Monday, January 29, 2007

In praise of fossil fuels

Here's one for fans of East European animation.

I was looking for a story with Vtak Gabo, a traditional Czechoslovak bird who can drive trains and operate cameras (and which was broadcast at halftime during the World Cup in Slovakia last year), when I came across another character: The Mole.

Here he is, providing the coal to keep the woodland bourgoisie warm during the winter:

I like this mole, and will probably put up a few more of his stories over the next few weeks.

Coimbra for Business and Pleasure

Sorry for the lack of posting over the weekend. I was on a trip to the city of Coimbra, about halfway between Lisbon and Porto, which is the home of the the country's oldest university. We (my sidekick, R, and I) trekked up on Saturday for a series of training sessions, before having Sunday to explore and enjoy the place.

Just a word on the training sessions: I had feared the worst before I left, and indeed felt somewhat morose after the first seminar (involving reading a lot of pieces of paper blu-tacked to the wall) and lunch (it took over an hour for my spaghetti to turn up, and it was disgusting when it arrived), but a couple of the afernoon sessions were actually quite interesting. Of course there were moments where we had to get out of our chairs and read more pieces of paper blu-tacked to the wall, but overall the thing could have been a lot worse. And R and I were able to escape sharply afterwards and find a decent place to stay.

I'll let the pictures do most of the talking about Coimbra. Suffice to say it's a pleasant city to spend a day (although I doubt you'd need more time than that) with narrow winding streets in the old city around the cathedral and university, and some attractive buildings and views of the countryside.

This is the main square of the old university. If you see one thing in Coimbra, you should see the old university. We got there early and that's the best time to visit: by about 11.30, there were loads of coach parties milling around.

The highlight of the university is the ancient library. The decoration is magnificent, although they don't have any Catherine Cookson. Apparently a colony of bats lives inside to eat the insects that might damage the books, but we couldn't spot them.

Coimbra has a reputation as a party hearty student town, and we spotted some evidence. The rags you can see hanging from the branches and strewn about the ground are in fact trousers and shirts, and although we didn't see any young people running about in the altogether, there was a stench of beer around those trees.

I find something about Portuguese cathedrals a little disappointing. They don't have the great gothic fronts that adorn so many in England or other countries. Coimbra's is typically solid, but somewhat uninspiring.

Here's a view of the centre from across the river. The university precinct is right on top of the hill. You'll spot that the weather got a bit gloomy in the afternoon, as did my mood when I discovered the "miniature Portugal" theme park was closed for annual repairs. Still, if you search hard enough, you can find plenty of places to enjoy a cup of tea or a sugar-laden pastry.

So that's that. I'll stick more pics of other cities up as I visit them.

Friday, January 26, 2007

__________ is Golden

What've you got for me, Jonny?

I think you'll like this one, Frank. It's from Rhode Island.

Ok, big man, let's hear it.

Right y'are then. It seems an elementary school there has instituted a dramatic policy for the dinner hall.

What's that? No pushing in the queue? No throwing of bread rolls? If you put a penny in someone's chocolate milk, they've got to down it?

Even more dramatic than that:

A Roman Catholic elementary school adopted new lunchroom rules this week requiring students to remain silent while eating. The move comes after three recent choking incidents in the cafeteria.

No one was hurt, but the principal of St. Rose of Lima School explained in a letter to parents that if the lunchroom is loud, staff members cannot hear a child choking.

That's a bit tough, isn't it?

I'd say so, but it's not the half of it:

The principal's letter also spelled out other new lunch rules, including requiring students to stay in their seats and limiting them to one trip to the trash can. Any child who breaks the rules will serve detention the next day.

Surely they'll have a full detention hall tomorrow, won't they?

I guess. There has been some dissention:

Christine Lamoureux, whose 12-year-old is a sixth-grader at the school, said she respects the safety issue but thinks it is a bad idea.

"They are silent all day," she said. "They have to get some type of release." She suggested quiet conversation be allowed during lunch.

Worrying that they're silent "all day", isn't it?

You say that, but there is a method to their madness. Apparently in the ancient Trappist brotherhood, where members have maintained their vow of silence for around 800 years, there has never been a fatal choking. The written records of the order attribute this to the fact that someone around has always heard the constricted breath and stepped in with a Heimlich manoeuvre.

Amen to that. Goodnight, Jonny.

Goodnight, Frank.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Why I like Matthew Parris

He's on good form in the Times today.

Starts with an amusing Ryanair anecdote and finishes with some interesting analysis of the Catholic church in light of the gay adoption debate. Fortunately it seems the homophobic forces of the Church and Ruth Kelly will not get their way this time (surely you've persecuted gays enough over the years, Fathers?).

Here's Parris:

If a moral sentiment becomes very widely shared, a society will find its truth “obvious” — and lose patience with those whose morality offends that sentiment. Though such people remain free to believe what they like, theirs becomes a rogue belief; and their freedom to behave according to it, treading on others’ toes, is curtailed.

So the question is this: is the acceptance of homosexuality now so widely shared that the Catholic doctrine has become a rogue morality? It’s a practical, observational question, not a philosophical one. On balance I think it is now a rogue opinion.

The paradox, which I do find beautiful, is that liberal, secular, moral relativists are acting (in this row) as though morality were objective rather than relative. And Catholics, who are supposed to believe their own ethical doctrines objectively true, are left pleading for moral relativism. Delicious.

Delicious indeed.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Can anyone tell me...

...why a supermarket would be checking whether people are over 21 to buy alcohol in the UK?

Has the law changed since I've been away? Can 18, 19 and 20 year-olds no longer spend their student loans on gin and Aftershocks, as I used to do?

Nickname Game

Ok, I'll give a special prize to anyone who can guess why some if my students have nicknamed me "", after the rapper with the Black-Eyed Peas.

