Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Found poem (comment spam)

You were not mistaken, truly
This topic is simply matchless
The authoritative message, funny
Bravo, your idea simply excellent
The matchless message
Spambots do free verse...

Relevant thought for the day*

Local libraries are gateways not only to other libraries, but to other lives. Of course, I can see that if you went to Eton or Harrow, like so many of the present cabinet, you might not understand the point of such lowly gateways…

It’s always been and always will be very difficult to explain to people with money what it means not to have money. It education matters to you, they ask, and if libraries matter to you, why wouldn’t you be willing to pay for them if you value them? They are the kind of people who believe value can only be measured in money, at the extreme end of which logic, lies the dangerous idea that people who cannot generate a lot of money for their families cannot possibly value their families as people with money do…

What could be better than handing people back the power so that they might build their own schools, their own libraries? Better to leave people to the already onerous tasks of building their lives and paying their taxes. Leave the building of infrastructure to government and the protection of public services to government, that being government’s mandate and the only possible justification for its power.

That the grotesque losses of the private sector are to be nationalised, cut from our schools and our libraries and our social services and our health care, in short, from our heritage, represents a policy so shameful, I doubt this government will ever live it down. Perhaps it is because they know what the history books will make of them that out policies are so cavalier with our libraries. From their point of view, the fewer places you can find a history book these days, the better.

Zadie Smith, speaking on Radio 4's Today programme this morning. Because it was well worth saying.

* Unlike the irrelevant platitudes that make up the official "Thought for the Day" slot.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Goodbye Kitty

Kittens: “either smothered in onions or in a ragout they are excellent”

Henry Du Pré Labouchère was present at the Prussian siege of Paris in 1870, when hungry Parisians had to slaughter and eat whatever animals they could lay their hands on. As well as kitten ragout, he dined on horse, full grown cat, donkey, rat and spaniel and found them all very tasty.

A Parisian Christmas menu from 1870, features stuffed donkey's head, elephant consommé, roast camel, kangaroo stew, antelope terrine, bear ribs, cat with rats, and wolf haunch in deer sauce. That's nothing, though. I once went to a works Christmas meal at a Beefeater in Luton. Having survived that experience, wolf haunch in deer sauce would be a walk in the park. Bonne app!


Anachronism update:  "German" siege of Paris corrected to "Prussian". I very much hope my A-level history teachers are still alive and well - if not, they'll be spinning in their graves.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

There is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

To: H. R. Haldeman
From: Bill Safire
July 18, 1969.

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT'S STATEMENT: The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.

AFTER THE PRESIDENT'S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN: A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to "the deepest of the deep," concluding with the Lord's Prayer.

On 20th July 1969, the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down safely on the moon - with only about 25 seconds of fuel left in its tanks. The world was half a minute away from hearing these words, with their odd echo of Rupert Brooke, rather than 'one small step for man'.

The dangers of manned spaceflight were all too real; in 1967, astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a cabin fire that engulfed the Apollo 1 command module during a ground test. In the same year, Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov died when the parachute on the command module of his Soyuz 1 spaceship failed to open after re-entry, as recalled in these chilling words:

... an NSA analyst, identified in the book as Perry Fellwock, described overhearing Komarov tell ground control officials he knew he was about to die. Fellwock described how Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin called on a video phone to tell him he was a hero. Komarov's wife was also on the call to talk about what to say to their children. Kosygin was crying.

When the capsule began its descent and the parachutes failed to open, the book describes how American intelligence "picked up [Komarov's] cries of rage as he plunged to his death."


More than forty years later, the Soyuz spacecraft is still in use. When the shuttle is retired, later this year, the only way to get people to the International Space Station will be on board the tried, tested, improved descendant of the Soyuz  spacecraft that killed Komarov (and the crew of  Soyuz 11 in 1971).

Also in the news

Can the Prime Minister confirm that after his changes are introduced, English students will pay the highest fees of any public university system in the industrialised world?

Asked Ed Miliband at prime minister's question time, back in December. Channel 4's FactCheck blog took a look at the figures and concluded that students at English public universities will almost certainly be paying the highest tuition fees in the industrialised world. Not just higher than those in Europe, Canada and Australia, but higher than the fees charged by public universities in the USA. Of course, FactCheck had no way of knowing how many universities would charge the maximum £9,000

 Back here, Universities UK said it couldn’t say what universities would charge after 2012, when higher fees are introduced. And that’s an important point – because it’s safe to presume not all universities will charge the top limit of £9,000. So, we just don’t yet know who will charge what and so what the average will be.

