Tuesday, January 31

Freedom.

The Danes are fighting for freedom of speech:

[The Jyllands-Posten] published 12 cartoons of Mohammad after a Danish writer complained that he couldn't find anyone to illustrate a book he'd written about him. The cultural editor of the newspaper put out a call to illustrators, twelve responded and the paper published the cartoons. They were pretty tame stuff, but have rocked the Muslim world because under Islamic law — which they now seek to apply in the West — renderings of Mohammad are illegal.

The cultural editor of the Jyllands-Posten has remained unapologetic, saying he put out the call in response to a worrying trend he had observed in the Western media: self-censorship. The paper has received bomb threats and the editors and the cartoonists have received death threats from adherents of the Religion of Peace but all have stood their ground.

With great bravery, so has Denmark's prime minister, Anders Rasmussen, who declined a requested meeting with the ambassadors from 11 Muslim countries, saying he has no control over Denmark's press "and nor do I want such".


Ever more, the Rushdie affair looks like the canary in the coalmine.

Imagine the amount of media coverage that would be attracted if President Bush were to implement a North American trade embargo against Denmark in response to one of their papers' publishing a blasphemous Jesus joke. Compare with the amount of coverage you've seen of this real story over the last six months.


Update:

Quoth Laban:

When the Danish paper published cartoons on Mohammed, they were obviously not offensive enough to get a decent reaction from the Ummah. So someone in the protesting community ... of Denmark added a couple of 'extras' — the prophet with a pig's head and a couple worse than that.

The BBC are reporting the fake cartoons as being published by the newspaper.

... We pay £3 billion a year for untrue news that may (if the Koran-flushing story is any guide) cost lives.

 



Shocked, shocked, I say.

So the Palestinians elected Hamas, Jew-hating suicide-bombers extraordinaire. Every TV news report I've seen on the matter mentions what a hugely surprising shock this is.

Without getting into the ins and outs of what Hamas's victory Really Means, can I just say that I found the news about as surprising as the weather report? I admit that I don't follow Middle-Eastern news as closely as some — no fine-toothedly combing through translations of Arabic press releases for me — but I vaguely keep up with what's going on there, and Hamas's election, as far as I could see, was about as unlikely as a Conservative victory in the UK five years from now — or, come to that, a Labour victory fifteen years ago: hardly a foregone conclusion, but no-one's going to be falling out of their chairs in amazement over it.

It strikes me that the journalists who are telling us how surprisingly surprising it all is are the same ones who tell us that the Palestinian people want to coexist peacefully with Israeli Jews.



One of those thoughts.

It occurs to me that the only time it is polite (or, at least, not impolite) to describe a man or woman using the word "it" is when you can't see them clearly and you say, "I'm not sure whether it's a man or a woman." Or suchlike.

If anyone has any suggestions of other sentence types in which one may refer to men or women as "it" without it coming across as dehumanising hatred, please let me know.

No particular reason.



Mankind's greatest invention.

Gary's got a puppy. She's a black lab called Megan. Like most puppies, she looks like the most wonderful thing ever. Importantly, there's a photo on his site.

Dogs are just great.

That is all.



Monday, January 30

The end of January.

The end of January is just the worst time of year that there is. It seems, calendrically speaking, like we're at least half-way through Winter, and one might reasonably think that Winter might ease off a bit after the half-way mark. The days have been getting longer since Christmas, after all. But no. No matter how mild the Winter has been, February is like sitting in the North Atlantic. No matter how bad the Winter has been, February is worse. February, in fact, is so traumatically cold that we erase our memory of it every year. The end of January is when all those freezing memories come rushing back to us, along with the very real reminder of what's about to happen.

My, but it's nippy out there tonight.



Wednesday, January 25

Rights and absurdity.

In response to my post about written consitutions, Larry has kicked up a stink in the comments. You may read them if you wish to know what brought this on, or not. The short version is that I incline to P. J. O'Rourke's famous line:

There is only one human right: the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the one human responsibility: the responsibility to accept the consequences.


Larry objects to that, as, I'm sure, do a hell of a lot of other people.

So here are my somewhat disjointed thoughts on what rights actually are and how they work.

