Friday, December 26, 2008

9 Lessons And Carols For Godless People @ Apollo 21/12/08

Merry Post-Christmas! On the 21st I went to Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People, a secular Christmas event I mentioned a few weeks back. I want to recount a few personal highlights, but I won't go over the whole thing as it's already been reviewed by various publications, including, interestingly, the Independent Catholic News who have called for next year's version to be more offensive.

Robin Ince, the Geldofesque organiser of this event, came up with the idea after a discussion with Christian fundamentalist Stephen Green, who portrayed him as a miserablist who wanted to take "the Christ out of Christmas". Meeting Richard Dawkins backstage at a TV show, he was delighted when the world's most famous atheist agreed to speak at the proposed event. Gathering together friends and contemporaries from the worlds of science and comedy, he booked a date at the Bloomsbury Theatre. This and a second date rapidly sold out so they added a third show at the 4000 seater Apollo Theatre (the one I went to). I think this and the recent runaway success of the Atheist Bus Campaign are heartening - there's a clear pent-up demand for science and rationalism. I hope the British Humanist Association have scored a few new members of out of it.

The event's name parodies the traditional Nine Lessons And Carols service held by churches around the UK, but as many commentators (and Ince himself) have noted, it was more like a Royal Variety Show. The quality and mass appeal of the acts varied considerably. For me, the highlights were Dawkins, Stewart Lee, Dara Ó Briain, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Jarvis Cocker and late addition Tim Minchin.

Stewart Lee appeared early, riffing brilliantly about beginning to turn back to religion after doubting a creature as complex and intricate as Richard Dawkins could have arisen by chance. Beg, borrow, steal tickets to see this guy. He has mastered standup so utterly one of his best routines is simply discussing how much the audience are laughing at any given point. Simon Singh did a speedy version of his Katie Melua lecture where he gets Miss Melua to correct a scientific inaccuracy in one of her songs. Even at his most rapid-fire, his gift for clarity shines, and with the nerd heavy audience, he probably got more laughs for his science jokes than ever before.

Jarvis Cocker kicked off the second half with a plaintive acoustic version of his Something Changed followed by the most 'mean-spirited christmas carol' he could think of; Greg Lake's I Believe In Father Christmas. The crowd enjoyed this but reserved their biggest cheer of the night for the next guest: the one, the only Professor Richard Dawkins. The Prof read three excerpts from his books and his clear, beautiful prose showed his gift for metaphor and reinforced his main point: the universe is an amazing, wondrous thing in and of itself; the supernatural is superfluous. The pace picked up with Dara Ó Briain, who I've never seen, but is apparently on the telly a lot. He, like most of the artists, was preaching to the converted, but his energetic demolition of pseudo-science was hilarious.

Crusading boffin Ben Goldacre seemed unlikely to be as entertaining at this late stage in the show, but he reduced the capacity crowd to a poignant pin-drop silence as he passionately reminded us of the very real dangers of quackery and ignorance. He recounted his victory over Matthias Rath to rousing applause and left us with the concluding remark "bullshit is not harmless". This led into one of my favourite pieces of comic work in the last decade: Tim Minchin's 9 minute beat poem about a dinner party encounter with a mystical hippie chick. I'd seen it already in his Edinburgh show, but it was equally brilliant the second time around. Poetry, humour, pathos, story, wonder, polemic...all in 9 minutes. And, in the final few stanzas, my entire world view expressed in fewer and better words than I could ever conjure.

A long, sometimes tedious but mostly fun and satisfying night, and a great lead-in to the holidays. I hope that wherever you are you've had a safe and enjoyable Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Life & The Internet

I've had my fair share of disillusionment in my years working (in | on | with | in-spite-of | against | through | over | for) the Internet. But, overall, my enthusiasm for it burns bright and undimmed since my earliest glimpses of its potential. It's simply wonderful. Remarkable projects such as Wikipedia and Linux could not have been created without it. Tools and services such as IMDB and Ebay could not be delivered in any other medium. People can communicate with each other at a scale and rapidity undreamed of by previous generations.

