Friday, 28 December 2007


I find it hard to feel the sense of tragedy and injustice at Benazir Bhutto's death that newsreaders and world leaders are asking us to feel. I feel sad for Pakistan, because this can only lead to more trouble. But Bhutto was a terrible leader of the country both times she was in power, presiding over corrupt and nepotistic governments, and I think that she was more likely to be a barrier to democracy than a spur; if a leader pays lip service to democracy while making billions out of fraudulent deals with companies in France, Switzerland and Poland and populating the judiciary with sympathetic judges, it only serves to give the whole concept a bad name. But bad habits die hard and our leaders still persist in supporting such people, as they did for years during the cold war and the decolonisation process: countless lunatic African leaders made a pretense at democracy, but they only served to make matters worse. You would think we would have learned by now.

The answer of course lies in the people of Pakistan as a whole. Do they want democracy or don't they? It's their choice, and we should treat them like the grownups that they are in letting them make it for themselves.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Festive Song

I'm offline for the next two weeks more or less, and any posts I make will be from my phone, so just the odd random thoughts that occur to me (not that different to the regular posts then).

So then, all I want to do today is share the following video with you, and in case I don't post before Christmas I hope that you have a great time with friends and family, and wish you a very Happy Christmas, however you celebrate it.

Be back soon.

Another Quote

No great insights today (as if there ever are!); just, on the subject of favourite quotes, I recently came across this one, from the former UN Secretary General, Dag Hammerskjold:

I don't know Who - or What - put the question. I don't even know when it was put. I don't remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone - or Something - and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

I like that. It strikes me as an extremely elegant description of a 'calling'. I sometimes wish that I had a calling; but then again part of me also likes the idea that I can do whatever I want with my life. I suppose if I did have a calling, I wouldn't regret that loss of freedom - but I'll never really know. Anyway, like I said, no great insights!

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Little Black Books

According to the Telegraph, and facebook are to unite in creating a 'Little Black Book' application, whereby users of the madly popular social networking site can search for dates. (I always suspected that the main motivation behind the social networking phenomenon is sex, and I feel that this confims my suspicions.) Apparently internet dating websites are terrified by facebook, because it threatens to be able to do what they do, better, and for free; this is their first move to fight back.

I'm in two minds about internet dating. My initial reaction is always to think, "Get a life." People managed perfectly well to get dates before the internet came along, and at least part of me sees the whole thing as yet another means by which we are coming to rely on technology far too much. I also worry that the whole thing is so deeply alienating and childish: I don't like the idea of being able to refine parameters and perform advanced searches for an 'ideal' partner - for me the whole point of dating is the element of surprise and adventure, and it kind of spoils things to be able to know all about a prospective partner from the get go (and even to be able to dismiss potential dates on the basis of their not meeting some pre-defined conditions when they might in fact be perfect for you). I suppose I see it as yet another example of how 'convenience' and technology just take so much of the fun and magic out of life. I also know that I would never have ended up engaged to Mamiko if I'd left it to internet dating. She's hardly the 'type' of woman I'd search for actively - our interests are completely different, she's four years older than me, and she's a total sadist. (Then again all women are, I suppose.) But we just happened to meet by chance and, hey presto, for some reason we're perfect for each other. By resorting to the internet, aren't people ruining their chances of that sort of meeting?

However, there is something churlish about criticising something that does apparently work for some people. Obviously internet dating has made some men and women really happy, so I shouldn't have such uncharitable thoughts. And I'm lucky enough never to have really been in a position where I've been desparate for a relationship but unable for whatever reason to get one - so who am I to judge?

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Wordless Wednesday - Why So Serious?

Life Goes On

Is it really 3 years since the Indian Ocean tsunami? I suppose it is. I mention it because at the moment the cricket world is discussing the test match currently being played between Sri Lanka and England at Galle, a city which was devastated during the disaster and where thousands of people died. This is the first time that the stadium has been used since that day in late 2004 - it has taken that long to make it serviceable again - and it almost didn't happen, because some in the cricketing fraternity thought the pitch might not hold up for the full five days. I'm happy to say that the England cricket team have acknowledged the importance of the event for the people of Galle by refusing to even entertain the notion of postponing or moving the game. This match isn't about winning or losing or even the quality of cricket; it's about bringing back normality to a place that sorely needs it.

It seems like an utterly banal point to make, when you think about it: life goes on. What isn't banal is that it shows an important characteristic of human beings (and indeed life itself) - the refusal to lay down and die, to be a victim. The show must go on. Three years on and ordinary Sri Lankans are still dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami, but they're getting there, slowly but surely. Here's to them. I hope Sri Lanka win the test.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Austrian Writer Says Something Wise

One of my favourite quotes is by Peter Handke, the Austrian writer, who once said: An advertisement tells me that life is beautiful - a personal insult.

I think that what he was getting at was that we shouldn't need advertisements to tell us that life is beautiful. We shouldn't, in fact, need advertisements to tell us anything other than that a certain product is available and it's good. But for some awful reason, advertisements (certainly in Britain, which for some reason I've never understood has the best and most artistic advertising in the world) have begun to take on a greater meaning than just "please buy this". These days the whole industry is about co-opting even the most fundamental emotions - parenthood, love, friendship - and using them to not only sell but also, horribly, to associate. The perfect example is Mastercard, whose advertisements have the brilliant, but terrifying once you think about it, tagline "There are some things in life that money can't buy: for everything else, there's Mastercard." Terrifying because the tagline usually comes at the end of a beautiful thirty-second film about parental love and affection for a child - and how sweet it is to be able to buy that love through fishing trips, new computers, and bigger toys than the other kids in class.

Anyway, I agree with Handke. Life is beautiful, at least most of the time, but to have that explained to me by an ad-man, who is really just hawking something no matter how artistically, is like a slap in the face to my very humanity.

This is part of the reason why I don't buy McDonald's food, and have been to a McDonald's restaurant maybe once in the last five years: it's because of that awful "I'm loving it" ad campaign, which sought to somehow associate hamburgers and fries with being in love, for Christ's sake. That's an even bigger personal insult than an ad man telling me that life is beautiful: an ad man telling me what it is to be in love, and by the way, isn't being in love rather like eating a hamburger with a side order of fries?

It's also the reason why I won't be buying a Playstation 3. (Well, apart from the reason that I can't afford it.) I mean, their latest ad campaign, in the name of all that's holy, has the hook: This is Living. This is Living! It's almost like a sick joke. I mean, I like playing computer games as much as the next man. But I've never once convinced myself that the hours I've spent doing it have been anything other than a grotesque waste of the short time available to me on this earth. And I don't think I'd be able to live with myself if I could convince myself of that. Yet here's Sony, telling me that, by buying a Playstation 3 and having a computer sprite under my control beat another computer sprite to death, I will be really living.

They must think we were born yesterday. What an insult. Now do you see what Handke was getting at?

Today's Thoughts

So what have I been thinking about today? (apart from the fact that I have got nothing in the way of work done, save for reading through my introductory thesis chapter and thinking about the unknotting number of knots)

Firstly, I'm quite amazed by Radio 1's decision to censor "Fairytale of New York", the famous Christmas song by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. I accept that there are a couple of lines with pretty insulting language in it - but surely, if it is insulting it was always insulting? Why, today, 2007, is it suddenly MORE insulting for a woman to call a man a "faggot" - or for a man to call a woman "an old slut on junk"? Twenty years have passed since the song was first released, and only now does Radio 1 think that it is offensive - but Radio 2 thinks that it doesn't need censoring! I really, really don't know what to make of this... Having had a look through some of the comments on the story I think this is the one that I liked the best:

"It is just an inspired song. The most intelligent and real of any Christmas pop song. Sad and romantic. Full of lost dreams and lost love. Without that line the Female voice is blameless unless you believe the man's words. With it you see that she too is to blame for the sad situation they are in."

Warren Ellis puts another thought out there on communicating ideas to people. There is such a great simplicity and elegance to it, I'm surprised that I've never seen mention of it anywhere else before. I know that at several points in the past noisms and I had talked about doing some kind of e-zine, but the "broadside" could well be used as a global one-sheet daily newspaper, something like that. Like Ellis says, the overheads are so low as to be almost non-existent. As simple but effective ideas go, it's a winner.

