Saturday, April 26, 2003

I almost always read Mark Lawson's column in the Saturday edition of The Guardian, and usually come away feeling disappointed. It's not that he's a poor writer, just that I always feel he's on the verge of saying something profound and interesting, but never actually making the point you think might be there. This week's column, about protests over the Spanish play XXX and Melvin Burgess' novel Doing It, is no exception to the rule - it hints at making some deeper points over our attraction to the taboo, but ends with the not that original point that protests about 'scandalous' art only serve to draw more attention to it. Still, the line, 'The Mail is giving the masturbators of Hammersmith a hand, but neither side can help it.' is quite amusing.

But, and the reason I'm writing about it, there was one line in the column that prompted a few thoughts: '(Burgess' Doing It) has suffered the inevitable accusation that teenagers who read about sex will be tempted to do it.'

That's always seemed a rather strange assertion to me. I can only talk from the perspective of teenage boys, as I was one, but reading about sex is not what tempts teenagers to do it. Teenage boys are just giant sacks of turbulent hormones who don't need to be reading about sex to want to do it. They don't need any encouragement from books, films, TV or anything else - wanting to have sex is pretty much the driving impulse (alongside a desire for an instant cure for zits and wavering voices) for every teenage boy, which is usually why they don't get it - one thing we all learn as we get older is that male desperation does not act as an aphrodisiac for women. It's often said that the reason men fear the idea of having daughters is because we remember what we were like as boys and fear for our daughters as they'll encounter the same.

If anything, teenage boys want to read about sex because it's an acceptable substitute for not getting to do it. It's the reason any discovery of a mention of sex or naked women in school books is almost psychically discovered within minutes of a book being issued to the class, followed by hurried whispers and playground conversations consisting mainly of page numbers. It's a displacement activity rather than a reinforcement activity, something to try and soothe the hormones in the subconscious knowledge that we're not going to get the real thing.
OK, so there's only five days till the elections, but ToThePolls is a good neutral site about the Scottish elections. (originally discovered by the Vodkabird)

And, while we're on the subject of elections, I'm working an overnight shift on Thursday night, so if I get the chance I'll try and blog about the election results as they come in - so you all can read about them when you get up on Friday morning, no doubt.
Oooh... Ken Macleod now has a weblog, called 'The early days of a better nation'. (via Perspective)

Friday, April 25, 2003

Atheists for Jesus. No, it's not a parody of Jews for Jesus, but actually quite an interesting site, especially on the influence the teachings and writings of Paul have had on Christianity.
I mentioned Australia and New Zealand in posts over the last day without realising it's Anzac Day today. It was interesting to learn that it's the first one following the death of the last veteran of Gallipoli. Which made me realise that it probably won't be too long before we have a Remembrance Day when there are no living veterans of the First World War.
The Free State Project is quite interesting. (I originally read about it in this article, linked by Junius) The aim is for at least 5,000 American Libertarians to find one small state and then all move there "where they may work within the political system to reduce the size and scope of government." It's one of those things that looks like it might be interesting to watch in progress, but could well be rather stressful in closeup - especially when they choose which state they're going to go for and all move there. Some of the quotes from state spokesmen at the end of the article are slightly Onion-esque in this respect - lots of 'go there, don't come here'.

Still, it'll be interesting to see which state they choose - the vote is meant to take place when there are 5,000 people signed up, and they're at just over 3,000 now. If nothing else, I suspect this project will create employment oppotunities for a few journalists - there'll be a lot of opportunities for stories on people packing up to move to whichever state is chosen, and then on the progress (or not) of the project when they're active in the state. As to which state they choose, my guess (and it really is little more than a guess) is that they'll go for Delaware.
via Castrovalva, an interesting article by Philip Pullman on the origins of some of the alternate Oxford of His Dark Materials.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

via Dustbinman, an article from The Nation about The Daily Show that reveals "More people (4 million) tune in to The Daily Show in a given week than watched Fox news at the height of the war (3.3 million)."

OK, we can get half an hour of it a week on CNN International, but why doesn't one of the British TV companies just buy it in and show it every night? It'd be better than most of the rubbish we get on late night TV. I'd suggest a British version of it, but the last time someone tried that, we ended up with the Eleven O'Clock Show...and the risk of letting another Iain Lee loose on the British airwaves is just too big to try that again.
Having found the exact population of New Zealand last night, here's the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which also has a population clock. (if the link doesn't work, click on 'statistics' on the main page, then 'Australia's current population')

And a quick, back-of-an-envelope, calculation shows that Australia's going to hit a population of 20,000,000 sometime around the end of January next year. That's resident population, so there are probably more than 20 million Aussies in the world already - most of them working in pubs in London of course. (thanks to Caz for the link)
I've just discovered Sledge Hammer Online:

The purpose of this site is to unite "Hammerheads" around the world, creating a formidable army of men, women, children and barnyard animals who'll wrest their will on society and plunder all those who don't share our same misguided beliefs. Sorry, I've just described the Republican Party.

Those of you who remember the phrase 'trust me, I know what I'm doing' will probably enjoy it. Those of you who are just looking blankly at the screen right now probably won't.

