Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Tuesday, Seeing Maths

Today, as days go, was a pretty good one. Since I knew I was going out for lunch, and hence didn't have to make one to take with me, I could afford a little bit more time for breakfast. After a look around the fridge decided to make myself a spinach and cheese omelette, which was pretty tasty, and I had that with some small ciabatta rolls that my sister had baked last night.

On the journey in I didn't mysteriously break out in a cold sweat as I did yesterday, which was a bit of a bonus really as I was completely stumped when it happened yesterday morning as the train pulled into James Street. Not a nice feeling at all to suddenly have the world swimming around you and thin layer of sweat covering your body, I really don't recommend it to anyone. Quite disturbing, but yesterday afternoon's headache aside I've felt fine since (and that disappeared as soon as I had something to eat when I got home).

Work has been slow but steady today; I got a few bits and pieces done first thing and then a few more bits and pieces when I got back from lunch. The only articles which really interested me included this over on the BBC about how a maths savant is able to find thirteenth roots of 200 digit numbers; while I would never claim to be able to do anything near as complicated (and in some sense pointless) the description he gave of how he is able to do things, or how he "sees" the information really resonated with me, although whereas he describes feeling numbers as words or movies, I "see" things as strange sensations and structures of colour, impossible objects and patterns.

It's the curse of the knot theorist perhaps... I'm going to a conference in September, I'll ask around.

This evening I'm going to see Goldfinger at FACT - there is something about seeing a classic film, that you've previously only ever seen on the TV, on a cinema screen that is just amazing.

And I've also just heard from a friend in Edinburgh, so my plan of visiting for the Edinburgh International Film Festival is going ahead in a few weeks!

All in all, Tuesday gets two thumbs up.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Furry Friends

So apparently, Animal welfare officials are demanding that cats that have roamed Ernest Hemingway's Florida home for decades be subject to laws that would require them to be locked up at night.

50 "free range" cats, descendants of Hemingway's pets, have lived in the Hemingway home - a popular museum - for decades, and are now considered an essential part of the collection. But two ex-members of the "Florida Keys Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals" (FKSPCA, let's call it) have complained that the number of cats is excessive and that they should be 'protected' from the museum's visitors - i. e. locked away in a secure enclosure.

Now, call me judgemental if you will (I know - me, judgemental? crazy) but don't those two people sound like the very thing the phrase "do-gooder" was invented for? Moreover, don't they sound like two people who, out of all the people in the world, would benefit most from a sound spanking? I mean, yeah, let's lock 50 cats away from the public where previously they've been able to roam free in the name of protecting them from cruelty. That makes perfect sense. It's not even as if the cats are mistreated. They appear to live what can only be described as a life of luxury - free to laze in the sunshine, visited regularly by a vet, fed the best food, "fixed" so they can have sex as much as they like without fear of consequences - a veritably cat's Life Of Reilly.

What interests me is that the complaints were made by two people described as 'former members' of the FKSPCA - indicating, to my mind, that they are so do-gooderish, so self-righteous, so downright worthy-of-a-good-spanking, that even their parent organisation has disowned them:

"Ok, Bob, Alice, we bore with you on the old lady who forgot to feed her cat that one time. We bore with you on the chihuahua who wasn't wearing a doggy-coat in winter. We bore with you on the alligator they tranquilized and then forcibly removed from old Mr. Cozaro's living room. But the Hemingway cats? That's it - you're out."

I hope that's what happened. The world is a poorer place if it wasn't.

Multiple Headaches

I have a banging headache, so I'll be brief.

How can it be so difficult to set up email on my mobile phone? I want to set it up so that in two weeks time, when I am on holiday for a fortnight, I will be able to update the blog from my phone. I look in the manual: it says look on the website. I look on the website, it doesn't have the details for my phone. I go into the shop, they tell me to call 156 from my phone and speak to someone there. After fifteen minutes on hold I hang up, and thus I find myself in my present predicament, still unable to email from my phone.

A friend of mine has just googled some things and found a page which seems to show the instructions on how to set it up - except I need to have an email address to anchor it to (effectively, no need to get all technical). Can't use my uni address, maybe I'll use my Gmail... And on top of all that I have to look into how much sending emails will cost me! My provider offers 4MB a month for £4 if you pay in advance, or £3 per MB if you don't...

So many options and things to sort out! And my head can't deal with them at the moment, banging away as it is. You would think, you would hope, that when you buy something the manual would be complete, would just tell everything that you need to do in a clear and concise manner. Is that too much to ask?

Anyway, time for me to go home and take something for my head. Hopefully I'll contribute something a little more coherent (and frankly better) tomorrow.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Turkey and the Same Old Bollocks

Odd that I should by coincidence be reading a biography of Kemal Ataturk - the founder of the modern Turkish state - at the very time when an election in Turkey has generated a minor fuss among British politicians and foreign-office types (and bloggers, natch).

Simon Scott Plummer in the Telegraph has the right of it: Turkey has recently seen impartial, well-conducted elections and the victory of the moderate Islamic AKP party and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and now is the time for the EU to start seriously talking about Turkish membership. “A democratic Muslim country with a dynamic economy should be welcomed by a continent faced with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism,” he writes, and he could have added that Turkey is a democratic Muslim country with a secular constitution, no less, and a political elite willing to divorce itself from the powerful military. It is also one of the few Muslim countries to have dealt maturely with the creation of the State of Israel, and one of the few in which the government is in some way accountable to its populace. It is a powerful, influential presence in the Middle East, ideally poised to throw its weight behind Israel-Palestine peace talks, a security regime for Iraq, and demonstrate the worth of good governance to its neighbours. The EU should be opening its doors with open arms.

It won’t, though, because in the main members of the EU find it difficult to see the big picture. They hear that the AKP is an Islamic party (never mind that it is a moderate one, and that explicitly Christian parties are the norm in Central and Northern Europe) and they become nervous. Daniel Hannon believes that there is also fear of an energetic, patriotic and populous country coming along and spoiling the EU party, and I’m inclined to agree. The Kurdish problem is something Europeans are also wary of (hypocritically, since it was Europe which originally denied the Kurdish people a State of their own).

But I also have to wonder whether the old spectre of racism isn’t involved too. Europeans still haven’t quite adjusted to the fact that those without white European roots can be economically competitive and politically powerful. It’s never put explicitly, but there is still a marked tendency to patronize and belittle, and it manifests itself most often in attitudes towards Palestinians, Iraqis and Iranians, which persist in seeing them as victims and irrational actors, rather than intellectual equals. (Most Europeans, for example, are incapable of understanding that Palestinian terrorist organizations behave in a rational, intelligent way - we prefer to see them as desperate men driven by fear and powerlessness.) Turkey is another victim of that tendency; whereas European countries are capable of incorporating Christianity into their democratic systems, it is believed that Muslim countries are not - the implication being that Islam is inherently irrational and Muslim peoples are generally not capable of running a country well.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Talking Trailers

"When all else fails," my old (fictional) blogging mentor used to say, "Talk about some trailers that you have seen recently and why they make you a bit excited." Man I miss ol' Jimmy...

