May 26, 2008

Sick note

Okay, I'm not disoriented, I just don't know what day it is.

All day yesterday, I kept thinking it was Sunday. I've lost a day somewhere - which is a good thing. It means there's one less day to go until I have surgery. Not that I'm looking forward to being operated on, but it will be a blessed relief to be rid of this gall bladder of mine.

I get to meet the surgeon (again) in about two weeks time and then, hopefully, I'll get a date for the op. I'm not holding my breath - the hospital has had to close a number of wards due to an outbreak of Norovirus and a lot of operations have had to be postponed. I know someone who was due to have a heart bypass just before Christmas - he's still waiting to go in. So, like I said, I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, I'm maxed out on painkillers. Unfortunately, they're not working so good anymore - either because I've built up a tolerance (I haven't been able to take a day off them for a while) or because my condition is worsening. In any case, I'm one sick animal.

Posting might be lighter than usual for a while.

Family life

A while back, the Big Fella took it upon himself to start baking bread on a Sunday afternoon. It's good bread and much appreciated, but this Sunday, he's decided to make pizza instead. I'm looking forward to it - I tasted some of the pizza he made in Food Tech and it was spot on.

Pardon me for twittering on about it, but it's really nice when your thirteen year-old decides he's going to cook the family dinner. It makes me think we raised him right.

Of course, nobody's perfect - the Big Fella wants to be a barrister when he grows up. But we're not responsible for that. I blame one of Mac's old friends - he sets too good an example. Taking him as a guide, you'd be inclined to overrate the whole profession.

May 25, 2008

Going loopy

"Smolin? Oh, is he that young guy with those crazy ideas? He may not be wrong!"- Murray Gell-Mann

I haven't posted much the last couple of days. I got sidetracked by a paper on loop quantum gravity by Lee Smolin (author of "Three Roads to Quantum Gravity").

Smolin's "An invitation to loop quantum gravity" is available in pdf at arXiv.org. From the abstract:-
We describe the basic assumptions and key results of loop quantum gravity, which is a background independent approach to quantum gravity. The emphasis is on the basic physical principles and how one deduces predictions from them, at a level suitable for physicists in other areas such as string theory, cosmology, particle physics, astrophysics and condensed matter physics. No details are given, but references are provided to guide the interested reader to the literature.
Smolin is also the originator of the fecund universes theory. And he has an admirable view of quantum mechanics:-
I am convinced that quantum mechanics is not a final theory. I believe this because I have never encountered an interpretation of the present formulation of quantum mechanics that makes sense to me. I have studied most of them in depth and thought hard about them, and in the end I still can't make real sense of quantum theory as it stands.
More on Lee Smolin's thinking from The Third Culture via Edge.

May 24, 2008

Weston-super-Mare

One of Mac's Italian colleagues recently took a trip to the nearby town of Weston-super-Mare thinking it would be nice to visit the British seaside. He came away describing it as "one of the worse or maybe the worse sea place where I've been".

This image from e-vlad says it all, really.


According to Mac: "Weston-super-Mare is actually an elaborate joke that we like to play on foreigners."

Speaking on behalf of foreigners, I have to say, it's not funny.

Benson the unbeliever

Reading this interview with Ophelia Benson in Free Thinker magazine, I was surprised to see Ophelia say she doesn't really have a personal philosophy:-

FT: How would you describe your personal philosophy?

OB: I’m not sure I really have anything as grand as a personal philosophy – I think I have more of a methodology. It could be boiled down to not wanting to be taken for a sucker, or in more philosophical language, to a dislike of bullshit. I hate dishonest manipulative language of all sorts, and I spend a lot of time sniffing it out and then making fun of it.

But on the affirmative side, I am in favour or a lot of things, if that adds up to a philosophy. It might be more what the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein in her novel The Mind-body Problem called a mattering map. Freedom and autonomy matter to me, as do rights. So do poetry, music, starry nights. Like Richard Rorty trying to unite Trotsky and wild orchids, I’m not sure how to connect the two – so I just put them on the mattering map.
Hmmm. The "mattering map" sounds like a cute idea but maybe I'd need to read Goldstein's novel and some Rorty to really understand what Ophelia is talking about. I mean, doesn't everything matter? At least in some way or other.

If you don't have a personal philosophy, how can you make judgements about what should and shouldn't be on your mattering map? And if you do decide something belongs on the map (such as Trotsky or wild orchids), how do you decide what size to make it and where to position it in relation to everything else?

I know I sometimes take things too seriously - Ophelia's metaphor for instance - but it seems to me that everyone has a personal philosophy, at least in so far as the phrase is commonly understood. I appreciate most people don't spend much time thinking about such things but Ophelia is associate editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, so I imagine she's given the subject more than a passing thought.

Still, like I said, I probably need to read Goldstein and Rorty to get a better idea of Ophelia's thinking. I just wish she'd been a bit more explicit.

[Via Faith in Honest Doubt]

May 23, 2008

Friday roundabout

Oliver Kamm on Labour's Landscape after the Crewe by-election.

Clive Davis: Friday evening interlude - "Wanted Man" by Johnny Cash.

New horizons, new perspectives and a new design at Cobb's place.

Sunny at Pickled Politics highlights the case of two UK academics arrested for studying terrorism at Nottingham University.

Donald Sensing says Honda's new "zero-emission" Clarity is "the worst car on the planet" in terms of global warming.

And finally,

[Via Scribbles] At the Daily Mash: "Do you need us to call you a cab? Britain asks Brown".

Hezbollah’s Lebanon

Michael Totten in Commentary magazine:-
Lebanon’s “March 14” majority coalition in parliament managed to hammer out a temporary agreement with the Hezbollah-led opposition in Doha, Qatar, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to raise a toast to the new peace in Beirut just yet. The streets are quiet and normal again for the most part, but none of Lebanon’s most serious problems have been resolved. While diplomats from Washington to Riyadh are pretending, for form’s sake, that this is a terrific breakthrough for stability and national unity, Charles Malik put it more bluntly and honestly at the Lebanese Political Journal. “The Doha negotiations were never meant to solve everything,” he wrote. “They were meant to stall the violence until after the summer tourist season is over.”

After Crewe

After Labour's widely predicted defeat in the Crewe by-election, Labour hack Sunder Katwala, writing in the Guardian, thinks this is a hiccup rather than a disaster and believes Gordon Brown is the party's best bet in the general election:-
Nothing in the challenge of message, strategy and policy - how to define the choice at the next election which could see off the call of "time for a change" - would be solved by having a different personality in charge.
[...]
A bolder Brown remains the Labour figure best placed to reassert his party's claim to be the party of fairness. This is what he came into politics to do. It is also now the agenda on which his and his party's political future depends.
Few commenters seem to agree. Gordon Brown is widely regarded as an electoral liability - he's not a likable character, he may be highly intelligent but he comes across as a bit of a dullard and, quite frankly, people don't trust him.

To a large extent this may reflect the means by which Brown became leader. It seems people don't like having an unelected prime minister foisted upon them. The "gentleman's agreement" with Tony Blair which resulted in Brown's rise to power was a grubby piece of politics. And, after the 10p tax debacle (amongst other things), many ordinary working people seem to have decided Labour is not for them.

It's all very well talking about rebuilding the broad coalition that brought New Labour to power in the first place, but it was Blair, not Brown, who built that coalition and without him the New Labour project looks dead in the water.

Three Cliffs Bay


The boys are on half-term holiday next week. If the weather's good, we'll probably spend a couple of days in the Gower - most likely at Three Cliffs Bay.

