Friday, 31 August 2007


Three times a year I leap into the fray to help with exam invigilation for students who require separate supervision. Some of these students get extra time to compensate for various disabilities, and some need separate supervision because they suffer from things like panic attacks or weak bladders. It's a fairly good seasonal job, as it gives you a lot of time for pure thinking, unable to check your email or be distracted by the siren call of the internet.

January and May are the regular exam sessions, whereas in late August and early September we have resits. Two days ago I was supervising and scribing for a student who was sitting an exam for the fourth time. It was especially painful for me, having to scribe a foundation level maths exam for a student who clearly doesn't know his stuff. Part of me wonders why he has been allowed to resit this again - previously he's had to resit the entire year because he failed to pass so many exams - and he has two more resits next week.

You just know that things aren't going to go well when the first thing that a student says (for a paper called Calculus 1) is "I'm not going to pass this, I still don't know differentiation and integration"... The second thing that he said was "I've been staying up late revising all week, I think all the Red Bull has made me sick," just as he cracked open a can and took a big drink from it...

I don't know about universities elsewhere in the country, let alone the world, but going on what I have seen over the last few years it seems that Liverpool is fairly easy-going when it comes to allowing students to resit exams and re-take years (perhaps too relaxed). For the majority of students resitting anything never enters the equation, but I've seen too many situations since I started helping with invigilation where students are time and again given every opportunity to get it together (I'm not talking about the odd resit, I'm referring to serial resitters). For some, like the Red Bull addict, it's not entirely their fault: try as he might he might never pass his foundation year, but if he has tried his best there is no shame in not passing. Whilst I am the first person to talk up the benefits and brilliance of higher education I also recognise that it is not for everyone - academic achievement is not within the reach of all, but it's a big world and there are plenty of opportunities out there.

I cast a suspicious glance at my university in all this though. In allowing students who are possibly incapable of passing exams to resit them they keep down the statistics of students who drop out - and coupled with year on year increases in the total number of students means that if/when they do drop out the overall statistics will seem lower.

Another benefit for the university in all this is that tuition fees (now higher than ever in the UK) keep rolling in while students keep repeating years...

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Getting Out Of Blogger Jail Free

One of my little pet peeves is bloggers who just talk about blogging all the time - unless they do it well. Stephen Fry once wrote in a newspaper column before he was famous that a columnist should be allowed one Get Out Of Jail Free card, whereby once in his career he can get away with writing about writing a column, and once only - and I absolutely agree. Well, take this as my Blogger Get Out Of Jail Free entry. I'll never write about 'blogging' ever again.

Perhaps it's because I've been living in Japan, where people are still polite and grounded enough to think "nobody wants to read what I have to say, so why yell it around the internet?", and consequently blogging is still basically a non-event. Perhaps it's because I've had a livejournal since the year 2000, so the whole blogging idea is just, like, so yesterday to me. But I'm surprised at how much the idea has permeated our culture. Take for example:

  • McDonald's has a Corporate Responsibility Blog in which it gives "personal perspectives on the issues...and open assessments on the challenges we face. (In the entry for August 20th, the writer wonders, with obvious irritation, why it is that even when the company put "100% Beef" labels on their hamburgers, customers still refused to believe that they were indeed 100% beef. I dunno - could it be because you call the bloody things hamburgers? I was going to accuse the writers of lacking a sense of humour, but then I noticed that they've created something called the "Global Advisory Council on Balanced Active Lifestyles", so I realised they must have a good one after all.)
  • There are companies such as Awareness out there whose stated goals are to "lead the market with [their] robust blogging capabilities and strong strategic vision" by organising "webinars" (!) to help companies "leverage their Web 2.0 content". Apparently, it hosts blogs. The William Gibson bit is that "Major corporations...use Awareness to improve employee communication and collaboration, drive new forms of revenue and channels, conduct market research and create a corporate memory". In other words, big corporations are now co-opting blogging (and wiki stuff too - the kids are calling it "Web 2.0", apparently) in order to, well...I'm not sure, but it's definitely something, and if I've read my No Logo, I'm sure it's bound to be something sinister.
  • The people at businessweek believe that it's only a matter of time before people in corporate jobs will be "filling out a profile of some sort and contributing some knowledge and insights [if they're not doing so already]. Bosses might not call it blogging. But they'll be evaluating you, your contacts, your team play and your expertise by analysing your Web 2.0 output - whatever they choose to call it."
In other words, blogs are important, and pretty soon they're going to be another means by which companies hire and fire employees and give them promotions and raises. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

You Damn Dirty Ape!

I watched the original "Planet Of The Apes" for the first time ever on Monday. Once again I marvel at how I have reached this age without having seen a certain great movie or read a certain great novel (this week I'll be reading Jane Eyre), but there is something about "Planet Of The Apes" which is truly amazing. I expected it to be good, or possibly great, because of its reputation, because of the make-up effects, because of THAT final shot.

I didn't find any trace of it in the Wikipedia article (not that I think of Wiki as having the final word on the matter), but I couldn't help but wonder if it was seen as a controversial film when it was first released nearly forty years ago. The remake was controversial because it was just a bad film (and we won't say any more about it), but there was something about the original one when I saw it the other day that made me think "This film wouldn't get made today." It reels you in with a "B movie with a budget" kind of feel and look, and then all of a sudden you realise that not only is the film quite, quite serious about its subject but that it's also very, very intelligent as well - and has a great sense of humour too.

None of the humour is ever at the expense of the ape characters, but rather arises because they are thoughtful and expressive characters - in fact all of the characters come across as fully formed and three-dimensional. The sly smile on Zira's face as she offers an old man a sugar cube touched me, as did her statement at the end about Taylor's ugliness - if she, as his main friend in the ape community and one of the leading proponents on the value of humans, can't get past her casual prejudices what hope do humans really have in the apes' world?

The explanation of the final shot is even more haunting now: so many apes and other higher mammals are threatened with extinction today, it's doubtful that they have sufficient numbers to survive a planetary disaster that would threaten us, let alone rise up over man...


One of the most astute observations that most astute observer, Milan Kundera, made, was that it is always the most banal discoveries that shock us the most. I was thinking about that earlier, while re-reading Embracing Defeat, a book I've written about in this blog before. It's a truism that during the Second World War and in its aftermath the world suffered incredible trauma on a scale never before experienced. And yet that banal fact still finds the capacity to be shocking in the most unexpected ways.

It was one paragraph that floored me. In the last weeks of the war, the Soviets declared war on Japan, and in a final desparate land grab, invaded Manchuria. The Japanese soldiers facing them were utterly demoralised, and the Soviet victory was absolute. Some 1.6 million Japanese were taken prisoner. By 1947 625,000 had been repatriated, but for years there was only silence from the the USSR regarding the rest, some of whom arrived, illegally, in dribs and drabs.

In the spring of 1949, Dower writes, after repeated prodding by occupation authorities, the USSR announced that only 95,000 prisoners remained, all of whom would be returned by the end of the year. According to Japanese and American calculations, the actual number should have been 400,000. Suddenly, more than 300,000 Japanese were unaccounted for. And here's the part that still has the capacity to shock: Over four decades later, the Soviet Union finally released the names of 46,000 Japanese known to be buried in Siberia. The overall numbers never jibed.

Dower goes on to say that "the fate of these Japanese is a neglected chapter among the countless epic tragedies of World War II," and he is undoubtedly right. What sorrow: over 200,000 men still formally unaccounted for, with families who never saw them again and yet never had the closure of knowing that their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers were dead and they could begin grieving. Who still, to this day, don't know what happened to them. I don't know how one could live with that unbearable not-knowing; obviously, thousands upon thousands of Japanese had to.

