Saturday, 29 October 2011

Imperial purple

The imperial stool is capacious enough for a sultan of the most morbid corpulence.

From Millennium by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, which I'm re-reading at the moment.* It's over-written and the clarity of some of the points is drowned in a sea of purple prose but, on the other hand, they don't generally write 'em like that any more and, every now and then, the over-wrought language is a thing of joy in itself. The moody extravagance of the sentence above puts me in mind of Yeats' Byzantium:

Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea. 

*OK, dipping into would be more accurate.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Apocalypse now?

As the system started to reach inevitable collapse, the state moved in with bank bailouts and quantitative easing, both of which simply moved yet more money from ordinary people to the super-rich. In fact the last three years have seen the biggest transfer of resources from poor to rich in human history.

It cannot last, and whether it is Greece or Italy or Spain which is this week’s fashionable media focus is irrelevant. In making these vast levied and leveraged transfers of resources from poor to rich, states have exhausted the capacity of their people to actually pay them. That is true all over Europe, the UK and US. The currency crises are a tiny symptom of a very large impending crash.

That is why I am not blogging about today’s EU meeting or a specific statement of the US Federal Bank Chairman. They are all pissing into the wind that is shortly to be a tornado. I expect before I die I will see a genuine social revolution. I expect that, as always happens, middle class liberals like me will start by being elated by it, and end up being shot by those who seize on the change, to take their turn to use the power of the state to corner resources for themselves. 

Craig Murray: blog post entitled Capitalism in Crisis.

I don't know whether we're really looking at an apocalyptic future that includes a violent reaction to the class war started by the rich in the Reagan-Thatcher years (which they have been winning ever since), followed by an Animal Farm-style purge by the post-revolutionary elite, or just a few more dreary years of our culture's obsequious Stockholm syndrome-style love-in with the tiny minority who keep slapping the rest of us about (while we channel the resulting anger and frustration into slapping the even more weak and powerless about).

It's starting to feel less like business as usual and more like the prelude to interersting times.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

I'm sitting on the fence here

Is parliamentary democracy the best available system of government? What about a bit more direct democracy? I must admit that I've never really thought seriously about the alternatives, but a couple of bloggers have just raised the question. The title of Miljenko Williams' post 'Referendums - the coward's way into democracy', leaves little doubt where his sympathies lie; he thinks that referendums don't change fundamental power structures (if parties are able to skillfully manage which questions do and don't get put to a vote), are open to abuse, depending on how you word the question and oversimplify complex issues.

He's not the only one to be suspicious:

I've said it before but it bears repeating: the only time governments and opposition parties call for referendums is when they think they'll yield the result they want. If they don't think this, they avoid them.

Chris Dillow sums up what's perhaps the strongest argument for referendums:

The case for a referendum is simply that, in unbundling options, public preferences can be more clearly expressed.

I like the phrase "unbundling", which sounds quite attractive if you've ever voted for a political party with gritted teeth, because you think they've got the least worst bundle of policies, mixed in with a few horrendous ones. I know I have.

Switzerland, which ranks pretty high on both the Economist Intelligence Unit's Quality of Life Index, 2005 and the Satisfaction with Life Index, 2006, is the most famous example of a country where direct democracy plays a far larger role than it does in the UK. Are the Swiss just happy with a sub-optimal system of democracy, or have they found a way to get round the problem of political parties managing some referendum questions to get the answers they want and ensuring that other questions that don't fit their agenda are never put to a vote? I don't know the answer, but it's a question worth asking.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Like a giant object over troubled water

When you're weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will show you a web site dedicated to Large Canadian Roadside Attractions
And you'll probably cheer up a bit

I will ease your mind with Vulcan, Alberta's very own starship Enterprise , the diving moose of Toronto, the drain chicken of Tweed, Ontario, Ernie, the World's Largest Turtle, the giant raspberries of Abbotsford, BC, Altona, Manitoba's giant tricycle (it doesn't actually look that big in the picture, but maybe the house in the background is also hugely embiggened), the Glass Bottle Church of Treherne, Manitoba (churlish of me, I know, but I was vaguely disappointed to find that it was made of bottles, as opposed to being a full-sized church inside a giant glass bottle, which would have been incredibly impressive), Lesia the Ukrainian Girl, a hefty lass from Canora, Saskatchewan, a photograph quizzically entitled Tire People? Daphne, Saskatchewan, (there really should have been a 1950's B movie entitled Attack of the Tire People), another photo with the charmingly undogmatic Canadian claim 'World's Largest Pig (maybe)' and, of course, the World's Largest Beaver, currently residing in Beaverlodge, Alberta.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