Firstly, I Am Legend, whose trailer debuted a few months ago, gave me mixed feelings when I first saw it. This is mainly due to the fact that I Am Legend is one of my favourite books, a book that I re-read at least once a year and have done since I was 17, a book that I always find something new in when I read it - and I just couldn't picture Will Smith as Robert Neville when the casting was announced. The trailer made me feel hopeful; New York looks incredible as this abandoned place, and despite my initial misgivings Will Smith gives across a great mix of despair and stoicism. However, something noticeably absent in the trailer are vampires - will they even be vampires? Will we have some weak enemies like in The Omega Man? We'll find out at Christmas...

WALL-E just blew me away in terms of its concept: the year is 2700, and WALL-E is the last clean-up robot left on a deserted earth, cleaning up after humanity's mistakes, all alone... Until one day when a female robot turns up from space and it's love at first sight. The trailer is a little lacking, although it does very well in terms of setting the tone of the movie. Apparently the first third of the movie or so is going to just be a silent film, simply observing WALL-E and his life, such as it is. I have high hopes for this film.

I've never read Beowulf, although I feel like I should have. I've never seen The Polar Express, but by all accounts I'm not missing much. I'm a big Neil Gaiman fan, and I have to say that that's what has swung the Beowulf film for me, the fact that he has written the screenplay (along with Roger Avary). Also, it looks pretty interesting from the trailer. Things aren't quite photorealistic, but then I don't think that is the intention with the whole performance capture thing at this stage, just to do things that would be incredibly difficult otherwise (i.e., show Ray Winstone at different points in his life from 18 to 70). Technology isn't the be-all and end-all, but it can make some wonderful looking things.

The final trailer is for... Well, no-one's really sure what this film is called. Is it called 01-18-08? Is it called Cloverfield? Well, it's probably called neither of these things, but it has a very interesting trailer... A giant monster, hand-held video cameras with impressive effects in to add to the realism, just regular people... With the way that it is being marketed I'm surprised that someone hasn't started calling this the new Blair Witch or something (although Blair Witch had a budget of $30,000 I think, whereas this has a reported budget of $30,000,000). The trailer definitely makes me want to see the film.

And let's face it, for a trailer that means "job done."

Superman is a Dick

My new favourite thing in the universe is laughing at old comics.

The undisputed master at this is, of course, James Lileks and his Institute of Official Cheer; in it, Lileks expounds the notion of the Violently Ordinary Rejoinder, in which banal quips result in "Flip-takes" of shocking force:

But recently my new love is Superdickery, a site which began when it was noticed that Superheros, well...are complete dicks:

Or do completely ridiculous things:

Or are utter buffoons:

Or just, well....

Nothing, of course, can compete with the sheer snigger-inducing power of these, though:

I shouldn't be laughing. I really shouldn't.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

I Need A Hero...

I had other ideas today for a blog post, but having read noisms earlier post about the series Heroes (which debuted on British TV last night with an impressive 4.3m viewers) I felt like I had to respond.

I have to say, that based on the hype and things I had read about Heroes I had a feeling that I would like it, and I think that noisms could like it too if he had given it more than five minutes - in that time I think only a fraction of the characters had been introduced, how can you get a feel for an ensemble show in five minutes? Granted, the opening of Lost hooked you with the aftermath of the plane crash on the beach, but from the outset we're shown hints that Heroes has a much greater ambition, a cast split all across the world. To say "I don't like this" based on the first character one meets is a little extreme (perhaps noisms just really wanted to watch How To Look Good Naked, and this gives him a reason if pressed for one later).

Despite the first person we meet going on about the magnificence of cockroaches (noisms can pick it apart like a pedant if he wants, but I think the sense was supposed to be "cockroaches are hard bastards"), I'd heard about some other things in the show that kept me watching. Anyway, maybe a university professor of genetics wouldn't say this, but if we're watching this show are we expecting a documentary? Are we expecting to watch a sci-fi/fantasy show and see total realism? Forget that, do we expect to watch any television fiction and expect everything to be in accord with our conception of reality?

I'm watching Heroes because I've been told that there is a good story developing over the series, and I thought that the characters introduced last night were really varied; they were all at different stages in their lives with different dreams and reactions to their manifesting powers - the geek who can't get enough, the cheerleader who doesn't want anyone to know, the desperate mother who doesn't understand what is happening to her - this is not just teenagers coping at some fictional high school with the fact that they are mutants.

I put it to you, noisms, that you didn't give Heroes a real chance, and I put it to you ladies and gentlemen of the jury that while his writing about slugs and evolution has merit, his introduction to the topic was based on a prejudice against genre television in general.

Saying that, if Chewbacca lives on Endor, you must acquit.

You've Got to Search for the Hero....

Ok, I admit it. I watched the first five minutes of Heroes last night. But there's still hope. Before it was too late, I realised it was a load of old cobblers and I'd be wasting two hours of my life, and I turned over to watch How to Look Good Naked instead.

What is it about visual sci-fi/fantasy that makes me want to claw out my own eyes? Is it the bad acting? The clunking scripts? The ridiculous stereotypes? The moralising? The idiotic pseudoscience? Yes, it is all of those things, but mostly it's just because I love the genre and what it can do, and I hate to see it brought down by naff things like Heroes.

Anyway. In last night's Heroes, one of the main characters, a professor, made a little speech about cockroaches, in which he outlined the idea that cockroaches are the 'pinnacle of evolution', not humans - because, as we all know, they can live off the back of a postage stamp for ten years and can survive without a head, and other cool stuff like that.

The idea that a university professor - of, apparently, biology, indeed - should spout such drivel is laughable (one of the reasons I switched channels) but it ties neatly in with a Ricky Gervais podcast I was recently re-listening to, in which Ricky made the interesting statement to Karl that "slugs are as evolved as you".

One of the things that people find hardest to understand when it comes to evolution is that everything alive today is as highly evolved as everything else. When it comes to life on earth there is no pinnacle; all species are exactly as 'developed' as they need to be, whether cockroaches, slugs or humans. We've all done what we had to do - we haven't died out yet.

The operative word is 'yet', of course.