The saddest thing is that such cruelty was perpetuated so casually. It was as if it never occurred to the Soviet authorities that it might be possible to behave in a decent, humane way - that at the very least they might be able to provide some basic information that would console hundreds of thousands of devastated families. Instead their Japanese prisoners were consigned to oblivion without, apparently, a second thought, and their fates will never be uncovered.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Thoughts On Maths

I'm approaching the end of the research time for my PhD studies. Soon I will have to close all my open lines of inquiry and focus solely on the task of writing up. With a bit of luck - and a lot of work - I hope to have my thesis finished soon into the new year. At the minute I have no firm plans for what I'll do after my studies are all complete (which in an ideal world would be some time around May), but I'm sure something will come along.

At the moment though I still have a few things that I'm trying to sort out. There are a few little questions that I'm sure I can answer with just a bit more thought and consideration (who knows, maybe some reading will help), but time is running out and I'm starting to doubt that I have enough time in the next month in order to get the answers that I'm hoping for.

As ever, I'm convinced that these answers, these truths, already exist in some abstract sense. I've spent some time thinking about my problems (in the mathematical sense - I'm in denial about the others) and I can almost touch what I'm looking for. It feels as if I can just stretch my arm a little further I'll be able to grab a hold of the proofs that I'm after; also I'm thinking about the results I already have and how they can be improved or how proofs that I already have can be written more elegantly.

Today was my first day back in the office from my holidays, and already I can feel that my sleep in the coming weeks will be less restful. At the same time I can't help but feel really excited about the challenge ahead. I find whenever I'm working creatively in this way that all kinds of other creative things and ideas start coming together in my head. I don't know about other areas of research, but over the last few years I have definitely found that maths research follows a cyclic pattern when it comes to productivity. I have a sense that I'm approaching a peak rather than a trough, I just hope that it will last a long time...

In the next few days I'll try to find some time to talk some more about my time in Edinburgh, but I think that tomorrow I might write about my thoughts on a film that I saw for the very first time yesterday, "Planet Of The Apes"...

Monday, 27 August 2007

More Linguistic Ramblings

Following on from my previous post, it appears that many words in Lithuanian and Sanskrit show surprising resemblances. According to the Wikipedia article,
"the Lithuanian and Sanskrit words sūnus (son) and avis (sheep) are exactly the same, and many other word pairs differ only slightly, such as dūmas for smoke (dhumas in Sanskrit), antras for second (antaras in Sanskrit), and vilkas for wolf (vrkas in Sanskrit)."

Another of history's little surprises. Who would have thought that the Balts, for so long the last bastion of pagan belief in Europe, a nation of peasants living on the cold shores of a North European sea, should speak a language so similar to the speech of classical India and the Vedas?

Baltic Base

More ramblings on linguistics. I've become fascinated by the idea of proto-Indo-European, the tongue of a group of people who lived many thousands of years ago in Anatolia, India or the Ukraine (depending on who you read) and who eventually spread all across Europe and South Asia to make their language the ancestor to all the Indo-European ones we know today - Sanksrit, English, French, Latvian, Hindi, Sinhalese, Farsi, Albanian, Armenian, and all the rest.

What's most interesting is that linguists believe they can reconstruct this language through the techniques of comparative and Diachronic linguistics. By comparing words in various Indo-European languages and measuring how those words have changed through history, they can approximate what those words sounded like in proto-Indo-European. Examples include ekwos, horse; wodr, water; kwon, dog. The numerals 1-10 are thought to have been hoi-no, dwo, tri, k'etwor, penk'e, sweks, septm, okto, hinewn, and dekmt.

Surprisingly, the languages which are reckoned to be closest in character to proto-Indo-European today are Lithuanian and Latvian. That close pair, together with the now extinct Old Prussian, are extremely conservative languages - that is, they change little over time. It is thought that these modern day Balts are descendants of a group of people who left the Ukraine thousands of years ago and made their way to the Baltic Sea; they spoke a 'daughter language' of proto-Indo-European that has changed little since, diversifying slightly into the modern dialects we call Lithuanian and Latvian.

This makes me want to learn Lithuanian or Latvian. I've sometimes toyed with the idea of learning Gaelic, my ancestral language, but now I think hey, why stop there? Why not just go closer to the source? First I have to find a textbook on Lithuanian or Latvian and then I can get started...the question is: which should it be?

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Green, schmeen

I'm suspicious about the term 'ethical'; as in, "eco-friendly toys and clothes for ethically reared tots", or "her biggest challenge was establishing a fully organic and ethical chain of suppliers". The word seems to have morphed from its original meaning of 'pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality' into 'being in line with recieved wisdom on which products are the right ones to buy'. In other words, let's not think about morals any more - let's just bandy around words like 'eco-friendly' and 'organic' and 'holistic' and kid ourselves that if we buy products with those words on the labels, we'll be living ethical lifestyles and 'ethically rearing' our 'tots'. (Forgetting that ethically rearing 'tots' is more to do with how they treat other human beings than whether or not their clothes and toys are made from special handgrown wheatgrass.)

When it comes to these matters, I seem to get more cynical by the day. Firstly, I'm wary of anybody who lays claim to their own ethics beings right without being able to explain exactly why. Eco-friendly toys made in Berkshire by middle-class mums might be great for kids (I'm not sure they are, but whatever), but if we all bought them we could do considerable damage to the economies of developing nations: Taiwan built a powerhouse economy on the back of manufacturing very cheap toys amongst other things, and it is now a prosperous society. Countries like Vietnam are now in a position to do the same thing, and who are we to deny them that opportunity because suddenly it's cool to go 'organic'? Factory jobs in those countries are tough, and need more regulation, but how are we helping in that respect by just switching our spending patterns to 'organic' toys? In other words, regardless of what you believe, it seems there is a genuine ethical debate to be had here, but it is brushed under the carpet because the word 'ethical' has been co-opted by one movement. One side is 'ethical' so the other must be unethical - but we aren't allowed to question why.

Secondly, I'm irritated when I see a vested interest of any kind. People have seemingly no problem in discounting research funded by the tobacco industry, or the oil industry, or major airlines, or McDonald's, because rightly they know that such research is tainted by subconscious or conscious bias. And yet even though the organic eco-warrior movement is equally a vested interest, with billions of dollars at stake, the spotlight is almost never turned on how that vested interest might be influencing research. Why is it that whenever I hear about a new eco-friendly product I immediately wonder if it is an honest attempt to go green or just another entrepeneur who has discovered a niche and is about to milk it for all its worth?

Anyway, I urge you to check out, just to prove that I'm not such a cynic after all. The organisation allows you to loan money to a specific entrepeneur in the developing world, which they will pay back to you as their business develops. In other words, it's an extension of the microfinancing concept which has been so succesful in countries such as Bangladesh and, I think, a brilliant way to donate without turning the reciever into a helpless victim or taking away their dignity and pride. I'm reliably informed by a friend that within two weeks, eight of the eleven people she had lent money to were already making repayments.

