Tuesday, 31 March 2009

All readers, please comment

I just helped out with a Digital Media lecture on social networking sites, which was fascinating. We talked about the various ways SNSs can be conceptualised, their relationship to the public sphere, and the notions of SNSs as loci for performativity.

So: please leave a note on this post (anonymously if you wish) saying whether I a) know you in person, b) consider yourselves my friend, acquaintance, colleague, stalker or other and c) whether you think there's any difference between being an online 'friend' and an offline/real-life friend. Just out of interest.

I realised during this lecture too how many SNSs of which I'm a member. While rejecting Facebook, I'm on three fencing forums including the main British Fencing one, Librarything, Flickr, Academia.edu and several others.

Begorrah! We're all doomed

Its solutions are desperately rightwing, but this article's description of Ireland's capitalist-induced depression is shocking. Thanks to Maura for mailing it to me.

Twitter - a further warning

Anonymous left me a link to this sketch about the dangers of Twitter. It's spot on.

A warning to us all

Are you addicted to or dependent on The Internet? If so, you need to watch South Park's take on the Information Age and its effects:
I watched this on the internet, ironically. Thanks to Mark for sending it to me.

Books and e-books

Authors in particular and theorists of the media are wondering what's going to happen to the printed word and authorial rights in the Information Age - especially as Google are digitising every book without permission from publishers and authors.

One of my favourite authors thinks she's cracked it. Gwyneth Jones is a literary, feminist, science fiction writer (she's up there with the top writers alive today, regardless of genre). She's releasing re-edited, director's cut-style versions of her books as PDFs on her website for free. She leaves a decent length of time for the physical books to sell, so has the best of both worlds.

Books won't die: you can hand them around, scribble on them, drop them, use them anywhere without power etc etc - but e-versions have their place, something she clearly recognises. What's really interesting is that it rebalances the relationship between author, publisher and public. We perhaps don't realise how many stages a book goes through, with the publisher making huge changes to make a text profitable - sometimes against and author's interests, sometimes providing valuable guidance and advice. Jones's approach makes the e-book a complementary exercise while providing her with the opportunity to present her texts the way she feels they should be. Now we just need an enthusiastic PhD student to compare the two versions…

Jacqui Smith

I posted this as a comment over at Demented Demon's site, but thought it worth dumping it here too.

It's all rather hilarious, but shouldn't be a news story. They're not to my taste, but these films are legal, and presumably he's missing his hard-working wife. It seems that they have a TV/phone/internet bundled package, so it's easy to see how the payment would have slipped through. I'd have a lot more respect for the couple if they'd stood on the steps, said sorry for accidentally putting the £10 on expenses and ignored the howling of the faux-moralists. 'It's either Chav Lez Action 12 or harrassing the cleaner', he could have said…

What is annoying me is that the News International tabloids are screaming loudest - the organisation which includes the satellite and Pay TV service subscribed to by the Smiths. The same goes for the Express, which is owned by a pornographer but which takes a highly moralistic stance in its pages. So clearly it's OK to make and sell porn, but not to watch it.

I think the story is a sign of the media's desperate hysteria. They've decided to lynch the government, Labour MPs and all politicians (in that order) and are prepared to exaggerate any little thing, aided by judicious bribery of partisan civil servants. What an aid to the public sphere the tabloids are.

On Ms. Smith: I've no strong feelings about her either way (except that as a cabinet minister in this government she's clearly a class traitor), but I think some boring ministers are pretty much what we need. Do we want the Boris Johnsons, Alan Clarks, Tom Dribergs, Ron Browns etc in government? They might be good fun for the papers but there's more to government than entertainment.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Ships that sink in the night

In an earlier post, I joked about meeting a Radio 4-loving single girl at the airport. Well, when the plane came in to land at Stansted, the Polish young woman next to me noticed my abject terror (is this an attractive feature?) and we chatted until we'd collected our bags 20-odd minutes later (I didn't even pun). We exchanged names and talked about what we do, shook hands and said goodbye. Did I give her my number? Of course not. The very idea makes me sweat.

Decompressing from my trip was very strange. For four days, I lived in a bubble. I'd never met virtually all of the children on the trip, and we were placed in a strange relationship in an alien city. Over those days, I learned all their names, picked up on their personalities (who needs coaching, who doesn't, who's loud, who's quiet, how they respond to winning and losing), and spoke to very few other people. We explored this new city together (within limits) until parts of it became familiar, coped with victory and defeat - then dispersed again over a period of ten minutes, back to our ordinary lives. It was as though the trip hadn't happened: only my England shell suit says it did.

After four days of listening, talking, warning, entertaining, encouraging, advising, I was alone again, looking forward to a couple of days of my own company. The coach from Stansted (5 horrible hours) gave me time to listen mostly to downbeat music (Mazzy Star, Tindersticks, John Adams) and relax - until I hammered on the door for half an hour trying to wake my housemates after discovering I'd lost my keys.

Sunday was the day for buying birthday presents in Birmingham. I have to confess to purchasing a few little presents for me too. Largely, you'll be hugely unsurprised to learn, books. Then, finding myself outside St. Philip's Cathedral at 3.30, I went to Evensong. I know, I know, atheist Catholics shouldn't indulge, but the music's good, though I didn't realize I was letting myself in for more than an hour and a sermon (interrupted by the regulation drunk nutter). The sermon was kind of interesting: beautifully delivered and thought-provoking until he decided to reference Jade Goody and Murphy's Law in the course of his disquisition on Britain's pseudo-Christian culture. Let's be clear: fiction is written to make a specific point. It's constructed. It doesn't, therefore, prove general cultural truths for extrapolation.

After that - off to Wagamama for a solitary meal and read of the Guardian while being elbowed by beautiful couples. And so (as Pepys said, though not at 5), to bed.

Save our Nerds

All subcultures are appropriated, hollowed out and reoriented for the purposes of capitalism. This is just true - and Dick Hebdige wrote about it a long time ago. But I guess we don't care about it much when it's somebody else's subculture. I got it around 1992-1993, when Indie became Britpop and a world was lost. Other may feel that Topshop selling metal band t-shirts to townies was pretty insulting. Now this guy feels it's been done to nerds. True - but so late: I'd guess Weird Science started the rot in 1985. The Big Bang Theory is simply the coup de grace.

Footnotes from history

One of the cultural things we did in Wroclaw was to visit the Panorama. Inside a fairly bold concrete building was a huge (15 metres high, 120 metre long) painting, cunningly blended with a real foreground. The subject was a battle near Wroclaw (Raclawicka) between Russia and the Polish rebels, led by Kozciuszko (pretty much the only battle the Poles won against anybody for several hundred years - and they lost the war). I'd heard of him in relation to the American War of Independence but didn't know anything about his fight for a free Poland. He was a cool guy and we should all hail him!

