Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Thinking out loud

It's possible I was abducted by aliens last night.

Well, it's one of my theories. It goes a bit like this... I was kidnapped by aliens for reasons I cannot yet fathom and whisked across the universe at impossible speeds to a planet almost identical to my own. In fact, it's so much like my old planet that I almost didn't notice anything was different. But then I checked the BBC News website. And although I'd be the first to acknowledge that our political leaders are mad as baked batshit on the planet where I'm from, none of them would propose anything quite as mad as your Charles Clarke did today.

Charles Clarke has vowed to eliminate anti-social behaviour and disrespect in society

Did he really say what I think he said?


I've decided to start taking screengrabs of BBC news items, rather than link to them. This is purely down to the BBC's policy of re-editing live stories without providing an archive of the previous versions. Twice now I've found myself citing facts reported by the BBC which then just disappeared from the article in question. This obviously makes the BBC next to useless as even a short-term reference source until they sort out this problem.

Of course there's a very serious problem with posting screen-shots of a news story. You have no way of knowing for sure whether or not I've altered the image in some way prior to posting it here. You can check it against the actual story if I provide a link, but if the whole point of my posting a screen-shot is the BBC's tendency to alter their stories on the fly (which I have no problem with) without providing a permanent archive of each published version (which I have a big problem with), then how can you possibly be sure that any discrepancy between my version and the "current version" isn't a result of the BBC's editorial policy?

Naturally this water is further muddied by the fact that I have in the past photoshopped screengrabs for comedy effect and will doubtlessly do so again. It's up to you, dear reader, to distinguish the two.

I have faith that you'll make the right choices.

Which is not something I'd have said about Dubya Bush until recently, and probably still won't, but he made a pretty intriguing announcement yesterday which I believe bears examining (that's a New York Times link by the way, which needs a login)... I'll reproduce the opening paragraphs below and you'll just have to trust me on them, OK?
With fears mounting that high energy costs will crimp economic growth, President Bush called on Americans yesterday to conserve gasoline by driving less. He also issued a directive for all federal agencies to cut their own energy use and to encourage employees to use public transportation.

"We can all pitch in," Mr. Bush said. "People just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption," he added, and that if Americans are able to avoid going "on a trip that's not essential, that would be helpful."

Mr. Bush promised to dip further into the government's petroleum reserve, if necessary, and to continue relaxing environmental and transportation rules in an effort to get more gasoline flowing.

- President Calls for Less Driving to Conserve Gas
New York Times (September 27, 2005)
Hmmmm... even though it's couched very much in "temporary / brief time of emergency" terms, Bush's comments seem rather foreboding. For Dubya, of all presidents, to suggest that Americans should begin taking fuel conservation measures is quite startling in my view.

Haaaaang on a second... I really was abducted by aliens, wasn't I? The Dubya Bush on my planet would never say that.

In 2001, [...] Ari Fleischer, then Mr. Bush's press secretary, responded to a question about reducing American energy consumption by saying "that's a big no."

"The president believes that it's an American way of life," Mr. Fleischer said.
Can Katrina and Rita really have dealt such a savage blow to Bush's "American way of life"? I suggest people have a gander at George Monbiot's column in today's Guardian (It's better to cry wolf now than to wait until the oil has run out). To be honest, it covers a lot of the same ground as I covered on this blog and elsewhere (so my loyal regular reader can expect to feel well-informed whilst reading it) but it's written with Monbiot's usual clarity and straight-to-the-pointedness (i.e. you'll not have to deal with quite so many made-up compound words if you get the info from him) and is well worth a read.

I've been writing on the subject of peak oil for approaching eight years, and while I can't speak for others like me, I can assure you that I don't feel any great sense of vindication to finally see the issue enter popular consciousness. If anything, the gradual appearance of the phrase "peak oil" in the mainstream media has brought with it an eerie sense of dislocation. Watching people thinking the thoughts that horrified and scared me 6 years ago is unlikely to be a barrel of laughs from my perspective. And the more real the problem becomes, the less I feel like talking about it. It doesn't feel like I'm warning people against a possible future any more, so much as being the bearer of bad news.

Incidentally, my web-stats show a major spike in traffic coming through the article published on Head Heritage over the past couple of days. Has it been referenced somewhere new? I can't help but be a little interested in who chooses to cite me (either as a reference or a cautionary example).

Way back when talk on the internet consisted of Usenet newsgroups, I wrote a piece about drug law reform which took a much more libertarian philosophical stance than I might do today. The piece was then forwarded to a far right newsgroup - perfectly legitimately, I stress (crossposting, particularly without permission, is frowned upon... but it happens an awful lot and is actually one of the dynamics that made Usenet so interesting until it got drowned in spam).