I need a hip replacement

I thought that the Internet search term "the cake is a lie" was just amusingly left field and blogged accordingly. It turns out the phrase was a quotation and meme that I just wasn't hip enough to recognise. It's from the computer game Half Life* 'which took the PC gaming world by storm upon its release on November 19, 1998' but is still an unknown quantity around these parts in 2011. I have, by the way, heard of Half Life, even if I'm oblivious to any pop cultural references it has spawned.

It wouldn't be too bad if I was self-consciously trying to emulate Ian Hislop, who was buffing up his carefully-crafted fogey-ish image like a well polished pair of old brogues on Radio 4 the other week (when challenged with buying his first ever pair of jeans for a mildly amusing comedy programme, he quipped that they were surprisingly comfortable and 'I might wear them to evensong'). But I'm not, and I'm left raging against my unwanted decent into old buffer-dom.

Apparently they even know about this in Oklahoma! Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain (note the up-to-the-minute pop cultural reference from 1943).

* Update - no it isn't, it's apparently from Portal, as Meridian has just kindly informed me. D'oh! Less old fogey and more just old and confused.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Tech news

Here's Allison Barrie at Fox News, uncritically regurgitating some press release for an anti-terrorist surveillance system which she breathlessly tells us has attained a genius-level IQ (in other words, more than smart enough to replace Bill O'Reilly).

Before working in defence, Allison worked as a professional ballet dancer performing at the Royal Opera House, London Coliseum, Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Kennedy Center amongst others. She also acted as a consultant on the dance aspect for some films shooting in the United Kingdom. Allison is qualified in English law and practiced in London as a solicitor.

She is a graduate of Cambridge University and King's College War Studies.

I'm sure we're all going to sleep more soundly from now on.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Conspiracy theory of the day

Max Schrems, a 24 year old Austrian law student, had been a Facebook member for three years when, prompted by some disquiet about how much "deleted" personal data Facebook was retaining, he asked Facebook to provide details of the personal data it was holding about him.

After some stalling, they sent him a CD, containing what seemed to be his entire Facebook history, including deleted messages from years back, along with masses of other personal data, divided into 57 categories. Printed out, the contents of the CD covered 1,200 sheets of A4 paper.

I was like WOW 1,200 pages! No KGB or CIA ever had 1,200 pages about an average citizen.

I don't want to get too paranoid about this. After all, Facebook operatives haven't ever knocked on anybody’s door in the middle of the night and bundled them off to a Siberian labour camp for ten years, or had them flown half way round the world by private jet to be roughed up by Middle Eastern security goons.

But this off-the-cuff comment about the security services does leave me with a little conspiracy theory of my own; namely that governments and bureaucracies have left it to individuals like Max Schrems to challenge Facebook about data retention and security, and dragged their own feet on the issue, because they rather like poking around in Facebook's mother lode of personal data and information about who talks to whom. It's a free gift for politicians and securicrats who'd like to keep an eye one activists and the disaffected. I'm not usually one for conspiracy theories, but I'll give this one the time of day because:

1. It doen't require a massive conspiracy to hide the truth, sucking in thousands who must be sworn to silence. All it requires is for those who'd like to keep an eye on dissenting elements to sit back and do nothing whilst Facebook and Facebook users do the heavy lifting required to create and populate a massive database of personal information about large portions of the population.

2. National and trans-national bodies are clearly quite keen to spend a lot of time and legislative and bureaucratic effort on slurping up personal data. Britain has its Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), (not to mention the last Labour government's failed attempt to introduce identity cards, complete with a £1,00 fine for the crime of not keeping your data up to date) the USA has the Patriot Act, the EU has Data Retention Directive 2006/24/EC, etc, etc.

There are people on whom it would be perfectly reasonable to spy; criminals and that tiny subset of society in the spreading-violent-hatred-and-blowing-stuff-up business. The worrying thing is that most people don't fall into that category, but a lot of them are on Facebook. If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear, right? Well, I'm not so sure.