But this panorama had a fascinating history which was rather glossed over. Painted in the 1890s, it was stored by the Soviet regime for years after WWII, before being finally put on display in 1985. I can understand why the Russian-dominated USSR/allies wouldn't want to encourage Poles to visit a display of nationalist, anti-Russian pride. What I'd like to know more about is the decision-making process leading to the reversal of this policy. Poland was under martial law from 1981-1983 following the deviationist-nationalist activites of Solidarity. Was the decision to display the panorama a concession to Polish nationalists to placate them, or did it signify recognition in government circles that to survive they needed to disassociate themselves from the USSR?

Read all about it

Sppof Financial Times for the G20 meeting: also handed out in print this week. Genius

Normal service is resumed

Ho hum, back in the office, with a PGCE day to look forward to tomorrow. Lots of work to do for that in this month. I need to go swimming today too - all that standing around eating delicious pierogi, and zupa gulaszka, and kabanos etc etc hasn't done my waistline any good at all.

At least I was greeted with two books in the post: Jessica Mitford's The Making of a Muckraker and The American Way of Death - wonderful, spiky books. I also bought a couple of books yesterday: Adam Roberts' alternative steampunk history Swiftly and John Burrow's magisterial A History of Histories. I only went out to buy birthday presents for other people!

Friday, 27 March 2009

So sleepy

I'm utterly exhausted. It was boys' epee today, and they all did brilliantly in a very high standard competition, so congratulations to you all. I've put more photos (of fencers, and of Stalinist tower blocks in moody black clouds) here.

I am rather missing the Guardian and Radio 4 now. Oh, and sleep.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Tomorrow is Poets Day

Standing for: Piss Off Early Tomorrow's Saturday. This is the new phrase I have learned from my esteemed colleagues on the fencing trip.

I like Poland

I like their food, their friendliness and the way they fence. More photos here (link fixed) though they probably aren't that interesting if you don't know what a parry-riposte is (like most epeeists). Little in-joke there.

Well done to all the girls (and their supportive male 'buddies'). Congratulations especially to Miranda Stratford, who won her event convincingly.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

How to embarrass cool kids No. 1

Sing along to St. Etienne in a Polish supermarket.

Welcome to Wroclaw

Well, here we are - I got a coach at midnight and haven't stopped since then (it's 3 p.m. Polish time). As usual, flight was slightly less pleasant than dysentery at a funeral, but the fencing kids seem quite happy.

Wroclaw is beautiful in its own way, a semi-gentrified old town (looking deeply Hanseatic in places), ringed by brutalist postwar blocks. The food's good, and the locals appear not to mind being swamped by 35 swaggering kids all wearing England tracksuits. I have one too, though it's XL and therefore more like being wrapped in a parachute and landing badly. It felt a bit weird showing my Irish passport, wearing an England tracksuit, clutching a (reactionary but fascinating) book called Britons, by Linda Colley.

More pictures will appear here as I take them.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Sounds fair…

My first university was overwhelmingly white - but Bangor University is in North Wales, which has virtually no ethnic minorities other than English. Still there was a fairly substantial non-white cohort. My current employer, Wolverhampton Uni, must have one of the most diverse student populations in the country, both from British-born students and international ones - it's one of the institution's strengths, though I'm never quite sure how well the different groups mix.

In any case, we're much more welcoming than certain universities - these figures are so shocking that it can't simply be written off as a problem with school-level education of black children:
Across all years and subjects, Oxford's student population of 20,000 has around 380 students from a black background, including mixed race, of whom just 175 out of 11,900 are undergraduates.
Cambridge is no better. Perhaps it's partly explained by the greater poverty in minority groups: 40% of Cambridge and Oxford students went to private schools, despite only 7% of children attending such schools. Mmmm…egalitarian

That's all, folks!

Probably for a couple of days, anyway: I'm off to Poland tonight as part of the England Youth Fencing team management. Should be a lot of fun.


Kirk's chair - now available in replica for $2,717. My birthday is in July: make it so (and yes, I know that's from a subsequent, and inferior, branch of Star Trek.

The Emperor's New Clothes

Some absolute genius has sneaked paintings of a naked Taoiseach onto the walls of the Royal Hibernian Academy and the National Gallery of Ireland, presumably as a satirical comment on the economic crisis (photo from Slugger). Wot larks!

Thanks to Laura, who's just sent me the Guardian version: apparently there's a 'police hunt' going on. I'd love to know what the criminal offence is. Aggravated donation of satirical artwork? Painting with intent to amuse? Hanging's too good for them (oh my aching sides)!

Burning down the house

Devender Ghai is in court today seeking to establish whether open-air cremation is legal in this country (maybe so - but burial is better, environmentally speaking). However, it gives me a chance to mention a real lost hero of radical Wales (and Britain).

Dr William Price (link doesn't get near his polymathic qualities) was one of those ferociously intelligent, charismatic individuals who didn't seek fame or power on the national stage (his books were mostly banned), nor did he use his powers for personal gain, though these days he'd be charging massive sums to people like Cherie Blair. Instead, he mixed his medical skills (he was an early anti-smoking zealot) with self-proclaimed druidic powers. He was an environmentalist, a vegetarian, nudist, free-love enthusiast who named his son Iesu Grist (hope you English-speakers can work that out). When the boy died at 5 months old, Price cremated him and took his day in court, leading to the eventual legalisation of cremation. Price himself was cremated in real Welsh style: on top of two tons of coal (not too long after fathering a child at 92 years old).

Simulate that

Last week, my colleague William proposed that the vocalisations human make at the point de crise (for the Map Twats, the vinegar strokes) are a perfect example of Baudrillardian simulation: learned, inherited, imbibed from popular culture or other people.

Lying awake last night, trying to read (some Jonathan Culler, if you must), I learned that my neighbour barks like a dog. Make of that what you will.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Man hands on misery to man

Sylvia Plath's and Ted Hughes's son, Nicholas, has killed himself. We don't know the complexities of his life, but he couldn't have had the best of starts - mother killed herself when he was one year old. This seems to sum it up:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin, 'This Be The Verse'.

Today I cut my toenails

Am I really boring, or are you lot not bothered by the stuff I find terrifying (economic collapse, environmental destruction…)? I notice that items such as fridge use and other frivolous comments attract responses, whereas the big stuff doesn't.

Is this a feature of blogging that I'm missing? Is blogging a more personal or lightweight medium than I think? Have a look at the ones I read regularly and see what you think.

More books

Jessica Mitford's The Trial of Dr Spock… - in which lots of old square guys realized that the Vietnam War was a bad idea and joined the long-hairs on the street, got themselves arrested then put on a great performance in court.

Also: Bonnie Prince Billy's Beware. Feels a bit weird to buy it on CD as I've got the previous twelve on lovely vinyl.

Jade Goody… her legacy

I'm slightly saddened by the death of Jade Goody - as saddened as I was by Diana's death: someone I didn't know, don't respect and don't otherwise care about dying young. I'm angry because I switched on the news yesterday to hear the words 'The Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury led the tributes to Jade Goody…'.