Anyway, just think about this next time you step on one of these on a rainy day:

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Red Sticks and Jacobites

I've recently become interested in what I've decided to christen the "things that make you go 'hmmm'" school of historical study: the way certain events - often barely noticed ones - from history can conspire odd and unexpected ways; ways that nobody could have predicted and which seem so incongruous and fitting as to have almost been planned by a fiction writer.

An example of this is the curious link between the Jacobite Rebellion of the Scottish Highlands and the Red Stick War of the Creeks against the United States government.

From the late 17th century to the mid-18th, Scottish independence from England took its last throw of the dice, when James VII and later Bonnie Prince Charlie launched insurgencies, with the aid of Highland Scottish clans, against the London government. A century of massacres, battle and guerilla warfare resulted, in which ancient Highland clan rivalries played as much a part as the question of independence, before finally the rebellion was ended at the 1746 Battle of Culloden. (My own genes played something of a role in the story: my grandmother was a member of Clan Campbell, a large and powerful Highland clan which sided with the government in the rebellion in order to settle long-held grudges against Clans Lohan, MacDonald and MacGregor.)

After the Jacobite Rebellion had been stamped out, the British government proceeded with a policy of ethnic cleansing (an anachronistic but appropriate term) in which Scottish Highland society and culture were effectively destroyed and in which large numbers of disposessed clansmen found themselves on ships bound for the New World. It's hard to imagine, these days, the situation of these men, plucked from an insular world of high, wet moorland, narrow valleys and deep dark lochs to the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean; our own experience of overseas travel is utterly alien to it. It must have been terrifying and awe-inspiring at the same time.

The place they found themselves in, on the opposite side of the planet, would, I think, have been surprisingly familiar. Native American society, with its tribalism, its clan bonds, and its endemic violence, wouldn't have been dissimilar to Highlands life; it's natural that the Scots would have made their ways to the frontiers, where they were often the vanguard of expansion.

Three of their descendants were to become a coterie of young leaders at the heart of the Creek nation at the turn of the 19th century: Menawa, William Weatherford (Red Eagle) and Peter McQueen, each half-Scottish, born to frontiersmen and Creek women, versed in both cultures, and often posessing startlingly incongruous eccentricities - like the regular playing of bagpipes before a battle. They came to prominence as the central force of the Red Stick movement - a group of young Creeks who believed in violent resistance to white expansion - which in 1812 began an insurgency against settlers, government forces and "civilized Creeks" in the Southern states. Massacre and guerilla warfare continued for some years before the rebellion reached its bloody conclusion at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and its aftermath.

The parallels are obvious - both rebellions were categorised by slaughter of civilians (the Massacre at Glencoe and The Fort Mims Massacre); both were considerably more complicated than "native against government" (some Highlanders, like the men of Clan Campbell, fought for the British, and many Lower Creeks and Cherokees joined the US government against the Red Sticks - not to mention another Scots/Creek, William McIntosh); and, most sadly, both ended in the destruction of a way of life and an ancient culture. How interesting, though, and how like the plot of a novel, that it should be the very descendants of the Jacobites who should go on to be the driving force of the Red Sticks, in a land thousands of miles away and as ostensibly far removed as possible, and that their experience should be so similar.

Makes you go 'hmmm', see?

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

A Flood of Bollocks

There is, as my grandma used to say, "high ding-dong" over David Cameron's visit to Rwanda during a time of "disastrous" flooding in Southern England. (For readers outside of the UK, David Cameron is the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons and Conservative Party leader - the man who would be Prime Minister if the Tories win the next election.) I've just been listening to Jeremy Vine's show on BBC2 - the middle-class population of Britain's phone-in rant-a-thon - and the consensus is that Cameron is an almighty idiot, a weakling, has lost the next election already, and generally speaking the country is going to the dogs.

If ever evidence was needed that people in Britain have lost all sense of perspective, you just have to listen to the Jeremy Vine show on days with relatively "big" news stories like this ("big" in the sense that there's a lot to get sanctimonious and high-horsey about). The comments by listeners have uniformly managed to epitomise almost everything that I hate about the UK, and England in particular, being as they are ignorant, ill-thought out, prissy, moralising nonsense of the worst kind, but I can identify three distinct strands or themes:

1. David Cameron, it is said, is the Member of Parliament for Whitney and as such he should be in Whitney at a time of crisis to help sort things out rather than "gallavanting around" abroad. Why this should be isn't particularly clear: from what I can gather the fire service and the armed forces have the situation well in hand, and the flooding is hardly Hurricane Katrina (it's a level that would be considered laughable in most other countries) - but no, Cameron should be back home stealing ghastly photo opportunities and making cheap political points by pretending to help fill sandbags and showing how deeply compassionate he is, rather than trying to do something of value in a country benighted by genocide and famine which is hoping to join the Commonwealth and drag itself up out of the gutter. In other words, most people in Britain think it is more important for a leading politician to act in the name of cheap propaganda and superficial emoting rather than do real work to aid developing nations.

2. David Cameron is the latest in a long line of British politicians to, apparently, put the needs of poor people in foreign countries above those of the British public. The indignance in people's voices is strident: why do politicians show all this concern for the populations of Bangladesh and Rwanda and The Philippines and Iraq but not US!?!? The answer - that in fact people in this country are spoiled and pampered and wrapped in cotton wool, and really our politicians should be doing a hell of a lot more to help those in the developing world - sails right over their heads, like a cool breeze on a summer's day.

3. David Cameron is Leader of the Opposition and should therefore be "opposing" Gordon Brown - in other words he should come back to the UK and start criticising the government for all the mistakes it has allegedly made. He should be taking Gordon Brown to the cleaners and making him "answer to the British people about what has happened". Wherease the truth, as any sensible person can see, is that David Cameron well understands that floods are an act of God and there's nothing much the government could have done about it - so what's the use in criticising? He should in fact be being applauded for showing principle and restraining himself from making cheap points. But then again we're dealing with shrill idiots.

Anyway, the whole thing is just too depressing and silly for words. What's most stupid of all is how fickle everybody has been. Only a year or two ago Middle England was falling over itself to kiss the feet of King Cameron, and here he is making one error of judgement (in the sense that he critically misread the capacity of the English for disproportionate outrage) and people are already predicting he'll lose the next election. It just goes to show how much superficiality reigns in contemporary British politics.

Summer 1

I've been back in my office for only a few days, and already I'm counting down the days to when I can take a holiday, or at the very least a break from work. It doesn't help that today is sunny, and is only the second day of nice weather in my region this summer, and all I can think about is meandering around not doing much other than walking in the sunshine. Somehow I'm still getting work done, but I'm resenting having to do it. Although the last few weeks doing this work for the Graduate School has been interesting and it has been a break from my regular work (and, kind of importantly, I'm getting paid for it) it hasn't been a holiday and I think that's what my mind and body are telling me I sorely need to preserve my sanity.

