know, is the various systems of judisprudence followed by Muslims. There are various in different countries and/or followed by various sects, each depending on the weight they give to the aHadith, sayings, customs and practices of the prophet (peace be upon him), as reported by whichever scholars they pay attention to.

Anyway - I was struck in particular by concept in Shia sharia (the Sunnis don't buy it at all) of Nikahu’l-Mut‘ah - Temporary Marriage. Unlike in full-blown marriage, here the marriage contract includes an expiry date. Because of various other provisions, it allows for a good deal of pragmatism:

  • It is a matter between individuals (although Iranian law requires requires registration of temporary marriages).
  • Women are not bound to their husband's wishes, but may go out and work, if they wish.
  • Property rights aren't included - so women can inherit.
  • It is mustahab (recommended, but not compulsory) that the marriage contract is extended on expiry. Isn't that a great legal concept, 'it would be best if...'?
  • It can be used as a trial period, prior to marriage - much as we do, but with obvious benefits for arranged mariages.
  • Many couples choose 99 year contracts in preference for full marriage, because it gives more freedom to the woman.
  • It allows marriage between a Muslim and a Christian or Jew (but not with kaffirs - people who are not 'Peoples of the Book' ( Ahl al-Kitab)
  • It can be contracted when men and women are going to live under the same roof but not as a couple, when it would be convenient to relax the rules relating to hijab.
  • Get this...It is allowed even if it's solely for the purpose of sex! I've read that in Iran, mullahs hang around popular meeting places with printed contracts ready to go...and that they also sell condoms.

Of course, I of all people** am the last to defend any religion. I think that law should be based on secular principles...and I don't see why it has any business interfering in consensual relationships between men and women, other than to ensure that women aren't exploited. But it does show that the picture we receive of Islam as an inflexible monoculture is somewhat far from the truth. The Middle East is, in certain repects, as pragmatic and pluralistic as any region, in a "I didn't know the dog was a Catholic" *** way. And Sharia Law isn't just about chopping thieves' hands off, any more than Western secular law is about banging people up in Belmarsh on a pretext or ASBOs whereby police officers can invent the law as they go along.

* For non-Scots readers, hen = darlin'. But men are rarely refered to as cock.

**Militant Atheist Fundamentalist, leaning towards calling myself a Bright.

***Auld Mrs Murphy's dog dies, so she goes along to Father O'Toole and asks him to arrange a nice wee funeral. "Now, Bridie," says the priest, "You know that funerals are only for people. Animals don't even have immortal souls. I can't go saying a funeral mass for an animal!" "But," says Mrs Murphy, "I'd be prepared to make a sizeable donation to the parish - in cash, too." "Ah, now," says Fr. O'Toole, "You never mentioned that the dog was a Catholic.."

The Grauniad on the ENO/ADF Ghadaffi yapera (See Skinheads, apostrophes and choonz post) Or, from al-Jazeera, here.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

String 'em...along!

The attempted suicide in prison by Ian Huntley and the previous successful suicide by Harold Shipman raise some interesting ethical/penal posers, including-but-not-limited-to:

  1. I presume there will be many who will shout 'Let the bastard die!' I admit I haven't done the full research, but I imagine there will be a high correspondence between these and those who would have wished him to have been hanged rather than imprisoned. Interesting. Presumably capital punishment is favoured because it is the worst imaginable punishment. And yet Huntley seems to have preferred death to imprisonment. Would the pro-hangers be happy for him to be slipped a couple of pills and allowed to choose the time of his death?
  2. Some in the anti-psychiatry movement, such as Thomas Szasz (imagine the triple word score!) argue for 'the right to death' - i.e., even in cases of mental illness (whose existence they deny), individuals have the right to suicide. (Contrast this with Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Obviously we already deny some rights to prisoners - but is it acceptable to deny this right? (If, indeed, it is a right)
  3. Still on psychiatry/anti-psychiatry. Obviously there are cases where an individual chooses suicide, arguable as a rational alternative to imprisonment. See this case. Or think of Butch and Sundance. But how can we distinguish this from a suicidal urge brought about from clinical depression which results from life in prison? Is it right to err on the side of caution and assume that prisoners will change their mind, given proper treatment? Of course - treatment is unlikely to be reliable and, given the circumstances, be palliative at best. But then the same applies to many depressed people living in desparate life situations. Should we just hand them the pills?
  4. Is life imprisonment fundamentally a cruel and inhumane punishment? In the case of US Supermax prisons, I'd say 'Yes'. They seem designed to induce suicidal depression*. Of course, the US has notoriously grim prisons by worldwide standards. I read a quote a while back to the effect that, to all appearances, male rape is an officially sanctioned part of the American penal system. Surely people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment? a civilised society (there's a massive assumption!), what level of comfort are we happy with for convicted criminals?