Well, the list of top chargers is beginning to be populated. The BBC is now reporting that The University of Essex has joined Surrey, Oxford, Imperial College, Durham and Exeter in announcing plans to charge the maximum £9,000 annual tuition fees.

In related news, the government have announced new restrictions on overseas students wishing to study in the UK, choking off another source of finance for cash-strapped universities.

This won't make the headlines, as it's not exactly a slow news day, but it's an issue that'll be hanging around for a long time.

Update: the University of Manchester's just joined the £9 grand club, too - today must have looked like a good day to bury bad news

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Epic doodle

When Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge, he probably didn't have robot elephants in mind but, hey, whatever...
(notes on) biology from ornana films on Vimeo.


Thursday, 17 March 2011

The Celtic tiger is not an equivorous beast

According to the BBC, many of Ireland’s racehorses, bought in record numbers by syndicates in the boom years of the Celtic tiger are being sent off to the slaughterhouse, now that few Irish people can afford the expense of maintaining a thoroughbred Abattoirs that slaughter horses for human consumption are booming. The report on Radio 4 mentioned that the main markets for such horseflesh are, unsurprisingly, France and Belgium.

This, along with my recent discovery of the word “equivorous”, had me ruminating on why the French and Belgians are such enthusiastic hippophages when the Brits and Irish seem repelled by idea of eating Dobbin. Maybe, I thought, it might have something to do with our Norman overlords. When the ruling elite consisted of armed men on horseback, I figured they'd take a pretty dim view of hungry Anglo-Saxons taking a bite out of their most prized weapon, means of transport and status symbol.

Alternatively it might have been an the even more ancient relic of a food taboo from Celtic times. After all, the ancient Britons carved a White Horse in the Oxfordshire hills, perhaps as an object of veneration or religious worship. Maybe a taboo that originated with local tribes was passed down through the ages and survived in the local culture long after its significance was lost in the mists of time.

Anyway, idle speculation wasn't going to answer my question, so I googled it. As it turned out, the taboo probably does go back some time, but both my guesses were a bit wide of the mark.The most entertaining account I can find comes from an 1868 edition of The Country Gentleman's Magazine:

Mr A. S. Bicknell, who appears to be a somewhat enthusiastic hippophagist, has embodied all the arguments for and against the horse as food for man in a paper recently read by him before the Society of Arts in London. He shews that the practice of eating horses existed in very early times, that it formed a standard dish at the birth-day feasts of the Persians; that the horse was certainly considered fit for food until at least the eighth century, and its disuse originated in certain prohibitions against it, issued by Pope Gregory III. and his successors, in consequence of one of the chief obstacles to the conversion of the Germans being found in their practice of sacrificing horses to idols, and the partiality of the people for the meat. The sturdy Icelanders, however, could not be persuaded that abstinence from horse-flesh was conducive to their spiritual benefit, and hence the Icelanders are hippophagists to the present day.

The modern movement in favour of horse-flesh as an article of food for man commenced in France in 1786, when Ge'raud, the distinguished physician, advocated its use, and told his countrymen that a large supply of good provision was wasted through the neglect of it. In 1811 a commission was.appointed by the French Board of Health to consider the advantage of allowing horses to be used for food, and they unanimously reported in its favour. A similar result followed the deliberation of a Commission appointed by the Prefect of Police in 1825, and this view of the question was also taken up by Larrey, chief of the medical staff during the Russian campaign. In 1830 a complete treatise on the subject was published by M. Villeroy, and in 1S35, Parent-Duchatelet, the Howard of France, in conjunction with two coadjutors appointed by the Board of Health, presented a second report, confirming the views expressed in the first; and from that time to the present a host of Frenchmen, distinguished in science, medicine, and literature, have testified in favour of using horses for food, and have strongly denounced the prevailing prejudice against it. On the eighth of June 1866, a decree legalised the slaughter of horses in special abattoirs, and the sale of the meat for human food ; and, although the restrictions imposed were severe, 2312 horses were eaten in Paris during the first twelvemonths.
Full text here. According to Wikipedia:

France dates its taste for horse meat to the Revolution. With the fall of the aristocracy, its auxiliaries had to find new means of subsistence. Just as hairdressers and tailors set themselves up to serve commoners, the horses maintained by aristocracy as a sign of prestige ended up alleviating the hunger of lower classes.