Empire has the new trailer for WALL-E, next year's joint best film (along with The Dark Knight), and it is just lovely. Everything that I have heard about WALL-E has made me want to go and see it, and this trailer is no exception. Funny, sweet, utterly beautiful animation and such a fantastic idea for a film - I hope that there is not a huge gap between the US and UK release dates as there seem to have been with so many Pixar films.

I finished reading A Short History of Nearly Everything on the bus this morning, and if you haven't read it I heartily recommend that you do. It just covers so much about science and the world, and the history of both - it's by no means a short book, but I'm amazed that Bill Bryson was able to get in as much as he did. It was exactly what I needed to read, as lately I've been thinking a lot about things like extinction and so on, and while it did make me sad for all of the creatures that we have destroyed I am now extremely hopeful for the continuation of life itself no matter how badly humans abuse the world around them.

Wow. That's quite maudlin. Umm.

On a positive note, I think I have found my next challenge, or rather a challenge of challenges: 101 things in 1001 days. The nature of the challenges I set myself are obviously undecided at the moment, as I only came across this today, but a sudden flash of inspiration gave me my start date - Tuesday April 22nd 2008 - 1001 days before my 30th birthday.

Any suggestions?

Monday, 17 December 2007

Unofficial Hiatus Over

I have no real idea why neither of us posted last week, it just sort of happened. Ho hum...

The undergrads have all broken up for Christmas. I think this will be a quiet sort of week. At least I'm hoping it will be! Played squash this morning (got thrashed) and am playing again tomorrow afternoon (which should be an interesting match, as for the first time I am playing against another beginner). Hoping to try and finish a chapter of my thesis by the end of the week, and put in some work on another one, but there always seem to be so many other things to do.

Not least of which is trying to figure out if I want to go into some kind of job after all this is done, or go off and travel for a bit...

Still, it's not all hard work and heartache: the first trailer for The Dark Knight came out today, and can be seen online here.

More tomorrow.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Scrabble Game #5 and more

slave, (vends, easy), waive, (tonnes, heirs), tarts, knolls, fibre, foxy, train, (ewe, te), jot, panic, hurled, (not, te)

vend, boon, heir, (em, gum), wing, burden, heap, hurl, (fe, ge), (caged, dog), yid, oar, (me, ma), pi, evict, ye, doge

Final Score:
zero_zero_one, 239
noisms, 210

It was a low scoring game last night, and though there were some interesting words that came up we both felt that the letters were being quite unkind. I think that we're both wondering whether or not "te" and "fe" really do class as two letter words, despite the fact that we have used them in a few games now. I keep meaning to find the list somewhere online for that, along with the allowed three letter words (of which there are 972 according to a funny little section in jPod - which is apparently being made into a TV series, not sure how I feel about that), but there always seem like so many things to do each day anyway...

I've felt a bit run down this week: as time has gone on I've just felt more and more tired, waking up each day just as tired as when I went to sleep the night before. Some friends have just suggested that I should try to get more sleep - but it's not like I've been purposefully trying to sleep less!

Over the last couple of days I've been thinking about starting to keep a regular diary again. I started keeping one on the day I started my Masters back in 2002, and kept it almost daily for a couple of years, filling nearly twenty A5 spiral bound books... One day I guess I just woke up and realised that I had been doing it less and less, and then just stopped completely. I don't know why, but that was just the way it was.

Anyway, over the last few days I've realised that I want to write or record my more personal thoughts in some way, in a way that a blog just doesn't seem right. For one thing, I want the anonymity for myself (and for others), but at the same time, just recently I've kind of liked the way that I'm regularly writing something that other people are reading; this has lead me to the idea of slightly fictionalising it, treating my diary as an exercise in creative writing (or even like a journal-webcomic). Keeping a diary was always a cathartic exercise, maybe this would be good for me.

All I need to do now is figure it all out. And maybe learn how to draw.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Desert Island Discs

My favourite radio show is without doubt desert island discs. (It's been on Radio 4 for about three hundred years, but it never gets old.) The premise is, of course, its genius: a 45 minute interview in which the interviewee has to choose eight songs or pieces of music to take with them to a desert island. It can't really fail, and having a sexy presenter right now is just the icing on the cake. Anyway, for no reason other than that I can, here are my current choices:

1. Promised Land by Bruce Springsteen. I love Bruce; I think he's one of the few genuinely honest performers around in that he's quite happy to go in and out of fashion and has no care for being thought of as 'cool'. This is him at his best - angsty, energetic, desperate, passionate, and optimistic, and it would be great to put on in the morning to get me up and ready to go.

2. Jupiter: The Bringer of Joy - Holst, from The Planets. Just because it does exactly that - brings joy. Even though the famous march has been reduced almost to cliche by endless reproduction, in its original context it's still enough to make the hairs stand up on my neck and make me want to stand up and say, "Yes! I'm glad I'm alive!"

3. Cherub Rock - The Smashing Pumpkins. Probably my favourite band, so it's hard to choose just one song by them. I think this is them at their best, and a sort of microcosm of their ouevre. Rocky, proggy, grungy, and you can hear all the elements of what made them the most musically accomplished outfit of their era - Billy Corgan's genius for composition, James Iha's crazy guitar, and Jimmy Chamberlain's brilliance on the drums: so brilliant he makes all other drummers seem like guys just hitting things with sticks.

4. The Rite of Spring - Stravinsky. I've written about this one before. I think it's at the absolute zenith of Western art - the very point at which beauty stopped being the ultimate purpose and it started to become fundamentally about navel-gazing, politics and grandstanding instead. This ballet was just on the right side of that divide.

5. The Hook - Steven Malkmus. Any song that begins with the line at age 19 I was kidnapped by Turkish pirates is a fair bet to be a success with me. I think Steven Malkmus is vastly under-rated. His music manages to be both funny and touching, and his lyrics would stand on their own just as poems. Ever since Pavement split up he's gone from strength to strength.

6. Superunknown - Soundgarden. This just reminds me of being a teenager. I used to listen to songs like this and think, yes, there is more to life than growing up, getting a job, living in suburban boredom, and growing old. Some people out there are trying to create something, and are passionate about it. Of course in this case partly they were being passionate about taking heroin. But mostly it was about good rock music.

7. Flamingo Sketches - Miles Davis. I couldn't overlook Miles Davis. What can you say about music like this? Nothing.

8. Slip Slidin' Away - Paul Simon. Just a great song about what it is to be alive, and I love the ambition of that aim. To try and say something with meaning, a sort of elegy for life.

Even looking back over the list I find myself thinking what an idiot I am. No Marvin Gaye? No Leonard Cohen? No Smiths? No Beatles? No Bob Dylan? No Supremes? No Temptations? No Ben Folds Five? Some of my absolute favourites are missing, dammit.

I could rewrite it all over again tomorrow, and every day for the rest of my life, probably.

Naughty Americans

British people really do love to have a good whinge about America. I was thinking about this today while listening to a radio debate between Shami Chakrabarti, leader of the pro-civil-liberties lobby group Liberty, and an American legal expert, over the question of rendition of suspects. Apparently in a recent case before the Supreme Court, it has been ruled that even if a criminal suspect has been brought to the US illegally from another country (i. e., outside the ordinary extradition procedures), then setting aside the question of the legality of the seizure or otherwise, they can be tried before a US court.

Needless to say, Chakrabarti was vigorously opposed to this decision. She used the hoary old liberal chestnut that, in a democratic society, the rule of law is vitally important and if compromised by the government for any reason in any small manner, then tyranny and dictatorship follow. Most of the people who phoned in afterwards agreed with her. They saw it as yet another example of America riding roughshod over freedom and liberty, bullying the rest of the world, and ignoring international law. (They also mostly completely misinterpreted the whole thing to mean, 'George Bush is now going to go around kidnapping whoever he likes and having them stand trial!' as you would expect.)

As is often the case, I always want to ask Chakrabarti-ist liberals what they would have liked the alternative to have been in a case like that of Eichmann, who as you probably know was kidnapped by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires in 1960 and taken to Israel to face trial. In that case, Israel technically violated a long-established customary rule of international law - that of State sovereignty - but very few people would argue that it wasn't justified. Eichmann was not the type of man the world could continue to allow to escape justice, and even if Israel should technically not have kidnapped him, the fact remained that he ought to have been tried - and would not if he had been allowed to remain in Argentina.

