Sunday, 31 March 2013

Trailer trash documentaries

Call me a grumpy old man if you like, but I have to agree with The Plump, who thinks that way too many modern historical and archeological documentaries consist of a tiny kernel of interesting fact hiding inside thick layers of repetition and eye candy, in the form of reenactment, CGI and the climactic unveiling of a facial reconstruction.

The one thing I'd add to his critique is the repetitive three part structure that seems to be compulsory for most classes of documentary these days - spend the first ten minutes on a trailer of clips from later on in the documentary, with a voiceover telling the viewers what they're about to see, followed by the actual documentary, followed by another selection of clips from the documentary, with a voiceover explaining what we've all just seen.

What was so wrong with saying what you have to say once, starting at the beginning, then proceeding in a logical sequence to the end and relegating the trailers to the breaks between programmes?

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Barack Obama's big fat Nazi experiment

Barack Obama may be a disappointment to some, but at least he's still infuriating some of the right people. I've just come across an interesting blog post on the Obama health care reforms that dramatically illustrates the gulf that's opened up between the reality-based community and the folk who sincerely believe that the 44th President of the United States is either a socialist, a Muslim, a foreigner, a Nazi, the Antichrist, or all of the above.

The post's entitled "ObamaCare Through the Ages" and it appears to suggest that there's some sort of moral or functional equivalence between Obama's health care bill and potentially lethal medical experiments involving malaria drugs that Nazi doctors forcibly inflicted on prisoners in the Dachau concentration camp, or with the actions of US doctors who deliberately left poor black people with syphilis to infect others and to die untreated, in order to observe the progress of the disease, back in the 1930's.

It's not the extreme nature of the comparisons that weirds me out - I'm sure there are plenty of shock jocks and Fox News fans who call Obama a Nazi twelve times a day before breakfast. What's disturbingly strange is the way the parallel is made. There's no attempt at an argument, along the lines of  'Obama's proposed health care reforms are just like the medical experiments the Nazis performed on prisoners because [insert some sort of explanation of why these two, apparently unrelated, things might be in some way similar].'

Nope, there's just the title, "ObamaCare Through the Ages", a photo of Claus Schilling (the doctor responsible for directing malaria drug experiments at Dachau), on the scaffold prior to being hanged for war crimes, followed by two paragraphs, one describing the Nazi experiments on prisoners, the other telling the story of how those 1930's American doctors used black sharecroppers as human guinea pigs, deliberately letting them die of syphilis, rather than attempting to treat them. And that's all, folks. See "ObamaCare Through the Ages" for youself and go figure.

In this guy's head, the parallel between the current health care bill and history's most chillingly unethical and callous medical experiments is so blindingly obvious that it doesn't even need spelling out. Maybe that's why the angry coalition of conservatives, God-botherers and libertarians seemed to implode at the last presidential election. It's not just that they hold some very weird ideas to be self-evident truths, but they apparently don't even see why they might need to explain or justify these bizarre notions to anybody who isn't already a true believer.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Westminster consensus

Hello Westminster politicians. Here's an idea. How about a truce. All three major parties could do the apology thing, admit that they've all made made a few mistakes over the last few years and show that they've all learnt a few valuable lessons that everyone can now agree on?

For example, you must all have worked out since 2008 that being "business friendly" means getting behind workers and productive enterprises, as opposed to schmoozing on oligarch's yachts, whilst cheerleading for the gamblers, debt farmers and property speculators who screwed everything up on an unimaginable scale and continue to suck the life out of the economy by extracting crippling rents and fees without adding any value. We can all get behind that one and work together in the national interest, can't we?

No? Too hard? Too controversial? What can you all agree on then? I see.

You can all agree to use some people's vague and probably baseless mistrust of foreigners to shift the blame for the the hard realities of a post-crash economy onto a conveniently powerless group of people.

It's reassuring to know that party leaders can bury their differences to and get together to surf the first wave of evidence-lite prejudice that comes along. Because that's really going to make everything better, isn't it?

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Now, Voyager?

There's an interesting article on Bad Astronomy about whether or not the space probe Voyager 1 has left the solar system and become the first human-made artifact to enter interstellar space. As you'll see from the correction to the post, the answer's not entirely clear, mostly due to which definition of "interstellar space" you choose. "Interstellar space" could start:
a) at the point where the solar wind slows to a stop as its constituent particles collide with the particles that exist between the stars 
b) at the point where the sun's influence becomes so weak that the prevailing magnetic field changes direction.
Voyager seems to have reached a) but not b). NASA and JPL have apparently chosen reaching b) as their working definition of "leaving the solar system."

Other definitions are available. For example, as of now (ish), Voyager 1 is 123.6 astronomical units (AU) away from the sun (click here for a more precise estimate).

The Oort cloud (the hypothetical spherical cloud of icy bodies surrounding the sun, thought to be the place where long-period comets originate), could be up to 50,000 AU from the sun, or over four hundred times further away from the sun than Voyager 1 is now.