But in this instance I suddenly got a barrage of hatemail from people who clearly sent nasty messages to anyone who might post a prominent article on an extremist newgroup. Interestingly they were all, without exception, profoundly apologetic when I responded and explained the situation, and all admitted to not having read my article.

I've no idea why I wandered into that particular anecdote. Please don't assume that I was making some point about giving articles on extremist rightwing hate sites more consideration than you normally would (though I guess it wouldn't hurt to actually read an article prior to hatemailing the author).

Anyways, given the possibility that western civilisation may not have long left, I'll finish by urging you to check out Serenity sooner rather than later. This film from film-and-TV-making genius Joss Whedon will probably be a bit more enjoyable to fans of his cruelly-cancelled and unfinished Firefly TV series, but I'm confident it'll still rock like a bag of bastids to those of you coming to it new. Go see this film. It'll be great.
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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Minister for Energy

A new shadow cabinet has recently been coaxed out of the blogosphere over at Devil's Kitchen. A group of bloggers (I propose "blather" as the collective noun for bloggers)... a blather of bloggers have each been assigned a government department and asked to propose policies. I requested - and was given - the energy portfolio; at which point I immediately went on holiday and left my department rudderless; scurrying around like a headless chicken and making a nuisance of itself.

I feel confident, therefore, that I can at least claim the prize for most true-to-life performance as a government minister.

Unfortunately for the rest of the cabinet, I've returned from holiday with some rather radical policies. The likelihood of them being adopted by the PM is precisely zero, but I'm still going to use my brief appointment to the front bench as a platform from which to push for a genuinely sustainable energy infrastructure.

Proposal #1: The immediate nationalisation of the energy industry.

The government shall levy a windfall tax on all companies deemed to be part of the essential national energy infrastructure (a list of companies to be drawn up by the Department but likely to include power generation companies; oil, gas and coal exploration and production companies; national fuel distributors and retailers, etc.). The windfall tax will equal - in all cases - the physical and cash assets of that company. The government may elect, at its discretion, to also take on any debts owed by the company which the government believes are in the public interest to honour.

This programme of nationalisation will be a necessary first step towards streamlining and restructuring the energy supply infrastructure.

Proposal #2: Implementing a phased rationing of fossil fuel resources and derived products.

This policy; which will include controls over both raw resources and end products; will be tailored towards achieving specific social goals which will themselves lead towards energy resource self-sufficiency and sustainability. As these goals will include the phasing out of private car use within two years, I suspect my colleagues in the department of transport will go apeshit when they hear the details of this policy.

Proposal #3: Education, training and incentives for individuals, regions and organisations to achieve energy self-sufficieny and sustainability.

The ultimate aim of Proposal #1 is the creation of a national public energy system. In the long-term however, this national system is designed as a back-up to regional self-sufficiency. Towards this aim, the government will help co-ordinate the skills and resources (plus provide strategic infrastructure and planning) for this policy of regional and local self-sufficiency in energy.
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Question Time (episode 1)

British politics got back from holidays this week. And although parliament itself is still out for summer; taking advantage of the off-peak holiday deals; the politicians and pundits are back doing their thing. This was heralded by two events in particular... the Liberal Democrat Annual Party Conference and the return of BBC television's Question Time.

Of course the LibDem conference was competing for column inches with some massive news stories. A second hurricane, as powerful as the one which only a couple of weeks ago so effectively ripped apart the fabric of modern America, was bearing down on the Gulf coast. Oil prices were through the roof and Matt Simmons appeared on Channel 4 News warning that "Winter demand for crude oil may outstrip supply by 2 to 5 million barrels per day". That's a recipe for social and economic chaos. Upon which subject... in Iraq, UK Special Forces were arrested by local police and then sprung from prison by the British army. Oh, and let's not forget that a supermodel might have taken some recreational drugs.

The LibDems never stood a chance.

Which can only be a good thing from the LibDems perspective. As I'm sure anyone who noticed what happened in Blackpool would agree. The conference was initially billed as "A Celebration" of the wonderful results achieved by Charles Kennedy's LibDems at the election. 6 months ago.

Look Charles, you came third. OK? Bronze medal. Third fricking place. What's with the celebration? Seriously.... think back to school, and think about the kid who came third in the 500m inter-school backstroke. I was that kid, so I know whereof I speak. That kid does not prance around like an arse with his bronze medal, holding it aloft for all to see. That kid takes the bronze medal, hides it away, broods for a month and decides to give up competitive sports completely and smoke pot and listen to music instead.

