Thursday, March 31, 2011

moussa koussa say: eh-oh

These things always seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight, but clearly, as this week's events involving Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa illustrate, rule 23 in the Despot's Handbook should read: never appoint as a senior cabinet minister someone who sounds like a character from the Teletubbies or In The Night Garden. Chances are they won't have the necessary ruthless and unswerving commitment to relentless evil supervillainy and will shit themselves and defect at the first sign of trouble.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

incidental music spot of the day

Falling by the lovely Kate Rusby over the closing credits of the mind-expanding "Gravity" edition (falling/gravity, you see what they did there) of Professor Brian Cox's Wonders Of The Universe. It's easy to mock Professor Cox (and this Digested Reads article does it very nicely), and it does seem as if wide-eyed boyish awestruck wonder and amazement is his default setting in reaction to pretty much everything, a black hole, a cheese sandwich, you name it, but I had pretty much the same quibbles about Iain Stewart and his series was excellent too.

Glad they resisted the temptation to shoehorn in a couple of D:Ream numbers, though.

any sufficiently advanced apple is indistinguishable from god

Just a couple of supplements to the previous post - firstly here's the mellow and mellifluous tones of the late Carl Sagan illustrating my point about Flatland, only with added sentient fruit, and then extending the analogy by a dimension by talking about four-dimensional hypercubes. Take a look at the animated GIFs here illustrating 3-D projections of rotating 4-D hypercubes, light up a big one, and prepare to sit around going "whoooaaaa, dude" for a few hours. I'm pretty sure old Carl used to spend quite a lot of time doing that.

If it's not clear, God in my analogy is represented here either by the sentient apple or the hypercube. So am I suggesting that God is some sort of multi-dimensional sentient hyperapple? Yes; yes I am. Well, it makes no less sense than any of the usual definitions.

Incidentally the tesseract has been the inspiration for various real-world stuff and artwork (translated into either 3-D or 2-D as required): the design of the Grande Arche de la Défense in Paris is supposedly modelled on a tesseract, barking Spanish surrealist nutjob Salvador Dalí painted Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) in 1954 which depicts Christ crucified on a hypercube (not to be confused with the similarly-themed Christ of Saint John of the Cross from 1951), and finally novelist Alex Garland's inevitably-slightly-disappointing-but-actually-not-bad follow-up to The Beach was called The Tesseract.

Going back to the God thing for a minute, on the same day as I wrote the previous post I had a good bit of cathartic shouting at the radio during the Today programme, as it featured a brief debate between chemist and science writer Peter Atkins and philosopher Mary Midgley. Now most people know Mary Midgley's name because she has made a 30-year career out of having read just the title of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and then claiming that it is a manifesto for everyone being an amoral baby-devouring cold-eyed killing machine, despite Dawkins and everyone else having a go at correcting her at various times over the years. So things weren't promising to start with, and they didn't get a lot better.

Basically Atkins was commendably robust in his answers to Humphrys' attempted AHA! questions like "why are we here?" - the answer being, pretty much, "by accident". Midgeley gave us the usual guff about the beauty of the sunset, the smile of a tiny baby, the impossibility of measuring the weight of love, the length of awe, the electrical inductance of hope, all that nonsense, and very little else (although to be fair they only had about five minutes in total). Humphrys didn't really help, interjecting a couple of times to complain that the view that we are just highly-evolved slime on a bit of partially-congealed rock orbiting an insignificant and unremarkable ball of exploding hydrogen in a vast and largely empty universe was a bit "bleak", like that had any bearing whatsoever on whether it was true or not.

It is my assertion, incidentally, that "why" questions, which always sound kinda profound and, like, philosophical and shit, are invariably badly-phrased "how" questions. Why are we here? Well, your daddy put his winky in your mother's foo-foo, and then.....No, that's not what I mean: why are we here? Well, some intelligent ape-like creatures underwent various genetic mutations, including developing larger brains, and.....No, I mean, why are we here? Well, there was this spinning disc of super-hot material, some of which started to accrete into lumps, and.....No, no, no, you know, why are we here? Oh fuck off.