Tricky blighters, ethics. I'm not sure there are ever any clear-cut answers.

*But of course attempted suicides at Guantanamo are sneaky attacks.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Skinheads, apostrophes and choonz


I finally got around to watching American History X at the weekend. I’d heard great things about it, and especially about Ed Norton’s performance. I have to say, I was…underwhelmed. It seemed to me to have ‘Made For TV’ production values – right down to its thick layer of cosy schmaltz. What particularly disappointed me was the lack of any nuance in the character arcs. So the basic plot seemed to be ‘Guy becomes a skinhead because he’s a bit mixed up after his father’s death…goes to jail…gets friendly with a black guy and changes his mind…but just too late to save his brother (who’s also had a change of heart, thanks to a kindly black teacher). And the Norton character…he simply appeared to be pleasant enough, articulate guy – albeit one who trashed grocery stores and shot people. The only development he went through was that his hair grew back. And where did the plot line about the teacher's seminars disapear to...other than the brother's unexplained take on his essay.

I’m sure there’s a great film to be made about American extremists, but this ain’t it. SE Hinton does this kind of stuff much better.

(Shame. I really rate Norton. For a much better performance, see him in the criminally overlooked 25th Hour)

Mind Yer Langwidge

This in yesterday’s Observer: Author takes on the queen of commas – about counterblast by linguist David Crystal to the self-appointed Language Police. What really got my goat was a quote from that reactionary humbug, John Humphrys.

'I think David Crystal is making a fundamental mistake when he says rules don't matter that much. I say they matter enormously. Take the example we always use on both sides of the debate: the apostrophe. It is either right or wrong. We wouldn't accept something being wrong in any other walk of life, would we?'

This is certainly true when we are dealing with something important - say, how to build a nuclear power plant or which side of the road to drive on (sic). When, however, the breaking of a rule has no other consequence than to upset the pompous (eg, which knife to use for fish; how to address a bishop; where to put an apostrophe), it is mere convention.

Seriously, though...can anyone think of a set of circumstances in which a misplaced apostrophe might lead to harm?

Giving ‘Poddage To…

The new Dylan
Asian Dub Foundation
Polly Harvey

…and in the ‘a bit silly’ corner:
Mieskuoro Huutajat. Shouting men from Finland. Check out their ‘Star Spangled Banner’ under Audio.
The Thurston Lava Tube. Named after a Hawaiian geological feature. For those who like their Beatles with extra cheez.
Apocalyptica. A Finnish string quartet who play stunningly excellent Metallica covers (sample available via the link).

Monday, August 28, 2006

Feathery limbs in leathery Lambourne

Since azahar has taken the wind out of my Pope post...

Today is the centenary of the poet John Betjeman's birth. God, how I loathe his tedious, sentimental, bafflingly popular doggerel. I don't think it's just because we studied him extensively at school - a soft option for O Levels - because I like some of the other ones we did (RS Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Larkin, Hughes, Owen, Sassoon). What annoys me most - apart from his facile dum-de-dum metrical scheme - is the way he's held up as an exemplar of 'Englishness'. It's not a kind of English I've ever been a part of.

I admit that I don't read much poetry, but I've been trying to read more lately. I've bought the collected works of Norman McCaig (excellent!) and TS Eliot (I really must make a stab at The Four Quartets and The Wasteland again). In the past I've liked Yevtuschenko (who I once met), Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Whitman, Stevie Smith, the Merseypoets (McGough, Henri, Patten), Burns, McDiarmid, Yeats, Heaney.

What poets does everyone remember from school? Did you like them? Did they stick in the mind? Or where they just a boring waste of a period of your life?