This is a political, moral and journalistic failure. We're all going to die - it's not a special achievement. Such figures should be too busy to express and opinion about a citizen they don't know, and WHAT TRIBUTE COULD POSSIBLY BE PAID? Goody was emblematic of a failed social and educational system, and as such should spur us on to make this country a kinder, gentler place - but she achieved nothing other than to highlight these failings.

It's a journalistic failure because the press shouldn't be wasting the prime minister's time with this rubbish - it's an attempt to catch him looking out of touch. Meanwhile his advisers will have prepared a response to make him look in touch. Neither side cares about this unfortunate woman.

Work and play and work and play and work and play

Well, it's been a busy few days - and it's going to be busier this week because I'm off to Poland with the England Youth Fencing Team for Challenge Wratislavia 2009 - a coach at midnight tomorrow, check-in at 4.00 for the flight, then four days of happy children's voices ringing in my ears. Don't worry - free wi-fi at the hotel means I'll try to find time for blogging.

Last week:
Books bought: 18. 12 of those (which annoyingly aren't showing up on the Librarything feed to the left) are Neal's fault for arranging to meet me in a bookshop. Most were more Left Book Club editions (I collect them), and one was signed by William Rust, one of the most Stalinist of the British Communist Party's upper echelons. The Morning Star is still published in William Rust House.

Films acted in: 2
Parties attended: 3
Fencing sessions attended: 2
Dark corners hung around in at parties: 3
Games of table football lost to Deep Space Nine-quoting female student: 1
Lectures and seminars delivered with panache: some
Self-inflicted nose-bleeds at parties: 1
Octopus eaten: 1 (not on my own).
Shirts etc. ironed: 14
Stoke City and Ireland victories: 2
Sophisticated Radio 4-loving single women impressed by any of the above: 0

Friday, 20 March 2009

Angela's clashes

In my ongoing personal battle to save the economy single-handed, I've just received this classic 70s poster of the wonderful Angela Davis, and will take it to the framers tomorrow. Thanks again to Left on the Shelf - for all your commie-lovin' book and ephemera needs.

So farewell then, Christian Science Monitor

For all their faults, newspapers are essential to the public sphere. In between stories about Jade Goody, how tomatoes/whatever give/cure cancer and topless women, they provide an arena for debate, they inform us and they hold our lords and masters to account.

Britain has a healthy newspaper-reading public. Despite the slumps in circulation, they sell in the millions every day. Not so in the US, which has a narrowly corporate media industry and very few national papers (basically the troubled New York Times and USA Today - which is rubbish). So it's very depressing to read that the Christian Science Monitor is about to move to web-only publication (except for a weekly print digest which I suspect won't last long). Despite its dubious (contradictory?) name and nutty origins, it was a fine, independent publication which really cared about foreign affairs, unlike virtually every US outlet, and produced top quality journalism.

We're in trouble when the most powerful country in the world is populated by people who don't want to know what's going on elsewhere. When I was in Arkansas in 2001, the only world news I could find was a slot called 'The Global Minute', which lasted less than a minute and didn't quite manage to encapsulate the complexity of world affairs.

I'll miss the CSM, and I think that we're all poorer for the rash of US newspaper closures. An informed public is a more outward-looking, liberal public. Yes, the CSM will exist online, but it will become one more site in a billion, looking no more authoritative than any ranting git with some web skills. Furthermore, the web is great at pinpointing individual bits you decide to search for: a newspaper is a great expanse of paper you can browse through, while drinking tea and munching toast. You can rip bits out, circle things, wave it madly at whomsoever has the misfortune to be around you. Newspapers ROCK!

I just need to get this off my chest

Barclays Bank, which is negotiating with the government for the taxpayer to insure their insanely risky investments, is a serial tax evader. Worse than that, it has an arm which specialises in shifting money around the world with the sole purpose of making money out of the taxpayer - about £1 billion pounds a year. The Guardian, despite having some dubious links to certain financial bodies, has been uncovering Barclays' web of deceitful trades, which the Inland Revenue haven't got the resources to follow.

This is what one financier said of Barclays' scheme, in the Financial Times:
I will say it was absolutely breathtaking, extraordinary. The depth of deceit, connivance and deliberate, artificial avoidance stunned me. The intricacy and artificiality of the scheme deeply was absolutely evident, as was the fact that the knew exactly what they were doing and why: to get money from one point in London to another without paying tax, via about 10 offshore companies. Simple, deliberate outcome, clearly stated, with the exact names of who was doing this, and no other purpose.
Until now I have been a supporter of the finance industry - I work with people there regularly and respect many of them, and greatly enjoy the Financial Times and other financial papers.

However this has shone a light on something for me, and made me certain that these people belong in jail, and companies like Barclays deserve to be bankrupt. They have robbed everyone of us,every single person who pays tax or who will ever pay tax in this country (and other countries!), through both the bailouts and schemes such as this.

Barclays' response is to ban publication of, and linking to, the leaked internal documents which revealed how they steal from us while begging for our help. So let's give a big hand to Wikileaks, which makes sure that leaked documents are never lost for good. You don't have to read them, just understand that this kind of activity is the Web's version of public service. The Guardian, like many companies which pay tax without trying to cheat, has a big office in London and responsibilities to employees and readers: it can't publish and be damned if the courts (yet again, acting solely for the powerful against the public interest) issue an injunction. Wikileaks, ironically, is like the dubious corporations who hide offshore (Walkers Crisps: a Swiss company now), and can post information out of reach of local courts.

These people are thieves. The Department of Work and Pensions is currently running an Orwellian campaign against benefit cheats who 'rob' the rest of us by falsely claiming the dole, or whatever. Fair enough - though living on £50 per week isn't exactly the same as having a Bond-villain style hideout. How about we conduct a similar campaign of persecution against these financiers? They steal far more than all the benefit cheats put together.

Some of their activities are illegal, and rely on the connivance of offshore states (Britain, ironically, encourages this behaviour onshore and offshore), and the poverty of the Inland Revenue - which sold its office to an offshore company which thus avoided tax. I can't express how angry this stuff makes me. I know all my friends think that I'm a boring old wanker for getting wound up by this, but it's important. These bankers and lawyers like their Chelsea mansions and airports and golf courses and private schools and all the other trimmings that makes life in Britain fantastic for the rich, but they're engaged in a concerted plot to make live worse for the rest of us: tax pays for roads and schools and infrastructure and child benefit and the NHS and pensions and clean air and universities and street lights and the police and the ambulance services and the firemen and the coastguard and so many things, so these bastards are stealing the high life and leaving us naive morons to pay for everything.

I have an enjoyable job and I'm paid fairly well (for now - half my contract expires in September), but I'll never be rich. There are, however, small ways in which I could get some tax back, quite legally. I don't do it. I believe that governments (even these gimps) are a good way to improve the lives of the citizens as a whole and it's our duty to contribute (which doesn't mean we shouldn't scream blue murder when it's wasted, as with Trident and ID cards). We have responsibilities to each other: my taxes pay for a binman's heart operation and his children's education and his taxes pay my salary. Everyone's a winner in the long term, which is why these tax-avoiding scum are thieving from us in exactly the same way as the benefit cheat: rich men have their bins emptied by the council the same as the rest of us. Their cleaners claim child benefit and their heart attack will be treated by an NHS nurse.