First clue: it has something to do with one of their hit songs.

Answer next week. Good luck!

UPDATE: The answer's in the comments. Not sure what the special prize will be though!

Sorry, I'll have to type this, I've lost my quill

Has technology moved on in the last 100 years? Not according to Simon Jenkins:

I rise each morning, shave with soap and razor, don clothes of cotton and wool, read a paper, drink a coffee heated by gas or electricity and go to work with the aid of petrol and an internal combustion engine. At a centrally heated office I type on a Qwerty keyboard; I might later visit a pub or theatre. Most people I know do likewise.

Not one of these activities has altered qualitatively over the past century

Well, I'm not sure about Jenkins' great-grandparents, but I'm sure mine never sat at a portable computer in one country, reading news from around the globe at the touch of a button - indeed adding their own tiny contribution to the global discussion, whilst watching live coverage of a tennis match beamed by satellite from the far side of the globe. Nor, I suspect, would they have spoken by videophone to their own parents (as I do to mine on a regular basis) or done their washing in an automatic machine. Hang on, mine's just finished its cycle.

Right, that's hung out now. Of course, many people would use a dryer in the same situation (Mum's just emailed to say it's snowed in England) but I don't need one here.

Jenkins takes his lead from David Edgerton, a man who knows a few things about the history of science, to come up with this:

No, research and development do not equate with economic progress.

I'm fairly sure there is a correlation between economic progress (at least wealth) and spending on R&D, although I don't have the facts to hand.

Better do a google.

Here we are: it seems China, the rising star of the world economy, now invests more in R&D than anyone apart from the US. Long-term, that will be massively important to their economy.

No, the computer is not a stunning technological advance, just an extension of electronic communication as known for over a century. No, the internet has not transformed most people's lives, just helped them do faster what they did before.

And the typewriter helped us do what the pen did, only faster. And the car helped us do what the horse and cart did, only faster. And the Bronze Age helped us do what the Stone Age did, only faster. This argument could be applied to anything, and it would be equally stupid. Computers have changed our lives for the better and continue to do so.

No, weapons technology has not transformed warfare, merely wasted stupefying sums of money while soldiers win or lose by firing rifles.

Hmm. Let's check those Iraq death figures again.
Technologically superior allies: just over 3000
Technologically inferior Iraqis (on both sides): 30,000? 100,000? 650,000?

No-one knows the exact casualty stats, but I bet if everyone had the same levels of training and weaponry (both affected by technological advances) at their disposal, the numbers would be closer together.

Here's some more:

Middle-class women probably do more manual labour than in the 19th century, assisted by such old technology as the washing machine and vacuum cleaner. Small wonder they still consume those ancient standbys, alcohol, nicotine, cannabis and opium.

I'm not buying this for a minute. More manual labour? Does anyone use a mangle these days? Or a carpet beater? If middle class women did less in Victorian times it was because they had servants to clean up after them. Fortunately the greatest effect of technology is the democratisation of society. In the post-war era, through to the sixties, when almost everyone could afford fridges, washing machines and televisions, the lot of the ordinary working class person improved immeasurably.

Still, I'm taken by the image of a smack-addled housewife struggling with the cumbersome Dyson on the stairs.

Nowhere in his article does Simon Jenkins mention the great advances in medicine that have been made over the last century, saving millions of lives through vaccination or surgery, or the fact that what used to be the preserve of the privileged (foreign travel and private transport, to name but two) are now available to the masses because of technology. And that these are spreading around the globe helping poorer countries develop. Want a $100 laptop, Mr J? Well, you'll soon be able to buy one.

Some things ain't what they used to be. Let's be eternally thankful for that.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Other Reality TV Story

Across the pond, the world's favourite sadist, Simon Cowell, has been in controversial form. Some commentators were up in arms last week at his description of one contestant as a "bush baby".

Here's the Seattle Times:

So maybe Seattle has zero singing talent, but was it necessary for "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell to compare one contestant to a bush baby?

America, is that what you want from your number-one show?


On Wednesday, two friends appeared on the Seattle episode. The first one drew the "bush baby" remark. The second, [Jonathan] Jayne, was asked by Cowell if he had stolen (fat) judge Randy Jackson's trousers. Jayne, who, yes, is very overweight, then proceeded to sing "God Bless America."

Seattle gave the world Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, the famous dead guitarists, so it has a reasonable musical heritage to live up to. Obviously the current pool of talent is a shallow one.

The Cowell row deepened when it emerged that the Jonathan Jayne is autistic and represented the USA at the Special Olympics (motto: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.").

Entertainment Weekly said this:

...moments after watching 20-year-old Jonathan Jayne, with his soft features, high-waisted pants, and alarmingly orange Hawaiian shirt, wheeze his way through ''God Bless America,'' I got a call from my friend Rosie in Alabama. ''Did American Idol just stoop to making fun of a mentally challenged person for laughs?'' she asked. ''Y'know what,'' I replied, ''I was just thinking the same thing.''

Fortunately for music lovers, the Special Olympics movement defended the treatment of Jayne (which didn't seem that cruel to me anyway), saying:

"While polite isn't a word one would normally associate with Cowell and company, a viewing of the episode in question shows that the judges were in fact gracious and very encouraging to [Jonathan] Jayne during his rendition of 'God Bless America,' "
Now, Cowell has done several bad things in his time, presiding over the careers of Westlife and Robson & Jerome, but I don't think turning down Briggs and Jayne can really be included in that category.

Here's Briggs (I think he does look like a bush baby):

and here's Jayne (who tries hard, but is no idol):

p.s. Am I the only one who thinks Paula Abdul isn't drinking her Coke neat?

Blue Monday? Not here.