I would submit that 'the rule of law' is often bandied about by liberals as the cornerstone of society, but that the law is in the end only a means by which justice is served. In Eichmann's case justice demanded that a certain law be broken, and if on occasion the US judiciary is faced with the decision of whether or not to try a dangerous criminal based on a possible illegality in his or her seizure, I would applaud its decision to go ahead with a trial.

British readers will remember Ronny Biggs, a man involved in one of the most famous crimes in post-war Britain - The Great Train Robbery. Biggs was responsible for the theft of a huge amount of money and was at the very least an accomplice to murder, but because he managed to flee to Brazil he never faced the punishment that he should have. He lived free to a ripe old age. I call that madness - but what is madder still is that, if Ms. Chakrabarti had her way, if Biggs had somehow ended up back in the UK circa 1970 without being properly extradited, it would have been wrong to try him. That is liberty at the expense of common sense.

In any case, I sincerely doubt that any court in any country in the world would act in a different way to the US Supreme Court in this matter, so the rest of us can hardly point the finger at Washington. People do, though - because nothing beats a good Thursday lunchtime grip about evil old Uncle Sam.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Ghosts and Ghoulies

I had a conversation about ghosts with my sister the other night. She has this idea, you see, that she has a bit of a sixth sense; she's somehow more attuned to the supernatural than most.

I never know what to say about this topic, because I'm totally conflicted about it: it's the place where, for me, reason and experience collide. That is to say, I'm sure that there are rational explanations for just about every ghost sighting that there has ever been; tricks of the light, flaws of memory, hoaxes and hallucinations can do amazing things to people's credulity. The fact that most supernatural activity seems to happen at night without witnesses always stands it in bad stead. I know all that.

And yet, twice in my life I've been convinced that I've seen, if not ghosts, then things that can't be completely rationally accounted for.

The first time was when Mamiko had this old apartment in Tokyo, which I used to visit every Tuesday night because Wednesday was her only day off. It was a tiny place in a rickety old building, with a long street of dodgy bars, strip clubs and 'hostess' pubs outside, so I always had trouble sleeping in it until the day I started buying 99 yen ear plugs. One night I was lying in bed tossing and turning, listening to drunks singing outside and trying to chat up the hostesses, and sleep was coming even later than usual. It got to 2am, then 3am, then 4am, and every half an hour I'd get up and move about, sometimes trying to sleep on the sofa, sometimes getting a glass of milk, while listening to my girlfriend happily slumbering away. (Can there be any stranger feeling, by the way, than the mixture of emotions you get when you can't sleep but your SO can? Half of you is desparate not to make any movement at all lest it wake them up, but the other half of you is consumed with jealousy that they can be so contented while you're so miserable.)

Anyway, at about 4.30am I was lying on my side facing away from the door, when I felt a hand touch my shoulder. It lay there for a second, then seemed to grab and shake my upper arm. I vividly remember looking up and seeing a grey figure standing next to the bed, looking down at me and lowering its head as if peering into my face. I immediately lashed out with my arm and sat up, and felt a brief flash of coldness in my hand before the figure disappeared - not by vanishing but by dashing out of the room and into the kitchen.

I got up and went into the kitchen and there was nobody there. I then spent the rest of the night checking all the windows and the front door, and waiting for dawn.

The second time was when I had recently arrived in Japan, and was sort-of seeing a girl we'll call T. Together with her friends we went to a large cemetery in Aoyama, a posh part of central Tokyo, to drink under cherry blossom trees. (That isn't as weird as it sounds - Aoyama cemetery is one of the best places in Tokyo for cherry blossoms, and in spring the place fills up with drunken picknickers from noon till midnight.) We stayed there for most of the night, and at one stage T and I sneaked off to fool around a little. We found a place behind a large family grave, but we weren't there for longer than five seconds before we simultaneously noticed that there was something else there with us.

It was a green globe of light, about the size of a football, floating perhaps three metres off the ground above the grave. We watched it for ten minutes, moving this way and that, before T saw others in the distance over other graves, hovering in the moonlight. It was indescribably eerie.

Now, I know that both of these incidents are suspect. In the first, I hadn't slept well and might have been drinking the night before (I can't remember exactly) and that could well have caused my mind to play tricks on me. In the second, T and I were both drunk, it was at night, and there might even be some scientific explanation for what we saw - St Elmo's Fire or Will 'O the Wisps or some such.

I know all that. But still. I know what sleeplessness is, and what hallucinations it can cause, but that grey figure is still so vivid in my mind that it's hard to explain away as a brain fart. And we might have been drinking, but both T and I saw exactly the same things in Aoyama cemetery that night, and T even has some photos she took and which show we weren't hallucinating. So what was it?

As I said, I'm conflicted. My head tells me one thing, but I'm unsure whether to believe it. I suppose sometimes you just can't square experience with logic.

Scrabble and TV

Played two games of Scrabble with noisms last night whilst watching the amazing Monday night line up on BBC2. I might say more on that later, but first the games!

Game #3
jap, dig, kith, cub, via, vale, cubic, web, (sole, go), hex, reef, (four, no), zed, (don, do), (alp, pa), (ho, no), (do, tot)

parish, (jape, rouge), aide, area, aviary, (boss, go, japes), jib, meow, (tuna, am), feint, gift, hexed, minuet, trysts, qi, (news, as), (li, in)

Final score:
noisms, 262
zero_zero_one, 273

Woohoo! I managed to pick up a small lead about a third of the way through the game (playing 'boss' whilst allowing 'go' and 'japes' at the same time), and just held on to it all the way. Sadly, my Scrabble prowess did not last...

Game #4
fez, dewy, (yobs, sow), jet, lines, axle, (our, um, re), (omit, me), aide, lash, any, fie, (poof, to, if), pub, (gas, scart), oak, si

fever, yob, (jilted, ed), solved, melt, (cost, smelt), pie, cart, laden, nand, dirge, (crag, are, rum), tonne, bane, (ta, aura), (phi, gi), ow

Final score:
noisms, 273
zero_zero_one, 232

noisms had the lead for the whole game here, right from the first word. Sigh... Next time, noisms, next time!

I very rarely watch TV any more, there are a select few programmes that I always try to watch (usually just Heroes and Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares), but yesterday we watched the Monday evening line up on BBC2, which is a mix of quiz shows like Mastermind and University Challenge, comedy and current affairs from Have I Got News For You, business and reality TV (kind of) in Dragon's Den and a wildlife show on the cane toad narrated by David Attenborough. Something for everyone really.

The highlight for me, and the programme that made us laugh more than any other, was Nigella Express, in which Nigella Lawson gives recipes and tips for hosting a party. It was absolutely outrageous. Nigella Lawson, for those not in the know, is a British woman who, after various careers in media, has settled on cookery programmes. What is most incredible about her shows is her presentation style: she blatantly flirts with the camera and quite literally everything she says has a coy, flirtatious undertone. It makes for pretty funny television, and while I'm sure her three million books have been sold to mostly women, I imagine that her show is watched by mostly men...

Monday, 3 December 2007

This Is The News

Bit of a scattershot post today; have just decided to down tools for the day, having written more than the three pages that I had told myself I had to do today. So far this goal-setting approach is reaping rewards: I'm hoping that by the end of the week I will have a first draft of my background material chapter for my thesis. I'll then compare it to the background material chapters of my supervisors last couple of students and make some changes from that I think. All of the results I'm quoting are necessary for what I'm doing, but perhaps there are better ways of doing it than how I am. Still, I want to put my own stamp on my thesis, and even in this introductory chapter I want to show my way of thinking as well as showing some cool results that others have obtained.

I have some news stories and other tidbits to give you today. The first is truly astonishing: apparently I inspired somebody (one of our commenters matt) to spend the month writing a haiku a day (click here and look in the journal box - you can't see any of the other journal entries unless you are a member of RvB)! I'm not sure that anyone has ever acknowledged me as an inspiration before, but let me tell you it's long overdue after all the cool things I've said and done over the years.

[/lack of humility]

Good luck matt, I'll be watching your progress with interest.

A news story that has caught my eye this afternoon has been about the memory of chimps. Apparently young chimpanzees have an astonishing photographic memory, better than university students apparently (although the article does not go into the details of the students' background or academic ability). The speeds with which the chimps in the study were grasping this information was truly astonishing:

"The shortest time duration, 210 milliseconds, did not leave enough time for the subjects to explore the screen by eye movement - something we do all the time when we read. This is evidence, the researchers believe, that young chimps have a photographic memory which allows them to memorise a complex scene or pattern at a glance. This is sometimes present in human children but declines with age, they say. 'Young chimpanzees have a better memory than human adults,' Dr Matsuzawa told BBC News." (my emphasis)

Ah, to be a chimp...