How's this for an idea? Ban non-domiciled or tax-avoiding executives from using public services. No bins emptied. Turned away from A+E. No road travel. No TV or radio. No calling the police, fire brigade or ambulance. No calling the council when the neighbours have a noisy party… we could wreck their lives until they're shamed into paying up.

Let's start with Lord Rothermere. He owns the Daily Mail, which hates governments but also hates foreigners and tax cheats. He lives in a massive, tasteless, reactionary, £50m mansion in Wiltshire which wasn't big enough so he's added another couple of wings to the building you see here.

Apparently, however, Donhead St. Andrew in Wiltshire is a foreign country. It must be because Private Eye (discussed here) has discovered that Rothermere is, for tax purposes, 'non-domiciled' and therefore doesn't pay UK tax on his £800m (inherited) fortune because his father lived in Paris. The Inland Revenue decided that this blatant theft wasn't worth investigating.

I must go for a little lie-down now.

First party down, two to go

A birthday party for Laure was held at my house yesterday - 50 French, Polish and assorted Euro-students crowded into a Victorian terrace to drink Lambrini (how could you?) and dance to an astonishing range of Eurovision-cheese. Despite feeling like the ghost of Christmas past, I did chat to a very interesting Slovakian and drank fine real ales, but thankfully didn't witness any of my students behaving in ways of which their parents wouldn't approve. Then just about bedtime for old people, they all trooped off to The Planet, Wolverhampton's scuzziest rock club.

I particularly enjoyed this conversation:
Her: I know your face… I really know your face from somewhere.
Me: I teach you… when you turn up.
Her: Oh. Oh yeah.

Tonight there's another party - mostly postgrads - which will involve huge amounts of quality Spanish food… mmmmm chorizo. Then tomorrow morning I'm acting in my second film of the week, a promo for the university. I apparently will be playing a lecturer. Hope I can fake it. After that, a day's break before yet another party - for a computational linguist of my acquaintance. My poor liver.

Satan runs Windows, God uses a Mac

Through the mighty power of Paypal and a voice synthesizer, you can now automate your prayer schedule: send your credit card details and your prayer needs, and Information Age Prayer will actually do the praying for you by running your request through a computer. I really hope this is a scam… still, should save the devout a lot of time and wear on their trouser knees (h/t Pharyngula).

Thursday, 19 March 2009

This is a simulation

Huge swathes of Baudrillard today - I enjoy his work, but the students are getting restless. Some understand him, some don't and won't, however much we try. Potlatch, symbolic exchange, simulacra and hyperreality are tough concepts - but education isn't about providing nice chunks of digestible fare: it's about provoking students to explore the ways we conceptualise existence, even if - especially if - it leaves you defamiliarised and nervous.

Is Lewis Hamilton black?

I only ask because he's moved to Switzerland. The largest party after the last election is the SVP, the Swiss People's Party. They're a charming bunch of racists who want to deport pretty much everybody.

Except Lewis. Now this could be because they consider him not black, but green - the colour of money. Perhaps they only dislike poor black people.

I presume that as an intelligent man of the world (despite being a despicable tax-evader), Lewis Hamilton knows the political state of affairs in Switzerland. Surely he's seen, from the back of his limo, variations of this SVP poster.

Which makes me think that Lewis doesn't consider himself black - otherwise he wouldn't feel welcome in Switzerland. The only aspect I can see that makes his presence acceptable to both is money - the universal lubricant which turns both parties into hypocrites: Lewis prefers living with racists to paying his fair share of tax, and the racists prefer living with rich black men rather than running their economy on egalitarian lines. Nobody comes out of this looking good.
Next up: Dutch band U2 and their creative approach to tax-dodging and charity… and don't get me started on Liberia. Half the world's shipping fleet is registered there to avoid paying crew properly and cheat on taxes but beg the big nations to help their piracy problem. I say - leave it to the Liberian navy on the basis that the shipping owners have paid their money and taken their choices.

The hectic pace of the suave lecturer-about-town

Another full day. Fencing last night was brutally effective, so I'm feeling the bruises. Today I'm reading lots of third-year project work, and other student writing, going to a seminar on Foucault, PR and concepts of professionalism, then teaching, then coaching, then home for my housemate's 25th birthday party, complete with DJ. As they're all sophisticated continental types, the DJ will go on until 6 a.m - and I have to teach tomorrow. Oh dear, I sound like a tired old man. There's a party for other sophisticated continental types tomorrow as well…

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

In case you aren't convinced

… that Jessica (Decca) Mitford was the best of the lot: she started a Running-Away fund from an early age, and used it to go to Spain with Esmond Romilly, Churchill's nephew. She had Leadbelly to stay, as well as many of the Black Panthers. She tried to give her share of an inherited island to the Communist Party (largely, I suspect, to annoy her sisters). J K Rowling named her daughter after Jessica - a great role model.

Boulot métro dodo 2

I spent the morning being interviewed about fencing and pretending to give a lesson, for a student's publicity film. I'm not one of the world's top 10 lookers, or indeed top 50 billion, and I hadn't shaved because I'm fencing tonight and shaved skin + sweat + mobile mask = severe rash and pain. Still it was interesting to see the techniques behind interviewing and filming, and I got to plug my sport for two hours (to be condensed into a 2.5 minute film).

After that - on to a departmental meeting lasting two hours during which we try to work out how to provide a rounded, specialist, interesting curriculum within the new parameters set by management. Answers on a postcard. Finally, I'm off fencing in shrewsbury tonight, including a few bouts with a Singaporean international sabreur before she heads off to Belfast for the Junior World Championships in a couple of weeks. It's my worst weapon so I'll settle for still having the same number of limbs in the morning as I do now.

A few words of wisdom

I'm no fan of hippies, and this track is musically lacking, but the points need to be made over and over again.

Welcome, lost leader

Cynical Ben has honoured us with his presence in Wolverhampton, and seems to believe that it's not the most vibrant, beautiful city on earth. Is he right? Perhaps - though it's a bit cheeky for a man from Cheslyn Hay.

We celebrated his apotheosis with cheese, moules mariniére and fine wine, as though we were sophisticated, suave young gentlemen, instead of a bunch of assorted wastrels doing little other than waiting for death - and where better to embrace our common mortality than Whitmore Reans, where a violent demise edges closer the longer we stay? When I arrived in this benighted burg almost 10 years ago, I knew only that my cell was located there. Imagine my joy at the railway station when I picked up the local Depress and Scar (also known as the Express and Swastika for its 'robust' views) and saw the screaming headline 'Crack and Guns Haul in Whitmore Reans'. I can't find that story online, but here's some more lazy journalism about the area.

Does anybody fancy a meeting of Wolverhampton bloggers? Cynical Ben went to one for Mancunians and had a great time - though they were very sophisticated types from all accounts.