Against free speech

Via Clive Davis, I learn that Sean Dodson at the Guardian is unhappy that people who have opinions he doesn't agree with are being given a public platform by the Daily Telegraph:-
A cursory glance (at the Telegraph's website) reveals that while it has some powerful and well-written blogs, My Telegraph is also inhabited by some very unsavoury characters, including a minority of active members of the far right, anti-abortionists, europhobes and members of an anti-feminist "men's movement". Such comments appear on all websites, the Guardian included. The difference with My Telegraph and similar sites overseas is that the newspaper is providing the platform for others to start the debate. On most comment sites, bloggers sanctioned by the newspaper group typically do so.
Shane Richmond at the Telegraph provides a robust response:-
Part of our definition of a "respectable newspaper" is one that doesn't try to tell its readers what to think. Our readers are entitled to their opinions and, within the scope of the law, they're entitled to publish them on My Telegraph.
I'm with Richmond on this issue. I don't read the Telegraph's readers' blogs but I'm pretty sure if I did, I'd find plenty to disagree with and maybe even some things I'd consider offensive. Nevertheless, the Guardian telling another newspaper what it should and shouldn't publish is completely beyond the pale.

Clutching at straws

In the immediate aftermath of an explosion in a restaurant in Exeter yesterday, a number of news reports suggested the incident might be the work of animal rights activists. I think a lot of people were hoping that was the case, I certainly was.

Unfortunately, as with the recent series of controlled explosions in Bristol, the person arrested in connection with the incident is said by police to be a recent convert to Islam:-
Deputy chief constable Tony Melville said: "Witnesses described how a male entered a toilet in the restaurant shortly before an explosion was heard."

He said police and other emergency services went to the scene and the man was arrested in connection with the explosion.

"This male, who we now know is called Nicky Reilly, suffered serious facial injuries but these are not life threatening. He is currently in police custody undergoing treatment at a hospital."

Melville said police investigations had indicated Reilly, who had a history of mental illness, had adopted the Islamic faith and "was preyed upon and radicalised".

May 22, 2008

Busy busy busy

There's been so much going on today, I just haven't had the time to post anything. And this evening, Mac and I are going to take some time, share a bottle of wine and watch the latest episode of "Heroes" on TV (the second season just got underway here).

So, this is all you're getting from me today. See you tomorrow.

May 21, 2008

Wednesday roundabout

"Iraq War To Be Lost By End Of 2008": David Price at Dean's World anticipates the media's line on Iraq.

Pajamas Media has the latest on Mark Steyn versus the Canadian Human Rights Council. It's a three-ring circus. [Via IP]

"Birth cry of a supernova" at Bad Astronomy - astronomers catch sight of a star as it starts to explode.

Something I didn't know: Eddie Campbell once drew Iron Man (and Captain America).

The Policeman's Blog has some questions about the government's proposed database of all UK phone calls, e-mails and internet activity.

And finally,

Pootergeek has the transcript of Barry's Oprah interview.

Heidegger update

Alongside Heidegger's "Being and Time", I'm reading commentary on Heidegger's work by Brad Elliott Stone including the highly recommended "Curiosity as the Thief of Wonder: An Essay on Heidegger’s Critique of the Ordinary Conception of Time" (pdf).

I'm eagerly awaiting his paper "Being and Time for the Average Da-sein". A draft version was up on his website for a while but I missed it and he's now taken it down prior to publication.

Still, it's something to look forward to.

Castle in the clouds

Talking of fairytale castles, here's a real one.


Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria [Image from WallpaperMe]

Disney Time

Lileks in Disneyland:-
Building a gigantic fairytale castle and putting it on TV on Sunday night in color might have been the smartest PR move in the history of marketing.

It’s impossible to look at the thing without feeling like you’re ten, sitting in front of the First Color Set your family had, happy it was Sunday night, hoping it was a cartoon tonight instead one of those nature shows. They were okay, I guess, but you would prefer a Chip and Dale to learning about beavers.
Ah yes, I remember it well.

Unfortunately, they're not memories my kids will share. A great gulf separates me from my children - the boys hate Disney. I mean it, they really hate Disney - the saccharine story lines, schmaltzy songs, bloated merchandising and Disney stores full of overpriced plastic junk.

I guess I hate all that too. But the commercial excesses of Disney Corp, while they color my judgement, don't cloud my memory. And, like Lileks, when I see that fairytale castle, it takes me back to happy times.

Ray, Bear and Chuck

Lucy Mangan at the Guardian's tv & radio blog asks: Who's harder Ray Mears or Bear Grylls?

We're all big fans of Ray Mears in this house, so it's nice to see most commenters plumping for him, though one reckons Chuck Norris has them both beat - he even presents a series of propositions in support of that contention (I've heard a bunch of these from the boys):-
When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants.

There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live.

Outer space exists because it's afraid to be on the same planet with Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.

Chuck Norris is currently suing NBC, claiming Law and Order are trademarked names for his left and right legs.

Chuck Norris is the reason why Waldo is hiding.

Chuck Norris counted to infinity - twice.

There is no chin behind Chuck Norris' beard. There is only another fist.

Chuck Norris can sneeze with his eyes open.

Chuck Norris destroyed the periodic table, because he only recognizes the element of surprise.

May 20, 2008

Tuesday roundabout

Zoe Brain: "Putting the New in Neurology" with a selection of items about brains.

David T at Harry's Place: "What the UK Islamists are Planning Next".

Dale at Faith in Honest Doubt on God-belief and happiness.

Kings of War looks at "Al Qaeda’s ‘War Amongst the People’".

Jay at Savage Minds rounds up some online anthropology.

And finally,

"Gay scientists isolate Christianity gene" - Science Punk has the video.

Afar from above

From NASA's Earth Observatory:-
"In eastern Africa, in the Afar region of Ethiopia, a nearly barren rockscape marks the location of the meeting place of three separate pieces of the Earth’s crust. This meeting place is known to geologists as the Afar Triple Junction"

[Click picture for full-size high definition image]

Public privacy

Florida Court: It’s OK to Look up a Woman’s Skirt with a Mirror, as Long as It’s a Public Place
Evidently, the case turned on the defense attorney's submission that, under Florida law, the victim "didn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place".

Glenn Sacks at Dean's World has the details and links to commentary. Not surprisingly, a whole lot of people are up in arms about this. And rightly so.

Trust the police

Today's Guardian reports that "more than 20 officers [from the City of London police], ranging from constable to chief superintendent, had accepted gifts worth thousands of pounds from the Church of Scientology."

Please believe those gifts in no way influenced the endorsements given to Scientology by some of the force's senior officers:-

The City of London Chief Superintendent, Kevin Hurley, praised Scientology for "raising the spiritual wealth of society" during the opening of its headquarters in 2006.

Last year a video praising Scientology emerged featuring Ken Stewart, another of the City of London's chief superintendents, although he is not a member of the group.
And please believe that neither those gifts nor the high esteem in which Scientology is held by senior members of the City of London force had anything to do with the following incident:-
A teenager is facing prosecution for using the word "cult" to describe the Church of Scientology.

The unnamed 15-year-old was served the summons by City of London police when he took part in a peaceful demonstration opposite the London headquarters of the controversial religion.

Officers confiscated a placard with the word "cult" on it from the youth, who is under 18, and a case file has been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Whatever you believe, Liberty director, Shami Chakrabarti, gets it bang on: "This barmy prosecution makes a mockery of Britain's free speech traditions".

