Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Friday, June 30, 2006

OK - here are a few hints

Guesses down at my 25 First Lines post seem to have dried up. Which is funny, because there are still quite a few left which I thought people would get fairly easily. I mean, I know it's tough getting songs just from lyrics, but Lisa got the Pulp one really quickly because she's a Pulp fan. So are there no fans of

Bob Dylan
Paul Simon
Kate Bush
Elvis Costello
Status Quo
Grateful Dead
Frank Zappa
Super Furry Animals

out there? Just asking....

It's really rather hard to argue with this



Over the years I have been as keen as anyone to see the Blair government repeal the raft of anti-trade union egislation which was passed by the Thatcher and Major administrations (and attacked vigorously by Blair et al when in opposition). Of course, that was all forgotten once our Tone was safely in Downing Street.


I've just discovered an interesting piece of legislation which came into effect in 2004. It may not make it any less of an uphill struggle to call a strike, but it makes strike-breaking that little bit harder. And it has teeth. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the snappily-titled Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Business Regulations 2003.

The bit that had my jaw dropping was this one:

Employment Businesses may not supply temporary workers to replace employees engaged in official industrial action.

I found out about it because of a letter which the GMB union sent to various agencies which supply staff to Asda, with whom it was recently in dispute. It goes into detail about the regulations as they affect agencies who knowingly attempt to supply staff for the purpose of strike-breaking. Impressive.

I have to wonder why this hasn't been hailed before now as a step in the right direction; even though the old anti-TU legislation is still in place, here's some new funky pro-TU legislation. It would be nice to publicise it a bit, wouldn't you think?

So, much as I hate to say anything good about Blair (let's face it, he probably voted against the new regulations) his government has done something good for once. And haven't yelled about it (which probably means they're embarrassed by it).

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

I can't believe I'm doing this

Following a reference in a blog (JZ in NI, if you're bothered) I found this speech by Bono to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington back in February.

OK. Stop there. Anyone knowing the high regard in which I do NOT hold Bono (I remain to be converted to the joys of U2, and find the guy in general a long way up himself) will be amazed that I link to anything to do with him. And a whole speech? At - wait for it - a PRAYER BREAKFAST? In the WHITE HOUSE? With George W Sodding BUSH?

Well, er, yes, actually. Because it's one hell of a speech. And I may start to revise my opinion of Bono a teeny bit. (Not sure about U2 though....)

And George W Bush could do a lot worse than pay the man some attention. (Like THAT's going to happen.)

Bring the boys home (and no, this isn't about Iraq).

If you read my recent post on the Israeli shelling of the beach in Gaza (perhaps especially if you read Judith's comment on it and my response) you may have imagined that my silence so far on the Palestinian kidnapping of the Israeli soldier. and now of a boy from one of the settlements, indicated tacit approval. You may have thought that I was busily composing posts on how the wicked Israelis have invaded Gaza and committed "crimes against humanity" (according to Mahmoud Abbas).

Wrong on all counts.

Firstly the kidnappings. However much some spokesmen for Palestinian factions may try to gloss them as legitimate resistance to military occupation, these were acts of terrorism. The Geneva Declaration on Terrorism states: “As repeatedly recognised by the United Nations General Assembly, peoples who are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination have the right to use force to accomplish their objectives within the framework of international humanitarian law. Such lawful uses of force must not be confused with acts of international terrorism.” Note that "...within the framework of international humanitarian law....". The usual interpretation of this is that to be counted as legitimate resistance to occupation, action must be directed only at members of the occupying force, not civilians of whatever nationality , and must be confined to the occupied regions (you can't take the war to the invader's homeland).

So: kidnapping number 1. Corporal Gilad Shilat, 19 years old, serving member of the IDF. A legitimate target if he was in the Occupied Territories, or indeed in Gaza given its rather strange neither-occupied-nor-wholly-free status. But Corporal Shilat was sitting in a tank inside Israel when his two fellow crew members were killed and he was wounded and kidnapped. Sorry guys: terrorism.

Second kidnapping: Eliyahu Asheri, aged 18, a settler from the Itamar settlement. For all that the settlements are illegal, Eliyahu is a civilian and not therefore a legitimate target. It may be galling to be reminded of it when Israeli settlers have such a propensity of shooting up Palestinians (apparently the Itamar settlers have an especially bad reputation for unprovoked violence against their Palestinian neighbours), but two wrongs still don't make a right, and civilians, even illegal settlers, are not valid targets. So no protection from international law there either.

Read a great piece in Ha'aretz on the kidnappings. It shows more balance than you might expect unless you read Ha'aretz a lot. (Judith Weiss, like so many American apologists for Israeli policy, is far more extreme than most of the Israeli public and press.)

No, these are terrorist acts, and it was inevitable that Israel would react to them in some way. Whether invading Gaza is the best way to secure the return of the hostages has to be doubted. It poses less risk to Israeli troops than house-to-house searches, certainly, but realistically the only way the Israelis were ever going to be returned was via some combination of political pressure Israeli intelligence. Neither Fatah nor Hamas claims to know where the Israelis are, but they might have been shamed into finding out. Either whoever has them wants to use them as bargaining pieces, in which case stalling for time might have allowed an intelligence-led rescue attempt, or they couldn't care less, in which case the hostages probably died as the first tank entered Gaza.

I must say, however, that while "crimes against humanity" may be strong language, the missile attacks on Gaza's only power station, which cut off (electrically-pumped) water supplies to most of Gaza definitely constitute yet another example of the collective punishment which is becoming so popular with the Israeli authorities. I can understand the demolition of bridges to prevent the hostages being moved (though that presupposes that they are where the IDF think they are), but knocking out the power is just petty vindictiveness of which Israel should be ashamed. I'm glad to say that much of Gaza's water was soon back online using electricity stolen from Israeli power supplies. Good.