Saturday, 25 August 2007


When I was 18, I had this plan to live for a year in ten of the world's most famous and interesting cities. First up was Tokyo, and that was in the end as far as I got. (Well, I suppose you could include Yokohama, which in many ways is actually more interesting than Tokyo.) I'd still like to do it, someday. There's something about a huge metropolis - a Tokyo, a London, a New York, an Istanbul, a Paris - that makes me excited just to be alive; a small cog in a vast and incomrehensible, chaotic machine.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Forgotten Lessons

I've been reading about the Korean War recently. It seems obvious to the point of banality to point out, but the world has changed by a shocking extent in the fifty or so years since the war ended. Most noticeably, at that time Communism was seen as a perfidious evil, a threat to civilisation as we then knew it, to be resisted at all costs. The question in 1950 seemed not to be if a clash between the Soviet Union and the USA and its allies would occur, but when. Now Communism has been abandoned wholesale and its power to affect world events forever broken.

What's also noticeable is that the West's attitude to war and sacrifice has effectively U-turned. The USA lost 43,000 of its servicemen killed in the three years of war in Korea; Britain over 1,500. In Iraq the combined total for both nations approaches 4,000 after four years and is considered awfully high. Priorities have shifted, and now it seems that death in combat is something that is supposed to happen to people from other countries; never our own. When that myth is shattered we are shocked, as if combat deaths for British and Americans are tragedies rather than a natural and obvious consequence of war.

The Korean War also symbolises that old adage about those who forget the past being condemned to repeat it; the Korean War has often been called 'the forgotten war' and so we should expect that in its case the adage will be doubly true. Indeed this is so: the US military stormed into Korea expecting to sort out the 'gook' problem in a matter of weeks and then return to a life of luxury in occupied Japan, but instead during the summer of 1950 it suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of a vastly underestimated enemy which would take great sacrifice to overcome. That sounds like a fifty-year-old replay of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath, and just goes to reinforce the truism that the GOP hawks made a catastrophic mistake in those rudely optimistic days following the fall of Saddam.

But it also shows that the current 'stop the war' and 'troops out now' brigade could be equally misguided. A lot of the criticisms at the time of the Korean War could be echoed today: America was backing a corrupt and incompetent government without the support of the people; by staying it was doing more harm than good; in its insistence on the 'War on Communism' it was on a hiding to nothing. Fifty years on and those arguments seem ridiculous, even mendacious; thanks to the USA, Britain, Turkey, France and all those others who contributed troops, South Korea is now a free, wealthy, democratic society where it could have been just an extension of Kim Jong Il's personal fief. If the doves had had their way, today fifty million more Koreans would be being starved and brutally repressed instead of living in comfort.

I'm not sure what I believe about Iraq any more, but what I am sure of is that the modern opponents to the ongoing occupation are rather too certain that what they are arguing is the right thing. Similar voices were certain too during the Korean War, and fifty years have proved them wrong. Nobody knows what fifty years will tell us about the occupation of Iraq, but the lesson of Korea tells us that it's often more important to 'stay the course' than to turn and run. Probably the whole thing should never have happened, but now that it has we still have to make the best of it.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

noisms is older

Today noisms joins me at the grand old age of 26. The few times that I've been online this week and checked the blog (still in Scotland and so away from my own computer until at least Tuesday) he hadn't posted, so perhaps he has been going crazy on some week-long bender... Yeah, that sounds just like him, or at least noisms the way he used to be.

I've known noisms since about the age of five, although we wouldn't really become good friends until later on in high school. His parents are quite thankful for the calming influence that my friendship with noisms has had, especially in bringing him out of gang culture and curbing some of his tendencies. If only they knew the truth...

I'd known noisms since a young age, but somewhere along the way he got mixed up with a mid-level girl gang who wanted a guy around as a kind of pet/mascot. noisms didn't see it that way, thought he was the rooster among the hens. After a few incidents, the girls thought it was time to bring him down a peg or two, but in setting him to cross paths with me he ended up leaving the gang and has stayed more or less on the straight and narrow ever since.

(The Short Version: he had some knuckle dusters, but I had the moves - after he got out of the hospital and his physiotherapy ended we became really good friends)

Happy birthday noisms! (if I hadn't pulled my punches you'd be dead)

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Origins of Things

Well, I've been busy, and in my absence it seems that zero_zero_one has turned into a gibbering idiot. I'm sorry I allowed that to happen, and more sorry that you had to go through reading it.

Anyway, I've been thinking about unusual word origins. Yucatan is a famous example. When the Conquistadores first came ashore in the peninsular, or so the story goes, they asked the local people where they were, and naturally enough recieved the answer "I don't understand" - which the Spanish then assumed was the name of the place. Alas, the story is apocryphal - the name actually derives from the Nahuatl word Yokatlaan, or 'rich place' - but still, it's a good one nonetheless.

My interest in hyraxes is well documented. What I didn't realise was that not only are they cute and furry and related to elephants, they also gave us our name for Spain. When the Phoenicians first arrived in Iberia they saw rabbits for the first time, and so they naturally named the country after the closest thing in their experience to rabbits - the hyraxes of the Levant. That word - i-shapan-im, 'land of the hyraxes' - became the loan word in Latin Hispania, hence Espana, hence Spain. Hyraxes: is there anything they can't do?

Our word for the North Indian versian of Hindi, Urdu, comes from the Persian Zabaan-i-urduu, or 'language of the camp'; the word urduu is a corruption of the Turkish ordu, the name for the camp which constituted the capital of the Golden Horde, the successor state to the Mongolian Empire. That word then, also became the English word horde, meaning that it has the exact same origin as our name for the language of Pakistan.

I'm full of these little titbits, which I can never seem to make into a proper blog entry. Instead, I'll leave you to take from them what you will, and post another picture of a hyrax, just because I can:

Another Stray Moment

Today (technically yesterday, seeing as how it is quarter to one in the morning) I met up with an old friend who I've not seen in a long time. We've been friends for years, but living at such a great distance has meant that it's not been easy to see one another often, and my memory tells me it might be as long as two or even three years since we last met.

And yet... In some ways it felt like no time had passed at all. Rachel was, despite the passing of years and now being a fully qualified doctor, still just the same wonderful person that I remember her being. Pretty soon we were talking as we always did, catching up on the comings and goings of various people, and finding out what was new in our lives. It was a shame that we only had an hour and a bit to talk, far too short...

One thing which amazed me were her first words (they almost beat "hello") which were "Oh my gosh, you've changed!" This puzzled me for a while, I didn't know quite how to take it... Eventually, in a pause in the conversation I asked her what she had meant; I thought it might have been because I was dressed quite smartly for the opera I had just come from (La Didone, more on that and my other Edinburgh experiences soon), but her answer surprised me, it really wasn't anything I could have expected.

"As soon as I saw you I could just tell, you're much calmer, more at peace..."

And thinking about it, I suppose I am.

The explanation and thoughts on that are a story for another time I think (how many stories and explanations do I owe now?)...

Monday, 20 August 2007


Another short post, simply to say that after having been around the National Gallery of Scotland I have found my "Thomas Crown" painting, the picture that I would pull off an elaborate heist for simply so that I could sit down for one evening and look at it in the comfort of my home.

I'm not sure how I would do it, but the self portrait of Rembrandt at the age of 51 just calls to me...

Solving the Cube

I can't link to it since I'm writing from my phone, but an interesting story that I saw in the last few days (BBC News Online, technology section) related the news that some computer scientists have proved a new solution regarding Rubik's Cube. What amazed me (and I'm not sure why, as thinking about it it is a perfect source for potentially interesting and media-friendly research) was the idea that so much work has been done on solutions and results for the Rubik's Cube.

According to the article there are 43 billion billion different configurations of the cube - and the newly proven result shows that all of these can be restored to the starting configuration with at most 26 twists. This is now the new upper bound on the so-called "God's Number", i.e., the number of moves God would use to solve a given configuration of the Rubik's Cube. They also believe that this bound is not sharp, meaning that with future research they aim to show that any configuration can be solved with less than 26 moves.

