Friday, 30 November 2007

Free Rice

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Oneself Through Hell

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 29 November 2007

On Annie Hall

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Scrabble Game #1

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

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

Final Score:
zero_zero_one, 272
noisms, 299

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

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


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

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

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

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

More soon!

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

American Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here We Go Again

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

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

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

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

Monday, 26 November 2007

False Advertising

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

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

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

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

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

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

EDIT: Here's their website...

Last Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone fancy writing a thousand haiku in December?


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

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

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

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Weekend Noveling #1

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

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

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

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

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

More tomorrow.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Green Team

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

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

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

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

Food is for Eating

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 November 2007


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I lied and said no.

More cheerful things tomorrow.

Monday, 19 November 2007

There's A Hole In The Sky...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girls and Boys (II)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 November 2007

Freedom of Blah (II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Sharing "Sharing Ideas"

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

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

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

Odds and Sods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More soon by email.

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

Teenage Kicks

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Girls and Boys

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

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

A Guppy.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

25,000 Words And Counting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doomed Youth?

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 9 November 2007


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

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

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

Crazy Eights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Out of the loop (?)

For the last few weeks Disney have been advertising Christmas breaks at their Disneyland Paris resort on TV. Well, it was October, but holidays can take some arranging, so I let it slide.

Then Argos (a catalogue shop, not sure if it exists outside the UK) started advertising some Christmas savings that could be made - fair enough, I thought, PS3s and Wiis cost a lot of money and sell out quick (well, the Wii does) - so I let it slide.

Monday: the university bookshop has a Christmas tree up, and tinsel decorating the shop. Today: Tesco has seasonal banners up saying "Merry Christmas!"

I love Christmas, I really, really do, but come on people: it's only the 7th of November...

Novel Update 1

I'm no stranger to National Novel Writing Month: this year is the fifth time I've taken part in the last six years, and it feels good to be giving it a go again. Hopefully this will be the second time that I feel I've really succeeded in the aims of the month: to complete a 50,000+ word story.

In 2002 I failed miserably, as I didn't take into account how much stress I would be under working on my first Masters project. In 2003 I was able to hammer out 50,000 words of utter garbage, the start of an awful fantasy novel of other worlds, lost princes and talking rats that I would still have been writing now I am sure (or be on book seventeen of it).

In 2005 I came quite close, having written just over 50,000 words of something that I think would be classed as urban fantasy. Each chapter followed a different character, and the end of each chapter told you a little bit more about the ultimate end of the story. I lost my nerve towards the end though, but I think with another 10-15,000 words it would have been complete.

Last year was the first time that I reached the word count and had a completed story. By November 28th I typed the end to a 62,000 word piece (still untitled) that I am quite proud of. It's not polished, it's by no means "finished" (the pace is really uneven, and the rate at which a relationship between the two leads comes together is quite bizarre) but I like how it turned out.

This year... Day seven. In six days I've written 15,000 words, which I think is a record for me. So far things are going alright I must admit, which worries me slightly. It is, broadly speaking, a detective story; I've read a lot of noir this year (or stories that are noir influenced) and decided that I wanted to do something in that vein (after throwing out ideas that included a reality TV show with zombies, and a bizarre story of parallel universe versions of myself meet in a strange small American town at a multiversal crossover point...).

The story is split into three parts, and I'm almost up to the end of part one. I have one and a half chapters to write, and I'm hoping to have that done by the end of the week (by tomorrow night if I can). I have a structure in place for part two, but no actual idea of what happens. Part three is almost a complete mystery to me.

I used to write a lot more when I was younger - not that I'm especially old now - but I went through a phase where lack of confidence couldn't touch me, and that has sadly left me now. I question what I write, question whether it is good or not, whether anyone would like it, and this generally leads me to thinking about writing rather than actually writing.

NaNoWriMo is a great way to get past this: you just write. Don't think about anything else other than getting the words out and trying to enjoy yourself while doing it. I have no idea if I will ever do anything with what I have written, other than keep them for my own amusement. Doing NaNoWriMo gives me a little annual injection of hope that I might be capable of writing something worth getting out there.

More on my progress in the coming weeks.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Me Like Bananas

Karl Pilkington once claimed, in a Monkey News, that a woman working at an animal sanctuary was fired from her job, because a chimpanzee wanted to play with her breasts and she refused. The 'foreman' apparently demanded that she comply with the wishes of the 'monkey', and when she didn't she was summarily sacked.