OK. So maybe that's a bit specific.

But you get my drift. I guess the other productive option would be to get pissed off at putting in all that effort and still only coming third. You'd use that frustration and anger to get yourself focussed and examine exactly what went wrong, and you'd vow to train harder and better so that next time you'd win.

But if you're that kid and you are genuinely celebrating your bronze medal... well, it's because some part of you knows that's the best you're capable of. And either you're oblivious to the condescension of those cheering you on, or they too feel third place is worthy of celebration in British politics.

It wasn't enough that they were celebrating their poor showing at the polls (no third party in this country has any cause to celebrate until they are no longer referred to as "the third party"). But they were trying to celebrate while simultaneously having a leadership challenge! Except they weren't really. That was just a bit of high-jinks and giggles by bored journos sat in Blackpool watching a third party celebrate a small reduction in the amount by which it loses.

I'd like to be able to segue into the second of this week's political events with the line; "Unlike the LibDems Conference, however, the first in a new season of Question Time saw the return of genuinely informed political debate". But that statement would be ludicrous in principle. We live in the age of political soundbite... repressive legislation is soon to be introduced that will mean that - by law - the phrase 'informed political debate' must always have '[archaic]' in italics after it when used written English; and must be followed by a satirical "m'Lord" or "m'Lady" when spoken.

But even accepting the narrow constraints of the hour-long stream-of-soundbite format, this was as lacklustre a Question Time as I can recall.

For overseas readers: Question Time is a political TV show. A panel of guests sit before a studio audience of a couple of hundred. The panel usually comprises one member of each major party plus a couple of other guests - journalists or cultural figures (for example, one of this week's guests was a playwright and one was a hack from spiteful tabloid; The Daily Mail). The discussion is chaired by the amiable David Dimbleby and is prompted by questions from the studio audience. It's an interesting show as it provides time every week for the public to demand answers to their questions from those they have elected. Prior to the last general election, each of the three party leaders appeared before a Question Time audience. It was the closest they got to a head-to-head debate.

I was going to write a little about how the various parties responded to the questions asked of them. But they were all so unlikeable that I can't be arsed (with the exception of the playwright who wasn't unlikeable, but wasn't hugely insightful either). I couldn't help imagining a person who succeeded in smuggling a custard pie into the studio... they'd be physically paralysed, shocked into inaction, by the impossibility of having to choose between David Miliband and Theresa May. They each so perfectly represent all that is unlikeable about their respective parties.

So fuck 'em. Instead I'll answer the questions posed by the studio audience...

Q. Prior to the Iraq war, Saddam Hussein warned that the soles of the feet of his enemies would burn. Given the spectacle on Monday, is it time we pulled our troops out?

Yes it is time. Though nothing to do, specifically, with the pictures on Monday (of British servicemen on fire). That is after all what happens when you send soldiers overseas to fight wars. Some of them end up on fire. If it took Monday's pictures to make you think "haaaaang on a second... you mean people are getting burnt out there?" then can I humbly request that you seek voluntary sterilisation? The world has plenty of people already. It doesn't need your kids.

Fact is, people have been on fire plenty of times in Iraq lately. They rarely did it wearing a British uniform while appearing live on TV, but if those details are really your primary concern then you should be deeply ashamed of yourself.

People have been burning out there because of our policies for quite a while now. That's one of the many compelling reasons for the US/UK to pull out their troops. Neither the nationality nor the notoriety of the burn victim should factor into what is essentially an ethical decision.

Q. Does the panel agree with Trevor Phillips' comment that Britain is "sleepwalking" into a kind of segregation that so disfigured New Orleans?

I have no idea to be honest.

It seems unlikely to me that race-relations in Britain would develop along similar lines to America. I've lived in both places and they're very different cultures. Race exists within separate historical contexts. But as I said, I don't know enough about this subject to agree or disagree with Trevor Phillips.

Q. Does the panel think that role models should behave impeccably?

This is actually a question about the Kate Moss non-story, and I really don't want to add any more internet chatter to this topic. Except to ask, in an incredulous voice, "role model?"

Q. Is the apparent U-turn on council tax a genuine response to the need for further assessment or a cynical political move?

Couldn't care less. The whole system of government finance should be ditched and replaced. However, this should be accompanied by a programme of nationalising essential industries and resources; as well as a massive public consultation on the issue of sustainability.

So you can see why I might not be all that interested in decisions about tweaking the numbers in an existing local taxation system. "Actually Carruthers, I think that deck-chair would look far better next to the large chunk of iceberg over there"

Q. Should Charles Kennedy lead the Lib Dems into the next election?

The tories will win the next election. Labour will be defeated by a significant margin but the LibDems will still come a distant third. I suspect this outcome is guaranteed no matter who runs the third party.