The UK headlines are full of stories about undercover police officers infiltrating protest groups, acting as agent provocateurs and even going to court under false names, so as not to blow their cover. Think what you like about Reclaim The Streets (I think they've got a point, but I've no particularly strong feelings), but they're overwhelmingly non-violent and hardly Al Qeada. UK police already have extensive powers to curtail protests.

There are, in short, a lot of people out there who don't fall into the spreading-violent-hatred-and-blowing-stuff-up category, but who are still "of interest" to the authorities. Often quite law-abiding people who become activists, organise demonstrations, or try to draw attention to this issue or that injustice. Not all of them are right, by any means, but they all ought to have the right to freely organise and to protest. And right now there are a hell of a lot of things to protest about and to get politically active about.

Given the proven lengths the authorities have gone to in order to spy on activists and to keep the lid on protests, I don't imagine they've overlooked Facebook's massive potential as a tool for tracking dissenters and their activities. The worrying thing is that the sort of people vulnerable to this sort of spying and the sort of protests and campaigns that can be disrupted by Facebook watchers aren't started by dangerous extremists. Hardcore terrorists, at least competent ones, will be aware of data security. A law-abiding activist could be merrily putting all sorts of information onto Facebook, unwittingly grassing up fellow campaigners without even considering the possibility that spooks, police officers and their political masters might be hoovering up every detail in order to thwart what they have unilaterally deemed to be subversion.

It wouldn't be the first time that surveillance initially intended to protect the populace from hardened terrorists has moved quickly down the food chain. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) envelope has famously been pushed to accommodate not only spooks trying to catch terrorists, but local councils investigating dog fouling, fly tipping and school catchment area fiddles.

Being snooped on by the authorities is less of a clear and present danger to Facebook users than criminal identity theft, but it's another reason to think twice about putting your information out there. As it stands, it's down to awkward individuals like Max Schrems to initiate action to protect their personal data, as I suspect that there are plenty of nation states with a vested interest in their citizens leaving a massively insecure data trail.


Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Hardly the Profumo affair

Katia Zatuliveter, 26 year old Russian aide to Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock has denied being a spy, but says that she did have a four year affair with the MP for Portsmouth South. Not only are alleged romps with an obscure backbencherhardly the Profumo affair, but, as pointed out here, there are far easier ways to winkle secrets out of the British establishment:

And if she is a spy, then could someone please sit the current version of the KGB down with a cup of hot, sweet tea and give them a friendly talk about how it's much easier to infiltrate the Ministry of Defence just by being chums with whichever numpty has been put in charge of it.

Or by going through the bins once Oliver Letwin's had his morning constitutional.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Any blog post containing the words...

... 'The slow loris is anxious about the fate of Belgium' has got to be worth five minutes of anybody's time and I accordingly urge you to drop whatever you're doing and read this.

Relocation, Relocation

Israel is celebrating the return home of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive by Hamas for five years. Hamas are celebrating the high price they've exacted for Shalit's freedom, namely Israel's agreement to release more than a thousand Palestinian militants, many of whom were serving life sentences for killing Israelis.

Hamas must be relieved to have something to celebrate, given all the embarrassing unpleasantness their friend and neighbour, that nice Mr Assad, has been experiencing:

The Hamas leadership is seeking to relocate its headquarters from Damascus, in the wake of continuing unrest and pro-democracy protests in Syria, now in their eighth month.

Sounds like a job for Kirstie and Phil.

Strange search engine queries

I'm not the first blogger to try for a cheap laugh, courtesy of some of the eccentric search queries that have lead people to his or her blog and I certainly won't be the last. Here are a few of the search terms that have brought people to my humble abode in cyberspace over the past couple of months:

reflexive entertainment: I fear  my blog's some way from provoking this response, but thanks for looking anyway.

angry screaming: Angry screaming is a lot closer to the Pavlovian response you can expect round here.

cake is a lie: Especially a Jaffa cake.
gender confused palm tree: Is Jeremy Kyle presenting Gardeners' World these days, or what?

hope solo body issue: I haven't googled to find out who Hope Solo is, but the related search for  'hope solo naked' suggests that there are people out there who don't think she has body issues.

