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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Ones That Got Away

I was thinking the other day about great headlines that never were. You know: the ones that when they occur to you make you think "Surely somebody on a newspaper must have thought of this before I did".

OK, the one that I was immediately reminded of would have been too rude, or sick, or both, for a mainstream news article, but I'm quite sure somebody like Private Eye could have run it. You see, back in 1979 Frank Zappa released a wonderful album entitled Joe's Garage, which included the song Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?. In the album credits, Frank offers 'Special thanks to Phil Kaufman for asking the eternal question: "Why does it hurt when I pee?" '. Then in 1993 FZ died of prostate cancer, and it struck me that ETERNAL QUESTION NOW RESOLVED would have been the kind of headline for the story that Frank would probably have appreciated.

A headline I am seriously amazed nobody thought of, though, was back in January 1985. At Christmas a few weeks before, the biggest-selling single was Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas which was of course recorded to raise funds for the victims of the famine in Ethiopia. Bob Geldof, whose idea the record had been, flew out to Ethiopia in January to see what the situation was like and how the funds raised were going to be used. He was rather taken aback - I remember seeing the news footage - when he got off the plane to find the Ethiopians all celebrating Christmas, as they use a different calendar there. Now - what would you expect a headline writer to have made of that? Do you not think that someone, somewhere, would have come up with DOES HE KNOW IT'S CHRISTMAS? to accompany a shot of the bemused Bob?

Is it just me, or have any of my readers had the experience of coming up with a headline that the real journalists missed?

The Boomtown Rats - Fat Sam's, Dundee, Saturday 10 November 2013

Two weeks ago I drove from Edinburgh up to Dundee. Partly this was to give my son a lift to his gig at McDaniels' Bar with the Robin Robertson Blues Band (who have a new album out), but also to see the reformed Boomtown Rats playing at Fat Sam's.

I arrived pretty early so got to see both the support bands. Atom Tan were a very good three-piece doing decent original rock material (though the sound man was asleep at the wheel for much of their set, which was a shame). It's funny though: when I was young, software engineers looked like rock musicians - now rock musicians look like software engineers. Oh, and somebody should tell their guitarist that the whole playing-the-guitar-behind-my-head thing was old hat by about 1975. next up were Ringer, an excellent local band playing covers of 70s hits (sometimes fairly thoroughly reimagined covers). Apparently they appear regularly at shindigs at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, and the quality of their Beatles covers explains that. Here Comes The Sun, Getting Better, Good Morning - all fantastic.

Then it was time for the Boomtown Rats themselves. As someone I was chatting to remarked, it's nice to see a reformed group where there isn't a sad gap where some frontman has gone missing (as for example with Yes, currently touring without Jon Anderson or Rick Wakeman). Not only are the Rats all present and correct, but I can happily report that Sir Bob has lost none of the energy and commitment that propelled them up the charts in the first place. OK, he now has the lived-in look of a 62-year-old man, but watching him perform is just like watching him on Top Of The Pops 35 years ago. He came on wearing a kind of plastic suit which he explained was the original fake crocodile-skin suit from back in those days. He described how it had been flung into a wardrobe, and how one day he heard it calling to him to reform the band. "And it still fucking FITS!" he exclaimed. And - amazingly - it does. (Of course, it may have been altered.....but Geldof is pretty lean.)

Musically they were wonderful. There was no sense of going through the motions, just real musicianship and enjoyment. These guys are all older then me, but when they came to play the band's early punk numbers they still sounded just like a punk band, not like a bunch of old guys. Geldof's voice was a bit husky, but then it was always a bit husky: and I hadn't realised he played harmonica until he hauled one out and demonstrated just how well he does play it. As the set continued he dumped the suit jacket:

The band played:

Eva Braun
Like Clockwork
Neon Heart
She's Gonna Do You In
Someone's Looking At You
Joey's On The Street Again
Banana Republic
I Don't Like Mondays
She's So Modern
Close As You'll Ever Be
When The Night Comes
Mary of the Fourth Form
Looking After Number One
Rat Trap

Never Bite The Hand That Feeds
Diamond Smiles
The Boomtown Rats

I gather the band had never played Never Bite The Hand That Feeds live until this tour, where it has been their first encore each night.

Here are the Rats back in the day, with my personal favourite.

Incidentally, while I Don't Like Mondays was famously inspired by a real-life school shooting incident, it hadn't occurred to me that Diamond Smiles was based on any particular suicide. But the staff at Glasgow's Duke Street psychiatric hospital seem to have reckoned otherwise. As I can find no other reference to this anywhere I suspect it's a case of "file under journalistic bullshit", but you never know. (Brenda Spencer's parents successfully got Mondays banned from radio and TV in the USA, which is probably what inspired the Glasgow story.) Anyway, if there was a real-life 'Diamond' she has a fine memorial.