I don't have a definite plan yet, but I'm checking with a friend on one possibility for a few weeks time (I'm working for the next three weeks, and then taking two weeks off), and if that plays out as I am hoping it will then there should be some interesting things that I can do on the blog as a result. I won't say any more on that for now, I'll just leave it there and hope that when you come to read this there seems to be an air of mystery and coolness about it...

Recently I've thought a lot about my novel that I wrote last year, especially about revisions that need to be made. There was so much that I liked about what I wrote during National Novel Writing Month but at the same time there is so much that needs to be changed in order for it to be a better story. It's not like I'm now planning to kill any characters off that previously lived or anything like that, but there are tweaks that need to be made; whereas one character before was only incidentally responsible for breaking two people up, I think that really she needs to take a more active role in the break-up - but that changes her character, because before she was the kind of person who would never do that. I guess I'm having a hard time persuading myself to make changes to the text because at the moment I'm still too close to the characters that I first hammered out last year, and by making these changes they cease to be the people that I created (in the same way, we often find that we are less close to people when their personality changes over time).

I've also been immersing myself in noir recently, across quite a few subgenres. I've read some Mickey Spillane who I guess is a definitive voice in classic noir, some future noir from Richard Morgan which was very different but definitely in the same tradition, and also some vampire noir by Charlie Huston (his first Joe Pitt novel, Already Dead, is a particularly good novel I think). Although I had considered reading some classics over the summer I've decided to read some more noir first (thank you Amazon.co.uk!), and maybe come back to the classics in the autumn. There's a slight incongruity of reading noir in the summer that is appealing at the moment.

Better keep my fingers crossed that summer actually arrives in time for my break then...

Monday, 23 July 2007

Harry Potter and The Bottom Line

Like many people around the world I picked up the final Harry Potter book on Saturday. While some picked it up and treasured it, determined to make every page count and so on, I got it with the sole aim of reading it as quickly as possible - both for enjoyment and so that I finished it before both my sister and my friend Chris (I tell myself that the latter wasn't as important... I tell myself that).

I thought that it was a pretty good book all in all. I don't want to spoil it for people who haven't read it yet, or who are still working their way through, but I do want to say that despite having a first half which seemed pretty sparse on plot advancement though heavy on incidents, the book had a second half which more than made up for it, with plots tied up neatly and with some real revelations as well. What I thought was really interesting coming out of book six - Is Snape really a bad guy? Who is R.A.B.? - was that I was right but for the wrong reasons. The resolution of subplots happened but for completely different reasons to those that I thought, and that made it very interesting.

Various newspapers and websites are making a great hullabaloo about the number of copies sold, or about how much money JK Rowling now has etc, but I think for me an important point, second to enjoying the final book, was the final line of this article on the BBC website:

"I like Harry Potter, but it's a shambles as far as the retailing trade is concerned because nobody makes any profit."

Harry Potter may be a publishing phenomenon, but the only way that booksellers really make any money out of it is by hoping that customers will go back to their shops for repeat business. I don't know of a single shop that was selling the book for more than half the RRP - I'm not saying that there is anything intrinsically bad about the customer getting a good deal, but it creates a distorted picture of the state of book sales and profits I think. The money in Harry Potter has come from the films and associated merchandise in the end, and perhaps in the end that will unfortunately be the thing that people remember about Harry Potter.

I do have a small hope that they will remember a good read first and foremost.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Hiatus Interuptus

noisms is still on holiday, and I've only been in the office for a day trying to catch up on things, so no genuine blog posts this week. Roll on Monday, when I'm sure to write spoilers on the new Harry Potter and possibly non-spoilers for Transformers (since many people might have seen it already) which I might see at a preview on Sunday.

I'll probably also talk about my Grad School experiences of the last two weeks some time next week, amongst lots of other ridiculous nonsense that occurs to me. noisms, no doubt, will talk about incredibly interesting things. Cognitive Blindspot, two blogs for the price of one! Should that be our marketing strategy?

In the mean time, go and read these 200 bad comic strips, which are actually incredibly funny. I recommend reading them in one sitting for maximum effect.

Monday, 16 July 2007


Well, noisms is away on holiday, I'm Interweb-challenged for the next few days... I guess this is just me telling you not to expect anything until Thursday at the earliest.

Who knows? Maybe it will even be worth the wait.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Cunning Linguists

One of my great pleasures in life is to read about the world's languages; it's always been a regret of mine that I never studied linguistics - it certainly would have been more worthwhile than the hours I spent in lectures on Romanticism and critical theory, listening to a wanker from New Zealand drone on about Coleridge - so I have to become an expert in my own time.

My favourite book is The Dictionary of Languages, a reference work to four hundred of the world's official languages, as well as historically important extinct ones and all of the world's language families. (Of course, there are some five thousand languages spoken in the world today, so many are left out - but they often get a passing mention in other entries.) I've spent countless hours (a lot of them on the toilet) flipping through its pages, murmuring "hmm" and "ahh" occasionally and soaking up interesting (and probably useless) bits of trivia like a sponge.

Quite near the beginning of his introduction to the book, Dalby notes that "every language is a unique and uniquely important way to make sense of the world" - a fact that it is very easy to forget as an English speaker, given as we are to unspoken assumptions about our own culture's importance. Even the languages that we tend to learn in schools - French, German, Spanish - are similar enough to our own that we tend not to grasp just how unique and different a conduit a foreign language can be.

When I first arrived in Japan and started learning Japanese, for example, I was struck by the fact that, while "to like" and "to love" are always verbs in English, in Japanese they usually find expression as adjectives: a concept completely alien to a speaker of English. In fact, in Japanese, verbs are remarkably thin on the ground when compared to English; nouns and adjectives make up a considerably larger percentage of the vocabulary of everyday life. Hihan suru ('to criticise') translates into English as "to do criticism"; honyaku suru ('to translate') is "to do translation" - there are no Japanese verbs for such concepts. Why this should be, I'm not sure, but it certainly confirms that language filters human perception in a considerably broader way than is often recognised.

Navajo is the opposite of Japanese; it is verb-heavy, with what English speakers would usually recognise as nouns being given action-words. A famous example,
náʼoolkiłí ('clock') means "it is turned slowly in a circle"; chʼéʼétiin ('exit, doorway') means "something has a path horizontally out"; the wind-talkers used this to considerable effect when fighting for the US Marine Corps against the Japanese: chidí naaʼnaʼí beeʼeldǫǫhtsoh bikááʼ dah naaznilígíí ('tank', or "a caterpillar tractor crawls about") must have had code-breakers scratching their heads for months.