Apparently today is designated as "Blue Monday", the most depressing day of the year. According to a psychologist at Cardiff University, the combination of the long nights, poor weather and post-Christmas debt catching up with us means that we all feel worse in late January than at any other time. And we all feel more depressed on Mondays than any other day of the week.

Now, I've been accused of being a miserable bastard in my time, but I feel positively chirpy (even chirpily positive) today. Why? Well, first of all there's the weather: here in Portugal it's much nicer than the rest of Europe. No storms, no snow, no sub-zero temperatures. It's not hot (I think about 11C today) but the sky is blue and the sun bright. I went to the beach on Saturday and watched the sun set over the Atlantic for the first time. Very agreeable.

Secondly, there's the football. How can anyone be depressed after a weekend when both Chelsea and Manchester United lost? Schadenfreude is never so good as when Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson are on the receiving end. Ok, so Liverpool and Arsenal might not quite come back to win the league, but at least it gives a semblance of competitiveness.

Thirdly, I don't work on Mondays (!). Consequently, I never have Sunday night anxiety or the Monday morning blues. I'd advise anyone to give this routine a try. I work Saturday mornings instead, but that way I avoid the queues in the supermarket and get to watch Andy Murray fight valiantly against Rafael Nadal. He lost today, but it was a great match and one that shows the wee Scot will be a top 10 player sooner rather than later.

In fact, dear reader, if every Monday were like this one, I'd be quite content.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Just another brick...

Does life imitate art?

A bickering New York couple have had a dividing wall constructed inside their home as part of an acrimonious divorce.
Despite owning another home - just two doors away - the unhappily married couple have decided to carry on living under the same roof.
The wall divides the ground floor of the house, and keeps husband and wife penned into separate sections on different floors. One door linking the rival sections of the house is barricaded shut to prevent any accidental contact between the pair.

Come on Mr and Mrs Taub, be original. We've all seen this done before and much more humorously:

I just hope they've got two tellies and a turnstile to get through "no man's land".

(N.B. The video is the middle section of the episode, watch part 1 here, and part 3 here)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Some thoughts

It seems many people have forgotten the first commandment. That is a pity.

Sky News was reporting this morning that Jade is likely to get voted out of the "Celebrity" Big Brother house with a record level of votes (something above the 91.6% that "Caesar" got last summer).

If so, wouldn't this prove that, although we're all a bit racist inside (and even if you say you aren't, you are, just a little bit), generally British people have a very low tolerance of racism these days? Coupled with the number of complaints about the programme, I think that should be a source of pride, rather than shame. I doubt it will be the last we hear of it, though.

Incidentally, this (Mr Blair's plan to stay in office until June) might be the proper news story that no-one has covered this week.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

10 Film Music Moments

In the Guardian today, Peter Bradshaw, inspired by the new Rocky movie (and yes, when I went to Philadelphia, I jogged up those steps, humming that theme), lists 10 great film music moments. Bradshaw includes obvious classics such as the Jaws and James Bond themes, but I thought I'd try to come up with another 10 myself (avec YouTube links where poss).

So, in no particular order:

1. Psycho, Bernard Herrman

No list of great film composers could be complete without mention of Bernard Herrman. As well as scoring Taxi Driver, he collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on many films, the most famous of which is probably Psycho. The score is absolutely outstanding, with the main theme, that plays as Marion Crane drives to the Bates Motel one of the best-known in the history of cinema. It's scary, edgy, different, and although the film might not have advanced the understanding of mental health around the world, you'll never forget the music, or trust a shower curtain again.

2. High Noon, Dmitri Tiomkin

This is Tony Benn's favourite film. Notwithstanding that, it is an outstanding piece of work - groundbreaking in terms of its real-time plotting (all the action takes place over 90 minutes) and the anti-McCarthyist undertones (who will stand with Will Kane against the bad guys?) as well as its music. It was the first Western to use a theme song, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, which was probably never bettered.

3. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Ennio Morricone

Another western, another of the all-time great composers and scores. The howl of the coyote, the crack of the whip, the stamp of the boot. Suspense heaped upon suspense. What more can I say?

4. Manhunter

In this eighties classic by Michael Mann, the Thomas Harris novel, Red Dragon, gets its first cinema treatment. I reckon this film is at least as good as the Silence of the Lambs and this is partly due to the music. The final scene, where the killer and William Peterson's cop have their showdown to Iron Butterfly's In-a-gadda-da-vida, is memorably brutal.

5. Some Like It Hot

Ok, something a bit more lighthearted: I watched Some Like it Hot for the first time this Christmas (yeah, I know, where have I been?). I hadn't realised quite how beautiful Marilyn Monroe was when she sang "I Wanna Be Loved By You". There's nowt more sexy than that.

6. Rushmore

One of my favourite films, this, and from a director (Wes Anderson) who has a great ear for a soundtrack. I could choose almost any scene, but here's a great one featuring the Who's "You Are Forgiven". Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzmann are a businessman and a schoolboy competing for the same woman.

7. Footloose

More fluff, but who doesn't like this scene? Kevin Bacon and the late Chris Penn practise their dance steps to Deniece Williams' "Let's hear it for the boy". Go to any small town in the States and you'll find city boys teaching their country cousins how to strut their funky stuff on the basketball court or in the bleachers.

8. Halloween, John Carpenter

One of the best horror films of all time, John Carpenter directed and wrote the music for Halloween. The soundtrack also features "Don't Fear the Reaper", but I think the main theme is as chilling as any around. Jamie Lee Curtis, in the wardrobe, stalked by Michael Myers. She shoots him, he falls out of the window, she looks, he's gone!