I don't know... I guess I had God pegged as more of a Sudoku kind of guy... But seriously, I do wonder a little at this kind of research. It's not knowledge for the sake of it, and it's not knowledge without application, but it does make one think about the way that we rank the importance of various research projects. It's an incredible achievement when you consider the numbers involved, but in the grand scheme of things what does it really mean, what does it offer?

Or maybe I'm just jealous because I've not done any research yet which aims towards the "final word" on something.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

He's behind you!

While they're still fresh in my mind, I just had to share two more of the funny moments from last night's "The Matrix - The Pantomime"...

Neo and Trinity have arrived outside the building where Morpheus is being held, and Neo has just finished detailing his plan for their leader's rescue, the usual "kill everything that moves, pilot a helicopter down the side of a skyscraper" routine...

Trinity: "But Neo there's just one flaw-"
Neo: "No, I've thought of everything, it's perfect!"
Trinity: "No Neo, there's just one *floor* - due to budget constraints in this panto, the agents are holding Morpheus captive in a bungalow..."

Shortly afterwards when Neo first confronts Agent Smith we have the following exchange (remember, Hugo Weaving played Smith in the films):

Smith: "Welcome to Rivendell, Mr Anderson."
Neo: "What are you *Tolkien* about?!"
Smith: "This bungalow Mr Anderson, I called it Rivendell, didn't you see the pretty sign outside. I don't know, I thought it had a nice... *ring* to it..."

Saturday, 18 August 2007

The "One" and Only

I wanted to come to Edinburgh originally out of a desire to see something of the Film Festival, but when I realised that the Fringe Festival would still be on I decided that it would be stupid not to have a look around at all of the other theatre and music\dance things that were on.

For those not in the know (not that I know a lot about it myself) the Fringe is a longstanding festival in Edinburgh, wellknown in Britain mainly for giving big breaks to comedians and actors. It has a reputation for oddities and weirdness, as well as for innovation and originality. In the last few years I think that reputation has matured as well, and people recognise that there are lots of genuinely interesting and groundbreaking theatre coming out of the Fringe Festival.

With that in mind, my first taste of the Fringe was an hour long play: "The Matrix - The Pantomime".

Filled with dreadful puns, riffs on popular culture, adaptations of cheesy songs and playing on all the usual panto staples (male hero played by a girl, pantomime dame "Mrs The Oracle" played by a guy) it was the perfect start to my festival experience following a good (if wet) day walking around Edinburgh. It was a great, gloriously silly hour, with lots of absurd postmodern moments.

"Yes Neo?"
"Why are we eating this soup with forks?"
"There *are* no spoons..."

Tomorrow: the European Premiere of Knocked Up! Will there be celebrities in attendance??? We can but hope!

To be continued...

Friday, 17 August 2007

20 Minutes

I have 20 minutes until my connecting train arrives. This will be my fourth and final train of the day. The first was cancelled partway through its journey, the second was ok, and then the third I had to stand for 90 minutes until we got here to Carlisle.

And it turns out that I've booked my ticket to a stop early! Quite an achievement... Well, there are three stations in Edinburgh, I just happened to pick the wrong one. Sigh. Shouldn't be a problem on the way back, but it's an added expense now, have no idea how much they'll charge me, they (train operators) can be kind of mercenary about these things.

My first week off has been alright, quite relaxing for the most part. Went to the cinema three times (Paris je t'aime, Waitress, The Bourne Ultimatum - first and last very good, middle one only so-so), watched some DVDs, read some books and watched the entire second season of Ghost In The Shell Stand Alone Complex.

A thought: get to the ticket office and get this extra ticket now!

To be continued...

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Top 5 Japanese Sporting Events

So, in honour of zero_zero_one, who played his first game of football the other day, today's Japan Top 5 is all about sport. I should say, first of all, that I'm probably the exact opposite of my co-blogger, in that I love literally every sport you could name, and can quite happily sit all day watching or listening to whatever game happens to be on TV or the radio, especially if beer is also near at hand. Nothing can beat the live event, though, and Japan is a brilliant place to watch live sport; one of the things the country is less well known for is its rabid sporting enthusiasm - even if the Japanese remain charmingly incompetent at anything other than Judo and Sumo.

1. Yakult Swallows vs. Hanshin Tigers at Jingu Stadium.

Baseball is Japan's real national sport, and whenever I go to a baseball game in Japan I always think that it's a shame the Japanese didn't invent it. Not that the sport isn't a great American insitution and everything, but imagine it with lively brass bands playing military-style marches instead of the old organ, and flag-waving, and yakitori, and cute college girls serving beer, and fireworks, and everyone in the stadium standing up at the end of the 7th inning and blowing up balloons which they simultaneously let off to fly up into the night sky...

It has to be at Jingu stadium, too. Tokyo Dome is bigger, but the atmosphere is stilted - like Old Trafford; full of rich people 'slumming it' and keeping the real fans out. Jingu is old school - roofless, smelling faintly of beer, sweltering hot in the middle of summer so that the concrete itself seems to start sweating...and when Hanshin, the Osaka team come to town, it gets even hotter.

Yakult Fans

2. The Natsu Basho at the Kokugikan.

Sport in Japan can't be mentioned without reference to Sumo. There are a lot of misconceptions about Sumo in the West; read about it in a guidebook to Japan and you'll get the impression that it's very arcane, mysterious and even semi-religious. Actually it's none of those things. Although there is a ritualistic build-up to each bout, it has no greater mystical significance than two wrestlers trash-talking each other before a WWE fight - it's all mean stares and wrinkled upper lips and chest-pounding before the fun begins. Then there is less than a minute of frantic, explosive power and energy - those guys look fat, but underneath they're built like Evander Holyfield - before one of them is thrown into the front row of the audience and the other struts back to his position to recieve a fat envelope full of cash.

Recently sumo has become dominated by Mongolians and Eastern Europeans (Russians, Georgian, Bulgarians and Czechs so far) so you get to see some fantastic grudge matches as the native, smaller Japanese guys try to take on the foreign invaders. It has all the intrigue and soap opera of WWE, and best of all, it's actually real.

Sumo Wrestlers

3. A J-League Game

Compared to watching football in England, seeing it in Japan takes a bit of getting used to. For starters, they really are bad at it. Games are of such shockingly poor quality that if you approach them as an English football fan you'll spend most of the time with your head clasped firmly in your hands, muttering and cursing. The trick is to be Japanese about it: jump up and down, sing songs, wave flags, drink too much, and forget you know what the rules are or that people aren't supposed to take a shot on whenever they get within 30 yards of the goalmouth regardless of position.

Crap Football Players

4. The Hakone Ekiden.

The Japanese love enduring hardship. Everybody knows that. So the marathon has a special place in the national psyche. An Ekiden is a race where a team of six runners each run a marathon one after the other in relay, covering hundreds of kilometers over several days, so it gets the Japanese going like nothing else. Most popular is the Hakone Ekiden, which starts in Tokyo on New Years Day and finishes in Hakone, the popular resort town to the Southwest. All the way the roads are lined with spectators, like the Tour de France, and there are bitter rivalries between the university teams who take part.