What accidents of culture twisted Navajo, Japanese and English in these ways is something I'd dearly love to write a book about some day; "The interplay between language and culture and its impact on human thought and behaviour" is too unwieldy a title, but once I've thought of a good one is when I'll start.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007


It seemed like such a good idea at the time. I really can't tell you now why it seemed like such a piece of genius, but it did. How could I go wrong? I was 19 going on 20, I wanted to meet girls (you know how it is) and so the most logical and obvious place to meet girls was in a Feminist Philosophies class...

I wasn't just hoping to meet cute and smart girls, primarily I was hoping to get something out of the course, but dammit meeting cute and smart girls was a pretty good fringe benefit! Week 1 of the course was pretty interesting in the lectures, but it was when I arrived for my first seminar class and realised *gulp* that I was the only guy there and all the girls in the group were looking at me and thinking "What are you doing here?" ... Yeah, the novelty wore off pretty quick.

By about week three I decided that I was just going to keep my head down, study as well as I could, try and get as much out of the seminars as possible and afterwards never, ever, study feminist philosophies again. It didn't help that the course was completely assessed on various short pieces of coursework, including a diary that we had to keep of the thoughts that the lectures were provoking...

By the final seminar group I was looking forward to the end. The girls in the group were nicer to me by now, not looking on me as some outsider, and at the start of the seminar they were all talking about the Bridget Jones film that had recently been released.

"She's so real!" ... "She's just like me!" ... "It's so true to real life!"

I couldn't help but smile, and the tutor caught sight of me and asked me what was funny.

"Well, it just seems odd... For the last three months I've heard about how women should be independent, how they shouldn't need a man to make themselves happy, how they should be in control of their own lives and so on. This is the Woman that you've painted a picture of - and she's completely at odds with the Woman who the rest of the group seem to identify so strongly with. Which is it then, which of these descriptions is right, is true?"

The tutor tilted her head slightly to regard me: "They're both right," she said, smiling.

This was confirmation of my suspicion that I wasn't going to be able to scrape a B for the class.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Know Thyself

One of the first things that I did when I was accepted to study maths and philosophy was to go to the library and look in the philosophy section. Although I liked the idea of studying philosophy I didn't really have much idea of what was involved. I thought that there was something about lots of dead Greek guys that I had heard of, and possibly something to do with being able to remember lots of sayings and things like that, but other than thinking of myself as quite a thoughtful sort of person I didn't know anything else.

I got a few books out - An Introduction To Philosophy was very helpful, a big heavy tome on Wittgenstein was not - and had a look at them, and felt for a bit that while philosophy was an interesting subject and worthy of study perhaps I would be better off doing something else with my maths degree after all. Then I received a book called "Porcupines" by Graham Higgins, which described itself as "a philosophical anthology," presenting some of the key pieces of writing of great philosophers. There was very little explanation of who these people were, just their names and the dates of when they lived. Every right hand page would contain a short passage or sentence that was attributed to them, and the left hand page would try to place it in context with some of their other writing - but never with any analysis, this was all left to the reader.

It was reading through "Porcupines" that convinced me that studying philosophy was worthwhile, and although my passion in academic study is now focused on mathematics I am still convinced that philosophy and thinking about the deep questions of life is an incredibly important thing.

(it was in this period that I read the book which I think gave me my real love of reading fiction as well, "Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder, but that's a story for another time)

Although I have found many interesting things to think about since, there were three statements that I read in "Porcupines" which have stayed with me ever since, and to end this short post which feels more like biography than commentary I'm going to sign off by quoting them.

"If we actually possessed one grain of knowledge there would be no holding us back."
- Michel De Montaigne (1533-1592)

"I do not know what I am:
I am not what I know."
- Angelus Silesius (1624-1677)

"Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Monday, 9 July 2007

Biblically Challenged

The new series of University Challenge started today. I love University Challenge, becuase it's one of the few remaining bastions of aspiration in an increasingly dimwitted and negative British TV climate - and because I can sometimes get one or two questions right and feel superior to the common man. For those who don't know it, it's a quiz for teams from different universities who compete over a few months in knockout rounds until there's only one team left. It has a uniquely dismissive and browbeating host, Jeremy Paxman, who routinely reprimands the contestants for failing to answer what he considers to be absurdly simply questions (Example: "Which distribution emits a probability density function f (x) equals 1 over square root of 2 pi times e to the power of minus x squared divided by 2?"). And, needless to say, it's bloody fucking hard.

So I was surprised to see in tonight's episode that neither team were able to identify the author of the book Proverbs in The Bible - a question which even I consider to be absurdly easy. What was even more surprising was that Paxman didn't scoff mercilessly in his customary manner when the answer "Saul" was offered. He just let it slide and moved on to the next question. It was most disappointing.

It seems like knowledge of The Bible is on the wane. Another BBC product which I condone is Desert Island Discs, an extended interview in which the interviewee is asked to choose eight records they would take with them to a desert island. They are also given a book and a luxury of choice, and copies of the Complete Works of Shakespeare and The Bible. (A fascinating insight, by the way, into the Britain of 1942 when the programme first aired: then Shakespeare and The Bible were pillars supporting the roof of the nation - now they barely make the school curriculum.)

A trend I've noticed in recent years is that a lot of people (Ricky Gervais the most recent example) quickly announce, even as the words are leaving Kirsty Young's beautiful lips, that "I don't want to take The Bible" - the implication being that, as an atheist, the speaker would rather flog himself senseless than have to even touch a copy and find himself associated even in this fleeting way with the thought of Judaeo-Christian belief.

It strikes me as odd, and quite sad. Regardless of whether or not you believe that The Bible is the word of God, or even if it is a great book of instruction, Christianity and Judaism are still hugely important cornerstones of European culture - the very bedrock, perhaps, on which the whole thing is built. Even as an item of history, anthropology and art, the thing's worth is massive. No other book has occupied the thoughts of European people for as long, nor become as entwined with our culture. To say it is extremely important is to understate to a ridiculous degree.

Not only that; it's a fascinating and interesting read, full of blood, sex, mayhem and weird visions in the first three quarters, and impassioned rhetoric about faith, love and hope in the last. Why not take it to a desert island with you, then, even if you're the most devout atheist on earth? At the very worst, it'll stave off boredom for at least a year.

But it seems that the Good Book has practically been confined to the dustheap of history - as evidenced by the fact that eight of the supposedly most well educated people in the country don't even appear to know who King Solomon was, and probably don't much care.

Stroking One's Beard

I don't know why, but whenever I tell people that my first degree was a Bachelor of Arts in Maths and Philosophy it surprises them. Since I first made my decision on the UCAS form over eight years ago I've grown accustomed to people saying, "Oh," tilting their head slightly to one side and continuing, "That's an interesting combination."