The Spirit of St. Patrick

Despite the best efforts of the Pioneers, this is the true meaning of St. Pat's. Thanks to Emma for working out how to transfer them from a mobile phone.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Moment of reckoning

I'm currently undertaking the herculean task of scanning in Module Evaluation Forms so that my PGCE tutors can see what my students think of my teaching. It's very trusting of them: I could just select the positive ones and nobody would be any the wiser. However, I'm not doing that - very few are wholly negative but I'm including them to arrive at a representative spread.

It's illuminating in a way: some people think the module was highly organised and others that it was disorganised! Most people think I'm friendly, and a few are even persuaded that poetry is worth knowing a little about. Vindication!

Dark waves wash over me

It's becoming quite a depressing week: bad class yesterday, evidence of grade inflation, management machinations are reducing the space for creative and flexible subjects, meetings are springing up all over, I was told a disgusting anecdote about a student's trip to a zoo and there's no end in sight.

Still, another book turned up in the post today. Ritzer's The McDonaldization of Society - it summarises what's happening to this place perfectly.

Help me out?

My first-year students invited me to join them 'gay clubbing'. I can't work out whether that's homophobic, obscurely mocking me, or a genuine invitation (gracefully declined). Is gay clubbing like seal clubbing?

Happy St. Patrick's day, by the way.

We're definitely doomed

Monbiot says so, and I think he's right. It'll take a few generations, and the poor, hungry masses who haven't contributed to the disaster at all will perish first. There's always a higher piece of ground for those who can afford it. I intend to learn Norwegian and follow the snow line in my remaining years.

I've never been one of those people who moan about aging, but now I positively embrace it - life is going to get progressively more unpleasant but hopefully I'll be dead before we're all huddled together in refugee camps. What's really annoying is that I haven't even indulged in the kind of short-termist hedonism that's caused all this. I've flown fewer than 15 times in my 33 years, don't drive, snort imported (or local) coke, each much meat etc. etc. What's depressing is that most people don't care - presumably because the effects are exported to distant countries occupied by poor, brown people.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Urge to kill… falling

My spirits are lifted by Rebecca's link to an automatic conference paper abstract generator - which actually works for poor quality papers. Try it out here.

Also, my hardback copy of Watchmen has arrived - I read it years ago and though I should probably get my own. With it came a book which may not be plugged into the popular zeitgeist so much but is going to be educational and fun: Chris Mullin's parliamentary/ministerial diaries, A View From the Foothills. Mullin is one of those quietly independent, witty backbench MPs who devote their lives to improving those of their constituents and others without seeking power or fame. When power is dangled in front of him, it's an illusion: ministerial office was largely a waste of time and energy for him.

Thanks, by the way, to the staff of Waterstone's in Wolverhampton and Birmingham (posh New Street branch). The young woman behind the till in Wolves bantered knowledgeably and wittily about David Peace's Yorkshire novels (I bought GB84 for Phil). The Birmingham branch exchanged my misprinted copy of Team of Rivals without a quibble after Penguin's refusal to take responsibility for their own texts. See - even corporate behemoths can do well. I hope the staff I talked to are well-paid and unionised.

I didn't sign up to be a primary school teacher

What a thoroughly depressing teaching session - a great lecture from William drowned out by what sounded like a kindergarten class dropped into a zoo's snake-pit. Some of the class are getting to the end of their tethers, frustrated by the extremely vocal minority (some of whom manage to talk all the way through without removing their headphones, then walk out early glaring at the lecturer)…

I almost forgot. I went to my Union's AGM and branch meeting today. I'm not convinced about the tactical strengths of the wider UCU (we went on strike and folded immediately in the first week of its existence - that'll show management who they're dealing with), but the Wolves branches are packed with feisty and dedicated activists. And now I'm one of them - yes, I've added a union committee to my portfolio of stuff to stop me reading. This is how the revolution ends, not with a bang but with a meeting…

If you aren't already in one, join a union. Better 'them and us' than 'them and you'.

We are doomed

To recover from the St Pat's festivities, we ate Vietnamese food, sat in the Wellington with pints of real ale and read newspapers, then went to Star City for the premiere of The Age of Stupid. What a brilliant place for a green film: a palace of excess and consumption located next to Spaghetti Junction, a place with so much contempt for the environment that they have no information available about how to get there by public transport.

If you haven't heard about it, it's an important film about climate change. Chances are you're either entirely indifferent or bored with the subject. You shouldn't be. You should watch the film and leave with a sense of utter, utter dread, alleviated by a glimmer of hope that we can do something about it before 2015 - after that, we all get to live in a post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner film, and nobody wants that.

Actually, the film's not that good. It makes a lot of important points but makes them badly. The boo-hiss guy is a low-cost airline director, but it's a shame that they couldn't use a Western one, such as Ryanair's O'Leary. Instead, they pick an Indian as though it's poor Asian countries which have got us all into trouble. The nuclear potato is avoided utterly and the clumsy post-fall flashback structure has been done a million times in cheap SF. Pete Postlethwaite's pretty good though.

The strength is the movement that's growing out of Age of Stupid. The live Q and A beamed direct from Leicester Square was interesting, primarily for Ed Miliband's discomfiture. He had the last laugh though - every time they begged him not to build Kingsnorth, he stressed the need to experiment with CCS, clearly meaning 'I'm building it, and CCS might happen in 30 years time so piss off' while hoping that the greens would think 'Ah, he understands why coal's bad'.


It's been some weekend. On Saturday, the Map Twats went to Stafford and bought artisan cakes and ale, and oatcakes (proper Staffordshire ones mind, not those crunchy Scottish things), then went for a glorious walk on Cannock Chase, avoiding the doggers and visiting a barrow near the delighfully-named Milford. A quick pizza-break at Dan and Georgie's then on to Brewood for real ale to celebrate Phil's birthday, having witnessed some classic street theatre - teenagers being actually frog-marched by the scruffs of their necks for a secluded beating.

Come Sunday and it's off to Brum for St. Patrick's Day parading (not restricted to our Orange brethren). I went with Emma (from Limerick) and Neal. It was everything I hoped (and remembered from last year): ramshackle charm, as though the event was organised by Father Ted. The floats were all on loan from construction companies, reinforcing the preception that the Irish in Britain are all navvies. The music rarely strayed from the Dubliners' Greatest Hits, though some pipe bands were pretty good (silence greeted the West Midlands Police pipe band, unsurprisingly).

Best of all, the participants were a random collection of people who wanted to be in a parade. I didn't notice anything distinctively Irish about the stream of Volkswagen camper vans (Volk Music, anyone) or tractors, one featuring a stunt driver dressed as a priest. I did appreciate the irony of the Abstinence Pioneers of the Sacred Heart marching on St. Patrick's Day (though looking back, their banner didn't specify from what they were abstaining.