I hope the hostages are found and returned to their homes safely. I hope there is minimal loss of life among either the Palestinians or the IDF while the invasion lasts. And I hope that the continuing moves towards a two-state solution which the Palestinians are making meet with a positive response from the Israeli government; though I doubt that's top of their agenda right now.

For all its limitations and ambiguities, the adoption of the "Prisoners' Document" represents a significant shift in the attitude of the Palestinian Authority in the direction of Palestinian public opinion, which is to say a negotiated settlement. It manages to avoid any mention of Israel, which is impressive if you think about it, and sad if you think a little longer, but it does commit the Palestinians to a state within 1967 borders (which implies that neither Israel nor Palestine would encroach beyond those) and to a restriction of violent resistance to the occupied territories. That would mean not only no more bombings or kidnappings in Israel, but once the territories were no longer occupied, no more violence, period. OK, duh, but it's more than Hamas have been prepared to sign up to previously. It does not, as Hamas keep pointing out, explicitly recognise Israel, but it refers to "international legitimacy resolutions" (i.e. UN resolutions) - which do. It might be nice to have Hamas acknowledge Israel's right to exist, but if they can be persuaded to agree not to attack it any more then the important concession has been won in my opinion. hamas needn't send ambassadors to Tel Aviv, but stopping sending suicide bombers and rockets would be really good.

Modified rapture then, and if the hostage crisis continues to escalate the whole thing may fall apart. As that's undoubtedly what the kidnappers intended, it would be wonderful to have real progress towards peace in which their noses could be fervently rubbed before the Israelis blow their heads off. Or after. Whatever.

The IDF confirmed early Thursday a report the Popular Resistance Committees issued from Gaza that it had executed Eliyahu Asheri, 18, of Itamar, who was kidnapped earlier this week in the West Bank. Asheri's family had been notified. His funeral took place at 2:30 p.m. in Jerusalem.

I was going to add a photograph but Blogger doesn't seem to be accepting picture uploads at present. I'll try again in a while.

On the bright side, despite all the privations being visited on Gaza residents by the IDF (who are now blockading food supplies) it appears that Egypt may be close to getting the remaining hostage released. By negotiating, of course.


Just found a rather good description of Eliyahu's funeral which is worth reading. And yes, I found it via a link from one of Judith's blogs. Though I suspect her comment was a drive-by and she'll never be back, I haven't forgotten her. For sure, if she publishes any rubbish I really can't abide I'll be down on her like the proverbial 1000 kg of bricks, but hey, if she publishes good stuff she gets my vote.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Odds and sods

A rather good optical illusion here.

And a video that makes me wish I was a student again (Q: what happens when you dump a bowl of liquid nitrogen into a swimming pool? A: this).

Both courtesy of Bad Astronomer Phil.

The Symphony Goes Ever On and On, or There and Back Again

On Saturday we, that is me, Hilary, Ruairidh and our friends the Walkers from Braemar (all of them Lord Of The Rings - the Peter Jackson films, that is - nuts), went through to Glasgow to hear the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (plus soloists and choruses) performing Howard Shore's "Lord Of The Rings Symphony". Shore wrote around 12 hours of music for the 9 hours of LOTR films, and has taken some of it (around two hours' worth) and reinvented it, with the help of John Mauceri, as the LOTR Symphony.

Before the performance we bumped into one of the RSNO's violinists whom we know (he conducts Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra). He described the piece as long, tiring and dark. We thought he meant dark as in sombre, but as we discovered, he meant dark as in sitting-in-darkness-with-a-light-on-my-music-stand-like-a-theatre-orchestra. Because as well as the music, we had atmospheric lighting effects and projections. The projections were not, as we had expected, of stills from the films, but were of the original conceptual artwork, which added a little distance from the cinema experience. It worked pretty well, in fact: Hilary was heard to say that the use of atmospheric lighting might not be a bad thing for the odd 'straight' classical concert. Certainly you can see that choral pieces like "A Child Of Our Time" or "Gurrelieder" might benefit from the odd suffusion of blood-red light.

As for the music, it was pretty good. I always liked the Howard Shore LOTR music: actually it was the main thing I did like about "The Two Towers" which I thought was a very poor film in many ways. The symphony (six movements, two per film) could have taken a bit of abridgement. Hilary and I reckoned the whole of movts 3 and 4 could have been quietly junked without losing any of the really good bits, of which there were many. The Mines of Moria/Bridge of Khazad-Dum sequence (cue red lights) was very impressive, as was the Celtic-influenced flute music for The Shire. The Ents were accompanied by what sounded like a de-tuned marimba (there were seven busy percussionists and two timpanists). And of course the Academy Award-winning song "Into The West" made its appearance at the end, and only a tin-eared curmudgeon would begrudge it the Oscar, for it is a very fine song.

I'll come clean: I thought the LOTR Symphony might turn out to be a turkey, the kind of thing that tops the Classic FM charts for months without having any discernable merit (for God's sake, the Nigel Kennedy version of the "Four Seasons" topped their chart, and a recent 'Great Composers' poll put Karl Jenkins - of Adiemus fame - ahead of Beethoven). While I'm not about to rush out and buy it, and while I wouldn't necessarily want to sit through the whole thing again, I just might. Because it was fun, and it had an honesty about it that transcended the whole film tie-in thing. Though I would say that if you haven't seen the films you probably won't get nearly as much pleasure from the symphony as if you have.