5. The Winter Olympics

Okay, so you can't always watch the winter olympics live in Japan. But watching it on TV is a most entertaining experience, because the commentators have such grossly overinflated expectations of how many medals Japan is going to win. At the last olympiad in Turin it was predicted that Japan would win some ten or more gold medals and a whole host of silver and bronzes; in fact for the first ten days or so they didn't win a single one. In each event, be it snowboarding, skiing or curling, Japanese athletes would get themselves ready and the commentators would ask each other for predictions and say things like "You have to expect gold or silver here," only for their dreams to be crushed seconds later in a tumble of snow and ice. One of my old work mates was massively into snowboarding and every day of the olympics' duration he would come into the office muttering "Just one medal, Dave - I at least expected one medal!" before I could even start with the jibes. He always looked so depressed it felt cruel to rub it in. I did, though.

Eventually they did get a gold. In women's ice skating.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Protesting Protesting

I started another Japan Top 5, but then I saw this article and felt apoplexy come rushing over me and had to stop to say something about it.

I find it difficult to articulate exactly what it is I hate about left-wing demonstrators, because I'm convinced that if I say what I really think I'll come across as, frankly, a judgemental twat. It's not even as if I'm against the idea of demonstrating. Civil disobedience brought down brutal dictatorships in Poland and The Philippines, and did for authoritarianism in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and the Ukraine. It ended racially discriminatory laws in the US. It's partly responsible for bringing about suffrage for women. It was the main tool of the Indian independence movement. It is a great thing when used to achieve an honest goal for an entire populace.

But modern day left-ish protestors in the West are a different breed to Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Lech Walesa. Protesting as civil disobedience works when it starts as a grass-roots swelling of public opinion that rises up against a single injustice - like racial discrimination, or repression. Something that is obviously, palpably wrong and which the removal of will give benefit to a whole society. A spontaneous throwing-off of repression, with one or two leaders as figureheads for the masses.

Protesting about climate change, or Israel, or Stop the War!, isn't like that. It's much more selfish and arrogant. Nobody is quite sure what climate change will mean, or even what is driving it. Nobody can disentangle the Arab-Israeli conflict and apportion the blame to one side. Nobody can judge whether the invasion of Iraq was a good or bad thing without many years of hindsight. And yet some people on the left are so sure that they have the answers, are so sure of their own opinions and judgements, and are so strident in their righteous indignation, that they absolutely can't resist shouting out to the world about how angry they are and how they want everybody to know about it.

It's like exhibitionism, really: "We're so wonderful and morally courageous and interested in justice and goodness and peace, and we want everybody else to look at us and how fantastic we are."

And the worst thing about it is that it only serves to muddy the waters about what we should, sensibly be doing. I would like to live in a society where people were educated about the implications of climate change and could listen to reasoned and rational debate by knowledgeable people about its causes and future. I would like to live in a society where otherwise intelligent people are not driven to supporting fascistic, hateful, anti-woman, anti-homosexual, repressive gangsters like Hizbollah and Hamas just because they disagree with Israeli strategy. I would like to live in a society where people aren't so easily swayed by what they read in the papers and watch on TV that they stop thinking about issues like Iraq for themselves. But I can't, because the loud shrieking from the moral high-ground to the left has drowned out all other sound.

And to think, I used to call myself a Socialist. I can't be the only one who has been alienated from a political philosophy by the idiocy of its other members, can I?

Friends Forever

It feels weird to be on holiday, it's so long since I've had an actual break; there's so much that I want and need to get done this week before I go to Edinburgh, but really all I can think of doing is relaxing by sitting down and reading or watching films. That's not all I want to do, but at the minute it's all I feel like, that and catching up with friends.

I always find it strange catching up with people that you haven't seen for a long time. No matter how happy you are to see them, no matter how good a friend they might be or how close you once were, there nearly always comes a point where the conversation runs out. There are exceptions of course, those really close friends whose friendship time doesn't dilute, who you can see after months or years and talk to as if nothing happened. For the most part though I've found that's not the case.

It is a shame that as time moves on and our lives get busier we find it harder and harder to keep up old friendships. We get new friends, but I always feel sad when I realise that another month has gone by and I haven't heard from R, or think about how long it has been since I heard from C. We like to think that things like the occasional text, the odd email, or using Facebook makes up for it, but it's not the same as sharing a cake in a coffeeshop, sending a long letter or calling someone out of the blue and saying "How are you?"

We have PC solutions, healthcare solutions - my local supermarket recently had an aisle labelled "Italian meal solutions" - but despite everything we throw at it, all the technology and timesaving can't do more than make a half-arsed attempt at keeping friendships alive. For that, even in this day and age, we still need time, work, and most importantly, the human touch. And I hope we always will.

I wonder, however, if all this technology can do something to keep old classmates from finding me on Facebook?

Friday, 10 August 2007

Keepie uppie

So, football was good. In the hour that I played I didn't score, and during my time as goalkeeper I let two goals past me, but the time I was on won, and I didn't embarrass myself during the game, so that's a good thing in my book.

It was good to run around a bit, although it was totally different to the kind of running that I do on the cross trainer, so my body's aching a bit today. I guess that I'm still not quite as fit as I would like to be, but I'm going to keep going to the gym and (after I get back from my holiday) keep playing football with the guys as well. You never get anywhere if you just sit on your arse.

Unless you're a passenger.

noisms post about Japanese music this morning was pretty I good I thought. Since I'm here there and everywhere over the next few weeks, basically writing random thoughts as they come to me, maybe I'll do some Top 5s as well. There's nothing quite like taking someone else's good idea or concept and then basically copying it.

Anyway, here's hoping that technology doesn't fail, and my posts get through! But before I leave my computer, careful readers may have spotted that I didn't embarrass myself during the game yesterday...

I was the third person to turn up yesterday, and so we were just kicking the ball back and forth between us. So this guy kicks the ball up and towards me, I see it coming down out of the air, and eager to impress I decide to try and bump it off my chest (like I've seen professionals do on the TV) and then kick it on to the third guy. I step forward to meet the ball, watch it fall and take a step back again, thinking that I've judged it correctly, and finally go on tiptoes, certain that it's all going to work.

The ball promptly hits me in the groin.

Top 5 of Good Japanese Music

I don't much care for J-pop. I know that it isn't very fair or reasonable to call an entire genre "largely rubbish", but believe me. After four years in Japan spent listening to sub-Celine Dion melodramatic codswallop, faux- Will Smith rap-pop, and The Bends-era Radiohead without the tunes, riffs or lyrics, I feel I'm qualified to make that call.

But then again, a lot of Western pop music these days is rubbish too. That doesn't stop us finding bands which we like. And the same is naturally also true of the Japanese music scene. So here (drum roll) is my list of the Top 5 Japanese Bands Wot I Reckon You Should Check Out:

1. Elephant Kashimashi. A group of 80s survivors who've changed their style considerably over the years (and improved a lot: in 1988, when their first album was released, they were pretty awful). The singer, Miyamoto Hiroji, has one of the Great Rock Voices; a sort of throaty, bluesy version of Bono, but infinitely more expressive and tuneful than that, and the band are tight and somewhat experimental at the same time. More importantly, Miyamoto is one of the few Japanese leads to actually sing about interesting things and put an individual 'take' on them. (Japanese bands' lyrics tend to swing from one extreme to another - mindless 'I love you baby' drivel on the one hand, bizarre dadaist gibberish on the other.) That might not mean anything if you don't speak Japanese, but even you will be able to appreciate the fact that Miyamoto doesn't liberally sprinkle his songs with snippets of crushingly inappropriate and jarring English.