Another interesting news story (also from BBC News) was that of a dinosaur whose tissues had also been fossilised along with its skeleton. I got very excited when I read this, and instantly thought "Jurassic Park!" before I was brought back to reality with a bump. If I understand the article correctly, the tissues themselves hadn't been preserved but had turned to stone. This is all quite interesting, but still means that I won't be able to take my kids out riding on a hadrosaur...

Not much else in the way of news today. I finally started my Christmas shopping at the weekend. Quite a few international parcels to send, so need to try and get those sorted out this week. Hoping to write three pages for my thesis every day this week...

More soon.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Scrabble Game #2

teeny, grope, glute, sauce, hike, warm, denim, undo, jig, quiver, dozy, yon, mead, {vie, er}, {ore, er}

epoxy, target, head, car, ollied, panic, {win, gluten}, {scar, swarm}, {tax, te, an}, solar, trial, habit, beams, buffs, rite

Final score:
noisms, 291
zero_zero_one, 238

Once again, I am defeated by noisms... We were pretty even for the first half of the game. The turning point was the play of "quiver" followed by "dozy" that noisms made. "Quiver" had the "q" on a triple letter score, and "dozy" was on a double word score. I never really recovered after that... Sigh.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Free Rice

Just a quick post today. I decided to approach my thesis in a similar way to my National Novel Writing Month novel, and told myself that I had to increase my page count by six pages today, set myself a strict target. On five pages, and just started the sixth. Would be even more but I just don't feel like drawing diagrams today, so am stuck with working on text and maths.

(note: of course, the obvious distinction with the challenge of National Novel Writing Month is that I am trying to keep the quality of my writing high with writing my thesis)

Today all I want to publicise is a website called FreeRice, where rice is donated based on your knowledge of vocabulary (in this case, your knowledge of the meaning of a word). For every word you get right they donate 20 grains of rice through the United Nations World Food Program. Doesn't sound like much, right? In ten minutes I had "earned" nearly 2000 grains of rice, which according to a quick Google by my officemate is between 52 and 56 grams. That still doesn't sound like much...

The site does a daily combined total, tracking how much has been donated. The total for yesterday was close to 400 million grains of rice. If my sums are right, then even if 52 grams for 2000 grains is correct the total donated for yesterday is in the region of 10 thousand kilograms (or 22 thousand pounds for you non-metrics).

Much more is needed to help defeat the problem of hunger around the world, but this is something.

Putting Oneself Through Hell

In two weeks time I'm going to ask Mamiko's dad for his daughter's hand in marriage. When I proposed, about a year ago, she thought it would be best to just let him know then, but for some reason I decided it would be best to do it properly, meet the old guy face-to-face, and perform The Ritual. (In Japan, traditionally, a woman's young swain is supposed to approach the father, bow down, and ask if he can marry the daughter. He is then told to, basically, fuck off. He then has to leave the house and come back later, whereupon this time his proposal will be accepted.)

Now part of me is beginning to curse that decision. Why did I think it was a good idea? With each passing day I get more and more terrified. I don't know why, you see, but Mamiko's dad is scary.

Okay, I'm lying, I do know why he's scary. Partly it's because he's the foreman of an entire fishing port, which gives him this sense of authority and confidence which leaves the position of 'alpha male' in no dispute. Partly it's because he barely every speaks, but spends most of the time glaring moodily at people. Partly it's because girlfriends' dads are just innately a little frightening - I always worry that, at any second, they're going to accuse me of being a feckless young layabout who's tempting their darling daughter into a life of penury and unhappiness - before gathering their mates together into a lynch mob and running me out of town.

But mostly it's because he has a black belt in judo, and could probably dislocate my spine or something with just a flick of the wrist. That's the kind of guy you shouldn't do anything to piss off.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

On Annie Hall

Last night whilst playing Scrabble, noisms and I watched Annie Hall, which is my favourite Woody Allen film, and the more I've thought about it today, the more I wonder if it really is "perfect" in some sense. From start to finish, nothing that happens seems out of place, or unbelievable, but maybe this is because Alvy Singer starts the film by breaking the fourth wall.

I love the opening address that he gives the camera, and I was quite amazed to see that it is on Youtube (but then I thought, of course it's on YouTube, what isn't?).

I just showed one of my officemates that clip, and he didn't laugh at the "two old ladies" joke. Not at all. He just stood there. He said he didn't get it. I'm wondering if there is something wrong with him. The punchline for that just kills me, kills me every time.

Another great moment is when he is in line at the movies, and the boorish guy behind him is giving his opinions, and then Alvy starts to talk to the camera about him. The guy overhears and tries to defend himself, and then Alvy ends the discussion by bringing out a critic who tells the man, "You know nothing of my work." The boor and the critic look at each other, and Alvy looks at the camera and sort of shrugs, and ends the scene saying, "If only life were more like this."


Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Scrabble Game #1

wined, cornered, slum, ace, median, mope, vine, after, van, art, race, dough, pin, nab, rafter

wail, it, li, tilt, entwined, yays, my, fines, finesse, bee, wove, house, axe, hip, jut, gazer, gut, grace, kite

Final Score:
zero_zero_one, 272
noisms, 299

I got a fifty point bonus on my second turn, and kept a good lead for a while... And then it all started to go wrong... Sigh. Next time noisms, next time!

EDIT: I meant to say, those words were not recorded in order. My phone doesn't have a camera, otherwise I would have taken a picture of the board afterwards. We played a "speed Scrabble" game afterwards with a strict 30 second time limit for each turn, which I won but was much less satisfying as a game.


As of about 8:30pm last night I am a two-time winner of National Novel Writing Month. It's a good feeling, and yet for some reason this year I feel less satisfied with the end result. I think, in some ways, it's because I went in to it this year with more expectations on myself. Last year wasn't easy, but I went in to it with just one idea really and everything else came out over the course of the month. While that was true to an extent this time, there was a lot more in the way of stylistic things that I wanted to include and so when I felt like I wasn't getting that right it kind of got be down a little.

Still, I figured out the ending that I wanted, and how to get there, and I didn't have to call on the zombies or the dream sequence once in the whole month! I'm debating whether or not to put the rough (and oh my goodness is it rough...) manuscript online, but I think I will leave it for a day or two, sleep on it for a bit before deciding one way or the other.

Trying to decide on my next artistic challenge. Matt has made me realise that perhaps 1000 haiku in a month is a bit on the extreme side (though from a purely quantitative point of view it is nothing next to NaNoWriMo). I'm tempted to do a 24 Hour Comic. Script Frenzy is something I will do next year provided that I am free. In the mean time I think I am going to try and get in on lolsecretz, just for a bit of fun.

I was going to go and see the re-release of Blade Runner tonight, but my friend cancelled, so I'm playing Scrabble with noisms again (so no challenge there then, haha).

More soon!

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

American Hero

I've just finished reading In the Lake of the Woods, a novel by Tim O'Brien, better known for his Pulitzer-nominated The Things They Carried. It's a great book, by the way - a definite recommend. But incidental to that, I did some research into the My Lai Massacre, an event we studied in GCSE History when I was 15, and which plays an important role in the book. As part of that research I came across the figure of Hugh Thompson Jr., a man I'd never heard of before, but who for one day, in the face of mankind at its most brutal and grotesque, stood out for the qualities of honour, integrity and compassion, and who I think can honestly be labelled a true hero.

Thompson was a helicopter pilot who arrived at My Lai when the massacre was almost over. (For those who don't know about it in detail, the event took place on March 16, 1968, when men of a US Army company collectively murdered somewhere between 300 and 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children.) He immediately began doing what he could to help the victims. From Wikipedia:

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., a 24-year-old helicopter pilot from an aero-scout team, witnessed a large number of dead and dying civilians as he began flying over the village - all of them infants, children, women and old men, with no signs of draft-age men or weapons anywhere. He and his crew witnessed an unarmed passive woman kicked and shot at point-blank range by Captain Medina (Medina later claimed that he thought she had a grenade.) The crew made several attempts to radio for help for the wounded. They landed their helicopter by a ditch, which they noted was full of bodies and in which there was movement. Thompson asked a Sergeant he encountered there if the Sergeant could help get the people out of the ditch, and the Sergeant replied that he would "help them out of their misery". Thompson was shocked and confused but took it as some kind of a joke. The helicopter took off - then one of the crew said "My God, he's firing into the ditch".