edwina currie red knickers: Lovely to see John Major dropping by, but you really need to stop living in the past and move on, John.

george bush full body: George! Don't do that.

election poster ideas: It all seems a long time ago now, but I vaguely remember that George W only won the 2000 election thanks to some hanging chads in the Florida vote-o-matic machines and the wise decision by his campaign team not to run with the infamous George Bush full body election posters, all copies of which were subsequently destroyed.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Why I call myself an agnostic, not an atheist

This cartoon from The Far Left Side, illustrates why I don't choose to define myself by things I don't believe in. Not to mention the fact that it's theists who are making an arguable series of claims about the existence and the detailed nature of an invisible but all-powerful being, claims that they tell us are really, really important and which we should all be listening to. It seems perfectly reasonable to put the onus is on theists to support their assertions, not on the rest of us to prove them wrong.

I first saw this cartoon reblogged on Galileo Unchained, posted by a writer who has taken a contrary view and chosen the label 'atheist', for the reasons given here. I still think that the terms 'agnostic' is more precise, neatly summing up a state of being comfortable with not having all a neat set of dogmatic answers to banish all doubt and uncertainty, but it's a fine distinction and I'm happy for fellow non-believers to choose the label they're most comfortable with.

Differences in terminology aside, there's some good stuff on Galileo Unchained. This is from a clear and concise post on religious education:

We all have inside us what could be called a “Nonsense Detector”—that common sense that helps us believe as many true things and reject as many false things as possible. For example, present most American adults with a case for Islam or Hinduism or Sikhism, and they will be extraordinarily unconvinced.

As adults, we’re far better at sifting truth from nonsense than we were as children. And that’s why Christians must be indoctrinated as children, before their Nonsense Detectors are mature. This is the idea behind the Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.”

Read the rest here.  I was particularly struck by the force of this argument as someone who's come late to parenthood. I'm old enough to have forgotten a lot about what it's like to be a child, so having a small person around the house is a constant revelation. One thing I've rediscovered is that when children develop the first traces of guilt, they sometimes tell small fibs, rather than admit to having done something 'naughty'. I don't have a problem with this, but the inexpert nature of these first fibs gives an interesting window into the mind of a small child.

For example, I've questioned the offspring about the unexpected appearance of a small pile of soil in an inappropriate place and have been solemnly assured that a bird had flown over and dropped the soil. Similarly, when a small pool of liquid appeared where it shouldn't have been, I was told a story about a very small cloud and what must have counted as the most localised shower in recorded meteorology.

All of this has driven home the point that children can reach a point where they can form a picture of what other people are thinking, make up stories to suit a given audience and be quite articulate, but still lack the life experience to distinguish a plausible narrative from an utterly fantastic one.  A fact for which which Sunday schools and madrassas must be truly thankful.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The indignant

Across the world, the indignant rise up against corporate greed and cuts 

Headline from the Independent on Sunday

This harmful quack cure

For a year now, Britain’s economy has been stuck in a vicious cycle of low growth, high unemployment and fiscal austerity. But unlike Greece, which has been forced into induced recession by misguided European Union creditors, Britain has inflicted this harmful quack cure on itself. 

Editorial, New York Times

Window frame

I'd never come across the concept of the Overton Window before today, but I'm glad I did. If you want to think about the way some ideas are marginalised and some become unquestioned orthodoxy, you need the language to talk about it, so the Overton Window is a worthwhile addition to the lexicon.

Gleaned, approprately enough, from musings on the Occupy Wall Street protests.


As I wrote earlier:

Adam Werritty, the man at the centre of the Liam Fox cash-for-access scandal, has been involved in an audacious plot to topple Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was claimed last night.

They say it like it was a bad thing.

Well, it might have been a bad thing, if an indiscreet fantasist like Mr Werritty was actually caught up in some serious cloak-and-dagger stuff, putting real people in harm's way.

I still think it's more likely that Werritty was the sort of professional bullshitter who bigged up his involvement because telling whopping fibs was what came naturally and he was no more a secret agent than he was a Formula 1 racing driver, an astronaut, a lion tamer, or an accredited advisor to Liam Fox.

But I may be proved wrong.