Ricky and Steve ridiculed the story, and ended by denouncing Karl as an idiot and an imbecile as they did at the end of every episode of Monkey News. In all respects, in fact, it was a usual Monkey News story (for those who don't know it, Monkey News was a feature on Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant's radio show for years before finding its way onto their podcast; the basic gist is that, each week, Karl tells a 'true' story about monkeys - usually actually chimpanzees - which is in fact complete rubbish). As a casual listener, I had a good chortle like everybody else, and put it out of my mind.

So imagine my surprise this morning when, idly browsing around wikipedia, I came across the story of Koko the gorilla, who is allegedly able to communicate with humans in American Sign Language. Apparently, as well as being highly intelligent, Koko has a bit of a 'thing' for breasts - specifically, nipples. She delights in pinching people's nipples, and often demands that visitors lift their shirts to show her. And, lo and behold, it seems that Dr. Patterson, her handler and closest human companion, has demanded that at least three female employees "indulge Koko's nipple fetish" - otherwise their job would be in danger. The animal sanctuary where Koko lives has in fact been subject to several million-dollar lawsuits from female employees claiming sexual harrassment by the gorilla and her keeper. (We'll leave aside the idiocy of claiming a million dollars from a charity for endangered species, which seems like the ultimate in taking things too far, to another day.)

So, in fact, Karl was telling the truth - or, at least, something more approaching the truth than Ricky gave him credit for.

Incidentally, you can read a transcript of Koko's efforts to communicate with Aol users in an online chat in 1998 here. It's unintentionally hilarious, and you'll notice that the only things Koko seems to meaningfully be able to communicate are "fine," "give me food," and "nipple". In fact, this transcript should be enough, alone, to put to bed forever the question of apes being able to use human language: all Koko does is talk utter gibberish which Dr. Patterson makes ridiculous mental contortions to try to make sense of. (My particular favourite is when somebody asks what Koko thinks of Michael [another gorilla] and she just points at her foot and big toe repeatedly. This is interpreted to mean that he's a "good male" because, er, 'foot' means 'male' and, er...) In fact, all Koko seems to be able to do is beg for food - and sexual favours - in a slightly more sophisticated way than a dog or guinea pig. After all, as a kid I trained my dog to be able to sit on his hind legs and wave his forelegs back and forth, which is just as good 'sign language' as Koko's if all you want is a bit of beef jerky or a banana.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Every Man For Himself and God Against All

Without doubt, my favourite director is Werner Herzog. One of my pet hates in any artistic form is people trying to be weird - being deliberately eccentric - which is why I appreciate a true original like Herzog: a mad, weird visionary who never appears to be doing anything less than what he considers he should be doing. There's no artifice in the strangeness of his films - you never get the impression he's being arch or overblown. He's just quite clearly very odd.

My favourite film by him is
Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle - in English, "Every Man For Himself and God Against All" - otherwise known as The Enigma of Kasper Hauser. It tells the story of a man - Kasper Hauser - who has lived all his life in a tiny cave somewhere in the countryside, without any human contact except for a mysterious masked man who appears from time to time to give him food. Aside from that, his only company is a rocking-horse.

One day in 1828, the masked man appears and takes Kasper to the middle of Nuremburg and leaves him there, holding a letter of introduction asking for him to be inducted into a certain cavalry regiment. Kasper can barely speak - his vocabulary consists of only three phrases: "Horse!", "Don't know!" and "I want to be a knight, as my father was." He is taken in by kindly members of the local aristocracy, and the film charts the attempts made to integrate him into society. But Kasper, who eventually learns to speak, read and write in a rudimentary way, keeps asking uncomfortable questions - he can't understand the basic underpinnings of human relationships - and finally he ends up in a kind of limbo, outside of society and unable to comprehend it, yet reliant on others' charity to survive.

I first watched the film not because I had any particular interest, but because a girl I liked wanted to see it - I'm sure most men reading this entry will understand that motivation. So I had no preconceptions or knowledge about Kasper Hauser, and indeed had no idea that the film is actually based on a true story.

Kasper was a foundling - a boy of around 17 who was found in the centre of Nuremburg in 1828 bearing a letter of introduction, as detailed in the film, and who was cared for and 'civilised' by various notaries in the city. (When first found, he had the mental and physical development of a small child; he could barely walk or use his fingers.) Eventually he became able to tell his story - about being locked in a cell for the first 16 years of his life, with space to move little greater than the size of a bed, and with only a rough toy horse to play with. He would be visited occasionally by a man who never revealed his face and who would leave bread and milk - sometimes drugged so that Kasper would fall asleep and his room could be cleaned.