2. Jazztronik. I don't know about you, but I think the world needs more Music That Makes You Happy. And Jazztronik consistently manage that, without ever seeming like meaning to. That's just what the way the music comes out - you can actually hear the joy in it, like an extra instrument. I don't know whether J-jazz-funk-pop is a genre, but if it is, it's definitely my favourite.

3. Thee Michelle Gun Elephant. Do you remember the early 2000s Garage Rock renaissance? The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Vines, The Hives, Von Bondies, The Dirtbombs...well, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant had already revived it five or six years before, and are probably the only example of a Japanese band actually setting a trend rather than following one. What's more, they were also brilliant: loud, choppy guitars, gravelly but tuneful vocals, and a nice recognition that nothing else matters if you've got a really good riff.

4. I hate sounding like a sell-out, but I do really like Spitz, a band who formed in 1987 and are absolutely massive in Japan. Sometimes they sound too poppy for their own good (you know how some pretentious idiot musicians talk about "retaining their pop sensibilities"? well Spitz wouldn't have had that conversation because all they are is a bundle of pop sensibilities) but hooks like theirs are impossible to resist. Secret weapon is Kusano Masamune, the vocalist, whose eerily beautiful voice really doesn't sound like anything of this earth.

5. It's a bit of a cheat to include Oki, because his music is that of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido (Japan's northernmost island). But I'll do it anyway, because I'm evangelical about how good Ainu music is/was. Even if you don't like 'world' music (I don't), it's worth listening to, and it'll surprise you firstly by how much it reminds you of the Blues (in the way it revolves around cyclical segments of rhythm) and secondly by how much you can hear the sound of Hokkaido - frozen lakes, pine forests, seal-hunting - in it, even if you've never been there. It's like the gateway to a subarctic world, right there on your ipod.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Last One Picked

This afternoon, for the first time in a long time, I am going to play 5-a-side football (soccer for our American readers). When I was younger, and did play occasionally, it was always under protest, or because some inter-youthclub tournament came around and my participation was demanded. Even on those occasions though I was always the guy who the ball never came near, because either the opposition steered away from me or because my own team-mates didn't think it was in the best interests of the team for the ball to come near me.

Going back even further I remember the times when playing football on the playground was the usual process of two guys who were the team captains then picking other boys from a line, and I always remember being among the last few to be chosen. Yesterday evening when I called him to see if he fancied playing, noisms said, "You're playing with other people from your department? Aren't you scared of showing yourself up?"

Thing is, as far as I can remember, I wasn't all that bad at football, it just never grabbed me as being anything particularly fun to do. Team sports have never held any particular fascination for me (apart from rounders, I could play rounders all day), although I'm not opposed at all to doing things in a team. I've done some "outward bounds" type stuff before that I really liked, and really enjoyed the faux seriousness of paintball at a friend's stag day.

Maybe I've got it all wrong anyway, my memories of life before the summer of 1998 are weird anyway, and I've only played football a handful of times since then. It's not that I have no memories before summer 1998, but life before that time seems as if it was lived by someone else (the whys and wherefores of that are best left for another day).

So maybe I'm mis-remembering my childhood football prowess, and perhaps I enjoyed playing it in my youth. I think we all have a tendency to look at our childhoods through rose-tinted glasses and at the same time remember things we didn't like as things that we absolutely hated.
Although our past has a great bearing on us now, it can't be the thing that defines us now, of that I am a firm believer.

(and yes, noisms, I am worried about showing myself up this afternoon, so I guess I'll just have to not show myself up!)

I Blame Kill Bill

It's funny. In the time since I first arrived in Japan (March 2003), Japanese culture has really undergone something of a transformation. Before I left there were some upper-middle-class types in London who ate sushi for lunch, and there were some teenagers who read manga - mostly boys who liked looking at demons having sex with nubile high-school students - and of course, Pikachu was always lurking in the backwaters of our cultural byways like a sinister rumour. But Japanese fiction, art, cinema, comics and music remained very much a fringe interest.

Now it's no exaggeration to say Japaneseness is so popular that literally anything Japanese has become the watchword for coolness. Men - ordinary men, who shop at Top Man and drink lots of beer - strut around in old baseball shirts with Hanshin Tigers and Seibu Lions logos. Teenagers - and not just the geeky ones - read manga and think it's actually good. J-pop starlets like Hamasaki Ayumi and Koda Kumi are listened to. Miyazaki Hayao's films are hailed as masterpieces. Hollywood remakes Japanese horror films and considers it de rigeur to write Japanese characters into scripts. Films about Westerners struggling to make sense of how "baffling" Tokyo supposedly is win Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, even though they're really boring. Watanabe Ken is now an A-lister. Mamiko works in "The Japanese shop" and sells origami cranes for 60p a pop even though it takes her about three seconds to make one. The world has gone Japanese-mad.

Thinking back, the thing which either lit the touchpaper, or perhaps was just the first thing to signify the trend, was Kill Bill vol. 1. I remember coming back to the UK in around October 2003 for a visit and that film was everywhere, and the vast majority of the comment on it was of the nature of "I don't know about the story, but boy is Japan a cool place!" I think it rather skewed perceptions of what Japan is really like, with the way it seemlessly interwove bloodthirsty anime, female rock 'n' roll three-pieces, mafioso-style yakuza and Okinawan swordmakers into its plot. Even I, who knew that none of those things are remotely indicative of what life in Japan is like, watched that film and thought to myself "Japan is really damn cool."

The most interesting thing for me is that ordinary Japanese people are usually bemused when they hear about their country's newfound popularity. See, most Japanese people don't read much manga now but did when they were in junior high school, dislike Beat Takeshi films, think novels by Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana are generally kind of silly and depressing, don't know anything about origami and tea ceremonies, and vaguely recall Pikachu as some character who was popular ages ago and now think of in the same way that British people look back on Bananaman or Thundercats. If you tell them that now, for example, it wouldn't be considered unusual if an average British teenager plucked off the street could tell you what Cowboy BeBop is, they'd probably look at you askance and say "What's Cowboy BeBop?"

Anyway, over the next few days, I thought I'd post a few Top-5 lists of Japanese things which I think are worth investigating if, like me, you aren't particularly into samurai, ninja, manga, androgyny, slasher pics, suicidal novelists, pop stars who sing gibberish, pink things, girls who make 'peace' signs all the time in photographs, and cartoon characters with grotesquely large eyes.

First up tomorrow: music.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Farewell, oh Beautiful Baiji

So, the Yangtze River Dolphin is officially the first large vertebrate to become extinct since the Japanese Sea Lion. Not a single specimen of the Baiji, as it was locally known, was found in an intensive six-week search of its habitats, carried out by a team from the Zoological Society of London.

I have to say that the story brought a tear to my eye when I heard it on the radio at lunch. I know, of course, that the Chinese have as much right to develop as we British did when we killed off our resident populations of bears, wolves and wild boar in the the name of progress. But that doesn't make the story any less sad, nor the Baiji's disappearance any less tragic. As Richard Dawkins once wrote in reference to the Thylacine: "It may be true that it was a pest to humans, but humans were a bigger pest to it, and now there are no Thylacines left and a considerable surplus of humans." The development of the Chinese economy, like the development of our own, has lifted millions of people out of poverty; if only it could have been achieved without the loss of the river dolphin.

Nevertheless, there's cause for hope. The Baiji died out, some believe, at the cusp of a 'casual' period, in which humans caused extinctions wholly inadvertantly, due to ignorance and accident. With increasing development comes increasing awareness of environmental issues and the importance of conservation, and no country has proven to be as single-minded in its pursuit of a goal as modern China. Part of the reason for the Baiji's disappearance was because Chairman Mao believed certain local suspicions about the creature were irrational and the way to 'cure' those suspicions was to eradicate the animal. China's current leadership have distanced themselves from Mao in almost every respect, and we can be optimistic that respect for the environment is one of those areas also - there are now 40 panda reserves compared to just 13 twenty years ago, for example. How sad that it will all come too late for the Baiji.