9. Fargo, Carter Burwell

Another dark film, another moody score, another shower curtain: this time from Carter Burwell and the Coen Brothers. Evidence that a lot of the best classical music these days arrives as film scores, rather than your concert hall Harrison Birtwhistle stuff.

10. Lawrence of Arabia, Maurice Jarre

Although not as famous as his son, Jean-Michel, Maurice Jarre wrote the most parodied film score ever - wonderful music to match David Lean's astonishing visuals. I can't cross a desert, or even walk past a sandpit, without humming the theme to myself.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hobart Match To Be Investigated

No sooner had the dust settled on England's 3 wicket victory over New Zealand last night, than the tapes and scorecards of the match were handed over to the ICC's match-fixing unit.

An ICC spokesman said:

Although we have received no direct accusations of match-fixing, the unusual nature of the result has set off a few alarm bells and we feel duty-bound to investigate further.

The match-fixing unit has been investigating suspicious results in the game since the Hansie Cronje affair blew up at the turn of the century.

The spokesman added:
There are a number of irregularities the ICC would like to investigate, but the main one we will be looking at is the outcome of the match. We hope to conclude this process as soon as possible, and will release our report as soon as it is available.

Before today's game, England had not won a cricket match since 1984.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Sacre bleu!

Your Inner European is French!

Smart and sophisticated.
You have the best of everything - at least, *you* think so.

If only this plan from the 1950s had been realised. My inner Frenchman would have been reconciled with my outer Briton and Arsene Wenger could have been given the England job.

(hat tip: James Higham)

Tony Blair and the Whelk Stall

Johann Hari in the Indy asks: When the Government acts, why do we always assume there is something to fear?

He's talking about the Prime Minister's proposed new super-database, which will unite all the Government Departments and "provide better public services".

Hari thinks that there are several "people who will ritually jerk their knees today by declaring that Tony Blair's proposals for a simple centralised Whitehall database are "a step towards tyranny"".

Hmm, maybe he's right, although I'm not sure caring about the information the Government carries on each of us is a ritual knee-jerk, rather a rational reaction to a shift in the State-Individual relationship (they're supposed to serve us, remember, not the other way round).

The real concern about this is on a practical level. The Government has shown it is not particularly good at managing its databases and using the information held therein. I think the words "Home Office" speak for themselves on this and I don't assume that any other Department operates at a much greater level of efficiency (the Government's own example cites a person who made 44 calls over 6 months to get some information about a road death: this shows the people we already have are not doing their jobs - or are not trained to do their jobs - properly). Goodness only knows how much wastage there is in the Departments of Work and Pensions, Health, Education and the rest, but we might want to start by cleaning things up there before bringing in an expensive, new, unproven system.

My question is this: given that the different Departments aren't running their own whelk stalls particularly well, why should we let the same people loose on a whelk supermarket, especially one that will cost billions (yes, billions) to the humble taxpayer?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Safety At Work - German-Style

This finally debunks the myth that the Germans have no sense of humour (something I'd never really bought anyway).

It's a safety video for a forklift truck and is simultaneously the funniest and most gruesome 9 minutes I've ever seen:

via Bog-Roll Beverage

Fin de Fisque?

It's a sure sign that your journalistic career is in decline when you resort to tirades against "modern life" and moan about how things ain't what they used to be. Popular topics for this sort of article include political correctness (invariably "in a process of mental decline") or technology ("I don't know why people need computers, I managed perfectly well scratching on vellum when I was at school") ruining our lives.

The third soft target for the lazy columnist is the pernicious spread of neologisms and "meaningless" jargon throughout our society. Robert Fisk, longtime friend of the blogger and inspiration for a verb himself, stumbles pitifully in front of an empty net in the Independent today.

He rails against the excessive management-speak of "excellence" and "mission statements", which is hardly going to win him another award:

There is something repulsive about this vocabulary, an aggressive language of superiority in which "key players" can "interact" with each other, can "impact" society, "outsource" their business - or "downsize" the number of their employees. They need "feedback" and "input". They think "outside the box" or "push the envelope". They have a "work space", not a desk. They need "personal space" - they need to be left alone - and sometimes they need "time and space", a commodity much in demand when marriages are failing.

I'll give him some of those: the kind of people who use the term "think outside the box" are the ones who are least likely to do so, and "downsize" and "outsource" are obvious euphemisms that don't really add to our vocabulary. But can he explain how "I just need some time and space" should be better expressed? Perhaps, "get the hell out of my house, you cheating bastard" conveys a similar message, but it's hardly likely to help a couple going through a rocky patch, is it?

I wondered if Mr Fisk hadn't been reading this excellent foul-mouthed blog when he jumped on the word "workshop":

To me a workshop means what it says. When I was at school, the workshop was a carpentry shop wherein generations of teachers vainly tried to teach Fisk how to make a wooden chair or table that did not collapse the moment it was completed. But today, a "workshop" - though we mustn't say so - is a group of tiresome academics yakking in the secret language of anthropology or talking about "cultural sensitivity" or "core issues" or "tropes".

Of course, the definition of workshop has for many years been broad enough to cover the building of ideas as well as furniture (surely they had drama workshops in the 60s, Robert?), but I'll defer to his knowledge on tiresome yakking.

This language is a disease, he continues, although stress might not be:

In northern Iraq in 1991, I was once ordered by a humanitarian worker from the "International Rescue Committee" to leave the only room I could find in the wrecked town of Zakho because it had been booked for her fellow workers - who were very "stressed". Pour souls, I thought. They were stressed, "stressed out", trying - no doubt - to "come to terms" with their predicament, attempting to "cope".

Pity the poor sod who found Robert Fisk in their hotel room. That would probably spark off a panic attack in most people. No matter either that the aid worker might have been a non-native English speaker, perhaps one who wanted to use a catch-all term for tired, exhausted, fed-up, nervous, frightened, traumatised or whatever other emotions they might have been feeling after a hard day helping people in a warzone.