[citation provided]

Bring on the duelling ukuleles

Ukes used to be pretty niche, but The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain now has some serious competition from the scarily talented virtuoso Taimane Gardner.


Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Who owns Britain?

If you'd been around in 1873 you could have answered that question with some confidence. The newly-published Return of Owners of Land, recorded the ownership of at least 98% of the land in the four countries of the then United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). According to Kevin Cahill, writing in the New Statesman, the current Land Registry for England and Wales is 'at least 35 per cent short of that achievement after 86 years of trying, and in the age of computers.'  30-50% of the UK as a whole is owned by persons unknown, Cahill estimates.

This isn't the accidental result of bureaucratic muddle and incompetence, though. The Land Registry gives an accurate record of the freehold* titles to the 5% of the UK landmass used for domestic dwellings. As for the overwhelming majority of (agricultural) land, Cahill explains:

The failure to record the ownership of land in the UK arises not from failures by the staff running the registries, but from the way they were constructed by lawyers on behalf of landowners. The land registries were designed to conceal ownership, not reveal it.

When somebody's that keen to keep something quiet, it's probably something worth knowing. Kevin Cahill has his eye on the land bank held by these, sometimes unknown, landowners and thinks that, if some of it could be released for building, we'd avoid a situation where property prices are artificially inflated and housing bubbles, with all their problems, form.

Even if you take the contrary view, that holding back millions of acres of land that would otherwise be built on is a good thing because it stops our green and pleasant land turning into one big suburb, there's no reason to keep this sort of information out of the public domain.

One graphic in Cahill's article in particular is worth a look. 10% of the UK's land is used by domestic dwellings and businesses, who pay out £53 billion in land taxes between them. The 70% of the UK's land that is used for agriculture belongs to 0.28% of the population. These landowners don't pay any land tax, but receive £3.5-£5 billion in subsidies - on top of any rents they receive from the land. All of which seems a tad unfair to me.

The justification for this subsidy - to support agriculture and food security - seems a bit flaky. New Zealand farmers can still make a profit from shipping us their un-subsidised lamb from the most distant location on the planet. Even if we were to accept that agriculture still needs to be subsidised by the taxpayer, why should any of the subsidy go in to the pockets of landed rent-takers, rather than to the (mostly tenant) farmers who actually do the work? In times of desperate austerity for most people, many might be understandably angry to hear that the taxman gives a tiny minority of wealthy landowners a free ride and a nice little subsidy on top. Or that some of the wealthiest people in the country can keep their name off a Land Registry that identifies the owner of even the most modest starter home.

The New Statesman gets quite a bit of stick, some of it  justified, but it justifies its existence with thought-provoking articles like this. Read the whole thing here:

*I've talked about people "owning" land for the sake of convenience. It's actually a bit more complicated than that, thanks to those Normans and their feudal ways. Even freeholders are legally just tenants of the Crown, as Cahill points out, using a couple of pertinent quotations:

The Crown is the ultimate owner of all land in England and Wales (including the Isles of Scilly): all other owners hold an estate in land. Although there is some land that the Crown has never granted away, most land is held of the Crown as freehold or leasehold.

(Bridget Prentice, a parliamentary undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice)

… the concepts of leasehold and freehold derive from medieval forms of tenure and are not ownership

(Preamble to the Land Registration Act 2002)

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Bury the dead and heal the living

The massively destructive Japanese earthquake and tsunami may have left 10,000 dead, and has shaken down or washed away countless homes and livelihoods. A lot of practical help is already being organised - Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States Singapore, Switzerland and Britain are all sending in  help with disaster relief and doubtless more countries will follow. NGOs from Project HOPE, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to MapAction are preparing to give whatever help they can and people around the world are donating to appeals, as they've done for countless natural catastrophes and humanitarian disasters over the years.

There are a few examples of the disaster triggering less helpful human responses, from crackpots claiming that the disaster validates their pet theories about a "supermoon"-triggering seismic disturbances (neatly demolished in Bad Astronomy, so let's hear no more about that, please), to Millenarian Christians claiming the disaster as proof that we're living in the End Times.