Technology Prevails!

Well, it seems like my phone's email functions are working again. After spending quite a bit of time looking in the manual and trying unsuccessfully to tweak various settings, I called the technical support line of my provider. Their solution? "Have you tried turning your phone off and on?"

I'd be more annoyed but for the fact that it worked...

The only downside to blogging by email is that I can't post links as well because of the plaintext restrictions on both my phone and in the blogger email. However, this could be good in forcing me to write about things that I'm thinking about rather than simply reacting to news stories like I'm about to.

(slight pause while I email the first few paragraphs to the blog and then continue in Blogger)

This article on incorporating technology into various items of clothng intrigued me just now, but for two reasons. On the one hand you see interesting applications and ideas, but then you really have to wonder about the commercial viability of any of the ideas. A bikini laced with solar cells is a neat trick, but it does feel exactly like that, a trick - surely if you were going to wear a solar cell it would be better on a jacket or a t-shirt, something with a much larger surface area.

The "intimate controllers" are frankly ridiculous as are the "concept shoes" that inflate a chair behind you that you then sit on until it deflates; the artist/designer mentions something about "transforming walking into something like performance art." That's all very well if you want to be a performance artist, but as a concept it doesn't really do much for walking...

I like the idea of bracelets or other fashion accessories that store up solar energy during the day and then become lights at night; as ideas go it is a low-cost, affordable thing that someone could buy and use - OK, it's not going to solve the energy crisis, but a person could wear a bracelet or whatever during the day, and then use it to read by before bed.

The idea which really looked like it would have legs, and it was something that came to me straight away, was related to the idea of fabrics being printed on in a way such that the naked eye can't see certain images, but that a camera phone or digital camera can pick up. This "Kameraflage" printing technique will, I predict, become very popular over the next few years; in a world where more and more people have a digital camera with them everywhere thanks to the capability of the average mobile handset, it seems quite conceivable that companies will create more and more sophisticated "multi-layered" advertisements for their products - and even within their products.

(the Facebook addict comes back from a night out, with an albums-worth of photos to upload, and sees for the first time the hidden adverts and messages on their friends' clothes, background billboards, flyers for club nights...)

If the details of how exactly it is achieved were known then other uses it could be put to include adding content to books and other publications in interesting ways, or possibly in a home setting it could allow for intriguing personal customisation of clothes or accessories - or even for covertly passing messages?

Two more days, and then holidays are here... Two more days... But no interruption of service this time - thanks to technology!

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Failing (of) Technology

Apologies for not posting yesterday; I did actually write a post, but then my new phone didn't post it... Somewhere between the time when I configured and successfully tested the email capablities of my phone on Sunday afternoon and my "blogging by email" attempt last night it decided to wipe all of the settings that I had entered regarding email etc, and so had simply stored the email in a folder without telling me that it hadn't been sent. I had suspected that it wasn't working, but not having an internet connection at home I wasn't able to check up on it until this morning.

With a little luck (having trawled through menus and manuals a few times today, so far unsuccessfully) I'll have the email up and running again in a few days, in time to check that it's working before I go on holiday.

A news story that stood out to me today was this report (BBC News Online). In it, the chief technical officer of Electronic Arts is reported as saying, essentially, that good graphics are not enough in games these days, realism must be strived for - in the ways that environments behave, people move, etc. He goes on to say something about the importance of user generated content, which is something that I agree with, but I think that his talk of realism and graphics is a very broad statement, and shows quite a narrow focus.

I'm not suggesting that graphics in video games aren't important, but they are secondary to good gameplay or a compelling story. Similarly, The Matrix is a great film because it has an interesting story; while it is breathtaking to watch, it wouldn't be so well respected and liked if it wasn't for the story. It's interesting that a recent poll of the top videogames of all time was dominated by classic games, and that only six games from the current generation were listed. While graphics are part of the equation, they are by no means the dominant factor - all of the reviews in the poll talk about gameplay and how the game involves the player, reels them in. By saying that games need to have greater graphics and realism aren't we excluding a massive number of games that already exist which don't strive for any real sense of realism?

How does one apply realism to Tetris? Recently I've started replaying the classic Zelda game, A Link To The Past, and it's amazing. Fifteen years old and utterly fantastic, better than quite a few games I've played on my PS2 by a long way. One could interpret Glenn Entis' remarks as talking strictly about the future of video games, but even then I think it is a very restricting point of view.

What's the point of developing insanely powerful processors for games consoles if all you're going to do is make things look better? We've played FPSs and RPGs for years and years, with different sheens and hooks - give us something different!

History Consigned to er...History

So History could disappear as an 'A' level subject, according to the BBC. Apparently the evidence for this is that it isn't compulsory after 14, whereupon two thirds of pupils drop it.

Honestly, this sort of thinking really does belong to...well, I was going to say "the dark ages" there, but that's not quite right. Let's say it belongs to the realm of ill-thought out assertions, instead.

For one thing, more people are studying history after 16 than ever before, which rather suggests the subject's in rude health. But leaving that aside, I love history, and I think it's the most interesting and important academic subject of them all, but I recognise that I'm in a minority on that point. Moreover, I'm aware of the fact that I detested maths at the age of 14, would have loved to have been able to ditch it at that point, and didn't learn a thing in my maths lessons between the ages of 14 and 16 because I spent the whole time playing hangman and talking about girls and dungeons and dragons with this guy called M. Bramley who used to sit next to me. I could have much more productively spent my time studying something I was interested in (like history). Consequently, I rather think its a good thing that kids who hate history and spend their history lessons playing hangman and talking about girls and dungeons and dragons (if they're as socially inept as I was) can give it up at 14 and do something else instead.

What makes me laugh about this report is that Ms. Tattersall is lamenting the fact that people drop history in favour of subjects like media studies and photography, which just make it "easier to get a job". Because, you know, studying things that make it easy to get a job is just, well...what's wrong with it, exactly?


I wonder if the fact that I used to like dungeons and dragons a whole lot has any relation to the fact that I couldn't find any girls who wanted to go out with me when I was between 14 and 16. Maybe thats why I just had to talk about them with M. Bramley instead.

Nah, can't be.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Interested in Interesting Things

I'm often accused by people I know of being too clever for my own good. Well, that's the implication I usually take when it's discovered by a friend or aquaintance that I, for example, happen to know that there are lots of Zapotec speakers in Los Angeles, or that the capital of Burkina Faso is Ouagadougou, or that the closest relative to the elephant is something called a hyrax. When that happens the friend or aquaintance then usually raises their eyebrow and looks at me out of the corner of their eye and says either "How do you know these things?" or "You're such a geek!" or, more usually, and damningly, just "Err...."

Above: A hyrax.

I can't help it. I'm just interested in everything (literally the only things I'm not interested in are fashion, disneyland, celebrity gossip and women's football), and have the kind of brain that picks up useless trivia like a sponge. I don't especially try to be that way: I just read books and newspapers and websites and everything in them strikes me as being worth knowing - and as soon as you can say Jack Robinson, there! I now know it.