Fisk highlights "come to terms" and "cope" as if they were unusual phrases and it's soon apparent why. They are "the language of therapy", the refuge of "frauds, cheats and liars". Hmm. Therapy is a bad way of dealing with problems, isn't it? Unlike in the Middle East, where Fisk lives, where revenge and bloodshed have solved most things over the years. Yes, no doubt on that score: Suicide bombers 1, Psychoanalysts 0.

And he continues tiresomely in this vein, clearly hoping to share a soapbox with John Humphrys someday.

What Fisk fails to realise in his piece is that languages are not fixed entities like the coffee table he would have built at school, but are constantly evolving. Do we still speak Norman French in the UK? Or Latin? English is almost unique in its adaptability and has a broad vocabulary, the expansion of which we should welcome, rather than decry. After all, even if we don't like words like "outsourcing" or "downsizing" or "ethnic cleansing", our dislike of the acts they describe is what actually counts.

War reporters like Robert Fisk spend their careers trying to prove the pen is as mighty as the sword - perhaps they ought to embrace the "spike" of weapons in their armoury, or, at the very least, stick to the bloody topics they know best.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Tortured Artist of the Week

Tortured artist? What, like Van Gogh?
Well, he hasn't cut his ear off yet, but Stephen Murmer, of Virginia, has become a martyr of sorts.

Oh yeah?
Yep, he's been sacked from his day job as a schoolteacher because of the "disruption" his art causes in the classroom.

What disruption could there be?
It's a slightly tender area, butt, I mean but, he paints in a rather unusual way. He, er, uses a specific part of his anatomy instead of a brush.

His posterior. His derriere. His trouser baps. His ar-

Yes, we get the picture. Does he do this in class?
No, but he moonlights, so to speak. And there's a video of him "at work" on YouTube that his students have seen.

YouTube? I presume...
Yes, at the bottom of this post.

Wasn't it a bit harsh to sack him?
His lawyer thinks so. A "bad day for the first amendment", he described it. Though I'm not sure the first amendment actually mentions the use of the gluteus maximus as a paintbrush (just checked, it doesn't). He also gave the following quote (my italics):

"Chesterfield lost a tremendous asset today"

Hmm, perhaps he can appeal against the decision, although he might be better off turning the other cheek. What does the future hold for Mr Murmer?
He says "there's really nothing like teaching", (and I'd like to emphasise that this is really nothing like teaching that I know) and is looking for a new job. Meanwhile he's selling his paintings online and probably milking the publicity for all it's worth. If you like the video, why not take a look?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Blame Canada!

Here's a rare one for all you numismatists out there.

The US Department of Defense is warning its contractors about possible tracking devices contained in Canadian coins. Apparently, some have been discovered with tiny radio transmitters inside:

[The report] said the mysterious coins were found planted on U.S. contractors with classified security clearances on at least three separate occasions between October 2005 and January 2006 as the contractors traveled through Canada.

Further details were kept secret, including
who might be tracking American defense contractors or why, how the Pentagon discovered the ruse, how the transmitters might function or even which Canadian currency contained them.

This is quite an interesting story, non? Apparently the suspects include the French, the Chinese and the Russians, who all have espionage operations inside Canada.

My personal theory is that groups in the US opposed to the slow replacement of the iconic dollar bill with an inferior round metal equivalent have planted the "spy coins" to demonstrate the essential un-American nature and potential security risk of coinage as opposed to paper money.

In Britain with the (relatively) recent adoption of the £2 coin, and across Europe with the euro (especially the 2 euro coin), the public have left themselves open to previously unpredicted physical tracking using hollowed-out coinage. These new coins are large enough to conceal tracking devices and given that the CIA has used them, I'd be surprised if MI6 and co hadn't got similar gadgets. ("Now pay attention 007, don't put this one in the jukebox.")

Who knows whether Big Brother is watching us from inside our wallets? We can already be traced by our credit card paper trail - are spy coins the next creeping manifestation of state intrusion into our lives? What with the fluoridation of drinking water and the subsequent sapping and impurification of our precious bodily fluids, I wonder if our freedom means anything today.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Is it April 1st?

Apparently Mancunian miserablist, Morrissey, wants to sing for the UK at this year's Eurovision.

I mean, what?

It's been bad enough the past few years when our pop tat has come way down the table, but for one of our top cultural icons to get nul points would be too tough to bear, surely.

Please, Mr Smith, don't do it. Unless you cover this song:

Monday, January 08, 2007

Qui veut gagner des millions?

If you thought Australian game show contestants were a little intellectually challenged, take a look at this from France.

The question: Which of these goes round the Earth? The moon, the sun, Mars or Venus.

Not sure? Well, why not ask the audience?

via Wongablog.


I went to the cinema again this afternoon. A proper cinema too: people were smoking in the lobby, and several elderly couples trudged in to watch the movie.

I watched a film called "Babel", which opens in the UK in a couple of weeks. It's by the Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the man behind Amores Perros (which I've seen) and 21 Grams (which I haven't).

Babel is similar in structure to his previous work, in that he interweaves several storylines at once. Amores Perros is a film about dogs, with a triumvirate of narratives connected by a car crash. Babel is about children (in a roundabout way) and its 3 or 4 sub-plots are connected by a shooting.

I can't quite decide what to make of the film. To be sure, it is extremely well crafted: a breathtaking collage of characters and languages across three continents from Tijuana to Tokyo. The film looks great, and sounds superb. A deaf Japanese girl is one of the main characters, and the parts where the sound is muted when we see/hear things from her perspective are particularly striking.

