Thursday, 28 April 2016

Inefficient journalism

You have to ask yourself whether Dan Roberts is working harder, not smarter here. It would surely be far quicker to knock out an article on the consistent, coherent bits of Trump's foreign policy thoughts (or thoughts about anything, for that matter). A couple of sentences, tops. Then Dan could knock off early and enjoy a coffee, while the rest of us would be spared most of the orange-faced buffoon's ramblings.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

No, I did not know that

Did you know that the Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning racehorse Gay Donald enjoyed liquorice allsorts and sardine sandwiches?

A lot of Wikipedia's "Did you know..." factoids are pretty underwhelming, but I thought they found a pretty special one for today.

Monday, 25 April 2016

None the wiser

 I don't understand what these people are playing at:
Ukip leader Nigel Farage has urged the Leave campaign to focus on immigration rather than economics and trade. "If we debate economics and trade, we can go round in circles for weeks and the public will be none the wiser," he said.

It comes after a "shaky" week for the Out campaign, says The Guardian.
The Week

The specific bit I don't understand is this. They want people to vote to get out of the EU. So we can assume that they've already got the votes of the True Believers who are going to vote leave in the bag - where else are those people going to go?

Then Outers have a few days when they make fools of themselves and the country with borderline racist comments about the President of the USA and suggestions that Dominic Raab (AKA "Who?") knows more about how US trade policy is likely to pan out then the actual President of the USA.

You'd think, wouldn't you, that after such a shaky week, full of ridiculous drivel that could only be swallowed by the truest, most fanatical, most uncritical of True Believers, while frightening off the undecided, that they might decide to focus on the sort of issues that would attract floating voters, widening their appeal, rather than on a narrow core-vote anti-immigrant strategy, which seems like the last thing they need right now?

But there's no mention of the sort of issues that might possibly win over a wider coalition of people with doubts about the EU. They could, for instance, have mentioned the catastrophically mismanaged Eurozone (we're not in, but it hardly gives you confidence in EU institutions), the democratic deficit, the shameful pandering to the increasingly despotic Turkish president and TTIP. But, no, it's the same old narrow appeal to the Ukip / Tory Eurosceptic base.

It's almost as if they don't want to win. Which is fine by me.

The late fearful massacres

Syria, eh? If only they'd listened to T E Lawrence and Sykes–Picot had never happened, we wouldn't be seeing all these headlines about sectarian strife and massacres. Would we?
Published in 1961...

Turns out it's a bit more complicated than that.
In this period, the Sublime Porte's firmans (decrees) of 1839 and, more decisively, of 1856 — equalizing the status of Muslim and non-Muslim subjects — produced a
"dramatic alienation of Muslims from Christians. The former resented the implied loss of superiority and recurrently assaulted and massacred Christian communities — in Aleppo in 1850, in Nablus in 1856, and in Damascus and Lebanon in 1860."

Interesting to to see that, even before the current set of badly-drawn lines on the map, most people in the region were already being presented with the the same terrible binary option - rule by despots, versus toxic identity politics.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Combine harvester of the fields of death

For some reason, my most popular post earlier this year was  "Men with silly hats in tiny tanks." Either people really like pictures of tanks, or they really like silly LOLpics. To find out which, I'm going to post a non-silly tank pic and see how many people click. If many, I'll know you're here for the charismatic megafauna of the battlefield (© Charlie Stoss). If few, more LOLs needed.
A Sherman Crab flail tank in front of burning buildings in Arnhem, 14 April 1945. Made by: No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit. © Imperial War Museum (BU 3515).
The M4 Sherman hasn't got a very impressive reputation, but it was produced in impressive numbers (more Shermans rolled off US production lines than the total number of tanks manufactured by the British and Germans combined in the whole of the Second World War). And you have to admit that the mine-clearing variant, implacably beating a path through minefields and barbed wire entanglements with heavy chains on a rotating drum, looked pretty impressive in a strangely medieval way.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Good ruminations

Beyond the reflection that I must be getting old, because the majority of the famous people I've heard of now seem to be dead, Prince's death did prompt another rumination - this time about about a trait shared by a subset of our recently-deceased high achievers:
[Publicist Martin] Keller said Prince was a “severe introvert” who grew from barely getting words out early in his career to becoming more articulate and media-friendly as he got older...
...[Long-time north Minneapolis resident Robin] Crockett had known Prince since she was 10. She and others often huddled in the home’s basement to watch him practice. “He’d sit without his guitar plugged in,” she said. “Just him and his guitar.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

This, just after we'd adjusted to the death of Victoria Wood who, famously, had an isolated childhood, largely spent in one of the many rooms of the house her eccentric mother had partitioned up with sheets of reclaimed plywood, alone, save for a telly, a piano and an active imagination.