No hummingbirds here.

I'm up at the Ballater flat this weekend (by myself as Hilary was playing in a concert). Lovely weather, though as I'm not feeling terribly energetic right now (a bit stressed out with work and with trying to organise percussionists for my own orchestra's concert next Saturday) I only had a short walk rather than a big day out. Still, it is winter, and before I drove up on Friday I had to check that the A93 hadn't been closed because of snow. There are gates at each end of the high section which the police close when the road is impassable. The one at the north end has a webcam, which seems to be getting into the spirit of the Doctor Who anniversary by displaying a time twenty-five minutes into the future.

Here is a time-lapse video of the gates one day back in March.

Braemar Snow Gate 2013-03-18 from Alastair Schouten on Vimeo.

Feed The Birds

Joe In Vegas recently posted some pictures of the hummingbirds on his feeder. I have to say that until I saw some of his earlier pictures I hadn't realised you got hummingbirds in the southwestern USA, but when we went over there this summer we were looking forward to seeing them. We weren't disappointed. Mostly we saw them on feeders (including Joe's) but in Disneyland we saw some on real flowers, which was cool. I was very impressed by the ones in Joe's garden: while we were visiting with Joe and B there was an enormous cloudburst (supposedly the heaviest single shower that Vegas had experienced since 1951). It drove us in from the pool, but seemed to have no effect on the hummingbirds, which kept on feeding. What with their small size, I would have expected them to be grounded (I can't imagine many British birds flying in that kind of rain except for things like geese) but they seemed completely unfazed by it all.

Here (reprised from my Route 66 travelogue) is the best shot I got of hummingbirds. These were on (or nearly on) a feeder at the Bottle Tree Ranch at Oro Grande, CA.

Writing the title reminds me that I'm very much looking forward to seeing this when it opens here in a few weeks time. Funnily enough I didn't particularly enjoy Mary Poppins as a child: maybe it was Dick van Dyke's accent, or maybe it was just a bit too saccharine-y for a boy. But I came to love it, and I remember with great pleasure reading the books to my daughter. They're great for that, as children get to the age where they can appreciate them before they get to the age where they can read them unaided (Travers' prose takes no prisoners, and the first two books have structures that mirror each other in a way a child might miss). Vanessa and I enjoyed finding the bits in each book which had been incorporated (often very much modified) into the film.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dreadful thing, that Charleston

I recently bought a CD called The Naughty 1920s: Red Hot and Risque Songs of the Jazz Age Vol 2. (I bought volume 1 as well.) I listened to it in the car and found this track especially addictive (if not especially risque). Have fun.

Friday, November 08, 2013

I wouldn't employ any of these "lawyers" if I were you.

Bonni the Bayside Nazi has posted a report from one of her pals in the Christian Broadcasting Network, telling us that "Egypt has submitted a complaint charging U.S. president Barrack Hussein Obama with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court."

Which would be interesting if that were even what the report she posted said. What it actually says is that "According to Egyptian newspaper El Watan, a group of Egyptian lawyers has submitted a complaint charging U.S. president Barrack Hussein Obama with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court." The important difference is that Egypt, as a state, could at least in principle file a complaint with the ICC. A group of lawyers, however self-important, cannot. They can file a report in the hope that the ICC's prosecutor will mount an independent investigation. But other than such pissing in the wind, nothing.

There are a couple of other problems with this "story". One is that the ICC expects states which come under its jurusdiction to implement laws so that crimes against humanity etc can be prosecuted via their domestic legal systems, with reference to the ICC itself being a last resort if domestic legal action has proved impossible.

The other is that as neither Egypt nor the USA is a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC, it has no jurisdiction in either country. (The USA under Bill Clinton signed up to it, but Bush Jr withdrew. Egypt, under the serial human rights abuser Mubarak, signed it but had never had any intention of ratifying it.) Funny that the "lawyers" didn't know that, really: they could have put some of their efforts into trying to get Egypt to ratify the Statute. (After all, military dictators are notoriously keen to have their torture and butchery exposed, so it should be simple.)

If Bonni's sheep aren't all too busy buffing up their armbands ready for the 75th anniversary of the start of the Holocaust on Saturday, I'm sure they'll all puff self-importantly about how dreadful Obama and the elected - and overthrown - Egyptian government are, and I'm sure not one of them will spot any of the inconvenient facts that show the whole thing to be a pitiful piece of wishful thinking on the part of the Teapublicans (who have probably been suckered for some cash by the Egyptian "lawyers" involved).