Adam Werritty's saving grace

Jane Merrick and James Hanning, writing in The Independent on Sunday publish some interesting assertions about Adam Werritty, the dodgy-sounding geezer who got Liam Fox into so much trouble:

Adam Werritty, the man at the centre of the Liam Fox cash-for-access scandal, has been involved in an audacious plot to topple Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was claimed last night. 

They say it like it was a bad thing.

How refreshing to see somebdy standing up for bloodthisty serial human rights abusers. I'm especially fond of the ones with lots of oil and uranium-enriching centrifuges. The article continues:

Mr Werritty, 33, has been debriefed by MI6 about his travels and is so highly regarded by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad – who thought he was Mr Fox's chief of staff – that he was able to arrange meetings at the highest levels of the Israeli government, multiple sources have told The IoS.

A fine compliment to Mr Werrity, if true, but I hope and trust that it isn't, and that plonkers like Werritty aren't really Mossad's first line of defence in the battle against the people who want to wipe Israel off the map.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Supporting the single and lazy

All politicians say that they want to support hard-working families and a lot of bloggers have already written about how tired they are of seeing the tick-box phrase 'hard working families' unthinkingly shoehorned into every political speech and manifesto. I think this knee-jerk bias towards industrious people who are in a relationship and have, preferably, reproduced is getting so serious that it's time for idle singletons to get together and form their own political party (always assuming they can be bothered).

If they did, they'd get my vote. As a fully paid-up family man, who isn't spectacularly idle,* I don't have a dog in this particular fight, so to speak, but I still believe that everybody deserves a fair share of pie. Besides, I think that what's good for the lazy and unattached would be good for the rest of us:

1. Everybody who hasn't been thrown out of work by macroeconomic chaos seems to be complaining about overwork and stress. I resent politicians who ratchet up the Stakhanovite rat race by encouraging the sort of can-do idiots who solemnly promise to give 110% to selling more mobile phone contracts or whatever other form of soul-sucking wage-slavery they've signed up to. If we've simply got to out-perform our neighbours every minute of the waking day, then I'd prefer it if a few of my neighbours goofed off, took it easy and cut me a bit of slack.

It'd take the pressure off everybody, hard-working parents included. I remember the days before parenthood; lazy, indulgent Sunday mornings, leisurely breakfasts, followed by a bit of lounging around with a coffee and the Sunday papers and doing a lot of nothing in particular. No longer possible with a small child in the house and no grannies or other rellys less than an hour or so's drive away. Do I resent singletons who can still do this? Hell, no. Good luck to them, I say, and to hell with the workaholic freaks who squander their precious free time taking work home to prepare for that all-important, boss-impressing regional sales meeting on Monday.

2. Stressed-out, overworked lives would be enhanced by increasing the pool of happy-go-lucky underperformers who are actually fun to be around, and draining the swamp containing the smug, serious, driven, monomaniac, sour-faced, control freaks who thrive on stress and beating their personal best times for sucking every trace of joy out of a room.

3. Whatever happened to "working smarter, not harder"? Was this phrase from the management handbooks as meaningless as a fortune cookie motto? If it did actually mean something, we should be praising people who work more efficiently, not just harder. People who marshal their resources and don't end the day drained, because they've been giving 100% all day. People who don't make stupid mistakes because they're dog tired from trying to work as hard as the hyperactive insomniac without a life who just got a certificate in a plastic frame for being employee of the month, but won't have any friends at his funeral when he works himself into an early grave.

4. If you're idle and single, but not actually out of work, I'd like to thank you. Your taxes are helping to educate my son, an expense that doesn't benefit you directly, but which you can't avoid. You contribute to stuff you don't use, but you're probably too good-natured to whine and bitch about it. I'm suitably grateful and I fully support your right to have as loud a voice as any member of a hard-working family. And if you are out of work, I'm cool with that, too, because it's probably not your fault.

5. The crash that put millions out of work was largely the fault of the allegedly brilliant Wall Street weirdos who got up at bugger-me in the morning and worked their butts off till after what-the-hell-time-do-you-call-this at night, scorning wimpish human needs like lunch and toilet breaks in pursuit of the almighty dollar. They, and their counterparts in the City of London, undoubtedly worked hard, and screwed up even harder. Wouldn't the world have been a better place if the Sir Fred Goodwins of this world had taken a decade off from beavering away at deals to enrich themselves and just loafed around a bit, gone fishing or even sat around on the sofa watching daytime telly? Useless activities, no doubt, but what they worked so hard to do proved to be far worse than useless.