No one can predict what amazing things the Internet will give us in the future. But this post has been inspired by a new way to look at the past. I've only ever had access to one issue of Life magazine: the 1969 lunar landing special edition. I pored over it repeatedly over the years, first enjoying the fabulous pictures of rockets; later, the detailed text and intimate portraits of the astronauts and their families. It was brilliant photojournalism. Now I'm gonna take a few decades off and look at the rest. Thanks to the Denver Post via Digg. The former's assembled a great collection of highlights.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In case you were wondering what I wanted for Christmas...

Obviously, I don't need anything, but if you insisted, I'd have formerly pointed you to Oxfam or the Red Cross.

But I've suddenly realised that I could do the most good for the world by having this little thing I used to walk past on my way to St. Paul's. Christopher. Fcuking. Wren. WANT.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Semantics is cold comfort when it comes to humanity

Jon Stewart takes on Mike Huckabee.

Human Slinky Weirdness

Human Slinky Halftime Basketball Creighton University Omaha NE

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Tale Of Two Submarines

When I grow up and become disgustingly rich, I'm going to build a huge, awesome, totally tricked-out nuclear submarine* and roam the oceans looking for giant squid. Will probably do a bit of fighting for truth and justice as well. Until then, I have to content myself with vicarious submarine experiences. One such was unexpectedly provided recently as I was being kindly educated on Naff UK TV Shows Of The 1980s. After watching boiler-suited middle managers test their mettle in The Krypton Factor, we moved onto the rather boringly titled Treasure Hunt.

In this fantastically British game show, contestants in the studio decipher cryptic clues that allow them to direct a helicopter containing the posh and excitable "skyrunner" Anneka Rice. Racing against a time limit, the rather fetching Rice flies to each location and rushes about until she finds the clue that when deciphered will reveal the location of the next clue, and so on. I love how the frenetic action of the location shooting is juxtaposed with drab studio shots of doddering boffins pottering about with books, as if pondering over their Sunday crossword. You half expect them to break for tea.

I didn't expect the helicopter bits to come to much either, but was pleasantly astonished by this clip where Anneka is searching for a clue off the coast of Devon. After further titillating her male fans by describing "three long knobs" poking out of the water, she gets further surprises. Great telly.

My second undersea adventure was provided by the ever fabulous Radio 4. Their R4Choice podcast this week is a remarkable documentary about Britain's nuclear deterrent. Apart from a slight and forgivable lapse into melodrama at the end, it's brilliantly produced and a classic example of the excellent factual programming Radio 4 puts out year round.

The Human Button details the process of authorising and deploying a nuclear strike, from the Prime Minister down to the chap who presses - well, it's actually not a button - what it actually is extraordinary. It's worth listening just to find that out. Revealing details of procedures never before made public, the program reminds us of the tremendous responsibility borne by a very few individuals. Listening to the interviews I was enormously impressed by the professionalism, common sense, dignity and above all simple humanity of the servicemen involved (and yes, they are all men). Even the politicians come off well; they are clearly moved by the consquences of their decisions and respond with refreshing pragmatism to the Stranglovian scenarios put to them.

Amazingly, members of government and the armed forces both admit they would not press the button in response to a real nuclear threat, believing the necessity to use it means it has already failed: it is meant, after all, to deter. But if we say we won't use it, is it any deterrent? Moral paradoxes like this abound in any serious discussion of nuclear conflict. The servicemen are clearly thinking, feeling people who admit they may not carry out the actions for which they are trained, yet declare their ultimate respect for the chain of command. In a peculiarly British paradox, the Prime Minister is the one who would authorise a strike, but the forces who would carry it out are technically not his to command: their ultimate authority is the Queen.

I cannot recommend this documentary highly enough. We are told the Cold War is over, but the power to destroy ourselves remains. The UK is in the midst of a debate about whether to replace, upgrade or discontinue their Trident programme. Whatever your views on this, these men are out there right now, where even Anneka cannot find them. We would do well to remember them and the terrible power they wield.