UPDATE: Bonni's sheep are busy right now establishing their Nazi credentials with their comments under her post with the spot-the-difference pictures of a monkey and a woman in a burqa. After all, it's important that they tell the world how AIDS resulted from a Muslim having sex with a monkey. No, really.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Oh, in what divers pains they met.....

Do you remember the old urban legend about the scuba diver whose suited and flippered body was supposed to have been found in a tree? Well, at the end of the snopes entry there is a mention of the irritation of the diving community that they keep on getting asked about this, and of the spoof website they have set up. It's great fun.

My personal favourite is under the Firediving Accidents tab: "Tragic Accident In Seattle".

If this toxic old fart cares so little about protecting British lives and so much about Israeli ones maybe it's time for him to be given a one-way posting

Articles in the Times are hard to Google now that they're all behind a paywall, but another one I was reading recently quoted Richard Kemp, an ex-soldier best known for his "evidence" to the UN - consisting wholly of his opinions formed in the UK without once visiting Gaza - that not only did Israel not commit war crimes during Operation Cast Lead but that apparently "the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians....that any other army in the history of warfare". From which one might well assume that the guy is a paid shill of the Israeli regime, which seems highly likely when one takes into account his other pronouncements about Israel, Palestine and the IDF.

However, the article was only tangentially about his views on theocratic dictatorships. Kemp, it seems, has been whining that Britain has been exporting sodium cyanide and potassium cyanide to Lebanon for use in electroplating. These could be used to make hydrogen cyanide, which is a poisonous gas. Cue shrieks of "Weapons of Mass Destruction". And even more damning, it seems another British company has been selling hydrogen fluoride to Libya, which is a precursor of Sarin nerve gas. WMD alert! These deadly chemicals could be used to make poison gas "especially directed against Israel" which is supposed to be more alarming than if it were simply to be used against Kurds or Syrians in the normal manner. While Googling I note that Kemp has a track record of this kind of foot-in-mouth disease, having accused Britain of breaching all kinds of arms sanctions by supplying sodium fluoride (sorry, "poison gas-making chemicals") to Syria.

Time for Kemp's GCSE chemistry (maybe if he'd paid more attention to those classes at Sandhurst and spent less time polishing his CV for a job with the Israelis he would know all this). Yes, sodium and potassium cyanide can be used to make hydrogen cyanide gas. It's how California used to execute its murderers, and Saddam may have tried using it against the Kurds. But while very good indeed for use in gas chambers (ah, that must be what he was thinking about) HCN sucks as a war gas. It needs to be inhaled to take effect, and gas masks give good protection. It's readily detectable by smell so you can move away from it. But most annoyingly, it's lighter than air, so your carefully-prepared payload of deadly gas will simply fly away and poison the local birdlife. A Weapon of Mass Disinformation, then. Hezbollah would find it easier to make chlorine (recipe: sea water and electricity), which despite its World War One retro feel would at least kill people. Or they could make hydrogen sulphide, which the British tried out in 1916 when they had nothing better. It's as deadly as hydrogen cyanide, and is at least heavier than air.

So how about sodium fluoride, or hydrogen fluoride, "precursors of sarin gas"? Well, sarin isn't that easy to make (see here). And as that article points out, another necessary ingredient (purchase of which is always likely to attract attention) is methylphosphonyl dichloride. You can make that from dimethyl methyl phosphonate, which while used as a flame retardant is also well-known and monitored as a nerve gas precursor. (Ironically, the only major release of the latter chemical, along with other sarin precursors, came when an Israeli (El Al) cargo aircraft crashed in Amsterdam. But hey, WMD ingredients are no problem when it's the World's Most Moral Army(TM) shipping them round the globe.

Personally I'd be more worried about somebody stockpiling chlorethanol, potassium sulphide and hydrochloric acid to make mustard gas. Far better as a CW agent than hydrogen cyanide: absorbed through the skin and causes terrible injuries to the people who escape death. Or how about collecting innocuous sodium amalgam and methyl iodide? You can make one of the most lethal neurotoxins on earth, dimethylmercury. Not only is it absorbed through the skin it goes straight through rubber gloves. One or two drops will kill you (slowly but very surely). But Kemp isn't concerned with actual or potential threats. Kemp simply wants to make political capital for his Israeli bosses out of the sale of chemicals to (whisper it) Muslims. Right-wing loonies can stockpile dimethylmercury, neofascists can make mustard gas, and Kemp will say not a word. And while he's crying wolf over the export of supposedly deadly chemicals to people in countries we're supposed to hate, a country with a track record of anti-British terrorism is allowed to build up a stockpile of nuclear and chemical weapons and the means to deliver them.