But on the whole, I think it's a good sign that the practical, humane, helpful responses coming from governments, international bodies, NGOs and ordinary people massively overshadow the wacky ideas of a few obsessive loonies on the fringes of society.

It gives me hope that the human race has made some progress since 1755, when a huge earthquake, followed by a tsunami devastated much of the city of Lisbon. As Voltaire famously noted, the in the age of the Inquisition people treated the wacky ideas of obsessive loonies with far more respect, resulting in a form of disaster relief that was the precise opposite practical and humane:

After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking...

Voltaire's quotation, along with a painting of an auto-da-fé by the Spanish artist Pedro Berruguete is reproduced on the excellent Res Obscura blog.  An earler post reproduces pictures of Lisbon before the Great Earthquake.

In some ways, the Lisbon earthquake marked a turning point in attitudes to natural disaster. As superstitious people reacted to the disaster by burning the ungodly, others took more a more practical approach to the challenges of living in an earthquake zone. When the king asked the prime minister, Sebastião de Melo, Marquis de Pombal, what was to be done in the wake of the disaster, Pombal replied 'bury the dead and heal the living', which seems like a far more sensible response than setting fire to people. Pombal was put in charge of the subsequent rebuilding of the city and, again, managed to do a lot more good and a lot less harm than the contemporary ecclesiastical authorities:

The Pombaline buildings are among the earliest seismically protected constructions in Europe. Small wooden models were built for testing, and earthquakes were simulated by marching troops around them. Lisbon's "new" downtown, known today as the Pombaline Downtown (Baixa Pombalina), is one of the city's famed attractions. Sections of other Portuguese cities, like the Vila Real de Santo António in Algarve, were also rebuilt along Pombaline principles.

From Wikipedia

In the face of nature's terrifying indifference to the fate of human beings, Pombal and the people under him chose to heal and rebuild. Two and a half centuries later, the Baixa Pombalina is the pride of Lisbon.

In contrast, the Portuguese Inquisition was abolished in 1821. The name of the Inquisition became so discredited that the church subsequently re-branded it not once, but twice, (it became "The Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office" in 1908, then the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" in 1965). Despite the efforts of revisionist historians to rehabilitate the organisation, you'd no more catch the present Pope referring to himself as the 'former head of the Inquisition' than you'd find Fred Goodwin wanting to be known as an 'ex-banker.'

The fact that most sane peoples' reaction to natural disasters now owes more to Pombal than to the inquisitors makes the future seem just that little bit brighter.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

What I did in the holidays

Today I took my children to a Science Fair... It was very good, really: we were able to misidentify six types of medical prosthesis, fail to blow up a balloon using a yeast solution, receive free pens from at least 3 weapons manufacturers and talk to a robot in French.

From today's helping of chicory lit. at the Belgian Waffle blogspot. Look on her works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Friday, 11 March 2011

Definition of the day

A memorandum is written not to inform the reader but to protect the writer.

Dean Acheson


Two resolute bloggers

It’s not easy to summon up the self-discipline to knock out a bite-sized blog post on a regular basis (as opposed to just not bothering, or writing nothing for ages then blurting out a windy, baggy, ramble about the latest bee to have taken up residence in your bonnet). So I’d like to say thanks to a couple of bloggers who have recently taken up this challenge and run with it (albeit for differing lengths of time).

Stephen Nottingham’s Food Blog came back to life in January 2011. Stephen aimed to post each day for a year and has proceeded to nourish the blogosphere with regular recipes and posts on topics as diverse as  food in the movies, food in literature, food in songs, British pie week, the food scene in Cardiff, seafoods in prehistoric Wales, blood donation biscuits and why Jerusalem artichokes cause flatulence. Stephen recently guest posted in the Guardian.

The self-described ‘ex-eurodrone, unfit mother, and slattern’ responsible for Belgian Waffle has also made a resolution to write a daily post although hers only started about a week ago. I’ve rather enjoyed her quirky take on life from a Belgic perspective and I hope she keeps it up. Tip of the week so far; ‘if you save the old oil from your deep fat fryer, you can give a teaspoon a week to your cactuses.’ I don’t need a cactus, a deep fat fryer, or any understanding of why somebody would want to feed old cooking oil to a cactus, to feel better for knowing that. It just makes my life richer knowing that I could do it if I wanted to.