*Detailed plans available on request

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Fantômas @ Astoria, 8/11/08

Fantômas are one of Mike Patton's many strange projects. They are very, very odd. If Herbie Hancock chews on your brain, these guys take a run at it, tear off a chunk and throw it into the air before laughing maniacally. I can't recommend them as an easy listen, but they're an interesting look at the boundaries of musical experimentation. Live, the increased volume and the spectacle of Patton caterwauling and throwing himself about turn the experience into what I can only call a bemusing headfuck. You remember those aliens from Mars Attacks? This is what they have on their iPods.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Bada Bing

Covered off Crimbo on the weekend: first party of the season with turkey and all the trimmings on Saturday, and a lovely posh afternoon tea on Sunday followed by a screening of White Christmas starring Mr. Christmas himself, Bing Crosby. The titular is song is featured twice, bookending a collection of other Irving Berlin compositions of varying quality. The sublimely ridiculous plot has Crosby and Danny Kaye as army buddies who become theatrical stars and producers after WWII. Screwball romantic shenanigans cause them to discover their former commanding officer has got himself into trouble running a snow-starved ski lodge in Vermont. They decide the best idea is to bring their entire hit Broadway show back from holidays and stage it at the lodge on Christmas Eve. This, with unerring jukebox musical logic, brings the eponymous white christmas.

I do think it would be a better world if all problems could be solved with the power of stage musicals. How great would be if the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation held a press conference to announce they were tackling the potential cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe by staging a huge new production of Oklahoma in the round? Click here if you're stuck for Christmas gift ideas.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

When your day is done and you wanna run; caffeine

Check out this lovely, gentle piece from illustrator Christoph Niemann.

Eats, shoots and rests ye merry

Until just now I thought God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen was God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen. What other illusions have I been labouring under all these years!? Is Angels We Have Heard On, High a drug anthem? Have Yourself: A Merry Little Christmas an ode to festive masturbation?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

To hear or not to hear

Interesting documentary from Radio 4 featured in their 'R4Choice' podcast this week. It tells the story of actor Tim Barlow as he gets a cochlear implant allowing him to hear properly for the first time in decades. The documentary takes a while to get going, and unfortunately intertwines interviews with poorly recorded excerpts of his one man show Earfull instead of traditional presenter narration. It's a nice idea but doesn't really work and makes it slightly confusing. But stick with it, because he's a very engaging and interesting character, and the process of switching on and 'tuning' the device is fascinating. Equally fascinating is that some deaf people think implants are a threat to their culture. That's partially unreferenced Wikipedia discussion rather than fact, but there's clearly some opposition out there. Based on five minutes thought, I'm pro-implant. One of the main responsibilities of parenthood is to prepare your child for dealing with life without you; denying them partial hearing in a predominantly hearing world is folly at best, abuse at worst. 'Culture' and everything else is secondary in my ever so humble opinion. (Of course, this is moot for the vast majority of the world who have no access to the technology anyway, but that's a whole other discussion...)

Also, very slightly apropos, Marlee Matlin is both sexy and just plain fantastic in the The West Wing.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Remember that election thing that happened a little while back?

Just in case you missed it, this was brilliantly done:

Merry Mas

I think perhaps The Grauniad should actually be talking about science rather than spouting atheist propaganda in their Science Weekly podcast, but I'm sure happy to enjoy it while it lasts :-) Skip the quite lame scripted bit at the start and then enjoy the rambling banter with Robin Ince and Caspar Melville about the upcoming festive spectacular Nine Lessons For Godless People. It features a Who's Who of People I Think Are Ace including Richard, Ben, Stewart, Simon and Josie.

Monday, December 01, 2008

From The What-The-Internet-Doesn't-Need Dept.

Online in-flight travel magazines.

Ben Folds @ Shepherd's Bush Empire 30/11/08

After an afternoon of cheese, beer and german board games, I was well prepared for a storming Ben Folds gig apart from being almost asleep. I was awoken by the drizzly night air of Shebu, a further two cleansing ales and a convivial chat with my gig companions and Anna From The Internet, who'd bought our spare ticket from a gumtree ad. She turned out to actually be from Adelaide, which combined with the number of aussies in my new office and in the Ben Folds crowd, gives me ample anecdotal evidence that rumours of our demise are greatly exaggerated. The conviviality unfortunately meant we missed Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, who we didn't realise were supporting.