I loved it. Despite a sea of people waving and wearing the usual tat, there was a complete absence of irony or glamour. When the Celtic Tiger is officially declared extinct, we'll be left with the authenticity of red-faced men wearing Mayo or Galway GAA tops straining to control serious beer bellies, women dressed in dowdy, comfortable clothing and smoking furiously, all suspicious of glamour, style, fashion, and the activities of the jet-setting élite which has taken over the country. Celia Ahern, the Smurfit billions and U2 (tax-evading scum) can go feck themselves. This is the real Ireland (perfect illustration to follow when Emma sends me the photo I took on her mobile).

Reading makes you moral

I can't really speak for my students, but I thought that Friday's Commonwealth/Restoration seminar went rather well. We discussed Areopagitica in the context of The Satanic Verses and Geert Wilders's Fitna (as expected, my Dutch students were very relaxed about such things), then looked at Bacon on the productive but destabilising social effects of single men, and all sorts of other things.

As a fan of reading, I'd like to draw your attention to these words:
…books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them… he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself…

Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice [this is Mark's defence] is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.
(John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644)

Friday, 13 March 2009

Teaching and reading

I've spent the morning mainlining Civil War texts - no room in the curriculum for pamphlets, Ranters, Diggers, Levellers etc but Milton, Bacon, Pepys, Donne and Lovelace aren't bad - remains to be seen how well the kids take it, but I do despair at how we can summarise one of the most intellectually fascinating periods of history in 2 hours… It has reminded me how much fun all this stuff is.

There's always one who lets the side down.

Cynical Ben's been meeting other bloggers. Off-line! In real life! Ben, you're breaking the code of the nerd. Blogging is a substitute for a fulfilling, happy life, not a part of it. Shame on you with your wife, and social events, and long weekends in the nation's capital. For shame!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Those wonderful Mitford gels

Right now I'm reading Mary Lovell's The Mitford Girls and not enjoying it much. I've an interest in the Mitfords - Jessica (Decca) is a hero of mine, and the rest of the brood are an object lesson in the iniquities of the aristocracy. Unfortunately, Lovell's book is essentially a long paean of praise to poor misunderstood Diana (unrepentant Fascist, friend of Goebbels, wife of Mosley etc), an elegy for Unity (personal friend of Hitler etc. etc.) and an attempt to paint Decca as a liar and fantasist because she was a Communist (who lived most of her life in rough Oakland, California, fighting for the poor and black population). Lovell, it seems, divides the world between those who hunt (good) and those who don't (rotters).

Yeah, computational linguists, it's about time you got yours

I know very many computation linguists. They live a live of unbridled hedonism and indulgence. Gold-plated PCs, jacuzzi in the corner of the office, funding coming out of their ears.

Late, but a point worth making.

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe (can't remember which volume), Adams makes the point that humanity thinks it's the most advanced race on earth because it possesses nuclear weapons, amongst a bunch of other stupid developments. The dolphins think they're the most advanced species precisely because humans have nuclear weapons etc. etc.

The dolphins are right. Santino the Swedish Chimpanzee has demonstrated that humans aren't the only animals with the ability to plan for the future - an ability which proves an amazing level of abstract reasoning function. While the zoo was closed, Santino was making and storing rocks ready to bombard visitors. When the zoo closed for the winter, he didn't bother making them because he knew they wouldn't be needed.

Clearly, Santino didn't like being entertainment, and found a way to make his point consistently and clearly. What have humans done for Santino? Set him free? Provided secluded accommodation? Urgently re-written our animal experimentation laws to take into account the fact that lab chimps must spend their evenings in mortal dread of the next morning's torture?

No. Humans cut Santino's nuts off. That'll show him. Bet he didn't foresee that, despite his future-planning capability.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Well it's goodbye from him…

I'm off to the bright lights of Loughborough this afternoon, for a UK School Games Welfare meeting… deepest of joys.

I get readers: welcome Congressman Campbell

No sooner do I point out the fundamental evil of Ayn Rand and name Congressman John Campbell as a culprit, when up pops a House of Congress computer on the stat porn, aimed directly at that entry. Shouldn't you have more to do? Or do you have minions charged with searching the world for references to you? Well, I hope you've learned something. Anyone else finding this: Campbell is the past, discredited, extinct. Overthrow him!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

No moral compass

Some evil bastard at my university has sent me a flyer inviting me to a conference on foundation degrees called 'Investing for Success'. The keynote speaker is Tesco's personnel director of education, talking about the Tesco degree in retail (outsourced, of course, to some opportunistic bullshitters). What do they think I can learn? How to dumb down? How to subjugate all academic and ethical concerns to the mighty dollar? I suspect that the Retail Foundation Degree doesn't mention union rights. I wonder if it includes modules on systematic £billion tax evasion using the offshore economy? That's not exactly investing…

Leicester University should be ashamed of its behaviour in legitimising this kind of astroturf. It's exactly the kind of limiting, reductive fodder for proles that our governments have decided is good enough - a simulation of education which (Ritzer's McDonaldized University) ensures a compliant supply of drones (sorry, flexible workers) to keep corporate Britain in school fees and gymkhana kit. The minimum-wage, benefit-dependent proletariat think they're being educated while the nobs are getting sherry in tutorials down in Cambridge. Why shouldn't the poor get a share of the sherry, a couple of hours' personal attention from an academic at the top of her or his game? Perhaps with that kind of 'investment', they'd get a lot more out of it than an overconfident toff with all the advantages.

Ian McEwan imagined this dystopia in skin-crawling detail years ago in The Child In Time, as did John Christopher in The Guardians.

Feeling itchy?

Apparently one of the halls of residence has been evacuated while the authorities fumigate after an outbreak of bedbugs. Any staff scratching themselves will immediately attract suspicion…

Leave me alone!

Some of my friends might find this familiar. I'm used to being on the receiving end.

Sometimes I feel the need for a killing spree

The Guardian points out that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged has rocketed to the top of the bestseller charts in this recessionary time. I'm not surprised: a lot of evil, greedy, fascistic, selfish people crawl out from under their rocks (Rand described altruism as 'evil'). What's really annoying is that the people buying this insane (and awful) novel is that they're the ones who've caused the current disaster.

Atlas Shrugged is about the collapse of America which follows the withdrawal of capitalists from American society, into a compound. Eventually the rest of the country ('parasites') have to beg them to save the nation.

Quite frankly, I'd like the capitalists to hole up in a compound. We could call it, er, um, a PRISON. Then the rest of us could look after each other and clear up the mess. The real-life capitalists are upset that Obama wants to help ordinary Americans. Haven't they noticed that a) greedy selfish capitalists caused this mess and b) that they've been helped first: untold billions to bail out banks and failed industries?

Most haven't noticed this glaring error. Rick Santelli's rant on CNBC summed up Randian philosophy perfectly. He's a former derivatives salesman turned 'journalist'. Asked for his opinion, he streamed forth this garbage from the trading floor, exhorting the traders (all working for bankrupt, taxpayer-saved organisations) to boo the 'losers' who saved them, and need help with their mortgages. The telling moment is towards the end when he describes the traders as a representative cross-section of America - despite them all being white, middle-aged men.