These two blogs have one advantage that mine lacks – a single unifying theme, respectively food and things Belgian.  Paradoxically, limiting your subject matter can help, rather then hinder the process of creativity:

Remember this: the freedom to choose anything does not inspire creativity.  It inspires panic.
Boundaries inspire creativity.  Limitations inspire creativity.  Guidelines inspire creativity.

(Daniel Schwabauer)

Just because you’ve got a theme, doesn’t mean that you can’t encompass other things. For example, the circles of food and Belgocentrism overlap in the Belgian Waffle post entitled "the most Belgian shopping ever":
The man behind me in the supermarket this week was buying the following:
24 cans of Jupiler and a small container of americain (delicious mince for consumption raw, non Belgianists). The only thing that could possibly make this more Belgian would be an economy bag of 40 heads of chicory, and I almost think that would have spoilt the perfect symmetry of it.

To my recollection, Stephen Nottingham’s Food Blog hasn’t yet ventured into Belgian cuisine, although it does offer the word ‘equivorous’ to describe an eater of horse flesh. Ever since I had a particularly succulent horse steak* in Brussels many years ago, I’ve never missed an opportunity to bore friends and acquaintances with the observations that horses taste a lot nicer than you’d expect and that we Brits** are barmy for being so squeamish about horse flesh when we gobble up sheep and cows without a second thought.

*served with frites, mayo and salad, natch.

** vegetarians excepted – if you don’t eat any meat, that’s a consistent position that I can understand and respect

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

No CGI, just the awesome reality

5.6k Saturn Cassini Photographic Animation from stephen v2 on Vimeo.


Give me a child until the age of seven...

The census form plopped through our letterbox  a couple of days back, prompting me to mention the banned poster campaign asking non-religious people to tick "no religion"on the form, rather than leaving the voluntary question blank or putting some jokey response like 'Jedi', 'Heavy Metal' or 'Pastafarian' in the question-begging 'what is your religion?' box.

Having filled in my part of the form, it seems that the question of a few non-religious adults failing to record their non-belief is the lesser of two problems with the way this question appears. Rather than worrying unduly that some of the UK's 390,000 Jedi Knights* might actually be non-believers having a laugh, I'm wondering what happens to the responses to this question filled in by parents or guardians on behalf of young children.

Question H1 asks for the names of all the people in the household including children or babies born before 27 March 2011. A person questionnaire should be completed for each person listed in H1, including the children and babies. Each person questionnaire includes the voluntary question 'what is your religion?' Obviously, many of the childrens' person questionnaires will be completed by parents or guardians - all of them, in the case of infants and very young children.

I'm a bit disturbed that there's nothing on the form stating that assertions of religious affiliation on the part of minors will be disregarded. My son is only four and a half. He thinks that Father Christmas is a real person. He can identify the Fat Controller who runs Thomas the Tank Engine's railway, but not the Prime Minister.  He's been exposed to the idea that many people in other countries don't communicate using English words, but doesn't yet fully grasp the concept of different languages or counties. He's heard about death and knows that, as a baby, he came out of mummy's tummy, but these, too, are clearly only hazy ideas in his head at present. In short, he's a perfectly bright pre-schooler who's learning about the world at the sort of rate you'd expect him to.

Yet, if I were so minded, I could complete a box stating that he subscribed to a particular religion, or to none. In other words, tick a box, saying that a four and a half year old has formed some sort of meaningful, settled opinion on questions pertaining to metaphysics, theology, the probable origin of the universe, history, moral philosophy and the interpretation of certain books that some people believe were divinely inspired. As far as I'm concerned it's about as appropriate as polling pre-schoolers on the relative merits of the First Past the Post and Alternative Vote electoral systems, or fixed rate v. tracker mortgages. In short, if you ask a silly question, you'll get a silly answer.

From the census returns it will be easy to separate the responses to this question given by people over the age of sixteen** from those probably supplied on behalf of minors by parents or guardians. I hope that, when making decisions about the role of the established church, or the role of religious organisations in the provision of public services, or faith schools and other contentious matters, only the views of consenting adults will be taken into account, the data for under sixteens being open to contamination by parents or guardians answering on behalf of a child too young to have, or express, an opinion. I'd just like to be certain this has been done with any figures relating to religious affiliation that are used to influence or determine public policy.