Ben was on good form, belting out virtuouso piano while behaving like the lovable prat he is. Forming a core trio with him were a tight, enthusiastic drummer and an incendiary bassist who is a dead ringer for the Chief from BSG. They were aided by a percussionist and also an odd-jobs musician who played a variety of weird and wonderful instruments. They played stuff from throughout Ben's career, ending with a cacophonous rendition of One Angry Dwarf which was played faster and faster in an attempt to make the Empire curfew. His music is definitely an acquired taste, but the gig's inspired me to acquire that taste for his more recent back catalog. To my great delight, he partially eschewed the ridiculous ceremony of encores, although there was a proper one at the end. One hopes this was only after they'd exhausted the planned set list and returned due to overwhelming popular demand, or just needed a rest. These are the ONLY circumstances under which I will tolerate encores.

(The following is in no way directed at Ben Folds, it's directed at every touring artist in generiam. I'm so mad I'm making up Latin.)

The ritualistic structuring of sets into obviously meticulously planned first encore, second encore and Wow Aren't You Lucky with often interminable waits is just shameless glory-whoring! Clap your hands if you're happy and you know it, you poor, pathetic saps. We're making sure the hookers are ready to snort coke off after you return to your miserable lives so bereft of our presence. It's even more insulting when you're at a venue with a strict curfew! Use the bloody time on stage! If, for some unfathomable reason, artiste, you desperately need a break after a terrible, seemingly unending hour and a half of bone breaking performance, announce it as that! "Ten minutes folks, take a leak and go to the bar." But bear in mind broken old bastards don't need these sissy breaks; it's just you, you snivelling work-shy wreck of vanity and misspent talent. And even though we're outdrinking you, we don't need no stinkin' piss breaks: that's what drum solos are for. We pay, you play. That's how it works.

I also fcuking HATE seetickets and all ticket agencies and people who work at ticket agencies and their families and their friends and their fcuking pets; their time will come.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

top 20 lifehacker top 10s

It's tempting to think lifehacker is a giant, life-sucking version of sharpening every pencil and color-coding your notes instead finishing that essay, but used in moderation it's a great resource. There's *always* a better way to do it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

You say it's your birthday

40 years ago the Beatles released a self-titled double LP. Cover art minimalism and musical maximalism, it is revered as a fabulous musical journey, but also as the beginning of the end for the greatest band of the 20th century. At the time it was the just the next amazing step in the astonishing evolution of a Liverpudlian rock 'n' roll band. The excellent NPR series All Songs Considered has a great look back at the album in the most recent edition of their podcast. Good night, sleep tight.

Royal Institution

London is absolutely lousy with venerable, learned institutions. I've been lucky enough to go to many of them, but until last week I'd never even heard of the Royal Institution (RI). In deepest Mayfair, it has been recently refurbished and is particularly famous for its Christmas lectures, which were set up by the great Michael Faraday. This particular evening it was hosting the recording of a BBC World Service program called The Forum, which presents three people of interest and allows them to discuss their areas of expertise.

This time the guests were Steve Jones, biologist; Gillian Slovo, novelist; and Barbara Taylor, historian. Proceedings were moderated by none other than the Director of the RI, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield. Baroness Greenfield is fabulous: intelligent, articulate and insightful, she defiantly wears mini-skirts despite her age and station in life, and based on her performance on this panel, she has a career in broadcasting if she ever decides the brain is boring. Having her there partially made up for missing the same evening's neuroscience lecture at the even more venerable Royal Society. So many lectures, so little time! Oh, the wild life I lead.

The discussion was, unsurprisingly given the panellists, surpassing interesting. I particularly enjoyed Professor Jones' thoughts on evolution - should our beloved Richard ever pass on, or rather cease to exist, Steve could easily step into the breach. You can listen for yourself if you're interested and want to hear my clapping.