Why so many people young and old remember "Sledge Hammer!" is a mystery. Maybe it's because the show was an odd duck. Perhaps it's because current television is bland, with every situation comedy revolving around a living room and kids. Or… it could be because a lot of people are insane.
While I was away, I did see a rather interesting Horizon documentary about neuro-theology, questioning whether religious visions are merely caused by electromagnetic fluctuations and temporal lobe epilepsy. It was very interesting, especially the attempt to see if the research program at Laurentian University could induce a religious vision in Richard Dawkins. At the end, though, the programme did run into the stumbling block I expected they'd find. Even if they do prove that religious visions are caused by physical factors, people will just claim that whichever deity they believe created them deliberately made us that way so we could receive messages from them. Because, of course, omnipotent deities can never find an easy way to communicate with their creations.

Still, there was one stunning revelation from it - Richard Dawkins doesn't sound anything like I expected him to. He was one of those people I was sure I'd heard speaking before, but clearly hadn't, as his voice was of a much softer tone (and even with a slight West Country accent) than I'd associated with him. From the tone of his writing, I guess I assumed he would be a very bombastic-sounding person - a sort of atheistic Iain Paisley, rather than the voice of an average academic.
New Zealand becomes a country of 4 million people in a few hours, rather than just three-and-a-bit million. I just think the idea of the government statistics agency having a population clock on their website is rather cool. (via Leto)

I definitely want to visit New Zealand... probably won't be able to afford it this year, though.
If you happen to pay attention to the 'reading' and 'listening' lists to the right, you'll have noticed that I got the White Stripes' Elephant album last week, and would just like to state for the record that it's bloody fantastic. There's a very strange sensation when you listen to it, as though these are all classic songs that have been around since the 70s, but you're only now listening to them for the first time. The songs are fresh and original, not just some pastiche of the classics of before, but they sound like they're of the same era. The best way I can think of to describe it is as an aural form of deja vu - deja ecoute, I guess...

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

When I came back from the Lakes, I brought back with me one of the evillest substances known to man... Kendal Mint Cake. Evil in that it's utterly addictive, tastes great and yet is pretty much just concentrated sugar with a tiny dash of mint oil for flavouring. As you can tell from that description, it's really healthy and good for you.

Still, it helped Hillary and Tenzing get to the top of Everest, which produced this rather euphemistic-sounding quote: "On the summit Tensing embraced me - We nibbled Kendal Mint Cake"
It's not often that a story about the BNP's election campaign can raise a smile, but this snippet from today's Guardian Diary does:

A setback for the BNP's local election campaign in Medway, where one of its four candidates has been forced to withdraw. One Anthony James Holroyd, candidate for the Peninsula ward, has pulled out, reports the Anti Nazi League website, after his mother Stella discovered his plan, frogmarched him down to the civic centre and made him remove his name from the ballot paper just before the deadline for withdrawal. He's not an embryonic fascist leader, to adapt a line for Stella from The Life of Brian, he's a very naughty boy.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

You can file this under the triumph of hope over experience, but I expect to be in a good mood for the next couple of weeks as Wolves have made it to the playoffs. This year, we're finally going to get promoted - after all, we came into this division the same season as Portsmouth, so it's only right that we take our leave at the same time.
In response to my '24 is just Captain Scarlet for the 21st century' post, someone (American, of course) asked the important question - who is Captain Scarlet? You know, I'm sure this is another big division between Britain and America - they've had insufficient exposure to Gerry Anderson TV series in their youth (except Thunderbirds, of course)

Anyway, this BBC page does a good introduction, the official site is pretty average (all Flash and not much content, it seems) and this fan page is quite good.

And in doing that bit of searching, I've discovered that a new Captain Scarlet (CGI animation) series is in pre-production.

Monday, April 21, 2003

As you may have noticed if you've looked at my pictures from last week in Cumbria, I visited a few stone circles while I was there (Castlerigg, Sunkenkirk and Birkrigg). I find them interesting for a couple of reasons: firstly, because of their extreme antiquity and secondly, because of the varieties of interpretations of what they actually are (or were) - I think a lot of the interpretations reveal more about the interpreter than they do about the actual site. Bear that in mind when you read this interpretation of them.

I haven't visited or read enough about stone circles to be anything like an expert on them - most of my knowledge about them comes from bits and pieces I've read and heard throughout the years (especially Julian Cope's excellent guide The Modern Antiquarian) rather than any systematic research but one of the trends I've noticed with interpretations is that they try and make every circle or set of standing stones fit with just one theory as to what they are with only minor variations from the theory admitted. For me, the problem with this is that it seems to assume a common culture amongst all the various builders of the monuments, assuming, for example, that the builders of Avebury and the builders of Callanish would have had some kind of indirect contact that motivated them in the same way. There is obviously a connection in that they both chose to make monuments of standing stones in a formation, but that doesn't mean that the structures they built have a necessary connection in the same way that two modern buildings made of concrete, steel and brick will have the same function.