When in that House M.P.'s divide,
If they've a brain and cerebellum, too,
They've got to leave that brain outside,
And vote just as their leaders tell 'em to.
But then the prospect of a lot
Of dull M. P.'s in close proximity,
All thinking for themselves, is what
No man can face with equanimity.
Then let's rejoice with loud Fal la--Fal la la!
That Nature always does contrive--Fal lal la!
That every boy and every gal
That's born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal lal la!
W S Gilbert Iolanthe

*recorded by the 2001 census

** it's a rather arbitrary dividing line, but since that's how the census divides up the population (it's when questions about educational attainment and work become relevant), I'm happy to accept it as a reasonable age to start asking questions about religion

Monday, 7 March 2011

If you're not religious, for God's sake say so

Three posters appealing to people who are not religious to declare themselves as such in this year's census have been banned from appearing in railway stations.

The Guardian Friday 4 March 2011

Come on all you humanists, atheists and agnostics - you know what you need to do. It's time to stand up and be counted.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Dude, where's my dwarf?

Calamities of Nature.

That Tycho Brahe - crazy name, crazy guy. I can't vouch for quark, but he certainly had strangeness and, quite possibly, charm.

Copernicus had those renaissance ladies
Crazy about his telescope
And Galileo had a name that made his
Reputation higher than his hope
Did none of those astronomers discover
While they were staring out into the dark
That what a lady looks for in her lover
Is charm strangeness and quark

From Hawkwind's memorable, if biographically inaccurate, song about unrequited boffins Quark, Strangeness and Charm.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Asking nicely

Socialising a four-year-old-child is a marathon, not a sprint. You've just got to keep on endlessly repeating the same message (in different forms) if you want to win the war of etiquette attrition.

Child: I want juice!

Parent [feigns deafness]:    ...

Child: I want juice!

Parent: Did you say something?

Child: I want juice!

Parent: Pardon?


Parent: If you want juice, how do you ask for it nicely?

Child [rolls eyes and pulls beseeching face]: I REALLY want some juice.

Parent: If you want somebody to give you something, there's a special word you need to use.

Child: Thank you!

Parent: How about the special word that starts with a "p"?

Child [repeats eye-rolling, gurning performance]: PLEEEESE may I have some juice?

Parent: Of course. Thank you for asking nicely.

Repeat for every new request the child makes over a period of several months. It pays off in the end.

By the time people are grown up, most of them have mastered basic civility. Unless they grow up to be something really important, say the Director-General of the British Retail Consortium. Really important grown ups demand, rather than saying please:

[Stephen] Robertson [director-general of the British Retail Consortium] said: "Against a background of deteriorating sales, the Chancellor needs to support retail in creating new jobs."

The use of "needs" here is a common trope in business lobbying of government. Bosses present themselves not as supplicants ("we ask the government to reconsider") nor as opponents ("fight the cuts") but rather as superior discerners of the future, of what needs to happen. In this way, a sectional interest becomes framed as a claim to necessity.
Notes Chris Dillow.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we expected our VIPs to attain the same standard of civility as a well-brought up four year old?

Lobbyist: You need to give us more juice!

Minister: When we want something, there's a special word we need to use. Can you remember what it is?

The canary in the coal mine

Spring's definitely in the air. This morning dawned overcast and a bit cold but I was getting up in real daylight, not dragging myself out of bed at that bleary oh-God-it's-still-dark hour and, outside the window, a blackbird was pouring out its burbling brook of song. Then I turned on the radio and discovered that the tired old Lib Dem canary is feeling a considerably less chipper than the full-voiced blackbird:

Labour have won the Barnsley Central by-election, while the Lib Dems slipped to sixth in the South Yorkshire seat.

I think I heard the word 'humiliating' somewhere in the report, too. Isn't it great when something puts a spring in your step and a smile on your lips before you've even had breakfast? I definitely got out of bed on the right side this morning.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Don't mention the cuts!

Warning: this post may contain traces of sarcasm and a parody of nut-based Daily Mail editorials.