The RSNO violinist expressed surprise at my having gone through for the concert. "I thought you were a man of impeccable taste" he said. Well, I dunno 'bout that, but I didn't feel I'd slummed it on Saturday. In my musical house are many mansions, with room for Abba and Antheil, Cavalli and the Carpenters, Meat Loaf and Monteverdi. So Shore and Shostakovich can co-exist happily.

Must... resist... urge... to... tell... terrible... joke.....

Oh all right then, if you insist. Blame Defective Yeti.
(Though actually it was in a comment by Ozma.)

Q: What did the Dalai Lama say to the hot dog vendor?

A: Make me one with everything.

Monday, June 26, 2006


Thanks to Gordon McLean's What-Can-You-Buy-For-£10 meme, I now know of the existence of this. With luck, a yummy chocolate bar my daughter won't demand a share of. Result!

The of course there's all the other yummy chocolate bars. Wow.


The Germans have a word for it.....

...and the word is "Ohrwurm", literally "ear worm". The "it" in question is "a tune that you can't get out of your head". I think "ear worm" is a pretty cool description. Anyway, JoeInVegas has one:

Sorry for commenting otherwise, but I have a complaint -
I know you are very good at music, I'd love to come by and hear you play sometimes, but bringing up FLowers on the Wall at Lisa's, my.
You know how a song sometimes gets 'stuck in your head' and keeps going 'round and 'round? Well all night I've been hearing 'counting flowers on the wall, that don't bother me at all . . . ' over and over and over again. All your fault for bringing it up. (well, maybe I should blame Lisa for starting it).
So, a challenge to you, what other songs can you come up with that might replace this inane jingle from keeping it's hooks in me? (and please, no opera, I have a hard enough time with current music to be going back so far)

OK, all stop laughing now, yes I know my "Flowers On The Wall" guess was completely wrong but I've corrected it now, OK? OK?

Meanwhile. This whole 25 First Lines meme (what? oh, sorry, this whole 25 First Lines meme) started with a list over on Actually Existing, whose first member was "Bend Me, Shape Me" by the Amen Corner. If it helps, I've been singing that regularly ever since.

But, hmm. Other good ear worms. I Googled the word to check my spelling, and found this link which instantly set "YMCA", the "Macarena" and "Who Let The Dogs Out" running. Bastards.

At least they had this nice picture of the Ohrwurmmeisterin herself.

Na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na, na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na....sorry, where was I?.

Other possibilities. Spirit In The Sky. Hi-Ho Silver Lining.

Who else has helpful suggestions for overloading Joe's head and flushing the Statler Brothers out?

Friday, June 23, 2006

If you're white, all right, if you're brown, stick around, but if you're black...

Terrific post on changes (or not) in racist attitudes by Actually Existing Phil.

Down, down....and up

A sad (=wistful) post here.

A sad (=tragic) post here.

And a hilarious post (especially when you read all the comments) here.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

25 first lines

I decided to tag myself with Phil's "first lines" meme (see here to find out what I'm on about). Only trouble: my record collection is just that. Vinyl, CDs, tapes: not a single mp3 track in there. So how to "select random play"? Let's just say it involved a lot of tedious numbering of albums and messing around with random number tables. However, I got there in the end. Same rules as Phil's. It's hard to judge the "nothing I don't recognise myself" rule; I recognised the songs all right, but how many I'd have got from their first lines in print alone is another matter. (Plus, I knew what album I was dealing with.) Still, I took 'recognise' to mean 'on hearing', and tried to be honest about it. So here we go: if you can identify a song, put your suggestion in the comments box. Any that are guessed correctly I'll score out.

I ended up doing 25:

1. My fingers hold an old love letter written in your hand.
2. I bet you sometimes wondered what was standing right behind you.
3. Thank you for the flowers, I threw them on the fire.
4. What a drag it is, these gold lame jeans.
5. Why don't you close the door and shut the curtains, 'cos you're not going anywhere?
Pulp: "Underwear"
6. I can't stay much longer Melinda, the sun is getting high.
7. Catch a boat to England baby, maybe to Spain.
8. Billy was born within sight of the shipyard.
9. You're so hot, teasing me.
Abba: "Does Your Mother Know?"
10. The landlords came, the peasant trials, to the sacrifice of men.
Runrig: "Dance Called America"
11. Well I took me a woman late last night, I was three-fourths drunk, she looked all right.
12. Yes you loved me and you sold my clothes.
13. I'm not like them but I can pretend.
14. Beautiful things it seems to be go on all around me.
15. The wall on which the prophets wrote is cracking at the seams.
King Crimson: "Epitaph"
16. Shuffling down the street with his sideways feet.
17. Pterodactyl, Brontosaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex, gather round.
18. I'm accustomed to a smooth ride.
Paul Simon: "The Obvious Child"
19. Mr Willoughby, whose only luxury is the sugar in his tea, teaches history at High Worthington School.
20. Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand.
Stevie Wonder: "Sir Duke"
21. Once upon a time not so very long ago there wasn't such a thing as a rock and roll show.
22. Four strings across the bridge, ready to carry me over.
23. I can appreciate it's easy to get confused.
24. Oh who will remember, oh who will be sure?
25. The clouds are really cheap the way I seen 'em thru the ports.

Some dead easy, some really hard. Try your luck.

P.S. I have corrected minor transcribing errors I made in #3, #11 and #22. I doubt whether they will have thrown anyone, unless you were planning on using Google to cheat.... (!) (And not all the songs are on Google anyway.) For one of the other songs the 'official' lyrics as printed have misprints (deliberate?) which are not, however, carried over into the sung version: so I have quoted the sung one.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Out of Africa

Great new blog to visit, courtesy of Clare.