The acting too, cannot be faulted. People will watch this film because of Brad Pitt, who is excellent in it. The other star names are Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal, although they don't get a great chance to showcase their considerable talents to the full. All the performances are extremely good, but I'd say the film is stolen by Rinko Kikuchi, who plays the deaf Japanese girl, and Adriana Barraza as the Mexican housekeeper. They've already been nominated for Golden Globes.

The reason I haven't quite made up my mind is because there isn't a great amount of point to the film. If it has a message, it keeps it fairly well hidden (it might be "keep an eye on your kids", it might be "don't shoot at buses", I'm not sure). Films don't need messages to be successful, of course, but this feels like the kind of movie that should have one. It's not exactly knockabout stuff (death, masturbation, police brutality etc), or short either, at nearly two and a half hours. I guess this is probably more for the serious cinephile than the casual popcorn muncher. It won the best director gong at Cannes so, despite the big names, is firmly an arthouse effort.

If you like Mexican movies, smoking in cinemas, Japanese schoolgirls, films set in Morocco or Brad Pitt, you should probably see this film. When you do, let me know what you thought of it.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Governator Online

It's always a pleasant surprise when other blogs link to this one, but nothing could match my joy at featuring on the official blog of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governor of California (you may recall a post I wrote in praise of his underrated Christmas movie, Jingle All The Way).

Anyway, Arnold Speaks is now on my blogroll, and I urge you all to visit to hear what the former cyborg has to say. As well as articles, there are some insightful animations where Arnie holds forth on the topic of the day.

This is a link to his New Year's message.

This be the verse redux

Some weeks ago I wrote about parenthood, in response to a fairly silly item by Jackie Ashley worrying that the biggest influence on children's lives is marketing from fast-food or toy companies.

My view was that this was nonsense, and I made the following comment:

Ask anyone (not just adults, but young people too) what the biggest influence in their lives is. Or who they look up to most. Or even, who they most want to emulate.

I bet most will still say their parents.

Well, lo and behold, someone has asked young people who they most admire and are influenced by, and they've come up with the following shock conclusion:

In a wide-ranging survey of 13- to 18-year-olds, six times more named their mother as the adult they most admired than opted for (David) Beckham or (Kylie) Minogue. Fathers were three times more popular than the former England football captain and the Australian pop star.

It continues:

Two thirds said that their mother was a good influence on their life, with half saying the same about their fathers. Friends (31 per cent), siblings (31 per cent) and teachers (18 per cent) were all seen to play a more positive role than celebrities (four per cent).

Fairly conclusive in favour of mum and dad, I would say.

Of course, now when you see a teenager vomiting all over a cash machine after one too many Woodpeckers and think, "I blame the parents", you'll be absolutely right.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Arriving on a jet plane

Now, I don't really like Michael O'Leary, the abrasive boss of Ryanair, but I'm going to have to defend his airline against some silly accusations of "irresponsible capitalism". These come from the environment minister, Ian Pearson, who says Ryanair are ignoring the threat of climate change and should do more to address the issue (I won't say pot, kettle, black, but you might already be thinking it).

The way I see it, the whole area of "green" issues is about efficient management of resources. We only have so much oil, coal, trees and rabbits available at any time, so we've got to make the most of them. Now, Ryanair makes massive profits on a low-cost model precisely because it manages its resources more efficiently than all the other airlines. Why punish a successful private company? It is cutting costs and finding savings which reduce CO2 emissions per head, rather than increasing them, and over the next few years will continue to reduce margins and be even leaner.

Furthermore, the new level of airline passenger duty actually means the cost of the flight in CO2 is paid by the passenger in tax. What more should the passenger do?

Companies can be compared to engines - they have inputs and outputs. Some are finely tuned, frugal models, others guzzle gas like there's no tomorrow. Ryanair, like Dell, Amazon or Tesco - the market leaders in their respective fields - is the former. These firms (like them or hate them) are at the top because they have reduced waste to a minimum and squeeze every drop out of the dollars they put in. Ryanair is brilliant at what it does. If all companies, not to mention the public sector, ran their ships as tightly as O'Leary runs his, we'd probably hit our emission reduction targets with room to spare.

In the aviation sector, the state-subsidised European and US airlines (how many are receiving Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection?) are the real bad guys. If any of them starts to feel the pinch, the government just bails them out. British Airways doesn't get the same level of direct financial support, but is helped by having preferential slots at Heathrow, which it guards jealously.

Here are some of Ryanair's good points, as I see them:

  • Full planes whenever possible, even if that means a £10 flight - no shipping air around Europe for free.
  • No wasteful extra services (food, magazines etc) which add to the weight of the plane and produce extra carbon emissions. They even charge for baggage: again reducing the vital take-off weight of the aircraft.
  • They fly to less busy airports, so their planes don't get stuck in holding patterns belching out more fumes.
  • They offer direct services to lesser known destinations, meaning less road traffic and fewer connecting flights. Meaning lower emissions.
  • They fly modern efficient planes, which burn less kerosene. Airlines want to cut costs at every turn. Fuel is a major outlay, so they manage their consumption to reduce it as much as possible. Did the old state monopoly do that? The rise of easyJet and Ryanair has forced BA and co to change their game too.