Rights are odd. As defined in the defunct EU Constitution, rights are something graciously bestowed upon us by our governments. A lot of people seem to incline to this view, but it strikes me as fundamentally wrong, as it relies on the government to tell us what we may or may not do. That approach has led to the new British Freedom of Speech As Long As You Don't Say The Wrong Thing.

So I incline to the view of rights as expressed in the American Constitution: rights reside in we the people, independently of government. Constitutions, when taken seriously, are particularly odd bits of politics, in that they require the government to enforce them in order for them to limit the power of the government. It's so circular it's practically magical. And that circularity is why any argument about rights is bound to tie itself in apparently contradictory knots: rights are contradictory, in many ways.

Anyway, in pretty much every country except the US, rights are defined by the government and are therefore a matter of law. The right to freedom of speech exists only because there are no speech-restricting laws; introduce a new anti-speech law and you effectively destroy freedom of speech, as has happened in the UK lately. In the UK, we don't have the right to do anything except what the law says we can do. Personally, I think that's an appalling state of affairs.

In the US, things are very different. Because the Constitution specifies that rights abide in the people regardless of government, if you introduce a new anti-speech law, you don't destroy the right to freedom of speech; instead, your law will, sooner or later, be struck down, because it is superceded by people's rights. The law is unenforceable, because anyone in court for breaking it cannot be prosecuted for doing something that the Constitution says they have the right to do. (In theory. Of course this doesn't always work; no system does.)

The good thing about the US system is that people's rights cannot be taken away by the government. The odd thing about it is that, if rights reside in the individual and are independent of the law, then what is or is not illegal is not necessarilly indicative of rights. A law that bans a certain book does not — can not — change the fact that people have the right to read that book.

The courts are there to get involved when the rights of more than one person clash. So, for instance, the right of a known psychopath to bear arms is superceded by the rights of everyone around him not to get hurt. At its most extreme, your right to kill a man is usually trumped by his right not to be killed by you. It doesn't really matter whether you say that we have the right to do anything we like as long as we don't harm others or that we have the right to do literally anything but that everyone else's right not to be harmed by us is greater than our right to harm them: the practical results are exactly the same either way. But, to my mind, the latter view implies that we all have a responsibility to everyone else. That's got to be a good thing.

A lot of confusion is avoided if we simply say that people have different rights in different countries — as I did above, in fact. The Universal Declaration kind of scuppers that, though, with its insistence that all humans have certain rights. You can reject that, of course, but I don't: human rights are a Good Thing. So my view now is that we all have inherent rights as human beings but that we aren't all lucky enough to live in states in which those rights may be realised. Without state backing, the rights exist merely in potentia. The right bunch of politicos come along and our rights pop into a real-world existence. Or something like that.

Sure, my definition's full of contradictions. So's everyone else's. Some people are entirely sensible to believe that rights don't exist at all: the most basic rule of logic is that anything that leads inevitably to self-contradiction is not true. But there's more to life than logic, and I reckon there's a lot more to be gained by humanity from believing in and trying to realise human rights than not.



R.I.P.

Chris Penn has died. No-one knows what of yet. No suspicious circumstances. He was only forty.

He always seemed like an actor who actually was nice, rather than one who was good at acting nice. Comments from people who knew him seem to confirm that. And he was a bloody good actor.

"Just as talented as Sean — just a lot less cocky," Slate magazine critic Cintra Wilson wrote of him last year. He "makes you seamlessly believe in characters so much you barely even notice them."


Just as talented? Far more so, I'd say. If only Sean Penn were anywhere near as talented as his brother, his films wouldn't be so irritatingly tedious. Cintra Wilson's right: truly great acting is something you don't even notice. That's the whole point. The moment you notice the acting, the acting has failed. That's something Sean Penn has never understood. Chris was a master.

(While we're on the subject, Tom Cruise blew Dustin Hoffman off the screen in Rain Man. Same goes for Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, and Training Day.)



Stupid, apparently.