And as for Bowie, who more or less kicked off Death's bumper 2016 talent harvest, here's the man in his own words:
As an adolescent, I was painfully shy, withdrawn. I didn’t really have the nerve to sing my songs onstage and nobody else was doing them. I decided to do them in disguise so that I didn’t have to actually go through the humiliation of going onstage and being myself. I continued designing characters with their own complete personalities and environments. I put them into interviews with me! Rather than be me — which must be incredibly boring to anyone — I’d take Ziggy in, or Aladdin Sane or The Thin White Duke. It was a very strange thing to do.
All three had an element of introversion written through them like a stick of rock and I'm guessing that several more of 2016's honoured dead shared something of this trait (the famously reclusive Harper Lee sounds like a dead cert), although not all of them (it's difficult to imagine the thrill-seeking Lemmy sitting on the introvert end of the spectrum, although even he seems to have had an comparatively isolated childhood with plenty of room for solitary rumination).

But whether or not the young Lemmy spent a lot of time ruminating, a lot of highly talented introverts certainly did. That's worth remembering, because there's a tendency to only see the bad side of rumination. For a lot of mental health professionals and counsellors, rumination is A Bad Thing, a pathology to be eliminated, so that people can mindfully live in the moment, free from useless anxiety and unprofitable introspection.

And they do have something of a point. There are obvious forms of rumination we'd be better off without. In ascending order of seriousness:
  • all those times you've over-thought a problem and can't see a solution, but then the answer pops into your head once you've stopped worrying about it
  • endlessly fretting over the things that have gone wrong in your life until you've thought yourself into a state of exhausted depression or self-pity
  • being so focused on a solitary train of thought that you ignore any reality checkpoints you might pass and end up in an insane world of David Icke-style monomania
  • the obsessive ruminations of the stalker, fixated on the object of his or her obsession
  • the stereotypical murderer who shocked neighbours insist "kept himself to himself" while presumably ruminating over the dark fantasies, or real or imagined slights and insults which would eventually bubble over in some act of horrific violence.
But we need some balance here. Insane murderers are, thankfully, rare. On the opposite end of the rumination spectrum there are exceptionally talented people - also rare - who ruminate more than average and come up with great ideas. The width of the spectrum is enormous, encompassing everything from the grim and  frightening ruminations of the serial killer, to Victoria Wood ruminating on which was the funniest type of biscuit to name-check in her sketch, song, or stand-up routine and all points in between. And I'm willing to bet that, beyond the high-profile world of showbiz, the world's most talented scientists, engineers, medics and other high-end problem-solvers do more than their fair share of rumination.

There's pathological rumination, but there's also inspired rumination, creative rumination, analytical rumination, imaginative rumination, playful rumination and sheer genius rumination. It's context-dependent, not necessarily always a good or a bad thing, but I get the impression that it's generally frowned on these days, by people who only see the pathological end of the spectrum, an overgeneralisation which leads to people coming out with crazy talk like "You think too much", as if this was a perfectly reasonable thing to say, when it's really like saying "You breathe too much",* or, for Descartes fans, "You exist too much."

It can be a bad thing to be too obsessed with celebrities, but in this case, looking at at the habits of exceptionally talented people can provide a useful counter-narrative to the fashionable idea that all rumination is a menace which should be stamped out.

Apart from anything else, rumination, can be fun - Socrates thought that the unexamined life wasn't worth living and I'm with the ugly old bugger on that one. But, then, I'm a bit of an introvert, so I would say that, wouldn't I?

*I guess you can hyperventilate but, in general, breathing isn't something you want to stop doing any sooner than you can possibly help it.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Blame Widdecome

Because ... well, why wouldn't you ...  I'm posting a valedictory Victoria Wood vid, like every other right-thinking person on the Internet. I've not chosen this one because it's one of her best - far from it. She was much, much better with pieces that combined her flawless ear for language with that very specific brand of deadpan northern bathos that she could do like almost nobody else (except for Alan Bennett; both of them created wonderful worlds where people naturally spoke in phrases like "the penultimate macaroon" or "This was in the middle of a wedding, so she's spitting tuna vol-au-vents at me").

No, the main reason I plumped for this one is that you can't write a song with a chorus that starts "Ann Widdecome" without reminding people (at least ones like me) of the "Blame Canada" song from the old South Park movie - the bizarre mental pairing of these two completely different comedy worlds just me made me smile.