Honestly, you couldn't make it up. Now we read that the BBC is under pressure to censor news broadcasts to avoid upsetting those politically correct killjoys in the government. Apparently, reporters are no longer allowed to use the word 'cuts, in case it offends some humourless government apparatchik. A new politically-correct language guide orders reporters to use the word 'savings' as a 'positive' and less offensive alternative. Talk about political correctness gone barking mad!

Imagine what this policy of censorship would have done to our old and cherished comedies! Basil Fawlty would have had a knock on the door in the middle of the night from the Thought Police of The PC Brigade and been sent away for a spot of political re-eduction for this:

Listen, don't mention the cuts! I mentioned them once, but I think I got away with it all right.

So! It's all forgotten now, and let's hear no more about it. So, that's one diced pork à la Eric Pickles, chopped liver Osborne, some thinly sliced salami, a filleted NHS, and some selected cuts of meat from our carvery.
As Major Tufton Bufton, editor of Jane's World Armies, said, 'We live in politically correct times and what these rulebooks do is keep the politicians happy.'

A conference demountable unit from a management centre

In every large organisation there seems to be a class of people I call jargonauts. They love knowing and using all the latest buzz words and enjoy the totemic power and authority they think comes from moulding language into impressive-sounding jargon, impenetrable to mere outsiders. They hardly seem to notice all those little people outside the loop who just want them to talk comprehensibly. Three cheers, then, for Lady Justice  Hallett, the coroner in charge of the 7/7 bombing inquests, who's had enough of that nonsense:

Lady Justice Hallett let fly at Gary Reason, assistant commissioner of London Fire Brigade.

She spoke out as mention was made of  "a conference demountable unit from a management centre" - which is a portable incident room.

She said: "As far as I can tell, management jargon is taking over organisations and perfectly sensible, straightforward titles are being changed.

"This isn't just somebody being pedantic about the use of English, which it appears to be... when it comes to managing incidents, people don't understand what the other person is."

The coroner said the problem had been an ongoing theme in hearing evidence, adding: "I don't know whether a crew manager is somebody who is responsible for supplies or is used to fighting fires. I have no idea."

She said clarity was key when crews were trying to ensure safety at a disaster scene, saying: "What worries me is all you senior people of these organisations are allowing yourselves to be taken over by management jargon and, as I say, it's not just directed at you... I just think that you people at the top need to say we have to communicate with people in plain English."

UK Press Association

Management bullshit isn't just a pet peeve of irrelevant pedants - at worst, it can cost lives.

The technicals strike back

In the fluid tug-of-war that defines this conflict, military movements have been characterised not by well-planned mass movements of armoured columns supported by air power, but by rapid dashes across the desert by lightly armed men in pick-up trucks and SUVs.

Frank Gardner, BBC March 2, 2011

It’s encouraging to see that the Libyan rebels have successfully seen off Gaddafi’s first attempted counter-attack. I don’t know enough about military matters to know whether or not to be further encouraged by the fact that Gaddafi seems to be relying heavily on a strike force of guys in pick-up trucks.

On the one hand, it seems strange. We know he’s got tanks and other armoured vehicles and he isn’t squeamish about slaughtering his own people when he deems it necessary. He’s operating on the sort of open terrain that lends itself to tank warfare (or at least it did when Rommel’s panzers and the Eighth Army were contesting it). Most of the rebels, (other than ex-soldiers) presumably don’t have tanks, or aren’t trained to operate any captured ones. If Gaddafi can’t, or won’t, use his armour he’s throwing away the sort of massive firepower advantage neatly summed up by Hilaire Belloc in The Modern Traveller:

Whatever happens we have got,
The Maxim gun, and they have not

He could be keeping his tanks in reserve for a last stand in Tripoli, but if the rebels break into the city at any point, he’d risk getting into the sort of street fighting where his tanks would become vulnerable to roadblocks and Molotov cocktails.

If most of the guys in the trucks are mercenaries, perhaps Gaddafi has figured his petro-dollars have bought their undivided loyalty, whereas his army tank commanders might feel a tad conflicted about rolling their tanks over friends, family and neighbours.

Or maybe it was just tactics. Assuming that they didn’t have to go off road all the way, I presume that a bunch of Toyota Hiluxes could have got to Brega a damn sight quicker than a column of tanks. If the pro-Gaddafi forces wanted to launch a surprise attack, maybe speed was of the essence. And let’s not forget that your pick-up trucks with big guns on the back (or “technicals” as they’re known in some parts) are cost-effective force multipliers, as western troops in Afghanistan have found to their cost.

