Friday, December 31

Happy New Year!

No longer living in Scotland, I no longer have to call it "Hogmanay", which I've always felt is a slightly silly word. I'm glad to escape the Scottish celebrations, too. I would never dispute that the Scots celebrate New Year better than anyone else in the world, but it's not for me. Perhaps it's because the vast majority of my years have been fairly shit that I am less than enthusiastic about the arrival of yet another one, or maybe I'm just irretrievably English. This year, however, has been so spectacularly bad, that, for once, I am looking forward to the next one. It is extraordinarily unlikely that it won't constitute at least a small improvement. So there will be a bit of optimistical celebrationing this evening. I still doubt I'm going to get drunk, though.

Tomorrow, on the other hand, is a big celebration: my mother-in-law's sixtieth. There'll be more people in her house than at any time since my wedding, with much food and drink. I will be in charge of one of my specialities: home-made Pimm's. Here I must stress that I do not know or claim to know what goes into real Pimm's, which I'm sure is a closely-guarded secret recipe. However, I do know how to make a drink that tastes — by sheer naked coincidence, their lawyers will no doubt insist — remarkably similar to Pimm's. I know my version must be at least slightly different, because it tastes better. In the traditional New Year spirit of enabling the drunkenness of others, here's the recipe.

  • 2 parts gin.

  • (Plymouth gin is by far the best. But you knew that.)

  • 2 parts red vermouth.


  • A little more than 1 part triple sec.

  • (According to its label, Cointreau is a type of triple sec. That may well be true, but don't use it; get some proper stuff which tastes a little less like a flamethrower.)

  • a dash of Angostura bitters.

Shake well. Add lemonade to taste. Throw in slices of lemon, lime, orange, and cucumber. The cucumber is just a weird English tradition; it seems to do nothing for the taste, but gives a good impression.

Using this recipe, you will find that you can get a roomful of people very drunk very cheaply, without any of them being aware at any stage that they are drinking anything particularly strong.

Have fun. See you next year.

The eternal question.

Courtesy of God Save The Queen, here's a link to Clive James, writing what must be the largest amount of intelligence and common sense ever to appear on one page about Israel and Arabia.

For the Israelis, anti-Semitism is merely a nightmare. For the Palestinians, it's a catastrophe. If you believe, as I do, that the Palestinians' cause is just, nothing could be more depressing than to hear them spout the very stuff that guarantees they will never get an even break.

...

Anti-Semitism is so obviously insane that no refutation of it should be necessary, and indeed after the Holocaust the feeling was widespread throughout the world that the whole demented notion had at last become an historical back number, like phlogiston or the belief that mirrors could leak lightning. Throughout the world: but not, alas, throughout the Arab world.

...

The University of the Holocaust had as many dumb graduates as clever ones. Nazi anti-Semitism was so awful in its irrationality that any contrary force is likely to be irrational as well. The only rational contrary force is called democracy, which conquers extremism by containing it.

 

Thursday, December 30

Serge A Storms.

If you don't read Tim Dorsey's books, then (a) you should and (b) Serge's new blog will mean nothing to you.

So buy the books first, then read the blog.

Wednesday, December 29

An unorthodox way to roast a turkey.

(And yet another Daily Bread post. I'm dead gastronomic today, me.)

I think it was 1991. My dad & I (it was just the two of us living together) wanted to invite my dad's friend Terry round for Christmas dinner. But Terry couldn't leave his sick dog alone overnight, and giving Terry a lift back that night would mean my dad wouldn't be able to drink alcohol (on Christmas Day!), and it just wasn't going to happen. We couldn't rightly invite ourselves round to Terry's place, thus forcing him to cook a huge meal for us. Then my dad hit on an ingenious solution.

On Christmas morning, he roast the turkey until it needed another hour or so in the oven, took it out of the oven and wrapped it in towels to keep it warm, put it in the boot of the car, drove it and me right across London to Terry's place, and put it into the oven that Terry had waiting for it. For the whole journey, we were hoping that this compromise between cooking and travel wouldn't wreck the meat. And it didn't.

In fact, the turkey was fantastic: incredibly moist and tender; one of the best we'd ever had. Being wrapped in towels for a while seemed to have done quite a brilliant job. My dad & I have been joking ever since that we should try that method again sometime.

Well, this year, I did. Only without the car boot.

It was only a small turkey we had: it was going to need about an hour and three-quarters done the usual way. I made a rough guess, based on nothing, that two minutes wrapped in towels would be about equivalent to one minute in the oven. So I roast the turkey in foil for an hour and a bit, took it out and wrapped it in foil and some tea towels and a bath towel and left it for about half an hour or so, then put it back in the oven, without the foil, for another half hour or so, basting occasionally. I then got distracted by vegetables and left it in for at least ten minutes longer than I'd intended. Oops.

And the results were fantastic. Definitely the best turkey I've ever roasted.

Boiling a ham in Diet Coke.

(This is another post for The Daily Bread.)

It was Nigella who made boiling bacon in Coke famous in the UK, and she says you should never use Diet Coke. She's not diabetic, though, so she can shut up.

I did this on Christmas Eve, and the results were pretty good. I took a nice ham, stuck it in my biggest pot, added two litres and a bit of Diet Coke, some apple juice, and lots of cinnamon and black pepper, brought it to the boil, and simmered for about an hour. Then I fished it out, put it in a roasting tray, poured a few spoonfuls of the cooked Diet Coke mixture over it, covered it in foil, and roast it for about an hour, removing the foil for the last twenty minutes or so. Then I left it to cool overnight.

Like I said, the results were very good — but not good enough. The ham is exceedingly delicious, but not all that Cokey. I don't just want a little hint of Coke flavour around the edges; I want lots, right through. I don't think this is a result of using Diet Coke instead of Coke: I did this with Coke once before, with similar results. Part of the problem may be that the recipe is designed for bacon, and I'm using ham: ham is denser than bacon, so might be more resistant to permeation by the liquid. The other problem is simply that Coke isn't strong enough.

So here's my plan for next time.

I'm going to use at least twice as much Diet Coke, and reduce it before using it. And I'm going to leave the ham sitting in the liquid for a whole day before I turn the heat on.

I shall report back.


Update:

This one's looking controversial. James at Arcanus Maximus says that the Aspartame in Diet Coke breaks down.

To clarify aspartame when heated breaks down into methanol, and other chemicals. At best it wil lose it's sweetness. At worst, it might become toxic chemicals. The end result is debated. It is best not to use it in cooking at all.

I have several family members who are diabetic so I understand the dangers of sugars as well. In the ham recipe the sugars are meant to caramelize and form a crust. I doubt diet coke would do that. The acid and other flavors would also improve the taste and tenderness. At best diet coke I suspect would add little to the flavor, but I have no clue. I haven't tried it.


I have to say that nothing toxic appears to have occurred, but I haven't submitted the ham for chemical analysis or anything: for all I know, havign eaten a few slices of this stuff, I'm going to die a few days earlier than I had been going to. But I doubt it. Coca-Cola are well aware that Coke gets used in recipes. If cooking Diet Coke were seriously dangerous, their lawyers would have stuck warnings all over the bottles by now.

But James is right about the crust: there isn't one, not that that bothers me: it's the flavour through the meat that concerns me. And he appears to be right about the sweetness: there's not much. As I said before, the ham is still delicious, but, next time, I'm going to try adding a load of Splenda, too. Still plenty of acids and other flavours in Diet Coke, though, and they appear to have had some effect.

If you don't have some good health reason to avoid sugar, use Coke. It probably gives better results and might not kill you.


Another update:

Estelle has emailed to say that she reckons that aspartame does break down into something dodgy:

Nigella may have said not to cook the ham in
diet coke because it is not healthy. I have a degree in chemistry and I have
read a little about this matter: it is unhealthy to cook artificial sugar.


Well, I'm not dead yet, but, if I may say so, buggeration.

Back to the drawing board.

My wife bought me a gravy strainer for Christmas.

(This is my latest post from The Daily Bread.)

Ah, the joys of marriage.

Actually, she did buy me lots of other things, including a large box of Bendick's Bittermints. The gravy strainer wasn't the primary gift or anything. We're not that crap. But it does have a story behind it.

About a year and a half ago, I made some gravy. I think I was roasting a chicken at the time, and I was sick of the way that I always got gravy wrong, so I decided to put some real effort in for once. The entire time that the chicken was roasting, I made the gravy. I fried diced mushrooms and grated carrots in butter and teriyaki, added seasoning and herbs and a little stock, boiled it down, squished it through a sieve, added juices from the roasting chicken, made a roux, added the gravy to the roux, built it up with milk and more stock, and then just added anything that I thought might taste good, before reducing it for about an hour. The gravy was, I have to say, pretty damn good. And Vic & I didn't eat it all, so a load of it went into the freezer. Since then, every time I've roasted meat, the gravy has come out of the freezer and had the juices of yet another roast added to it, along with anything tasty within reach. We never eat all of it. It has stayed with us through two house-moves. After this Christmas, there is more of it than ever before.