The British government has quite rightly told Kemp that its licensing and controls are working perfectly well, and that all the materials exported were for bona fide industrial purposes. They were too polite to tell this traitorous waste of good oxygen to keep his ill-informed speculation for his employers and quit the Blairite scaremongering. But if they've any sense they will drop him from the counter-terrorism consulting role he still retains with the British government.

Of pussycats and mousetraps, and of gene 14q32.1

I was reading an article in the Times last week about a recent clinical trial which appears to show that in all except the most aggressive cases of prostate cancer an operation makes no significant difference to length or quality of life. Actually, I should say no positive difference, as any surgery carries a risk, and removal of the prostate normally causes impotence. Here is a similar piece from the Independent.

What the Times piece mentioned and the Independent didn't is that even when the comparative risks are set out for patients with non-aggressive "pussycat" cancers, they usually opt for surgery if it's on offer. It seems that once the dreaded C-word has been spoken, most men can't face wandering about with something alien growing inside them even if it's doing them no harm for now.

All of which made me wonder how I would feel if there was a treatment available for Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (A1AD). It's a genetic condition, so not strictly curable. It tends to go for either your liver (mostly in children) or your lungs (in adults). The former can be treated with a liver transplant: the latter, not so much. I have the condition, but am displaying no symptoms as yet (though my lung function is at the low end of the normal range). The medical profession has been keenly interested in why some people don't develop symptoms, and as far as the lack of liver damage is concerned all kinds of interesting work has been done (I'm reading a book on the subject on my Kindle right now: the snappily-titled Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency: Importance of Proteasomal and Autophagic Degradative Pathways in Disposal of Liver Disease-Associated Protein Aggregates, by David H Perlmutter). As far as lung damage is concerned, the situation is much simpler: if you're a smoker, you die. If not, not. It seems that tobacco smoke damages the small amount of antitrypsin that A1AD sufferers do manage to produce, and stops it working. Fortunately I gave up smoking altogether around 22 years ago: hence I live.

But in the same way that someone with a "pussycat" cancer feels himself to be wandering around with an alien passenger aboard, I feel I'm walking around with DNA that is trying to kill me by retaining in my liver the stuff that should stop my immune system eating my lungs. The facts that for now the small amount that escapes is doing its job satisfactorily, and that my liver's natural waste disposal (both proteasomal and autophagal, forsooth) is preventing the crap from accumulating and giving me liver cancer or cirrhosis, provide comfort but no security. Like Rocky in the Rocky Horror Show, I have the sword of Damocles hanging over my head. If someone could carry out an operation so that I knew for certain that I wasn't going to die in a few years' time wheezing on a 24x7 oxygen supply, I don't know what I'd want. I might well opt for surgery, which would be wrong on so many levels. At least with a condition which is neither curable nor treatable, where there's nothing to be done until your lungs start to pack in, there is truly no point in worrying. As Mehitabel used to say, toujours gai.

Friday, November 01, 2013

And I hadn't been eating Madeleines or anything

Sitting at my desk today I suddenly started humming a song - well, more of a snatch of a song, really - that i remember form when I saw Leonard Cohen in the late 1960s in Manchester (at Bellevue, a venue then more commonly used for boxing and wrestling). No it wasn't any good, there's no reason why you should remember me. But remember it I did, so I Googled it to see whether anyone else did. And here's what popped out.

Great fun in a nerdy kind of way: and I rather like Do I Have To Dance All Night, which was new to me.

Pretty damned scary if you were a medieval Catholic priest

(A post I should ideally have done before midnight here but.....)

Today is not only Halloween, the time to celebrate all things eldritch and spooky, but also the 496th anniversary (so watch for the fun in four years' time) of Martin Luther's nailing of his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg cathedral. Not only did this annoy the janitors (who must have heaved a sigh about vandalism to church property as they filled the holes), it started the Reformation. yes folks, five hundred years ago there were only two kinds of Christian: Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. Imagine that.

But seriously: Luther's ideas went on to bring Christianity to the common man, who would soon be able to read the Bible (or have his smarter kids read it to him) and find out about Jesus and his death and resurrection without the need for a guy in a frock "interpreting" it for him. Oh, and he brought in the idea that salvation wasn't something you earned from God by doing stuff (like, for example, giving money to the church) but something you got just by believing that Jesus was sent to save all of us poor sinners. Imagine that.

Like it or not, we all - Christian, Jew, atheist - live in Luther's world now. Even the Catholicism that dominates much of the world today has had to adapt in order not to be trampled underfoot in the revolution. You can keep your Marxes and your Darwins: Luther was the greatest revolutionary in human history.

Well, apart from Jesus. Obv.