These are what Daniel Dennett calls "deepities", things that sound superficially profound, but are actually just nonsense. That clip is part of an interesting longer lecture - nearly an hour - but Dennett is always worth listening to, or indeed reading.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

any sufficiently advanced theology is indistinguishable from bollocks

There's been an interesting discussion going on at, variously, Richard Dawkins, PZ, Ophelia and Jerry's blogs the last few weeks, and it revolves around the following seemingly simple enough question: what evidence would convince you that there was a god, or more generally, that there was a supernatural realm of some sort? I mean, we're all rationalists, right? You know, well aware of the tentative and provisional nature of all scientific conclusions, and absolutely prepared to abandon any particular theory if a better one with more explicative and predictive power comes along.

But there's a problem with this. Let's take as an example, for the sake of argument, the off-the-cuff suggestion offered here of a 900-foot Jesus suddenly appearing, parting the Atlantic to allow a London to New York drag race and then turning the losers into pillars of salt. Let's say this was witnessed by thousands of people, covered live by all the major TV channels, photographed from various aircraft, that sort of thing. So what would we conclude? Well, the scientifically-minded would say: wow, that ten-thousand-foot wall of water is pretty impressive, I wonder what's holding it up? Some sort of force-field? A grid of invisible carbon nanotubes? Clearly water is not sentient, so it can't know the will of God, however awesome, so there must be something physical doing it. And let's say that we can't detect the mechanism, try as we might. What do we then conclude? Remember Clarke's third law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Surely it would be more likely that this eye-boggling display was simply some previously undetected alien presence either demonstrating their superior technology, making use of laws of physics currently unknown to us, or just fucking with us by inducing some sort of completely convincing mass hallucination. To put it another way, if we managed to travel back in time to the Middle Ages with a couple of helicopters, an iPod and a microwave oven, we would be performing feats that would class as "supernatural" by any reasonable definition available to those around at the time. Would that then make us gods? In other words, if we see something doing something that seems to contravene the laws of physics, do we fall to our knees and start worshipping it, or do we conclude that our understanding of the laws of physics must be incorrect, or at least incomplete, and set about trying to correct it?

Further complicating things is the inability of anyone claiming the existence of a god to produce a coherent definition of its characteristics. Even simply-stated and fairly standard notions like omnipotence dissolve into incoherence when examined closely.

So it seems practically impossible even to conceive of anything that would not be better explained by prankster aliens or sudden brain injury. And yet it seems wrong, somehow, completely to discount even the possibility of being convinced. That seems to be playing into the hands of the atheism-as-religion, science-as-dogma brigade. So what position do we take?

I think it's intellectually consistent to say: in principle I could be persuaded of God if the evidence were incontrovertible, but I cannot imagine what form that evidence might take, and all the scenarios that have ever been presented would be better explained in other ways.

In a way that lets the theists off the hook a bit, though, so I think it's also intellectually consistent to say: before I even commit to the first bit above, define your God and his properties in a way that is not self-evidently internally inconsistent, absurd, or so vague as to be meaningless. Then we’ll talk more.

The disagreement seems to be over whether the second bit can ever be satisfied, and therefore whether we ever get to proceed with the first bit. Maybe a useful way to look at it is to think of a 3-D object interacting with the inhabitants of Flatland. The 3-D object might be magnificently (let's say) spherical, but all the residents of Flatland are ever going to see of it is a circle where it intersects their 2-D world. So how would they tell the difference between that and, well, a circle? Flip the analogy back and ask yourself: if the entity behind the 900-foot Jesus was really "beyond" the laws of physics in some way, how would we know? How would we measure it? How would we even perceive it? To put it another way, as one of the commenters here did, you might rephrase the question (my emphasis) as: "What evidence would it take to satisfy me that what is by definition false is in fact true?"

Let's not forget, also, that proof is antithetical to faith. Remember the Babel fish.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

coke is it

More Daily Mail drug hysteria hilarity: nothing so very remarkable there, you might say, and you'd be right. But wait: Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens writing drug-related articles on the same day? Which is more mental? There's only one way to find out: FIIIGGGGHHHTTTT!!!