Here's a list of ingredients that I know for a fact are now in there:
  • the juices of multiple roasts: chicken, turkey, beef, pork, ham, duck, and lamb

  • flour

  • butter

  • milk

  • a myriad stock cubes

  • pepper & salt

  • tomato puree

  • mushrooms

  • onions

  • carrots

  • lots of cinnamon

  • ginger

  • nutmeg

  • cloves

  • various herbs

  • orange juice

  • apple juice

  • pineapple juice

  • red wine

  • Diet Coke

  • whiskey

  • teriyaki

  • ketchup

  • lemon juice

  • turmeric

  • Worcestershire sauce

  • barbecue sauce

  • mustard

  • Telma chicken soup mix

  • Vegemite

  • caramelised onion chutney

  • bits of any vegetables cooking nearby

  • some Heinz baked beans, I think

  • left-over soup

  • the stuff that drips out of a George Foreman grill

  • the scrapings off a George Foreman grill

  • scrapings off the bottom of the roasting tray

  • the left-over sauce from a couple of casseroles, liquidized

  • cheese of some sort


On Christmas Eve, I boiled a ham in Diet Coke (more on that later). Once it was done, I kept the Diet Coke, and used that both to baste the turkey I roast on Boxing Day and to thin the gravy. When the ham cooled down, a load of jelly formed under it. No prizes for guessing where that went. I also used the Diet Coke to boil the turkey's giblets and neck, and the liquid resulting from that went, of course, into the gravy.

So the gravy strainer's not a bad present, really.

Friday, December 24

One or two slight problems with public transport.

Mr Spacejack is upset that bastards like me have the temerity to drive cars, against his explicit wishes. Gosh.

(Yeah, I know: two and a half years old, and I just get round to it now. Well, I only found it the other day.)

First off, I'm not talking about people with a real legitimate need to drive; like if you're unfortunate enough to drive for a living, or you've got to move a large piece of furniture across town, have to drive a bunch of kids to hockey practice, or those who live in rural areas without public transportation, or even carpoolers (do they even exist anymore?).


That's awfully big of you. You mean to say that some of us have your permission? I'm weeping with gratitude.

I'm talking about you urban-dwelling twits, one to a car, who could easily, easily be taking the bus or the subway instead, but refuse to because of some stuck-up class superiority hangup, while opposing any sort of investment in public transportation.


There are many reasons why I avoid public transport, and class superiority is not one of them.

Let's leave aside the dubious assumption that we all have some sort of moral duty to use public transport, that it is somehow more inherently evil to travel by yourself in a small vehicle than with a bunch of strangers in a large one. (And if public transport is so much cleaner, then how comes bus-only streets are so polluted?) Here is a list of requirements I have for any transport, public or private, before I use it. They're quite basic requirements; nothing fancy.

  • I would like to be able to sit down if I want to.


  • If I'm travelling with my wife, I'd like to sit next to her.


  • I would like to sit in a clean seat that has not recently been set alight.


  • I do not want a pool of drink, spit, vomit, or urine, or old food, or litter at my feet.


  • I do not wish to be shouted at, or spat at, or be slapped, or have sectarian songs sung loudly and threateningly at me.


  • I do not want anyone to accidentally sit on me or to fall on me.


  • I want braking, whenever possible, to be gradual. I wish to be thrown out of my seat by an emergency stop less frequently than twice a minute.


  • I don't want the driver to insult me.


  • I do not wish to get chewing gum on my clothes.


  • I don't want to put up with listening to other people's racist slurs.


  • I don't want a fight to break out next to me.


  • If I buy something while I'm out, I want somewhere to put the shopping bags.


  • While I'm getting in or out of the vehicle, I want the option of having it stay still.


  • I don't want anyone to blow cigarette smoke into my face.


  • I do not wish to sit next to anyone whose body odour is so overpowering that it literally makes me gag.


  • I want to be able to get in and out of the vehicle without being jostled, pushed out of the way, or sworn at.


  • I want to take a fairly reasonable amount of time over my journey.

  • For example, getting home from my last job, I had a choice between using the train, which took an hour and a half, or taking the car, which took less than thirty minutes, including the time taken to walk to the car. I don't mind a bit of a delay, but that seems excessive.

  • I would like the temperature of the vehicle to be neither so hot that I sweat like a pig in a plastic bag and get a migraine nor so cold that I can't feel my toes.


  • I don't want the driver to be reading a paper while driving.


  • I don't want the journey to be unnecessarily complicated.

  • I used to have to commute from Govanhill to Uddingston, in Glasgow. A direct route does exist, and no public transport goes anywhere near it. A direct train line even exists, but the trains, for mystical reasons, don't use it. The first fifteen minutes or so of every journey had to be spent travelling in the opposite direction to where I was headed. Similarly, in my current job, I could use public transport if I were to allow an extra hour and a half or so for all the unneccessary distance I would have to travel.

  • I do not want to spend any time at all in a sewer.

  • This is not a figure of speech. It is a reference to Dalmarnock Station in Glasgow. I recommend visiting it once — otherwise, you'd simply never believe it — and never going back.

  • If I'm delayed, I still want to be able to get home late at night.


  • I do not wish to catch hypothermia while waiting for the vehicle.


  • I do not wish to be mugged or assaulted while waiting for the vehicle.


  • When the vehicle arrives, I would like it to stop.

  • In Glasgow, it is not uncommon to see people at bus stops get so pissed off with bus drivers refusing to stop that they stop the next bus by walking into the middle of the road and blocking its path.

  • If I am outside the vehicle in heavy rain, I do not wish the driver to refuse to let me in, just for their own amusement.


  • I do not wish the driver to lock me in the vehicle while he leaves to use a phonebox or toilet or do some shopping.


  • I don't want anyone to kick me in the back of the head.


  • I do not wish the driver to take a long alternative route for no apparent reason and refuse to tell me or any other passenger how long it's likely to take.


At the moment, the method of transport that meets these requirements is my car.

Charity, cynicism, and utter bollocks.

In my earlier post about Band Aid 20 (which I stand by), I linked to this piece by Joan Smith. While it makes a lot of very good points, it also contains some crap. In the spirit of journalistic balance, it's about time I laid into it.

Clearly something happens to people who buy singles at this time of the year, putting them in the mood for repeated doses of sugary sentimentality as they prepare to spend several trying days cooped up with their relatives.


This is true, but not really why people bought the Band Aid single. You may disagree about whether it's a good idea, but the fact is that the reason the single did so well was that people bought it out of a desire to help the starving. Criticise the outcome of their charity, by all means, but their intentions were noble.

Even in the more innocent age in which it was first recorded, it seemed absolutely gob-smacking that no one involved in the project questioned the appropriateness of singing Do They Know It's Christmas? in the context of a famine in Ethiopia.

Not only was it difficult to believe that starving children and their parents had given much thought to Santa, but as Julie Burchill pointed out at the time, many of the intended recipients of Geldof's largesse were Muslims.


Julie Burchill veers wildly between brilliant insight and utter idiocy. This is one of the latter cases.

The idea behind Christmas is not to give generously but only to our type and not to them heathens. It is to give generously. I'm an Atheist myself, but have always regarded the festival as one of Christianity's greatest gifts to our civilisation. (Yes, I'm well aware that the Solstice was celebrated before Christianity appropriated it. The point of the Pagan celebrations was to get drunk, eat a lot, and hope the Summer was going to come back yet again this year. These are all good things, and I'm glad they're still with us, but it was Christianity that enshrined the ideals of generosity and charity in Christmas.) A time of year whose entire point is to give people things that will make them happy. It's simple and it's brilliant. Christianity has, in its time, had sects who have seen it as their duty to punish, even kill, unbelievers and heretics. Those sects have been in charge of the Church at times. No Christians I know of regard those parts of their history as something to be proud of. It's interesting to see how the multicultural leftists, who pride themselves so much on their sensitivity to other cultures, have so eagerly embraced the idea that Christians should ignore the suffering of non-Christians.

Two decades later, with Islam at the top of the political agenda, it would be reasonable to expect a greater degree of cultural sensitivity from even the most bone-headed celebrities.


Got that? For Christians to try to help Muslims at Christmas time is cultural insensitivity. Presumably, Muslim charities aren't allowed to help non-Muslims either. What a wonderful multicultural world we do live in, and no mistake.

What makes it even worse this time is that the proceeds of the record are intended for Sudan, where the Darfur region has become notorious as the site of a savage religious and ethnic conflict, prosecuted against the Christian and Animist population by the Janjaweed (Muslim) militia.


Yes, if there's one thing even worse than Christians giving to Muslims at Christmas, it's Christians giving to Christians at Christmas. Is there no end to their perfidy?