Nobody knows who Kasper Hauser was, although a common theory is that he had some sort of ties to the Royal House of Baden. Some also suspect that he was kept at Pilsach Castle in his childhood, where in 1924 a secret room was discovered containing old rags and a toy horse. But his sudden appearance, and where he came from, remain essentially a mystery.

Odder still is how he ended up: in 1833 he was brutally attacked and killed by a masked stranger in Ansbach, apparently lured there after being deliberately targetted. His murderer was never found.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Light and Sound Show

Dear World,

This is an open letter, and in some respects I don't expect a reply but if you have any comments I'm sure I'll find them interesting.

I'm sitting on the train home from Liverpool, just ran to catch it (and despite my declarations of going to the gym, the during and aftermath of me in fast motion is not a pretty sight); I'm on my way back from seeing KT Tunstall, who is a fabulous British singer-songwriter who's on tour to promote her second studio album. It was a fantastic show, really great folk-y pop-rock with a wonderfully witty commentary between songs.

It was an almost perfect gig - but one thing threatened to spoil it.

Camera flashes.

For ages now I've seen phone adverts and wondered: "Who needs a phone with a 5 megapixel camera built in?" Or, even worse, a phone with built in 5 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss lens and flash, and video call function?

Oh, well that would Mr Moron, who was stood just behind me. "Awright Gary," he bellowed into his phone as the music started up and KT came on stage, "Look Gary it's just started," and I swear his whole arm comes over my shoulder holding the phone to get it as close to the stage as humanly possible.

Ten minutes later I'm momentarily blinded as the whole arm and camera comes over again, this time to take a picture with the flash on.

Because, like, shucks, they turned the house lights down to create a mood - what were they thinking?


Rant over: it was a great gig, KT Tunstall is a phenomenal singer, and this is made even better by her considerable talents as a songwriter and musician. I'm not sure if she is well known outside of the UK, but her style has something for everyone. Like acoustic ballads? Hers are great. Like something that you can let your hair down and dance to? Listen to Black Horse & The Cherry Tree. She really does something for everyone.

She has a myspace (naturally, I mean, what musician doesn't?) and you can check it out here. You won't be sorry.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Fevered Egos

Generally, I have no interest in celebrities, celebrity gossip, or celebrity reality TV shows. The very idea of 'celebrity' is horrible, appalling, and any number of other derogatory comments, and the fact that people should pay real money to read about the exploits of the unjustly famous is something I find weird beyond measure. People like Paris Hilton and Pete Doherty are undoubtedly, to quote Bill Hicks, "fevered egos, tainting our collective unconscious and making us pay a higher psychic price than we realise" - and the world would be a quantifiably better place if we all just stopped caring about them.

That said, I make two exceptions: Michael Jackson and Heather Mills-McCartney. The former is so odd and his story so bizarre that I can't not be interested in it - like watching a surrealist satire on modern life. The latter, meanwhile, is just so plain awful that I simply must know what happens next. More like watching a train crash.

I strongly dislike Heather Mills. Let's get that in the open straight away. She strikes me as a money-grabber, a fantasist, and a liar, and totally undeserving of any of Paul McCartney's money - money which he earned legitemately, rather than through just marrying somebody rich. But her recent performances had earned her my sympathy. She did an interview on British TV the other day in which she honestly came across as a woman on the very edge of suicide, and her claims - that the media frenzy surrounding her was pushing her to the brink - were compelling. Even if, as most newspaper people point out, she has only herself to blame for stoking up that frenzy in the first place, that still doesn't excuse the behaviour of the British press, which in most scenarios such as this would compare negatively with a pack of sharks.

And then there she is, the very next day, giving an interview in the US blaming Paul for the divorce. And I think, well done, Heather. Cry foul at media intrusion, then show yourself to be a hypocrite and liar - and, worse, a petty manipulative harpy - at the very next available opportunity. That'll get the public behind you.

Meanwhile Paul McCartney behaves in an honourable, respectable and professional manner throughout, almost his only comment being: "
The only solution is to remain dignified. If I don't keep a silence about it, I lose this idea of being dignified."

Dignity? A word so rarely heard these days that it's almost become antiquated. Now here's a celebrity worth talking about.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Slow News Day?

Well, with the announcement that the police were guilty of endangering the public over the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, you would expect a media frenzy. Calls for resignation, announcements of reform, all that sort of thing. That is happening, but you would expect it to be much more vocal, you would expect that the BBC News website would be full of new articles that are responding to the story, and that the general news-reading net citizen would be lapping it up.

