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.