Finally, for Londoners, I can recommend the newly opened bar. It's a refined and salubrious beverage stop if you're hobknobbing around Mayfair, as I, obviously, so often am.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Comic Book Guy

I was fortunate enough to see Art Spiegelman speak at the ICA on Monday as part of Comica. His amazing holocaust memoir Maus: A Survivor's Tale very deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and remains the only 'graphic novel' to do so. Spiegelman is uncertain about that term. He believes it may suggest the novel is a 'better' form that comics can only aspire to, when they should be considered an art form in their own right. (I agree). Aided by some cool high-res projections he told stories and gave insight into work from throughout his long and illustrious career.

Now, I don't usually go on about star spotting in London, partially because I don't care and partially because I don't know who most stars are anyway. But I make an exception in this case, because of the sheer geeky excitement I experienced upon noticing that sitting in front of us was none other than Matt Groening! He wasn't there as part of Comica, or indeed in London for anything in particular, it seems - he was just there as a fan. No doubt Spiegelman is one of his heroes. In fact, I wasn't sure it was him at all - I spotted him, and then gradually convinced myself it wasn't him. Lingering doubt and Google led me to this the next day, proving it was indeed the man himself. He's cracked a bit of a smile there, but frankly was rather surly looking most of the time, and I'm sure he would be the first to be amused to see how much he's grown to look like Comic Book Guy. I wouldn't expect anything less from the creator of the awesomely gloomy and fatalistic Life In Hell.

OSS 117: Nest Of Spies

Decided to catch OSS 117: Nest of Spies at the ICA the other day after reading their mailout, which listed a bunch of four star reviews. I was still a little dubious because a) I'd absolutely positively never heard of it and b) the ICA often does very weird stuff.

It was well worth it. Others have written nice accurate reviews, to which I have little to add, so I won't write a huge review here. It's just a lot of fun, even taking into account the free wine we unexpectedly got with our meal - adding to the bottle we'd already bought. Surplus wine + good friends + french farce = great Monday.

Reputedly using sixties era equipment and film stock, it perfectly captures the look of films of that era, right down to Saul Bass style titles. See it at a cinema if you can.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tuesday Giant Squid News

Alien-like Squid Filmed at Ultra-Deep Oil-Drilling Site.

Sloppy BBC picture journalism

<comic_book_guy>Ok, I like a story about delinquent police baiting as much as anybody, but why label the picture 'Homer sings SpiderPig in the Simpsons Movie' when anyone who's seen the movie will realise it isn't a picture of that at all? Clue: in the movie, he sings it WHILE HOLDING A PIG. (The image they have used is from the episode 'There's Something About Marrying', aficionados, which gives this blog a strangely high number of gay marriage stories considering it's only a week old.)</comic_book_guy>

What Ever Happened To: the Bong Hits 4 Jesus kid?

Nice little belated victory for free speech. I'd kinda like to read the earlier ruling to see if Newsweek are paraphrasing, as while I'm sure his message wasn't intended seriously even in the slightest, it probably shouldn't be branded "nonsensical". I'd argue most serious religious thought is the most ardent of nonsense in any case. Actually, I'd just love to argue that. Please, will someone argue with me? Not you Mum.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Herbie Hancock @ Barbican, 19/11/08

Last Wednesday Herbie Hancock melted my brain. Thanks once again to the prescient wisdom of Jason B Standing, we had excellent seats to witness...well, I frankly don't know what to call it but it blew my mind. Musical hallucinogens, perhaps. I did literally lose sense of time as the epic jams blasted me strangely giddy. Jason described it as having your brain chewed on, which sounds odd and rather painful out of context but is actually spot on.

Herbie's got a discography as long as my dick would be if spam were true. Pianist, composer, innovator, bandleader and member of the Second Great Davis Quintet, he's spent a lifetime in music and if our gig were not an exception, appears to still be enjoying every minute of it. Like many touring legends, he'd assembled a band of younger players who I'd never heard of (I'm sure the London Jazz Festival crowd had) but who were without exception extraordinary, assured and yet clearly in awe of their leader.