Or, Oh God another blog to feel guilty about not visiting this week.

Yes, some of my pen picture of me is taking shape as I type....

Friday, June 16, 2006

There must be a word for it

For that feeling of impotence, I mean, when you come back after a comparatively short time off-blog only to find that not only is your blogroll seemingly bigger than ever (how will I ever visit all these guys who seemed so incredibly worthwhile?) but keeping up even with the 'Regularly Visited' section is a major undertaking? Oh God I feel so guilty... I haven't even brought myself up to date with all the ones I can't access from work. But Lisa, Cloud, Mike, Riverbend: yup, done you.

On the plus side, I seem to have posted a hell of a lot myself today. Oh well. Swings and roundabouts.

And I did get sidetracked by a post on Soft Machine by Phil at Actually Existing. Then realised I'd never blogrolled him (oh, the shame!) (sorry Phil - I met you at the Manchester blogmeet). Then I found a great meme on his site, which I will have to adapt by some cunning John Cage-like stochastic procedure as I don't have all (or indeed any) of my collection uploaded to what you young people call a 'media player'. Everything I have goes round and round somehow, either on CD, or tape, or vinyl or the odd minidisc. This may take some time, but we'll get there.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Talking bollocks

The round-up of Today on the web in Wednesday's Guardian was entitled "Lenient Sentencing" and quoted various comments concerning the sentencing of Craig Sweeney, who abducted and sexually assaulted a three-year-old girl.

Before we go any further, much of the commentary on this case has proceeded as though Sweeney had received only a five-year sentence for his crime. In fact he was sentenced to life imprisonment, and may be considered for parole after five years. His actually being granted parole, given the appalling nature of his crime, must however be considered highly unlikely. To describe this as 'lenient sentencing', as many of the tabloids have, reminds me of the line in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" where Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) has just sentenced Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) to death.

Gisbourne: There are some who might regret the cutting short of a young life such as yours but I...

Robin: You consider the sentence to be extremely lenient. I understand.

However, what I really wanted to comment on was one of the quoted blog posts, from Matters Of Opinion. The quote runs:

I know my comments about castration seem extreme to some people, but if this pervert had been castrated when he first offended then he'd not have subjected another child to his harmful brand of 'child love'.

It doesn't bother me that Serai's comments are 'extreme' (and by the standards of the Sun and the Daily Express they're really not), more that they're completely wrong-headed, shackling together two common misconceptions and showing that they really don't make a right.

The first misconception is that Sweeney's crime was primarily about sexual gratification. Rape, and I think the sexual assualt of a three-year-old can be squeezed into that category here even if a lack of penetration or whatever technically excludes it) - rape is almost always about the exercise of power. I can do this, says the rapist, and you can't stop me. When men rape 80-year-old women, it is unlikely that their hormones carry them into uncontrollable lust, and far more likely that they want to carry out an assault with a convenient and easily-carried weapon. The same applies, I submit, to sexual assaults on very young children. I'm not talking about the "Humbert Humberts" who prey on pre-pubescent teenage girls. There, there usually is a sexual aspect to the offence, and the coercion is as likely to be by psychological pressure as by physical violence. But someone who kidnaps and assaults a three-year-old hasn't decided that she is a hot chick; he's decided that she's someone he can intimidate. And how better to intimidate a small child than by a sexual assault?

I remain convinced that if British courts treated rape in general as a crime of violence which happened to be carried out with a penis, rather than classifying it with sexual offences like indecent exposure, we would have less courtroom intimidation of victims, a better conviction rate, and more robust sentencing.

The other misconception is that castrating someone renders them unable to have sex. It doesn't: while it takes away the ability to ejaculate and thus to have an orgasm, it doesn't usually interfere with the ability to achieve an erection. Presumably, too, the penis retains its sensitivity, so intercourse would still be transiently pleasant if ultimately frustrating. (To the best of my knowledge, the same holds for modern chemical 'castration'.) I recommend a viewing of Farinelli, which I understand to be accurate regarding the fascination which mutilated males and their abilities - and inabilities - held for the inquisitive ladies of the time, and their willingness to satisfy the ladies' - er- curiosity. (As a matter of historical fact, while there were plenty of sexually active castrati, Farinelli does not actually seem to have been one of them, despite his rock-star-like fame.)

So if Sweeney was mainly interested in violent domination, and if castration left him with a penis with which to do his dominating, the fact that he wouldn't have an orgasm at the end of it would not necessarily make the idea of repeating his offence any less appealing. So castrating him would have provided no extra safety for anybody. Safer to lock him up, however pleasingly retributive (to Serai and others) the idea of castrating sex offenders might be.

Beware of Palestinians bearing longbows

In Henry V act 5 scene 7 the boys of the baggage train are murdered by the French, an act described by Fluellen as"'tis expressly against the law of arms: 'tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offer't".

I was reminded of that by last weekend's shelling of the beach in Gaza. The Israeli Defence Force is quite open about the purpose of the shelling. In a June 10 interview with the New York Times, General Aviv Kochavi, the Israeli commander for the area, indicated that the purpose of the artillery shelling is to deter future attacks and punish area residents: “The message we are trying to convey, you can call it deterrence, but it’s ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there is an equivalence: so long as you shoot Qassams at us, we’ll shoot at you.’”

Well, thanks to General Kochavi for finally nailing the all-too-prevalent lie that the IDF never targets civilians, and that only the wicked Palestinians explode bombs and rockets to kill indiscriminately. If anyone still believed that poisonous rubbish, the shelling of the beach should have opened their eyes.