The Pope vs Darwin

Pope Ratzo is to reevaluate the Catholic church's position on Intelligent Design. (see here). The Polish guy said that evolution is 'more than hypothesis', and I understand that the official position is (something like) 'God created evolution.' But this sows more doubts than it assuages.

Now Ratzo is moving towards (so-called) Intelligent Design - the theory that God has a hand in every single fruit fly mutation. I can see why he'd want to lean that way: If we can explain The Origin Of Species without recourse to a supernatural entity, the whole edifice comes tumbling down.

Isn't this one of those examples of casuistry - the Jesuitical art of arguing that black is white? If it's not true, then all of Catholic doctrine is untrue, therefore it must be true because everyone has to go on believing.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Why I hate DIY

In Human Factors/ Ergonomics, we sometimes talk about ‘Maintenance Induced Latent Errors’ – that is, when someone’s fixing something, they make a mistake which is not noticed at the time but which later has disastrous consequences.

This is why I hate DIY.

So…I get a desperate phone call from home yesterday saying the washing machine’s broken. As soon as I get home I go to fix it – the start button has slipped back and got jammed behind the fascia. (By the way…this was my second repair of the week. Last week I had to put the drive belt back on. A charlatan of a repairman tried to sell us a new circuit board!). To get at the buttons I have to get the top off the machine, which meant pulling it out from the kitchen units. This proves difficult, because one of the legs has come off and it keeps on jamming on a gap in the flooring, and I end up having to pull the tumble drier out also to get at it – which means untaping the vent hose from the duct in the wall. Anyway – I do all that, and fixing the button is a doddle (Couple of screws for the top cover, unclip the circuit board, clip the button unit back into its mounting – repeat in reverse). Then all I have to do is re-tape the tumble drier hose and put it back…But the washing machine is still hard to budge, so I decide to fix the leg back on (by a miracle I know it’s in the cutlery drawer). This means tilting the machine on its side and simply screwing the leg back in. Problem is – I can’t tilt it because it’s constrained by the feed and drain hoses and electrical cable. So I unplug it, unscrew the jubilee clip on the drain hose under the sink and turn off and unscrew the feed hose from the water supply (with a minor panic when I find there’s a second, old and disused hose which I inadvertently turn on, causing a minor flood). Anyway…I do all that, on goes the foot, I slide the machine back in place and connect everything up again. By now my work clothes are filthy and partially soaked (never mind – dress down day tomorrow), so I go upstairs and change. Then I go back into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, and while the kettle’s boiling I notice there’s some dishes in the sink basin. So I tilt the basin to empty out the gungey solution of yesterday’s rice…Strange…Why are my feet so getting wet? Yup, you guessed it…I’ve forgotten to refit the drain hose from the washing machine and the sink is draining through where it’s meant to go. And, of course, the hose has been pulled out of the kitchen cabinet so I have to pull the machine out to get it.

But that’s just a simple DIY job. Suppose, though, that it’s a complicate chemical plant of the cooling system of a nuclear reactor. Do you reckon they’re any better? I’m afraid to have to tell you that experience suggests not.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Does anyone else do this?

Say I'm going out to the car to go buy milk or beer or something. I pat my pocket for my wallet...not there. I go to the kitchen and look on the countertop. Nope. I probably left it in the car. But then my mind leaps ahead. What if it's not in the car? I might have left it at work? Is there anyone still there who I could call? Or maybe I dropped it at the last supermarket I was in? I'd have to call them up and then go get it - but that would take time and I've got X, Y and Z to do. Hmm...what's my plan B for those? And, damn, it's got that phone number for suchandsuch, and if I don't phone tonight I'll have to do X, which means Y...Oh! There's my wallet on the car seat!

What a stupid fucking waste of mental energy! I could have been using those brain cells for...ooh, something. If only you could donate spare brain capacity to seti@home.

Günter Grass

Günter Grass has long been one of my literary and political heroes. Following his revelations about his Waffen SS past, I've been trying for a way to let him off the hook. I have to say, though, I kinda agree with this article by Christopher Hitchens. My initial reaction on reading was to fulminate - but I think he makes his argument well. Not sure I agree with his literary judgement, though.

Elsewhere on the web

What to do if you want snakes on your plane.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Edinbuggering about.