I thoroughtly recommend that you read this rather good speech of President Bush's:

Most of you probably didn't know that I have a new book out. Some guy put together a collection of my wit and wisdom — or, as he calls it, my accidental wit and wisdom. But I'm kind of proud that my words are already in book form. So like other authors, I thought I'd read from it tonight. It's like the thoughts of Chairman Mao, only with laughs, and not in Chinese.

....

Now, most people would say, in speaking of the economy, we ought to make the pie bigger. I, however, am on record saying, "We ought to make the pie higher." It is a very complicated economic point I was making there. But believe me, what this country needs is taller pie.

....

Then there is my most famous statement: "Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning." Let us analyze that sentence for a moment. If you're a stickler, you probably think the singular verb "is" should have been the plural "are." But if you read it closely, you'll see I'm using the intransitive plural subjunctive tense. So the word "is" are correct.

 



Tuesday, January 24

Science and reporters.

Watching Channel 5 News last night, I saw their report on this fuss about Alzheimer's drugs. And started shouting at the television. What is it with journalists and science? Here's the important bit of the story:

Andrew Dillon, NICE Chief Executive and Executive Lead for the appraisal, said: "We are acutely aware of our responsibility to help people with Alzheimer's disease secure access to effective treatment. We needed to make the right decision, based on all the relevant evidence.

"By going the extra mile and asking the drug companies to delve deeper into their clinical trial data, we have been able to identify the right way to use these medicines.

"People with Alzheimer's will now receive these drugs when they can help them most."


See? Relevant evidence. Clinical trial data. Any chance of a TV journalist understanding that such things even exist? Nope.

No, the whole thing was, as ever, presented as a conflict between two opposing points of view. On the one hand, we have rigorous scientific analysis of controlled trials of the drugs in question. On the other, we have a press conference given by well known GMTV anchor-woman Fiona Phillips and intellectual television reviewer A A Gill. Who can say which side might be right? It's impossible to say.

They showed an interview with a NICE spokesman, who made the above points: clinical trials have shown that a lot of the patients who are currently being given the drugs are getting no benefit from them whatsoever. The reporter then said, "But some doctors disagree," and they cut to a clip of a doctor explaining that there is going to be a problem with mixed messages, in that, having asked people to look out for the disease and get it diagnosed as early as possible, patients are going to be nonplussed when they're then told, well, you can't have the drugs yet, not till you've had the illness longer. Very true, and a good point, but not in any way a disagreement with the clinical trial data. Shouldn't this be a basic qualification for the job of journalist — the ability to tell whether two statements contradict or agree with each other? Even the ability to tell whether two statements have anything whatsoever to do with each other would be a start.



Trivia.

I wish someone had told me this sooner, but they didn't. But you know Q magazine, right? Well, apparently, two months ago, they were giving away a little book on the front cover: The Greatest Rock & Pop Miscellany Ever! I only discovered this on Saturday. The reason this is of particular interest to me is that I wrote about a quarter of it. So I'm sorry that I can't tell you all to rush out and buy Q and read stuff written by me, but I can tell those of you who bought it without my nagging and who haven't thrown the book away that, hey, that's me, that is. Some of it.

I wrote the bits about the Apple vs Apple legal wranglings, the bizarre rock star deaths, the Paul McCartney death clues, and the Fleetwood Mac doppelganger thing, amongst others. The rest of the book is by Gary, John, and Stuart.



Monday, January 23

Alarm.

The anti-fraud department of my bank called me this evening. So even just their introducing themselves was ominous. It turns out that they do a pretty good job of checking my account for unusual payment patterns, so spotted it pretty much immediately when someone else started using my credit card for online gambling yesterday. They blocked the payments pending verification from me, bless 'em.

I don't think anyone got my PIN, or they'd've been straight to a cash machine. And my other cards seem OK, so I don't think anyone's been at my wallet. Could always be the postman — or, more likely in our case, whoever lives at the house that the postman gives some of our mail to. (Our postman's not the brightest. He repeatedly gives us mail addressed to the petrol station up the road. We do, admittedly, have very similar addresses, but you'd think he might notice the lack of petrol pumps in our two-foot-deep front garden.) Or someone's been through our rubbish — we have a shredder, but maybe I missed something. The neighbours did spot a couple of guys hanging round the back of our house a few weeks ago; went out and threatened to set the wolves on them. That's wolves as in wolves: our next-door neighbours keep Canadian timber wolves. Beautiful animals. We had assumed that these loiterers were interested in the car or the back of the house, but, now I think about it, our bin's there too. And of course there's the Interweb. Maybe someone intercepted and decrypted a payment over Christmas. Or maybe someone hacked one of the sites that's storing my card's details. Hmm.