See what I mean about it being a lacklustre Question Time? Add to that the overwhelming unlikeability of Miliband and May, plus the general silliness of the audience participation, and it wasn't a very good advertisement for British democracy.

Fingers crossed for next week.
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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Silly hurricane season

Well my short break in Ireland is over, but for all manner of reasons it failed to contain nearly as much cliff-top tranquility as I'd hoped.

There's always next time.

Mind you, with the exception of a few hours of Irish talk-radio (which was excellent) I managed to completely avoid the media for the best part of a week. That alone is tranquility of a sort. And it only took the briefest of glances at the world headlines upon my return to tell me that a few hours of local talk-radio per week is a far saner media-lens through which to view the world.

The global media covers the habits of Kate Moss with disarming thoroughness

... and the decision of the editors is final.


There's more writing being done about the fact that a supermodel is a bit of a cokehead, than is being done about Sony slashing it's workforce by 10,000; and about the extradition of one of the failed London bombers; and about a new study on tobacco; and about a copyright dispute with potentially massive repercussions; combined.

To repeat: A supermodel is taking cocaine.

I could easily add to the sorry clamour over this story of staggering obviousness. My tactic naturally, would be to get all meta about it. Justify my own involvement in the spectacle with claims of objectivity. Why not delve into that pop-psychoanalytical goldmine, get all riled-up about mediation and use a phrase like "the inevitability of self-destruction within a fundamentally mediated personality"? I might even get to cite Irigaray...
The use, consumption, and circulation of the sexualised bodies [of women] underwrite the organisation and the reproduction of the social order, in which they have never taken part as 'subjects'.
- Luce Irigaray
The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine
And it's not often you get an opportunity to do that.

But while I find the whole thing eerie in scale, I find the actual details of supermodel drug-binges to be like most cokeheads... tedious and a bit crap. So onto something a tad more important

It was very strange to arrive back from a week or so of media-blackout and discover that the US Gulf Coast was about to be hit by a hurricane even more powerful than Katrina. I'm not going to bang on about global warming and the possibilities that these events may be becoming more severe as a result of human activity. But I would say this... even if we're not going to do anything about it (as Tony Blair pointed out when he said "if we put forward, as a solution to climate change, something which involves drastic cuts in growth or standards of living, it matters not how justified it is, it simply won’t be agreed to"), we're complete idiots if we don't at least take onboard the very real possibility that this is occurring and start factoring it into our planning.

As an example: New Orleans should not be rebuilt.

Imagine the psychological significance of a live televised speech by Dubya Bush announcing that as great a land as America is, even we must accept the limits of nature's bounty and help protect that which has been given into our care by God. The natural world is ever-changing. Some say this change is being wrought by human hands. Others disagree. One thing we all agree upon however is that a change is indeed underway. The resources to reclaim, rebuild and then protect New Orleans on an ongoing basis can be far better spent by constructing new housing for the inhabitants elsewhere and recompensing those who have lost their livelihoods. We can no longer guarantee levees against ever more powerful storms, so it makes little sense to expend time and resources building homes in the shadows of those levees...

Hell, the speech practically writes itself!

Why don't I think it'll be delivered though? While I was away, the news that the London bombers carried out a so-called self-styled "dry run" before they actually committed the horrific murders also broke. It's a story with all the obviousness of "Supermodel indulges in recreational drug use" and apparently worthy of almost as much coverage.

My particular fascination, however, is with "anti-terrorist police chief Peter Clarke" and his use of language. He explains that the idea of "conducting a reconnaissance" is "part of terrorist mythology". What a curious choice of words. And I can't make up my mind whether it's predominantly "curious strange" or "curious sinister". With evil ideologies and terrorist mythologies abounding, you just can't be too careful these days.
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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Awaaaaay

I'm in West Cork until Tuesday and the steam-powered dial-up connection isn't conducive to lengthy blogging. Nor is the fact that I can spend the day sitting on a clifftop watching the ocean rather than sitting on a broken office chair watching google news.

Even the lack of pot isn't an issue when you have air this fresh and a view this glorious.

I might get round to posting something else while I'm here, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you... chances are you won't hear from me until next Tuesday.

Stay groovy.
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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Press Release, Owl Farm 31/05/1990

Last night I was searching for a particular piece by Hunter S. Thompson and was horrified to discover that it currently exists only in the google-cache of a geocities website (as well as in Songs of The Doomed of course). In order to keep this wonderful piece alive, I've decided to reproduce it here... it's a press release written by Thompson after he was acquitted on various charges.