6. Virtue, they say, is its own reward. The vice of idleness is, likewise, its own punishment. Ceteris paribus, if you don't work hard, you probably won't be able to afford the lifestyle you want. The number of people so attached to idleness that they'll willingly forgo a comfortable lifestyle is probably too small to worry about. There is, therefore, no need for self-righteous prigs to endlessly lecture the feckless on the error of their ways, as the problem is self-regulating, with people's internal thermostats balancing the desirability of idle time with the necessity of earning enough money to make that idle time endurable.

7. Politicians, especially very senior ones, generally work very hard. The hours and workload are punishing and only the truly driven can hack it. They also generally have traditional families - there are a few single or openly gay politicians, but it still seems to be considered good PR for politicians to have a photogenic family for the election leaflets.

This makes me suspect that the "hard-working families" trope isn't ubiquitous merely because such families represent a target voter demographic. People tend to think that other people share their own circumstances and values, so I reckon that workaholic politicians with families like to talk about "hard-working families" because they imagine they are talking to people just like themselves.

Unfortunately, the home life of senior politicians isn't exactly a template for happy families. The immense pressures of the job take a terrible toll on politicians' families and relationships. Cast your mind back to the philandering Bill Clinton, or to the unfortunate daughter of John Selwyn Gummer being force-fed burgers on TV at the height of the Mad Cow Disease scare, or Jonathan Aitkin's daughter being forced to lie in court, in an attempt to save her high-flying daddy's rep, or Strictly star Edwina Currie's notorious horizontal mambo with John Major, or the Milibands' fratricidal struggle for the Labour leadership. If this is life in a "hard-working family", you can keep it.
As far as I'm concerned, the next politician who feels compelled to stick a bit of boilerplate about "hard-working families" into another keynote speech can bugger off. I'm voting for the lazy singletons' party next time. If they can ever be bothered to get their finger out.

*According to me - other opinions are available.

I am a resonator

By all means speculate on the macro picture; I resonate with that.

Interesting use of language from a doctor being intereviewed on Radio 4's Today programme this morning. I was preparing breakfast and encouraging a tardy child to perform some element of his pre-school routine at the time, so I missed most of the context around this remark,* but the phrase has lodged in my head like a tune you can't forget, whether you like it or not.

*It was about the Care Quality Commission's report into the dismal standard of care some elderly patients have been getting in hospital, but I missed most of it.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Delusional bus advert of the week

I've always thought that the people who make the best case for Richard Dawkins and the "new atheists" are their critics, with their rather feeble counter-arguments. So there's some pretty stiff competition out there for the title of Worst Attempt to Refute Richard Dawkins. Ever. I think I've found a clear winner, though.

Step forward Premier Christian Radio. In 2009, you'll remember some atheists paid for a bus advert that read:

There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life. 

Umbrage was taken by faith groups. But having had two years to think up a devastating reposte, Premier Christian Radio have stepped up to the plate with their own bus poster. This is what it says:

There’s probably no Dawkins. Now stop worrying and enjoy Oct 25th at the Sheldonian Theatre.

So, take that, Professor smarty-pants Dawkins. You think God doesn't exist. Well, we at Premier Christian Radio think you don't exist, so there. And you smell. There, that told him.

Well, if nothing else, it's fresh and original. I look forward to more crazy adverts from Premier Christian Radio, fearlessly challenging the reality of other people and things we'd previously thought it reasonable to accept as actually existing:

There's probably no Bill Gates. Rafael Nadal and Oprah Winfrey are just figments of your imagination. Only a fool would believe that Steven Spielberg is a real person. Giraffes, they're not real. Nobody seriously thinks that chickens exist. Cows ain't real. Gravity's just a fairy story and there's no such thing as aluminium. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.
The event at the Sheldonian Theatre is an appearance by Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, who's touring the country on a debating tour, hoping to take on a few academic atheists (Dawkins was invited to attend but presumably decided he had better things to do, a decision validated by quality of the publicity for the event).