My reason for studying something other than just maths was because despite taking maths and further maths at A Level and enjoying them immensely I had an idea in my head that three years of nothing but maths would be incredibly boring. It had always been the plan for me to study in Liverpool, but at first I was actually set on studying maths with theology and religious studies at another university in Liverpool - until my head of sixth form persuaded me to look elsewhere and find a course with a better academic reputation.

Since cost was such a great concern in going to university the only real option I had was going to the University of Liverpool, and it was lucky that a friend of the family heard about the course in maths and philosophy. Over the course of three years I realised that while I enjoyed studying philosophy a lot I had been wrong to think that three years of maths would be boring, and so I ended up on the path that I'm on now, shifting after my first degree to a masters in mathematical sciences.

I never forgot what studying philosophy taught me, to try to think clearly, to try and understand things from different angles and different points of view. Although it very much became a second subject for me during my degree I still enjoyed the various courses that I attended, and some of the things that I learned on them have stayed with me ever since, as have the memories of some spectacularly bad courses that I attended.

Anyway, this slice of biography was just a roundabout way of saying that over the next few days (while I'm away) I'll just be presenting a few odd things that I thought about in my studies, and maybe the odd snippet from my old essays (isn't this digital age wonderful?), as well as a few words on the Feminist Philosophies course that I took, which for a semester became my academic nemesis.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Live Cobblers

Live Earth today. Snore. Cataloguing all the things I hate about the idea would take up the entire bandwidth of the blogger.com server, so I'll keep it down to the two main ones:

1. The name. Firstly it smacks of a kind of brand-synergy with Live Aid/8 which, frankly, I find very distasteful when associated with motives so far away from commercialism as saving the environment and fighting poverty (Naomi Klein was right: non-branded space is becoming rarer and rarer - it now even extends to charity events). But secondly, and more importantly, it goes hand in hand with the idiotic and hugely misleading idea that our duty as "citizens of the global village" (or whatever we're supposed to be now) is to Save Planet Earth!

"We are killing our planet!" the message seems to be. "Its life is in our hands! We must help the earth to live! Save it! Live Earth!"

Bollocks. The earth will be alive long after we are dead and gone, and life here has endured and abided a heck of a lot worse than us in its existence. The Cambrian Extinction, the end of the dinosaurs, countless ice ages, the supervolcano under Yellowstone Park...they relegate our efforts to the equivalent of a flea-bite. The very idea that we human beings might be anything like a threat to the Life of Planet Earth is unspeakable hubris of the very kind which the Live Earth concerts are presumably exhorting us to abandon. In fact, while we pose a danger to certain species of large animals and might be in a position to affect the planet's climate a little, we are basically here on the sufferance of insects and bacteria, who will be around long after we have faded into a distant memory.

Rather than Live Earth, I think a better name for the concert would be Live Us, because that is really what we should really be concerned about - that we don't affect our own environment so much that it becomes impossible for us to survive in it.

2. The self-righteousness. My toes are curling even thinking about the kind of sanctimonious guilt-tripping and moralising which viewers will be forced to endure - and endure, I might add, from the likes of Madonna, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Black Eyed Peas and Genesis. Annoying, fake, superficial solidarity in the name of "making a difference" will be the order of the day, along with a cartload of po-faced speechifying about how terrible we human beings are and how we all need to think seriously about conserving energy and changing our lifestyles (not Madonna's lifestyle, you understand: our lifestyles).

The worst thing is, it is all just same old, same old: Western culture has always felt the need for missionary zeal, stretching from the Crusades to colonialism to the White Man's Burden, and nowadays the messages are slightly different - fighting poverty, spreading democracy and human rights, and saving the environment - but the roots are the same: the desire to make ourselves seem superior. Meanwhile the rest of the world quietly gets on with things - China has done more to fight climate change than any Western country (and done so without silly guilt-avoidance techniques like carbon off-setting), but we rarely hear about it because it doesn't fit in with our idea of preaching The Message to the global-warming heathens (as exemplified by the fact that Live Earth concerts are even going to go on places like Beijing and Tokyo).

I really wish the organisers and participants would just fuck off and do something useful. But putting on this event will make them feel good about themselves and the fact that they're "making a difference", and that's all that really matters.

Friday, 6 July 2007

The Chewing of Ears

I read an article today which purported to hold proof that "men are no less chatty than women". That's right: "the common notion that women are the more talkative sex has been dispelled by scientists in the US".

It's only when you read the body of the article, though, that you realise that in fact the study in question has actually proved that men are less chatty than women (by 546 words per day). Not only that, but "the researchers admit that their findings may not apply to all men as they only studied university students". In other words, all they have really managed to prove is that university students like to talk a lot (big surprise) and that female university students talk a bit more than male ones.

The point being that the story is complete nonsense, barely worthy of anybody's time, and yet it probably required a reasonable amount of man-hours and cash that could have been better spent on something worthwhile.

I'm interested in the way the article was written, though, because it suggests to me a certain bias that I've always suspected the BBC holds, and which it recently more or less admitted to, in favour of liberal politics.

One of the core values or beliefs of liberal politics is the idea of the "blank slate": namely that nurture usually trumps nature and that men and women's behaviours and attitudes are defined mostly by the environment. Men and women, in other words, are not equal-but-different, they are in fact mostly the same.

Regardless of my own personal opinion on the nature/nurture debate, it does seem that this article is evidence of that institutional bias towards the idea that men and women are in essence the same - because it twisted the facts of the story to create the impression that scientific evidence indicated one thing, when in fact it didn't.

Anyway, as is plain for all to see, in the chewing-the-hind-leg-off-a-donkey stakes women always win hands down. You can't get much more scientific than that.

Workplace Remedy

My first day as an administrator was pretty interesting; I didn't have any internet access, but I didn't really miss not having a connection until the very end of the day. I realised just how much I use the internet to break up the day, and just how much work I could get done if I wasn't checking Facebook every few minutes, or seeing if certain webcomics had updated - or even just checking random articles on Wikipedia. By the end of the day I was pretty knackered, and a bit stiff after spending some time standing over the photocopier.

Perhaps what I need is some "dragon medicine", as mentioned today on the BBC News website. The story explains early on that these Chinese villagers had mistaken dinosaur bones for "dragon" bones and that "Local people used the bones as medicine to treat conditions such as dizziness and leg cramps... they were also made into a paste and applied to fractures and other injuries." If it was used to treat leg cramps I wonder if it would be any good for lower back pain?