WOODY CREEK, COLO., May 31, 1990 - Famed Gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson waves to a frenzied mob of his "supporters" at yesterday's press conference on the steps of the Pitkin County Courthouse... where all charges on Sex, Drugs, Bombs, and Violence crimes against The Doctor were Dismissed Without Prejudice by District Court Judge Charles Buss, who called Thompson "a perfect gentleman" and excoriated the District Attorney for Negligence, Malfeasance, and Criminal Abuse of Police Power. Spectators applauded as Dep. Dist. Atty. Chip "Shiteyes" McCrory wept openly at the verdict and was led from the courtroom by bailiffs.

Thompson denounced the Dismissal as "pure cowardice" and said he would "appeal it at once" to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Thompson described the District Attorney's "whole goddamn staff" as "thugs liars crooks" and "lazy human scum... These stupid brutes tried to destroy my life," he said, "and now they tell me to just forget it."

"Fuck that!" he screeched. "They are guilty! They should all be hung by their heels from iron telephone poles on the road to Woody Creek!"

The crowd roared and surged forward, chanting, "Yes! Now! Hang them now!"

A man with a pitchfork rushed up the ancient stone steps and attempted to enter the courthouse, but he was hurled away by Thompson, who blocked the doorway and told the mob to "be calm."

"Not now!" he shouted. "Not today! But soon! Yes! We will PUNISH them! We will chop off their fingers and gnaw on their skulls and feed their flesh to our animals!"

The crowd responded by ripping up trees in the courtyard and hammering crazily on the hoods of nearby police cars. "Death to the Weird," they howled. "They shall not pass! PUNISH them!" At this point Dr. Thompson was seized from behind by his two high-powered attorneys and rushed to a waiting car, which departed at high speed.

Later, from his heavily guarded fortress called "Owl Farm," Thompson's lawyers issued a statement that called him "a hero, a saint... and the bravest man in America... Dr. Thompson is a great poet," they said, "who often speaks in apocalyptic terms.

"His comments earlier today about Death, Cannibalism, and Vengeance should not be construed in any way as a threat to the physical safety of any living thing."

The statement was hailed by the press as "further proof that Dr. Thompson should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace."

"The Doctor will have no further comment on The Case," his attorneys said, "for legal reasons stemming from his $22 million civil lawsuit against the District Attorney's Office, which will be formally filed next week."

Later that night, however, the restive Gonzo journalist issued a mysterious "personal statement" that local authorities called "very gracious, very strange, and very bloodthirsty all at once."

He spoke of a "historical mandate," citing mysterious blood feuds. He refused to talk about his rumored blood relationship to Genghis Khan, Cassius Clay, John Gotti, and other legendary warriors.

"But you forget," he said. "I am Lono. I am He. When the great bell rings, I will be there."

Thompson refused to elaborate on his claim to be Someone Else, and his aides brusquely turned aside press queries. Reporters who persisted were roughed up by burley "advisers" wearing bulletproof vests and "Owl Farm/Security" badges. One TV journalist, who begged not to be named, said he was taken to "a cistern somewhere in the compound" and forced to strip naked while standing knee-deep in "ice-cold water rushing up from an underground river." For "many hours," he said, he was tormented by drunken lawyers and mocked by what appeared to be naked women.
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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Coming soon: A post about oil

I've been (apparently "conspicuously") silent on the current oil / gas / petrol thing. Massive price rises, queues at the pumps, protests, shortages... the kind of things you'd expect a Peak Oil Evangelist like myself to be harping on about. But I made a conscious decision to keep quiet on the issue for a while.

Matt Simmons was recently interviewed on Channel 4 news, the New York Times had a major story on the global peak of oil production, and even our politicians have started to wake up ("Britain must use less oil, says Brown" was a recent headline in The Guardian). So I figured that my job was over. Why should I continue telling people "this is happening" when they only have to look outside their window (or inside their newspapers) to see it for themselves?

However, a friend of mine has convinced me that I may yet have something to add to the discussion (though he's already done a fine job at elucidating my general position) and in truth I really should put the finishing touches to the article I had been writing for The Sharpener. However, as it happens I'm inundated with work right now and in a couple of days I'm jetting off to Ireland for a week (I refuse to own a car... so I guess I have to find some other way of contributing to fossil fuel depletion).

So yeah, expect me to address this issue again. I'm just not 100% sure when that'll be.
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Surprising revelation

This pisses me off. Really, really, really pisses me off.

Shot By Both Sides (SBBS) was one of the interweb's best blogs. By a long way. John B was often criticised for choosing to own, and host his site on, www.stalinism.com. I, on the other hand, would gladly buy him a pint for that very fact (I'm not a Stalinist by the way, and neither is he).

The style of SBBS was deliberately provocative and controversial. Calling for the assassination of anyone who complained about bad language on TV, or for holding particular objectionable views, was bound to annoy those poor sods whose brains are incapable of processing irony or humour. Certainly it's a particular type of humour (dark, dry and deceptively intelligent) but it takes a particular type of person (small-minded, tedious and very ugly) to take genuine offence at it. SBBS was never guilty of racism or sexism, but refused to bow to contrived notions of political correctness. If John was guilty of anything, it was of overestimating the ability of his readership to discern the real target of a particular barb.

Recently he made a remark which was so genuinely outrageous as to make me gasp in astonishment before I burst out laughing. I knew, however, that he was going to get into trouble for it. As my flat-mate pointed out; in our current political and cultural climate it shouldn't have come as a surprise to John that people were going to react explosively to his remark. It's a goddamn dirty shame that he's come under such fire, but hardly a surprise.

Well, between the jigs and the reels, SBBS has been forced to close. I suspect the fact that John was posting under his real name (silly boy! He should have grabbed a name like 'Bliss') was ultimately his downfall. Presumably those who have initiated their pseudo-fatwah against him threatened to take their indignation beyond the blogosphere. In such circumstances, he took the only route available to him and closed down the site.

I am not - incidentally - repeating the remark that (I believe) was the straw that broke the blackmailers back. Those of you proficient enough with google-cache could probably track it down, but if John is being hassled so much that he's decided to remove it from the web, I'm hardly going to cite it here.

Shot By Both Sides will be sorely missed, and although he'll continue to contribute to The Sharpener, the biting humour that helped define SBBS will inevitably have to subside a little, so long as John's petty tyrants keep up their vendetta. Fingers crossed, then, that they all develop serious diseases of the genitalia leaving them in far too much pain to hassle Mr. B any further.
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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Gone with the water

My friend Matt emailed this to me today. I'm not going to bang on about the failings of the US government to adequately protect the people of New Orleans from hurricane Katrina. But I would like to point out that not only was this disaster and the aftermath predictable. It was predicted. And it's not like National Geographic is an unknown or fringe news source.
It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who invented air-conditioning as they watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn't—yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.
- National Geographic Magazine.
(October 2004 edition)
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Am I a Londoner?

Via Pixeldiva comes this little questionnaire. The essence of the thing is to find out whether or not you can legitimately call yourself "a Londoner" irrespective of where you're actually from originally.

I recall, many moons ago when I was living in Cairo, reading a vaguely humourous piece called "20 ways to tell you've been in Egypt too long". It included the line "You no longer bother removing flies from your drink, merely sift it through your teeth to avoid swallowing them". I was actually doing just that as I read the list (sifting my beer through my teeth to avoid chugging down the large fly floating in it). I'm told that it's a good deal more stressful being an ex-pat in Egypt these days, but my memories of Cairo are wonderful and far from being there 'too long', I'm a little sad that I didn't spend more time there before it too became a place where suspicion of The Other gained a solid foothold.

With regards to how much of a Londoner I am, though, there's really two answers to most of these questions. Me at 24 and me now, a decade later. There was a time when I immersed myself in London. The city coursed through my veins and I'd say to people "I'll never live anywhere else again... everywhere would be so dull... a step backwards from London". And I said that, having lived in far more places by my mid-twenties than most people do their entire lives.

London hasn't changed very much since then. But I have. Anyways, onto the "Are you a Londoner?" thingie...

1. You say "the City" and expect everyone to know which one.
Let's face it, if an American says "The City" they should be referring to New York. If a European says it, they should mean "London". London is The City. Anyone who doesn't know that is being willfully ignorant.

2. You have never been to The Tower of London or Madame Tussauds but love Brighton.
Half point. I've never been to the Tower or to Madame Tussauds (passed by them umpteen times of course), but I'm not a big fan of Brighton either... I used to hang out there during a less than sane period of my life and still recall the dark and scary underbelly of the place. Back when I was 24 though... full point.

3. You can get into a four-hour argument about how to get from Shepherds Bush to Elephant & Castle at 3:30 on the Friday before a long weekend, but can't find Dorset on a map.
'Fraid so. Though I'm fairly certain Dorset is down near Cornwall.