Thompson then saw a group of civilians (again consisting of children, women and old men) at a bunker being approached by ground personnel. He landed and told his crew that if the U.S. soldiers shot at the Vietnamese while he was trying to get them out of the bunker that they were to open fire at these soldiers. Thompson later testified that he spoke with a Lieutenant and told him there were women and children in the bunker, and asked if the Lieutenant would help get them out. According to Thompson, "he [the Lieutenant] said the only way to get them out was with a hand grenade". Thompson testified he then told [the man] to "just hold your men right where they are, and I'll get the kids out". He found 12-16 people in the bunker, coaxed them out and led them to the helicopter, standing with them while they were flown out in two groups.

Returning to My Lai, he and other air crew noticed several large groups of bodies. Spotting some survivors in the ditch he landed again and one of the crew entered the ditch and returned with a bloodied but apparently unharmed child who was flown to safety. The child was thought to be a boy, but later investigation found that it was a 4 year old girl. Thompson then reported what he had seen to his company commander, Major Watke, using terms such as "murder" and "needless and unnecessary killings". His reports were confirmed by other pilots and air crew.

One of his crew, Lawrence Colburn, later recalled the dialogue between Thompson and the Lieutenant (sometimes identified as a Mr. Calley, at other times a Mr. Brooks) as follows:

Thompson: Let's get these people out of this bunker and get 'em out of here.

Brooks: We'll get 'em out with hand grenades.

Thompson: I can do better than that. Keep your people in place. My guns are on you.

How perfect a reply - one is tempted to call it noble even: I can do better than that. The measure of the man, you might say. Willing to risk his own life, and to risk being responsible for the killing of men on his own side, in order to save those who were innocent - in order to do better than all the other soldiers around him.

The truly apalling thing, of course, is that it fell to this 24-year-old junior officer (inferior in rank to the Army Lieutenants who were responsible for the massacre) to do anything decent at all that day. We'd all probably like to assume that, put in his position or one similar, we would be brave, sensible and good enough to do the same thing. However, given that he was the only one out of over a hundred perpetrators and witnesses to do anything significant to stop the massacre, the horrible truth is that the chances are not high that any given one of us would.

I know quite a bit about humanitarian law - that is, the laws regulating armed conflict - certainly enough to have an awareness of how rare and heroic people like Thompson are. Men who find themselves caught up in such events most commonly either blindly obey orders or, at best, remain passive bystanders. The annals of war criminal case law are testimony to it. I can do better than that is a motto that I think ought to be more widely followed; the unfortunate fact is that more often people are content with I can't do anything about this or, worse, Best to just go with the flow.

It's a corny way to finish this entry, perhaps, but I'll say it anyway: think about the implications of Thompson's story, and examine how you usually behave when you see something happening that shouldn't be. I certainly have today, while reading about him, and will continue to.

Here We Go Again

It's in the news again today: Israel-Palestine peace talks. So Channel 4 News naturally seized the opportunity with both hands to make an in-depth report into how evil Israel is last night. It's amazing that a major, well respected source like that can get away with such plainly biased reporting. But then again most aspects of modern journalism are completely baffling to me.

Anyway, that isn't what I wanted to talk about. What I really wanted to talk about was the saddest aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict: namely the fact that ordinary Palestinians are as much victims of their own leaders as they are Israel's - and probably much more so. The Gaza situation at the moment is the classic example: all Hamas has to do is to recognise that Israel has a right to exist in peace, and then the people of Gaza can have normal lives again. But they won't, and keep clinging obstinately to their pledge that the Jews should be kicked out of the Middle East by the most violent means available. No matter that this goal will never be achieved and their sheer bloodymindedness is hurting the innocent people they're supposed to be protecting. (This is, of course, to leave aside Israel's own behaviour.)

This cycle - whereby Palestinian and Arab leaders routinely abuse the civilian population of Palestine, but never get the blame for it - has a long history. Back in 1948, of course, there could have been an independent Palestine, if only the Arab countries nearby hadn't tried to destroy Israel and hadn't then gobbled up what should have been the new Palestinian state for themselves. In 2000 Yasser Arafat threw away the chance for peace and walked out of negotiations when he refused an offer from Israel without even making a reply, an event which effectively launched the Second Intifada. The terrible conditions in which most Palestinians live are mostly the result of the neglect shown by the Egyptian and Jordanian governments when the refugee camps were first set up in Gaza and the West Bank after 1948. Then, of course, there is the common practice by Hamas of launching rocket attacks against Israel from the most densely populated areas of the strip, using their own civilians as human shields.

So much of the current suffering is down to poor leadership. But the enemy is only ever Israel. Of course, Israel has treated ordinary Palestinians grossly unfairly. But life for them would have been so much different if they had been blessed with a set of leaders who didn't use them as political pawns and who had their best interests at heart.

Monday, 26 November 2007

False Advertising

There's a new poster up on the Liverpool Loop Line for "Hearts On Fire" diamonds. I've not heard of them before, but based on their posters they must be *really* good.

The standout feature of the poster is the slogan "(monogamy)^100" - you see, Hearts On Fire diamonds are cut at 100 times magnification and are "the most perfect cut diamonds in the world." In the background are a slightly blurred but obviously happy couple.

It's great - they're monogamous, no affairs on either part because HE bought HER a Hearts On Fire diamond (set in a ring I'm guessing)! Wow! All because they use a superior magnification to cut their diamonds... But wait, some pesky thoughts are getting in the way of my enjoyment:

#1: why do they both stay faithful because of him buying her a diamond? Does she have to get him a set of Hearts On Fire cufflinks to ensure his fidelity?

#2: will the follow up poster show what happens if you buy Brand X diamonds, i.e., a messy and painful divorce since Brand X just doesn't have enough "monogamosity" in their diamonds?

#3: "(monogamy)^100"????? Seriously, what is the world coming to?

EDIT: Here's their website...

Last Days

The end of NaNoWriMo is in sight: fourteen chapters and 47,500 words done. I was originally aiming for seventeen chapters due to some kind of theme that I was running with, but I've got a point and I really don't know how I would fill three more chapters (or at least fill them with the sense of pace that I think I need), and so I have decided, "Oh well, this is what rewriting is for, if I ever decide to rewrite it," and so I have two chapters left to do.

I'm hoping that I will get the penultimate chapter written tonight, and then the last chapter done tomorrow - if I do, as a reward for myself I'm going to go and see Blade Runner: The Final Cut at FACT on Wednesday night.

This will be my second year of real NaNoWriMo success, as it will be the second time I have reached the fifty thousand word mark and completed the story. I don't know if I have really learned anything new in the process. In some ways I like last year's novel better than this year's, it felt like something really personal and like something I needed to get out of me last year, whereas this year it was more to show myself that last year wasn't a fluke.

Last year I was completely focused on writing my story about the relationship between Billy (a regular guy) and Erin (a dream), and what happened when Erin left the universe of dreams to escape from Lord Malice, the Prince of Nightmares. Even though at the start I had no idea of the ending, I was totally hooked on writing the story, and knew that it would all tie together.

This year, I kind of had some ideas in place, but all along I have had to fight off other ideas for other stories that have been coming in (most involve a story/novel whose front cover would be like a poster for a band, with the tagline "Post-Apocalypse. Post-Human. Post-Punk." I don't know what it means, but it means something); one NaNoWriMo school of thought is that you should just include everything no matter what, but as rough as my novel might be I want it to make some kind of sense...

Still. Almost done. What next? I've thought about doing 24 Hour Comic Day at some point, and I was too busy to do Script Frenzy! this year, but who knows, maybe next year... We could start our own writing/creative challenge...

Anyone fancy writing a thousand haiku in December?


It's funny. I really don't find supermodels attractive. And I'm not just saying that to try to appear like a 'new man'. I just think there's a point at which being beautiful becomes something ugly in itself; we can picture beauty as a circle, where if you follow the curve too far around it lurches back into unattractiveness. Most supermodels cross that barrier - their height becomes clumsy looking, their slenderness becomes skinny, their body lines ungainly.

It's a bit like Eddie Izzard's idea of the circle of coolness. At the beginning, there is 'looking like a dickhead', and as you follow the circle round the coolness increases...until finally it reaches the end of the circle and goes back to 'looking like a dickhead' again.