On the one hand a report like this could be dismissed as a silly little story, but I think it's quite interesting - however, one thing that I think is missing in the story is something to let us know about whether or not dinosaur bones actually do work for leg cramps, dizziness and fracture (the various entries on Chinese and Eastern medicine in Wikipedia that I looked at have no mention of dinosaur bones).

There we go, just something slight for today; I had to help out again this morning in the Graduate School, so I am a little behind on the other stuff that I need to do before I spend pretty much the whole of next week away. Monday through Wednesday noisms should be posting some things that I'm writing today and tomorrow to keep up my regular contributions to the blog. It's possible (though not certain) that they may be short fictions, or parts of some longer story.

We'll see.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Lawyers, Guns and Money

One of my favourite songs is Lawyers, Guns and Money by Warren Zevon, and my favourite part in it is the part just after he's sung the line about "hiding in Honduras...a desperate man...I said lawyers, guns and money...the shit has hit the fan", whereupon he sings the title lyric again and then lets out this little whoop of what can only be described as glee. It's a great moment. He's singing about being in dire straits in foreign lands, but he clearly loves it.

The attitude in that song reminds me a little of Hunter S. Thompson, and the collection of his early letters I've just been reading called The Proud Highway. In it, Thompson bounces from country to country in Latin America, getting into scrapes, drinking too much, and writing articles for newspapers; he's permanently broke, often sick, always in trouble, but clearly loving it.

When I was younger that was just the kind of life I wanted to lead. Travelling the world, living off my wits and, ideally, having sex with an endless line of beautiful exotic women. I even drew up a plan towards this end, whereby I would go to Tokyo at the age of 21, then each year move to a new country and a new city until the age of 30. This morning I got a little depressed thinking about that plan and how I'd fallen at the first hurdle - getting to Tokyo and then stopping, like I'd hit a wall.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I have lived quite an exciting life, and done a whole load of things I can tell the grandkids about. I've seen hugely built Russian marines on leave in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan throwing vodka bottles at passing traffic and being told off by an old woman and shamed by her into stopping. I've bribed officials on two separate occasions, in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and felt absolute icy terror doing it. I've been in countries where civil wars are being fought. I've come within a hair of being arrested by Israeli soldiers for trespassing in an abandoned, bullet-hole ridden holiday camp on the Jordanian border with my sister. I've got lost in Hong Kong. I've been to the docks in Singapore. I've gone drinking with Mongolians in Yokohama. I've had a fight with Turks in Tokyo.

I might not be Hunter Thompson, but I reckon I've given a good account of myself. Thankfully, I think I've avoided becoming one of those "travellers" who spends their gap year on beaches in Thailand and Bali, visits Ankor Wat, gets a tattoo, and thinks they've "seen the world".

I didn't have sex with as many exotic and beautiful women as I'd have liked, though. That's more of a journey than a destination.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Gone Fishin'

Another day draws to a close, and so I open up Blogger and think about what to write. Well, for one thing, I won't be updating tomorrow! I know, you're probably as upset as I am, but there it is. I've been offered a two week position as an administrative assistant with a university department (running residential careers workshops for second year post-graduate students) and there will be no internet access pretty much throughout the duration.

Tomorrow I'm actually helping in that department, and then I'm as normal on Friday, but for Monday to Thursday next week and Monday to Wednesday (at least) of the week after I'm effectively persona non internetis as the old Latin phrase goes. noisms and I are looking into some workaround, so that I'll write something in advance and he'll post it in my name, but I just didn't have time to get anything prepared for tomorrow. I'm hoping to get things so that there will be material for at least three posts between next Monday and Thursday, and then definitely one on the Friday, so let's be hopeful, yes?

Of course, the great news today was the release of journalist Alan Johnston, after nearly four months I was beginning to think that perhaps he was going to become another casualty of the senseless conflicts in the Middle East (yes, senseless - there doesn't seem much sense in people on either side of the struggles who say they want peace but act by picking up a gun). And from all of the talk that certain groups in the region are saying, maybe his release is an all round positive step forward for the future stability of the region.

I hope so.

It's good to see that something brilliant like this has been recognized today, but the cynic in me is already wondering about what the next ridiculous news story will be that rises up (I'm thinking celebrities in jail, celebrities being stupid, Big Brother, you know, the usual rubbish) and completely takes over top stories and headlines...

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Stravinsky and Barthes

Igor Stravinsky is one of my favourite composers. The Firebird and The Rite of Spring are, I think, two of the weirdest and most wonderful pieces of music ever written; by turns beautiful, wild, cold and unearthly. They're brilliant examples of the last flourish of Modernism; Stravinsky was to classical music what Wallace Stevens was to poetry - the zenith, the apex, before traditional Western art collapsed into naval-gazing, alienating postmodernism.

So I was interested to read the other day a quote by Stravinsky, who once remarked that "music is, by its very nature, powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc...If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion, and not a reality."

Which is odd, because it is reminiscent of the Arch Pontiff of postmodernism, Roland Barthes, and his famous assertion that the publishing of a work of literature constitutes the "Death of the Author". It was Barthes' belief that, when setting a novel loose upon the world, the author loses all control of it and it becomes a text wholly in the power of the reader to interpret and analyse. Stravinsky's comment seems to me to be hinting at the same thing (postmodern ideas being confirmed by one of the great figures of Modernism); once a work of music has been created, the composer's ideas and designs for it become meaningless because it now belongs to the listeners.

I'm not quite sure that I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Postmodern theories and tropes always seem to me to be either completely banal (racism and sexism are bad, truth is contextual), or completely absurd (everything, including the holocaust and your breakfast, is a text), and this is really a little bit of both. But it certainly made me think, and the more I think about it, the more I start to see Stravinsky's point. Music, much more than literature, is for the listener to interpret, and while it is overstating the case that "music is...powerless to express anything at all", it is certainly true that once the listener hears a piece of music, the composer is powerless to influence their reaction, however much they might wish it were otherwise.

Everyone knows the story of how Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA, for example, somehow morphed from a song about bitter veterans of the Vietnam War into a jingoistic anthem in the mind of Ronald Reagan during the 1980's. Every Breath You Take was originally intended to be a study in voyeurism and stalking by Sting, but it is now a common feature on "Great Romantic Love Songs" compilation albums in HMV. Somewhere Over the Rainbow's lyrics are deeply melancholic, penned by a deeply melancholy man, but it now seems the very embodiment of hope - thanks to Judy Garland. You Were Always on My Mind is a very different beast when sung by Willie Nelson when compared to Elvis.

By a neat little twist, it was Stravinksy himself who was one of the most unfortunate victims of this, which is perhaps why he made the statement in question: when Walt Disney decided to use The Rite of Spring for his film Fantasia, he not only completely altered Stravinsky's original vision (changing the piece from an elegaic celebration of pagan Russia to an account of how dinosaurs lived), he also cut out whole segments, changed the order of huge swathes, and even fiddled with the rhythms. The "Death of the Composer", indeed.