4. Hookers and the homeless are invisible.
Part of me wishes they were... and another part is glad they're not. Indeed they've become more and more visible over the years. Again, I could probably answer "yes" 10 years ago. These days though I can't help but see the suffering around me, and that's one of the reasons I need to get out of the city. To quote the late, great Lester Bangs...
If you accept for even a moment the idea that each human life is as precious and delicate as a snowflake and then you look at a wino in a doorway, you've got to hurt until you feel like a sponge for all those other assholes' problems, until you feel like an asshole yourself, so you draw all the appropriate lines. You stop feeling. But you know that then you begin to die. So you tussle with yourself. how much of this horror can I actually allow myself to think about? Perhaps the numbest mannekin is wiser than somebody who only allows their sensitivity to drive them to destroy everything they touch - but then again ... just to recognize that that person exists, just to touch his cheek and then probably expire because the realization that you must share the world with him is ultimately unbearable is to only go the first mile. The realization of living is just about that low and that exalted and that unbearable and that sought-after. Please come back and leave me alone. But when we're along together we can talk all we want about the universality of this abyss: it doesn't make any difference, the highest only meets the lowest for some lying succor, UNICEF to relatives, so you scratch and spit and curse in violent resignation at the strict fact that there is absolutely nothing you can do but finally reject anyone in greater pain than you. At such a moment, another breath is treason.
5. You step over people who collapse on the Tube.
No. And I never would have. But I have seen it happen.

6. You believe that being able to swear at people in their own language makes you multilingual.
I've lived all over the world. I know people who are properly multilingual. So no. And never.

7. You've considered stabbing someone.
Never. I've been stabbed and wouldn't ever consider it. My usual daydream about, for instance, my ex-boss involves public humiliation rather than physical harm (I'm essentially a non-violent person, though admittedly the guy who stabbed me wouldn't agree with that).

8. Your door has more than three locks.
Back when I lived in Hackney; yes. These days I'm in a more chilled-out part of the city and don't feel the need for quite as much home security.

9. You consider eye contact an act of overt aggression.
No. Indeed the refusal of Londoners to make eye-contact irritates me considerably.

10. You call an 8' x 10' plot of patchy grass a garden.
I call an 8' x 10' plot of cracked concrete with a couple of weeds growing through the cracks a garden. Leastways that's the garden I have right now.

11. You consider Essex the "countryside".
I visit my family in the wilds of West Cork quite frequently. I know what proper countryside looks like.

12. You think Hyde Park is "nature".
Nope. But Hampstead Heath does actually qualify.

13. You're paying £1,200 a month for a studio the size of a walk-in wardrobe and you think it's a "bargain".
Essentially yes. The details aren't quite that extreme, but when I tell non-Londoners how much I'm paying for this pokey flat they tend to think I'm joking.

14. Shopping in suburban supermarkets and shopping malls gives you a severe attack of agoraphobia.
No. But I find them depressing as hell. I could never live in the suburbs or in a small town - or even in another city - after London. All of the shitty elements of civilisation with none of London's saving graces (e.g. the ability to see a gig you'll enjoy every single week if you so choose).

15. You pay more each month to park your car than most people in the UK pay in rent.
If I owned a car this would certainly be true. However I'm philosophically opposed to car ownership in places where there is adequate public transport (and London certainly fulfills that criteria).

16. You pay £3 without blinking for a beer that cost the bar 28p.
I no longer drink alcohol. But when I did... yes.

17. You actually take fashion seriously.
Hahahhahh ah hah hah ha ha ha.

18. You have 27 different take-away menus next to your telephone.
Kind of. There's a ton of them lying around, but these days I only need one... The Bengal Curry House on St. James Street. Reasonable prices for incredibly tasty food (and in large portions too).

19. The UK west of Heathrow is still theoretical to you.
No. I briefly lived near Reading. Wouldn't recommend it.

20. You're suspicious of strangers who are actually nice to you.
I have to make an effort not to be.

21. Your idea of personal space is no one actually physically standing on you.
Another reason why I need to leave the city. London's idea of personal space really conflicts with mine. Thankfully I'm quite tall, so tube journeys don't involve feeling like I'm in a contest to see how many sweaty people can be squeezed into a phonebox.

22. £50 worth of groceries fit in one plastic bag.
Scandalous isn't it?

23. You have a minimum of five "worst cab ride ever" stories.
I rarely take cabs. But if I cast my mind back I can come up with at least twenty "worst nightbus experiences ever" stories.

24. You don't hear sirens anymore.
In my last flat, my bedroom window (not double-glazed) overlooked the junction between Mare Street and Graham Road in Hackney. Upon hearing this, people who know the area will often give a low whistle whilst shaking their heads slightly and then offer me the number of a good therapist. Sirens, gunshots, gang-warfare... it's not so much that I became immune to these things; I simply learnt how to sleep with loud music blasting through my earphones.