Instead, just two minutes ago, the number one story read on the BBC News website for today was Excrement curry wife admonished. Now, don't get me wrong, I like to read stupid stories and read about the crazy ways that humans behave as much as the next person - but I'm amazed that this counts as news. What are we supposed to learn/get from this?

I had a meeting with my supervisor this morning, and barring a few cosmetic notation changes and corrections, and the inclusion of a small section on homomorphisms between certain rings of polynomials that chapter is done. I've started another one now, and so far this week I've expanded on the few notes that I had made to an 11 page document. It needs a lot of work, and I need to really define things more clearly, but the basic structure is there, so that's a start. I've got a bit of a cold today, so I'm giving the football a miss. I'll be playing badminton tomorrow afternoon though; my officemate and I used to play twice a week up until about six months ago, and this is the first time that either of us will have played in that time. When we stopped playing I had just got to the point where I could beat her, so here's hoping.

As I've said again and again this week, today is the start of National Novel Writing Month. When I go home tonight I will be sitting down at my computer, putting my writing glasses on and typing. I have a structure, I have a working title ("Who Killed Euler Smith?"), and I have a writing buddy at the university, which is pretty cool because I've never known anyone else who has gone for the challenge before. As challenges go it is fairly arbitrary, and the sense of achievement is fairly personal (no medals or ticker tape parade), but the feeling I got last year as I typed "THE END" was so good that I just knew I had to do it again this year.

I'll keep you posted on my progress.

Patronising Foreigners

One of the most annoying things about life in a foreign country is, I think, the fact that you're marked out as different and become treated as such, unavoidably. This is especially true if you're of different ethnic origin to the native population, but it happens even in situations where the 'foreigner' is extremely similar to the 'host' - like Australians in England.

I was thinking about this the other night, while watching Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. In it, Gordon was introduced to the staff of the kitchen he'd be 'working with' (trans: shouting at), and quickly discovered one of the chefs was French. He immediately insisted on addressing the man in broken French at every opportunity - answering oui or non to his questions, shouting tu es un putain! at him when he did things wrong - even though the guy spoke perfect English and was probably more adept at swearing than the great Gordom Ramsay himself.

I felt very strongly for that French chef, because I know his position - and how frustrating it is - very well. There is nothing more grating than doing your best to fit in, to assimilate, to respect your hosts by learning the language and behaving as is expected - only to find that at every turn you're constantly reminded of your foreign-ness by people wanting to show off their schoolboy French/German/Spanish/whatever.

It happened to me all the time in Japan, and the tendency of the Japanese to immediately try to speak English - however awful - with every white person they come across, was something I initially found sweet and welcoming. But the longer I was there, and the better my Japanese became, the more irritating and patronising I found it. "I'm not an idiot!" I kept wanting to shout. "I am actually capable of learning how to speak your language! And I speak it better than you speak mine!" But that would have made me come across as a maniac. Perhaps there is something maniacal about thinking such thoughts. But just try listening to a bank clerk or government official or station attendant explain a complicated rule in a language he barely knows, for the umpteenth time, and you'll start to get slightly maniacal yourself. I guarantee it.

By far the most annoying aspect of being a Japanese-speaking Brit in Japan is the tendency for people - even your closest friends - to drop English words randomly into the conversation, even though they know your Japanese is good. Even Mamiko does this sometimes. This morning while I was in the shower she knocked on the door and shouted "Chotto, mirror ga hoshii'n da kedo" - she wanted the mirror - even though she knows that I know the Japanese word for it. But you can't ask why they're doing this, lest you sound churlish.

My favourite example was told to me by a guy I used to work with. He had to go to the dentist, and went through the whole procedure of booking and appointment and describing his symptoms in Japanese. Then when he was laying down on the chair and the dentist was starting to drill, he was told, "Moshi itaku nattara, right hand wo agete kudasai ne."

I mean, if you can understand the rest of that sentence, you already know what the Japanese word for 'right hand' is! And if you don't, then the sentence will still be meaningless. (Although you might be able to guess from context.) So why say it?

I've never quite understood this tendency, and for a long time I thought it was only Japanese people that did it, but Gordon Ramsay has proved to me that British people are just as guilty, so I suppose it's a universal human trait to patronise foreigners.

Then again, I think of the examples I know of foreigners living in Japan for years and never bothering to learn to lingo, and I suppose it's really our fault rather than the Japanese. (And in my experience, the English - and in this I really do exclude the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish - are definitely the worst culprits.)