Apart from that, I have to agree with everything else Smith writes (except that I think the verses of the song have a rather good tune, though the chorus and middle-eight are shite). The Band Aid project is fundamentally flawed. If the reason you have no food is natural disaster, then a gift of food will help you. If the reason you have no food is that men who want to kill you have burned your crops, then a gift of food is less help. It might help you survive for a little while, but, sooner or later, the men are going to come for you, and, at that point, what you'll need are guns. And yet... and yet....

Bob Geldof is not a stupid or an ignorant man. He knows the problems in Africa are largely caused by dictators. He knows that a lot of the aid he offers won't do what he wants it to, won't go where he wants it to; he knows that some of it will be counterproductive. He knows that Band Aid didn't work perfectly, and made plenty of mistakes. But he does make one simple point. There are people alive today who would be dead if it weren't for Band Aid and Live Aid. You can argue back and forth about whether a lack of charity would make revolution more likely and whether charity therefore leads to a greater number of deaths, but not everyone can always look at the big long-term picture. Sometimes, you have to act like a human — and a good thing, too. So you give food to the starving. And it doesn't always work, but, if you give enough food to enough starving people, then some of it will work. And you end up with people — perhaps not as many as you'd have liked, but some people — who would have died but instead have lived, thanks to you.

As Fran Healy said, they're just musicians, and all they can do is sing. Bob Geldof & Midge Ure have found a way to turn mere singing into saved lives. Sometimes, your duty is to help those who need your help, to the best of your abilities. I think I'll buy a copy.

Thursday, December 23

A diversion.

Jackie's done it, so so shall I. Sun ink to do, in it?

Three Names You Go By:
1. Jo
2. Squander Two
3. Mr... er... sorry, how do you pronounce that?

Three Things You Like About Yourself:
1. My wife.
2. My taste in eyewear.
3. My ability to touch the ground without bending my knees.

Three Things You Dislike About Yourself:
1. My childhood.
2. My bouts of depression.
3. My tendency to piss off people I like.

Three Parts of Your Heritage:
1. English.
2. Jewish.
3. Australian.

Three Things That Scare You:
1. Sudden loud noises.
2. The threat of intense pain.
And that's it.

Three of Your Everyday Essentials:
1. Clothes.
2. Food.
3. Diet Coke.

Three Things You Are Wearing Right Now:
1. My wedding ring.
2. Some rather excellent FCUK wraparound shades with prescription lenses.
3. Silver cufflinks.

Three of Your Favorite Bands/Artists (at the moment):
1. No-Man.
2. Vast.
3. Snow Patrol.

Three of Your Favorite Songs at Present:
1. Photogenic by Squander Pilots.
2. Chocolate by Snow Patrol.
3. Is It 'Cause I'm Cool? by Mousse T.

Three New Things You Want to Try in the Next 12 Months:
1. Getting to grips with Ableton Live.
Apart from that, no plans. I'll know them when I see them.

Three Things You Want in a Relationship (love is a given):
1. Trust.
2. Fidelity.
3. Physical affection.

Two Truths and a Lie:
1. The Communists banned surnames in Mongolia.
2. Bats squeak so loudly that, if we could hear them, they'd deafen us.
3. Everest is the world's tallest mountain.

Three Physical Things About the Opposite Sex That Appeal to You:
1. Grace.
2. Poise.
3. Buttocks.

Three Things You Just Can't Do:
1. Run for long distances.
2. Pronounce the letter S as a whistle for comic effect.
3. Fly.

Three of Your Favorite Hobbies:
1. Making music.
2. Watching films.
3. Blogging.

Three Things You Want to do Really Badly Right Now:
1. Go to lunch.
2. Finish work for Christmas.
3. Empty my bladder.

Three Places You Want to Go on Vacation:
1. Corsica.
2. Chicago.
3. Prague.

Three Kids' Names:
1. Eva.
2. Ben.
3. Phoebe.

Three Things You Want to Do Before You Die:
1. Have a child, one way or another.
2. Become self-employed.
3. See a cure for diabetes.

Wednesday, December 22

The 1952 Committee.

The 1952 Committee are a group of ex-Tories who have left the party for good because Howard is backing Blunkett's ID card proposals, plus some who'd already left the Tories but have been made even more determined not to return because Howard is backing Blunkett's ID card proposals, plus a couple who can't vote in UK general elections but, if they could, wouldn't because Howard is backing Blunkett's ID card proposals.

So where does that leave me? As far as I can see, what unites these people is, to a lesser or greater extent, some degree of surprise. Why? All Howard has done is exactly what anyone with half a brain always knew he — or any other Tory leader — would do. ID cards are not a Labour scheme. Labour just happen to be the government who will finally manage to push them through. It's not like the Tories never supported the idea when they were in power. It's not like the Tories have paid anything more than lip service to the idea of personal freedom for many, many years. It's not like they have a Libertarian wing worth speaking of. They're a bunch of authoritarians. Their solution to every problem ever is to give greater power to Whitehall. Howard was a typically authoritarian Tory Home Secretary, and he hasn't changed. I was surpised at the reaction from so many Libertarians when Howard became leader. "Oh," they said, "now we'll see a strong leader make the Tories electable again!" I can see why a traditionalist party-loyal Tory Conservative like Peter Cuthbertson might support Howard, but why on Earth would any Libertarian with a memory think the man had anything to offer?

I actually have grudgingly to applaud Howard for his honesty. Because, had he opposed ID cards while in opposition, I absolutely guarantee that he would have tried to introduce them if he ever became PM. At least, this way, you know what you're voting for. Or against.

So I approve of the 1952 Committee in principle. But I don't think I can join, because I never would have voted Tory, because I always knew that they would do this.

Tuesday, December 21

Acquisition joy.

I just got one of these. I am pleased to report that it is the bee's knees. It may not have a lot of clever functions like an iPod, but — and I can't emphasise this enough — it is only eighteen quid. I spent another thirty quid on a half-gig SD card for it, which still makes it cheap. And, because it takes cards, it is upgradeable.

Class.

Home Secretaries and their funny little ways.

"What exactly is your problem with Blunkett?" asks a reader in response to my last, somewhat impolite, post. A fair question, really. Blunkett is an interesting politician, in that people only seem to hate him from the one direction. When someone says they hate Blair, you need further information to find out whether it's because he's too socialist or too conservative, too fond of using the army or too keen to get the UN's permission first, too soft on Sinn Fein or... no, I can't type the next bit with a straight face. But you get the point. The same applies to most politicians: people hate them for a wide variety of often contradictory reasons. But not Blunkett. When someone hates Blunkett, it's because of what he's done for civil liberties in this country. Presumably, in recent weeks, a few extra people have started hating him because of the way he treats his ex-lover and his children, which does appear to be pretty disgusting. But, politically, civil liberties are the issue, every time.

To be fair to Blunkett, he was a symptom of the problem, not its cause. Much as I'd love to say that his plans were his alone, they clearly weren't: Charles Clarke, a politician whom I regarded as quite reasonable and sensible until yesterday, is eagerly carrying the torch onwards. Much as I'd love to say that Labour are the problem, they clearly aren't: the (relative) economic liberalism of the Tories hasn't extended to social policy for as long as I can remember. Michael Howard will never be Prime Minister because people remember what he was like as Home Secretary and will vote accordingly. If Labour actually start locking people up for not wearing the correct armbands, then Howard might start to look like the lesser of two evils. The simple fact is that most governments of the last century or so have regarded the population of Britain as a problem that needs to be solved, and Home Secretaries attempt to solve the problem by keeping tabs on it and taking away its freedoms.

So Blunkett had two major problems: he was an efficient, capable politician; and he was Home Secretary. Home Secretaries being what they are, an inefficient politician, such as Straw, is ideal for the role: he certainly had some very illiberal plans, but they didn't come to much. But Blunkett, I'm sorry to say, was good at his job. And his job stank.

Under Blunkett, we have ended up with more police cameras on us than ever before. And I don't just mean speed cameras, which, as I've said before, I don't have a problem with per se. No, I mean the way entire city centres have been turned into observation zones, so that the police can proudly track your every footstep from the comfort of their desks. Under Blunkett, ID cards have gone from something governments occasionally suggested as a red herring whenever they had some other particularly nasty legislation to slip past the media's attention to a very real scheme that will certainly be introduced in the next year or two. Furthermore, they have gone far beyond mere cards: the government intend to keep a database of the face, fingerprints and DNA of every person in the UK, cross-referenced to our car's registration numbers, our phone records, and our preferred websites. And the bastards are going to charge us fifty quid for the privilege. Under Blunkett, the government have overturned the principle of presumed innocence: in rape cases, defendants are now effectively guilty until proven innocent. Thanks to Blunkett, criminals' previous prosecutions can be brought up in court, which is handy for the police, who will no longer need to bother their pretty little heads with the gathering of actual evidence. (Unsolved burglary? Just pick someone up who vaguely matches the description and who's done plenty of time for burglary. The jury'll convict when they hear his record. After a few years, maybe we could just have a hundred or so all-purpose criminals, going into jail on a rota basis. Which, come to think of it, would meet the government's prison population targets.)