Bloody annoying, but kind of reassuring that the bank spotted it the moment it started.



Tuesday, January 17

A living, breathing document.

As we all know, one of the crap things about Britain's unwritten constitution is that various bits of the ruling class can make it up as they go along. "Oh, no," says the latest Home Secretary, invariably a bastard, "that's always been in there. I don't know what you mean. British Home Secretaries have had the right to throw your firstborn to hungry dogs since time immemorial. No, honestly. Just ask this expert from Oxford University who is one of only three people with access to a book written nine hundred years ago in Pig-Latin by a mad horseman and who definitely doesn't owe me any favours." Wouldn't it be lovely if we had a written constitution, saying things like "The Government shall never refuse a request to bugger off. We really mean it. No arguing." Oh, wouldn't it just?

Well, no. It'd be a start in the right direction, certainly, but, as our American friends will tell you, having stuff written down in plain and unambiguous language doesn't stop Home Secretaries and their ilk changing it on the fly. "The Constitution is a living, breathing document, which we must constantly reinterpret to take into account the realities of our modern age," saith the bastards. "When our founders (may they turn in their graves in peace) wrote that the government shall not infringe a citizen's right to bear arms so as to prevent tyranny, what they really meant was that the government should arm itself to the teeth and ban guns for the plebs. Oh, yes. And look here: a right to privacy! Well, I never. They really were awfully clever men, those founders of ours, writing in a right to privacy without even using the word 'privacy'. My, my. Oh, and 'privacy' means 'partially delivering a baby and then killing it', by the way."

All of which ranting is just a preamble to my saying that this guy is taking the piss:

A West El Paso man is suing his neighbors for $125,000 because he claims the dog barks nonstop. The pet's owners deny the allegations, but their lawyer says that if the dog was barking, it has a constitutional right to do so.

"I can assure you we are going to fight this case to the death. Take it all the way to the (U.S.) Supreme Court if necessary. I can honestly state that if the dog did bark at all, the dog was simply exercising his first amendment right to freedom of speech," said Monty Stevens, lawyer for the Alvarados.


Genius.



An observation.

Been watching the first series of Wonder Woman on DVD the last couple of days. Absolute grade-A comedy genius. It's 1942, and Wonder Woman is fighting Nazis! Eek!

Anyway, the weird thing is this. One of the main jokes of the series is the incredibly bad dialogue. It's preposterous stuff. But, whenever Wonder Woman discusses Nazis, as is her wont, the dialogue remains exactly the same yet ceases to be ridiculous. "The Nazis are so evil that they won't be happy until they have enslaved all the people of the free world!" That sort of thing.

That's how evil the Nazis were: they made corny dialogue sound sensible.



A thought.

It only occurred to me a couple of days ago that, in Surrey, there is effectively no plural of "mouse".



Tuesday, January 10

Religion's not all bad.

Rob has found these amazing new snacks:

Meet the Bible Bar — one of the greatest new products ever introduced to the Christian market. This fantastic-tasting, all natural whole food bar contains the seven foods which the Lord calls good in Deuteronomy 8:8 — Wheat, Barley, Honey, Figs, Olive Oil, Grapes, and Pomegranates. You’re going to love this first-of-its-kind nutritional bar with its refreshing, natural fruit flavor and Biblical significance.


Now, I don't always see eye-to-eye with Christianity — sure, it has all too often led to bigotry and violence and hatred and death and destruction and so on — but just look at those ingredients! I may not have tasted them yet, but I'm willing to bet that these bars taste seriously yum. By the looks of it, Deuteronomy 8:8 is one of The Bible's more sensible passages. I mean, grapes? Yum. Honey? Yum. Barley? Yum. Pomegranates? Yum.