Well, that was a lot of fun. But actually, they're both a little bit disappointing - Mel moans for a bit about Stephen Fry not being all remorseful about admitting to snuffling up a boatload of coke back in the day, even though he managed to do it in a quintessentially tweedy and English way: apparently he used to enjoy a nice snort of coke and then the crossword, as it used to calm him down. I suppose during a manic episode it might have that effect, though that's not the normal effect of cocaine; generally it just turns you into a massive arsehole for a couple of hours. Beyond a bit of schoolmarmish tutting Mel didn't really seem to have a point, though, disappointingly. Hitchens' article is even more half-hearted, though - the enticing headline ("I was wrong on cigarettes but believe me, I’m right on cannabis") makes you think there's going to be some really good meaty loopiness within, but actually he never gets round to telling us why he's right about cannabis. In fact he pretty much forgets to mention it at all until the last paragraph, by which time there really isn't room for anything except a pretty bald restatement of the headline. How very disappointing.

There was also a drug theme to this week's edition of On The Ropes on Radio 4 yesterday - John Humphrys' guest was former government drugs advisor David Nutt. Humphrys started off by asking Nutt about his (entirely reasonable) assertion that ecstasy use was no more dangerous than horse-riding, and said: well then, that must mean that if your daughter came to you and said look, Dad, I'm giving up horse-riding and I'm just going to get monged off my tits on disco biscuits once a week instead, you'd be OK with that. Nutt waffled a bit disappointingly at this point, but the correct answer is quite simple: no, I wouldn't be happy, because ecstasy is illegal, you fucking cretin, so therefore she'd be opening herself up to arrest, a spell in prison, damaged career prospects, etc. etc. We might well argue about whether it's right for it to be illegal, but that's an entirely separate argument. So don't be thinking this is some big AHA! moment or anything, 'cos it isn't.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

the last book I read

The War Zone by Alexander Stuart.

Tom is a teenage boy, a bit surly and angst-y, as adolescent boys are; his mood hasn't been helped by the family moving from London down to rural Devon. There's Tom, his big sister Jessie, their mother, who's just about to give birth to another child (who turns out to be a boy, Jack), and their father.

Settling in proves difficult, as it always is for teenagers - there's the usual surly locals to deal with, most of whom have got their greasy cider-crazed eyes on Jessie. As if that weren't enough, it turns out Jessie is already fucking someone in the village. As if that weren't enough, it turns out it's Dad.

Mum's in and out of the picture what with occasional trips to the hospital, so Tom takes it upon himself to confront Jessie about it. The trouble is that Jessie, always the self-possessed and independent one, doesn't conform to the expected role of victim, and, while acknowledging the reality of what's going on, doesn't seem particularly guilt-stricken or remorseful about it; viewing it as just an extension of her instinctive risk-taking behaviour.

Inevitably, this sort of thing can't be kept a secret for long, and things come to a head, people (Mum, some people in the village) find out, and there is a dramatic three-way confrontation between Tom and Dad and Jessie, during which Tom stabs Dad with a fruit knife and then flees to London for a bit of symbolic fiery destruction of one of his Dad's projects (Dad is an architect, by the way).

Eventually we get an epilogue, five years or so later: Tom is on his way to an unnamed Caribbean island to meet up with Jessie, who is living over there. Mum and Dad (who survived the fruit knife stabbing incident) have separated, scarcely surprisingly, but Tom is sort of still in touch with both of them. Jessie has taken up with a German architect, older than her, and with a pre-existing live-in lover, so certain patterns are being re-enacted. During the course of a drink-and-drug-fuelled evening, things are sort of resolved, or, at least, a sort of catharsis is achieved, though not in a way most "normal" people would recognise.

Now I'm sure you'll agree that incest isn't the cheeriest or most cuddly topic for a novel, and it's scarcely surprising that this novel caused a certain amount of controversy when it was first published, to the extent of being awarded and then almost immediately stripped of the 1989 Whitbread Prize (in favour of Lindsay Clarke's The Chymical Wedding). It was also made into an equally controversial film in 1999, directed by Tim Roth; by a strange coincidence this also starred the lovely Kate Ashfield in a minor role.

It's all pretty harrowing stuff, although it does have a slightly raw, uneven tone - the bizarre interlude at Jessie's friend Sonny's flat in London seems a bit incongruous, and serves mainly to set up the fairly obvious plot twist on the penultimate page. But if you're going to tackle incest seriously then harrowing and brutal seems like the way to go; you're not really going to get a romantic comedy out of it.