Quite a few fashions have crossed the barrier between uber-cool and looking-like-a-dickhead. Baggy jeans sliding halfway down the backside, for instance.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Weekend Noveling #1

It's almost 6pm. Yesterday evening I didn't get any writing done. I went with mum to visit my nan at the care home (we didn't stay long, she kept falling asleep) and then on to do the grocery shopping. As an early Christmas present I got a coat that will hopefully prove warmer than the jacket that I've been wearing. Was 10:30 when we got back with the shopping. I had been up early to play badminton (lost two games to one, all pretty close) and was knackered so called it a night.

Lie in this morning then on to writing. Wrote a chapter, had a late lunch and a break, then sat down to write another chapter. Twelve chapters done, five remain.

I had an idea for a kind of structure to it when I started, but as time's gone on it has been something more that I've stuck to because that was the idea I had than because it really meant something important. It means something, but I don't know what exactly.

(What do you expect from someone trying to write a novel in a month?)

Anyway, I'm on 42 thousand words now, and I'm going to try and get another chapter started tonight, if not written outright. If I push myself similarly tomorrow then I'll hopefully get another two chapters done, and then I'll just have two to do, hopefully one a day on Monday and Tuesday. I know how things end, and I think I also know a couple of things that have to happen before the end. There's a big empty patch of plot in the middle three chapters though, and I'm hoping that I don't have to push the 'dream sequence' button to fill some pages...

More tomorrow.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Green Team

Time to go home... This weekend I probably need to write five chapters so that I will finish the novel by next Thursday. I'm kind of on track to get the word count, but I think that the finished seventeen chapters will be somewhere in the region of 55 to 60 thousand words, so I need to try and get chapters done rather than words in some sense. The next two chapters are fine, and the chapter after that has some sort of structure in my head...

...and then there is a gap until the second half of the final chapter. I know how it ends, I just have to figure out how we get there.

So I'd best be getting home and writing! I leave you with a new short film starring one of the funniest men in the world (in my opinion), Mr Will Ferrell.

Have a good weekend, maybe I'll update from my phone.

Food is for Eating

I'll be going back to Japan in three weeks' time, and let me tell you, my mouth is already watering at the prospect of again being able to eat out at truly great, cheap restaurants every night of the week.

I think people are aware that the Japanese have a distinct cuisine and that they like their fish, but that's mostly where knowledge ends. Well, it's much, much more than that: eating out is the national religion in Japan, and restaurants are its churches. There truly has never been a race of people on planet earth with collectively as much passion, interest and desire for good food. From French haute cuisine to native seasonal delicacies to South-East Asian fusion to Nepali curry to West-African barbeques, Japan has it all and has it consistently better than anywhere else.

It's great to see this finally being acknowledged. I remember reading once that whereas London has around 10,000 restaurants and New York something like 40,000, in Tokyo there are 160,000 - and Tokyo's vast superiority over any comparable city has been confirmed by its first ever Michelin guide, which has found 191 Tokyo eateries to be deserving of a Michelin star. This compares to 97 in Paris, 54 in New York, and 50 in London. I'm surprised it isn't even more.

My favourite restaurant in Tokyo is a little place near Mamiko's old apartment called gayagaya, which has the best clam soup in the whole world, thick with garlic and butter that coats the inside of your mouth. That's where I'll be in a few weeks, sipping my warm sake and eating my clams, hopefully while a smattering of snow falls outside. Then I'll be writing to the Michelin people that they missed a trick when they walked past that place.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007


One thing that annoys me about being politically conscious or aware in British (and probably Western) society is that there are basically only two 'packages', sort of like different set menus in a Chinese restaurant, with everybody subscribing to one or the other. So, either you read the Guardian, like contemporary art, are pro-choice, pro-Palestinian, anti-Iraq war, vote Labour or Lib Dem if at all, care strongly about climate change and organic foods, put faith in Big Government, and believe immigration is to be welcomed. Or else you read the Telegraph, vote Tory, are skeptical about climate-change, hate the EU, worry about crime and pensions, want to see less tax, mistrust Government generally, are dubious about the benefits of immigration, and use the phrase, "Not in my day!" quite a lot.

I hate this, because I've always believed in a common sense approach to politics: believe what you think is right, not just what has been decided for you by the political ground you have chosen for yourself. What especially irks me is that because I have strong beliefs which are on either side of the left-right divide, there is basically no home for me in either half and I tend to be castigated by those on both sides.

See, I'm quite strongly pro-life, and very strongly pro-Israel, which basically makes it impossible for me to associate myself with the Left in Britain, who if anything these days define themselves less by their stance on labour relations and more by being "feminist" (in their own eyes) and anti-Zionist. But on the other hand, I'm extremely dubious about the claims of libertarians and anti-EU types, am broadly pro-immigration, and have rather authoritarian views on a lot of issues - all of which prevent me from becoming a card-carrying Conservative.

So what am I? I'm someone who has his own opinions. Unfortunately, there is no party for people like me in the UK - nor in any country whose politics I know much about.


I'm just about to finish for the day, and have to leave in about ten minutes because I'm going to see 30 Days Of Night. Tomorrow I'll say something about how the NaNoWriMo novel is going on, but there were three things that I just had to share today.

Firstly, I'm really happy to say that Bilbo has given us a "Blogging that hits the mark" award! I suspect that this is more for noisms many insightful thoughts (rather than my comments about Portal or The Matrix: The Pantomime) but I'm not one to not take advantage of reflected glory. Thank you Bilbo!
The next thing is to mention that I saw the most bizarre train station promotional campaign ever yesterday, in which a person in a giant nose outfit was handing out packs of tissues and Beechams cold remedy. I had trouble figuring out what it was for a minute, and for a split second I thought that perhaps a dream of mine was intruding on my waking life.

Finally, on the way home I was sat at the platform when a girl in her mid-teens came up to me, put her face right in mine and said, "Do I smell of ale? My friend says I do, and it's my birthday, so I've had a drink but I've got to go home now and she says I smell of ale, so do I?" (that pretty much is word for word what she said to me)

I lied and said no.

More cheerful things tomorrow.

Monday, 19 November 2007

There's A Hole In The Sky...

Well, the conference in Edinburgh was OK I guess, but I got the overall impression that the four invited speakers were just having some kind of conversation between themselves at times. There is no way that their talks could be realistically understood by people like myself who are new to the subject. Given that it was given the title of being a "workshop" it's a little disappointing that such a high level of prior knowledge was assumed.

Ah well, at least I got to spend some time with my friend, had my first taste of Indian cuisine and saw the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. I watched The Illusionist (which was better than I thought it would be), wrote a little of my novel on the way up and played a few games of Scrabble.

And I also played Portal for the first time. I was talking to my friend's housemate and I mentioned to him that I had wanted to play that for a bit, and he said, "Well, I'll go fire the computer up then."

Half an hour later I had a big silly smile on my face, and that night I had bizarre dreams of jumping around on platforms suspended over a partially deserted/abandoned city, chasing people who were in front of me and who never turned around. (slightly sinister was the feeling that I didn't want them to turn and face me, as if there was something "wrong" about them)

I'll leave you with the trailer for Portal, and hopefully, even if you're not that into games, you will appreciate why it is such an exciting game conceptually.

Normal service will resume tomorrow. Now I have to go home and mark about forty homeworks and then plot out the second half of my NaNoWriMo novel...

Girls and Boys (II)

Let me tell you three things that I've discovered happen to a man after he starts living with a woman.

1. His tee-shirts and shirts are no longer his own property. They're on loan to him to wear when he's out shopping or at work, of course, but they're always ready to be recalled at a moment's notice and used for pajamas by his woman. He doesn't mind this so much, because women look so sexy in men's shirts and tee-shirts. But he just wishes she would ask before taking them, especially when it's an Armani shirt that he was planning to wear for an important meeting the next day and now it's all wrinkled and smells of girls.

2. When he's ordering food in a cafe, he always has to stay one step ahead of the game. For when a woman says, "No, I don't want anything big, just a salad," what she's really saying is "I do want something more than a salad, but I don't want to feel like I am, so I'll surruptitiously take half of whatever you order." Stay one step ahead of the game: he should always order a portion larger than he really wants, so then he can watch his fries and onion rings disappearing from his plate and into her mouth and know that at least he's still got enough left to fill himself up.