I do hope we heathens are allowed to eat them. And I hope that the manufacturers realise that they have the ingredients of a damn fine refreshing yet highly alcoholic drink right there, just waiting to be made.



Monday, January 9

Flat-pack.

In response to my rant about our bloody dining table, Natalie the Wise's husband was revealed to the public for long enough to explain how to deal with this flat-pack stuff properly:

A typical piece of flat pack furniture, really, assembly instructions included, requires only simple hand tools plus;

Screw thread gauges,

Needle files,

Engineer’s lathe

Blow torch

A simple brazing hearth

Sump oil.

Knowledge of model engineering, gunsmithing or similar would help.


As with so many things, it seems obvious in retrospect.

In response to that post, John Costello has emailed Natalie the following:

I work for a store which sells various forms of furniture, most of which we put together, as well as the actual packs that people can take home. ... One of my various jobs is putting toether furniture for both display and sale.

....

I would say that one piece out of ten or, from some manufacturers, one piece out of five, is badly manufactured. Not just mis-allignment of holes ... but very badly out-of-wack and unusable. ... Sometimes we have to cannibalize two packages to get one piece.


I had always assumed that modern quality control was so good that my experiences with flat-pack muct be bad luck. Turns out not. Nice to know the Universe isn't out to get me. Well, not on this front, at least.

It's puzzling. Electronics manufacturers have quality control these days in the region of a handful of errors per hundred thousand units; same with car part manufacturers — at least the Japanese ones. You'd think furniture would be easier: microchips and moulded aluminium bits of internal combustion engines are, after all, quite new things, while we've had thousands of years of experience at cutting wood into different shapes and sticking them together.

No, I haven't got a point. Just puzzled, is all.



Friday, January 6

How to get girls.

On the way to work a couple of days ago, I noticed the licence-plate of the Alfa Romeo in front of us: M12 HDT. Not very special, you might think, but the owner had cunningly arranged for the plate to be printed in an italic font, with the 1 and the 2 squeezed close together to look like a capital R, resulting in:

MR HOT


If I were in charge of Alfa Romeo's marketing, I'd take a contract out on this guy.

Unless, of course, his surname really is Hot. In which case, er... hmm.



Unfit to govern.

I must admit to being rather surprised to discover that Charles Kennedy's drinking had the potential to become a scandal. I thought it had been common knowledge for at least a decade, but, our media earnestly tell us, it has been a Dreadful Secret. Judging from the shock of the presenters and reporters on the news last night, you'd think that all our news journalists were tee-total paragons of health and virtue, rather than the chain-smoking coke-snorting adulterous piss-heads they are renowned as. Anyway, I shouldn't think it'll take more than four words to settle the question of whether his drinking makes Charles Kennedy an unfit leader.

Churchill: drunk; Hitler: tee-total.

There.

Meanwhile, George Galloway has entered Celebrity Big Brother, probably the worst TV show since non-celebrity Big Brother, thus revealing once and for all that he is unfit to be an MP. Not because I dislike the show and not because he's an obnoxious lover of tyrants. As I understand the rules of Big Brother, the contestants are allowed no contact with the outside world for the duration of their stay. That includes constituents needing to get in touch with their MP. He is being paid a huge salary out of the public purse, right now, to do a job that he has voluntarily made himself incapable of doing. He can't attend Parliament, he can't listen to his constituents, he can't even read the news. We all realise that he doesn't give a damn about the people of Bethnal Green and Bow, but what about the area of the world he really cares about? If the US pull out of Iraq, he won't know. If the US invade Syria, he won't know. If the Israelis finally do what everyone says they've been doing for years and kill a million or so Arabs, he won't know. If Hamas finally succeed in their avowed aim of killing every Jew in Israel, he won't know. Whether you agree with the tiresome little git or not, it's difficult to think of any justification for not chucking him out of Parliament this time.



Wednesday, January 4

The things you learn.

My very early years — till I was eight — were spent in a wonderful house with the best garden ever: Orchard House, Warner Road, Ware, Hertfordshire. I only learnt a few days ago that the house was built for Mr Bird, of Bird's Custard fame. If that isn't a brush with greatness, I don't know what is.

Happy New Year, by the way.