According to the Guardian, Republican Congressmen like John Campbell are giving out copies of the book because we're living in the early stages of the Atlas Shrugged situation. Not exactly: a combination of capitalist greed and capitalist selfishness has caused this. The central conundrum is this: efficient Randy capitalism demands selfishness - which damages the economy but enriches the individual. I don't think that co-operative capitalism would help, but the individualist version guarantees that it destroys itself. There's no motivation for keeping the system running smoothly. We need the effective capitalists to withdraw their efforts - then we can go about creating a society which believes in community rather than get-rich-quick, beggar-thy-neighbour greed. Very depressingly, one of my sisters had a copy of Atlas Shrugged. I realised then that there was an unbridgeable philosophical gap between us that made further serious symbolic pointless.

Rather than us begging the 'achievers' to save us, they've begged us to save them - and then stabbed us in the back when we've done so. No gallows are high enough for these bastards.

Grumpy morning thoughts

Not much blogging today. I'm going to hold tutorials with my research methods students, then go home to bed as I'm still feeling rotten. I shall eat poached eggs from my mum's hens and drink the champagne my dad gave me for going home to do some stats for him. There now isn't anything I don't know about the incidences of keratoanthoma in North Staffordshire…

I'm also a bit depressed about Northern Ireland. I'm a Republican in the Irish and wider senses, and supported armed resistance to the old undemocratic statelet, which operated as a South African style colonial entity. What the CIRA and RIRA are doing isn't collective self-defence or resistance, it's atavistic thuggery designed to attract respect from disaffected teenagers with limited horizons. Popping the occasional peeler doesn't bring about a united Ireland (though nor does the current political process, which seems indistinguishable from Britain's 19th-century India policy).

I finished Jim Crace's Pesthouse yesterday. It's very moving, and draws on lots of American cultural myths. It's also clearly an inspiration for Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Both, being literary authors having a holiday in dystopian future writing, have the skill to resist filling in the gaps: we don't know the reasons for social and political collapse, or the 'big picture' - all we get are the effects on two people struggling to survive.

Monday, 9 March 2009

I just can't stop buying books

Yet again, I've fallen off the wagon. I hadn't bought a book since Friday - but I wandered into The Works on my way back from the framers' and ended up with a pile of 6 more. Most shamefully, one is The Children of Hurin, essentially the dregs of Tolkien's waste-paper basket compiled by greedy literary executors. I don't even like JRR any more (haven't done since I was 16), but the completist instinct is hard to beat down. I did balance this trash with Nicolson on 17th concepts of Arcadia, Keneally on transportation to Australia, some Ismail Kadare (my favourite Albanian author), Gerard Jones's history of comic books and Tanner's The Last of the Celts.

'It's perfume Jim, but not as we know it'

The Plashing Vole doesn't wear 'fragrances' - unless scientists are testing them on him. But he could be tempted by Eau de Spock: yes, a range of stench-covering products linked to Star Trek are coming - or is it PR bullshit for the forthcoming film?

Happy Women's Day (except for Thatcher)

Which implies, I guess, that every other day is effectively Men's Day. Which it probably (unfortunately) is. I celebrated by listening to a couple of short speeches, one by my friend and colleague, Rebecca Summers, a music technologist who demonstrated that the world of mixing desks and sound rigging isn't just for fat blokes in faded metal shirts.


I'm rapidly becoming addicted to xkcd.com. This one is brilliant. (Click on it for larger version).


God, what a gruelling weekend. Kept up all night by the teenage party next door, only to be out by 6 for a day-long meeting in London, then coming back sans voice and feeling rough.

My meeting was at British Fencing's headquarters. I've been around fencing for a long time now, spending plenty of weekends laying pistes, patrolling hotel corridors, refereeing and occasionally losing fights. However, I'd never been down to the sanctum. I expected it to look like this, especially as it's Baron's Gate, Rothschild Road:

Actually, it's a small office suite in a residential road somewhere in North London. No suits of armour, no slash-damage to the walls, no gentlemen's club ambience. Ho hum.

Sunday, I spent in bed, marking, and bemoaning the loss of my beautiful light tenor voice. Thankfully, Richard Madeley didn't pick anything worth humming along to on Desert Island Discs anyway. A lightweight man with execrably middle-of-the-road tastes. Why somebody thought he was worth inviting, I don't know. DID used to invite interesting people, not just celebrities - perhaps the distinction is too subtle even for Radio 4 now.

Friday, 6 March 2009

I like science fiction

but this is a pretty good guide for any literature student

Geeks rock!

I'm a sucker for intertextuality and geeky cartoons, so I've added this maths one to my list. Here's a good example:

Friday I'm in Bed

Well, it's almost the end of a very long week, but one in which I think I've mostly been a force for good, even though I didn't wear my Green Lantern t-shirt at all. I've done some extra-kind counselling and tutoring, marked some essays, been to some great lectures and hauled my carcass up and down the pool even though I have a cold. So to reward myself over the weekend, I'm going to be waiting at a motorway junction in the West Midlands at 6.00 a.m. for a lift to London for a training day on taking sports teams on trips abroad. Deep joy.

Oh, and Stoke are going to beat Everton on Saturday. Ahem


All week, Gary Trudeau has been considering Twitter in his Doonesbury Strip. He's not a fan, it's fair to say. (Click on the image to get a larger version).

Barking and Marking

I'm marking essays this morning (or at least I'm meant to be). It's fascinating how some students can take what you've said in lectures and expand on it, cramming in detail and alternative points of view, while others can completely ignore even the basic factual stuff (and then object to low marks). Personality does play a part though. Even with anonymized marking, I can identify particular students by their approaches and interests.

What do we think of anonymized marking, by the way? The idea is that it enforces objectivity, cutting out pro- or anti- bias, sexism, racism etc. etc. and ensuring that the mark is based solely on the quality of the work. I can see the argument, but I would suggest that this implies that I am biased, sexist, racist and so on. More importantly, it replaces education with qualification. I don't see myself as a marker, a provider of grades, but as some sort of guide. Knowing who the students are allows me to contextualise the work according to my knowledge of a student's strengths and weakness, without necessarily marking more easily or harder (and perhaps able students should be pushed harder).

I don't think that students care about anonymized marking, as they usually put their names on their work (it's obscured on the cover-sheets). That may, of course, be because they haven't had any explanation of the purpose - we aren't very good at communicating our reasons for things.

Useless Penguins

I raved a few days ago about Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. Don't buy it. It's brilliant, revelatory even, but when you get to page 460 of the Penguin edition, you get a terrific sense of déjà vu. Instead of the run-up to the Emancipation proclamation, we get pages 413-460 all over again. After that, it's essentially 'once out of the escape-proof hole'. Aaaagggghhhhh

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Economic crisis over

I've done my bit for the economy. If you all follow my example, we'll be fine. What have I done? I've bought a David Jones print from the National Library of Wales. Now I just need a wall to hang it on - my own are covered in bookshelves from floor to ceiling (plus more piles of books across the floor. Now I just want Gordon to quantitatively ease my bank account.