Sunday, 9 October 2011

World domination is just a click away, honest

I notice that somebody's been linking to one of my posts. Not just anyone, mind you, but the Illuminati, no less, or at least an 'ex-member of The Brotherhood, Kevin Trudeau' (memorably described in Wikipedia as an 'American author, radio personality, infomercial salesman, and convicted felon best known for promoting alternative medicine', ).

Personally, I find these charges hard to believe, as his sales pitch sounds entirely credible and not even slightly dodgy. Apparently, if you want to share the secrets of the hidden rulers of the world, make LARGE amounts of money, work with multi-millionaires, celebs and best-selling authors, etc, all you have to do is click on the link at meetilluminatimembers dot com to join for FREE. Nope, that doesn't sound even slightly suspicious to me.

I must admit to having wondered why a secret society of conspirators bent on world domination would let any old Tom, Dick or Harry who clicked on a web link join their exclusive inner circle but, hey, if it's on the interwebs it must be true, right?

Saturday, 8 October 2011

BATman versus Catwoman

 The Telegraph sums up everything you need to know about the Ken Clarke / Theresa May argument in three lines:

  • Theresa May, the Home Secretary, says something untrue.
  • Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, points out that it is untrue.
  • Commentators call for Ken Clarke to be fired.

It's almost as if karma works in the real world.* Agree or disagree with what he stands for,** Ken, does come across as a human being, saying what he thinks, who should easily be able to outshine the standardised, image-controlled, pre-screened, focus-grouped, on-message political partybots who surround him. But, even when he's plainly right and his opponent is exposed as wrong for all to see, his voice seems doomed, Cassandra-like, to fall on deaf ears.

It's as if Ken's murky past as Deputy Chairman and a director of British American Tobacco (BAT), is coming back to bite him. BAT, you'll remember, was lobbying hard to water down health warnings on cigarette packets aimed at the rising generation of new addicts in developing countries. As an example of socially worse-than-useless corporate irresponsibility, inflating the market for a product that causes massive, avoidable, levels of illness, suffering and premature death, is right up there with pedalling dodgy collateralized debt obligations, trading junk bonds or flogging arms to dictators.

I suppose Ken deserves some kudos for walking the talk - he's clearly a man who likes a good cigar, which makes him less hypocritical than a non-smoking tobacco company executive who smugly prolongs his worthless existence with a healthy, balanced diet and regular visits to the gym, courtesy of the millions of consumers he guides, spluttering, into an early grave.

Of course, it's not really karma, just the fact that Clarke's fact-based criticism of May's immigration fairy tale doesn't chime with what the party spin doctors and powerful, xenophobic, elements of the press imagine the public want to hear. Telling truths that contradict the powerful is, it seems, a serious offence.

"Catgate" may seem like a trivial storm in a saucer of warm milk, but if you want to know why people are disengaged from party politics, look no further. Why would anybody take party politics seriously when a truth-free assertion that happens to conform to the prevailing groupthink trumps the plain truth? That Daily Mash headline Government must not get bogged down by facts, says May was absolutely spot-on.

It'll be interesting to see where evidence-free politics takes us in future. Maybe the chancellor could announce that he's sorted out the national debt by having a quiet word with Father Christmas, who's agreed to have his magic elves conjure up a few billion gold bars, to be gift wrapped and left at the Treasury on the night of his annual present drop. It would be a complete lie, but it's a story people would like to believe which is, apparently, all that matters these days.

*I'm don't really believe that karma operates in any real sense. You don't need to look very far to see bad deeds rewarded and bad stuff happening to folk who do good (I'll leave assertions about ultimate cosmic justice in some future incarnation / afterlife to the clerics and theologians who have cornered the market in being dead certain about unprovable things).

** I mostly disagree.


Thursday, 6 October 2011

Pushing the Channel 4 envelope

With the entertainment industry reeling from the sad, but unsurprising, news that the inexplicable celebrity idiot, Sarah Palin, won’t be running for US president, and Shellow Bowells still on my mind, I’ve come up with a cracking idea for a TV show.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a celebrity in possession of a failing career must be in want of ritual humiliation on reality TV. Also, nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the viewing public. The time is, therefore, right for Celebrity Embarrassing Bodies ©.