Other novels I've read (and can think of off the top of my head) which tackle incest are:
All of those were brother/sister incest; I'm not saying this is any more excusable, but it does avoid some of the notions of abuse of trust and power and the overtones of rape that The War Zone tackles - for all Jessie's surface toughness and ability to rationalise things to the extent of convincing herself that she's in control of the situation this is clearly an account of an horrifically exploitative abuse of power with long-lasting effects, as the epilogue makes clear. I wouldn't say it's a novel one would exactly enjoy reading, it's a bit too much like being beaten up for that, but it's impressive all the same.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Just a quick jaunt up a couple of hills yesterday, but I took the GPS so I may as well share the output. In fact, here it is (click to enlarge, as always):

The two hills here are the amusingly-named Lord Hereford's Knob (aka, in the original Welsh, Twmpa, but that's not nearly as funny) and Hay Bluff (which has a trig point), neither of which are actually proper "peaks" in the conventional sense of being the highest points in the vicinity. They're both just the northern ends of two of the long ridges that make up the Black Mountains, whose highest point is Waun Fach (visited here last year), three miles or so away to the south.

Anyway, if you park in the car park below the Hay Bluff trig point (which gives you a whopping head start, height-wise), walk south-ish to the junction of paths just above the Gospel Pass car park, head off west up to the summit of Lord Hereford's Knob (689 metres, 2260 feet), retrace your steps to the road, carry straight on up the ridge to the Hay Bluff trig point (677 metres, 2221 feet) and then descend steeply directly back to the car park, that's a round trip of about five miles which should take you no more than a couple of hours, and very nice too.

We were then going to stop off at the Bull's Head in Craswall for a refreshing pint on the way over to my parents' place, but it was deserted. It turns out (if their website is to be believed) that they aren't re-opening after their winter break until the end of next week, so I suppose that explains it. Dad had some beer in, luckily.

The photo gallery seems to be experiencing some "technical issues" at the moment, so photos to follow later.

[Post script: all fixed now, so here they are.]

Sunday, March 06, 2011

the last book I read

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson.

Now I know it sounds like some sort of sex thing, but the reference is actually to double-entry book-keeping, which, according to John Lanchester's foreword "has a claim to be the most important business tool ever invented", and was reputedly first perfected by an Italian monk named Luca Pacioli in the late 15th century. Suffice it to say that as long as you know that it's about accounting and debits and credits and shit you won't need any more detailed knowledge here.

Christie Malry is a man of simple tastes, and one of them is a general desire to own money. Reasoning that a good starting point would be to understand how money works and moves around, he gets a job at a bank, and then subsequently, having taken a course in double-entry bookkeeping, leaves and goes to work in the accounts department of Tapper's, a sweet company.

Soon he hatches his master plan: what if he were to set up a ledger documenting all the annoyances, major and minor, inflicted upon him in his daily life (he calls this debit column "AGGRAVATION")? Then he could also perform selected acts of revenge against the world, which could be recorded in a credit column (entitled "RECOMPENSE"), and thus the delicate balance of the Force would be restored.

These acts of revenge start out small: failing to pass on an important letter at work, minor vandalism, theft of various stationery items, but soon escalate into a series of bomb hoaxes, and ultimately into full-scale terrorism: blowing up some Inland Revenue offices with a toy train packed with gelignite, stealing a truck loaded with barrels of cyanide and dumping the whole lot in a reservoir. Everything, large or small, is recorded in the ledger with accompanying credit or debit amounts according to Christie's idiosyncratic internal calculations, and with a nice dry matter-of-factness: "Pork Pie Purveyors Ltd. bomb hoax, £2.40; Death of 20,479 innocent west Londoners, £26,622.70". However, just as Christie is planning his masterpiece (blowing up the Houses of Parliament), he finds his account is about to be closed by circumstances beyond his control.

B.S. Johnson, who committed suicide in 1973, was what would then have been termed an "experimental" or "avant-garde" novelist, and would probably now be called "postmodern" - basically we're back in the realms of metafiction, a bit like Kleinzeit, a book with which this one shares quite a number of similarities: regular authorial intervention, unexpected medical emergencies, general air of absurdity (though this book is a lot darker). This is the first of Johnson's novels I've read, and it sounds in many ways as if it's one of his least experimental (it was also the last one published in his lifetime) - previous works included a book with holes cut in the pages to give you a sneak preview of some of the later action, and, most famously, a "novel in a box" where the chapters could be read in any order the reader desired. The arch chapter titles and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall here seem pretty mild by comparison.