Different minds

Conversations with my thirteen year-old are becoming more and more interesting.

I was having a conversation with the Big Fella the other day when the topic of free will came up. The Big Fella's view is that it's best to behave as if we have free will, though it may well be an illusion (he suspects the issue is indeterminable).

All he'd say, beyond that, is if you are going to attribute free will to humans then he can see no good reason not to attribute free will to all animals. The point he was making is that animals as a group are either fully determined systems or they're not, he doesn't see human consciousness (as distinct from "animal" consciousness) as having any impact on the issue - except in so far as it introduces a huge observer bias.

The Big Fella would probably be quite interested in this paper (Darwin's mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds) just published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences but it's not freely available and $40 is too much to pay just to try and pique his interest. Still, here's part of the abstract:-
Over the last quarter century, the dominant tendency in comparative cognitive psychology has been to emphasize the similarities between human and nonhuman minds and to downplay the differences as “one of degree and not of kind” (Darwin 1871). In the present target article, we argue that Darwin was mistaken: the profound biological continuity between human and nonhuman animals masks an equally profound discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. To wit, there is a significant discontinuity in the degree to which human and nonhuman animals are able to approximate the higher-order, systematic, relational capabilities of a physical symbol system (PSS) (Newell 1980).
There's a discussion on the paper just kicking off at Mixing Memory - it's on background and implications rather than detail so, if you're interested, it's worth a look even if you haven't read the paper.

There's more at Evolving Thoughts and Michael Pleyer at Shared Symbolic Storage also has some thoughts on the matter.

Freedom to film

Extraordinary video of a film maker being harassed by local community wardens for filming in a London street.



Other examples of people being harassed by British police for taking photographs in public here and here.

King dumplin'

I cook a lot of different types of dumplings: Chinese money bags, Jamaican fried dumpling, piroshki, plain suet dumplings - they're all very popular here in the Junior household. But there's one dumpling that stands head and shoulders above the rest - gyoza or Japanese dumplings. Served as a starter, with a dipping sauce of rice vinegar, soy sauce and chili oil, they're the bee's knees. I'm cooking them tomorrow night.

Here's my recipe (makes about 16 dumplings)

Gyoza

For the stuffing:
6 oz springs onions
10 oz pak choi
8 cloves of garlic
2 oz Szechuan preserved vegetables
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp rice wine
2 tsps of sugar
1/2 tsp salt
Pinch of Chinese five-spice powder

Finely chop the ingredients and stir fry in 1 tbsp of oil over a medium-high heat for 5 minutes until dry, allow to cool.

For the wrappers:
5 oz plain flour
4 fl oz hot water

Mix the flour and water to make a dough and kneed it until it's smooth. Cover with a damp cloth and let it rest for 15 minutes then kneed it again for about five minutes. Divided the dough into 16 pieces, form into rounds and roll out on a floured board. Put a spoon full of stuffing in each one, fold over into a semi-circle and pinch the edges together so each dumpling is tightly closed.

Heat 1 tbsp of oil over a high heat in a thick pan, add a batch of dumplings, reduce heat to low and cook for 2-3 minutes until the underside is browned. Add 4 fl oz of very hot water, cover and cook for a further 10 minutes.

Serve with a dipping sauce made from rice vinegar, soy sauce and chili oil.

(They're best eaten fresh but they freeze well and you can cook them from frozen - it just takes about 5 minutes longer.)

May 19, 2008

Monday roundabout

Michael Totten: "Lebanon will not become the next Gaza".

Snarksmith's Michael Weiss wonders about Barack Obama's plans for Iraq.

Oliver Kamm has some thoughts on Hiroshima and Le Monde.

Harry's Place highlight's Nick Cohen's views on the British government's engagement with Islamist groups.

They're messing about with Google translations at Language Log.

And finally,

"Hippo swallows dwarf" at Fate of the Artist.

May 16, 2008

Back Monday

May 15, 2008

Family life

The boys have been home most of this week (off school with stomach upsets) and it's put a real dent in my blogging. I didn't even get the time to post a roundabout, yesterday.

Same story today, except now the boy's are back at school and I've got the bug.

Look for me tomorrow.

May 14, 2008

Dissonant discourse

Zoe Brain looks at the strange case of Priya Venkatesan, an English teacher at Dartmouth college who threatened to sue her students for not wholeheartedly agreeing with her point of view - Venkatesan says their behavior amounted to "fascist demagoguery".

According to the WSJ: "She maintains that some of her students were so unreceptive of 'French narrative theory' that it amounted to a hostile working environment".

Solid upbringing

"I won the lottery when it came to getting the best mum."
Former rapper Ashley Walters in conversation with John Humphrys for Radio 4's On The Ropes:-
The tag “bad boy rapper” is easy to hang on Ashley Walters. He's an actor now - currently appearing in "Oxford Street" at the Royal Court theatre in London - but as Asher D of So Solid Crew he went straight to number one in the singles charts and had a platinum-selling album but he also went to jail after police found a loaded handgun in his car.

For this week’s On The Ropes Ashley Walters talks to John Humphrys about what drove him to buy a gun and why he believes the politicians and black community leaders who accused So Solid Crew of glamorising violence and gangs five years ago were wrong. He says if they'd taken the trouble to understand the message they were bringing from the streets of South London they might have heeded the warnings about trouble to come.
You can listen to it here.

May 13, 2008

Tuesday roundabout

Harry's Place has a follow up to Michael Ezra’s recent guest post “The Atomic bomb and Hiroshima: the least abhorrent choice”.

Michael Totten at Commentary magazine: Lebanon’s Third Civil War.

Philip Stott: "The Labour Government in the UK is obsessed by implausible targets, from the NHS through schools to the environment".

Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log has "a definitive argument against the logic of the opponents of singular they".

Clive Davis talking about rap and linking to one of the best rap songs ever.

And finally,

What if Shakespeare had written Abbott and Costello's classic skit, "Who's on first?" Donald Sensing has video.

NASA finds something

This press release from NASA is prompting speculation:-
NASA to Announce Success of Long Galactic Hunt
NASA has scheduled a media teleconference Wednesday, May 14, at 1 p.m. EDT, to announce the discovery of an object in our Galaxy astronomers have been hunting for more than 50 years.
My guess is they've spotted the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. They've been looking for it with the Chandra X-ray telescope for some time.


The image above (click to enlarge) is a radio image of the area around the galactic center. The galactic black hole is in the extremely bright region marked Sgr A.

Update
Hmm. Gotta wonder what all the fuss was about - the news from NASA is "Chandra Uncovers Youngest Supernova in Our Galaxy".

May 12, 2008

Graphic history



From Virginia Commonwealth University's Blake Collection of True Life Comics:-
The Blake Collection of True Life Comics is part of Special Collections and Archives' Comics Arts Collection -- which includes an extensive collection of reference periodicals and books about the art and history of comic strips, comic books, and related subjects; nearly 10,000 comic books dating primarily from the 1970s-1990s; the papers and drawings of two Richmond newspaper political cartoonists, and several other manuscript collections.
Also at the VCU site: An essay by Dr. William E. Blake, Professor Emeritus of VCU's History Department, on True Comics and the liberal humanist orientation of publisher George J Hecht.

Monday roundabout

"Afghanistan Another Iraq? Try Another Cambodia": Oxblog's Taylor Owen and David Eaves in Embassy.

Jules Crittenden on the death of social scientist Michael Bhatia in Afghanistan.

Mixing Memory asks "Does the Foundation of Prejudice Lie in Native Language?"