Channel 4 executives wishing to acknowledge the genius of the concept, and arrange a power breakfast to develop it, may contact me via the comments section of this blog. Please note that all Blackberries should be turned off for the duration of the meeting and adequate supplies of good, hot coffee, smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels and champagne should be provided to keep the creative juices flowing.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Facebook quarantine

 Here's a thought:

I've started browsing with Facebook open in my secondary browser and all other browsing in my primary. Will that help keep Mark Z at bay?

Sounds as if it might work, up to a point. I only use one browser for most of the time, but I'm going to start using a different one on the rare occasions I log in to Facebook (and never for anything else). Of course it wouldn't address a lot of the other question marks about keeping control of your personal info on FB, so I'll still be turning the privacy controls all the way up to 11, not giving any more than the bare minimum of personal information required and making sure there are a few outrageous lies on my profile, just to be on the safe side.

All of this mucking around partially cripples FB as a social networking tool, but at least it still allows me to occasionally keep up with a few people I actually know in real life (I don't do FB-only "friends"), without inviting world + dog to help themselves to what nation states would class as "information useful to the enemy".

Crazy cat lady is running the Home Office

I used to think that Theresa May wasn't too bad (for a Conservative cabinet minister). I suspect that the pressure of being Home Secretary would cause the soundest mind to crack, so I'm not entirely surprised to see her losing her grip on reality (rather like almost every other holder of this impossible job in recent history).

In her case, the insanity seems to have caused her to morph into the crazy cat lady from The Simpsons, talking gibberish and throwing made-up stories about cats at passers by. As always, your best coverage of the story is in The Daily Mash:

Theresa May has demanded the Home Office be free to do its vital work unhindered by reality

Speaking from inside her claw-resistant spittle chamber, May insisted it was unrealistic that she should be able to talk about things and know what she was talking about at the same time.

May said: "On any given day I might want to say that the previous government housed immigrants in a network of underground bunkers filled with champagne and chimps serving crack cocaine from bongs in the shape of Russell Grant. I don't have time to check whether any of that actually happened".
Read all about it here.

Monday, 3 October 2011

A series of unfortunate names

1. Unfortunate product name of the day.
My partner and helpmate has been shopping. She decided that I needed a new can of deodorant (guided by her innate sense of stock control, rather than her sense of smell, honest).This is what she got. I'm really not sure about that name.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that "Pure Game" is a rubbish name for a personal freshness product, at least for one aimed at consumers who don't want to exude the gamey aroma of a well-hung pheasant.

2. Unfortunate English place name of the day.

The Essex village of Shellow Bowells. It sounds like the sort of embarrassing medical condition the Queen might suffer from:

Excuse one, but one really must pay a visit to the ladies'. Shellow bowells, you know; they run in the family. Philip dear, mind the corgis while one's gorn...

And don't even get me started on Steeple Bumstead, Foulness, Mucking and Ugley...

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Rainbow over Newport Pagnell

If you look very carefully, you can just make out that this is a double rainbow. The second bow became brighter and more distinct a couple of minutes after this was taken. Precisely at the moment, in fact, when my camera battery ran out...

Smoke on the water

The Wall Street Journal thought it worth giving Scott Adams a column to expand on his quaint notion that the world's wealthiest citizens will one day migrate to floating tax havens. I agree, but only because this stuff is silly enough to be entertaining, especially when Scott warns the world's mega-rich of the coming socialist tax-apocalypse:

The final phase will involve a tax rate on the top 1% of earners that is so high it can't be described without the Viking word for pillage.

Yeah, right.

Mention of Vikings makes me almost regret that the great floating tax havens will always be a figment of  the over-heated libertarian imagination, though. The funerary rituals of such a seagoing elite could be quite spectacular. I can't imagine the ex-Masters of the Universe being content with just being wrapped in some sailcloth and quietly dropped over the side when their time comes. Something more spectacular and ostentatious would be in order.

I'm thinking of a full-on flaming ship-burial (think Kirk Douglas's dragon ship funeral pyre at the end of The Vikings)* to speed the dear departed to the high net worth Valhalla.

From the fury of the hedge fund managers deliver us, O Lord.

*Although these guys could presumably afford to outdo a warrior from the dark ages and sign off with a grand gesture to match the Graf Spee's final moments.