The Israeli Government, of course, apologised (for what? carrying out their own policy?) and carried out an investigation. What did it find? Why, that the wicked explosion which had killed innocent civilians had been a landmine planted by Hamas, while all the benign Israeli shells had exploded safely a hundred metres or so away. (Er, so that's all right, then.) Two more lies debunked there. First the rubbish about the landmines, which Human Rights Watch has had no trouble exposing as completely false. Then another modern myth, which is that any instances of human rights abuse by Israeli soldiers are always investigated and the perpetrators punished, unlike wicked Palestinian human rights abuses.

Back to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about human nature. On learning of the murder of the boys of the luggage, King Henry responds:

I was not angry since I came to France
Until this instant. Take a trumpet, herald;
Ride thou unto the horsemen on yon hill:
If they will fight with us, bid them come down,
Or void the field; they do offend our sight:
If they'll do neither, we will come to them,
And make them skirr away, as swift as stones
Enforced from the old Assyrian slings:
Besides, we'll cut the throats of those we have,
And not a man of them that we shall take
Shall taste our mercy. Go and tell them so.

--Henry V act 5 scene 7

So help me, I can see why people go out and become suicide bombers.


Meanwhile, England is no longer ruled by King Henry but by Prime Minister Tony. What was he doing while the Israelis were shelling the beach? He was wining and dining Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister. No criticism - of course - from Blair of the Israeli government's hypocrisy and slaughter of civilians. Still, at least he didn't provide the hoped-for support for Olmert's refusal to enter into peace negotiations with the Palestinian government, nor for his latest wheeze, which is a unilateral annexation of part of the West Bank (oops, there goes another lie: that the occupation and the separation wall aren't about a land grab).


Oh, and at the time when Henry utters the lines quoted above, he has already won the battle of Agincourt, though he doesn't know it yet. Make of that what you will.

The future's bright; the present's orange.

This piece by Clive Stafford Smith in the New Statesman is worth reading, if only as a reminder that as well as executing minors, torturing political prisoners and illegally tapping the phones of its citizens, the United States Government threatens journalists with 40 years in jail if they reveal knowledge of human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

Of course, all the reported human rights violations at Guantanamo are simply 'good PR' by the inmates.

And they'd have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for that pesky dictionary

One of my favourite lines in the second Scooby-Doo film is where Shaggy and Scooby are (inevitably) in trouble, and Scooby says (in Scoob-speak) "Rikes!". "Yes, Scoob," say Shaggy, "Yikes!" "No, RIKES!" says the dog, gesturing towards a couple of...bikes.

The Liberal Democrats seems to have been overcome by Scoob-speak this week. They wish to add to the traditional "3 Rs" (Reading, Riting and Rithmetic, Scoob) a new one, Rticulation (sorry, articulation). I can't claim to be the only person to spot the little snag with this, which is that the word they were looking for is articulacy (assuming they wish to promote "being articulate" and not "jointedness"). Though jointedness is good. Yes, the Liberal Democrats, so full of good ideas for improved fluency with language in our children's education, are insufficiently articulate to use the correct word for what they wish to promote. (Which reminds me of the old joke "Me, inarticulate? I don't know the meaning of the word.") What a bunch of Rsoles.

Maybe they should stick to Ring Ramble and his Rax Cuts for the Rich.

Nothing to do with Slade

On the train back from York I was listening to (Come On Feel The) Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens, which I've just purchased. It's an extraordinary album: Stevens aims to produce an album for each of the fifty US states (this is the second - he did Michigan first). Illinoise is a sort of musical collage taking various aspects of Illinois history: massacres of native Americans, serial killers, UFO sightings, Superman.... It's a lot to take in on one hearing, but I shall be returning often. And, I suspect, to some of Stevens's other work.

I see there is an album of Illinoise out-takes and extras on its way. Yay!

Meanwhile on the other side of the country...

...Tony Blair was addressing the GMB conference. While he talked a lot of bollocks about Iraq ("Well, he would, wouldn't he?" - to quote Mandy Rice-Davies) he did announce that, contrary to everyone's expectations, the government was in fact going to start implementing parts of the Warwick Agreement, which is an 18-point deal struck with the unions last year in return for substantial campaigning support in marginal constituencies from union activists(including those from my own union, Amicus). Up to now there had been a deafening silence on the Warwick Agreement, and most people reckoned it would go the way of all the other inconvenient manifesto pledges over the years. But hey: good news, and seemingly more to come. A muffled cheer goes up from here in Morningside.

...made glorious summer by this wheel of York

Passing through York on the train to and from Scarborough, I saw the Yorkshire Wheel (sorry, the Norwich Union Yorkshire Wheel) for the first time. I had thought that it was the first structure in York to exceed the Minster in height, but actually it's about ten feet lower. Less pretty, and nowhere near as good for organ recitals. On the other hand, the Minster doesn't go round and round. The Wheel actually looks quite neat and I look forward to going on it some time.

A different kind of Vagina Monologue

Just back from two days in Scarborough at the Amicus national finance sector conference. (Amicus covers 22 industrial sectors so they only have a union-wide conference every two years; in between they have conferences for each individual sector.) It was the usual trade union conference mix of the humdrum and the inspiring. Among the latter was, most definitely, one of the guest speakers, Thabitha Khumalo from the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions.