I took a few days holiday last week before Sophie and Adam went back to school. Part of the time was devoted to buying a new car (and all the money stuff associated with that).

Once that was sorted, we went through to Edinburgh. I bought a really cool kalimba (aka 'thumb piano') made from a sardine tin and we had lunch outside at a cafe in a church crypt. Here's a good Social Engineering idea: If mosques were to open cafes, they'd lose some of their scariness, they'd become integrated into the wider community...and the food would be brilliant!

The main purpose of the visit was to see the Ron Mueck exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland. It's been getting a lot of press.

The baby is some 6m long. The spooning couple are about 14in and look as though they could stand up and dance. I'd've been damn scared if the baby had stood up.
This review here is pretty savage. It argues that Mueck's stuff isn't really art. A similar comment I've read is, 'All very clever - but then so is taxidermy.' I can see the point - there's a difference between the model-maker's skill in creating a realist representation and the artist's skill in imbuing it with meaning. However...I found that seeing the figures on such an enormous scale really made me stop and look at them. And surely that's what Art should do? Make you look? One piece was a baby at about half scale which was mounted on a wall. The unusual perspective shift was dizzying. It also works as sculpture. In some of the pieces the tension of the muscles and pliancy of the flesh was exactly right.

The Edinburgh Festival is in full swing, so we wandered up and down The Royal Mile, having flyers from fringe groups thrust upon us and watching street performers. A particularly impressive Swedish magician did a variation on the cup-and-balls trick...and I have no idea how he managed to sneak the melon under his hat.
We had the devil of a job getting out of Edinburgh. We never seem to take the same route twice. They have an...'interesting'... approach to signposting whereby you follow signs for Glasgow, then when you get to a particularly complex junction...they disappear. Or sometimes they say instead 'West' or 'North'. But how do you know which way the motorway is if you don't know where you are? And if you do know where you don't need a sign. We came back via a somewhat convoluted route.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Doing my bit for global warming

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm temporarily green - using public transport to get to work on account of my car having been declared dead. The cost of repairs wouldn't be worth it.

God, I hate car buying. Thanks to a generous father-in-law, it turns out we can get something reasonably decent - so it's more or less a matter of just walking into a garage and saying 'Yeah, that looks OK.' So where's the stress? Well, I guess it's a matter of psychological and cultural baggage. Firstly, cars are meant to be a manly thing. But being a bit of a girly boy I neither know nor care about them and immediately feel at a disadvantage talking to dealers. Same as in pubs when folk talk about fitba. Then there's the whole sales negotiation thing. You're meant to show off your business acumen by getting a good deal. You go along with your Parker's Guide (the guide that tells you how much every model in every variation should be selling for), show that you know the market and have other options, walk away a few times, brazenly ask for £1k off, a free hi fi and a blow job...etc. etc. Frankly, though, the dealers are better at this sort of thing than I will ever be and I always walk away a) feeling slightly dirty and b) with a nagging feeling I've failed in my sacred duty not to be ripped off. I won't have been ripped off: I'll have a car that I'm content with and a loan I can afford.

For them's as gives a flying fuck, here are all the cars Cath and I have ever owned:
  • Cath's first car was a Ford Escort that cost about £200. She drove it about 6months, and then it went for scrap.
  • Then she got a lease car through her job - a Ford Fiesta.
  • My first car (we met on a residential driving course, and I was still taking lessons after we got together) was a Ford Sierra. When we moved to Scotland I didn't need a car and it sat outside our flat. There was a hairy moment when our street flooded and I had to start it up for the first time in three months (it worked...eventually...but the steering wheel had gone mouldy). I'd had a couple of self-inflicted bumps, so when I put it in for pre-selling insurance repairs, it was declared a write-off (soI got a better price than I otherwise would have).
  • Meantime, Cath had bought a VW Polo. That kept going for years...although for the last three or so the throttle return mechanism had been operated by a complex system of external springs and bailing wire. (Remind me to tell you that story).
  • About ten years ago we bought the Fiat Tipo (the one that's just been declared dead)
  • Three years ago we bought a very suburban Renault Scenic.