Blunkett did two things I can think of which elevated him above the status of annoyingly efficient Home Secretary and onto The Pedestal Of Bastard. Firstly, as you may know, it is the tradition in Britain, when someone is wrongly convicted and locked up, to present them with a bill for room and board when their conviction is overturned. Yes, that's right: if you are locked up for, say, twenty years for a crime you did not commit, when your conviction is finally overturned, the government will present you with a large bill for the luxurious prison bed you slept in and the scrumptious prison food you ate. Needless to say, the guilty get all this for free. Now, it wasn't Blunkett's policy. But he did defend it in court as "reasonable". When the court found against the government, he appealed it, thus gratuitously pumping up the legal bills of the men the government had already so thoroughly screwed. The amounts of money involved are, to the Treasury, neglible. There aren't all that many miscarriages of justice, and a few hundred grand here and there is chump change to the government. This policy has never been about the money: it's a way for the government to demonstrate to the wrongly convicted that they are still as guilty as hell in the eyes of their lords and masters and that, just because they've got out of jail on a technicality, that doesn't mean they can't still be punished. It's illegal, it's immoral, it's cruel, and it's not even in the government's interests, but Blunkett defended it and called it reasonable. Bastard.

The other thing he did, which Charles Clarke is happily continuing with, is to mislead the public regarding the soon-to-be-imposed National ID Card by telling us that it won't be compulsory to carry it with us. The British public are traditionally opposed to the idea of having to carry ID with them at all times, and it was Blunkett who masterminded the way round this opposition. For those who haven't figured it out yet (which, sadly, according to polls, appears to be a majority), the card itself is just a minor detail. The way the government's plans have taken shape, it doesn't even matter whether they introduce a card. The database that the police will be using will contain your fingerprints and your DNA. Unless you change your fingerprints, which is painful and difficult, and re-engineer your DNA, which is impossible, you will always be carrying the ID with you, regardless of whether you're carrying the card. Blunkett certainly knows this, which means he was deliberately misleading the public. Bastard.

I hope that answers your question.

Thursday, December 16

Gone.

Good riddance to the worst Home Secretary in history. With Labour's record, they may actually manage a worse one shortly. Tsk.

Anyway, so here's my theory about David Blunkett.

Being blind, he had an entirely understandable desire to keep track of things and people, mainly in order not to bump into them. He was then given absolute untramelled power over the people of Britain. Oops.

Some of you will, no doubt, object that I am being unfair to blind people here, but I'm really just being generous to Blunkett: either his behaviour was brought about by paranoia borne of his physical disability or he was just a cunt.

Wednesday, December 15

Again.

I had thought that the maple syrup was a one-off. I'm generally OK in supermarkets. I like shopping. But no.

Having just moved house, and being in the midst of more dust and chaos than brought about life on Earth, we needed a load of tea-towels. So off I went, late last night, to get as many as I could in Tesco, who are conveniently open till midnight.

It was easy enough to find what should have been the right section: near kitcheny things like bleach and dishwasher tablets are a whole bunch of cloths and wiping things that you would use in a kitchen: washing-up cloths, washing-up sponges, dusters, super dusters, hyper-absorbent dusting cloths, "all-purpose" (ha!) cloths... no bloody tea-towels.

Might they be with the kitchen rolls, which are, in some ways, a bit like disposable tea-towels, after all? No, they might not.

After a good ten minutes of staring at the same shelves again and again, convinced that this must be the right place but that I was stupidly looking right through the things, I resorted to asking a passing member of staff. He had some considerable trouble finding them himself, first finding a manager who told him that they no longer stocked tea-towels, just seconds before actually finding them.

They were at the far end of the shop from all the other kitchen cloth products, with the cafetieres. Of course.

Admittedly, it is true that one might use a tea-towel on a cafetiere. But the same could be said of axes and Tesco's shop layout design staff, and they don't keep them together.

Monday, December 13

Now I feel safer.

We got a new fridge the other day. It's my first ever brand new fridge: my last one came with the flat when I bought it. Anyway, the fridge has safety instructions, as you might expect, and I had a look through them for an entirely sensible reason: I wanted to check whether there was a minimum distance to be kept between the cooling things on the back of the machine and the wall. Apparently not. To discover that, I didn't half have to wade through some bollocks.

Now, everyone knows that fear of litigation and the technical stupidity of (a) corporate lawyers and (b) everyone else is turning these safety instructions a bit stupid. But this latest booklet has finally stepped over the boundary into out-and-out lunacy. As well as the warning not to put too much food in the fridge, as it could fall out when I open the door and disastrously injure me (thanks for that, Daewoo), there was this:

Do not spray water inside or outside the fridge/freezer, as this could cause fire or explosion.


Let's just be clear about this. If your kids have a water-pistol fight in the kitchen, and one of them hits the fridge with a small jet of water, and the fridge then explodes and kills them all, Daewoo's lawyers will respond with "Ah, you should have read the instructions."

O, blissful gadget.

Being amazingly tall, I tend to get a bit of a bad back when driving, since cars aren't built for the likes of me. So I went into Halford's the other day to get a back support thingy for my car. There was a high density lumbar support for about 20 quid (apparently, high density is good when supporting backs. Apparently): it was just a little strap thing that went across the seat behind the small of your back. I was going to buy it, but then spotted, for only 15 quid, a thing which also claimed to have high denisty lumbar support, but which covered the entire seat and had exciting-looking padded bits for your shoulders and things, and had a built in electronic back massager which plugs into the car's cigarette lighter (or cigar lighter, as manufacturers insist on calling them, for some reason. I smoke neither, so what do I care? Come to think of it, when are they going to stop with the antediluvian terminology and start calling them "phone chargers", which — let's face it — is what they are? Anyway). It looked too good to be true: why would something so blatantly better be cheaper? Maybe, I reasoned, it was actually utter crap.

I bought it anyway.

It is not utter crap. It may well be the single greatest invention ever. I now drive around in an incredibly comfy chair with added exciting-cum-soothing buzzing going on around the small of my back and my shoulder blades. It is utter class. It may or may not be good for my back, but it feels so good, I couldn't care less.

Friday, December 10

Clever but apparently pointless.

The other day, I noticed that the bloke in front of me in the queue at Sainsbury's was wearing a pair of Levi's new "anti-fit" jeans. They looked utterly shit, in a myriad ways.

Now, this is interesting. (Yes, it is.) Levi's have created some new jeans which simply do not fit. Doesn't matter what size you buy or what size you are: they are such a weird shape that they are guaranteed not to fit anyone. And they don't even not fit in a cool way, like the giant trousers of ten-year old skateboarders do, because they transcend merely being too big or too small: they are both. In short, these new jeans are an example of extraordinarily bad tailoring.

Levi's are not stupid, however. They have popped adverts on to our screens in which blokes wearing jeans that don't fit pull extremely attractive women. Unsubtle, perhaps, but I'm sure it's working. After all, the poor bloke I saw wearing the bloody things the other day didn't need the help of bad trousers to appear ugly. The ads had clearly persuaded him that what he's been doing wrong all these years is wearing clothes designed to fit his body inside them, and he had leapt enthusiastically into this latest scheme to get laid, when he really should have considered a better haircut first.

Now, if Levi's marketing department were working for a company that couldn't actually make clothes, I would applaud them. These guys could sell arseless boiler-suits made of pickles to the masses. But Levi's are quite good at making jeans — famed for it, in fact. Why go to all the trouble of designing crap clothes and figuring out how to sell them, when they could just continue to make clothes that fit?

A hitherto-unknown side-effect of moving house.

Last night, I dreamt that I was a good friend of Boris Johnson.

I'm not.

Polystyrene ceiling tiles.

Over a year ago, I had a plan. The plan was quite simple: move to Northern Ireland with Vic; get a job; get a house. It has proven trickier than I would have liked.

We sold my flat and left Glasgow on the fifteenth of December last. We came to Northern Ireland, put most of our stuff in storage, and moved in with Vic's mother and sister and Vic's sister's boyfriend and daughter for "a couple of months". So far, so easy. And, after that, it really all went tits-up.

The idea was to live rent-free for a little while, thus making lots of money and getting rid of most of our debt. However, I remained unemployed for nearly six months. I am highly skilled at all sorts of things, including a specialist area that virtually no-one else is skilled in, but that got me precisely nowhere. I finally got a job about two weeks before the government stopped paying me dole money — a near thing. Vic got a job more quickly, but it was very badly paid. So we remained in a very small bedroom in someone else's house for a year, building up extra debt for most of that time and paying to keep our beloved possessions in a big box where we couldn't ever see them.

As if that wasn't enough, God decided to make it a thoroughly shit year for us in all sorts of other ways, into which I shall not go, as I have better things to do than beg for pity. It's been bad. And the plan was so good.