She was talking about the experience of being a trade unionist and a woman in Zimbabwe, but especially about the appeal which Amicus and Action for Southern Africa (ACTSA) are jointly running to provide otherwise unobtainable women's sanitary products. These are things we take for granted in the UK: British women buy over three billion such products annually. But in Zimbabwe, because of the economic disaster which Mugabe's leadership has caused, such items are available only to the rich. As a result, millions of Zimbabwean women have to go without, using pieces of newspaper or rags. This can lead to infection, depression, and even sterility. Women have been beaten by their husbands who wrongly attribute their infections to infidelity. It hardly needs to be said that medications such as anti-thrush creams are completely beyond the reach of most Zimbabweans. Thabitha was arrested along with other trade unionists last autumn for taking part in a march to highlight this issue (as well as a lack of available anti-retroviral drugs).

While I can't hope to be as persuasive as Thabitha was in person, please visit the appeal page on the Amicus website and do what you can.

Or follow this link to ACTSA.

You can listen to Thabitha on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour here.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Ex universitate Glasguensis semper aliquid novi

On Saturday Hilary and I went through to Glasgow for a concert in the 'Musica Nova' series at the university. One of her work colleagues (J Simon van der Walt) was having a piece premiered (Diverses melodies nobles, elevees et heroiques pour tres grand ensemble). It turned out to be good fun, interesting but not taking itself too seriously. (The tres grand ensemble for example was piano, flute, cello, trombone and percussion. Oh, and the flute and piano doubled on synthesisers.) I reckoned it served as an answer to the question: what would a musical battle between Charles Ives and Steve Reich refereed by Peter Schickele sound like? Simon seemed to enjoy that description.

Also in the same programme was a choral work by Graham Hair, clearly harder than it sounded as the singers were having to refer to tuning forks before some of their entries; and a wonderful piece by Colin Broom entitled The Deep and inspired by the Jackson Pollock painting of that name. Scored for piano, percussion, bass clarinet and trombone, it had real magic. Mind you, the Colin Broom piece listed in the advance publicity sounded as though it would have been interesting too: Death Klaxon.

Hilary only went through for the one concert as she was busy, but I hung around for a couple more. First there was an organ recital by Kevin Bowyer. The main reason I wanted to hear it was the Giles Swayne piece Riff-Raff, which is the sort of piece that converts non-organ fans into organ fans. I have a much-played CD of Kevin Bowyer playing it, and it was a thrill to hear him do it live. (And see: unusually, they had a video link so you could watch his hands.) The rest of the programme was a mixed bag of recent organ music, ranging from Brian Ferneyhough's awesome Sieben Sterne, via some highly complex but less compelling pieces, to Dick Koomans's Basso Ostinato, which is destined to become a popular classic, at least if there's any justice.

Then in the evening the Edinburgh Quartet and Alan Hacker did William Sweeney's Clarinet Quintet and Harrison Birtwistle's Aubades and Nocturnes. Rather to my surprise I found the Sweeney overlong, though tuneful, while enjoying the more uncompromising Birtwistle much more. Birtwistle's music may be demanding, but he says what he wants to say and then gets on with something else: no noodling. Best of all, the Edinburgh Quartet also played the Judith Weir string quartet, which is as wonderful as everything else Judith Weir has ever written. Why she isn't a bigger star than she is entirely escapes me. Theres nothing scary or unapproachable about her music, but equally there's nothing patronising or lazy about it either.

So, a fabby day with loads of new music in it. What more could I ask for? Oh, and England beat Paraguay.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Woodborn

A superbly dark story (Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three) from a source I hadn't encountered before. (via)

There's also this post. Worth it for "acommencholy" alone, something to which I am no stranger, let me tell you.

Yes, I must blogroll this guy.

I'd like to see Roberto Carlos curve one round this

That's a helluva defensive wall there.
(from FIFA's World Cup website)

Don't keep us in suspense

For a coalition which makes a habit of taking out Afghan wedding parties, and whose precision targetting once dropped a Tomahawk cruise missile into Pakistan instead of Afghanistan, actually hitting the house containing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi must be counted a success. However, let's remember that when Palestinians or Iraqi insurgents hit military targets and wantonly kill civilians this is normally considered a Bad Thing. So why so little talk of the collateral damage here?

"Zarqawi was one of six people killed in the raid, including two other men and three women, he added - contrasting with earlier statements that a child had died". So: was a child killed or not? Were the women all al-Qaeda combatants? Come on, people, this is supposedly a great moment in the occupation. Why so reticent?

Millionaires have votes. Kids in primary school don't. DUH.

Oh, and if Ming's toadying to millionaires weren't bad enough, one of the Lib Dems' first actions after taking control of the council in Hull has been to scrap the widely-praised free school meals initiative for primary schoolchildren, because, you know, that would be (whisper it) socialist. And with the shining example of Margaret Thatcher's abolition of free milk for schoolchildren to lead them on, who knows where this band of visionaries will take Hull?

Will the last Liberal Democrat to crawl up Blair's a**e please issue a press release?

The Liberal Democrats have apparently finally given up the pretence of being an independent political party and have adopted the same Tory policies as the Blair Party. At the same time they have demonstrated their political maturity by copying Blair's nonchalant trashing of inconvenient manifesto commitments which might annoy the international despots and arms dealers who are the really important people to this bunch of self-seeking tossers. To make matters worse, the shedding of this inconvenient burden seems to have been entirely at the whim of Menzies Campbell. Certainly nobody consulted the party members at a conference or anything like that. Democracy? Yesterday's politics.

As one of my (formerly Lib Dem supporting) work colleagues said today, this leaves the SSP as the only left-wing party.

Funny really: I used to think Menzies Campbell had some spine to him. Ah well. That's me tellt. Just another Tory corrupted by power. At least we'll never have to suffer him in government.