3. He can no longer peacefully slumber in his bed like he always used to, free from constraint and at a temperature of his own choosing. No, now he has to snuggle. He's obligated to do it by an unwritten and unspoken understanding between the males and females of our species. No matter where he goes underneath the covers, there is no escape from the hugging and holding. He never gets used to it. Instead, every night he stays awake until she's asleep and then carefully extricates himself so he can find the space he craves.

He puts up with these things because women are such beguiling and delightful creatures, and because they have breasts. And over it becomes easier to bear because he starts to forget a time when he actually did own his own clothes, when he was entitled to full portions, and when he had the run of his own bed. At that point all of his friends can see that the light has died in his eyes, and they're too sad to even make fun of him anymore. Probably because they're in the same position themselves.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Freedom of Blah (II)

I have a hard time getting worked up about civil liberties. They're the talk of the town at the moment in British public life, mainly because of two things: the government is planning to issue ID cards to all legal UK residents; and there are calls for extending the time limit for detention of terror suspects without charge from 28 days to 56.

What's wrong with me? On the face of it, these are the exact things that somebody with my political views and background should be campaigning stridently against. But I just can't, no matter how hard I try, see what the fuss is all about.

I think it all stems from the peculiar way that human rights in the West are conceptualised. In the visions of Locke, Rousseau, Paine and Hobbes that our societies are based on, the State is seen as the great danger in society - the monolithic institution that will crush individual autonomy and deny our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This leads to a vision of 'human rights' as fundamentally about protecting individual liberties - especially freedom of speech, the right to privacy, and the right to be innocent until proven guilty.

In Japan, people just don't have that view about human rights. There, rights are about the good of the community - they are conceptualised as the framework by which society's safety is ensured. In other words, the majority of people have the right not to be put in danger from terrorists, to be the victims of crime, or to be denied work because of illegal immigrants, and it is worth sacrificing the individual liberties of terrorism suspects or other criminals in order to protect those rights. Things like ID cards and detention for 28 days without charge are staples of the Japanese legal system, because society as a whole places more importance on the rights of the majority to live in safety than on the rights of the minority (criminals, terrorists and illegal immigrants) to have their civil liberties protected.

During my time in Japan I, like all legal foreign residents, had to carry around an ID card and inform the government about my place of residence. At no point did I find it irksome, and I certainly didn't view it as an infringement of my rights. I barely gave it any thought, in fact. That's just the way Japan has chosen to run its affairs - individual freedoms are less well protected by law in that country, but the trade-off is that it's a very safe and secure place. I don't think the Japanese have the balance perfectly right, but as it stands it's better than the one that pertains in the UK, the US or France - unless of course you plan to commit crimes or plan terror attacks.

I, for one, won't be singing and dancing on the rooftops if I have to carry around an ID card in Britain. But at the same time I hardly see it as a step towards coming under the thumb of Big Brother as many of my compatriots do. In any case if that's what people were really worried about they'd be campaigning against the CCTV camera systems that are slowly kneedling their way into every corner of urban Britain - but oddly, they rarely do.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Sharing "Sharing Ideas"

Every day David Morgan-Mar produces a comic for Irregular Webcomic, and nearly every day there is an annotation for that strip. Occasionally it becomes something of an essay, and sometimes it has nothing really to do with the strip, but is incredibly insightful.

I think the annotation for today's comic (click here, and scroll past the comic to the text) is really, really interesting, and I think "Dare to be stupid" is going to join "Don't Suck" on my computer at home as I write (and on my PC in uni as I write up my thesis).

So share your ideas, espcially your bad ones, and dare to ask questions - especially if you think they're stupid.

Odds and Sods

I've gone a little bit Police mad of late. I find myself listening to their greatest hits album a lot, especially a few tracks that I didn't know of before I went to see them in Cardiff last month. Previously I probably would have said that my favourite track of theirs was Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, but over the last week or so I've come to really adore King Of Pain. One thing I've asked Santa for this year is "Lyrics" - a new book by Sting where he talks about the ideas and inspirations for every song he's written.

(note to noisms: hopefully this will be more engaging than simply going over "themes, motifs and the hero's journey" à la George Lucas...)

Anyways, because my mp3 player has become a little unreliable in terms of battery life (I've had it for two years now), I've decided to leave it at home while I'm away this weekend, and so all the music will be in my head while I write. I hope that this will suffice.

I'm not going to Edinburgh just to sit in a hotel and write like JK Rowling did for the final Harry Potter though, oh no, this is business first and foremost, the business of maths! Well, sort of. I'm going to a two day workshop - two half days at that - on Khovanov Homology (wow, Wikipedia really does have articles on everything), which is quite interesting but at the same time quite hard.

Things like Khovanov Homology make me wonder if problems in knot theory can be solved simply by saying "Let's devise something even more complicated to set up and that will finally give us a true invariant, even though this approach hasn't actually achieved something in the last hundred and fifty years or so," but that's mostly when I'm just cheesed off a bit with maths and I think I'm talking to myself with this last line so I'll stop there.

(hmm. Decision: after National Novel Writing Month I am going to sit down and write a blog entry explaining what it is I actually do)

I'm waffling: forgive me. I always get a little jittery before I travel.

More soon by email.

EDIT: I'm thinking about getting a new mp3 player, downsizing, and the model that I'm umming and ahhing over is this Creative Zen Stone Plus. The reviews seem mostly good, but if anyone knows someone who has had special problems with one, or if you know of a particularly good mp3 player (around the 2-4GB range, £50/$100 at most) then please let me know!

Teenage Kicks

We watched 10 Things I Hate About You last night; one of those films that just happens to be on and which you become unavoidably sucked into, like a televisual mind-flayer. Actually, I loved it. It could hardly fail being based on such foolproof material - it would be difficult not to make a good high-school reworking of The Taming of the Shrew, and in any case the charisma of the cast is enough to pull anything off. (It stars Heath Ledger, of Brokeback Mountain fame, 'before he was famous', as well as Julia Stiles from the Bourne films.)

It made me incredibly nostalgic, actually, because by happenstance the kids in it were turning 16, 17 or 18 in the exact same era I was - the mid/late 90s. And when I look back, I think that generation - our generation - was on the tip of a kind of cultural faultline; we were the last set of teenagers to make the transition to adulthood without widespread use of mobile phones, the internet, mp3 players, or even CGI in films. Nowadays all those things have come along and changed the world in all kinds of subtle and not-too-subtle ways, and things will never be the same for any generation of teenagers ever again.

In a funny way, it makes me sad. Kids today have no idea what it is like having to wait for your sister to get off the bloody phone in the evening after like ages when all you want to do is call your friend for like five seconds to arrange to meet. They have no idea about the painstaking, heartrending process of making a mix-tape for a girl you like - the thought and effort that went into it, and the nightmare of having it go wrong. (Tapes. Just think about that for a second. When I was a teenager, the prized musical medium, the totemic gift of the rock gods, was a cassette tape.) They will probably never have heard that dreaded sound - of the piece of music you love so much being warped and twisted by an old stereo player that has decided to chew up the ribbon. They won't know what it's like to have things like pen-friends who it took about three hours to write a good letter to. The boys amongst them will have no idea of the genuine fantastic mystery that the opposite sex used to hold in the days when there was no readily accessible internet porn and naked girls were the domain of women's locker rooms or else dreamland.

Being a teenager back then, and every generation prior to that, was a horrible experience in a lot of ways - we were so much more beholden to the power of our parents than young people are now, so much more constrained by limited technology, so much more naive. But life also had a lot of charm then that it has now lost: when you'd slaved for an entire saturday over making a really good mix-tape there was a pleasure in accomplishment there that making an mp3 playlist simply can't match. And now that cultural faultline had been crossed, we'll never be able to go back.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Girls and Boys

Bilbo linked to a damn interesting damninteresting article today, about mate-choice in guppies and what it can tell us about the "wedding ring effect" - the commonly noticed phenomenon that women seem to slightly prefer men who are already spoken for. (I've actually noticed this phenomenon myself - when I first got engaged to Mamiko I suddenly saw an increase in flirtation from female friends; then again maybe that's just because I started wearing decent underarm deoderant around then.)

The 'guppy syndrome' shows that females of the species will often mate with males simply on the basis that those males are mating with other females, even going so far as to mate with unattractive males simply on that basis. Obviously, the fact that other females have deemed a fish 'spongeworthy' is indicative to a lady guppy that there must be more to him than meets the eye, and she starts to see him in a different light. This then becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, as the guppies with all the girls become more and more popular while the loners become even more alone - and probably go off on their own and form under-water support groups.