Nobody's ever observed the Oort cloud directly, but assuming that the theories are correct and it does exist, then surely a vast spherical shell of icy material, centred on the sun, is part of the solar system.

Or maybe the boundary lies even further out, at the point where the gravitational influence of the sun is no greater than that of the nearest star.

Nature seems so irreducibly nuanced and subtle that one neat cut-off point may be too much to ask of her. Don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars (although maybe not just yet).

Sunday, 17 March 2013

David Beckham channels Caligula

I'm way behind the curve when it comes to celebrity culture, but I'm filing this factoid under "strange things." Apparently, among the impressive portfolio of body art adorning footballer-turned global brand, David Beckham, there's a tat of a guardian angel above the  phrase 'let them hate as long as they fear. '

As any fule kno, this phrase became notorious as a favourite saying of the insane and famously depraved emperor Caligula, at least according to Suetonius.

I've no idea what - if anything - Becks was thinking when he had this one done, but there's a publishing opportunity going begging there. Just find a snappier title than "The Iconography of Celebrity Tattoos" and whack it out as a coffee-table book in time for Christmas. After all, nobody ever lost money by exhaustively dissecting the lifestyle choices of the rich and famous for the benefit of sleb fans everywhere.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The papal succession - still not as exciting as it used to be

The first papal resignation for almost six centuries, the first non-European pope for nearly thirteen hundred years, the first new papal name in over a millennium (if you don't count the composite "John Paul") - it's been an exciting week for Vatican trivia fans. Archbishop Vincent Nichols was thrilled:
It is a remarkable and very exciting moment. I think it's wonderful that the Church can come up with such a surprise and absolutely hold the world's attention and put somebody there who is really going to bring something fresh to the papacy.
It's all kind of interesting, in an  E.L. Wisty sort of way, but it still doesn't compare with the sort of surprising things the Church used to come up with back in the days when the papacy really mattered:
Pope Stephen VI, on his accession in 896, accused his predecessor, Formosus, of sacrilegiously bringing the papal office into disrepute. The body of the dead pope was exhumed, dressed in the pontifical robes and set up on a throne in St. Peter’s, where a deacon was appointed to defend him. When the verdict of guilty was pronounced, the executioner thrust Formosus from the throne, stripped him of his robes, cut off the three benedictory fingers of his right hand and threw his body “as a pestilential thing” into the Tiber.
Now that would 'absolutely hold the world's attention.'

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Two colonial relics

The people of the Falkland Islands, (numbering 2,841 according to last years' census) recently voted overwhelmingly to remain British. Seamus Milne is predictably wrong-headed in thinking that Argentina's competing colonial claim to the islands is somehow more important than the clearly expressed wishes of the people who actually live there.

Milne is right about the sickening hypocrisy of British policy towards its remaining overseas possessions, though. Contrast the consideration successive British governments have given to to the Falklanders' rights and wishes with their vile treatment of the Chagos islanders:
In 1965, as part of a deal to grant Mauritian independence, the Chagos Archipelago was split off from the Colony and came to form the British Indian Ocean Territory. The territory's new constitution was set out in a statutory instrument imposed unilaterally without any referendum or consultation with the Chagossians and it envisaged no democratic institutions. On April 16, 1971, The United Kingdom issued a policy called BIOT [British Indian Ocean Territory] Immigration Ordinance #1 which made it a criminal offense for those without military clearance to be on the islands without a permit.

Between 1967 and 1973, the Chagossians, then numbering some 2,000 people, were expelled by the British government, first to the island of Peros Banhos, 100 miles (160 km) away from their homeland, and then, in 1973, to Mauritius... The forced expulsion and dispossession of the Chagossians was for the purpose of establishing a United States air and naval base on Diego Garcia, with a population of between 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. soldiers and support staff, as well as a few troops from the United Kingdom.

After the islanders had been forcibly expelled from their homes, some of them petitioned for the right to return, at which point politicians and civil servants conspired in a disinformation campaign, aimed at convincing the rest of the world that the deported islanders had been migrant workers, rather than permanent residents. As a Foreign Office memo from 1970  put it:
We would not wish it to become general knowledge that some of the inhabitants have lived on Diego Garcia for at least two generations and could, therefore, be regarded as ‘belongers’. We shall therefore advise ministers in handling supplementary questions about whether Diego Garcia is inhabited to say there is only a small number of contract labourers from the Seychelles and Mauritius engaged in work on the copra plantations on the island. That is being economical with the truth.
The scheming goes on on to present times. On April the First 2010, the British government established the Chagos Archipelago as the world's largest marine reserve. As one of the Wikileaks cables revealed, this idea wasn't all about the laudable aims of preserving biodiversity and fish stocks but would also, rather conveniently, make it impossible for the displaced population to return:
He [a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official] said that the BIOT's former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.
Earlier this week David Cameron came out with a ringing defence of the Falkland Islanders' right to choose for themselves:
The Falkland Islands may be thousands of miles away but they are British through and through and that is how they want to stay. People should know we will always be there to defend them.

We believe in self-determination. The Falkland Islanders have spoken so clearly about their future and now other countries right across the world, I hope, will respect and revere this very, very clear result.
We may see how committed he really is to defending the inhabitants of British territories overseas and promoting ther right to self-determination in 2014, when the 1966 UK/US agreement which determined the future of the Chagos Archipelago (without any consideration for the rights of the people living there), can be reviewed. The Territory was leased to the USA for an initial period of 50 years (until 2016), but the lease will automatically extend for a further 20 years (until 2036), unless terminated by either party between the years 2014 to 2016.

I don't expect Cameron to do right by the islanders, any more than any Labour or Conservative leader since 1966 has done, but wouldn't it be great if the principles he rightly upholds on behalf of the Falklanders could be extended to all the people we Brits are supposedly always there to defend?

Monday, 11 March 2013

Fox news and the Tea Party come to the UK

I'm baffled by this latest outburst of libertarian wingnuttery from disgraced ex-minister Liam Fox. Maybe this is just me being naive, but he surely can't really believe that turning the Tories into a clone of the Tea Party-dominated Republicans is a ticket to anywhere except electoral oblivion? Can he?

It's being presented as some sort of challenge to David Cameron, but I presume that there's something else going on here. My provisional theory, based on precisely no inside knowledge, is that Foxy is helping his boss out by creating the bogeyman of austerity cuts so extreme that it makes the coalition's desperate Plan A look like the epitome of moderate, reasonable consensus.

Now if that Nick Robinson could either confirm my theory, or reveal that Foxy really is as bonkers as you'd imagine from taking his speech at face value, or give the heads up on some alternative Machiavellian plot that outsiders would never have dreamed of, that would be interesting. It's the fact that we never hear anything half so illuminating from the political gossip columnists that makes me doubt their value to the rest of us.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Worst party political broadcast. Ever.

And now, here are some thoughts on immigration from a claymation stop-motion facsimile of Nigel Farage:
Maybe Ed read this:
Today the art of politics is to take public concern,  anger or bigotry and create a channel for it so that like flood water you can destroy one place or group while protecting another.
That was not supposed to be an instruction manual. Stupid boy.

And now, here is a short intemission, just to show that you can make something useful out of clay:

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Fantastic monster

The blessed Saint Bernard of Clairvaux would probably have disapproved of the scary cyclops head that I spotted on holiday a couple of weeks ago:
What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers?
Saintly Bernard might have been mollified to learn that this particular monstrous apparition neither adorns a pagan shrine, nor defiles a house of God, but serves as a hand-hold on a children's climbing wall in a playground just off the B5115, between Llandudno and Colwyn Bay. Here, thanks to the magic of my crappy phone camera, is the whole thing in context and in living colour:

St. Bernard would also have been unlikely to approve of the Darth Vader head currently adorning Washington's National Cathedral.

We do, however, know about the sort of things St. Bernard did approve of. Denouncing dissidents to the authorities, for example. Bernard had 'one of the first philosophical minds of the whole Middle Ages', Peter Abelard, brought before the pope and cardinals of the Curia on a trumped-up charge of heresy. We also know that Bernard was a hate-preacher, promoting violent jihad against the infidel and endorsing a fanatical band of armed militants. If Bernard was looking for fantastic monsters, he could have simply looked in the mirror.

In recognition of his immense piety, St Bernard of Clairvaux is the patron saint of Cistercians, Burgundy, beekeepers, candle makers, Gibraltar, Queens' College, Cambridge, Speyer Cathedral and the Knights Templar.

 Wubba wubba wubba wubba woo woo woo.

Boris and banking talent

'This is possibly the most deluded measure to come from Europe since Diocletian tried to fix the price of groceries across the Roman Empire.'

Boris, the bankers' best buddy, having a go at the European Union scheme to cap bankers' bonuses last week:
Brussels cannot control the global market for banking talent. Brussels cannot set pay for bankers around the world.

The most this measure can hope to achieve is a boost for Zurich and Singapore and New York at the expense of a struggling EU. 
I think you might have to cross Zurich off your list, Boris. Financial services make up an important part the Swiss economy, too, but that didn't stop people voting to rein in their gnomes and fat cats. The Swiss might have gone further than some countries, but that doesn't mean that everybody else on the planet is simply ignoring the issues of inequality and perverse incentives and just waiting to roll out the red carpet for our hard-done-by British bankers.

Overwrought warnings that bankers will stop playing nicely* with us and take their ball away at the first sign of anybody crying 'foul' probably tells us more about whose side Boris and his cronies are on than it does about the likely result of any bonus cap. Although to be fair to Boris, maybe he's just worried that if he annoys the bankers, he might have to find somebody else to sponsor his bikes.

*For a given value of 'nicely' (see PPI mis-selling, rate-swap mis-selling, Libor rigging,  not to mention the ongoing story of economy-crushing failures and bailouts).