07/06/06 continued, or Who Knows Where The Time Goes

The only pictures of the Parrots evening I have to hand are from Vanessa's camera, so in case you thought there should be more of the young lady herself, here's one from a previous trip to Parrots, with her grandparents Ron and Audrey:

And finally, Vanessa's first legal alcoholic drink in public:

Happy birthday, Vanessa.


No great numerological or eschatological significance to 7th June 2006, but it happened to be my daughter Vanessa's 18th birthday, and in the UK 18 is the age at which one becomes an adult, able to vote, obtain credit, buy alcohol, and watch Quentin Tarantino films in a cinema, all legally. Vanessa had decided that as her school prom was tonight (9th) she would treat that as her main celebration, thus absolving her parents of the requirement for a hugely expensive party, and just have a meal with the family (including grandparents). It was looking good: her grandfather was home from hospital and while he was still rather weak we had arranged to go round to his and Audrey's flat and cook a meal there. However, on the morning of Vanessa's birthday Ron had to go back into hospital, so plans were hastily rethought. In the end Audrey came over for some birthday cake and then went home for some much-needed rest (Ron was stable but not up to visitors, and she'd been up all night). Hilary and I took Vanessa, her brother Ruairidh, and her two best friends Lynsey and Philippa out for a meal to a great local restaurant (Parrots, in Bruntsfield, for those of you who know Edinburgh), where we had a wonderful time. Here are a few pictures (Blogger wouldn't ket me upload any more just now).

The Saunders family at Parrots.

Ruairidh and me.

Hilary and Lynsey.

Philippa and Ruairidh.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

What links a Dark Mark-wearing potions master with a Nobel prizewinning surfer dude?

You know the way sometimes ideas sort of collide in your head and out pops the start of a blog post? That.

Idea One.

I was talking to my son about teachers. In Scotland they have the sensible system where at the end of the school year (which in my day in England degenerated into classrooms of people doing crosswords or whatever because all the academic pressure was off and we were just killing time) they start the next year's work: full new timetable and everything. So Ruairidh who is still nominally in second year of secondary (equivalent to third year in England as the primary/secondary change happens later here) has begun his third year work, which is the start of the standard grade courses. We were talking about good teachers, bad teachers, ones who were wacky characters and ones who were utter shits. I was telling him about one teacher I had (Stuart Whalley was his name, head of Biology at Stockport Grammar School). I was saying that Stuart (known - though not to his face - as "Git") was not unlike Snape in the Harry Potter books. He had favourites: perhaps not as calculatedly as Snape, but there was definitely an in-group. The rest of us from time to time got picked on in a Snape-like manner and grilled. Oh, and practically everyone thought he was a shit. BUT... (and it's a major but) he was without doubt the most brilliant teacher, in terms of getting the job done, that I ever had. (And I bet Hermione Grainger, if asked, would have to admit that Snape was one hell of a good potions teacher, whatever his little personality defects...). Git Whalley's lessons were not places where sloppy thinking was tolerated for one second, and it was usually some kind of careless thought that drew down his Snape-like sarcasm.

GW: what things does a seed have to have to get it to germinate?
Pupil 1: nutrients
GW: Good...and...
Pupil 2: air
GW: And....
Pupil 3: moisture
GW: Moisture? Here's a bottle of sulphuric acid. If I poured that over your head it would be "moist". Is that what you had in mind?
Pupil 3: er...water, sir.
GW: Well then, if you mean water, say "water", not "moisture" for heaven's sake.

or another time (perhaps I should point out before we do this one that we were an all-boys' school):

GW: X, tell me what happens during sexual intercourse.
X: Well, the male inserts his penis into the female's vagina...
GW: Just stop there. X, think about your penis, right now. Could you insert that into anything?
X: Ah.
GW: Missed something out, did you?

As I explained to my son, while wonderful, inspiring teachers (I had some of those) are great, sometimes what you need is simply someone with zero tolerance of bullshit. And Git, much as I hated his guts sometimes, was all that and then some. Thank you, Mr Whalley. (He got me a grade 1 in Biology O level, the only one I got in a subject I didn't obviously shine at.)

Idea Two.

This column from Ben Goldacre in Saturday's Guardian. Ben has little patience with "science" that isn't published and subjected to peer review, and he's right. The other stuff may be right, or may be rubbish: but the point is, you can't tell. If it stands up to the Git Whalley school of criticism, it's doing OK, but if it isn't published the Snapes and Whalleys of the world may never get to see it.

Idea Three.

Back in October last year I posted this regarding the wonderfully wacky Nobel prizewinner Kary Mullis. Since then I have read his autobiography Dancing Naked In the Mind Field, and I recommend it unreservedly.

One of the more controversial aspects of Kary Mullis is covered in the book, which is his refusal to take on trust that HIV causes AIDS. Some years ago, he was asked to write an article with some relevance to AIDS research, and he did a search of peer-reviewed papers to find where the HIV virus (yes, I know the V stands for virus but if I reverted to calling it HTLV-3 you'd all get confused - and the V would still stand for Virus - so what else should I call it?) was proved to be the cause of AIDS. And to his surprise, there was no such paper. Not one. There were references to unpublished research, but everything else had snowballed from there without anything's ever being peer-reviewed.

Now Kary Mullis is very definitely not stupid, and he is as aware as the next man that there is a very stong association between HIV infection and AIDS, and that HIV is a very likely cause of AIDS. He isn't saying that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. But, as he points out, nobody has actually proved that it does. Read his book, where he says it much more eloquently than I can. More here (comment #155) (which may be the only time I ever link to the LGF site!). Or here though I haven't read that yet.