25. You've mentally blocked out all thoughts of the city's air/water quality and what it's doing to your insides.
Damn straight! I'm neurotic enough as it is without having to think about that shit.

26. You live in a building with a larger population than most towns.
A decade ago that was true. These days, thankfully, no.

27. Your cleaner is Portugese, your grocer is Somali, your butcher is Halal, your deli man is Israeli, your landlord is Italian, your laundry guy is Philippino, your bartender is Australian, your favourite diner owner is Greek, the watch seller on your corner is Senegalese, your last cabbie was African, your newsagent is Indian and your local English chippie owner is Turkish.
Wellllll... I don't have a butcher; not being a meat-eater and all. I dunno about the cleaner yet (as we've only recently decided to hire one) and the chippie owner is Greek-Cypriot. In principle though... "yes".

28. You wouldn't want to live anywhere else until you get married.
Used to think so. Now I can hardly wait to get out (pity all the high-paying work happens to be here).

29. You roll your eyes and say 'tsk' at the news that someone has thrown themselves under a tube train.
Again no. I tend to spend the next hour empathising with the person and get thoroughly depressed about the whole thing. I'm clearly no longer wired correctly for the city.

30. Your day is ruined if you don't get a copy of Metro on the way to work.
Thankfully I work from home. And even when I didn't, my journey to work was always accompanied by whatever book I was reading at the time. The Metro comes from the same stable as The Mail and The Standard and I'd rather drink the urine of Mark Knopfler* than sully my mind with that right-wing propaganda.



In truth I used to be a Londoner. But I'm not anymore. I think the city will always grind down people like me after a while. I loved it for a long time, but that's gone now. However, if you're in your early 20s I can think of no better place to live.



* A prize to whoever first identifies that reference.
Full post...

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Satan's evil rays

I honestly believed that the final word had been spoken on the Intelligent Design Vs. Evolution debate. But despite having elected a president who proves the theory of evolution beyond any doubt, scientifically aware people all over America still find themselves under siege from kooks and crackpots who believe that the universe is a shade over six thousand years old and was created by an angry white guy in period costume with a bushy beard.

Not content with filling their childrens' heads with the insane ramblings of 2,000 year-old desert nomads who'd perhaps snacked on one too many of the local mushrooms; creationists are now demanding the opportunity to fill everyone else's kids with the same lunacy.

The theory of Intelligent Design is a pseudo-scientific term for bullshit creationism. Religious groups in America want it taught alongside evolution in public school science lessons. This, you see, gets around the whole "separation of church and state" thang. The bible isn't a religious text at all... it's science!

What?!

President Chimpfeatures apparently supports the teaching of Creationism as a scientific alternative to Evolution. Which means that the legal challenge currently facing the University of California system may turn out to be more than the bad joke and waste of time it should be. A religious group - representing hundreds of American schools - is challenging the right of the universities to refuse to accept highschool courses in creationism as adequate qualifications for degrees in science subjects.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised... though I reserve the right to be horrified, distressed and unsettled. After all, President Chimpfeatures apparently governs a nation in which 20% of the population believe the sun revolves around the earth and 90% of them don't know what radiation is.

Note to Americans: It doesn't. And it's the emission of energy in the form of particles or electromagnetic waves.

[Aside: When I was working in the American Midwest I installed machines in several packaging factories which contained radioactive sources. They were multi-function units which - among other things - displayed the contents of each package passed through them on a screen using X-Ray photography. The radioactive source was well-shielded and there was no danger to the operator. In one of the plants, however, the line-supervisor insisted on affixing a large crucifix to the side of the machine to protect the operator from the "evil" of radiation. I didn't press the issue; he was also an active member of the NRA and it's rarely a good idea to argue with religious nuts who carry guns.]

There's nothing wrong with religious belief per se. Indeed all of us, from Darwin to Dawkins to Dubya, are guilty of acts of faith at one time or another. We all hold beliefs and assumptions that can't be supported by 'the scientific method'. And there's nothing at all wrong with that. However, there's something very wrong when a group of people start demanding that their particular unsupported beliefs are given the same weight as scientific evidence in our schools and in society at large.

The United States, even as it projects military might across the globe, is becoming more insular and less rational by the day. I would feel very uncomfortable raising a child in a culture that is degenerating into medievalism, even as it relies ever more upon technology provided by the very sciences it holds in such suspicion.

I suggest that Europe demonstrates the true depth of its compassion and high-culture by offering asylum and naturalisation to any American citizen who can demonstrate that they know what radiation is and who don't consider it the work of the devil.



Good article by Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne in the Grauniad.
Full post...
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