That certain phrase does annoy me, though: Useless trivia. I happen to believe it's an oxymoron. Trivia is rarely useless. For example, I read today in Alastair Campbell's Diary that Tony Blair once got a lecture from David Trimble because he ignorantly assumed that Ullans - the Ulster language - is a Celtic language, when actually it's a Germanic one like English. See, I already knew that, and instead of getting a lecture from Mr. Trimble I might have got him to buy me a pint instead. And I'd have been a better Prime Minister to boot.

Above: English, Irish, Ullans.

More germanely, given that I'm not the Prime Minister, I made good friends with George from Georgia, a guy I study Law with, because I got talking with him once about Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and he's now given me a standing invitation to go and visit whenever the urge takes me. I wouldn't have got that without my old trusty trivia-brain.

Note on Blogging by Email

Clearly there are things still to work out on the whole blogging via email business... The font is off, the formatting and line-spacing is a little strange - but in principle it worked so that's something.

I'll figure out tags and fonts later, right now I really should do some work.

(edit: apparently if I send things in plaintext it will use the regular font and formatting that I have set; of course if I do that I can't add links to things. Still not seen anything about tags)

Winding Down

If this works out as planned this will be the first post to work via email submission. My, what an age we live in!

Having spoken to my mobile phone service provider several times now, it seems that my best option is to switch provider, which is something that I'll be attending to later in the afternoon. It will take a couple of days to get my number transferred, but hopefully by then I will have configured my new phone for email as well and so the mobile blogging can begin.

I say that like it is some magical solution to all of life's problems. Maybe it is?!

In other news, I've just finished working on my first academic paper, which is kind of exciting. We haven't settled on a journal to submit it to yet, but it should be available online soon on a maths archive site, and if anyone is interested I'll link to it when it goes up.

Although the weather has brightened up today, the forecast is pretty grim for the weekend, and I can foresee myself spending time at home - in the first instance I have some things to sort out before I go on holiday, and secondly, noisms has me hooked on the idea of Interactive Fiction. Although I was never particularly good at playing them I have fond memories of sitting at my ZX Spectrum +2A and playing Famous Five games, as well as various Lord Of The Rings inspired parody games. I’m always looking for new ways to be creative, maybe this will be something good to do. After I’ve had a play around I’ll put some of my first attempts online and link to them, along with a reader program.

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Condonites and Actonites

Mamiko and I watched Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room last night. It was fascinating stuff, but what is most interesting for me about the Enron debacle is that the lessons learned by Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay seem to have been completely forgotten. Only last year Japanese internet messiah Takefumi Horie was charged with one of the Enron bosses' crimes - decieving investors about stock price - and last month we saw the final fall of Conrad Black, the Canadian/British newspaper mogul charged with mail fraud and perverting the course of justice. What is especially chilling is that all these men were not simple businessmen: they were linked to - no, up to their eyeballs in - the political systems of their respective countries. Ken Lay was a close friend and confidante of the Bush family and mentioned as a possible Treasury secretary when Dubya came to power; Takefumi Horie was asked by then-PM Junichiro Koizumi to run for the Diet in 2006; Conrad Black was a life peer in the House of Lords. These weren't just ordinary moguls - they were figures of the establishment. They really should have been cleverer, if not more ethical.

It seems to me there are two schools of thought on the men who do these things (and they're invariably men):

a) That they were born bad, lied and cheated and conned their way to the top, and didn't stop doing it once they got there; their crimes were just an extension of a flawed and immoral personality type - they were sociopaths and narcissists with MBAs. We can call this the Condonian View, after Richard Condon, who once remarked that "It's no use kidding ourselves that [business moguls and politicians] are ordinary people just like us, because they're not. For all the similarities, they might as well be from another planet. Probably are."

b) That they started off good, moral and legit, but the more money and power they got, the more they started to believe that they were above the law and the less respect they started to have for it - they deluded themselves into thinking that fraud was their right and that they could get away with it; power had addled their brains. We can call this the Actonian View, after Lord Acton, who famously wrote that "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

I'm not sure which view I hold to be true. Either way, both seem to suggest that the only reason men like Rupert Murdoch, Richard Branson, Lakshmi Mittal and Mohammed Fayed haven't been tried for any specific crime is that they're too clever to be caught.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

007 and the Jerk

I've found it very difficult to work today, knowing that my holidays are just around the corner. There are a few things I have to book for the holiday (trains can wait, tickets for European Premieres of films are slightly more important...), and I'm also still trying to figure out the best way to do this mobile email thing. It really says something when it looks like the easiest option is to cancel your current contract and switch phone service provider (both because the set-up is easier AND the cost is much cheaper)...

Seeing Goldfinger last night at the cinema was great; FACT is a great place, a mixture of cinema and art gallery, café and bar - I could happily spend a whole day there I think. The film was a digital presentation, with the file coming from the same master as last year's Bond Ultimate Edition DVD re-releases, except that this print was cleaned up and tweaked even more for the cinema to make it the absolute best possible quality. It looked and sounded and was amazing.

Since last night was a special screening, FACT decided to do something a bit special, and have a small quiz at the start. Six Bond questions, six prizes - ranging from vodka martinis at the bar to big coffee table books on the design of Bond films - and a sold out audience with a fair few Bond fans in the crowd. It was done very simply, stick your hand up if you think you know the answer, the guy introducing the film picks someone and if they got it right they got the prize. I didn't expect to have much of a chance as the questions really were very tricky.

What was more annoying was this guy, let's for sake of politeness call him the Jerk, who was sat in the front row and who was determined to try and win every prize, despite the quiz guy politely telling him to let someone else have a go. The Jerk answered the first question, winning some drinks, but after that continued to put his hand up for every question and to talk loudly after each one was answered by someone else ("I knew that!" "I really wanted that prize!"), on one occasion - the prize was two tickets for a preview screening of a new indie film - pleading with the quiz guy to let him answer because he "really, really, really" wanted to see the film.

Had he been drunk his behaviour could have been understood - though not excused - but no, he was just an insufferable Jerk.

Final question, for a limited edition Goldfinger re-release poster, and the quiz guy asks: "In Casino Royale what embassy does Bond follow a suspect into in the chase sequence?" And I know it! I can see the sign in my head, the Nambutu Embassy! I put my hand up, look around and see one or two other hands going up, but I'm sat close to the front so I'm hopeful.

"Oh! Oh! Please let me answer, I really want that poster!"

The Jerk strikes again, and this time the quiz guy groans and looks around, sees the hands, but knows that this guy is just a total nuisance and won't quit, so let's him have a go.

"Yes! Er, well, er, it's either the Nabutu or Nambutu Embassy!"

The quiz guy gave him the poster to shut him up, but I could hear a few people in the audience mumbling about it, and whereas other winners had got a little round of applause for getting a prize very few people clapped for him the second time around. Indeed, the quiz guy went so far as to announce that "the winner is in the dead centre of the front row, so if you want to throw anything at him aim for here."

People like the Jerk annoy me. I don't know how people can get past their mid-teens acting that way without coming across somebody who knocks them down a peg or two. That said, I'm just ranting about it now on here, and if it bothered me that much maybe I should have told the Jerk afterwards that I thought he was a Jerk and he should learn some manners and social graces.

But it's the same with kids messing about on street corners, or youths playing music off their mobile phones really loudly on trains - it shows a lack of consideration for other people, but very rarely do people confront inconsiderate or just plain rude people to tell them that their behaviour is not acceptable.

I think it's more than the fact that sometimes these situations feel a little bit dangerous (like the person or people who are being inconsiderate might be physically abusive) but that's not always the case and I don't think it is the main reason. If it bothers people that much, what is it about the situations that makes us feel totally unable to do anything about it?