You may think he's a nutter, but when I read Kary Mullis's book I heard the voice of Git Whalley from my school days. And I like to think both men would be pleased by the association.



Or something. The world doesn't seem to have ended, nor have I spotted any gigantic goats, archangels or whatever. Nor does South Edinburgh look more than usual like something out of a John Martin painting.

I'll go and get my dinner then.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Look Wot You Dun

Another good post by Harry at Crooked Timber, this time asking people to suggest things they've done that nobody else has. These can be posted anonymously if wished; sexual athletics are specifically barred.

I'm sure some of my readers will have good ones to enter here. My submissions were:

Got George Harrison's autograph at a Delaney & Bonnie and Friends gig in Liverpool where he had turned up to play along.

Shared a sleeping compartment on an Indian Railways train from Bikaner to Delhi with an entire under-14 girls handball team from Uttar Pradesh.

Stopped the British folk singer Martin Carthy in his tracks by asking for "Your Baby 'as Gone Down the Plug'ole" when he asked for requests.

Requested a year's worth of Mayfair magazine from the archives of the National Library of Scotland.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

What lasts two days and is good only for inspiring satire?

Last Sunday I wrote a post concerning the motion before the NATFHE conference proposing a boycott of contacts with Israeli academics who failed to provide public denunciation of Israel's "apartheid policies" towards the Palestinians. I shan't go over it again (nobody commented so maybe nobody even read it) but to bring the story up to date, the motion was carried and the boycott remained in force for the two days before NATFHE merged with AUT and the policy lasped. Henry at Crooked Timber links to a couple of good posts on the subject, one by Steven Poole and a splendid one by Siva Vaidhyanathan.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Stop The Arms Trade Week, 3-11 June 2006

When I was younger I used to get rather irritated by people calling for nuclear disarmament. It wasn't that I had any attachment to nuclear weapons; rather that I was very conscious that while nuclear weapons had only ever been used twice against living targets, conventional weapons were killing people day in, day out, all over the planet. Moreover, while the deployment of nuclear weapons has always been carried out under the (fairly) strict control of governments, conventional weapons are all over the place, on battlefields, buried under crops in South-East Asia, strapped to suicide bombers, killing drug dealers in Detroit, wounding protestors in Indonesia.... Why concentrate on the lesser problem and ignore the greater, just because the lesser one has a more obvious PR hook?

So anyway, there's this bunch of guys called the Campaign Against Arms Trade, who do what it says on the tin. Being British, the focus of their campaigning is on the (not inconsiderable) British armaments industry, which to be blunt will sell anything to anyone if it can get away with it. We provided the arms Pinochet used to overthrow the Allende government, we sell to Israel, we sold to Saddam, we sell to Indonesia, we sell huge amounts to Saudi Arabia. We sell guns, bombs, riot control equipment, torture equipment, anti-aircraft radar systems, ejector seats, jet engines, head-up displays, armoured personnel carriers. Much of this stuff goes to governments with poor human rights records, much of it goes to countries that can't afford it and have no real need for it other than the ruling elite's prestige.

Britain of course isn't the only, or even the worst, offender in this regard: Russia, China, the USA, France, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Israel: they're all out there selling, selling, selling. However, the British arms industry is doing it with vast subsidy from the British taxpayer via the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO). The focus of this year's campaign is to try to close down DESO. From CAAT's website:

The Defence Export Services Organisation exists to sell arms for companies and to lobby for arms exports within government. It identifies potential opportunities for arms sales, then works with the companies and other elements of government to push for deals. DESO appears uninhibited by ongoing conflicts, human rights abuses, or pressing development needs. Nor is it motivated by international security or the 'defence' of the UK. It focuses purely on arms company sales and profits. DESO acts as a state-sponsored marketing department for arms companies, but its importance goes far beyond that. Its position and role within Whitehall means that the arms industry's vested interests are relentlessly promoted across government.

2006 marks DESO's 40th anniversary. The world has changed radically since 1966, and we believe that it is time to shut DESO for good.

You can read a CAAT briefing on DESO here. And I would encourage you (at least the Brits among you) to sign the closure petition here.

Just to be clear: this isn't about support for the Iraq war, or British troops. Being realistic, there will always be a need for an arms industry to supply our armed forces. What we do not need is a lavishly-funded (*) export drive to get governments who can't afford them, or who should never be allowed to get hold of them, to buy weapons from us.

(Relative to its share of UK overseas sales, DESO receives thirteen times the funding of UK Trade and Investment, the government body which promotes non-military exports.)

It's not even about New Blairism, though Tony is hugely enthusiastic about selling our military kit to human rights abusers such as the Saudis (does anyone remember the "ethical foreign policy" he was so keen on right up until he got elected?) Thatcher was even worse, Wilson, Callaghan, Heath scarcely any better.

It's about a huge waste of public money and of British talent and initiative that could be put to far better use.

Please sign.

Annoy a despot today! Without getting out of your chair!

Also from The Register comes this piece about an Amnesty International campaign against internet censorship around the world. As soon as I've posted this I shall be sticking the Irrepressible badge into my sidebar, watching out for strolling hedgehogs, inverted pentagrams and clocks.

Go on, the rest of you: stick it onto your blogs and strike a blow for freedom. Oh, and sign their pledge as well.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Smile: you're on Google Earth

Science / technology website The Register have various interesting pictures from Google Earth showing aircraft. Two I particularly liked were this one showing a pair of Lockheed SR-71s at Edwards AFB, California:

and this one showing a preserved Avro Lancaster bomber over Huntingdon:
Let's zoom in on that one a bit: