29 January, 2009

Taking Refuge

So, a rough day is enough to precipitate a retreat. Such a wonderful retreat, however. One of the things I always appreciate about Nottingham (in comparison to Salisbury, which, lovely though it is, is a backwater) is that there are cinemas here that screen films I actually want to see. The other week I finally saw Waltz With Bashir, and it was worth the wait. Tonight I went to see The Wrestler (in fact, I immersed myself in it completely, and came up drenched in sweat and tears).

I'll note my thoughts on it tomorrow (clue: I liked it), when I can gather them. Suffice to say, combined with a stop-off at Lee Rosy's, it was a fairly perfect evening and I felt positively resurrected walking home, my day of dissertation-toil and application-frustration well behind me. But for now I just want to note that the feature was preceded by this trailer, the first time I've seen it in full:

Sure enough, Milk is next in my list of must-sees. I don't even care that it could be a bit of an Oscars love-in, or that it's one of those deliberately serious-accessible films. I care that this is almost as 'important' as a film could conceivably be dubbed, and it is as emphatically pro-equality with regard to sexuality as you could say Malcolm X or Remember The Titans were with regard to race (for some reason I don't award Brokeback Mountain this accolade, maybe unfairly, but in some way I don't feel it made the same point).

So within my (admittedly myopic and goldfish-like) experience, this is sort of a watershed event in cinema, possibly similarly to Milk's real-world impact. Gays are OK, in a slightly schmaltzy way. Maybe I'm just emotional tonight, but I can't wait.


I know, I know, I'm so melodramatic. But here it is, and it's no big surprise; I'm tired of listening to partisan arguments for the time being, and more tired still of participating. It's a shame because I've often learnt valuable things in such discourse, both about myself and the subjects in hand. But the internet is an uncivil place. Maybe it's the anonymity, the testosterone, or the ease of finding allies in a global network. At any rate this over-abundant aggro taints everything, and it's boring.

While I thought I had a sense of humour, I'm clearly not terribly thick-skinned, and I wouldn't care to be either. It hurts me in some way to see so much hatred, both casual and calculated. I can't find the precise quote (I do need to watch Stalker again soon; I will correct this later) but when man is born he is sensitive to all things and drinks them in, and when he dies he is cold and hard as stone. Anyway, this is all a bit E/N but, like, whatever.

27 January, 2009

Positive Feedback

Given how little I understand about economics (even as, I would suppose, a relatively interested observer) I'm hesitant to stick my oar in, but here's what scares me about the current incarnation of the stock market.

What bothers me about the current situation is that the oft-cited level of "confidence" is twice divorced from truly representing the "grass-roots" status of the economy. Through interpretation into share prices and then aggregation into larger indices, the efficacy of businesses themselves is obscured. And indeed, traders are making individual decisions on the basis of their "confidence in the market" - a third factor of whether these indices might go up or down.

Surely there is an integral and unavoidable positive feedback loop in this system? In short, because the market is deteriorating, it will deteriorate further. Positive feedback mechanisms are by their very nature immoderate - they "snowball". It further seems that there is nothing in the current set-up of the economy that discourages this state of affairs. Indeed, for the players within the system, continual fluctuation is presumably favourable. Whether the same can be said for the broader population, I'm not sure.

I do know I'm not alone in questioning the foundations of our economy at this time. Terms such as 'confidence' seem indicative of a bizarre form of mysticism in play, and we can't help but wonder if the traders understand this much better than we do.


I do my best to stay away from the still-fucking-ludicrous 'debate' between Christianity and atheism, which is not a new thing. Every e-mail I receive or youtube link I get forwarded just further entrenches my view that human beings need something to argue about just as much as they need something to worship. That Dawkins, Hitchens et al. seem to believe that their "one big push" will put the matter to bed simply bemuses me.

It's difficult to determine whether the garbage spewed on each side is intellectual dishonesty of the worst kind or merely old-fashioned ignorance. It's easy for laymen to misrepresent scienfitic theory, for example, and scientists who rush headlong into philosophy don't get it right straight away. But arguing over Hitler's belief system (so, y'know, we can decide whose column the 6 million Jews go in) is as reprehensible as it is ridiculous.

But of course we know why this happens. The public debate is much less the proving ground for ideas than an intellectual boxing match. Anyone who has been punched in the face knows that immediately afterwards nothing matters but to strike back, by whatever means. It rarely attracts the kind of person who would graciously cede a point when incorrect, but instead the chest-thumping public schoolboy.

The discourse isn't worthless. But clearly we need to tinker with the format. The more we scrutinise the arguments we sink into, at least one point becomes clear: We are descended from apes, but not by as much as we'd like to think.

16 January, 2009

Radio happenings (happened)

Anyone fortunate enough to have been listening to Alex Hale's excellent show on URN late on Wednesday night (it had a global audience that evening at least) will have heard a live set from The Wandering Goose. The Wandering Goose are a Canadian trio that Alex encountered outside his house the night before. They make sweet folk-y music. He got chatting to them and radio history was made.

They did not disappoint, being clearly impressively game. It was really lovely and helped a whole lot of people through some revision, I dare say.

Alex has uploaded (with permission, obviously) the tracks to last.fm. They are both streamable and set as a free download so you should go NOW and listen to your heart's content.

Alex's radio show, Do Not Disconnect, is jolly good fun even when I'm being slandered, and airs Wednesdays during term-time on URN, from 11pm-1am (GMT). You can listen live from the URN website.

(I also heartily recommend Transmission, which packs a tremendous variety of sound and goes out 9-11pm on a Monday night.)

07 January, 2009

Claims to the Promised Land

Recently I read Exodus by Leon Uris. It was odd reading it at a time when the conflict in Palestine was flaring up again. My views of the book are extremely coloured by Israel's actions over the past couple of years. I wrote a review of the book on Goodreads here, but here are some details that struck me over the past few days.

I characterised Exodus as a kind of modern-day appendix to the Old Testament. The details it goes into are more suited to a history than a novel, and certain assumptions (of Jewish uprightness, European malice etc.) go unchallenged throught. Equally I would call it a melodrama where besieged Israel is set upon by archvillains Europe, Britain and Arabia in turn. I do believe there's a large amount of truth in the book, but extracting it from the ferocious pro-Zionist bias proves exhausting. I closed the book a last time with almost as strong a sympathy with Palestinians as I began it.

I was most vexed by the fictional characters in the book. Uris creates characters of high significance on a national level, of impeccable virtue and high ability, and infers from these that the nascent Israel was populated by superhuman beings (who are also quite tiresome - there are precisely two good characters in this book). Exodus has the feel of a re-written history book. I was continually comparing it with the similarly lengthy, similarly primed work by Solzhenitsyn, August 1914. Fictional characters sit alongside real generals there as well, but August 1914 is saturated with a rare compassion and humanity that's in scarce supply here. The crimes against the Jews were beyond all measurement, but that didn't allow me to partake in the same glee the author appears to feel at each bloody riposte to their enemies.

I was surprised at just how little mention of faith there was in the book. Inasmuch as this can be a reliable source on the religion, I just don't get Judaism. The first warriors of the new Israel are absorbed in its history and traditions, and may well feel God is right behind them, but these are nationalists, not holy men.

Finally, Exodus is inconsistent in almost all regards. Uris will sometimes describe the Arabs as illiterate, pitiful people, the next minute stupid and lazy and later simply malign. On occasions he flirts with placing things in perspective but never follows through. Uris is capable of some good passages but I felt the standard slipped sometime after page 150, and didn't really recover. That's a sore blow to a 600-page tome.

I can't say I enjoyed reading it, but Exodus wasn't entirely a waste of my time. At least I can make a better approximation to the zealous Zionist's perspective on the conflict. Even if it may be quite a while before that comes in handy.

06 January, 2009

Our Ugly Response to Fundamentalism

Science blogs can be fascinating. At least, that's when they're (mercifully) discussing science. The New Scientist's own blog, Short Sharp Science, is fairly reliable. Investigation of Scienceblogs.com can be both entertaining and rewarding. Its posterchild, Pharyngula, was pretty good, was quite consistently so for at least a few years.

Looking at Pharyngula today, I'm hugely disappointed. There is no science discussion here, no analysis of new findings. You would say that one post on the whole front page makes a scientific point, as opposed to discussing 'Science' as a cultural/political meta-subject. Most of Myer's posts, for a long time, have been about creationists and the political battleground. Of course, it's just the one guy, and his current thoughts. But there's a worrying overall trend.

A quick browse of related columns and channels on Scienceblogs, Blogger, Youtube and all over the web confirms: we spend as much time 'bashing down fundies' as we do discussing mankinds attempts to push forward the frontiers of our knowledge.

It's a pattern as seductive as it is ugly. Seeing our irrational 'enemy' out of their depth, we point, laugh and deride. I've indulged in it many times before and doubtless will again. I'll feel bad about it afterwards, but I still take that amount of pleasure in seeing extreme views dissected.

Additionally, it's entirely unproductive: I hesitate to use the clichéd term 'straw man,' but we mustn't be misled by the ease with which these positions are ridiculed. Religious fundamentalists can't be considered representative of faith, just as I wouldn't welcome the 'Professors' that frequently speak on their behalf.

There are, I suppose, two things I'd like to see. A degree of restraint on our part as scientists; having fun at the expense of other's ignorance is unlikely to reduce the gulf emerging between scientists and the general population. A more considered response is clearly required. And secondly, for scientists to use online resources to rediscover their love of discovery - and display it once in a while, too.

Edit: Just to add some positive to this post, here's the kind of science blogging that I do consider helpful, courtesy of Gene Expression (one of my favourites). In these articles the author tackles a subject that does get people thinking. They're a good example of how clear explanation can explain everyday phenomena that would otherwise be notched up to superstition. Now we just need to equip the population to understand such excellent writing.

04 January, 2009

Debating-Hall Blues

I’m beginning to think like Boris Johnson. Give me an issue, any issue you like, and I am instantly ready to decry the meddling EU, unleash a deep guffaw in the direction of the Lib Dems, or recoil in horror from one of Livingstone’s horrific bendy-bus contraptions. At any moment I might seize upon one of our great country’s proud traditions and defend it against all-comers.

This is the result of ploughing through an anthology of his articles from the Telegraph, Guardian and Observer, Have I Got Views For You. And, despite my long-held policy of holding in contempt any book with the author’s face on the front (especially when said author is a conservative/car fanatic/‘TV personality’), I must admit to having rather liked it.

The articles are rarely more than five or six pages in length – and this is probably why the whole book has had such a brain-washing effect. Within each piece is the issue, as Boris sees it, a blinding riposte to those Trots/Lefties/Europhiles/Europeans, and a concise and punchy outline of the virtues of the Conservative approach. There can be little doubt that he knows how to perfectly frame an argument.

It’s immediately obvious that Johnson is possessed of a wonderful literate flair. His blustering style is imbued with a dazzling charm and wit, and his public school education is seeped into each and every page. The Lib Dems, he says, are muddle-headed mugwumps whose “policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it.” He draws comparison between Virgil’s Aeneid and the Middle East, between the classic tragedies and modern sleaze.

Maybe this is what holds me back from fully entering the world of Boris – it takes just a sniff of debating-union glamour to summon images of the Tory benches during PMQs, bellowing and baying like so many drunken sixth-formers. A nerve is struck as soon as Blair is reeled out as a ‘public-school prefect’, and my flirtation with Conservatism is all but ended.