The advantage of getting to work by train/bus is that I can read and listen to my 'Pod. My current book is The Folding Star by Alan Hollingshurst. I'd had it on my shelf for years after a friend recommended it. It's utterly filthy - lots of hot man-on-man action - but rather good

I also get to read the free paper we get at stations. It's worth the cover price for the surreal letters page alone. Examples from today's edition:

"Someone spilt a large glass of dry white wine over me at the weekend and it soaked me. How can this be?"
"Depression is merely anger without the enthusiasm."
"My great uncle would sit out on the porch, whittling away at wood all day. One time he whittled me a boat out of a slightly larger wooden boat I had. It was almost as good as the original one, except it was covered in whittle marks and had no paint because he'd whittled it all off. That being said, my favourite uncle was Uncle Caveman. We called him that because he lived in a cave, and occasionally he would eat one of us. Later, we found out he was a bear."

There's been a stooshie at this year's Edinburgh Festival. Mel Smith plays Churchill in a play about a meeting between him and Michael Collins (The Irish revolutionary, not the Apollo 11 astronaut) and he's been complaining that Scottish law means he's not allowed to smoke a cigar on stage. I'm reminded of the famous story abou when Dustin Hoffman as playing alongside Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man. Before the famous dentist chair torture scene, Hoffmann was agonising overer his 'Method', about how he could really get inside the character and feel his pain. Larry said to him, "My dear boy! Why not just pretend?"

Also on the same theme, from the free paper:

"He might try smoking crushed coal and diesel fuel instead - I think the ban only covers tobacco products...You just need to think outside the box"

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Stuff an' ting

As you can see, I'm still having title trouble. Thing is, this is a portmanteau post.

My Morning Routine

Get up. Run bath. Stumble around without lenses in, trying to find clothes. Take bath. Fry. Put clothes on (with the exception of socks, which are usually missing). Shout for Sophie and Adam. Open Emil's door. Ignore him shouting thet he's tired, lift him up, if damp undress him and drop him in the bath. Ask him to walk downstairs. Carry him down. Fight him into his clothes. Put kettle and radio on. Put kids' dishes, cereal, spoons, milk on table. Join Cath in shouting for Sophie and Adam again. Try and persuade a still angry Emil to have breakfast. Carry him into dining room, sit him on chair and put cereal in front of him. Shout for Adam and Sophie again. Make sandwiches for Adam and Sophie. Make coffee. Put lenses in. Go upstairs to look for socks, Shouting to Sophie and Adam again. Help one or both of them to find the clothes which Cath has already placed in front of them. Go downstairs. Dodge Cath who insists on doing her hair in the hall. Put socks on. Shout Adam and Sophie again. Try and persuade them to put down whatever they're playing with and get breakfast. Put their sandwiches in a bag along with juice and place in hall. Help one or both of them to find shoes. Shout at them to get shoes on. Sit down, and have two sips of coffee. Dodge Cath as I go into kitchen to look for my work ID. Aim for the door (dodging again). Get called back by Emil for a kiss and a cuddle. Open door. Run for train.

The Lebanon

The sending of an Arab League delegate to the UN sounds highly significant to me. From the Lebabese point of view, they can see a cease fire agreement being negotiated amongst the Security Council. Two of the Council's members have been publically against an immediate cessation, which they translate (quite correctly) as 'Give Israel enough time to finish the job we've given them first.' Plus, the presence of the UN has so far signally failed to help them in any way.

The Writing's On The Wall

I've been looking at stuff by Banksy recently (graffiti artist and urban situationist). Here's some bits I like:

Unfortunately I can't find pictures of his more situationist climbing into the penguin enclosure at London Zoo and writing 'We're bored with fish.'

Monday, August 07, 2006

It's such a strain having to think up 'witty' titles all the time.

It was a double celebration at the weekend. Cath and I got married on her dad's birthday, mumblemumble years ago. On Saturday evening, I made a special meal - as detailed on Flaming Pie. which we had with a bottle of champagne. I don't normally swoon over champagne myself, but this was a nice, yeasty bottle of Tatinger.

Yesterday was also, sadly, the first anniversary of Cath's mother's death. We had her dad over and made a fuss of him. He's just discovered that they've been serving him powdered mashed potato, so he requested something with proper mash - hence my other Flaming Pie recipe. Honestly...I don't understand powdered mash. You can even get frozen mash! How difficult is it to boil and mash a few potatoes? He unexpectedly gave Cath some money, which was very generous of him. It means we can buy another 'proper' car sooner than expected. I was planning on buying something basic to tide me over.