Some things the Government should look at before having a go at Ryanair:
  • Pointless air travel by ministers. Why fly to Paris, Brussels etc when Eurostar is as quick and much greener?
  • Do MPs fly with Ryanair? I suspect not. It would reduce taxpayer expenses if they did.
  • There's no attempt to connect airports with population centres properly. Trains to airports are very expensive and quite slow. Buses are even worse. Investment in these services would reduce road pollution (CO2!), congestion and accidents.
  • Why is anyone flying on business anyway, when videoconferencing is so cheap and easy? If Ian Pearson's on Skype (I'll bet he isn't) I'll discuss it with him myself. If the Goverment invested in or encouraged proper (100mb?) broadband technology, people could work from home, or at least their local office, thus reducing need for travel.
  • The rail system in Britain is absurdly expensive. Why do people fly from London to Manchester? Because the train costs £200. The Government should insist on simpler pricing structures, with lower top end fares.
  • In Britain, planning rules still do not insist all houses are insulated properly (to, say, Scandinavian standards). It's great heating the loft space or the air just above the roof, isn't it?
  • There should be bigger tax breaks, or bigger loans, for micro power generation (solar panels, home wind turbines etc). Many people would like to get involved in this, but can't because of cost.
  • There's a farcical approach to renewable/low-carbon energy generation. There are lots of windmills in my part of the world and no complaints about them. People who can prevent a wind farm being built because they don't like the sub-station should be politely told to shut up and piss off.

Planes (and cars, Ken) are easy targets for politicians when it comes to emissions, because of the vapour trails they leave behind, but the truth is they don't contribute a great deal to the overall CO2 output. Deforestation causes much more damage, as do power stations and even cow's arses. Ryanair is a model of efficiency, and should be copied by the government, not chided. Why not insist on better emissions standards/fuel efficiency rules for new cars across Europe? Stricter than California, say? Or better planning rules? Or nuclear plants, not coal-fired ones.

Travel should be made easier for everyone, not more difficult. That is preserve of totalitarian regimes who want to keep a tight reign on the citizenry (I'm thinking USSR, Cuba, China here). Humans should be free to roam the planet, to discover places and meet new people. A Ryanair flight is one of the better ways to do that, whether Ian Pearson likes it or not.

The Ashes - 10

Say no more.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Avoiding the issue

One of the advantages of being an ex-pat is that one can escape some of the major moral dilemmas raging back home.

The latest to arise (which I'm sure is taxing all right-minded people), is the following clash of commandments:

1. Thou shalt not watch Big Brother or its Celebrity derivatives


2. Thou shalt always watch Dirk Benedict when he's on TV

I expect this will become the great debate amongst amateur philosophers over the next few days, but I think there may be a solution.

Just stick an A-Team or Battlestar Galactica DVD on until he gets voted out.

Richard Dawkins on Saddam

The eminent professor D offers another reason why Saddam should not have been executed:

Hussein's mind would have been a unique resource for historical, political and psychological research, a resource that is now forever unavailable to scholars.
Actually I think this is a far more valid argument against the death penalty than the "oh, it's so barbaric" line. I didn't feel any pity for Saddam as he swung the other day: he was a murderous old bastard and for him to suffer in the same way as so many of his countrymen seemed only just in the grand scheme of things. I think it reasonable to oppose the death penalty but not always mourn its application. A bit like opposing smoking, but enjoying an infrequent cigar.

Dawkins, though, raises the tantalising prospect of being able to explore Saddam's mind, or Hitler's, to see if there was a common trait or trigger for their evil:

What were the formative influences on these men? Was it something in their childhood that turned them bad? In their genes? In their testosterone levels? Could the danger have been nipped in the bud by an alert psychiatrist? How would Hitler or Hussein have responded to a different style of education? We don't have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.

Are there lots of Husseins and lots of Hitlers in every society, with most ending up as football hooligans wrecking trains rather than dictators wrecking countries? If so, what singles out the minority that do come to power? Or were men such as these truly unusual? What can we do to prevent them gaining power in the future? Are there changes we could make to our political institutions that would make it harder for men of Hitler's or Hussein's psychological types to take them over?

Interesting. I don't know if the men had anything in common (Did Saddam only have one too?), but now they're both dead, we won't have a chance to gather any primary evidence.

I find it hard to disagree with his analysis:

These questions are not just academically fascinating but potentially of vital importance for our future. And they cannot be answered by prejudice or preconception or intuitive common sense. The only way to answer them is by research. It is in the nature of research on ruthless national dictators that the sample size is small. Wasn't the judicial destruction of one of the very few research subjects we had — and a prime specimen at that — an act of vandalism?

Personally, I quite like the idea of Saddam as some sort of Hannibal Lecter figure, helping future leaders of the free world combat the latest mad dictator. Let's hope that if we do go after Kim-Jong Il, Robert Mugabe or Mahmood Ahmedinijad, we take them alive and can use their evil for good in the future. After all, even Darth Vader danced round the fire at the end of the Return of the Jedi.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Darwin Awards

Yes, this year's Darwin Awards have been announced, featuring stories of bizarre and gene-pool improving deaths gathered during 2006. My favourite is this one from Brazil, which came second overall:

August brought us a winner from Brazil, who tried to disassemble a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) by driving back and forth over it with a car. This technique was ineffective, so he escalated to pounding the RPG with a sledgehammer. The second try worked--in a sense. The explosion proved fatal to one man, six cars, and the repair shop wherein the efforts took place.

14 more RPG grenades were found in a car parked nearby. Police believe the ammunition was being scavenged to sell as scrap metal. If it wasn't scrap then, it certainly is now!

Read the full Darwin Awards press release here. If I recall previous issues correctly, this year's list is less spectacular than in the past, with fewer stupidity-inflicted deaths. I guess this can be considered anecdotal evidence of an improvement in the general intelligence of the human race.

If you're hankering for the good old days, though, here's a classic Darwin demise from 1996:
Some men will got to extraordinary lengths to prove how macho they are. Frenchman Pierre Pumpille recently shunted a stationary car two feet by headbutting it. "Women thought I was a god," he explained from his hospital bed.