Instinctively too, there is shock and reproach a few hundred pages in, when one realises that one has given a persuasive, indeed masterful politician freedom to expound his views without response. Without the opposite and alternative viewpoints present when these pieces were first published. It was nearly too late – like a virus or a vampire he nearly won you over.

Have I Got Views For You should be a book you would ‘dip’ in and out of, but one needs to be more at ease with Johnson’s views than myself to find that enjoyable. Instead, I read it in one go, finding not entirely to my surprise that a) Boris, formerly a journalist, is a wonderful writer, that b) he takes a fairly centrist, moderate conservative stance on most things, and c) that the Mayor of London is of course much smarter than he makes out.

So this collection is a good start if one wants to know the mind of Boris – just take care you don’t end up knowing it too well.

02 January, 2009

A Selection of Albums, 2008

In the interests of keeping this brief (it is a vain enterprise after all) I'm not going to try and eke out an order. Indeed, even the boundary between top and bottom tiers is an insecure one. Neither will I be making any particularly elaborate attempts to persuade you my selection is correct - I think these albums all speak for themselves.

A top 10:

Born RuffiansRed, Yellow And Blue (Clattering sing-song with irresistible choruses)

CharlottefieldWhat Friends Are For (Yelping, convulsive rock. Sadly missed)

Gregor SamsaRest (Slowcore gems that gently tie your gut in knots)

Lau NauNukkuu (Abstract pieces woven from threads of contentedness and peace)

Les ÉtoilesNever To Alight (Fragile moments of dawn-touched solitude. Heartaching)

Little JoyLittle Joy (Fuzzy feelgood record just waiting for the summertime)

Parts & LabourReceivers (Reeling noises and rolling drums suffused with epic melodies)

Peter BroderickFloat (As rich in understatement as in melancholy. Insanely more-ish)

Religious KnivesIt’s After Dark (Surprisingly muscly, mesmerising rhythm and drone)

Sic AlpsU.S. Ez (Like a lo-fi static attic haphazardly littered with shambolic pop blasts)

A further 10:

Fuck ButtonsStreet Horrrsing (Initially disappointing, now totally engrossing)

Haruka NakamuraGrace (Songs in turn wistful, peaceful, joyful and simple)

IslajaBlaze Mountain Recordings (Menacing experimental folk from a faraway cavern)

No AgeNouns (Distorted melodies briefly flicker and the album’s past before you realise)

This Will Destroy YouThis Will Destroy You (Beautifully executed post-rock)

War On DrugsWagonwheel Blues (Seemingly effortless shoegazy Americana)

WetnurseInvisible City (Scary in its ambition, terrifying in its execution)

Wildbirds & PeacedrumsHeartcore (Enchanting combination of folk and blues)

Wilderness(K)No(W)Here (My first experience with the Wilderness formula)

Wolf ParadeAt Mount Zoomer (Possibly the years biggest grower)

Interestingly, while many (a quarter!) bands in my list begin with the letter W, the sub-categorisation has resulted in a ghettoisation of these to the 'somewhat less essential' status. I cannot begin to imagine why. The following are also worthy of consideration.

Still good:

ShapesGet Your Learn On EP

Gang Gang DanceSaint Dymphna

El HeathWinter Soundtrack

Why? - Alopecia

Fleet FoxesFleet Foxes

GrouperDragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (A failure on my part, to give this enough plays)

Lastly, there are a lot of things I intended to hear in 2008, but didn't. The first part of any year is always spent catching up on things missed the year before.

Still Need To Hear:


Conor Oberst


Flying Lotus

Four Tet

Fucked Up

Harvey Milk


Hercules & Love Affair



Papier Tigre


Sun Kil Moon

The Bug

William Burroughs

This final list should confirm that in fact my selection is hardly the most comprehensive out there. I posted a run-down of what I've actually been listening to the most, from my computer at least, on my last.fm page. It is here.