Also, our interpretation is limited in that we can only make theories based on the monuments that have survived until the present day (or that we have evidence for existing). This is, I believe, likely to be only a small percentage of the total number of monuments erected in the past. For instance, most of those that have survived are in what are now remote areas without a large local population - many circles have been destroyed over the years by local communities using the stones for making new buildings and their sites might have been completely built over. Thus, what survives may not be a representative sample of the monuments that have existed.

(As a sidebar, Jack McDevitt's Eternity Road is interesting in the way it applies a similar perspective to our culture. In this future, we are known to historians and archaeologists as the 'Roadbuilders' because those are the main examples of our time that have survived.)

There's also the Stonehenge issue, which Cope identifies in The Modern Antiquarian - many people see Stonehenge as being the culmination of the other stone circle building, but some evidence suggests it may have been built as part of a different culture, 'borrowing' inspiration from the previous circle-building culture. This can be seen in many people assuming all the other circles have some astrological purpose because Stonehenge has while ignoring the possibility that any circular arrangement in the open air will have some 'link' to the skies, even if that was not intended. For instance, one can use any single standing stone as a sundial to tell you the current time, but that doesn't mean it was built as a sundial. (Or if you want a modern example, a lamppost can be used for the same purpose, it doesn't mean it was built for that)

Finally, I think we also project our own cultural beliefs on the builders of these circles. In our culture, a place is often made special by the act of erecting a building there - for instance, the building of a church or place of worship makes that place 'sacred' (the concept of 'consecrated ground') regardless of what it was before but the building is the important place, not the ground it lies on. We assume that these builders followed the same thought process, and look for the special features of the 'structure' (the circle or standing stones) rather than the ground it lies on. My belief, and this comes from Cope's argument that many circles are placed in position relative to 'Mother' hills, is that the many of the monuments are to mark a special place rather than being special in and of themselves. For instance, I think that one of the possible explanations for Castlerigg (and maybe Sunkenkirk) is that it marks some neutral meeting place for separate families/clans who lived in the area and that the three 'gates' point towards the different places they lived. The circle was built to show that a place was important, not to make a previously insignificant place important.

Anyway, that's just my poorly-informed speculation. If anyone wants to make any corrections or knows some more then please leave a comment - I'm sure I've contradicted myself in a couple of places (especially in talking about culture) and I'd appreciate other views. I'll probably do some reading on the web about this in the next few days, so I could return to this later in the week.
One of my favourite regular columns in the Guardian is Erwin James' 'A Life Inside' which I've found a fascinating insight into life in prison, especially as it's a desensationalised version of how we see prison life usually depicted in fictional media. It's a look at a life where your day-to-day existence is the same continually for a period of years. Of course, what made the column interesting is the fact that he's a good writer.

Anyway, I believe he is now out of prison on licence, and he's written an article on how he came to write the column, which has now been collected into a book.
I was watching 24 last night and I've finally worked out why it all seems so familiar. It's quite simple, really - it's just a modern update of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. I think it was watching Jack climbing out of a crashed plane with just a few scratches and then being back to normal within a few minutes of staggering out - it's because he is quite clearly indestructible, just like Captain Scarlet. As the Captain Scarlet theme song says 'they smash him, and his body may burn, they crash him, but they know he'll return'.

But the parallels go beyond that - just look:

CTU is Spectrum: A secretive government body, with seemingly omnipotent powers over other agencies whose job is to fight some nameless and nefarious enemy.

CTU headquarters is Cloudbase: A high tech base of operations full of lots of gleaming metal and clear glass panels where the fight is co-ordinated, with all communications passing through there.

George Mason is Colonel White: A grumpy bloke who's head of the organisation, but spends most of his time sitting behind his desk issuing orders to his agents - orders which they regularly complain about and go against.

Nina Myers is Captain Black: Once one of the good guys, now turned to evil after being corrupted by the nefarious enemy. Wears lots of black clothing, and has large black shadows around their eyes.

Tony Almeida is Captain Blue: Works alongside the hero and frequently does all the real work that directs Jack/Scarlet to victory over the enemies, but never seems to get any of the credit for it.

Jack's cars are Spectrum Pursuit Vehicles: They're capable of incredible speeds, can be found hidden everywhere and have the magical ability to make all traffic in their path disappear.

The bad guys are the Mysterons: They let CTU know just what they're going to do at the start of each series (kill Palmer, blow up LA) and seem to have the ability to make anyone turn evil overnight.

Various girls in trouble are the Angels: Kim, Terri, Cate - take them out of their planes and all they can do is run around and get in trouble

I couldn't work out where Palmer and all his entourage fit into the plot, but I think they were just added in to try and confuse matters and put people off the scent of noticing the Captain Scarlet rip-off/homage that's going on around them. There are some other parallels as well (Michelle as Lieutenant Green, various other CTU agents as Captain Ochre/Magenta etc) but I think I've proved my point enough. I'm just waiting for the next series to start with 'This is the voice of the Mysterons. We know that you can hear us, Earthmen.'

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Well, hope you missed me, because I'm back! Strange how walking through Lakeland and standing on top of hills taking in the view can help you forget all the petty bullshit about love, war, politics and blogging.

Anyway, normal service (or what passes for normal service) will resume here tomorrow - until then, you can amuse yourself by looking at all the pictures from my little holiday.