The dapper drummer grinned and grimaced his way through the gig masterfully in both delicate union and outright combat with the wonderful bassist, who was the chubbiest, cheeriest fellow you can imagine. He was almost a caricature of the fun but funky bass player, mouthing riffs and licks in the way you do when you're playing air bass with no actual music playing. But heck could he play. In stark contrast was the swiss , shaven-headed harmonica player, who looked unfortunately like the quiet one who neighbours say was quite nice and always put the bins out on time before he shot 13 people at a McDonalds. He'd come out from behind the drum kit, where'd he hide when not needed, shuffle almost zombie-like across stage and lay down soaring harmonica leads or complement the trumpeter's bits. Said trumpeter was predictably awesome, with Tour De France worthy lung capacity and a flashy, super cool trumpet he occasionally added effects to for a sound I can only describe as Space Trumpet. When I grow up I want to be a Space Trumpet Player.

Rounding out the sextet was an African guitarist, who was great but also provided the only respite from the relentless mind-blowing with a very odd solo segment. He'd placed a bit of gaffer tape across all the strings just above the bridge on his acoustic guitar, so that it sounded a bit like the dull two string ukuele we had in the toy box as kids. Or one of those 'stringed instruments' you construct in Grade 3 art class and 'play' incessantly and tunelessly until it mysteriously disappears when your Mum cleans. Anyhow, he played this while he vocalised what I can only describe as African scat. He even made those clicking and popping sounds you hear in some African dialects. This was generally subdued but a few times he made some very loud random noises and I'm afraid I was reminded of times my brother and I found we could plug a microphone into the family stereo. At one point Liz grabbed me in a kind of physical attempt to say WTF.

I've spent so much time wittering about the band I've barely mentioned the man himself, and I actually don't know what to say apart from 'wow'. He seemed to enjoy the gig as much as a fan as a player, enthusiastically listening and responding to what everyone else did when not playing up a storm himself. In between songs he gave cheerful rambling introductions and described a little about what they planned to do next. One called 'V' (I think) he described as being about mysterious visitors, before treating us to a very slow and atmospheric introduction on the synth followed by piano. For the encore he strapped on the keytar and gave us Chameleon and a series of playful musical duels with band members.

I haven't attempted to describe any specifics of what was played, as I'm far too uneducated to do justice to it. I just want to give the flavour of the gig. Suffice to say they used more chords per minute than Green Day have used in their entire career. The songs ebbed and flowed and floated and surged and grooved and crescendoed and twinkled and boomed and twittered and fizzed. We were in the fourth row, which was close enough to witness trumpet spit showers, but still showed us a rapt audience in front. Having all these heads of front of me, some occasionally feebly attempting to keep time but most still, frozen by sheer awesomeness, I became for a short while obsessed with a peculiar fantasy: I WANTED TO SEE SOMEONE'S HEAD EXPLODE. It seemed only fitting. There'd be a slight warning, a kind of brief vibration like the Lemmings did in their eponymous computer game shortly before they exploded. Then BOOM. It's the one situation where I don't think anyone would mind. We'd blissfully wipe the blood and chunks of grey brain matter from our faces like tears of joy, and know that someone had fully accepted the gospel of Hancock. Even the friends and relatives would know their loved one had ruined their chance at an open casket for a good cause, a musical martyr who physically manifested the thoughts and dreams of his fellow human beings. It would be beautiful.

Sadly, it didn't happen, but my head hurt a little after. Go see him. We're still trying to find our way out of the Barbican so there might still be tickets for his next gig. There's only a small chance it will be your head that explodes, and what a risk to take.

cat freak shuffles it

Sadly, the two-faced kitten won't grow up to be a super-villain adversary for Bat Cat.

Damn right Bruce

"If we give up our preserved giant squids, then surely the terrorists have won."

Friday, November 21, 2008

I hope someone comes home drunk to this


Base score of 6031 normalised to 11081 due to Cultural Victory in 1973AD. Warlord, Standard, Ancient, Normal. I'm sure that's a rubbish score for true Civilisation pros, and it's a ghey Cultural Victory but fcuk it. I'm damn proud.

Never give in, never, never, never.

...and a Jack Russell terrier.

Too good to be true, I think, but am posting it in a probably futile attempt to beat Jason to it.

Wednesday Thursday Friday?

Happily reading about a huge single celled organism over at Richard Dawkins's site when I was accosted by this horror. It was just a commenter's profile picture and went unremarked on by the gathered evolutionary biology faithful. I am scarred.