Stoke City 2, Bolton Wanderers 0. Just saying…

Mo: a quick recap

Mo - it would be sexist (creepy, in fact) if I'd decided to list powerful women for the hell of it. I did so because a previous commenter decided that an attack on Margaret Thatcher was symptomatic of fear of women as a sex. You have inspired me though - I'd forgotten about Mo Tucker.

On closer inspection of the stat-porn, 'Mo' turns out to be one of my darling siblings!

Albrecht, you poor deluded man

Albrecht objects (see comments) to my inclusion of Lauren Laverne in my list of strong women who aren't Margaret Thatcher.

Well, little Albrecht, you must be quite young if you don't remember the glorious splash made by Kenickie, which consisted of aforesaid Lauren, Marie du Santiago, Emmy-Kate and Johnny X (the runt of the litter). I think young Lauren has made the best of her talents - she's clearly the future of Radio 4 (I hope) and all other thoughtful outlets. If we have to have under-informed celebrities fronting anything vaguely cultural (so as not to scare off ver kids), at least Lauren's genuinely curious and eager to learn.

Damn. I forgot Charlotte Green. And Jessica Stevenson.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Scabrous fun

In The Loop, the film version of political comedy The Thick of It, is out next month. There's a clip available at The Guardian, and the poster is an inspired pastiche of the famous Obama one.

The Big Bang Theory

Dr Alex Benzer has explained my utter failure on the dating front: I'm too intelligent! So suck on that, married/attached siblings, Dan, Ben and the rest of you morons.

(Actually, it's a lot of hippy psychobabble but I'm clinging to it).

Bong/Cat interface

OK, I just suggested that people are essentially good. I didn't suggest that they're essentially kind or bright. As evidence, I give you this headline (and video):
Man Arrested For Smoking Bong With His Cat Stuffed Inside
Needless to say, this event took place in the United States. I hope the Nebraskan responsible isn't the one who's been reading this blog.

Jack Straw: more evil than Hazel Blears?

I've thought recently that Charlie Brooker's column in the Guardian has become a little self-parodic in recent times.

I was wrong. This week's column is brilliant because he's angry with Jack Straw and nails that little turd for his contempt for democracy. Read it for yourself. However, the bit that makes me boil with anger is Straw's statement of his political beliefs:
"If people were angels there would be no need for government . . . But sadly people are not all angels."
Never mind that this is purest bollocks: people will still need disaster relief, and health care, and old age care, and environmental protection and everything else that isn't law'n'order.

Brooker points out that Straw therefore elevates politicians above the people, which is bad enough. What gets me though is that this is Straw coming out as a philosophical Tory. At the heart of the socialist (and liberal) project is a fundamental belief in the essential goodness of humanity. Toryism believes that people are inherently bad and need restraining. This is the fundamental philosophical divide - and Straw clearly believes that government exists for the purpose of repressing the atavistic qualities of the people. I think I prefer the American 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' to his profoundly depressing vision. No wonder the cover of my copy of The Demon Headmaster takes Straw as its inspiration. (I can't find a scan of it, but here's one that looks almost as chilling):

Yet more books

I'm feeling seriously rough today - swimming didn't help - and I've got a big pile of marking to do. Or rather, I should have, but 18 essays are mysteriously missing in the bureaucracy. Brilliant.

I got another book in the post today - Chrétien de Troyes's Arthurian Romances. Unfortunately, I discover that it's a rather archaic 1914 translation and that I already have this copy. The up side is that the new copy is a rather pretty hardback. I'm also reading Team of Rivals by Doris Stearns Goodwin, who got into trouble for plagiarism in her The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds a few years back. The new book is astonishing - tracing the parallel careers of Lincoln and the rivals he integrated into his cabinet. It's astonishing partly because Lincoln's rivals (Chase, Bates, Salmon) were brilliant, committed, serious - how times change - and because Lincoln's elevation from desperate squalor to President was aided by luck so many times. According to my copy, Obama used it as a template for his cabinet.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

I get readers…

Such confused ones! An iPhone user and Richard Thompson fan at Stone Mountain, Georgia. So what? Well, Stone Mountain is famous for two things: being the biggest exposed outcrop of granite in the world (wow), and for having a bas-relief of three American politicians.

Except that: it's not granite, it wouldn't be the biggest exposure of granite anyway, and the carvings are of racist Confederate politicians: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. To its shame, the state of Georgia bought the site and helped finish the sculpture, funded also by the KKK and the federal government.

I don't have many readers, but I reckon I can afford to lose this one. So, Bubba, saddle up and git out…

O Frabjous Day

My favourite scientist, Pharyngula, is joining my favourite newspaper for a monthly column. With Bad Science on board, it's swiftly becoming lefty-rationalist central!

Also, it has a sense of humour. Its nickname is The Grauniad because of its formerly awful proofing - look up grauniad.co.uk

Late entrants

Late additions to the list of powerful women who aren't Margaret Thatcher: Caryl Churchill, Anne of Green Gables (with some reservations), Helen Suzman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Emma Goldman, Angela Carter, Ada Babbage, Ruth First, Lauren Laverne, Franny Armstrong (thanks Neal for the latter, and Emma for the Buffy suggestion).

Monday, 2 March 2009

Dirty, perverted conservatives

It's in the New Scientist and it's statistically significant: the more conservative (judged by the US elections by state) you are, the more porn you consume. I suppose it figures - us lefties are concerned about objectification and simulation and exploitation - whereas Tories are all for such things.

More surprisingly, as Pharyngula notes, the stronger your beliefs in 'old-fashioned family values' and in Aids-as-God's-punishment, the more porn you ogle. Weirdos.

In memoriam

David Cameron appears not to have milked the death of his son, thus far. I can't, however, get the image of Peter Mandelson grimly approaching Wendy Richards' bed, gripping a pillow and muttering about getting Cameron out of the headlines. Or is this the kind of tastelessness that I should keep to myself?

Bye bye Brummies

We may still go down, but I loved the last 3 minutes of Stoke vs. West Brom: they were 2-0 up at 87 minutes and drew 2-2 with us (we've had 4 points from Villa this season!). None of our lot got sent off for a change! The Ireland result was another nailbiter but thoroughly deserved. England must be desperate for Lansdowne Road to reopen. It's about time that the English were massacred in Croke Park for a change!

Turning the other cheeks

At Ben's wedding, we played Sir Mix-a-Lot's 'Baby Got Back' and we all thought it very funny indeed. Now I've seen this video, I'm not laughing.

Map Twats on another tour

We had a stunning weekend in North Wales - serious walking on deep snow in rolling fog. A lot of pictures are here. We also ended up in Bangor Students' Union reliving old glories (e.g. drinking snakebite and black while feeling horribly out of place). The unhappy Smurf above is James. He's actually very attractive in a roguish way, so I'm very pleased to find a photo which drags him down to my level. The model is wearing polyester hat from Bethesda Spar, £1.95 (limited edition).