Deity or not, however, Pumpille is a veritable girl's blouse compared to Polish farmer Krystof Azninski, who staked a strong claim to being Europe's most macho man by cutting off his own head in 1995. Azninski, 30, had been drinking with friends when it was suggested they strip naked and play some "men's games". Initially they hit each other over the head with frozen turnips, but then one man upped the ante by seizing a chainsaw and cutting off the end of his foot. Not to be outdone, Azninski grabbed the saw and, shouting "Watch this then," he swung at his own head and chopped it off.

"It's funny," said one companion, "when he was young he put on his sister's underwear. But he died like a man."
You couldn't make it up.

To quote the Darwin Awards' own motto:
"The Tree of Life is Self-Pruning"

Water, water everywhere...

Bottled water has, like Lemmy's warts, long been fascinating to me. I only recently discovered, for example, that Perrier and other sparkling waters do not come out of the ground fizzy: they have the bubbles added at the bottling plant. What a con that is, eh? I suppose the same must be true of Champagne.

Thus I was intrigued to read of a report suggesting mineral water may not be as good for us as the marketing tricksters would have it. Not only is it more expensive than tap water, but it also costs more in environmental terms (with bottles being flown in from around the globe to quench our collective thirst) and is possibly harmful to our health, with elements in the water and chemicals in the PET bottles potentially giving us cancer or doing us other damage.

I'm not entirely convinced of this: the examples they cite include one from 1989 (probably due to inferior bottling technology in those days) and one from 2004. This doesn't seem to be a persistent issue, and if it's the PET that's causing the problems, then most of the food we buy in supermarkets, and all the bottles of Coke, lemonade and other drinks will present a similar risk. The French Senate also recommends changing brand frequently to avoid overdosing on certain elements, but this is only obvious - a balanced diet would naturally include such variation, non?

What really intrigues me is the notion of bottled water as a fashion accessory. The report says that women, in particular, buy bottled water because it's a trendy thing to do. I think this is rubbish. People drink water because they are thirsty and they buy bottled water because it's a convenient way of transporting the water around. Nobody reads the label for the breakdown of the mineral content to find the trace element of the month ("It's 2007 and everyone's talking about magnesium!"). I admit that there is some difference in taste between the sparkling waters, but people don't carry those in their handbags. I suspect the vast majority of still water consumers choose brands like this:

"Ok, so Evian is 79p and Vittel is 69p. Hmm, I'll take the Vittel."

In America, I'd guess that bottled water is less popular than in the UK. Why? Because they have drinking fountains over there. In Britain, the only place you will find a drinking fountain is in a primary school, and you wouldn't drink from it because "one of the fourth years had a wee in it last week". They are also believed to spread cholera. In the land of the free, on the other hand, the water fountain is as ubiquitous as the stars and stripes. You find them in airports, museums, courthouses, libraries, parks and casinos. There is no need to carry a bottle of water to slake one's thirst as you can just bend over and press the button.

Drinking fountains are very convenient and such fun, except the really powerful ones that get you in the eye if you're not ready, and they should introduce them more widely in Europe too. It might not be fashionable, but if the report is right, it could help the environment and save your life.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Today's Guest Host

If you're a fan of quizzes, you won't want to miss this, er, special appearance on TV this afternoon, as trailed in today's Times (complimentary BA copy):

Monday, January 01, 2007

It's Goodbye From Them

Ernest Borgnine, Clive Dunn, Lady Bird Johnson.

What do they have in common?

Improbably, they are all still alive as I write this. Hard to believe, isn't it? But one year from now, they're tipped to be watching us from the newbie row of the choir imperial.

Yes, Death List 2007 has been released. For the uninitiated obit reader, the Death List consists of 50 names of famous people who are likely to shuffle off the mortal coil this year. The criteria are as follows:

Candidates must have a certain level of famousness, which is basically that their demise must be expected to be reported by the UK media. Candidates are ineligible if their only claim to fame is their likely death in the near future. Also, no more than 25 celebrities that appeared on the previous year’s list can be selected.

It's been running for about 20 years now, and last year, 13 of the 50 tips were correct, including General Pinochet and John Profumo.

Among the more likely candidates for 2007 are Ariel Sharon (a gimme, surely) and Michael Foot (93 now, and much more loved for being old than he ever was for being Labour leader). Others include Claude Levi Strauss, who reputedly invented jeans, and Oscar Niemeyer, the architect behind the hot dog.

The website is very good, if macabre, with details on the candidates as well as the lowdown on previous lists and a forum for discussing the likely departures. Here is the full list of names for 2007:

Fidel Castro, Ariel Sharon, Ruby Muhammad, Charles Lane, Albert Hofmann, Oscar Niemeyer, Michael Foot, Ernest Borgnine, Billy Graham, Ronnie Biggs, Brooke Astor, Tim Johnson, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Claude Levi-Strauss, Ernest Gallo, Lady Bird Johnson, Bill Deedes, Mark Felt, Tammy Faye Messner, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, Les Paul, Yitzhak Shamir, Dom Mintoff, Kirk Douglas, Olivia De Havilland, Herbert Lom, Vera Lynn, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Oral Roberts, Betty Ford, Dino de Laurentiis, Ian Smith, Ingmar Bergman, John Forsythe, Kurt Waldheim, JD Salinger, Jake Lamotta, John Demjanjuk, Al Molinaro, Abe Vigoda, Suharto, Patrick Moore, Gore Vidal, George Melly, Jerry Lewis, Jack Kevorkian, Harold Pinter, Louis Farrakhan, Clive Dunn

The most interesting death amongst non-Death Listers, which we've been waiting for for nearly 55 years, would be that of the Queen. In Britain there would surely be a day off work for the funeral, and perhaps (finally) a proper debate on the future of the monarchy. Sadly, she's got good genes for this game and will most likely be around for another decade at least.

Here's hoping Patrick Moore is still on the list for 2008. I can't say the same for Suharto.