"a post"

Spotted on my journey home from the Herbie Hancock gig (more on that later). Seems they're certain there was a customer incident, but uncertain it was really Victoria. You know how those other stations are, always pretending to be the busiest station on the Underground.

In which Wil Wheaton shows me there's a blog for everything

Thanks Wil. Really best enjoyed without explanation, but if you can't help yourself: DRGBLZ

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

Forgetting Democracy with a capital D for a moment, here's a succint take on Prop 8.

More graphs from GraphJam.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It's an institute you can't disparage, ask the local gentry

Barack Obama's election victory has been heralded as a significant triumph in the long - and continuing - fight for civil rights in the United States. Sadly, in the very same election, California's Proposition 8 succeeded. It rescinded the right for gay couples to legally marry in that state. The state of California, that is, not the state of being gay. The latter is a condition for which I knew no adjective for most of my formative years: there were merely poofters and normal people. I hope this shows you how far I've come in battling my own predjudices. (Although I am still deeply suspicious of South Africans, and delighted to use the tag 'poofters' in two blog posts already, so there's still some way to go).

Like most fair-minded, compassionate and Damn Well Right people I find the Proposition 8 success deplorable. However, without forgetting the very real pain caused, I also think it's a fascinating example of democracy in action. There's been many protests about the decision. Such protestors have a right to express their views, but it could also be argued they have no cause for complaint: everyone voted, and they lost. Simply put, more people don't want gay marriage than do want it. It's not like a despot decreed that loved up batty boys can't tie the knot. It's not even like a group of elected representatives passed the When A Man Loves A Woman Act to enshrine our traditional values. Every single voter was asked and the majority said "ban it, please".

Majority decisions are fundamental to democracy. If you're in the minority, you have to suffer the consequences, or have a revolution and start your own damn country. (I'm now visualising a South Park episode in which Gaymerica secedes from the Union under the leadership of Big Gay Che). If there were a law were passed by referendum that said everyone had to wear hats outside, the minority who opposed it would have to suck it up and just live with the fact it would be totally Mad Men and AWESOME. Majority rulez ok. But take this law in particular. It affects everybody, but it doesn't mandate any action - it merely removes the right to take an action to those who would do so. In this case, gay people who want their Big Day. Many laws are like this - homicide law, for example. However, most of these laws exist because the action being restricted in some way harms other people. Murder, last time I checked, harms people a good deal, not least murder victims. Actions can harm people directly and indirectly: murder harms murder victims, polluting cars harm a city, corporate monopolies harm the economy. So: does gay marriage harm anybody? We have arrived at the crux of the issue.

Proposition 8 proponents believe same-sex marriage harms society. I won't go into detail about why they believe this, but it boils down to: making gay stuff legal legitimises it. They usually then claim, Seinfeldesquely, that's there not anything wrong with being gay, but...well, we still don't want anyone hearing about it in schools or anything. It doesn't take a disciplined application of intellectual rigor to see this doesn't make sense. I don't want to go over the arguments again. What's interesting here is: should we make laws that attempt to protect society from social change? My libertarian gut response is no. Yet I think we should reserve the right to make such laws. Most people wouldn't think a law to ban derivative, misogynistic rap music is fair, even though a large majority may despise such music, and having it around may encourage acceptance. But what about, say, a law banning simulated child pornography? No one is harmed in the making of such material, but will its availability encourage acceptance of paedophilia? Maybe, maybe not. But the point is there may be situations where such laws could be useful to combat social ills - or at least what a current majority of people thinks is a social ill. I'd like to avoid ever making laws that curtail freedoms, but I can't guarantee I'd never support one.

In any case, a society cannot make it impossible to make certain types of laws - even Constitutions, in part designed to do just that, can be changed. Even laws that are passed are only as good as the society that obeys and enforces them. I digress.

There's a kicker to all this democracy discussion: the original right to same-sex marriage wasn't granted by a Proposition. In fact, in 2000 there was a Proposition, but with an opposite intent: it wanted to change existing legislation to clearly define marriage as a union between a man and woman. Californians voted it in by a significant margin. Thus, gay marriage was explicitly banned. In May this year, the California Supreme Court ruled this alteration unconstitutional, meaning same-sex marriage was legal again by way of being, well, not illegal. Proposition 8 will add the marriage definition to the Constitution itself. Without wanting to digress even further into a judiciary vs. legislative branch argument, it seems fair to assume voters in 2000 knew what they wanted, and the majority can reasonably claim they had it taken away on a technicality. Does this make Proposition 8 less evil? Perhaps, but it definitely makes it even more democratic.

This may depress you, but I think we can take some heart from it. People are free to talk about the issue, attempt to change opinion and have their say at the ballot box. Then, if attitudes change; they can debate, lobby and vote again. This is a better situation than most people around the world enjoy - most people in history, for that matter. Winston Churchill famously said "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried". (He also reputedly said "the biggest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter", but let's not go there.) Things will change. When Barack Obama's parents married in 1960, they were lucky they lived in Hawaii. Their marriage was a felony in over half the States in the Union.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Tilt-shift photography

It's amazing how a very shallow depth of field can make a real scene look like a model:

I wonder if this is entirely learned behaviour though? If you'd never seen regular macro photography, or indeed *any* photography, would you make the same judgements about the size of the objects? I don't know, just wondering aloud.

(Freudian note: I came very close - so to speak - to posting this with the title 'Tit-shift photography'. An entirely different pursuit.)


The Society for Neuroscience is meeting this week. It's a fascinating area of science, drawing on biology, physics, psychology, chemistry and artificial intelligence. There's interesting stuff around about it.


Randy might be able to create self-sustaining internet if only he knew.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Born from an egg on a mountain top

I saw Albarn and Hewlett's new opera Monkey: Journey To The West at the O2 on Tuesday. Or, more accurately, in a tent outside the O2. Hip-hop maestro Kanye West was performing in the main auditorium, which explained the Jubilee line crowd that frankly didn't look like opera fans, not even for one by the creators of Blur and Tank Girl. The opera is based on the same ancient chinese story as the kitsch 80s favourite Monkey Magic.

I'm afraid I didn't like it. The visuals were occasionally arresting, and I really enjoyed the Hewlett animations they used as transitions early on, but these seemed to peter out towards the end as if they'd run out of money or interest. The music was quite good, and reminiscent of Gorillaz, though whether this was just the power of suggestion or not is difficult to say. The whole thing was billed as a 'circus opera' and it was the circus bit I didn't really enjoy. I've seen some pretty cool dance and acrobatics in my time, and this just didn't do it for me. That said, I thought Cirque De Soleil had too much dull faffing in between the Good Bits and am one of the few people on earth who didn't like the stage version of the Lion King. So maybe I'm just a stone-hearted grumpy old hater.

The english translations that appeared occasionally were very odd in content, odd in phrasing and contained a number of (presumably) deliberate anachronisms such as 'hamburger' and 'guided missile'. I'm not sure whether the oddness was due to the nature of the source material, a deliberate obtuseness on the part of the creators or both. Unfortunately it meant the first half was particularly incomprehensible as it dealt with Monkey's past before we meet the familiar characters of Tripitaka, Pigsy and Sandy.

In cruel brevity: it was like a high school had unexpectedly got a big budget for their Rock Eisteddfod version of Monkey Magic.

Much better you remember the holy trinity ABC afternoon trilogy of Monkey, The Goodies and Dr Who. Please find attached - it amuses me to use that archaic form in a blog post - the legendary episode where Monkey calls a demon a poofter, Tripod Goodifying the Monkey theme tune, and Dr Who abusing K9. Happy days.

My favourite quote today

"McCartney revealed that George Harrison disparaged sonic experimentation as 'avant-garde a clue'".

I had to start it somewhere, so it started - here

As loathe as I am to destroy the perfect zen-ness of the previous two entries, I'm going to blog. I will post anything I feel like and see how it evolves. This will include, but not be limited to - take that law degree already Paul - links, random thoughts, diary entries, rants, essays, cartoons, reviews and recommendations. I'm afraid I'm a little behind on the latest tech, so bear with me while I figure out the coolest things to do and the coolest ways to do them.

Today I have a beard.