The Humanist Symposium #19 is available at Letters from a Broad [Via FIHD]

David Copperfield, who originally set up the Policeman's Blog, has a short missive from his new home in Canada.

And finally,

Pickled Politics has a message from Hillary Clinton.

Apocalyptic visions

First there was the supernova and galaxy-attack scenarios. Then the predicted return of the comet Genondahwayanung, which pretty much annihilated most life in North America when it came here the first time. And then the massive gas cloud speeding toward a collision with the Milky Way! Then we learn that the earth's atmosphere may detonate. And then the asteroids. Then the black hole death stars! Then we'll be swallowed whole by the sun. Then the intense beam of gamma rays coming our way. I tell ya, I'm starting to think that sooner or later, every one of us is going to wind up dead.
Donald Sensing at Sense of Events.

Quote of the day

Stephen Pollard on the BBC dumbing down its coverage of Young Musician of the Year:-
"If the BBC was given charge of a three star Michelin restaurant, it would puree all the food and feed it to its customers through straws."

Ozblog update

Another blogger takes the corporate shilling: Tim Blair has moved his blog to the Daily Telegraph.

Letters from America

[A]n Indian looks among the civilized world, no doubt, with ... astonishment, at our apparently, as well as really, ridiculous customs and fashions; but he laughs not, nor ridicules, nor questions, -- for his natural good sense and good manners forbid him,-until he is reclining about the fire-side of his wigwam companions, when he vents forth his just criticisms upon the learned world, who are a rich and just theme for Indian criticism and Indian gossip.

An Indian will not ask a white man the reason why he does not oil his skin with bears' grease, or why he does not paint his body-or why he wears a hat on his head, or why he has buttons on the back part of his coat, where they never can be used -- or why he wears whiskers, and a shirt collar up to his eyes -- or why he sleeps with his head towards the fire instead of his feet -- why he walks with his toes out instead of turning them in -- or why it is that hundreds of white folks will flock and crowd round a table to see an Indian eat -- but he will go home to his wigwam fire-side, and "make the welkin ring" with jokes and fun upon the ignorance and folly of the knowing world.
From George Catlin's "Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians" first published in London in 1844.

May 11, 2008

Random quote

"Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment."
Albert Einstein

Random picture

Cultural differences

One of the tenets of multiculturalism is that people should be non-judgmental, open-minded, and tolerant of cultural difference.

Try this on for size (from today's Observer):-
For Abdel-Qader Ali there is only one regret: that he did not kill his daughter at birth. 'If I had realised then what she would become, I would have killed her the instant her mother delivered her,' he said with no trace of remorse.

Two weeks after The Observer revealed the shocking story of Rand Abdel-Qader, 17, murdered because of her infatuation with a British solider in Basra, southern Iraq, her father is defiant. Sitting in the front garden of his well-kept home in the city's Al-Fursi district, he remains a free man, despite having stamped on, suffocated and then stabbed his student daughter to death.
Read it all.

Weekend reading

An unassuming genius: Pete Hoskin in the Spectator on James Stewart.

Buried Prejudice: The Bigot in Your Brain in Scientific American Mind.

Clive James in BBC Magazine on "the media mindset that makes so much of gaffes".

Robert Irwin on Edward Said's shadowy legacy in the Times Literary Supplement.

Times past

Memory is a funny thing. Yesterday, I came across a phrase that touched off memories I'd forgotten I had and which took me right back to my childhood.
"Never mind the quality, feel the width"
I grew up in an extended family and, one night a week, all three generations would crowd round the small black and white television to watch a comedy show about a couple of tailors - one Jewish, the other Irish Catholic.

The show starred John Bluthal and Joe Lynch as two tailors in business together in London's East End. The characters had an uneasy relationship and it often required the intervention of a priest and a rabbi to sort out their differences.

According to TV Heaven: "The show was once held up by the World Council of Churches as an example of inter-religious unity."

I was seven or eight when the show was broadcast, so I can't remember much about it, except that it could be very funny. It's difficult to imagine any show dealing with interfaith dialogue in a similar fashion these days. Back then, writers were free to explore ideas around race and religion in ways that just aren't possible today. Some people might think that's a good thing since the writers, Vince Powell and Harry Driver, also brought us "Love Thy Neighbour".

Still, being reminded of "Never mind the quality" brought back many happy childhood memories.

May 10, 2008

Saturday roundabout

Harry's Place has a guest post from Michael Ezra on Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan.

One in the eye for Intelligent Design: Bad Astronomy has a video explaining how vision evolved.

Space Cynics step in at the last minute to host this week's Carnival of Space.

Neo-neocon takes a look at Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin's statue of Martin Luther King which will soon grace Washington DC’s Mall.

Jay Rosenhouse at Evolution Blog is locked in a life or death struggle against the fetid tentacles of the Darwinian octopus, or something.

And finally,

For reasons I cannot even begin to guess at, Science Punk is doing unspeakable things to a London Transport Oyster card.

Family viewing

Tonight's movie: Quatermass and the Pit - classic British sci-fi horror from Hammer Studios.

Nominal travel

This weekend, Mac and I decided we're going to the moon!



"Sign up to send your name to the moon. Names will be collected and placed onboard the LRO spacecraft for its historic mission bringing NASA back to the moon. You will also receive a certificate showcasing your support of the mission."

[Via Bad Astronomy]

Harrow blast

I'm not paranoid, so I don't generally read news items and wonder if they're the result of conspiracies, cover-ups or disinformation, but I've been following a news story about an explosion in London which demolished a number of houses and I'm beginning to wonder what's going on.

The blast, in which one man died, was initially reported as being the result of a gas explosion but yesterday the Times reported a spokesman for the gas company saying there was no evidence of a leak. The Times also reported that detectives had evidence the blast may have been deliberate and the investigation would now focus on the possibility the man had been murdered.

Today, the Times reports that police now believe "a gang of girls may have used the internet to make a bomb that killed a man and destroyed three homes in their feud with another teenager".

I don't know (maybe I am being paranoid) but I have a feeling we're not getting the whole story.

Danny and the Juniors


I know it's the Devil's music but these cats are really jumpin'.

Lebanese lesson

Noah Pollak has a series of posts at Commentary magazine on the developing situation in Lebanon:
The Hezbollah rampage in Lebanon that we are witnessing should make it obvious to any sentient observer that Hezbollah’s claims to democratic political legitimacy have always been intended only to manipulate the credulous.... In the streets of Beirut, with Kalashnikovs and RPGs, Hezbollah is making it abundantly clear that its participation in Lebanese politics ends when Hezbollah is asked to submit to the state’s authority. How many more Middle East “experts” are going to proclaim that the answer to Islamic supremacism is dialogue and political integration?
[Via Michael Totten]

May 09, 2008

Friday roundabout

Stubborn Facts rounds up a number of posts by Israeli bloggers on the country's sixtieth birthday.

Six reasons for celebrating Israel's existence at Normblog.

Syria, Hizbollah and the crisis in Lebanon at Michael Totten's Middle East Journal.

Faith in Honest Doubt on why Obama-Clinton is no dream ticket.

Perry de Havilland labels Gordon Ramsey an "authoritarian thug" over his proposal that restaurants be fined if they serve vegetables out of season.

And finally,

Vodkapundit: "In Praise of Doing 'Women’s Work'”.

Sticky fingers

The BBC reports that its commercial subsidiary, BBC Worldwide, has been pocketing money made from phone-ins that should have gone to charities.

Authentic food

We went out for dinner last night with Mac's mom. I don't often eat out - it's expensive and I can generally cook better at home - but the food was good and the service was excellent.

However, I came away feeling a little uneasy. All of the customers where white; all the people working there were brown (I say "people" but I should say "men" as they didn't seem to have any women employees).

I wasn't aware of this before but in the UK "ethnic" restaurants are exempt from racial discrimination laws because the staff need to fit a specific racial profile in order to ensure "authenticity".

What a strange idea!

Update
Looking at these images I have to wonder whether there's also some kind of exemption for Diversity Officers.

Burma after the cyclone


One of a series of pictures from the BBC. Video reports here.

Old books

I was a voracious reader as a child. I would read anything I could get my hands on and when I ran out of library books or got bored of the abridged "Children's Classics" my mother bought for me, I would raid my grandfather's bookcase for something to read. There I'd find Freud, Spinoza, Cicero, the poetry of Roberts Frost and Service, Hemingway, treatises on psychology, therapeutic hypnotism, language and logic, books on fencing, gymnastics and anatomy, and much, much more.

I was daunted by the size of some of the books and, initially at least, I had to read most of them with a dictionary open beside me. When I started raiding Grandpa's bookshelves I must have been about nine years old and in the following ten years I read pretty much every book he owned.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to the short post I was going to write noting that the first "serious" book I ever read was Sigmund Freud's "The Question of Lay Analysis" - I just came across it on my bookshelf while looking for something else.

From the sleeve notes:-
It may well be that this book which has not been published before in England, will be mainly valued as a most masterly and attractive introduction to psycho-analytical knowledge; and as the best answer to the question so often asked, "What shall I read of Freud?"
What made me choose that book in my first foray into Grandpa's book collection? Simple answer: It was the thinnest one there.

I haven't read it since, though I've read some of Freud's other works. However, having come across it again, I'm going to have to reread it. I'm intrigued to know what, if any, effect it had on me and what I took from it. Looking back, I can't imagine I understood much of what I was reading.

The difficulty, of course, is that I can't read it as I did when I was nine - open-minded and fresh to Freud's ideas - I've accumulated forty year's of intellectual baggage since then. I get the feeling that, in contrast to my younger self, I've become closed-minded and dismissive of ideas whose value is not immediately apparent to me. It's hubris, I know, but I regard my opinions as fully formed now. And when I read these days, with half a lifetime of experience under my belt, I worry that I've come to prefer reading things I agree with and which confirm my opinions rather than stuff that offers new perspectives and which challenges me to think.

So, I've started rereading "The Question of Lay Analysis". I'll let you know how I get on.

May 08, 2008

Revelation

The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, yesterday called for Christians to treat atheists with "deep esteem" and admitted that God does not exist:-
God is not a "fact in the world" as though God could be treated as "one thing among other things to be empirically investigated" and affirmed or denied on the "basis of observation".
He's finally seen the light.

Thursday roundabout

Popsci has satellite images of Burma before and after the cyclone hit.

There's a list of relief charities working in Burma at Normblog.

Roger L Simon points to a worrying article in the Jerusalem Post on Iran's nuclear program and cruise missile development.

There's a report at Micheal Totten's place from Elie Fawaz on Hezbollah and the developing situation in Lebanon.

David T at Harry's Place looks at Labour: "a directionless government that has run out of steam".

And finally,

It's Jello Week at Neo-necon. Today, Jello and the Fifth Dimension.

Prison writing

A selection of articles taken from yesterday's Society supplement in the Guardian which was guest edited by a group of former inmates of British prisons:

Eric Allison talks about his experience inside, the Strangeways riot and the Woolf Report on prison conditions.

Caspar Walsh writes about his drug rehab work and running creative writing workshops in prisons.

Former inmates give their views on why prison is little more than a college for criminals.

Alexandra Topping looks at Inside Time, the monthly newspaper for prisoners.

Weather report


Cabot Tower, Brandon Hill, Bristol.

Blue skies and sunshine in Bristol, today: 23°C with a light south easterly breeze and 39% relative humidity. It's a shame I've been stuck in the house with the Big Fella - he's off sick from school with a bad stomach upset.

Local terror

Just to follow up on the arrest of a Bristol man last month, following three contolled explosions carried out by police at his home in the north of the city, not far from where Mac's mother lives.

I said at the time that the number of controlled explosions suggested that the security services had found something potentially very dangerous. It looks like I was right: police reportedly found a quantity of Hexamethylene Triperoxide Diamine (a highly exposive compound) together with two home made vests, ball bearings, air gun pellets, nails and screws, wired circuitry, batteries and electric bulb filaments - basically everything you need to construct a very effective home-made explosive device.

Local blog Trym Tales has details of the charges Ibrahim is facing.

Airport security

The BBC's Newsnight current affairs program revealed last night that thousands of foreign nationals working airside in Britain's airports have not been subject to proper criminal record checks.

Today's Telegraph carried the story in its front page:-
Despite warnings that terrorists would try to recruit people working "airside" in terminals – with direct access to aircraft and baggage – no attempt has been made to check whether foreign workers have committed any offences abroad.

The vetting process checks only for crimes committed in Britain. Foreign workers – arriving from inside or outside the European Union – are not checked in their country of origin.

This means that someone with a conviction for firearms or explosives offences committed abroad could, for example, take a job loading bags on to aircraft at Heathrow, Gatwick or any other airport, provided they had committed no crimes here.

The Government said that it did not want to carry out foreign criminal record checks because it would take too long and involve complicated comparisons between legal systems in different countries.
The level of complacency involved is astounding.

Ignorant accent

Why does the the Guardian continually refer to the US detention facility in Cuba as "Guantánamo"? Are they trying to show off their knowledge of Spanish by adding an accent to it? Who knows? But all they manage to do is display their ignorance.

Just to be clear: "Guantanamo Bay" (no accent) is the proper name for the US naval facility where the detention camp is based, it's not a misspelling. "Guantánamo Bay" (with an accent) is the name for the stretch of water on Cuba's southern shore.

Kosher in Marrakesh

The Guardian's Nancy Banks-Smith reviews last night's edition of "The Apprentice":-
Last night, the remaining contestants in The Apprentice (BBC1) were flown to Marrakech and told to buy 10 specific articles, and haggle fiercely for the keenest price. It is hard to imagine anyone in their right mind wanting these things at any price.

One was an alarm clock in the shape of a mosque, which woke you with a strident call to prayer. The second was a downright rude cactus. The third was a cowhide, complete with tail. The bone of contention, however, turned out to be a kosher chicken.
Clive Davis has video of the contestants getting their comeuppance from Alan Sugar.

Note: Just in case you think the contestants were sent on a wild goose chase, kosher chicken really shouldn't be that hard to find in Marrakesh. The old Jewish Quarter isn't what it used to be but there's still a kosher butcher there.

Current listening

David Ford - I'm Alright Now (from "Songs for the Road")



After I linked to the video of "Go to Hell", David's promotion company were kind enough to send me a copy of his second solo album, "Songs for Road", released last year and reviewed at The Line of Best Fit.

May 07, 2008

Wednesday roundabout

Neil D at Harry's Place on the use of torture and loss of moral authority.

Michael Totten is in Kosovo: "the least 'scary' Muslim country on Earth".

Norman Geras looks at the idea of a "concert of democracies".

Neo-neocon: "Our Left in Vietnam: 'Give peace a chance' wasn’t all they were saying".

Black survivor: Cobb in a reflective mood on his life and upbringing.

And finally,

It seems Pootergeek is indirectly responsible for some of the hateful comments Clive Davis has been receiving.

Police procedure

The BBC is carrying video footage of what looks to be a brutal assault by a group of police officers on three suspects apprehended in Philadelphia.

It looks to me like some Philadelphia law enforcement officials need to be trained in restraint procedures. Kicking the crap out of a suspect may be a way of letting off steam after a tough day on the beat, it may even be accepted practice amongst some of Philly's finest, but as far as I know, it's not generally regarded as an effective method of control and restraint.

The Philadelphia Daily News has details of the ongoing Internal Affairs investigation into the incident.

Islam and Islamists

Ali Eteraz has a piece at Comment is Free responding to the recent Huffington Post article by Sam Harris.

Eteraz points out that Islam is not the same thing as Islamism and backs this up by noting that there are voices within Islam that argue against Islamist interpretations of the faith:-
[The] thing that Sam Harris doesn't quite understand is that even the most outspoken voices against Muslim fanaticism do draw a line between Islam and Islamism. Tarek Fatah, whose book against the Caliphate I previously reviewed on Cif, was featured in a documentary whose very title refutes Harris: "Islam v Islamists". In other words, there is a distinction between the two concepts and it is adhered to by the kind of people Harris claims he's looking for. No wonder he can't find them.

In many ways, Harris makes the same mistake the fundamentalist Muslims do, which is to believe that self-critical Muslims are not as sincere about their faith as the fundamentalists and therefore they do not represent the "real" religion. This is the basic fallacy that prevents him from realising that the Islam that self-critical Muslims adhere to is, at the end of the day, Islam.
Theological distinctions between various strands of Islamic thought are obviously important and it's true that Harris's scatter gun approach tends to elide such distinctions. Nevertheless, Eteraz misunderstands Harris if he thinks that demonstrating a clear distinction between the two will somehow lead Harris to stop criticizing Islam. Harris is an outspoken atheist, he is opposed to religion per se - specifically, he regards religious dogma as an obstacle to spritual and ethical progress.

Personally, I'm not immediately troubled by what people believe, or say they believe; I'm more interested in people's actions. If someone threatens me, it's the threat that bothers me not the belief system behind it. Nevertheless, I don't see a problem with criticizing religious doctrine (I've done it myself, on occasion) and I can't accept the claim (made by one of the bloggers Eteraz cites in support of his views) that criticism of religion has no part in "responsible civil discourse".

I rather think that appeals to religious authority have no part in reasonable discourse and I particularly resent being told that I should accept the authority of religious figures when it comes to what I can and can't speak about.

Jealousy


From xkcd.com

May 06, 2008

Extraterrestrial intelligence

[Via A&L] I just read Nick Bostrom's article in MIT's Technology Review "Where Are They? Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing" - it's a fascinating article but I came away somewhat bemused.

Bostrom thinks that it will be bad news for us if we find life on Mars (or anywhere else in our neighborhood, for that matter). He starts off by saying that "the observable universe contains on the order of 100 billion galaxies, and there are on the order of 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone" and yet we haven't yet encountered intelligent extra-terrestrial life.
From these two facts it follows that the evolutionary path to life-forms capable of space colonization leads through a "Great Filter," which can be thought of as a probability barrier. (I borrow this term from Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University.) The filter consists of one or more evolutionary transitions or steps that must be traversed at great odds in order for an Earth-like planet to produce a civilization capable of exploring distant solar systems. You start with billions and billions of potential germination points for life, and you end up with a sum total of zero extraterrestrial civilizations that we can observe. The Great Filter must therefore be sufficiently powerful--which is to say, passing the critical points must be sufficiently improbable--that even with many billions of rolls of the dice, one ends up with nothing: no aliens, no spacecraft, no signals. At least, none that we can detect in our neck of the woods.

Now, just where might this Great Filter be located? There are two possibilities: It might be behind us, somewhere in our distant past. Or it might be ahead of us, somewhere in the decades, centuries, or millennia to come.
Bostrom's point is that if we find life on Mars, for example, it would suggest that the emergence of life is not that improbable and the Great Filter is most likely still to come. On the other hand:-
If the Great Filter is indeed behind us, meaning that the rise of intelligent life on any one planet is extremely improbable, then it follows that we are most likely the only technologically advanced civilization in our galaxy, or even in the entire observable universe.
Maybe it's because I'm tired but I don't think things are as neat as Bostrom makes out. There are a whole lot of hidden assumptions in his thinking that make his article even more speculative than he imagines.

Two principle assumptions stand out for me: Bostrom assumes that intelligent life inexorably produces a technological society willing and able to colonize space and he assumes that interstellar travel is feasible. I don't have his blind faith in the latter and the former has scant evidence in its favor.

Having said that, it's a long and interesting article which I might return to once I've had some sleep and freshened up. In the meantime, if you liked Bostrom's piece, you might also be interested in Michio Kaku's The Physics of Extraterrestrial Civilizations.

Random quote

“In England we have come to rely upon a comfortable time-lag of fifty years or a century intervening between the perception that something ought to be done and a serious attempt to do it.”
HG Wells

Random picture

Five public intellectuals

Foreign Policy magazine is running a poll of the top 100 public intellectuals. The list of candidates is here - you get to choose five. I must admit I hadn't heard of half of them and most of those whose work I do know, I wouldn't vote for (Noam Chomsky, Al Gore and Peter Singer spring immediately to mind).

Here's the five I've gone with (in no particular order): Amartiya Sen, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.

I feel I should qualify a couple of my choices by saying that although I agree with much of what Richard Dawkins has to say, I'm not a great fan of his general approach or his style of writing (though I must say I found "The God Delusion" to be better written than his previous books). Christopher Hitchens, I confess, I have always found insufferably smug though obviously tremendously well read (perhaps the two are in some way connected). And, if I had to choose just one it would be Steven Pinker, not because I believe him to be "topper" than the others in a public intellectual sort of way, but because I've read more of his work than anyone else's and I have a lot of sympathy with his views.

Which five would you choose?

Killing time

These painkillers are paying merry hell with my sleep pattern. They don't leave me feeling too great, either. They dull the pain (most of the time) but leave me incapable of doing very much at all. And I really don't like how fuzzy and lethargic they make me feel. I really can't understand why people would want to use opiates as a recreational drug - being dosed up doesn't feel like recreation, it's just debilitating.

Plus they make me drowsy but I can't sleep more than two or three hours in a row. So, I'm sitting here at gone four in the morning, drinking tea, talking to the cat and lazily scanning the internet until it's time for my next dose and then I can maybe get some sleep.

That's a big "maybe".

Craven acquiescence

Via Normblog: Sam Harris writing in the Huffington Post sums up the Western reaction to Geert Wilders' "Fitna" and the Danish cartoon controversy:-

Wilders, like Westergaard and the other Danish cartoonists, has been widely vilified for "seeking to inflame" the Muslim community. Even if this had been his intention, this criticism represents an almost supernatural coincidence of moral blindness and political imprudence. The point is not (and will never be) that some free person spoke, or wrote, or illustrated in such a manner as to inflame the Muslim community. The point is that only the Muslim community is combustible in this way. The controversy over Fitna, like all such controversies, renders one fact about our world especially salient: Muslims appear to be far more concerned about perceived slights to their religion than about the atrocities committed daily in its name. Our accommodation of this psychopathic skewing of priorities has, more and more, taken the form of craven and blinkered acquiescence.
Unfortunately, Harris is right. And I'll plead guilty to being a craven coward.

About a year and a half ago, I felt forced to stop blogging after one of my posts (concerning an Islamist with a large UK following) resulted in ominous daily telephone calls from someone who made it plain they knew where me and my family lived. I took the implied threat very seriously indeed and so, rather than remove an individual post, I closed down my blog site (accidentally deleting my online archives in the process).

I like to tell myself that if I had been single and childless I wouldn't have acted the way I did, but I know in my heart of hearts that I wasn't just concerned about the safety of Mac and the boys, I was worried about my own safety, too. I live in a city with a sizable Muslim population and a significant Islamist presence.

Why did they pick on a low profile blog like mine? I don't know. Have other bloggers received similar phone calls? Once again, I don't know. What I do know is that had something happened as a result of my not acquiescing and removing the offending post, few people would have given a rat's ass about me and my family. That much was clear from the lack of response I got from those I tried to confide in.

I don't blame people for wanting to steer clear of trouble, I know I'd be very reluctant to get involved if other people (especially those I had only met online) were facing similar difficulties. Solidarity is only likely to be forthcoming in situations where people have little to lose by expressing it. When the stakes are high, it's every man for himself.

Anyhow, things have moved on since then. I moved my blog back to Blogger (minus the offending post) and the phone calls stopped a while back. As a result, I don't think I have cause to worry. I am, however, still embarrassed by the incident: embarrassed that I gave in to verbal intimidation; embarrassed that I confided my fears to others and embarrassed that I was naive enough to think other people might be interested.

Like I said, in such situations, it's every man for himself. I know that now and, as a result, I am much less likely to want to stick my neck out on certain issues. As I said at the start: Craven acquiescence - I plead guilty.

Rising prices

Tuesday roundabout

Tim Worstall looks at asset sequestration and the "War on Drugs".

Britblog Roundup #168 is available at Liberal England.

Baroque in Hackney has some thoughts on Gorky, the dangers of political correctness, and the London mayoral election.

Armed Liberal at Winds of Change looks at the suicide rate amongst Iraq war veterans in "Stupid, Innumerate Reporters (With An Agenda)".

Savage Minds has a web roundup of articles on anthropology, including a "scifi-inspired universal translator".

And finally,

Zoe Brain posts on "Truth, Fiction, and Spiders".

Linky goodness

I've added a couple of blogs to the links in my Blog Round (over in the righthand sidebar):

Pickled Politics is a group blog focusing on current affairs from a progressive viewpoint with "an Asian (meaning South Asia) tinge".

xkcd is "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language" by Randall Munroe.

Evolution Blog is the work of Jason Rosenhouse an associate professor of Mathematics at James Madison University (where he just got tenure). He covers a wide range of topics but tends to focus on the debate over evolution and creationism.

A quick word about the blogs I link to in the sidebar: Just because I link to a blog in the sidebar doesn't mean I endorse their politics or philosophy. I mostly link to blogs that are well written, and which I think have a distinctive voice and a thoughtful approach. Some are less than thoughtful but stand out for different reasons, others I just find funny or interesting.

Anyway, they are all worth visiting for one reason or another, so if there's nothing of interest here, cursor over to the sidebar and check out some of the fine bloggers you'll find there.

Update
On the subject of blog links: I just discovered Pootergeek has had a makeover - he's redesigned his site and is now blogging with WordPress 2.5.1. Go visit but be warned, Pootergeek "contains scenes of moderate fantasy menace".

Black comedians

The Telegraph has a review of Chris Rock's stand-up performance at Madison Square Garden. I'm not a fan: his comedy is a little too broad for me (maybe "broad" isn't the right word, I don't know) and he shouts a lot. I prefer Dave Chappelle - he's more laid back and his chicken sketch is one of the funniest race routines I've seen in a long time.

Understanding violence

The Guardian reports that Metropolitan Police Commander Robert Broadhurst, the man in charge of policing last month's Olympic Torch procession through London, has been defending the action taken against protesters by members of the Chinese Red Army:-
Faced with allegations that the Chinese security guards pushed, shoved and punched protesters, Broadhurst said it was "a natural reaction" by people who thought their "hugely significant" torch was in peril, and who were in danger of losing face publicly.
Oh, okay. So, according to the Met, punching people is all right, as long as you've got a reason for it.

Terror talks

The BBC reports that attempts by Pakistan's new government to deal with Islamic militancy through "dialogue and development" aren't working:-
At least four people have been killed in a suspected suicide attack in north-west Pakistan, amid signs a truce with militants may be breaking down.

The blast in the town of Bannu would be the first suicide attack since March when Pakistan's new government indicated it would talk with militants. In another attack in the north-west gunmen shot dead two policemen outside a bank in the Swat valley, police said. Last week top militant Baitullah Mehsud suspended talks with the authorities.
That's hardly surprising. Last month, the BBC's Barbara Plett noted it would be difficult for the government of Pakistan to agree to the extremists demands:-
They want President Pervez Musharraf to stand down and they are demanding that the government abandon its pro-American policy and implement Islamic law in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

They are also committed to continuing their fight against Nato in Afghanistan.
And they want the government to leave them alone while they get on with it. That's just not going to happen.

Beau Sia

I realize that last month, when I posted a number of performances (mostly taken from Mos Def's poetry series on HBO and collected here) I didn't include anything by Beau Sia, who is, for my money, amongst the best of the performance poets out there.



Sia achieved widespread exposure after his video response to Rosie O'Donnell's "ching chong" moment. He also caused a bit of a stir when he took issue with Hip Hop in one of his HBO performances. I couldn't find a video of that online but I did find this short video of Sia talking about his work.



Other notable performances from Beau Sia include "I'm so deep", "Back To The Now" and "Asian invasion". Check him out.

Shilling for Ken

Natalie Solent is back (briefly and intermittently, at least) and draws attention to a Guardian article by Zoe Williams published the day of the election for London's mayor:-
Be afraid. Be very afraid
Unbelievable as it may seem, Boris Johnson has a real chance of being elected London mayor today. Zoe Williams and other Londoners imagine what it would be like if this bigoted, lying, Old Etonian buffoon got his hands on our diverse and liberal capital.
I understand the Guardian is a strongly partisan newspaper but blatant hatchet jobs like this do its reputation for sound journalism no good at all.

Williams compounds her tatty treatment of Johnson by appending to her article (under the heading "Don't choose the clown!") a long list of anti-Boris quotes from such notables as Alan Rickman, Vivienne Westwood, Will Self, Arabella Weir, Blake Morrison and Inayat Bunglawala mixed in with comments from a hairdresser, an IT worker and some guy called Dave (?), who says, amongst other things, "I used to enjoy watching him cycling through London without his helmet, but he is just a massive Tory." How insightfull.

I imagine the Guardian paid Zoe Williams for this article, they really should consider passing on the cost to Ken Livingstone's election campaign.

Against atheism

I've been listening to DJ Grothe's Point of Inquiry interview with Chris Hedges, author of "I Don't Believe in Atheists":-
In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, acclaimed foreign correspondent Chris Hedges shares his criticism of the New Atheists, calling them "fundamentalists" in their own right. He responds to their account of the origins of Islamic religious extremism, and he accuses the New Atheists of racism. He explains his view that the New Atheists are proponents of the Neo-conservative agenda and how the American Left does advance secular values in the Muslim world. He also criticizes what he calls the "utopianism" of the New Atheists, detailing his skepticism about moral progress for humanity.
Hedges' arguments are tendentious and he does his best to portray outspoken atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins as utopian fundamentalists hell bent on violence to promote their views.

Hedges gets a lot of criticism from commenters at the CFI forum, some of which veers widely off topic but it's worth reading as an antidote to Hedges' confused diatribe.

[Via Ophelia Benson]

Opposing the BNP

As a result of the recent elections, the British National Party has gained its first seat on the London Assembly. Johann Hari writing in the Independent offers a few words of advice on dealing with the rise in support for the far right.

Firstly, on ways of dealing with the 5% of Londoners who voted for the BNP:-
How do we persuade these voters to make better choices? The first step is the easiest: expose the party for what they really are. The BNP has tried to rebrand itself, hoping we will forget its founder declared “Mein Kampf is my Bible”, and its current leader attacks even David Irvine for admitting some Jews died in the “Holohoax.” This leads to the second step: stop trying to silence them. The trial of Nick Griffin for hate-speech wasn’t just immoral – he has a right to free speech, no matter how foul – but also dumb politics. The way to discredit the BNP is for people to hear what they say. No more no platforms: take them on. Read out their pro-Hitler quotes. Watch them implode.
Hari also suggests taking seriously the impact immigration has had on the living standards of the low-waged:-
It’s true that immigrants boost the economy overall, and boost public services and pensions because they pay back £6bn more than they take from the Exchequer. But it’s also true that British people don’t benefit equally from it. It’s simply a fact that if you significantly increase the supply of cheap labour, the hourly rate for it comes down: that’s why wages for builders and waitresses and cleaners have barely budged for ten years now. For people on the lowest wages, immigration does depress their wages, and it is wrong to deny this, or wave it away as unimportant.
Unfortunately, dismissal and denial have been the common responses to the problems caused by high levels of immigration. Regrettably, I don't think much is likely to change and I therefore expect support for the BNP to continue to grow.

As Hari notes, ethnic divisions are becoming increasingly entrenched in British society. Sadly, the identity politics and racialist thinking that promote such divisions receive considerable support from government and significant sections of the media. I have long thought that people will only begin to realize what a collosal mistake this has been when a significant number of people start organizing around "white identity".

We may be beginning to see the start of that process in the growing support for the BNP and, like Johann Hari, I find that deeply troubling.

May 05, 2008

Weekend reading

"Not Black and White: Rethinking race and genes" by William Saletan at Slate.

Jason Rosenhouse at Evolution Blog: " Ayala on Evolution and the Problem of Evil".

Amy Reiter at Salon looks at how Che Guevara's face ended up on all those T-shirts.

Fraser Nelson blogging at the Spectator on Gordon Brown and Labour's future.

Walken's story



The picture quality is extremely poor but the sound is fine and Christopher Walken's reading of "The Three Little Pigs" is a piece of sublime self-parody.

Online law

It's eighteen year's since Mike Godwin formulated Godwin's Law:-
I can't say I anticipated that Godwin's Law, which states that, "As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches 1," would last this long or that it would propagate into popular culture to the extent that it has. But I'm mostly gratified that it has done so. Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics, its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.
[Via Britblog]

May 04, 2008

Brown flounders

Watching Gordon Brown being interviewed by Andrew Marr on BBC television yesterday morning, it's obvious that not only is the British Prime minister in deep denial over the causes of Labour's disastrous performance in the local elections, he is also completely and utterly out of his depth.

The video is here, but be warned - at times, it's uncomfortably like watching a clip from "The Office" with Brown seemingly failing to grasp the magnitude of the problems he faces ( "You're tested in leadership by how you deal with adversity", "I feel optimistic") and continually blaming Labour's decline on a troubled economy - I lost count of the number of times he said we were living through "difficult times".

The Guardian dubbed it Brown's "clunking fightback":-
Mr Brown is in denial if he thinks Labour lost last week because the media have been unkind or because voters are suffering economic pain. Yesterday he returned obsessively to the ground on which he made his name as chancellor. But his attempt to seek excuses in the downturn left him in the strange position, for a prime minister, of claiming that the country's economic problems are more serious than they actually are.
And Ann Treneman in a sketch for the Times commented on Brown's lack of substance:-
Actually, we could have done with more of a plan. He refused to tell us any details of how he’s saving our economy. Indeed, his only actual plan seemed to be that he wants to get out more and meet us. He wants to listen. He wants to empathise. He also wants to apologise. The man for whom sorry has been the hardest word now, suddenly, can’t stop talking about his mistakes, about the 10p tax cut, the general election that wasn’t, blah blah blah.
All in all, it seems Brown's media appearances over the weekend have only served to deepen Labour's sense of malaise.

Will there be a leadership challenge? There's been talk of it but it's difficult to see how Labour could replace Brown and be in any condition to face the electorate in two years time: there is no obvious candidate for the leadership and the process of electing one could tear the party in two.

I keep thinking if it wasn't for Iraq, Blair might still be in power and Britain would have been spared Brown's premiership. Brown might then have gone down in history as Blair's "Iron Chancellor" and perhaps been thought of as the best prime minister Britain never had. Reality is quite the opposite.

May 03, 2008

Me and the Devil



Robert Johnson (played at the wrong speed according to some).

Election message

Matthew Parris writng in the Times on Labour's defeat in the local elections:-
The general wisdom that Labour politicians will anticipate and themselves propose will be, in short, that on Thursday large parts of the British electorate told their Labour Government to pull up its socks, and put it on notice of a general election defeat if it failed to do so.

Sadly, this is a total misreading. On Thursday the voters told Labour to - well, let us say “push off”. By their votes and abstentions they indicated that they don't like the Government any more. They said they've gone off the new Prime Minister in a big way. They didn't mention anything about being ready to change their minds and I don't for a moment believe they are disposed to.

It's over. There was nothing constructive in the voters' message. These elections were not an invitation to change. They were a big two-fingered salute, a raspberry, a pressing of the de-trousered national buttocks to the window of the polling station.

Milk and cookies

At long last, Oreos are set to become widely available in British supermarkets. This BBC report explains how best to enjoy them: 'Twist, lick and dunk'.

Banksy in London

The BBC has a report and video on Banksy's latest offering - a graffiti project in a London tunnel:-
A disused road tunnel in south London has been turned into a giant exhibition space by graffiti artist Banksy.

Murals in the Bristol artist's famous stencil style appear with work by 29 other artists in a half-mile stretch of the tunnel in Leake Street, Waterloo.
It's nice to see the attention Banksy's work is getting. I live in his home city, so I first came across his work on the street. I like it - it breaks the dull monotony of gray, and there's humor in it too.

May 02, 2008

Sick note

No blogging from me today - same reason as before.

May 01, 2008

Thursday roundabout

Michael Totten has postcards from the Balkans.

Sunny at Pickled Politics has some thoughts on the launch of British Muslims for Secular Democracy.

There's a host of Maydays at Neo-neocon.

Savage Minds looks at internet fundraising as a means of financing research projects.

Vodkapundit offers Seven Random Parental Observations.

And finally,

There's plenty of visual excitement at new sci-blog Illusion Sciences. [Via MM]

Lesbian action

From the BBC:-
Campaigners on the Greek island of Lesbos are to go to court in an attempt to stop a gay rights organisation from using the term "lesbian". The islanders say that if they are successful they may then start to fight the word lesbian internationally.

The issue boils down to who has the right to call themselves Lesbians. Is it gay women, or the 100,000 people living on Greece's third biggest island - plus another 250,000 expatriates who originate from Lesbos?
This thing could maybe spark off similar actions in any number of European cities - I'm thinking Frankfurt, Hamburg, Condom.