Currently Enthusing about:

A podcast of Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry discussing religion.

Currently reading:

A Folding Star by Alan Hollingshurst

Giving heavy 'Poddage to:
  • The Breeders.
  • A Hendrix blues album. I like Hendrix best when he's holding it in a little. This album is slightly marred at one point by a drum solo. No. NO. There shouldn't be drum solos. Ever.
  • Bjork - mainly 'Medulla' .
  • The latest/last Johnny Cash. the can do the blog subscribing thing by using an Atom feed ( or RSS ( Don't ask me how it works, though.

Friday, August 04, 2006

OK, you win.

It seems that blogs are now the prefered mode of communication for those who have been driven out of hootoo. I'll still visit to discuss esoteric matters, but I guess it's time I cranked up this thang as my social space. you'll see, I've finally published some photos. My holiday tales are divided up into bite-sized chunks for easy mastication. I'm also going to post a few recent flower photos on my flickr site - in fact, I might have posted them already by the time you read this.

What else, what else...

This is our friend Sara on the day we said goodbye to her as she moved to Regensburg:

Then a couple of weeks later we got a call saying she was back because her flat sale had fallen through. She finally leaves today, and went out for dinner with Cath and another friend. Gunnar, who was back over to help, was at a loose end, so he came over and we drank wine and shot the shit ('Wir haben das scheise geschossen'?), mainly about Hizbollah. Some significican t points:

  • Israel are in real trouble if even reasonable people like us are coming down in favour of Hizbollah.
  • On the other hand...the Israelis have managed to do something that noone's managed in the last 40-odd years: to unite all the Lebanese factions.
  • Why did Israel start the Gaza blockade? Sure, they'd had a soldier kidnapped, but Palestinians are getting captured (and rourinely shelled) every other day. Is it possibly coincidential that on the day of the invasion, Hamas had just signed an accord with the PLO that even the militant PLO factions wouldn't agree to?
  • The report into the Hariri asaination seems to have disappeared. But then evidence had been uncovered of BND (German intelligence) involvement in Lebanon...and the explosive used was the same type that Mosad used.
  • Hezbollah isn't actually a proscribed organisation in the UK. It's External Operations wing is - and that's the part financed/operated by Iran. This grew out of an Iraqi shiite organisation called Dawa and was responsible for the suicide bombing of the US embassy. The leader of Dawa was one Nuri al-Maliki

Anyway...that was the shit shot.

What We Did On Our Holidays: Part 5

We went to see an old friend, Isabel. We'd lost touch for a few years while she was going through a horrible separation. She used to live in this slice of heaven, until her husband broke too many of her ribs. She's now regained her feet in Dunoon, a ferry ride away, and has a lovely house and a satisfying job organising homecare services.

Isabel's friend Andrew took us out on his boat and we tootled along the Holy Loch (where our nuclear arsenal is kept) and Loch Goil:

I'm not 'an animal person', but we've always been very fond of Isabel's dog, Alligin. She used to hop uninvited into the boat from the island with us and into our car with us. One time we went a walk at this gorgeous beach and she kept on running up and down the full 2 miles until we thought her wee legs would get worn down. She was amazingly sweet natured, and the only reason she used to bark at seals was because she wanted them to be friends. ('What are those strange fishy dogs?'):

But she was getting on in years, and on the boat, she first fell down a hatch to the lower deck, and then fell into the harbour. (The mind said 'I can jump that.' The legs said 'No you can't'. Sadly the next day she fell off the boat again and is no more.

What We Did On Our Holidays: Part 4

We went to the Trossachs again, to Inchmahome Priory. You have to get a boat because it's on an island in Lake of Menteith:

There's only one lake in Scotland. There are countless lochs, but a Victorian cartographer made a mistake with one of them.

The priory's all very atmospheric, yadda yadda:

A nun was buried standing up, because of her wickedness. My kind of nun!

We found a good tree to climb:

On the way back we stopped at a pub. We turned into the car park at the precise same time as our next door neighbours, coming from the opposite direction. Wouldn't it just be so weird if there were never any coincidences?