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry was made into a film in 2001 (although it wasn't released until 2006, as 2001 was a bad time for films glorifying random acts of terrorism). I haven't seen it, but I wonder how the more surreal elements of the book could have been translated to the screen, and Nick Moran seems like a bit of a stereotypical Cockney geezer, and a bit too pretty, for the title role. On the upside it does feature the lovely Kate Ashfield as Christie's girlfriend, referred to only as "the Shrike" in the book, but given the courtesy of an actual name (Carol) here, and also a soundtrack by the excellent Luke Haines, formerly of The Auteurs.

Anyway, I respectfully suggest that you want to read a few books that bugger around with structure and convention from time to time, just as you want to read a few Dick Francis books as well now and then. Light and shade, yin and yang, and all that. That being the case I recommend this one - furthermore, although it is nominally 187 pages long, the constant chapter breaks and occasional crazy text formatting mean it's probably barely half that in terms of "real" text.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

iran lion zion

Also in the Daily Mail, this amusing story about Iranian objections to the London 2012 Olympic logo, on the slightly barking grounds that it resembles the word "Zion", and is therefore some sort of sneaky racist pro-Israeli propaganda statement.

To be honest there are a couple of problems with this: one is that as long as the order isn't important any representation of the first three numbers "201" will look like "ZOI" just because, well, that's how they look. You only need to give the last "2" a kick through 90 degrees and there you have it. The more obvious second problem is that it still looks like Lisa Simpson administering a blow job to me.

Still, the threat of athletic sanctions should be taken seriously. Heaven forbid we should have to watch the blue riband athletic events deprived of the presence of those top-flight Iranian athletes, especially the ladies......oh, wait.

the god dilution

It seems almost cruel to have a pop at homeopathy, because it is so clearly and unequivocally bollocks by its very definition, but I've accumulated a couple of interesting links, so I'm going to do it anyway. I originally typed that first sentence as "another pop", but, looking back through the blog archives, I see that I've really only ever referred to it laughingly in passing while focussing on a different (but equally bollocks) topic, be it chiropractic or vaccine-autism scaremongering or whatever. How very remiss of me.

So anyway, here's the reliably fuckwitted James Delingpole in the Daily Mail to tell us about how homeopathy may have been debunked by - feh! - science and shit, but as long as you believe it works then it will, or something. Top marks for textbook use of the word "shrill" to criticise sceptics, and for the use of the hoary old "science has been wrong before" argument, but mainly I link simply to illustrate what an utter pillock he is.

Just a brief tangent - be aware that the well-armed homeopathy adherent has a ready-made rebuttal to the "well, if water has a memory, why doesn't it remember all that shit that's been in it" gambit, and it goes like this: the water only remembers things that have been in it if they've been subject to the proper gradual dilution process and also "succussed", that is to say shaken and bashed against a bit of leather with the appropriate mystical incantations. Proper homeopaths prepare their remedies this way, or at least they say they do - I mean, how would we know? Note also, amusingly, that the "water memory" theory post-dates homeopathy's inventor Samuel Hahnemann, who was convinced that it was all about really really small concentrations, since he was evidently ignorant of Avogadro's constant, and you know, science in general.

Another brief tangent, in the other direction: a common "gotcha" offered by homeopathy enthusiasts is the notion that if it's all the placebo effect, i.e. all in the mind, yeah, then how do you explain homeopathy WORKING ON ANIMALS?? Take that, Mr. Science Guy! To which the answer is, well, it's still the farmer's mind which determines whether he thinks the animal's better or not, isn't it? Particularly given that these are necessarily going to be minor ailments anyway; if your prize cow gets her udders caught in a threshing machine you're going to be off down the vet's. And let's not rule out the rather remarkable Clever Hans effect.

Anyway, the other links I was saving up were to do with the childish but still rather splendid mass homeopathic remedy overdoses taking place around the world a few weeks ago, inspired by last year's 10:23 campaign in the UK. Amusing as that is, it's topped by several orders of magnitude by the response of the homeopathy community - if you read only one of the links here, I urge you to read this one from the whackos at Natural News - here's a sample quote:
But getting back to water and vibrations, which isn't magic but rather vibrational physics, you can't overdose on a harmony. If you have one violin playing a note in your room, and you add ten more violins -- or a hundred more -- it's all still the same harmony (with all its complex higher frequencies, too). There's no toxicity to it.
Now that's comedy.