If one of Gaddafi’s primary objectives is raiding and destroying any arms, ammunition and fuel dumps in rebel hands, maybe his fleet of “technicals” is the best force for the job – a modern equivalent of the Long Range Desert Group that cruised around the Libyan deserts giving Rommel a serious headache 70 years ago.

So, in the short term, I don’t know whether or not the lack of tank columns is a good indicator that Gaddafi’s losing his grip (on power – his grip on reality went decades ago) ,or just a matter of tactics. In the longer term, I’ve no idea whether the prognosis is good or bad. Salman Rushdie has just given an optimistic talk about the changes in North Africa and the Middle East, pointing out that Islamist militants don’t yet seem to be filling the vacuum left by toppling tyrants.

I really hope he’s right, but the Iranian Revolution was also started by a mixed popular front composed of liberals, communists, socialists, Islamists and everybody else who just hated a corrupt and brutal regime. It wasn’t long before the Islamist faction, the most ruthless, the most disciplined and the most organised element in the revolution took over and started hauling their fellow revolutionaries off to the Shah’s old prisons and torture chambers. As so often, the prize went to the revolutionaries who risked most, pitied least and had the highest boredom threshold:

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

Let's hope that the 2011 revolutions will consign 'the adoration of madmen' to history without moving on to 'the necessary murder.'

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

London 2012 - beauty and the beast

It's crowded, expensive, showing its age and, in places, tatty, but the London Underground has one thing going for it - it's a showcase of good graphic design. From the Underground roundel symbol, to Harry Beck's circuit diagram-inspired map, to the ubiquitous Johnston Sans typeface, the look is crisp, clear and coherent.

In fact, it's everything that the London 2012 Olympics logo isn't. Just look at this:


Are your eyes hurting yet? Mine are. What a mess. And it cost £400,000. At its 2007 launch, Lord Coe gushed inexplicably that the image represented 'the vision at the very heart of our brand'. If that's really so, I'd recommend that the 2012 Olympics introduces testing for hallucinogenic, as well as performance-enhancing, drugs.

Given five minutes and an old Bic biro, I could have doodled something better than that, inspired by nothing more than a mild sense of boredom  The Register was suitably underwhelmed:

Olympics minister Tessa Jowell clearly spent too much time in the chill-out room absorbing whalesong from her iPod at the "star-studded" launch of the 2012 Olympics logo in London's Roundhouse earlier today, since she described the rather frightening graphic as both "an invitation and an inspiration" as VIPs battled to verbally out joss-stick each other.

According to the official blurb, the logo is "modern and will be dynamic, evolving in the years between now and 2012" and furthermore "symbolises the Olympic spirit and the ability of the Games to inspire people to take part - not just as spectators, but as volunteers, in the Cultural Olympiad and more"
The London 2012 logo deserved to be binned for being as bewilderingly ugly as the pre-facelift Fiat Mutipla without having the excuse of being useful in any way. Unfortunately, it's too late to replace it with something better now and, inexcusably horrible though it looks, I suppose anything that infuriates Ahmadinejad and Iran's Mad Mullahs can't be all bad.

 * London 2012 logo photograph © copyright Nigel Chadwick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Rorschach test

If you're familiar with cartoons and have an averagely smutty mind, the logo for the 2012  London Olympic Games looks a bit rude. If you're a propagandist for a demented anti-Semitic, human-rights-abusing theocracy, it looks like a sinister Jewish conspiracy to subliminally flash the word "Zion" across the world's TV screens.

In other news, fashion house Dior has sacked British designer John Galliano for a series of deranged anti-Semitic rants. Presumably he won't be getting a top job in London, Paris, New York or Milan any time soon, but maybe he could consider a new career in Tehran, crafting fashion-forward designer chadors and having his insane outbursts respectfully published by official news agencies, rather than having them dismissed as the embarrassing ravings of a self-obsessed lunatic. He might want to hurry, though - his options will be severely limited if Ahmadinejad ever goes the way of Gaddafi.

Update - I hadn't read this when I titled this post, although it's not surprising that somebody else thought of the ink blot analogy.