Today, we got our new house. Finally. I will eventually write about the hassle we had with bad lawyers (not ours — he's brilliant) and a bad bank, which resulted in one house purchase falling through in spectacularly stupid fashion and this one very nearly being scuppered. But we prevailed, and we've got a house. It's got both rising and penetrating damp, the rendering and the roof need work, we'll have to knock down a wall and move two radiators to fit our sofa in, the central heating doesn't extend to the top floor, the hot water tank is leaking, and we're already skint: the place is probably going to bankrupt us. But it is worth it. It's ours.

I spent this evening adjusting the toilet's flushing mechanism and ripping big polystyrene tiles off the ceiling and bad paper off the walls of the room that will one day be our bedroom. These are crappy tasks, as eny fule kno, but I haven't been so happy in a long, long time.

The front room is currently painted mauve and a shade of green that I can't even think of a name for, other than "vile".

Wednesday, December 8

Some people get paid to think of these things.

So my sister-in-law was telling me the other day that regular colonic irrigation is believed to lower your chances of bowel cancer. (No, I don't remember how we got onto the subject. It's a great euphemism, though, isn't it? "Colonic irrigation". Sounds like something a civil engineer might do. (Come to think of it, maybe civil engineers do do it. What do I know about the shadowy world of civil engineering?) An even better euphemism, used now by health spas and such, apparently, is "colonic hydrotherapy". My hat is off to whoever coined that.) Anyway, it got me thinking. The claim may or may not be true, but how would you go about testing it?

Well, obviously, you'd give, say, one thousand men monthly enemas for, oh, twenty years or so, and you'd leave another one thousand men alone, under strict instructions not to go getting any enemas off their own bat. But then there's the tricky bit: you have to test for placebo effect. So, somehow, you have to leave another one thousand men with the impression that they're receiving enemas without actually giving them enemas.

There are, I believe, genuine scientific statistics regarding colonic irrigation, which means that somewhere, somehow, someone has figured out how to do that.

Tuesday, December 7

Infernal retail categorisation.

It seemed simple enough: buy some maple syrup. (I love maple syrup. And it is The Best Thing to have on Weetabix.) I was in Tesco's already, so how hard could it be?

Ha.

The first place I looked was with the sugar. No maple syrup there. Well, fair enough. Maybe they've put it with the treacle and golden syrup, which inexplicably aren't with the sugar. (Why isn't golden syrup with the sugar? It is sugar.) So I manage to find the syrup and treacle, which are with the jam, of course, but there's no maple syrup there. Hmm.

"How about Home Baking?" suggests Vic. Good plan. So off we trek to Home Baking, only to discover that that's where the sugar is: I've already looked there. Damn.

So I check the Organic section (well, it comes out of trees, right? You don't get much more organic than that); the condiments, but they're all savoury; and the chutneys and pickles — on the grounds that (a) they're all bits of plants in jars, and (b) we're getting desperate. No maple syrup.

We were going to just give up, when I had a sudden stroke of recollection. I followed my hunch, and found it: maple syrup! Oh, joy!

It was with the frozen geese. Of course.

Friday, December 3

Ninety from the Nineties.

Everyone loves arguing about music. Everyone loves proving other people wrong. And everyone loves voting, at least about trivial things. Well, here's an opportunity to combine all three. Ronnie has just launched 90 from the 90s:

After reading umpteen 'Best Of...' lists in the past few weeks (and more to come, no doubt) we got fed up of arguing about how bad everyone's taste in music was and decided to do our own list. 90 from the 90s aims to produce the ultimate list of the greatest songs from the last decade.

Brought to you by 160676 and Talking Pish, we need you to email everyone you know and tell them about this site. In order to get a fair and full list, we need as many people as possible to tell us their favourite songs.

So, get on the old email and tell all your friends about 90 from the 90s.

We need you to give us your Top 10 Songs of the 1990s and send them to the email address at the top. Once we recieve all the lists (entries close on 24th December) we'll compile them all and get the 90 from the 90s list published as soon as we can.


And you can't say fairer than that.

As if anyone cares, here's my top ten:

  1. Lamb — Gorecki

  2. Alpha — Slim

  3. No-ManDays In The Trees

  4. Sunscreem — When

  5. Mansun — Negative

  6. U2 — Please

  7. Radiohead — Planet Telex

  8. Depeche Mode — It's No Good

  9. Bomb The Bass — Winter In July

  10. David Arnold & Propellerheads — On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Do pass the word on, and do remember, when sending in your entry, to make it exactly the same as mine.

What is wrong with these people?

This is largely good news, it seems.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday described Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the Palestinians' best chance for peace ...


This is fantastic, really. Call me a warmongering neocon, but I don't think this would have happened without Saddam's ousting. Credit where it's due, though: in describing Sharon as Palestinians' best chance for peace, Mubarak made himself a pretty damn good chance for peace as well. Could it be that Arabs start competing with Israelis over who can be the best chance for peace? That'd be nice.

However, Mubarak also said

... that [the Fatah leader] Marwan Barghouti's decision to run in the elections for Palestinian Authority chairman had damaged Palestinian unity.


Eh?

"Fatah has nominated Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and Abu Mazen, I think, will be the one to win," Mubarak said, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre.

"There is Marwan al-Barghouti. ... It splits the Palestinian line and we urge the Palestinians that there should be one voice and no differences at a time when we need to stay clear of differences," Mubarak said in comments broadcast on state television.


Here, Mubarak demonstrates very clearly both his understanding of and his attitude towards democracy. Why does poisonous crap like this never meet with outrage; why is it received as if it's just routine diplomatic opinion? Let's just paraphrase it a bit, shall we?

Kim Jong-il said that Michael Howard's decision to run in the British general election had damaged British unity.

"Labour have nominated Tony Blair, and Blair, I think, will be the one to win," Kim Jong-il said.

"There is Michael Howard. It splits the British line and we urge the British that there should be one voice and no difference at a time when we need to stay clear of differences."


Suddenly sounds a tad less diplomatic, doesn't it? I think we all know why a dictator might not think that now is the time for opposition candidates — for any given value of "now".

The Palestinians have demonstrated before that they have a pretty good grasp of democracy: there were loads of candidates who stood against Arafat, many of whom didn't routinely kill anyone. Arafat rigged his election, surprisingly enough, and that is largely what led to the problems the Palestinians now face: they have been suffering under an uncompromising, violent, and thoroughly corrupt dictatorship, when they could have had genuine democracy. Their dictator's dead now, and they've got another chance. Let them have it, I say. I don't want to see the Palestinians speaking with one voice. No population of more than about four people ever speaks with one voice; even a jury of twelve has difficulty. Show me a large group of people speaking as one, and I'll show you rule by terror. It's the Tirana Index.

So, please, Palestinians, ignore Mubarak: you don't want your country to end up like his. Let al-Barghouti stand, even if he is a murdering bastard whom I sincerely hope the Israelis will never allow out of his cell; and let a dozen or a score or a hundred other Palestinians stand, too. Have a few debates. And good luck to the lot of you.

Thursday, December 2

Now for something less serious.

Ronnie has posted this link to one of the greatest websites I have ever seen: lots of photos of puppies, taken with a fish-eye lens. And a couple of kittens. Kittens are pretty damn cute, but not as cute as puppies.

This miniature dachshund is the spitting image of Phoebe.

Dogs are just great.

Treading carefully.

George Galloway has been exonerated in court. Well, perhaps "exonerated" is too strong a word: he has won his libel case against The Telegraph. Back when the damning documents were first published, Johann Hari wrote this:

There are two possible motives for [saluting Saddam Hussein's "courage, strength and indefatigability", as Galloway did]: admiration for Saddam, or gratitude for his cash. Both options stink: either he was paid by Saddam, or Saddam didn't need to offer him cash. I for one will think better of Galloway if he is a crook. If he was just doing this for the old, foul motive of an extra $375,000 a year, he is a bit less immoral than if he backs Saddam's atrocities sincerely.


Absolutely. I said something similar at the time myself (though I wasn't blogging then, so you'll just have to take my word for it). Even if Saddam had paid him (which, I have to say, he most definitely didn't), it wouldn't have been, strictly speaking, a bribe: a bribe is what you pay someone to do something that they wouldn't do if you didn't pay them. Had Saddam been paying Galloway (which he wasn't), it would have constituted gratitude, not bribery. And the important thing to remember (which Galloway seems to be ignorant of) is that Saddam could be grateful to Galloway even if Galloway had never had any intention of helping Saddam. And, for that last sentence, I don't think I need a legal disclaimer.

The judge's decision is interesting.

Mr Justice Eady said: "It was the defendants' primary case that their coverage was no more than 'neutral reportage' of documents discovered by a reporter in the badly-damaged foreign ministry in Baghdad, but the nature, content and tone of their coverage cannot be so described."

Telegraph foreign correspondent David Blair had earlier told the judge how he had found the documents inside the Iraqi foreign ministry.

The judge said that although Mr Galloway was interviewed by telephone on 21 April, he was not given an opportunity to read the Iraqi documents beforehand, and neither were they read to him.

The reporter who contacted him, Andrew Sparrow, only summarised the claims relating to funding of the Mariam Appeal, but did not tell him the newspaper was planning to publish claims about personal enrichment, the judge said.

"[Mr Galloway] did not therefore have a fair or reasonable opportunity to make inquiries or meaningful comment upon them before they were published."


So there's no suggestion here that the documents were forged. Their authenticity has been disputed by the prosecution, but not, it seems, by the judge. The problem is that The Telegraph didn't follow basic procedures when it came to allowing their subject a fair right of reply — in which case, they did deserve to lose this case, as that is totally unprofessional of them, and they should have known better.

I have two questions. Had The Telegraph given Galloway copies of the documents and allowed him, say, twenty-four hours to respond; had they then printed his response in full; had they published the documents with no editorial comment about Galloway, but restrained themselves to merely providing a translation and saying where they'd found them; would they then have lost this case? And would Galloway's reputation have suffered in the same way?

One thing that any idiot can learn from a quick browse through history is that tyrants take their friends with them. One of the keys to running a successful tyranny is to arrange matters so that it is in everyone's interests that you stay in power: you divide your country into factions and fractions who are guaranteed to start a bloody civil war when you go, ensuring that succession can never be smooth; and you make damn sure that everyone who's on your side stands to suffer badly if you lose power, thus ensuring that coups from within your own inner sanctum are unlikely. Every time you get on the good side of a tyrant, you're taking a gamble on whose career — or life — will last the longest, his or yours. Tyrants are great believers in solidarity: you can guarantee that, when he goes down, he will try to take you with him.

David Blair, who found the documents, said in court that

it would have been an "extraordinarily elaborate exercise" for anybody to have forged the document.

"Then of course such a person would have had to hope that someone might chance upon this document from the thousands of pages in the many hundreds of folders within the hundreds of filing-boxes in the room - even if they happened upon the room at all - and that it would find its way to a journalist," he said.


He has a point, but it strikes me that this has implications beyond the Galloway case. One journalist grabs a couple of folders from a choice of many thousands, in a building that's being looted, and just happens to come across incriminating evidence? This is equally unlikely whether the evidence is forged or genuine. My own personal theory is that it wouldn't have mattered which box Blair picked: that every box contained a document that implicated a public figure somewhere. Some of those documents will have been genuine — as the oil-for-food scam is making all too clear — and others will have been forgeries — forged by the Saddam regime itself. But such forgeries would only be made about people that Saddam regarded as allies — again, even if they did not think of themselves as his allies — and so would still, in their own way, be damning. As a general rule, the less freedom there is in a nation, the more truthful are its paranoid conspiracy theories.

Finally, if I can avoid a libel case for a few more sentences, I just have to pour some ridicule on this:

Mr Rampton said Mr Galloway had only met Saddam on two occasions.

"The first time was in 1994 when, as he himself freely admits, he put his foot in his mouth by making some remarks which were open to interpretation - and needless to say were interpreted - as some kind of fawning praise for Saddam Hussein's personal courage and strength.

"It wasn't what he meant to say, it was not in his mind to say, because he had no respect or admiration for Saddam Hussein whatsoever."


Really, just how open to interpretation is this:

Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.


Not very, in my opinion.

Furthermore, I have seen Galloway speaking in public. Everything the man says is utter bollocks, but he ain't half eloquent. His speaking is assured, confident, unhesitating, well constructed, persuasive, and really quite brilliant. I don't believe he is even capable of accidentally saying something other than what he means to say. And that's a compliment.

Tough on the causes of crime.

Brian Micklethwait has a suggestion:

The politicos are cranking up this London Olympic bid. Well, all those of us who care more about people getting murdered than we do about people running marathons should offer the Olympiacs a deal. You can have your damned games if, by the time they come here, you have got on top of London's crime numbers. If, on the other hand, you obsess about the Olympics and regard harping on about murder as a mere distraction, then we should all flood the internet with "London: World Capital of Crime – Olympians Do Not Come Here – You Will All Be Murdered" propaganda. "London Welcomes The Olympians" – "Now Hand Over Your Wallet Or Die", etc.

...

The good thing about this arrangement is that I believe that it would work spontaneously. No one would have to be in charge of anything. But, if any of the people who do think that they are in charge of the Olympic bid tell us that we are being unpatriotic if we go on about crime in London instead of ignoring it and suffering in silence, they will be spontaneously attacked, and in a way that will really hurt them, with globally circulated (especially in Paris of course) bad news about what an appallingly unsuitable city London would be to hold these stupid games. Shut up, they will say. And the reply will be: no. Either you help us, or we screw you. That will be our message to them. And I think, after they have had a taste of it, that it might prove rather persuasive.


I don't think for one moment that this will work, but it will be fun to take some small revenge on the bastards who have done so much to help create the crime spree we all now live in.

Wednesday, December 1

Inadvertent science.

I suffer from migraines. Always have. They're a fascinating subject, except when you actually have one, when they're just shit.

I've been getting far fewer of them lately, largely thanks to chiropractice. One of the major causes of migraines is neck muscle tension, as the muscles in your neck stretch over the top of your scalp and down your forehead to somewhere around your eye sockets, so screwed-up muscles in your neck can cause agonising pain behind your eyes. Usually, sufferers don't even realise that their neck is in pain at all. Chiropractors do a great job of lowering the number of migraines you generally get: regular chiropractic treatment has lowered my rate from at least one a week to four or five a year. Anyway, the upshot of this is that a bit of a neck massage can cure a migraine, which is very handy to know.

Another good treatment for individual migraines is ibuprofen, miracle painkiller extraordinaire. Aspirin's good, too. Aspirin's frowned on these days, because it makes your stomach bleed, apparently. People who've never had a migraine in their life simply don't appreciate the extent of the pain. Not only do I happily take a drug that rots my stomach if it'll only stop the pain; if it was guaranteed to cure migraines, I'd take a drug that kicked me in the kidneys, chopped my legs off, and broke my spine.

If your doctor is sympathetic, you can get something called Naramig on prescription, and it's just fantastic. It's not a painkiller: it addresses the actual cause of the pain (something to do with blood vessels). By sheer coincidence, it also works well at alleviating neck tension, so helps that kind of migraine too.

There was some interesting research done on caffeine recently, which revealed that it is a better headache treatment than ibuprofen — though combining the two works best of all. The interesting thing is that a lot of caffeine in your diet can cause migraines, but, if you avoid the stuff generally, a big dose of caffeine can kill a headache stone dead. I now drink caffeine-free Diet Coke, but keep some of the normal stuff in the house, just in case. It's really worked very well.

So, when I get a migraine, I take some ibuprofen, drink loads of Diet Coke, and ask Vic (my wife) to give my neck muscles a tweak, which she's very good at. I always think it'd be great to know which of these methods works the best, but the overwhelming desire to get rid of the pain has always stopped me experimenting: the last thing I want to do is try just one method in isolation and it be the one that doesn't work at all.

But there's another interesting side-effect of migraines: they shut down your digestion. This is why I stopped taking Naramig. I didn't want to waste a precious pill on a minor pain that could be got rid of with a bit of aspirin (which is about 50 times cheaper), and, by the time I'd realise that I needed the big guns, it would be too late: the Naramig would just sit in my stomach, which would defiantly refuse to digest it.

So I got home in agony last night. It was one of those sneaky ones that zips from a minor twinge to hell itself before I realise what's going on. I took some ibuprofen, drank over 2 litres of Diet Coke, and got a superb-as-ever neck massage from Vic. And the pain went away pretty quickly. Result.

Unbeknownst to me, however, the migraine hadn't been cured at all: only the pain had. Migraines are complicated and surreptitious phenomena, and they pull this kind of stunt sometimes. My stomach had been well and truly shut for business, and I, thinking the lack of pain implied cure, had a nice big meal. Oops. I stayed awake, feeling sick, until about four this morning, then I vomited for a while, then I had insomnia until about ten minutes before my alarm went off and I had to go to work. And they tell me there's a God.

The point of all this (yes, there's a point) is that I finally did my experiment, albeit unintentionally. I can exclusively reveal that a neck massage alone is enough to relieve migraine pain. Neither the ibuprofen nor the Diet Coke were ever digested.

To say that this important discovery adequately compensates me for the way I feel right now would be a lie.

Tuesday, November 30

Yet more stupidity.

The ever-brilliant Tongue Tied reports the latest political correctness craze to sweep American schools:

Homecoming, the quintessentially American tradition featuring kings and queens wearing satin sashes and sparkly tiaras, is a tumultuous topic on campus these days.

Universities and high schools across the country, driven in large part by protests from gay students, are re-examining the ritual of crowning homecoming kings and queens ....


"Re-examining". Always a dangerous word in the hands of lefty activists: it generally means "trashing".

At Vanderbilt University in Nashville this month, a gay student who ran for homecoming queen and took his place on the court in drag at a football game caused a huge stir. In October, students at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota elected their first male homecoming queen. That student and the university administrators say they were barraged with hostile telephone calls and e-mail messages from alumni and parents.


I bet a few of those phone calls were from etymologists. "King" means "male monarch"; "queen" means "female monarch". This whole thing is like campaigning for the right to call peacocks "peahens".

"We always get Mr. Heterosexual Vanderbilt and Ms. Heterosexual Vanderbilt to be the perfect king and queen," said Everett Moran, 21, the gay senior at Vanderbilt who ran for homecoming queen.

Mr. Moran did not win the crown, but he was elected to the homecoming court, appearing at the college football game on Nov. 6 wearing a black dress with an Empire waist and elbow-length red gloves, accentuated by the yellow sash draped over each of the 11 homecoming court students. But he made plenty of enemies in the process, with critics loudly criticizing him in the college newspaper and elsewhere.

"When the gay community separates from mainstream, it's a way of disappearing into the shadows," he said. "I really just wanted to put it in everyone's face. I wanted to make alumni and students recognize that on this campus we have gay students, and as much as the administration wants to keep us in the shadows, off to the side and out of the limelight, I'm not going to stand for it."


Please, please! I'm a victim, too! I'm oppressed! Notice me! Notice me!

Look, I live six thousand miles away, and even I can't help but notice the gay students in American colleges, not to mention every other part of America. Perhaps Mr Moran is confusing "shadows" with "media".

Some high schools now hold separate gay proms. But gay students like Mr. Moran say that is not enough. They view homecoming as an opportunity to integrate gay students into a classically heterosexual ritual.


He's right that gays and straights shouldn't be separated, of course. Which kind of makes you wonder why he's trying so hard to separate himself. He seems to have a bit of trouble with the word "integrate".

[At] Hayward High School, in the San Francisco Bay Area, ... a straight girl was elected king last year; she ran for king because she did not want to compete with her best friend, who was elected queen.


Oh, boo hoo. Nothing to do with sexuality that time, then: the girl was just a spoilt brat who doesn't understand that the world doesn't revolve around her. One position; two candidates. Get used to it. I'd love to see the tantrum the first time she fails a job interview.

At another high school, Sweetwater, in National City, Calif., a lesbian was elected homecoming queen in 2001 and wore a tuxedo to the celebration.


Now, she's got the right idea. Clearly, no-one was discriminating against her (at least, not enough to stop her getting elected), but she's not taking the piss by trying to pretend she was born with a penis — which is one of the major requirements of kingship. She was elected queen. So she wore a tuxedo. Why shouldn't she? Good for her.

A gay male student was elected homecoming queen at Southwest Texas State University in 1999, the same year that another young man, also gay, ran for homecoming queen at New Mexico State University, prompting that student government, after a backlash, to rule that queens must be female and kings must be male. That rule was overturned in 2002 after a female student applied to run for king.


What is wrong with these people, that they actually think you need a student government to decide these matters? You don't. You need a dictionary.

[Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network] said that in the past year he had heard from a growing number of high school students inquiring about changing homecoming to include gays. "Boys are supposed to be with girls and so forth, but gay people are saying there's another way to be," he said. "For some people that's scary."


No, it's bloody not. Homecoming kings and queens aren't forced to mate with each other, so the issue here is nothing to do with whether boys are with girls or with other boys. Not once in the entire article is there any mention of a homecoming king being discriminated against because he's got a boyfriend — and there's no way the reporter wouldn't have mentioned it if she'd found such a story. The issue is a simple matter of what the words "king" and "queen" mean. I can't be an actress or a barmaid. It's nothing to do with rights. I have the right to be an actress. I just don't have the, er, prerequisites.

As an aside, I have to ask since when did being gay have anything to do with wearing dresses? I can remember a time when to suggest that gay men should dress as women was considered ignorant and insulting (which it is). It's not long ago that schoolboys would have nominated a gay student for homecoming queen as a deliberate insult. Gay campaigners have spent many years disassociating themselves from transvestites and drag queens and the stereotypes of gay men mincing around in high heels and lesbians wearing combat fatigues. Sure, some gay men are transvestites, but so are some straight men. I would be willing to bet good money that there are gay students at Vanderbilt University who are horrified by what Mr Moran is doing. The result of all the progress that has been made over the last few decades is that openly gay men now stand a decent chance of being crowned homecoming king. And now idiots like Moran are going to undo all that good, while claiming to be fighting the good fight.

If these guys want to wear dresses instead of tuxedos, fair enough. But don't try and tell me it's something to do with human rights for homosexuals, 'cause it really isn't.

Monday, November 29

I like to think I'm a connoisseur.

A connoisseur of human stupidity, that is. It's just great. And there's so much of it about.

In this weekend's Observer comes the news that Merthyr Tidfil Borough Council are to ban the use of the word "brainstorm", as it could be offensive to people with mental disabilities or brain damage. The Royal Mail, by the way, don't allow their employees to use the word "handicap" — not only to describe disabled people, but when talking about golf, for instance — because its origin, apparently, is "cap in hand", so it has connotations of begging. I've been saying for ages that it's only a matter of time before someone bans the word "sinister" because it's offensive to left-handed people. I used to think I was joking, but am quickly coming to the conclusion that it really will happen. This inability to tell the difference between a word's origin, its meaning, and its connotations is compounded by a total ignorance of etymology (hello, Merthyr Borough Council), so that one Scottish police force banned the use of the phrase "rule of thumb", despite the fact that the story of its sexist origin is an urban myth. See also: "niggardly".

If you, too, are a connoisseur of human stupidity, then you might want to subscribe to This is True, a free weekly litany of idiocy. This week's brings us, first of all, a tale of bureaucrats being, unusually for their kind, a tad overzealous in their enforcement of the rules:

She'd already signed the precinct register when an election worker said her Bush-Cheney T-shirt amounted to illegal electioneering. So Debbie Dupeire pulled it off.

Dupeire, who voted in a sports bra, exercise pants and flip-flops, said she was afraid she would lose her chance to vote if she left to turn her shirt inside-out: the elections workers might not remember her, or might be away on break when she returned.

"I really thought it was OK to wear my shirt. I didn't go there to cause trouble," said Debbie Dupeire, a 38-year-old makeup artist from Jefferson who said she always votes.

Under state law, candidates' names cannot be displayed within 500 feet of a polling place.


Having failed to enforce the rules by letting her into the building in the first place, couldn't they just have let her vote and go? Any damage her advertising might theoretically have done had already been done during the fifteen minutes she was standing in the queue. By the time they spotted the infraction, it was already too late. Quite apart from making this woman's life unnecessarily difficult, they gave Bush some brilliant advertising here. Who, while standing in line to vote, will change their mind about who to vote for because they see someone wearing a T-shirt? No-one. Who, while standing in line to vote, will change their mind about who to vote for because they see an attractive Bush supporter whip off her T-shirt and vote in her bra? Well, at least half the young men in the area, I'd have thought. As usual, in insisting on the letter of the law, these idiots completely undermined its intention. (How do I know she's attractive? Because she took off her top in public. It doesn't matter what she looks like: such behaviour is inherently attractive.)

Secondly, there's this:

Police responding to a crash in Amherst, N.Y., reported finding both occupants of the vehicle unconscious in the back seat. According to their investigation, the married couple was driving home from a restaurant when the husband, Tiber L. Csapo Jr., 39, pulled over and punched his wife in the face. He resumed driving but continued beating her. She jumped into the back seat, but he followed her, whereupon the driverless vehicle ran off the road into heavy brush.


The truly amazing thing is that this man, at one point in his past, attempted courtship and succeeded. Quite a catch.

Sunday, November 28

The fixations of my subconscious.

The night before last, I dreamt that the spelling of the word "if" was to be changed to "iv". There were government adverts on TV, informing us all of how to use the new word and to remember to use the new spelling. It was part of the whole Chip & PIN thing, for some reason, and it was being done to prevent any confusion with "I've".

I'm still trying to work out whether it was just the usual stupid random dream crap or a brilliant commentary on the state of the world today.

Thursday, November 25

Statist idiocy.

Here's a nice little story in The Scotsman:

A TEENAGER who suffered permanent facial disfigurement from scalding hot bath water when he was a baby yesterday went to the Scottish Parliament to campaign for greater protection for the public.

Darren Ferguson, 17, from Stenhousemuir, appeared before Holyrood’s public petitions committee to call for regulations to ensure thermostats - which prevent tap water reaching scalding point - be installed in new buildings and renovated properties from May next year.

Mr Ferguson, who has undergone 59 major operations, numerous minor operations and laser surgery since being scalded on the face and chest by bath water when he was just six-months-old, said the thermostatic device cost just £80, but could save lives and prevent suffering.

He told the committee: "How can anyone say that years of mental and physical pain, a lifetime of disfigurement and the huge costs to the National Health Service are not worth an investment of £80 to save children and families in the future having to endure all that I and my family have had to suffer?"