I intend to follow this blog entry up with an essay for Harpers on the deconstruction of the song, I've Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts.

A Question of Science, and Ethics

An interesting news story that I read today ran with the almost gratuitous headline "Girl could give birth to sibling". Incest isn't the order of the day, rather we have a seven year old girl who has a genetic disorder which could (that's right, could) mean that she is infertile. Her mother wants her to lead as normal a life as possible, and to that end has made arrangements for some of her own eggs to be frozen so that if one day she decides to try to have children there are some eggs available which she can use for IVF if she chooses to (that's right, if she chooses to).

Thus, any resulting child would technically be the girl's half-sister.

Some ethics committees think that this is venturing into dangerous territory, and you can understand why in some ways. How should such a child be viewed? The girl's sister or her daughter? The mother's child or her grandchild? What will the child feel? What sense of identity will she have?

These are all important questions to be sure, and interesting ones, but aren't we forgetting the most important point: Aren't all these questions a bit premature? The fertility clinic that will store the eggs has already weighed the arguments on some of these issues and decided to store the eggs, so why is there a huge debate about it still?

Once again people point to science allowing "unnatural" situations, but is it so unnatural to want your children to have a family? We are not talking about a science fiction mad scientist, we are talking about a mother's love for her daughter.

What this all boils down to, surely, is that one day (years from now) if the daughter is infertile and if she decides to try to have a child then her mother has donated some eggs that she could use if she chooses, or she could simply use some other donor eggs. Those are three quite big ifs to be honest: it is possible that she could conceive naturally (Turner syndrome does not mean she will definitely be infertile, and despite some comments on a BBC forum it does not guarantee that she will have profound learning difficulties either); perhaps the daughter will decide that she doesn't want a family at all; maybe the daughter will decide to adopt in order to have a family.

Family. I think that is the most important thing here. The mother has made this provision, after much deliberation herself, because she loves her daughter and is thinking about her future happiness. There are other options if the girl one day wants to have a family, this is just one of them.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Equality and Proportionality

I've been watching Save Planet Earth on the BBC these last couple of nights. It's nice to get the chance to see intelligent programming about the environment that doesn't mention carbon footprints and emission trading (yawn). Instead, the series has focused on plain, old-fashioned conservation: protecting endangered species from disappearing.

It has concentrated to a large extent on what is, to me, the key issue regarding conversation - namely the importance of balancing the progress of the developing world with the safety of animal populations in those areas. The programmes have been very careful to highlight the importance of incorporating the needs and desires of local people into conservation efforts; hence tonight's episode (on the Ethiopian Wolf) devoted some minutes to investigating how environmentalists in Southern Ethiopia concentrate much of their efforts on educating people in sustainable farming and development.

I'm all for supporting such projects, but whenever I hear about them I'm always reminded of the apparently inescapable hypocrisy of the West - the different standards we set for developing countries and ourselves. We've seen it most recently from the attitude towards China's rising carbon emissions; people worry and fret that "two coal power stations open in China every week" - the implication being that China is the real threat regarding climate change and the rest of us need not bother doing anything about it - forgetting that, per capita, Western countries produce vastly more Carbon than China. But we also see it in the conservation movement. Western countries have been singularly poor at conserving their animal populations - wolves, bears and wild boar were hunted to extinction over a few hundred years in Britain, for example - and yet we're the keenest to force other people in the world to inhibit their own development in order to protect other animal species.

I'm sure that it can be argued that we, in the West, having effectively destroyed our countries as natural "wilderness" environments, are now in a good position to persuade people in the developing world not to make the same mistakes that we have. But I'm not so sure. That position, I think, would require a genuine recalcitrance on our part which doesn't actually seem to be there. (It might be demonstrated by a greater willingness to reopen areas to wilderness.) As it stands, our position is essentially that people in developing countries should make sacrifices for the environment that we never made during our development, and which we are still largely unwilling to make. Do as we say, in other words, not as we do. I hardly need point out how inadequate that is.

It reminds me of a statement I read recently made by a Chinese representative to the Human Rights Committee in 1997, in defence of his country's human rights record. "The developed Western countries," he said, "have the unshirkable responsibility for the human rights problems the world faces today...how come 1.3 billion people are living in poverty? Does it have nothing to do with the aggression, exploitation and plundering by the colonialists of the past? Isn't it the consequence of the irrational international economic order established by the developed countries?" One is tempted to note that much the same argument can be applied to environmental issues: the West is largely responsible for the damage that humans have done to the natural world, and yet we are mostly happy to foist future responsibility, and blame for current problems, onto the Third World. Why, when we abused our own environments during our industrial development, do we expect other countries to do the opposite?

That doesn't mean that efforts don't need to be made on the part of developing countries to protect their natural places (nor to protect the human rights of their citizens); it just means that those efforts should be concurrent with equal and proportionate efforts on our part, too. Otherwise our hand-wringing and moralising is worse than meaningless.

Wiki Surprises, and Non Sequiturs

Struggling to think of something to write about, I turn to Wikipedia to inspire me, and notice some curious things as I alternate between random links and following links embedded in entries.

You see, I was thinking about talking about LOL BOTS which is perhaps one of the most random things that I have come across on the internet. LOL BOTS is itself an extension of something else (substituting robots in the concept of the lolcat), and the idea is a juxtaposition of a possibly non-funny picture with some kind of humourous comment or caption in some kind of gamer/internet slang. It's hard to explain. I'm not, at times, even sure why this kind of "non-sequitur" humour works, but it does, it really does.

Or is it only me that finds it funny? It's the same with megagamerz 3l33t, which I found absolutely hysterical (and sincerely think it a shame that the writer no longer does it) and often have difficulty explaining.

"Er, yeah, so there are these two characters, and basically they have a conversation over an increasingly complex background of altered images probably found from Google Image Search and their conversation is not really a conversation, but more a series of statements that shock and amuse greatly."

I've gone off on a tangent: did you know that Neneh Cherry is Swedish?

Surprised the heck out of me.

Is LOL BOTS really non-sequitur humour? Why do I think that it is if it really is not? Does a non-sequitur work if it doesn't follow from anything? And is a non-sequitur in media always used to comic effect? Wikipedia says yes, and who am I to argue?

I have no explanation for this post other than the day was drawing to a close, my jeans are still wet from walking to the office from the station first thing this morning, and also the reason why I got onto Wikipedia in the first place was to see if LOL BOTS had an entry.

It does not.

Who left this closing question here?