A Guppy.

The psychology of human sexuality is endlessly fascinating for me. I'm not sure that guppies have all the answers, but I am sure that biology works behind the scenes in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways when it comes to who people want to have sex with.

What is undoubtedly true, I think, is that women are much cleverer than men when it comes to sex-war propaganda. The other day I caught the end of a Jeremy Kyle show (think a British version of Jerry Springer, with even uglier and stupider people if that's possible), and the main gist of it seemed to be that a married woman had had an affair, and she was justifying it on the basis that her husband no longer gave her the love, affection and romance that she needed. Most of the female members of the audience seemed to sympathise; while they didn't necessarily excuse her behaviour, they generally accepted that excuse - the consensus being that, while men have affairs to boost their ego and because they're habitually promiscuous, women have affairs for love.

And I thought, "Bullshit!" But the argument is kind of persuasive, because women are such good manipulators, and because they naturally bond together over the percieved injustices men perpetrate against them. In sexual politics, men are generally always the villains - whether it's because they have affairs or because they force their wives into affairs through lack of love - and it's all because we just don't play the system as well as women do. Men are competitive, see, so while one man is being castigated for having an affair, other men are mostly thinking "well, it just goes to show what a good husband I am" - or, more likely, "well, if she's dumped him, maybe it's my turn to move in."

Anyway, guppies. Is there anything they can't do?

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

25,000 Words And Counting

On Sunday I broke through the halfway mark of the word count challenge component of NaNoWriMo. I'm now just over 27k. Towards the end of last week I reached the end of Part One (subtitled "May you live in interesting times"), and currently have five chapters to do before the end of Part Two.

I think, because this is supposed to be in the mystery genre, that I now know whodunnit, although the reason for it keeps changing. Tonight I was a little bit stuck for something to write; I knew where I wanted the chapter to end, and I knew something that had to happen - but there was a big patch of nothing in between. And then all of a sudden it just came out: "Did you see the O'Neill file?"

When I wrote it, I had absolutely no idea what it meant (O'Neill is the surname of a friend of mine). Twenty minutes later I had finished the chapter and ended it on, I think, a much better note than I had originally planned. And O'Neill is an interesting idea that I can't quite decide on: red herring or key to the plot?

I'm classing the whole experience/experiment as a success so far - primarily because whenever I've hit a slight snag I haven't felt the need to bring in the zombies or do something else to completely upset the applecart...

More soon on word count and progress; I'm away in Edinburgh from Thursday to Sunday, and will hopefully handwrite at least two chapters in that time. Keep your fingers crossed!

EDIT: O'Neill is definitely a plot point. Decision came down from on high, too good not to use.

Doomed Youth?

There is a certain meta-narrative of war these days that sees it as unremittingly brutalising, hellish and cruel. Mostly it stems from the Cold War, I think - all of those mean, nasty conflicts in places like Vietnam, Angola, El Salvador and Afghanistan were like hammer blows against the very profession of soldiery. It was Remembrance Sunday this week (I believe in other countries it's known as Armistice Day?) and a large part of the televisual programming revolved around the "War is Hell" motif - The Not Dead, a Channel 4 documentary last night, was a case in point. But you see it across Western culture generally: there is a large section of the population who will oppose any military action on the basis that war is always terrible and can never be justified. During NATO's Kosovo campaign, even, or the 2001 bombing of Afghanistan, huge swathes of the British public opposed the actions of the government - even though more black-and-white cases for war could hardly be made. The image we're presented with is that war basically involves lots of young men being completely dehumanised and irrevocably psychically wounded, and the whole thing is just too awful for words.

The reality must be more complex. We now know, for example, that Wilfred Owen - the quintessential 'anti-war' poet - wrote to his mother on returning to the front, and the thick of the fighting, in 1918, that he had "never been happier". (Siegfried Sassoon, another famous 'anti-war' poet, earned many medals for bravery and the nickname 'Mad Jack' for the eagerness with which he went over the top to fight Germans.) Many veterans find readjustment to their home life difficult not because they are traumatised, but because being a civilian is so boring compared to what they were previously doing.

My grandfather was a case in point. He joined the army at 16 (lying about his age) in 1939, found himself in a tank in Normandy in 1940, and was shot through both legs by a German machine-gun when bailing out of that tank after it had been crippled by an anti-tank gun. He was evacuated at Dunkirk, nursed back to health, rose to the rank of Corporal, and was on the beach at D-Day - from where he fought his way to the borders of Germany with the rest of the allied armies. He loved being a soldier and he loved the war - he loved it so much, in fact, that he re-enlisted as soon as it was over and fought in the Korean war, too.

I don't think for a second that he particularly enjoyed killing people. He was a friendly, peaceful and cool-tempered sort, who lived a basically decent life. But the vision of him proudly wearing his medals on Remembrance Sunday, visiting Normandy on regiment reunions, and painting his plastic airfix military models, just doesn't sit with the vision of war that we're asked to see by the zeitgeist of our times.

Perhaps it has something to do with the difference between a volunteer and a conscript. And of course, fighting the Wehrmacht or the Chinese Army as my grandfather did is not the same as massacring civilians in the killing fields of Angola or Mozambique - or being machine-gunned at the Somme. But I think it should be more often acknowledged that warfare is a considerably more complex beast than simply being "hell". That just doesn't properly explain the psychology of the thing, and why human beings - particularly male human beings - so readily become involved in it.

Friday, 9 November 2007


My Master's thesis is going to be published in a legal journal. It's not finalised yet, so we'll have to wait and see, but it's something to be excited about. I've always wanted to see my name in print - I just never expected that it would be at the top of an article about cultural pluralism and the Human Rights Committee. I was hoping more for the "best selling historical novel" end of the market.

Anyway, nothing particularly insightful today. I watched a documentary about Georgia the other day (why do my entries in this blog keep coming around to the Caucuses?), and one sequence showed a politician describing Georgia's geopolitical context. Pretty much word for word, he summed it up as: "To the West, Turkey, with all its human rights problems and Islam. To the South, Armenia - a shit country, even more shit than Georgia. To the East Azerbaijan, run by mafiosi, all they have is oil, and all they're good for is cheap oil. And then to the North is Russia, stupid Russia, with Putin and his bullshit war in Chechnya. So Georgia is basically surrounded by shit."

And I thought, if he were a politician in Britain, he'd have my vote. Instead we have a gang of tossers who can't even manage to answer a question without obfuscation and avoidance.

Crazy Eights

Continuing the meme I saw on Bilbo's blog...

Eight things I'm passionate about
1). Reading
2). Cinema
3). The philosophy of comics
4). Solving puzzles and problems
5). Maths
6). Music
7). The world
8). Learning

Eight things I want to do before I die
1). Travel across America
2). Go back to Japan
3). Meet Neil Gaiman
4). Make a feature length film
5). Publish a novel
6). Eat at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant
7). Prove something amazing in maths
8). Find someone to help me make sense of it all

Eight things I say often
1). "I don't know."
2). "I pay to live here you know!"
3). "It's what I'm here for..."
4). "I have chocolate in my drawer." (never for me)
5). "Ugh."
6). "Son of a -"
7). "Hey..."
8). "Does this sound right to you?"

Eight books I've read recently
1). No Dominion by Charlie Huston
2). The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
3). Woken Furies by Richard Morgan
4). JPod by Douglas Coupland
5). The Dreaming Void by Peter F Hamilton
6). To Say Nothing Of The Dog by Connie Willis
7). The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
8). Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Eight songs I could listen to over and over
1). Chicago by Sufjan Stevens
2). Typical by Mute Math
3). Message In A Bottle by The Police
4). Wichita Lineman by Johnny Cash
5). You Were Always On My Mind by Elvis Presley
6). The Girl Is Mine by Michael Jackson & Paul McCartney
7). Somebody To Love by Queen
8). Daring Daylight Escape by Caedmon's Call

Eight things that attract me to my best friends
1). Willingness to talk about nonsense
2). Ability to talk over points of genre trivia
3). Sense of humour
4). Shared birthdays - like we're in our own little club
5). Love of video games
6). Intelligence
7). Their faith
8). They listen

And there we go. The meme is passed on, natural selection at its best.