Sounds sensible enough, doesn't it? Of course, right-wing bastards like me might make some preposterous claim about how it's the responsibility of parents not to pour boiling water onto their children, not the responsibility of the government to ensure we all live in a giant padded bubble, or we might point out the statistical fallacy in comparing all the costs to the NHS of treating every single scald victim to the cost of the device (but not of fitting it) required to prevent scalds in just one household, but everyone knows our real agenda is just to Oppress The Poor.

But, quite apart from the rights and wrongs of ever-greater state intrusion into our lives, there is another problem:

  • Destroying the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease requires raising the temperature of water to at least 140°F (60°C).
  • But, at the temperature 140°F (60°C), water can cause third-degree burns in children in one second and adults in five seconds.


When I worked at British Gas Services, we were taught a very simple rule about central heating systems: if the water from the hot water tap doesn't burn you, it's dangerously cold.

Unfortunately, The Scotsman's article is a bit vague about this "thermostatic device", so we don't know whether they're talking about a thermostatic mixing valve, which is a genuine solution to the problem, or just any old thermostat. Thing is, I suspect the Scottish Executive don't know either. I wonder how much of our money they'll spend on finding out?

Are you a scientist?

Some of us are, some of us aren't, but a lot of us occupy that big grey area: we don't work in labs, maybe we didn't study much science at school, but we know the difference between proof and evidence, we understand the scientific method, and we can spot bullshit statistics a mile off. Where is the dividing line? At what point can we say that these people are scientists, while these others are not?

Well, I have a simple test. Read this:

It has ... become increasingly apparent that physical "reality", no less than social "reality", is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific "knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.

...

But all this is only a first step: the fundamental goal of any emancipatory movement must be to demystify and democratize the production of scientific knowledge, to break down the artificial barriers that separate "scientists" from "the public". Realistically, this task must start with the younger generation, through a profound reform of the educational system. The teaching of science and mathematics must be purged of its authoritarian and elitist characteristics, and the content of these subjects enriched by incorporating the insights of the feminist, queer, multiculturalist and ecological critiques.

...

Finally, the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics. But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, "neither logic nor mathematics escapes the 'contamination' of the social." And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic: "mathematics is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other." Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content. We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations. Catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis.


If you laughed, you're a scientist.

This dates back to 1996, apparently, though this is the first I've heard of it (hey, I can't know everything). The above quotes are from a paper written by the physicist Alan Sokal in order to demonstrate that postmodern humanities academics, when they talk about science, talk utter bollocks. He submitted the piece for publication by Social Text, the editors failed to spot an extremely obvious piss-take, and published it, proving his point. Ha!

Anyway, in a roundabout sort of a way, this brings us back to my earlier post about how to pass the Turing Test:

It has always been assumed that the way to pass the Turing Test was to develop an astoundingly clever computer. Turns out that it can be done far more quickly and easily by raising an entire generation of astoundingly stupid humans with no grasp of grammar or coherence.


I now realise that there's yet another way of doing it: encourage a clique of self-congratulating academics who are highly intelligent and have a perfectly good grasp of grammar and coherence, who cynically use their intelligence specifically to eradicate coherence from their own writings. Here's the random Postmodernism Generator:

"Society is part of the failure of truth," says Lacan; however, according to Hanfkopf , it is not so much society that is part of the failure of truth, but rather the defining characteristic, and subsequent paradigm, of society. Thus, many theories concerning neocapitalist feminism may be revealed. Marx promotes the use of expressionism to deconstruct capitalism.

...

It could be said that the premise of Marxist capitalism suggests that consensus comes from the collective unconscious. The subject is interpolated into a neocultural dematerialism that includes culture as a reality.

...

If one examines expressionism, one is faced with a choice: either reject neocapitalist feminism or conclude that reality, surprisingly, has objective value. However, if expressionism holds, we have to choose between Derridaist reading and dialectic subtextual theory. The subject is contextualised into a expressionism that includes art as a whole.


Can you tell the difference between that and the real thing?

(But, then, what is "real"? And is it right for us to impose our concept of "difference", thus privileging some ideas over other, equally valid, concepts? Surely, elevating one set of essays as having an objective reality denies other essays their own internal realities, thus denoting them as the Other and oppressing their inherent challenge to the cultural hegemony of those who monopolise the discourse of "reality". OK; I'll stop now.)

Wednesday, November 24

A problem with consistency.

This is old news, from back in May of this year, though it's still topical: it's an account of the climate of Jew-hatred at UC Berkely, and is all too sadly familiar to anyone who's spent more than a minute in the company of a modern leftist discussing Israel. (There are some notable and laudable exceptions to the modern left-wing tendency to hate Jews, but they appear to be a minority these days, at least in Europe and in academia.)

Weinberg graduates this month as a student whose days at Cal were marked by what he calls "pinnacles of horror," in the pinched tone of a man betrayed. He remembers pro-Palestinian protesters insisting that Israeli border crossings are as bad as Nazi death camps. He remembers the glass front door of Berkeley's Hillel building -- where he attends Friday night services -- shattered by a cinderblock, with the message FUCK JEWS scrawled nearby. He remembers the spray-painted swastikas discovered one Monday morning last September on the walls of four lecture rooms in LeConte Hall accompanied by the chilling bilingual message, "Die, Juden."


But you have to understand ... if only Israel would stop its oppressive ... root causes ... occupation ... no alternative ... grievances ... resistance ... justified....

Anyway, the piece includes an account of the protests against Daniel Pipes when he arrived at the university to give a speech. I felt compelled to comment on this snippet:

As campus police assembled at the entrance to the hall and prepared to open its doors, a kaffiyeh-clad protester hoisted a placard that read: "What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct." The quote was attributed to Mahatma "Ghandi" in 1938, albeit a decade before there was an Israel. A silver-haired man, older than most in the crowd, burst out of the line to confront him.

"Do you know what it's like to be on a bus, and to see that bus blow up and see heads roll down the street?" the older man shouted, arms wild at his sides. "I've seen it -- in Israel."

The sign-bearer stood firm. "Well, they should have been killed," he yelled, his voice rising. "They should have been killed! They should have been killed because it wasn't their land! They should have been killed and it should have been more."

"You don't know history," the older man yelled. "You don't know anything."

The protester gave as good as he got: "You can leave. Get your ass out of here and back to Israel."


Back to Israel? Gosh. Regardless of what one might think of this protestor's views, one can't help but notice that he is dooming himself to a life of dissatisfaction through his desires for (a) Jews to get out of Israel, and (b) Jews to go back to Israel.

Errors or enemies?

For the last few weeks, lots of people who supported the removal of Saddam have started to pepper their speech with qualifications and back-pedalling, some even going so far as to support John Kerry in the election. The idea seems to be that, while, yes, it was right to invade Iraq in principle, if only it could have been done under an administration that hadn't fucked it up. There was no planning for post-war Iraq; the Iraqi army should never have been dismissed; Fallujah should have been dealt with sooner, or possibly later, but not just now; the blundering Yanks know nothing about peace-keeping, unlike us Brits, with our experience of defeating Northern Irish terrorists by making them Minister for Education.

None of this has rung true for me. It always struck me that war isn't as neat and easy as a lot of commentators seem to think it should be. Paul Wolfowitz puts it better than I can:

People make a lot about the decision to dismiss the Iraqi army. But I don’t think people are shooting at Americans and blowing up schools because we dismissed the Iraqi army. When people talk about why Iraq is as difficult as it is, they always start and finish with a list of American mistakes. Nobody ever talks about the enemy. It would be like saying why the battle of the bulge was tough without ever mentioning the German army.


Well, of course. The anti-war crowd don't just avoid mentioning the enemy: they don't want to admit that the enemy even is an enemy; in fact, they find the whole concept of "enemy" rather outmoded. Unless they're talking about Bush or Blair, of course: they're the enemy.

It is a great shame that the anti-warriors have had such success: no, they didn't stop the war, thank God, but they have succeeded, largely thanks to the media, in defining the terms of the debate. So here we are in the ridiculous situation where anyone who mentions the well documented links between Saddam and terrorism is regarded as stark staring mad, and all debate about the success or failure of the war — even amongst those who support the US — is framed in terms of American competence versus American incompetence, with no thought given to the actions, or even the existence, of the enemy.

Saddam Hussein didn’t stop fighting us, at least until he was captured in December last year. Al-Zarqawi didn’t surrender when Baghdad fell. He stepped up his efforts. There are all these organisations that are unheard of in Europe and barely known in the U.S. that people ought to know about. There was the M-14 division of the Iraqi intelligence service, its so-called “anti-terrorism” division, which specialised in hijackings and bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. There was the M-16 division, which perfected new bombing techniques. Many of these guys are out in Falluja and Ramadi in the western parts of Iraq today making bombs. A fellow named Abu Ibrahim spent 20 years in Iraq developing these techniques. He can fashion plastic explosives in the shape of decorative wall hangings. He was putting bombs in suitcases on American airplanes in 1982. If you don’t understand that the people who killed and raped and murdered and tortured for 35 years are not quitting and still think they can win, then you won’t understand what we’re fighting.